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Tagore in My Mind – Mousumi Banerjee

May 8, 2021 | Non Fiction | 2 comments

When I was a little girl, I remember summer nights filled with the smell of jasmine from my grandfather’s garden, and my mother’s voice swaying in the gentle wind, singing to me and my sister

Touch my soul with the touchstone of fire.
Make this life sacred with thy flames.”

That was our lullaby. When I grew up, that song became my life’s mantra.
As a child I did not quite know who Rabindranath Tagore was. All I knew was that his last name was Thakur, meaning God in Bengali, so he must be some kind of God. I knew he had written our lullaby song, and tons of other songs that we sang during prayer time at school. And every year on his birthday, we would stage plays written by him. One year I cut my hair real short and became the little boy Amol in the play Dakghar. Amol is very sick, he cannot go out and play, so he sits by his window all day long and talks to passers-by. “Doi wala, o doi wala” he calls. He waits and waits for a letter from the king, but the letter never arrives. Even after the performance, for many days and weeks, my heart aches for Amol. And then when I was 12 or 13, the director of our neighborhood theatre group Jayanti mashi thought I was mature enough to act in Chandalika, Tagore’s dance drama about an untouchable girl and her female desire. The play showcases the intersections of caste-class and gender as well as the evolution of selfhood in Prakriti, the untouchable girl. But at that age, without understanding even an inkling of the social significance of the play, the songs and the acts were enough to put me into a trance.
All of these were staged right in the neighborhood at para functions as Bengalis would fondly say, year after year on his birthday in May. Our makeshift stage was usually a wooden bed frame and we borrowed old sarees from our mothers and aunts, and hung them on a rope from one end of an open courtyard to another to make our dressing room.  Right in front of the stage on grandpa’s one-armed chair sat Rabindranath Thakur. In front of him on a small plate, we put our offerings: little pieces of oranges, cashews, and raisins. Something told us this Thakur was different from the other Thakurs who are offered nakuldana, the typical little sugar candies that Bengalis offer to their Gods.
In middle school, I moved to a new school Patha Bhavan. Before that, I had attended a convent school that had very strict codes of discipline. When I joined Patha Bhavan, I didn’t know that school could be such a happy place. When the monsoon clouds in July cast long shadows on the walls of our classroom, the teacher would stop giving lessons and say “let’s sing!” And we, amid the rimjhim rimjhim of the monsoon rains would start singing

Shadows engulf the woods, clouds roar above.
How did you, Keya, come through the torrents?

Till today I hear that melody, the tune lifts me from my domestic confines and transcends me to a different world

On a sleepless night, following silent gestures,
Which way along the eastern wind did you release your raft?

Tagore really got me when I entered high school. Before then I had danced in Chandalika, read his short stories and sang his songs. But he was still someone who I worshipped from a distance. Once I brought him into my heart and soul, there was simply no stopping. It was like a deep plunge. I would wake up in the morning listening to Rabindrasangeet at 7:45 am on the Kolkata K Radio Channel

Let me be in my own mind, oh let me be.
The touch of his feet comes to mind at times.
In the twist of words and trance of errands
who is it that makes me forgetful.
In the secret corner, I weave the wreath of his memories.”

On lazy afternoons I would sit on the terrace and read Streer Patra (A wife’s letter)

“I am not scared of your street any longer. In front of me today is the blue ocean, over my head cumulus monsoon clouds. I no longer see any need to maintain your family’s dignity or pride. He who beholds beauty in this unloved face of mine stands in front of me today, loving me with the expanse of His sky. Now Mejo-Bou dies.”

One year during Diwali we got the news that Suman-di had passed away. Sumandi, my maternal cousin, was born and raised outside Bengal. A charming young Bharatnatyam dancer….suddenly gone! When the news came, all my friends were lighting Diwali lamps, and our house was immersed in complete darkness. My mother hugged us and cried. My eldest cousin Sudhadi, Sumandi’s sister, who grew up in an alien land faraway from Bengal, took her parents’ hands and found peace in the Bengali poet’s words

There is sorrow, there is death and the burning pain of parting.
 Still the peace, the bliss and the infinite rises.
The life still flows incessant; the sun, the moon and the stars smile.
Spring arrives at the arbor in amazing colors.
The waves rise in the wake of the fading waves.
Flowers bloom as the flowers are shed.
There is no decay, no end, not a hint of penury.
Our soul seeks refuge at the feet of that wholeness.”

After high school I went to study at the Indian Statistical Institute, where probability and statistical inference intrigued me. However oddly enough, it was there, at that place, that I became completely immersed in Tagore. The campus with its pebbled paths, coconut trees looming in the distant horizon, quiet ponds with red cement staircases leading into the deep waters, all together spoke Robi Thakur’s songs to me

My heart is revealed in the endless sky.
This ardency of the light, I know has a message for me.”

