Tagore c. 1925
The letters translated in this book span the most productive period of my literary life, when, owing to great good fortune, I was young and less known.
Youth being exuberant and leisure ample, I felt the writing of letters other than business ones to be a delightful necessity. This is a form of literary extravagance only possible when a surplus of thought and emotion accumulates. Other forms of literature remain the author’s and are made public for his good; letters that have been given to private individuals once for all, are therefore characterised by the more generous abandonment.
It so happened that selected extracts from a large number of such letters found their way back to me years after they had been written. It had been rightly conjectured that they would delight me by bringing to mind the memory of days when, under the shelter of obscurity, I enjoyed the greatest freedom my life has ever known.
Since these letters synchronise with a considerable part of my published writings, I thought their parallel course would broaden my readers’ understanding of my poems as a track is widened by retreading the same ground. Such was my justification for publishing them in a book for my countrymen. Hoping that the descriptions of village scenes in Bengal contained in these letters would also be of interest to English readers, the translation of a selection of that selection has been entrusted to one who, among all those whom I know, was best fitted to carry it out.
20th June 1920.
The unsheltered sea heaves and heaves and blanches into foam. It sets me thinking of some tied-up monster straining at its bonds, in front of whose gaping jaws we build our homes on the shore and watch it lashing its tail. What immense strength, with waves swelling like the muscles of a giant!
From the beginning of creation there has been this feud between land and water: the dry earth slowly and silently adding to its domain and spreading a broader and broader lap for its children; the ocean receding step by step, heaving and sobbing and beating its breast in despair. Remember the sea was once sole monarch, utterly free.
Land rose from its womb, usurped its throne, and ever since the maddened old creature, with hoary crest of foam, wails and laments continually, like King Lear exposed to the fury of the elements.
I am in my twenty-seventh year. This event keeps thrusting itself before my mind — nothing else seems to have happened of late.
But to reach twenty-seven — is that a trifling thing? — to pass the meridian of the twenties on one’s progress towards thirty? — thirty — that is to say maturity — the age at which people expect fruit rather than fresh foliage. But, alas, where is the promise of fruit? As I shake my head, it still feels brimful of luscious frivolity, with not a trace of philosophy.
Folk are beginning to complain: “Where is that which we expected of you — that in hope of which we admired the soft green of the shoot? Are we to put up with immaturity for ever? It is high time for us to know what we shall gain from you. We want an estimate of the proportion of oil which the blindfold, mill-turning, unbiased critic can squeeze out of you.”
It has ceased to be possible to delude these people into waiting expectantly any longer. While I was under age they trustfully gave me credit; it is sad to disappoint them now that I am on the verge of thirty. But what am I to do? Words of wisdom will not come! I am utterly incompetent to provide things that may profit the multitude. Beyond a snatch of song, some tittle-tattle, a little merry fooling, I have been unable to advance. And as the result, those who held high hopes will turn their wrath on me; but did any one ever beg them to nurse these expectations?
Such are the thoughts which assail me since one fine Bysakh morning I awoke amidst fresh breeze and light, new leaf and flower, to find that I had stepped into my twenty-seventh year.
Our house-boat is moored to a sandbank on the farther side of the river. A vast expanse of sand stretches away out of sight on every side, with here and there a streak, as of water, running across, though sometimes what gleams like water is only sand.
Not a village, not a human being, not a tree, not a blade of grass — the only breaks in the monotonous whiteness are gaping cracks which in places show the layer of moist, black clay underneath.
Looking towards the East, there is endless blue above, endless white beneath. Sky empty, earth empty too — the emptiness below hard and barren, that overhead arched and ethereal — one could hardly find elsewhere such a picture of stark desolation.
But on turning to the West, there is water, the currentless bend of the river, fringed with its high bank, up to which spread the village groves with cottages peeping through — all like an enchanting dream in the evening light. I say “the evening light,” because in the evening we wander out, and so that aspect is impressed on my mind.
