‘While keeping goal for Mohun Bagan Club in a football fixture against Calcutta Club, Smritiratna Mashai let in five goals, one after another. Swallowing so many goals didn’t spoil his appetite: on the contrary, he grew ravenously hungry. The Ochterlony Monument was near at hand; our goalkeeper started to lick it from the bottom up, all the way to the top.
Badaruddin Mian, who was mending shoes in the Senate Hall, rushed up at full speed and cried, ‘You’re such a learned man, so well versed in the scriptures! How could you defile this huge thing with your licks? Shameful, shameful,’ he muttered, spat three times on the Monument, and headed for the office of The Statesman newspaper to report the matter.”
That’s Rabindranath Tagore. You know, that Bengali chap you keep seeing in full facial hair flow in black and white photos, the man who wrote our national anthem and lines like “Yet hope remains awake in the heart’s lamentation/ O unbound one!”, the creator of that undulating drone seeping out of Bengali households under the tag of ‘Rabindrasangeet’...
With sagehood foisted on him by the world’s scattered Bengali population, any chance of a non-Bengali getting acquainted with his works — or, for that matter, many a Bengali getting closer to him than through the mandatory school textbook — without the thick filter of ‘Bengaliness’ is slim. (Imagine listening to the Beatles only as a bunch of British musicians.)
The Tagore industry, part-sacred-scholastic club and part-Bengali Disneyland, was certainly a strong disincentive for me to be acquainted with Tagore’s world for a long, long while. And yet, once I crossed the boglands of Rabindra-worship, I discovered someone who was utterly modern in his values, thinking and, above all, aesthetics.
I still haven’t been able to appreciate, let alone enjoy, Rabindrasangeet, and his plays (never mind his musicals) have left me as cold as a cucumber in the freezer. But his poetry, stripped of its archaic trappings of ‘Thou’s and ‘Oh!’s, has been a pickaxe landing on my head on many occasions.
But what truly left me touched in the head with its sheer force, intelligence, beauty and strangeness has been Tagore’s short stories and paintings — the two forms of his creative output that are staggering, especially when we consider that their source is this man whom far too many people only think of as a Bengali Santa Claus with a knack for cloyingly sweet phrases.
His short stories and paintings are the very opposite of maudlin and sentimental — they are searingly modern, experimental and give primacy to form in a world tyrannised by substance.
The incredibly surreal lines I started this column with are from Shey (That Man), a set of fantastical stories Tagore wrote for his granddaughter through the 1920s-1930s. In such works — and there are plenty of others — he mixes the utter illogic of a Groucho Marx with the comic lyricism of Chaplin.
The writers who came after him, struggling to come out of the shadow of the Poet-Sage, were dead right when they criticised Tagore’s works as a world of illusion that sidestepped the real world. “When these policemen guarding realist literature chase after me,” Tagore wrote in 1939, “I seek refuge in my songs... and in my paintings.” For my purpose, I would replace his songs with his short stories.
In a literary world battered with realism and drolled-up messages, a man born 150 years ago and who’s been dead for 70 years pointing us to a searingly unreal world is as much of a pleasure as it can be a surprise. Writing about the horror writer HP Lovecraft, French novelist Michel Houllebecq writes, “We need a supreme antidote against all forms of realism... No matter what might be said, access to the artistic universe is more or less entirely the preserve of those who are a little fed up with the world.”
Tagore was no Lovecraftian misanthrope, but he certainly valued imagination higher than reality. “It is clear to me the world is a great procession of forms,” he wrote in a letter in 1928.
In the 1898 short story Manihara (The Lost Jewels), Tagore has a narrator tell his listener at the end that it seems he doesn’t believe him. The listener responds by asking him whether he believed in his own story. He has reasons to believe in the story.
“In the first place, Dame Nature does not write stories, her hands are already full with —.” The listener interrupts and tells the man the other reason for believing in his story: he [the listener] is the man who, in the final scene in the narrator’s story, is drowned to death.
This isn’t Tagore, the Nobel-winning Gurudev of great wisdom and observer of beauty. This is a man rejoicing in the playfulness that only imagination can provide. The Tagore who spurns everything that’s real.