I want to be Immortal
[Rabindranath Tagore has left the hallmark of his genius on any genre of literature he touched with his poetic hands. And he is so prolific – what didn’t he touch? Among his 30-odd volumes of complete works as many as 6 are devoted to his essays. They are both vast in number and various in contents. It is almost impossible to say of the many things between heaven and earth what he didn’t deal with – biography, language, literature, philology, criticism, travel, politics, society, religion, education and many more topics defying any categorization. It is very difficult to find here any comparison. I don’t know of any writer in any language in the world who has accomplished such a feat. And in the manner of his treatment of those subjects he is unique. But he is most unique in his Bichitra Prabandha or Miscellaneous Essays which I like most. Unfortunately they are also the most untranslatable among his writings and are usually avoided by his translators. It was sheer foolhardiness on my part to have attempted the translation of a few of these essays. Here is one more essay from that collection in my translation. It is on one of the commonest foibles of humanity - its craving for achievement of some sort of celebrity at least, if not immortality itself, which finds its expression in many queer forms and often adopts for it various bizarre means. It is an ideal subject inviting caustic comments from a satirist or for the moralist to point a moral. This common human frailty has been dealt with by Rabindranath in a humourous light vein in his essay Ponero ana written in his inimitable poetic style. It is best read in the original Bengali.]
A man who is wealthy usually has a garden which is larger than his house. A house is a necessity but the garden is extra - he can do without it. Wealth expresses its grandeur and magnanimity in things which are unnecessary. The kind of horn that a goat possesses is enough to meet its needs; we look in wonder and amazement at the horn of the deer much of which is not absolutely necessary. The tail of the peacock is always a winner not only for its flamboyant colors but also because it puts many other small-tailed birds to shame.
The man who has made his entire life useful to others is great indeed, but fortunately there are not many of his ilk. Had it not been so then the human society would have become like a fruit which consists only of a stone without any kernel. We must call him a good man who does only good to others. But we love the man who is a superfluity - because he can give himself wholly. The helpful man touches us through the narrow channel of help; his all other sides are hidden from us by the wall of his helpfulness; he has kept only one of his doors open where we can beg and he gives us alms. But the superfluous man is good for nothing and hence has no wall. He is not a helper but only a fellow being. We earn something from the former but together with the latter we spend. And he who is a companion in our spending is our friend.
By the grace of God in this world most of us are superfluous like the horns of a stag or the tail of a peacock; the story of our life is not worth-writing. And fortunately after we are dead none will go a-begging from door to door to collect subscriptions from half-willing and unwilling people to meet the costs of our statues.
A very few among the mortals become immortal after their death and this is the reason why the world is still habitable. What would be the fate of the common passengers if all the coaches of the train were reserved? In the first place great men are each a host in himself when living, that is, so long as they are alive they entirely occupy the hearts both of their admirers and enemies and even after their death they refuse to vacate that space. Far from vacating, taking the advantage of their death they go on extending their domain further and further after their demise. The only saving grace is that their number is not many. Otherwise to accommodate their tombstones alone no space would be available to the common people to build their huts. This earth is so small that it would cause a war between the living and the dead. Be it on the land or in the hearts of men some people are so eager to occupy far more space than the average man that they resort to all kinds of fraud and other questionable means even at the risk of damnation both in this and the other world. The fight between the living men is a fight between equals, but the fight between the living and the dead is very difficult indeed! Those who are dead are now beyond all infirmities and defects, they are now the denizens of a dream world, whereas we mortals are subject to the laws of gravitation and a whole lot of other earthly laws of attraction and repulsion, we can by no means be a match to those departed souls. That may be the reason why God banishes them to a world where everything is forgotten and where living space is abundant. If God intended to keep us pigmy mortals cringing in a corner with our woebegone pale countenance side by side with those giant immortals then why did He make this world so bright and beautiful and why did He make the hearts of men so alluring?
Wise men abuse us, saying our lives are going waste. Rebuking us they say, ‘Wake up, work hard, don’t waste your time.’ There are people who waste their time doing nothing, but there are others who waste time doing things – they both waste their time and spoil the things they do. It is these very people under whose feet the earth trembles and it is to save the world from their activities that God says, ‘I reincarnate in every age.’
