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Thursday, May 14, 2015

In the days of the super-civilized

Dr. Pashupati Bhattacharyya, my great-grandfather on my mother’s side, was the scion of a fairly well-known family in north Calcutta (his father, an engineer, earned the title of Rai Bahadur for playing a supervisory role in laying the Grand Chord portion of the Eastern Railway). He was also, for a long time, close to Rabindranath Tagore as devotee, physician on call, supplier of the great man’s favourite Bagbazaari rosogollas, and accomplished singer. He was a gifted man of letters himself, and, as I have written elsewhere, under Tagore’s commission he wrote the first general health care books for laymen’s consumption for the Lokshiksha series. He wrote  a little tome about The Mother of Pondicherry at Sri Aurobindo’s behest, and a book of reminiscences around Tagore too, titled Ontorongo Rabindrakatha (Rabindranath from up close), which I revisited recently after a gap of I suppose at least thirty years. It makes some difference if you read the same book first at twenty and then post fifty, even if the reader is myself. I felt some readers might be interested in a few short translated passages. Here is one.

Mohakobir moharaag (The great wrath of the great poet)

This happened a long time ago. That year in midsummer I stayed two months in Shantiniketan with my family. The Poet had said ‘If you come here during the summer holidays, I can give you a house to live in.’ We got a whole bungalow to ourselves, so it was a happy stay.

Dinubabu (Dinendranath Tagore, Rabindranath’s nephew, noted musician and singer) was still alive then. The Poet had told him to teach us how to sing. He himself came over to instruct, especially when he had composed a new song. All the ashramites learnt, too. There was a gathering of an evening every now and then where the Poet would read out some new poem or story he had written.

Food was not a worry. Vast amounts of the best arrived from the communal kitchen twice a day. We only had to make breakfast and afternoon tea on our stoves. Every morning the Poet came over, umbrella overhead, to ask if all was well. Andrews (Charles Freer ‘Deenabandhu’ Andrews) was there; he too came over sometimes. My younger son, a naughty boy (my grandfather Ramendra Sundar… S.C.), would leap into his arms, but he only smiled, and didn’t mind at all. We ourselves went over to see the Poet, sometimes in the late morning and sometimes in the evening. He held us back for a long time, chatting, singing songs, treating us to tea.

I might have mentioned in passing that I was married on the second of ashaadh. The Poet remembered, though I myself forgot. On the first of ashaadh he said, ‘You must come to dine with me tomorrow.’ What was the occasion, I asked. He smiled and said, ‘It’s the first of ashaadh, isn’t it?’ (the allusion is to Kalidasa, find out for yourself – S.C.). It took me a while to take the hint. There was a lavish feast for us the next day, served on little square marble-topped tables; bouma (Protima Devi) supervised the service. Then it was decided that the Poet himself would take us before four o’clock in his station wagon to visit Sriniketan, where some sort of musical soirée had been arranged. On arriving there we found that arrangements had been made on a grand scale. Elmhirst was there (Leonard Elmhirst, agronomist, philanthrope, Tagore’s secretary and founder of the Institute for Rural Reconstruction); he showed us around the Sriniketan campus, and we had a good look at all the varied handicrafts produced by the inmates and students. Then there was a music recital, followed by a round of snacks.

When we set out from there, it was still not evening, but the sun had dimmed, and the sky was overcast. No one had looked up at the sky, though, everyone being happily preoccupied with seeing us off. Tagore himself was smiling merrily as we clambered into his car. Then we set off.

The storm broke within minutes. It was the first of the season that year. Instantly the surroundings grew dark with swirling sand, and so violent was the squall that the big car was buffeted about like a toy. When we tried to roll up the windows the driver warned us not to: we were reasonably safe with the windows open, but with all of them closed the car might easily overturn. We grew afraid of being crushed by some falling tree. Huge branches of the trees on both sides of the road were bending down, as if they might break off any moment. They swept down almost to touch our rooftop, then swung back again, whiplike. The car crawled along in the midst of this mayhem; one had to drive with utmost caution, so it was impossible to go fast.

We were dumbstruck with apprehension, but the Poet suddenly flew into a rage. He leant forward towards the driver and ordered, ‘Turn back, turn back at once; don’t go any further!’

The driver humbly replied that it would be very hard to turn the car around under the circumstances, and besides, we had come more than halfway already, so it would be wiser to carry on homewards. Much annoyed, the Poet thundered, ‘You want all of us to be killed by a falling tree, all these children too? Why didn’t you check out the sky before setting out? What kind of driver are you? Were you out of your senses?’
The poor driver was struggling at the wheel, and had neither time nor inclination to make a reply. He simply drove on.

The Poet grew even more indignant at his silence. He nearly yelled into the driver’s ear ‘Why don’t you reply? Don’t want to admit to a mistake, do you? Why didn’t you tell me a storm was coming? What am I going to do now?’

Finally the driver spoke up, ‘Please don’t agitate yourself, Sir. Just sit quietly, and I shall take you home.’

