The leaves were shimmering in the wind and the sunshine. It was midday, almost time for lunch. Luckily, lunch was going to be at my uncle’s house. My uncle lived close to my hostel. It was a ten minute walk, when one took the short cut through a cluster of small houses, shared by multiple low income families, typical in Navi Mumbai about fifteen years ago. I had an umbrella to protect myself from the scorching sun rays. The fad of sunscreen had not caught on there in a big way then. I was heading towards my destination in a light pink cotton salwar kameez, wishing that my aunt had cooked her signature chilli chicken that was so delicious. On my way through the narrow winding path between the houses, I could hear Bollywood music, floating down from cheap transistor radios, probably sitting on bed-side tables. Most people were relaxing inside at this time, with their curtains down, the ceiling fans rotating at the fastest possible speeds, their bodies plopped on soft cotton sheets. Ignoring the heat, I made it to the sidewalk of the big main road where my uncle’s apartment building stood and hurried up the few flights of stairs that led to their door. “Ding Dong.” I rang the loud door bell to announce my arrival.My cousin opened the door with an excited smile. “Didi, you have to come this way first.” Apparently, she had to show me something and could not contain her excitement. She led me to the big bedroom which was cool and dimly lighted. As I entered the room, the red and blue flickering LED lights on their CD player grabbed my attention. The song playing on it was an English folk song with an unforgettable tune. I immediately recognized the tune to be one of my very favorite Rabindrasangeet.
Often I have thought of humbly submitting myself at your feet and confiding my deepest love for you…
I had been in love with that song and thought about that song in context of my loved one too. “The words and expressions in that song are so intimate as if spoken right from the heart”, I recalled. It sent a thrilling sensation through my nerves even as I remembered that song. But the English ballad, playing on the same tune had a different feel to it. I looked at my cousin, perplexed. It was a surprise for me to discover that Rabindranath Tagore had been exposed to and greatly influenced by contemporary western tunes. My limited knowledge had led me to assume that Tagore had created a unique genre in Bengali music, the inimitable Rabindrasangeets, that was completely unrelated to other kinds of music like folk or classical. “It seems radically different from Bollywood, Pop, Rock, Rap or Country music”, I thought. In my mind, I was also thinking slow versus fast music. It was easy for me to stereotype Rabindrasangeet as being accompanied by a tabla and a harmonium and being sung in a very set and traditional way. Little did I know that in the coming decade Rabindrasangeet will be “remixed”, played along with drums, base and electric guitars and all the most modern musical instruments and was going to sound ROCKING. I was equally clueless about my future adventures. No one could guess that in a few months I would be packing my bags to journey across the Altantic and arrive in the land of Rocky mountains.
It was cool and refreshing to dip my feet in the rapid flowing Arkansas river. The trees caressed the bubbling waves, thrashing on the rocks, with their long wavy branches. The sunbeams peeked through the green leaves and splashed golden colors on the waters. “Look this way.” I turned around with a smile, few strands of hair coming over my face. My friend was busily taking pictures on her Nikon Coolpix. Her three year old daughter was giggling and splashing on the water and getting her jeans all wet. The little girl waded through the water calling out to her Dad, “Daddy, I am cold”. Daddy bent down and folded her jeans above the level of the water. “There you go. Does that feel better? Try not to splash too much, shona.” I thought to myself that I was looking at a perfect happy family. “Guys, time for a family picture. Here right in front of this tree.” My friend handed me the camera and put her new sunglasses on. “Say Cheeeese..” CLICK. I got a great shot of my friend’s family, standing in the creek, complete with cool shades and bright smiles. I proudly showed my friend the picture on the LCD display screen. She lifted up her sunglasses to take a better look at it. It was then I noticed a distant expression on her face and that her eyes had started watering.She had recently lost her father and was still recovering from the shock. I placed a hand on the back of her shoulder and she hid her head on mine. In couple minutes, she was wiping her face with the back of her hand. I noticed her long shapely fingers and the small black birthmark on her right ring finger, very close to the base of the finger. As her hands moved away, I saw that her eye makeup was smudged. I took out a face wipe from my purse and dabbed the corners of her eyes to make it look alright. I led her to a rock by the riverside and sat down beside her. Arkansas flowed on, gurgling ahead, frothing over the boulders, but heading forward nonetheless, undeterred. “Baba, loved me so much…He was like a pillar in my life…it seems like a nightmare….maybe I will wake up right beside him. I could not even be there at his last moments…..” She took out, from her wallet, a black and white photograph of a handsome young man , wearing his graduation gown and holding his degree. The snap was old and the corners were worn out. “That’s Baba..graduating from IIT.” It was hard for me to fathom how such a lively young man in the picture was in fact no more. I looked at her with sympathy but could not find any words appropriate to connect with her mental state. My friend told me how in the midst of her sorrows she had found solace in Rabindrasangeets. “Surprisingly, whether I am happy, sad, triumphant or defeated, Kabiguru, seems to have already written a perfect song to describe that state of mind”, she explained. She started to hum a tune and poured forth all her feelings in the song.
