Traveller Rabindranath – 4 by Kumud Biswas SignUp

Traveller Rabindranath – 4
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The final destination of the two Tagore brothers was the small town of Brighton on the sea in the County of Sussex. It is about 50 miles south of London where Satyendranath’s family – his wife Jnanadanandini and their son Suren and daughter Indira, respectively 6 and 5 years old - was living. To make the young poet’s acclimatization in an alien environment easy it was planned that he should live with this family. This is how the process started at this family home. We come to know from the memoirs of Jnanadanandini that just after the two brothers’ arrival her daughter Indira refused to appear before her father, saying from her hiding, ‘That’s not my papa’ – the papas of her playmates were all white but this man was not! Then, as the poet remembered in his memoirs Jivansmriti, there was his English pronunciation which sounded very strange and outlandish to the children. They taught him how differently two words ‘worm’ and ‘warm’, for example, were to be pronounced. Eventually however among his numerous nephews and nieces they became his most favourite. That was possible because of the poet’s fondness for children and his immense capability to amuse them by telling tales and singing songs which he went on doing throughout his life and became one of the most prolific authors of children’s literature in the world. Indira remembered later in life how her uncle amused them by singing songs in an amusing manner – he used to start at the normal tempo gradually quickening it so that soon only his vibrating lips could be seen.    
The poet had heard that at Brighton he was going to live in a house called ‘Medina Villa’. He imagined it to be a spacious mansion with an attached garden. But on arrival he found that it was only a small building with two or three trees in its front and in comparison with the rooms at home in India here the rooms were small. The doors and windows were tightly closed preventing any air to pass and light could enter only because the windows had glass panes. It was however very neat and clean. The place was quiet and sunny. He enjoyed playing with his nephew and niece on the meadows facing the sea.
By the second week of his arrival where the poet was admitted was not a public school, as he mistakenly recalled later in his memoirs, but a private academy, a number of which existed at the place at that time but are now extinct. Along with usual academic subjects it gave its students lessons in singing and dancing, which in those days were regarded as essential requirements of ‘accomplishments’. But the first thing the poet remembered to have learnt here was that he was very good looking. At the very first meeting the head teacher told him, ‘What a splendid head you have!’ This small incident the poet didn’t forget specially because at home his notunbouthan, the wife of his notunda Jyotirindranath, was in the habit of taunting him in season and out of season that his looks were not-so-very-extraordinary but slightly above average. It may however be mentioned here that the first recognition of his good looks came from another lady, the smart and pretty Marathi girl Anna who taught him spoken English and English manners and customs. That story deserves a separate treatment and we shall do it soon. Unlike in Calcutta here his school mates were very friendly and often offered him snacks.
At Brighton the family had friends and acquaintances. This gave the poet ample opportunities to socially mix with the local people. He didn’t have to fumble in this, thanks to the training he received from Anna at Bombay, studies of Western literature in his brother’s library at Amedabad and the guidance he got from his relations long resident in England. His good looks and his knowledge of manners appear to have made his access to this society smooth. But like the villa this society also disappointed him. In his second letter he gives a very amusing description of his first impressions. What he had learnt about it from books did not match with his actual experience. Before coming to England he had imagined that the length and breadth of this small island echoed with the music of Tennyson’s poetry and wherever he would go he would hear the oratory of Gladstone, Maxmuller’s commentaries on the Vedas, the scientific discussions of Tyndal, the deep thoughts of Carlyle and the religious dissertations of Benn. Instead he found the women busy in dressing, the men busy in their daily works and everything going on as usual – only at times the political issues caused some excitements. In his view the women of this country spend their time playing piano, singing songs and reclined on the sofa by the fireplace they read novels, attend visitors and flirt with young men. At parties and social gatherings they love to gossip about parties, balls, theatres, concerts and other social events. Pettiness and jealousy among them are quite common. It amazes a lady, for example, how a girl far inferior looking than her daughter managed to get a successful barrister as husband! The elderly spinsters however do a lot of social and charitable work like organizing and patronizing movements such as Temperance Society, Working Men’s Society etc. Before coming to England the poet had heard the names of some of these ladies.
But they are exceptions. Commonly the chief concern of women the poet found to be fashion – they provide for the livelihood of tailors and dressmakers. To men they are like toys and dolls immaculately dressed with a feather cape on their head. They make themselves easily available to someone who wants to spend the evening by engaging himself in sentimental flirting with some young lady. And it seems that a woman’s mission in life is to win men by her charm. For this they will go to any length. For example to make their waistline thin they will tie their waistband as tightly as possible ignoring discomfort and pain. To make themselves attractive to men they are even ready to do things which may ultimately cause some disease or physical disability. They are tireless in sharpening their skill. They achieve such perfection that all their ‘affectation’ seems natural. Like a fowler who shoots birds not for their meat but for shooting practice they will not spare the victim who has already fallen –these ladies will use him as their target of coquetry. The poet felt pity for these women. They have no sense of their own separate identity. Earlier he thought that women in this country were well educated and took interest in intellectual and serious matters. But he was frustrated to see them able at best to read a novel without consulting a dictionary. It seemed to him that female education had just begun and was yet to make much progress.  
Men were found to be busy all the time. They seem to be determined not to   waste any time. The pace of their life became busier after the introduction of rail services on a very large scale. Brighton itself had become a seaside resort only after coming of the railways.  Inclement climate compels them to fight nature but as only the fittest can survive in this society there is extreme competition among men. Here those who are powerful dominate and those who are powerless are helpless. The very appearance of the lower classes of people was repulsive. He was also surprised to see that among the men the ignorance about India and their own literary heritage was almost abysmal!  Once when the poet wanted to buy a book of Shelley’s poetry he found no book shop whereas all other shops were in plenty. When he once went out an Englishman who was accompanying him explained what a camera was and how it worked as if it was a complete novelty to the poet! Again, at an evening party Miss ** asked him if he had ever heard the playing of a piano!
Here ends the second letter and what he mentions at its conclusion – the PARTY – he described one he attended in his third letter - will be the subject of our next blog.
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