That seemed to enrage the Poet even more. ‘Do you imagine I am frightened for myself? It is you people I am scared about. You will die too if something goes wrong! And everybody is going to blame me! What a pretty pass you have got me into, you idiot!’

He kept on fuming and fretting all the way in the same vein. We were all startled, for we had all known him to be of a most placid disposition, and had no idea he could ever be so upset – least of all I.

Thankfully the storm subsided soon. It began to rain instead. The driving rain soaked the Poet’s clothes, but miraculously soothed his temper. He called out to the driver again: ‘Why don’t you roll up your window, my boy? You are getting all wet!’ His voice was very different now; as gentle as you could ask for.

The driver said, ‘It’s okay, I am fine.’

The poet grew very worried at that. ‘No no, you will catch a cold. I depend on you to get around; if you fall ill I shall get into big trouble’.

The driver only smiled and said nothing.

The Poet then turned back towards us and started chatting most cheerfully. He assured us that he himself had terrific immunity; getting wet never gave him a cold, and so forth. He told us stories about how he had got thoroughly wet in the rain more than once. He was a completely different man now. Of his towering rage only a few minutes ago there was not a trace.


akash ganguly said...

Dear Sir,

We have a copy of the book at our ancestral home, it belonged to my grandfather. I've read it many times; Dr. Bhattacharyya really was a gifted man of letters. I'm delightfully surprised to know that you are related to him!

And a great work with the translation, Sir, very precise and interesting.


Shilpi said...

Hahaha – my dear God, this translated piece of your great grand-dad on The Poet is priceless to read, Suvro da. I was almost going to comment on an older post of yours but I’ll send a comment here. I’m still chuckling about the antics of Rabindranath witnessed firsthand by your great grand-dad. Quite in spite of myself I was reminded of a Fall from some years ago when Tagore brought the furrows to my forehead and made me big-eyed with his strange moods, sudden likes and more-than-sudden dislikes and tempers and fancies along with his sense, sensitivities, sensibilities, thoughts, reason, ideas and action. I shan’t go through the whole memory but I had been juggling three very odd teachers back then and even having sleep-dreams about them.

I’m glad you put this up for your readers. It’s so strange to read your grand-dad described as a ‘naughty boy’(and with all respect…not surprising somehow). The Old Poet comes across as a delightful and cranky mad hatter really. Here he comes with an umbrella to find out whether everyone’s doing alright and then chats and jokes and tells stories and serves tea and then smiles with ashaar and then comes his temper! Jesus Christ! Why didn’t The Poet himself notice the clouds! I wonder whether your great grand-dad was sort of secretly relieved that the Old Poet didn’t blast everyone else apart from the poor driver or whether he had been worrying that the Old Poet would suddenly tell everyone to get out of the car and start legging it. I must say that the driver must have had nerves of steel or else he was so used to The Poet’s swift change of moods that he simply took it in his stride and dealt with it as he saw best. By God, he really does remind me of someone else all over again – Rabindranath, I mean…And to read that he was raging because he was worried stiff and terrified to think/imagine that people would blame him or that he would have to live with himself or even die with the knowing that if anything happened to the adults and children in the car – he was to blame! Yes, thank God for the rains coming down and changing the Great Poet’s mood. He did have other issues with his health though – I remember this. I had to stop reading to laugh on the side in the middle of this translated piece of yours. I remember your mum telling me a few precious bits about growing up in the grand household a couple of winters ago. I remember she told me that folks down South still remembered your great grand-dad’s piece on The Mother. I remember other indelible parts from that conversation.

This piece of yours couldn’t have come at a better time – at least, for me. I was hoping you’d put up something but this piece still came across as a strange surprise. ‘Super-civilized’ is right. What a piece of writing! I could see and feel it unfurling. It’s sort of almost comforting to know that he had his moods and swift changes too and that another felt it fit to pen the varied incidents. Maybe you might share some other curious bits with your readers from your grand-dad’s book when you feel thus.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Rajdeep, who has trouble with posting comments, sent the following via email:

"It was nice to read your article on Tagore.

Sorry for the reply by email.
I'm too lazy to figure out how to write a comment as I cannot do it the usual way.

I have read precious little about Tagore except his biography.
I've read mostly his stories and poems so it was a really interesting read.To know that he had a temper at times! It also reminded me of the storms in May in Bengal. I wish you had made me read that book when I was your student!

I hope you translate more of the book in English someday."

Richard Haussman said...

Very nice example indeed. Alas, those were the days!

By the way, I request you to take a look at the work of Christopher Langan. I think it will be close to your heart, seeing the similarities between your respective lives. I also believe the cognitive theoretic model of the universe, in its bare essence, is very similar to the philosophy that you have been tirelessly preaching throughout your life.

Sunup said...

Your great grand father's narration and your equally excellent translation -- it just transported me to that location and era and in the company of the great poet. Unfortunately, I've neven been to that place, but somehow I could picturize everything. Hope you'd translate the whole book for the benefit of non-bangla readers.