At around the same time, I started taking Rabindrasangeet lessons from Subirda and fell in love. I bunked Complex Analysis classes and lay on my bed all afternoon reading Geetabitan, Tagore’s book of songs. At night I would climb up to the terrace of the residence hall. Under a star-studded sky, the small neon lamps on BT Road almost seemed surreal. And I, the infinitesimal being felt beckoned by the supreme

Awake is the Lord in the night of the full moon.
 Oh my heart awaken, oh awaken.
Ponder at him with unblinking eyes and with your heart enchanted
The silent moon and the silent stars 
are lost in the silent nectar of music.
The earth awakens, awake is the sky
and all are awake with the beauteous.”

More than thirty years have passed since I came to this country as a graduate student. It was a warm August afternoon when I left home, left the narrow lane I grew up in Kolkata. I had never boarded an airplane before then. That was the first time, and the first time was a far way too. My elder cousins had packed my bags for a week before the trip: small snack packs (chanachur) from friends, leaflets of bindi-s from neighborhood aunts (mashi-s and kakima-s as we Bengalis call them), and hojmi from the corner shop owner Raghu-dada. There were three essentials in my suitcase: a pressure cooker (because I didn’t know how to cook), a little red plastic tumbler that I could use to shower (my uncle wasn’t sure if I would get one in America), and tucked inside my clothes was a hardbound copy of Geetabitan: the book of songs by Tagore. I still remember the huge KLM Boeing 777 that took off from Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International airport…….the runway lights blinking like dotted stars and getting washed away, for a twenty-two year old who was going away from home for the first time, and for a very long time ….

My boat was on a familiar bank, free of its fetters.
The breeze takes it away in the stream of unfamiliar.
O moon, in the ocean of sorrow swells a tide of tears.

I missed home, I missed my mother terribly, I missed the teenage boy who delivered the daily newspaper to our verandah every morning, I missed the neighborhood Tagore recitals, the para functions where Chitrangada was falling in love with Arjun on a moonlit night. I shared a one-bedroom apartment on campus with another Indian student. I could only afford to call home once a month on a poor graduate student’s salary! I lay in bed many nights, turning and tossing, wondering what time it was in Kolkata, Geetabitan on my lap, and a tune rising from my heart

My mind is restless —
who knows, who knows for whom.
The bird of the uncharted path went trilling,
went calling for the far horizon.
My thoughts are rushed to the breeze of the sea shore.
The dream swan has spread its wings.
Who has bound me here in this golden cage?

Around the time I passed my PhD qualifying exam, I got married to another poor grad student and we moved to a studio apartment where there was no space to set up a bookshelf. My Geetabitan sometimes lay on the study table alongside probability and statistical theory textbooks, sometimes it rested between the two pillows on our bed. On Saturday mornings I played Rabindrasangeet on my little boombox, sometimes joining my favorite voices

The cloud said, ‘I shall fade away’, the night said, ‘I am going’.
The ocean said, ‘I found the shore, now I am no more’.
Sorrow said, ‘I remained quiet as his footprints’.
Self said, ‘I disappeared in that wholeness and do not want anything else’.
The earth said,’for you there is the wreath of devotion’.
The sky said,’ for you all the lamps are lit’.
Love said,’ for you I am awake for ages’.
Death said, ‘your boat of life I ply’.

Couple of years later I graduated and started my professional journey.  I am a public health scientist by profession. I have pretty much spent my career modeling cancer and pediatric heart disease data. But interestingly, the arts, particularly music and poetry help me feel the human connection for my work as a scientist. You see, it’s important to have that connection—to realize that there is a human face on the other side of the data. The sciences and the arts complement each other well. In my own life, one enriches the other every day. And once again, it is Tagore’s work that has inspired me in this realm.

If you did not grant love in life,
why fill the morning sky in such melodies?
Why weave the garland of stars,
why lay the bed of flowers.
Why southern breeze whispers secret musings in my ears?
Why does the sky gaze that way on to this face?
Then why in moments my heart is so crazed?
The boat that floats adrift in the ocean,
does not know it’s shores.

The day we brought our daughter home, I read Tagore’s Shishu again.

খোকা মা’কে শুধায় ডেকে 
এলেম আমি কোথা থেকে 
কোনখানে তুই কুড়িয়ে পেলি আমারে।
মা শুনে কয় হেসে কেঁদে 
খোকারে তার বুকে বেঁধে 
ইচ্ছে হয়ে ছিলি মনের মাঝারে।

“The little boy asks his mother –
‘From where did I come?
Where did you find me dear?’
His mother smiles through tears of joy
Clasping him to her breast
‘You were born from the wish of my heart.’ “

ইচ্ছে, the wish, the longing, that is who you are, my child.

Through my children, I was re-living my childhood with Tagore. The Rabindrajayantis, the dance dramas, bedtime reading of Shishu, Sahaj Path. And then the nightly ritual that I started when they were in kindergarten. Just before bedtime I light a little candle, and sing

“Hold aloft this body of mine.    
      Make it a lamp of your divine temple.
      Let the light remain ablaze day and night in songs.
      Let thy touch in the darkness light new stars all night.
     The darkness will be shed from the eyesight
     and wherever set, it will see the light.
     My sorrows will ignite up in flames.”