If life goes waste let it go waste. Most lives are for going waste. These majority worthless lives prove that God is rich. We, His innumerable useless creatures, are the numerous witnesses to prove that His storehouse of creation is not bankrupt. From our endless abundance one can know His majesty. As the flute produces music through its emptiness we proclaim God’s glory through our uselessness. It is for us that Buddha renounced the world, Jesus Christ laid down his life, the ascetics meditated and the saintly are awake all the time.
Life is going waste? Let it go, because everything has to flow and thereby it fulfils a purpose. The river is flowing; all its water is not needed for our drinking and bathing or to irrigate our land. Most of it is just maintaining the flow. Without serving any particular purpose it serves a larger purpose by maintaining that flow. By digging a canal the river water that we bring to our pond we may use for bathing but it cannot be used for drinking; its water that we carry in pots and store can be used for drinking but light and shade cannot play on it in a festive style. To judge anything merely by its usefulness is nothing but miserliness; to consider that serving a purpose is the ultimate end of everything is nothing but meanness.
Let us, the average majority, not consider ourselves so lightly. We are keeping the whole world going. We have a life-long right to have a place in the hearts of men. Nothing we keep permanently in our occupation, to nothing we cling on, we flow on. It is we who sing the music that rises in this world from the multitude; it is only on us that all the light and shade pulsate in this world. We laugh and cry, we play with our friends without any reason, we talk with our near ones, with no particular purpose in view we spend most of our time with all who crowd around us and thereafter all on a sudden getting our son married and employed in an office we die and get burnt to ashes at our cremation – we are a part and parcel of this world which is like a billowing ocean playing in waves. The stream of humanity sparkles with our little joys and sorrows; the whole society echoes with the sounds of our small jubilations and lamentations.
Nature mostly consists of things we call futile. Most of the sunrays are lost in the empty space in radiation; not all the flowers of a tree end in fruition. Let their owner keep their accounts. Unless we see the ledger of the maker of this world we cannot be sure whether these expenditures are wasteful. Similarly except in our ability to give our fellowship and momentum to others we are of no use. Thus without blaming anybody and with patience if we can gracefully reach our peaceful obscure end passing our days joyfully laughing and singing then in our aimless life we will serve our purpose well.
I am fortunate that my maker has made me useless; but my failure would be entirely my own fault if after being urged by other’s advice I attempt to be of any use to others and miserably fail. I will have to account for that. Not all of us have been born to do good to others; we should therefore not feel ashamed for not being able to do so. It is far better that as a missionary I don’t go to China to save that country. If you call me a failure for passing my time at home instead indulging happily in trifling pastimes then it would certainly not be as bad as the tragic failure in my mission in China.
All grasses do not evolve to rice plants. In fact in the world the former far outnumbers the latter. And let not the grass lament over its fruitlessness; let it remember that it covers the dry dusty earth with soothing greenery and it mellows the scorching sun by its happy soft serenity. Among the grasses the kush grass seems to have tried to become a rice plant by force; instead of remaining a mere grass it felt a strong urge and wished to be of use to others – yet it ultimately failed! But what has been the result of its constant attention to others is being felt by those others. It may be said that it is not God’s intention that one should feel too much concerned for others. In comparison the fruitless obscurity and the soft serenity of the lowly grass is better.
We may conclude by saying that men are of two classes – those who may be said to belong to the fifteen anas in a rupee and those belonging to the remaining one ana. The first is restful while the second is restless. One is very useful and the other is useless. In the air the quantity of mobile and inflammable oxygen is small and that of inert nitrogen is far greater. If this ratio is changed in the other way round the entire world will be burnt to ashes. Similarly when the class of people belonging to the fifteen anas tries to become as restless and useful as the class of one ana the world will be doomed and all its inmates will have to be ready for the doomsday.
[This essay was first published in 1309 BS (1902-03) in Bangadarshan which was first started in 1872 by Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay (1838-1894) and was later revived twice, first by his elder brother Sanjibchandra in Bankim’s lifetime and then by Rabindranath.]
‘I reincarnate in every age’ or ‘sambhabami yuge yuge’ in Sanskrit, is from the following speech of Krishna addressed to Arjuna in the Geeta –
Kush grass has hard stems and sharp blades.
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