Tagore’s first visit to the zamindari as manager was more or less an excursion. He did not visit it in the next three months when he accompanied his ICS brother Satyendrenath who went to England on furlough where his family was staying. His brother had a purpose. But Tagore had none. For the poet it was again a sort of excursion. Doubt may be expressed about the poet’s earnestness and seriousness in looking after the zamindari. But subsequent events will dispel our doubt.
This time he went to Silaidaha alone, neither the nephew nor his family accompanied him. Moreover the family accommodation was yet to be made ready. Though his first visit was not so business like he must have done some preparatory work like arrangement the office, acquaintance with the staff and his one encounter with a poor menial labour taught him an invaluable lesson. He will not be a prince ruling his zamindar like his prince grandfather – he will forget all that and do his work quite differently. The grandfather must have fired the poor servant then and there. The poor devil was a father like him where he was equal to the zamindar in status. Now he began to attend Silaidaha office right at ten and so that the other important employees could attend office on time he arranged a mess for most of them. Not only that he saw that vegetables were supplied free to them from the garden which was started by the poet’s wife. Luckily his grandfather was no longer there to see this prodigality – he would have certainly concluded that his youngest grandchild had come totally to undo what he had done with so much hard work. What he had build his grandson will now break. It may be mentioned that his grandfather’s papers relating to the other businesses – sugar, jute, tea etc – which had been closed long ago must have been destroyed at this time to make ample room for the zamindari records. In passing we may note that the grandfather learnt his land laws from a barrister, the grandson learnt them on the job and in this regard the knowledge of the one was by no means less than the other. Other zamindars when in trouble sought the grandfather’s advice. We have it on the authority of the poet’s biographer, Prabhat Mukherji, Tagore also rendered similar services to the zamindars in trouble.
Dwarakanath was basically a businessman. From every investment he wanted profit. Those employees who could not deliver the goods were fired. Investment in zamindari is not quite like other business investments. A businessman, for example, may incur loss, but it was rarely total. The causes might be an error in judgement, dishonesty of the client or market fluctuations. That is to say the causes were human and could be remedied. In farming the loss was not partial but total and the causes were not human but ‘divine’ – the draughts and floods that occasionally took place and destroyed the entire harvest. At earlier times when the zamindari was under the management of the grandfather himself or his brother when the poor tenants were in extreme distress there was most probably no leniency and from the criticism of the rural journalist Kangal Harinath it appears that the Tagore zamindari earned a very bad name in this respect. When Debendranath made his youngest son manager he had the expectations that he would be able to remove this bad name. We shall see that the poet ultimately fulfilled his father’s expectation. In times of natural calamities the poet took loans from the market at high rates of interest to pay the annual government revenue and gave respite to the tenants by allowing postponement of payment of rent. Later when he got the Nobel he started a rural bank where the entire prize money was deposited and formed its largest share of the capital. He tried his level best to free the poor tenants from the ruthless clutches of the mahajans or money lenders. We would request the reader to read the poet’s famous poem –‘Dui bigha jami’ which was born out of his kindness and sympathy towards the debt-ridden tenant.
We have already mentioned that Rabindranath had to bear the burden of various responsibilities. Now zamindari became his another heavy responsibility. He could not remain in Silaidaha constantly without any break. Ocassionally he had to visit other places from time to time to attend to his other works. But that did not mean that he dealt with his zamindari works lightly. It was seasonal in many respects. He usually remained in Silaidaha during those peak seasons. In his zamindari work he made many reforms. Earlier the tenants could not visit the zamindar whenever they liked. When at Silaidaha he gave the tenants almost unlimited access to him and heard their complaints patiently and helped them to the best of his abilities. A local decoit of very fierce reputation was engaged as his personal guard. This man was very dutiful and also grateful. He jealously guarded his master. His over-jealousness the poet did not like very much. He wanted his tenants to meet him without any let or hinderance. On occasions there would be assemblies of tenants at Silaidaha. The employees were very strict about the rules regarding caste and religion. On one occasion, that of the ‘Punyaha’, the poet was adamant for more egalitarian reforms against which the employees rebelled. At last they were compelled to compromise. The poet vehemently objected to taking his seat on a chair placed on a raised dais. Instead he insisted that he should take his seat with the tenants on the level ground. The tenants should not sit in separate groups and the separate hookahs for separate castes should go! In those days the last reform proposed was unthinkable. He did many other things which were unimaginable. We shall talk about them in our next blog.