Traveller Rabindranath – 3 by Kumud Biswas SignUp

Traveller Rabindranath – 3
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The steamer took 5 days to reach Suez from Aden and the second leg of the poet’s journey began. He was one of the ‘overland’ travellers who performed part of the journey by land. They had to disembark at Suez and hire a boat to reach the city from the ship. From Suez they were to travel by train to the port city of Alexandria, cross the Mediterranean by steamer and take a train from Brindisi in Italy to reach their respective destinations in Europe. The poet’s party consisted of 3 Bengalis and one Englishman. They took an Arab boat. The boatman was extremely ugly. He was as black as black can be, his eyes were as ferocious as those of a beast of prey, his forehead was low and his lips were thick. He was a fearsome monster that had walked as if out of a horror story. Mr.‘B’ was very apprehensive; he told some stories about the lawlessness of the place and according to him these boatmen were cruel criminals, after robbing they slash the throats of their passengers. Still this boat was hired because it agreed to charge a fare - 2 shillings per head - which was less than what other boats demanded. Initially all went well but when the Englishman wanted to make a detour to visit the post office a quarrel started between him and the boatman which ended with his defeat and discomfiture to the great enjoyment of the crews and the passengers.

Suez impressed the poet as the worst among the cities he had so far seen. His desire to explore it completely evaporated after he learnt that it could be done only riding donkeys. And that beast of the place had a reputation of having a mind of its own which always prevailed over the wishes of its rider. Moreover, a mysterious eye disease was reported to be endemic to the place. The train they took at Suez also suffered from various diseases – there were no sleeping berths, it ran at a horribly slow speed and the dust which covered the travellers during the journey was almost enough to bury them alive! It trundled all night and waking up in the morning the poet found so much dirt accumulated in his hair that he thought paddy plants could be easily cultivated on his head! His impression that he would pass through a desert proved wrong when on either side of the railway line he found irrigation wells, green fields and groves of date-trees heavy with fruits. The houses were like square boxes without any verandah or pillars. They had only one or two windows in their walls. He however greatly enjoyed the green landscape glittering in the morning sun.

At Alexandria they boarded the steamer ‘Mongolia’ which was waiting for them on the Mediterranean. Even though it felt slightly chilly the poet took a bath to get rid of the dust. On a boat they left the steamer to explore the city. Every boatman was a Sir William Jones speaking Greek, Italian, French, English and other languages. But French seemed to be the lingua franca. Names of streets, signboards etc. were mostly written in that language. It is a big prosperous place and people from almost every country were found here. The streets were wide and clean and paved with stone. The port is also very large where ships belonging to different nationals, except the Hindus, were there. Who knows if the poet was thinking about his grandfather’s fleet!

It took five days to reach Italy. From the absence of any critical comments about this steamer journey we may assume that it was not unpleasant. It was midnight when they reached Brindisi and found the small town in deep sleep. Initially there was confusion about the availability and timing of the train. It was scheduled to leave Brindisi next day at 3 p.m. So that night they had to put up in a hotel. Before coming to Europe the poet had imagined many things but now he found little that was totally new. In the morning they hired a ramshackle cart drawn by a half-dead horse fifty years old driven by a boy who was 14 years of age! The place was like any other small town with a few streets, shops and markets where the pace of life was slow, nobody was in a hurry – the beggars were begging, some were gossiping in a pub, others were enjoying themselves at street corners. Suddenly a chap got on the cart carrying a melon in his hand and gratuitously began to play the part of a guide showing the visitors churches, gardens and meadows. His comments were neither necessary nor did they add to their knowledge, yet they had to pay him something. They were taken to an orchard full of all kinds of fruit trees and plants – grape plants being the most abundant. They are of two types, white and red – the latter tasted sweeter to the poet. A lady, either the owner or the manager of the orchard, finding the visitors not very enthusiastic sent a young girl to them with fruits and bouquets of flowers. She was very beautiful and hence could no longer be ignored. The poet found the Italian girls very beautiful having some similarities with Bengali girls – beautiful complexion, black hair, black eyes and black eyebrows. Their features were so wonderful that he failed to find words to describe them. Those he met on the streets came from the ordinary class; how beautiful must be those who came from the higher classes – the poet wondered.

They left Brindisi by train at 3 p.m. The scenery on either side of the railway line was so beautiful – fields of grapes, rivers, lakes, cottages and small villages – they could only be imagined by a poet. A lake the poet saw, surrounded by groves of trees, their evening shadows falling on its waters, would haunt him all his life. On the way they passed through many tunnels, the most famous among them was Mont Cenis which was simultaneously cut from either side of the mountain by the Italians and the French. The railway journey from Italy to France was like the reading of a poem. The sights and scenes on the way – rivers, fountains, lakes, hills and dales and picturesque villages – all were so exhilarating that the poet never felt tired by this long journey. Next morning they arrived in Paris. It is a grand city where everything was on a grand scale. One feels lost among its forest of palatial buildings. In the big hotel they went the poet felt ill at ease as one feels wearing a loose fitting dress. They went to a Turkish bath where for a few minutes they sat in a hot room and started to sweat profusely. In another room the poet was made to lie down and a giant of a man came to massage him. This was followed by hot and cold showers and he felt that since his birth he had never had such a thorough cleaning. Thereafter they went to the Paris Exhibition but as the visit was short they could not see things well.

Probably on the 10th of October they reached London. With its smoke, rain, sunless sky, mud and fog and its people always in a hurry, to the poet it appeared to be the gloomiest city in the world. Fortunately they left it within an hour and the poet felt greatly relieved. His companions however told him that to like the city one has to stay there longer. Shortly he would come back to the city and not for a short while but for a long stay. Could he fall in love with the place and its people? We shall try to see it next.

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Comment I shall try to satisfy your curiosity. Thanks for reading this blog.

05/15/2015 20:19 PM


05/15/2015 10:33 AM

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