My Encounter with Rabindranath - 1

My first encounter with Rabindranath Tagore took place early in my life quite accidentally. The place where I was born two years after his death may be said to have been light years away, both spatially and temporally, from the modern civilized world. Half the year it remained water logged accessible only by dinghies, during dry months one had to depend on one’s feet, for there was no way fit even for a bullock cart. It was first opened to the outside world by a canal excavated by the British. Schools had begun to be set up not very long ago before my birth. To me the first High English School, set up by the local zamindars in the early decades of the 20th century, was out of bounds because of distance and difficult communication. The nearest one came up 6 or 7 years before I was born. However, there were primary schools almost in every village. As a child I went to our village school. My tools of learning consisted first of a few palm leaves, an earthen ink pot and a small bamboo stick with a sharpened end to be used as a pen and later of a slate and pencil. A tattered copy of Vidyasagar’s Varnaparichay (An Introduction to the Alphabets) and a Dharapat or multiplication tables, which had passed through the hands of my elder brothers, were all the books I had.

There was hardly any fixed market place, markets assembled once a week at certain points not very near to our home. Our occasional needs were supplied by a villager called Palan Byapari (byapari means a businessman), a peripatetic hawker, who used to hawk daily necessaries from house to house carrying on his head all his merchandise in a big basket. During his visits the men folk used to remain engaged in their work in the field so that the customers were women. Palan was considered a great cheat, if not a thief. One day I was asked by my mother to go to his house to buy something which was urgently needed. Before giving what I wanted Palan, visibly very agitated, brought out a book. It was a book of poems and its name was Gitanjali. While reciting some poems he went into raptures and teardrops stood in his eyes. He was half-literate, could just read and sign his name with a lot of effort. I wonder where he got that book and what he got out of it. Why he had chosen me as his audience has also remained a mystery to me, for I was considered to be a spoilt and obstinately disobedient child very reluctant to go to school. I do not remember to have read anything of Tagore till the end of my primary school days. It was early fifties. I heard that the poet had got the Nobel prize for his Gitanjali. Except that it was a kind of lottery, a lot of money and it made the recipient famous I was yet to understand its real significance.

During my high school days I read some narrative poems and stories of Tagore from my text books. I liked them and the credit goes to my Bengali teacher. There was another teacher who opened the magic world of Bankimchandra to us. It was manna to me and I went on borrowing and begging and finished almost all his novels. This experience made me an avid reader of novels. But reading books other than school texts, particularly novels, was frowned upon by all and those indulging in it were considered to be ‘spoilt’ children. The popular belief was that novels corrupt the morals, particularly of the adolescents. So they were very hard to come by. There must have been about 50 odd books in our school library, but not a single book was ever issued to any student. Then one day a new teacher, a fresh graduate, came to join our school who was more a friend, philosopher and guide than a teacher to me. It was he who sometimes gave me books from the library. But none of them was by Tagore.

During the four years that I spent in the college in all I must have read about ten or fifteen poems, some stories and essays of Tagore. But except in Bengali honours classes the study of his works in the college was not much different from their study in the school. The college library was also no better than my school library. The radio was still a luxury, nor was it allowed in the hostel and hence Tagore songs broadcast by the Calcutta station of the AIR were inaccessible. On festive occasions only film and popular music used to be played in the neighbourhood through public address systems. During my college days came Tagore’s birth centenary celebration. I do not remember to have seen anything specially arranged anywhere in the locality on this occasion. A boy of our hostel subscribed for the complete works of Tagore published by the state government in fifteen volumes at a cheap price of rupees seventy-five. When he got the first few volumes I borrowed them from time to time for a few hours and it was a revelation. I was charmed by the poems and the short stories. I very much wanted to possess a set but did not have the money. After graduation academically my relation with the vernacular literature virtually came to an end. My only concern was how to get a job. To get a job a degree in Bengali literature was more a handicap than a help. And when I got a job I had to leave West Bengal for a short while. I changed my job twice after this and from this time I roved like a rootless tramp with all my worldly possessions packed in a small steel trunk and a hold-all. The few books I carried with me did not include even a single volume of Tagore.

On my second job I had to stay for a few months in a district in North Bengal. The place was a tiny market town turned into a sub-divisional headquarters without any urban infrastructure. Those who came here from outside had to kill their leisure time getting together at someone’s place and gossiping. My favourite haunt was a mess run by 4 or 5 people who worked in different organizations. All of them were bachelors – all forced except one who was confirmed. This man had a record player with a good collection of Tagore songs on 78 rpm records, most of which were by Debabrata Biswas. The gentleman himself was a very good singer. Here for the first time I got the opportunity to know what Tagore music means and who Debabrata Biswas was. And here I met another Palan byapari – an elderly gentleman who started crying silently after hearing one or two songs. He himself also often tried to sing but before he could finish one or two lines his voice became choked with emotion. Once when I asked him why he was moved so much he replied, like Palan byapari, that listening to Tagore songs, particularly devotional ones, he felt the presence of something divine. After this experience I acquired a one-volume collection of Tagore songs – the Gitabitan. I did it not to learn to sing but to read them.

My third job I started from another small town. Here in addition to my usual duty I was to look after two degree colleges. This gave me an opportunity to come into direct contact with the education department. I managed to get five out of the 15 volumes of the centenary set from that department. At this time I also received a valuable present from one of the officers working with me. It was the Sanchayita – a compilation of his poems originally selected by the poet himself. It is one of my precious possessions and it is still with me. Another experience I had at that time I shall never forget. For one of those colleges some teachers were to be recruited. When a candidate with a degree from the Viswabharati University appeared a member of the selection board asked her if it was correct that the students and teachers of Viswabharati have certain pretensions about their intellectual superiority and a special culture she became furious. It was confirmed later by my experience but I am not absolutely sure if it applies to all, but it certainly applies to a considerable few.

At this time I got married and my wife got a stereo record player as her marriage present from one of her elder brothers. So from then on I was under a compulsion to buy records. Her first preference was Tagore songs and first of all by Debabrata Biswas and thereafter by others. Incidentally her choice matched with mine.

Continued to Part 2 

More By  :  Kumud Biswas

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