Theme: Birthday

Integral Life & Death

Translation from Bengali works of Rabindranath Tagore, Nobel Laureate of 1913.
Read Translator’s Notes at the end of the poem.

To-day, on my birthday,
Piercing through it ceremonial gay,
Has reached the death news,
Of my dear one, with grief profuse;
Its smoldering fire
My spirit does inspire;
As in the dusk the setting Sun
Anoints the forehead with its burn,
On the evening sky,
With crimson, it to glorify –
The face of the coming night
Turns golden bright;
So does its burning passion
To my life’s western horizon.

In its light
Perennial life came to my sight
That with death is integral
Its glory divulged in brilliant dazzle;
Eclipsed so long by my fate miser
Now to reveal its divinity for ever.
Translator’s note: 

Translation of Tagore’s (Nobel Laureate of 1913) Poem No: 8 of the book Janmadine (On my birthday) written on Poet’s 80th birthday at Mangpu, a hill station near Darjeeling.

On his 80th and last birthday in 1940 the Poet happened to be at Mangpu as a guest of Maitrayee Devi. I would give as follows the context of this poem which, hopefully, will help the readers better understand its message. It is only a quote from the book ‘Tagore By Fireside’ by Maitrayee Devi –

“The twenty-fifth Baisakh (this month on the Bengali calendar synchronizes with the mid-April to mid-May period of the Gregorian calendar) – the Poet’s birthday – was near. It was our good fortune that he would be at our home that day. Yet, this was a small village, consisting mostly of illiterate people. We rocked our brains about how to celebrate this day properly. Finally we decided that the labourers should be invited- all illiterate hill-folk and we would have same kind of festival that they have. Amiya-babu said, ‘I know he will like it. There have been enough functions with high-brow, there will be a charm in this festival with the simple people.’ The Poet was waiting eagerly for the function. He was never too old for any new experience……..The grand old man of the village, a Buddhist, squatted in front of him, burnt incense and sang a hymn to Buddha. The Poet answered him by reading from Upanishad (about 5000 year old Indian scripture), which of course the Buddhist did not understand. That afternoon the Poet wrote three poems, all were titled ‘Janmadin’ (Birthday). He mentioned the old Buddhist in one of them. In the evening people streamed in – poor hill folks, our neighbours. Sanai (a type of flute) was played and everyone stood silent, as the Poet was wheeled in his chair among them; clad in yellow garments, garlanded and bedecked in sandal paste, he looked a heavenly figure. The chair was pushed slowly along the garden walk, the hill folk came one by one, bowed and offered him flowers. The Tibetans offered Kharda (a scarf meant for high Lamas) instead of garlands. In the end he was almost hidden behind the mass of flowers. Afterwards he was helped to sit under the chestnut tree and the Bhutanese people started a vigourous devil dance. Hundreds of people sat in rows  - food was served to them on leaf plates. The Poet said to me- ‘You serve them yourselves’. After the function was over, he said –

‘How do you feel, tired?’
‘Why should I feel tired?’
‘Shouldn’t you? You started from before daylight- now go and have a good sleep.’
‘We could never imagine that you would be among us on this day.’
‘That is called lack of imagination.’

Next day we all sat around him. He was to read the poems that had been written the day before. But Sudhakanta-babu had come to tell him the unhappy news; the Poet would have to be told about the death of his dearest nephew. ‘Listen to the poems- here is a memoir of Mangpu – ‘………”

He then read out two of the poems he had written the previous day. A little after the reading was over, Sudhakanta-babu said – ‘here is a bad news’. ‘Bad news? What bad news? Is Suren’s (the Poet’s dearest nephew) condition worse?’ ‘He is no more. The news came yesterday, but I did not tell you among the crowd of people.’ ‘If you had done, I shouldn’t have been able to hold up my head’.

We left him to himself. He sat quietly- with his eyes closed. I watched him from behind, silently disciplining his emotion. The whole day he did not speak, though he went on doing his work as usual. In the evening he wrote a poem and called it ‘Death’. Giving it to me he said,- ‘Let this one also go with the ‘Birthday’ poems to Prabasi (a renowned monthly literary Bengali magazine of that time).’

He was sitting in the balcony in the darkness. I felt the acuteness of the pain he was bearing with patience. Once he said, -
‘No one will ever know what an extraordinary man he was. One so great, one so good, one the very best among men, was hidden from people’s eyes and went away unknown. Only those who knew him, know how rare it is to find a man like him.” 


More By  :  Rajat Das Gupta

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