Tumi ki keboli chobi,shudhu pote lekha
oi – je sudhur niharika
jara kore ache bhir, akasher nir,
oi jara dinraatri alo haathe choliachey
andharer jatri groho tara robi,
tumi ki tader moto satya nao,
hai chobi,tumi sudhu chobi…
Are you just an image, play of colors on the canvas ?
There, way beyond in the Milky way,
Where they crowd in the heavenly abode
Day and night traveling
With a guiding light in hand,
The explorers in the darkness –
The planets , the stars and the Sun.
Are you not a perennial truth like they are?
Oh alas! you are just but a image…
As she sung, I could see on her face a mix of emotions, an inexplicable combination of sorrow, strength and acceptance. Her melodious voice was soothing and flowed on just like the sparkling stream beside us. Her mind wandered off several years back and browsed over the simple moments she spent with her father, as a little girl in Kolkata.
A little girl sat on a wooden stool in the balcony of a two-bedroom apartment, overlooking the Rabindrasarovar lake. The black leafy branches were forming a lacy veil over the smouldering reddish-orange bindi. The lake was looking like the aanchal of a pinkish gray sari. The crows cawed and other birds chirped to their younglings asking them to get ready for bedtime. Even as the sky was getting enveloped by a thick gray blanket and mosquitoes were starting to buzz around her, the ten year old girl kept on staring at the trees or may be even further beyond trying to hold back her tears. For the past two hours she had been looking for her ring. It had a heart shaped head that was studded with little light green “jewels”. It was her most favorite ring ever. Her mom was frustrated with her for not studying and wasting her time searching for such trinkets. “Daddy would help me find the ring”, she thought. But he was not yet back from work. All she could think of was how beautiful the ring was. It did look pretty on her shapely long fingers and it nicely hid her birthmark when she wore it on her right ring finger. It was special because her father had picked it up for her when he had gone on a business trip to Damascus. In the past few weeks, she had been busy playing with her new friend and forgot all about the ring. That afternoon she wanted to dress up with all her jewelry and her preferred ring had disappeared. “This is so terrible. Why can’t I remember the last place I have kept it?” She could not forgive herself for her failing memory. She wiped her tears and darted to the front door when she heard the loud knock. “It must be Dad.”
On the other hand, Daddy had arrived home when there was a “load-shedding” going on. It was a pretty common phenomenon for summer evenings in Kolkata. He had to trudge along, up the several flights of steps with his heavy briefcase after a long day of work and commute through congested traffic. Luckily for the little girl, the power came back on as soon as she opened the door for her Dad. Both the girl and the father had a smile of relief when they faced each other. “Daddy, do you know where I might have kept my green heart-shaped ring ? I cannot find it anywhere.” Inspite of all the tiredness, he smiled and patiently said to her “We will see what we can do. First, please bring me a glass of water, dear.” The middle-aged engineer sat down on the sofa and turned on the ceiling fan. The cool breeze was drying off some of the sweat dripping from his face. “Poor little girl, she appears to be quite upset” he thought. When the girl came back with the glass of water balanced on a white ceramic plate, he was still searching for some comforting words for her. Suddenly, his eyes fell upon the books on the upper shelves of the oak entertainment cabinet that he had designed himself. He reached for the top shelf and fished out the Sanchaita, Rabindranath Tagore’s famous collection of poems. In his deep resounding voice he beautifully recited the poem Dushomoy Difficult Times to his little princess.
Jodio shondya ashichey mondo monthorey
shob shongeet gechey ingitey thamia
jodio shongyi nahi ononto omborey
jodio klanti ashichey ongey namia
moha ashonka jopichey mouno montorey
dik digonto obogunthoney dhaka
tobu bihongo, orey bihongo mor
ekhoni ondhyo, bondho koro na pakha …
Even though the nightfall approaches slowly and softly
All the music has stopped at the signal of dusk
Even though there is not a single companion in the vast sky
Even though deep fatigue penetrates the whole body
The silent chanting has a forebording of danger
The veil of darkness descends in all directions
Even then little bird, my blind little bird
Do not yet stop flapping your wings …
The ten year old had never before felt her emotions so intensely described in words. The message of undying hope had such a ring of truth that even the imaginative young girl could not ignore it. The novelty of her miserable situation faded away as she woke up to the reality that there were others just like her, suffering from loss and difficult times. She stared at her Dad with reverence and silently bore the pain of never being able to wear her very own ring again.
mone koribare e jibon nitoyee nutan
Birthday comes again and again,
to remind us that this life is always novel.
This year, our empathizer, the gifted genius, Rabindranath Tagore celebrates his 150th birth anniversary. An artist, a philosopher, a poet, a musician, a novelist and a playwright, Tagore had received the Nobel prize for Literature in the year 1913. His deep spiritualism and universal philosophy of life, that is reflected in all his works, continue to thrive in the hearts of the Bengalis, transcending the eroding influence of time.
(Translating Rabindranath Tagore is very difficult. This is my humble attempt to pay my respects.)