The magistrate was sitting in the verandah of his tent dispensing justice to the crowd awaiting their turns under the shade of a tree. They set my palanquin down right under his nose, and the young Englishman received me courteously. He had very light hair, with darker patches here and there, and a moustache just beginning to show. One might have taken him for a white-haired old man but for his extremely youthful face. I asked him over to dinner, but he said he was due elsewhere to arrange for a pig-sticking party.
As I returned home, great black clouds came up and there was a terrific storm with torrents of rain. I could not touch a book, it was impossible to write, so in the I-know-not-what mood I wandered about from room to room. It had become quite dark, the thunder was continually pealing, the lightning gleaming flash after flash, and every now and then sudden gusts of wind would get hold of the big lichi tree by the neck and give its shaggy top a thorough shaking. The hollow in front of the house soon filled with water, and as I paced about, it suddenly struck me that I ought to offer the shelter of the house to the magistrate.
I sent off an invitation; then after investigation I found the only spare room encumbered with a platform of planks hanging from the beams, piled with dirty old quilts and bolsters. Servants’ belongings, an excessively grimy mat, hubble-bubble pipes, tobacco, tinder, and two wooden chests littered the floor, besides sundry packing-cases full of useless odds and ends, such as a rusty kettle lid, a bottomless iron stove, a discoloured old nickel teapot, a soup-plate full of treacle blackened with dust. In a corner was a tub for washing dishes, and from nails in the wall hung moist dish-clouts and the cook’s livery and skull-cap. The only piece of furniture was a rickety dressing-table with water stains, oil stains, milk stains, black, brown, and white stains, and all kinds of mixed stains. The mirror, detached from it, rested against another wall, and the drawers were receptacles for a miscellaneous assortment of articles from soiled napkins down to bottle wires and dust.
For a moment I was overwhelmed with dismay; then it was a case of — send for the manager, send for the storekeeper, call up all the servants, get hold of extra men, fetch water, put up ladders, unfasten ropes, pull down planks, take away bedding, pick up broken glass bit by bit, wrench nails from the wall one by one. — The chandelier falls and its pieces strew the floor; pick them up again piece by piece. — I myself whisk the dirty mat off the floor and out of the window, dislodging a horde of cockroaches, messmates, who dine off my bread, my treacle, and the polish on my shoes.
The magistrate’s reply is brought back; his tent is in an awful state and he is coming at once. Hurry up! Hurry up! Presently comes the shout: “The sahib has arrived.” All in a flurry I brush the dust off hair, beard, and the rest of myself, and as I go to receive him in the drawing-room, I try to look as respectable as if I had been reposing there comfortably all the afternoon.
I went through the shaking of hands and conversed with the magistrate outwardly serene; still, misgivings about his accommodation would now and then well up within. When at length I had to show my guest to his room, I found it passable, and if the homeless cockroaches do not tickle the soles of his feet, he may manage to get a night’s rest.
I am feeling listlessly comfortable and delightfully irresponsible.
This is the prevailing mood all round here. There is a river but it has no current to speak of, and, lying snugly tucked up in its coverlet of floating weeds, seems to think — “Since it is possible to get on without getting along, why should I bestir myself to stir?” So the sedge which lines the banks knows hardly any disturbance until the fishermen come with their nets.
Four or five large-sized boats are moored near by, alongside each other. On the upper deck of one the boatman is fast asleep, rolled up in a sheet from head to foot. On another, the boatman — also basking in the sun — leisurely twists some yarn into rope. On the lower deck in a third, an oldish-looking, bare-bodied fellow is leaning over an oar, staring vacantly at our boat.
Along the bank there are various other people, but why they come or go, with the slowest of idle steps, or remain seated on their haunches embracing their knees, or keep on gazing at nothing in particular, no one can guess.
The only signs of activity are to be seen amongst the ducks, who, quacking clamorously, thrust their heads under and bob up again to shake off the water with equal energy, as if they repeatedly tried to explore the mysteries below the surface, and every time, shaking their heads, had to report, “Nothing there! Nothing there!”
