I first saw you as a sombre old man dressed in a full-length jellabiya. Your waterfall of a beard helped little to diminish the portentous image you seemed to project from behind it. As you watched the little girl that was I from your framed domain on our wall, I would dodge your grave looks while walking past your unusually tall photo. Then, at five, I learned a poem of yours from my mother.
The day darkens as the sun’s about to set/ Clouds swarm the sky, it’s the moon they want to get/ Cloud overtakes cloud and colour cloaks colour/ The dong-dong of temple bell rings loud and clear/ Rain pours on that side, hazy goes the green/ On this side of the horizon, a million gemstones shine/ On the cloudy breeze, drifts a song of my childhood/ Rain falls pitter-patter, on the river comes a flood. (Rain Falls Pitter-Patter, Rabindranath Tagore)
You obviously knew better and drew my innocent heart with the pitter-patter of rain and the dazzle of a million gemstones. Soon, I would be caught in your snare, captivated by the exploits of little people like me who featured in your poems and stories. The young boy, for instance, who imagines playing hide-and-seek with his mother by becoming a champa flower. For, which five-year-old wouldn’t revel in this boy’s wish—to quietly watch Mother go through her day as she completes her worship ritual, reads the scripture in the afternoon and lights the evening lamp on her way to the cattle shed — even as her mischievous child eludes her sight?
Slowly, your image became one of a wise grandfather’s, and I didn’t avoid eye contact with you as much as before. In junior school, while singing in the chorus for Chandalika, your dance drama, I swung between the boisterous song of a curd-seller and the meditative melody of a Buddhist monk. Your music had me entranced; a spell I wouldn’t be able to break thereafter. I recall the summer afternoons when I would sing your songs to my grandma, her recurring favourite being the one in which you cried for peace with the disenchanted opening line, “Constant skirmishes grip the world fervid with violence.”
And then, years later, I would start translating your words for the small audience of my nascent blog. This would be but another step in my journey with you. The potency of your expressions — sublime and lucid at once — would become both my compass and anchor in my endeavour to render your ideas in a Western language.
In scouring my translation territory, I notice I kept returning to your Lipika. The short pieces that make up this book are written so cleverly that they defy any bibliothecal categorisation. Where would a librarian place this slender book in her library? In the poetry section? The words in its pages do carry the lyricism of poetry. In fiction? True, some of the book’s entries are conventionally rendered tales. Or would she place Lipika in the non-fiction isle? Surely, it does have a few reflective essays. I wouldn’t bother with categorizing it at all — it’s my own collection of gemstones, all housed within the frayed covers of my well-worn copy.
Through Lipika, I burrowed into the secret crevices of alleyways and clouds, walking pathways and internal universes. Your deceptively limpid prose in these short pieces is like light itself, capable of penetrating massive walls through a single crack. The day yawns; sunlight drops from the shoulders of the houses to rest in a corner of the alleyway, just like the slipping away of the anchal of a housewife’s sari. The clock strikes nine; the maidservant walks by, tucking to her waist a basket of vegetables she bought from the market; the smell and smoke of cooking envelopes the alleyway; office goers get busy.
And the alleyway thinks to herself, “All of reality is contained within this concrete road. What I had thought of as something big must be just a dream.” (The Alleyway, Rabindranath Tagore)
You wrote enough to invigorate me to drink from life’s wellspring, but I owe it to you for pulling me out of despair time and again. A few years ago, when I lost a dear brother and nothing seemed to make sense, I turned to you. There you were, my shawmobyathi — an empathetic friend who had himself walked the dark road of grief and had found light in what seems like an endless pit of sorrow to the grieving.
The sad reality that life is not absolutely definite lifted a load off my chest. I felt ecstatic to learn that we aren’t imprisoned within the stone walls of unmoving truth. That which I had been holding on to had to be let go of. When seen from the perspective of loss, this evoked pain, but when I saw it from the angle of freedom, I felt spacious peace. For the first time, a strange truth dawned on me — that this world’s enormous weight balances itself against the give-and-take of life and death and flows in every direction thus. That weight wouldn’t crush anyone with suppression—no one would have to bear the tyranny of a sole master called life. (Death’s Grief, Rabindranath Tagore)
Working with your words isn’t for me about the noble cause of taking you to the non-Bengali speaking world. It is, rather, a self-serving act — the desire of the river flowing inside me to meet the ocean that your oeuvre is. In translating your texts, I find that the universality of your expression allows your thoughts and ideas to be seamlessly transposed to moments and spaces far beyond their original epoch and location. Even as I try to grasp the idea of home in an alien land, I come to you to better understand separation — its spasms and its releases, its emptiness and its fulfilment.
Indeed, nature becomes intimate to one who lives alone abroad. I have truly felt for a few days now that I might no longer receive this swathing moonlight once the full-moon night is over; that from this foreign place, I will drift further abroad; that the familiar calm beauty that awaits me at the river bank every day after work, won’t be there for me, and that I would have to make my return journey on the boat in darkness. (Letter dated January 9, 1892, Rabindranath Tagore)
Your songs continue to pull me. In the middle of a chore, on seeing a fresh morning, and without any reason at all. Yet, I dither when it comes to translating them. For, your songs aren’t mere words; their tunes carry the mood and the atmosphere you so magically created. Even if I translated the words, how would I ever transfer the cadence? How will I sing them?
For now, I will find my therapy in translating your prose and poetry.
(The author is a writer and translator. All translations by the author)