That is our prayer song. I do not go to the temple to worship. For me, singing Robi Thakur’s songs has been the highest form of prayer and worship.
Tagore has also taught me to accept life, the way it is dealt to you, to live everything, beauty and terror both! On a dazzling morning few months back, I lost a dear sister to cancer. Su was a sister by choice, not by blood, in the path of life. She had a dazzling smile. She was kind and gentle. She loved to sing, cook fancy dishes, and make a home beautiful with her touch. And boy, was she a fighter!!!! She had more than her share of illness (three cancers, two brain surgeries), but she fought her battles with immense courage and grace. We laughed together, ate together, and even cuddled together watching Bollywood movies. And we read and sang Tagore together!

মনেরে তাই কহ যে,
ভালো মন্দ যাহাই আসুক
সত্যেরে লও সহজে।

“So tell yourself today,
Whether the truth be stormy or breezy
Let it rest on your mind easy……”

যাহার লাগি চক্ষু বুজে
বহিয়ে দিলাম অশ্রুসাগর
তাহারে বাদ দিয়েও দেখি
বিশ্বভুবন মস্ত ডাগর।
মনেরে তাই কহ যে,
ভালো মন্দ যাহাই আসুক
সত্যেরে লও সহজে।

“For whom the tears flowed
And without whom nothing seemed right
Now it seems even without
The world glows no less bright.

So tell yourself today,
Whether the truth be stormy or breezy
Let it rest on your mind easy……”

So yes, even amidst the terror, the world glows no less bright. During the past fourteen months of the pandemic, when I felt distraught, I have gone back to Tagore for courage and strength to keep going. I have kept Tagore in my heart, in the space where time is spellbound, where “nobody is dying, nobody is saying goodbye, life is like eternity, caught in a tree”.

The tiredness of my journey, the daylong thirst.      
       I cannot fathom how to quench that.
      Tell me that this vessel is filled with thy being
       Not merely your words, oh my friend, my beloved
      Touch my soul also at times.

My life, our lives keep revolving through beauty and terror. In the passage of time, many of the faces who called me by my nickname now shine bright in the night sky. My home address has changed, so has my country, but one thing has remained constant. The Geetabitan. Somedays she waits by my pillow, some days by the tanpura, or on the book shelf beside Sanchayita just like a friend. On summer evenings Geetabitan waits for me on the deck by the lavender blooms. But she always lives in one place, inside my heart, in my mind, and amidst melodies in my soul.

 If you would come in empty hands tonite
in my lonely room; would I be afraid!
I know my friend, I know I have your hands.
Our days are spent in the paths of asking and receiving.
Now is the time to offer myself to you.
 Let the darkness around blind the sky.
 Only may your touch remain filling my heart.

 

References

  1. Sakti Das. “My Friday Musings on Tagore.” Unpublished translations of Tagore songs. Reproduced with permission from the author. https://www.facebook.com/sakti.das
  2. Prasenjit Gupta. “A Wife’s Letter by Rabindranath Tagore: Translated from Bengali”. Parabaas.com. Accessed January 2021. https :// parabaas.com/translation/database/translations/stories/gStreerPatra1.html
  3. Avik Kumar. “Bojhapora (An Understanding) by Rabindranath Tagore: Translated from Bengali”. Accessed January 2021. http ://avikkumar.in/literature/translation-bojhapora /
  4. com. Accessed May 2021. http://geetabitan.com/
  5. “Jonmokatha (The Story of my Birth) by Rabindranath Tagore: Translated from Bengali”. Accessed May 2021. https://animikha.wordpress.com/2013/04/07/%E0%A6%9C%E0%A6%A8%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%AE%E0%A6%95%E0%A6%A5%E0%A6%BEjonmokathathe-story-of-my-birth/

 

Mousumi Banerjee

Mousumi Banerjee

Mousumi Banerjee is a Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Michigan (USA). Professionally, Mousumi lives in a world of hard science, trying to make sense of data to move cancer research and treatment forward. But her passion and deep affinity for the arts gives her sustenance in life, and counterbalances her work as a scientist. Mousumi is primarily a poet, although she has also written short stories and essays. She writes in both Bangla and English. Mousumi’s work has been published in many literary magazines in USA, India, and Bangladesh, Her collected poems Eklaghor (Room Alone) was published in Kolkata by Japonchitra

2 Comments

  1. Debasish Mridha

    সুন্দর স্মৃতিচারণ, গভীর অনুভূতি, স্পর্শকাতর, হৃদয় ছুয়েযাওয়া প্রতিচ্ছবি।

    Reply
    • Prodip Kumar Mondal

      “যাহার লাগি চক্ষু বুজে
      বহিয়ে দিলাম অশ্রুসাগর
      তাহারে বাদ দিয়েও দেখি
      বিশ্বভুবন মস্ত ডাগর।
      মনেরে তাই কহ যে,
      ভালো মন্দ যাহাই আসুক
      সত্যেরে লও সহজে।”
      আপনার গভীর রাবিন্দক চেতনা কঠিন কর্মযজ্ঞের সঙ্গে বাস্তবায়িত হোক সর্বদা রবিঠাকুরের কাছে এই প্রার্থনা করি। খুব ভালো লিখেছেন আপনার আত্মজীবনী।।

      Reply

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