The days here drowse all their twelve hours in the sun, and silently sleep away the other twelve, wrapped in the mantle of darkness. The only thing you want to do in a place like this is to gaze and gaze on the landscape, swinging your fancies to and fro, alternately humming a tune and nodding dreamily, as the mother on a winter’s noonday, her back to the sun, rocks and croons her baby to sleep.
Yesterday, while I was giving audience to my tenants, five or six boys made their appearance and stood in a primly proper row before me. Before I could put any question their spokesman, in the choicest of high-flown language, started: “Sire! the grace of the Almighty and the good fortune of your benighted children have once more brought about your lordship’s auspicious arrival into this locality.” He went on in this strain for nearly half an hour. Here and there he would get his lesson wrong, pause, look up at the sky, correct himself, and then go on again. I gathered that their school was short of benches and stools. “For want of these wood-built seats,” as he put it, “we know not where to sit ourselves, where to seat our revered teachers, or what to offer our most respected inspector when he comes on a visit.”
I could hardly repress a smile at this torrent of eloquence gushing from such a bit of a fellow, which sounded specially out of place here, where the ryots are given to stating their profoundly vital wants in plain and direct vernacular, of which even the more unusual words get sadly twisted out of shape. The clerks and ryots, however, seemed duly impressed, and likewise envious, as though deploring their parents’ omission to endow them with so splendid a means of appealing to the Zamindar.
I interrupted the young orator before he had done, promising to arrange for the necessary number of benches and stools. Nothing daunted, he allowed me to have my say, then took up his discourse where he had left it, finished it to the last word, saluted me profoundly, and marched off his contingent. He probably would not have minded had I refused to supply the seats, but after all his trouble in getting it by heart he would have resented bitterly being robbed of any part of his speech. So, though it kept more important business waiting, I had to hear him out.
We left the little river of Kaligram, sluggish as the circulation in a dying man, and dropped down the current of a briskly flowing stream which led to a region where land and water seemed to merge in each other, river and bank without distinction of garb, like brother and sister in infancy.
The river lost its coating of sliminess, scattered its current in many directions, and spread out, finally, into a beel (marsh), with here a patch of grassy land and there a stretch of transparent water, reminding me of the youth of this globe when through the limitless waters land had just begun to raise its head, the separate provinces of solid and fluid as yet undefined.
Round about where we have moored, the bamboo poles of fishermen are planted. Kites hover ready to snatch up fish from the nets. On the ooze at the water’s edge stand the saintly-looking paddy birds in meditation. All kinds of waterfowl abound. Patches of weeds float on the water. Here and there rice-fields, untilled, untended, rise from the moist, clay soil. Mosquitoes swarm over the still waters….
We start again at dawn this morning and pass through Kachikata, where the waters of the beel find an outlet in a winding channel only six or seven yards wide, through which they rush swiftly. To get our unwieldy house-boat through is indeed an adventure. The current hurries it along at lightning speed, keeping the crew busy using their oars as poles to prevent the boat being dashed against the banks. We thus come out again into the open river.
The sky had been heavily clouded, a damp wind blowing, with occasional showers of rain. The crew were all shivering with cold. Such wet and gloomy days in the cold weather are eminently disagreeable, and I have spent a wretched lifeless morning. At two in the afternoon the sun came out, and since then it has been delightful. The banks are now high and covered with peaceful groves and the dwellings of men, secluded and full of beauty.
The river winds in and out, an unknown little stream in the inmost zenana of Bengal, neither lazy nor fussy; lavishing the wealth of her affection on both sides, she prattles about common joys and sorrows and the household news of the village girls, who come for water, and sit by her side, assiduously rubbing their bodies to a glowing freshness with their moistened towels.
This evening we have moored our boat in a lonely bend. The sky is clear. The moon is at its full. Not another boat is to be seen. The moonlight glimmers on the ripples. Solitude reigns on the banks. The distant village sleeps, nestling within a thick fringe of trees. The shrill, sustained chirp of the cicadas is the only sound.