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Letters of Rabindranath and Bangladesh

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06th-Aug-2018       
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Professor Anwarul Karim, PhD :
Rabindranath is a poet of the soil, a true Bengali who represents his country truly through his creativity. He was not born in present Bangladesh but his forefathers did. They lived in Pitha-bhog village at Rupsha Upozila in Khulna from time immemorial. From there, some of his forefathers were settled in Dakshindihi village of Fultala upozila in Khulna district. Tagore's father Debendranath Tagore married here and so did Rabindranath. Prince Dwarakanath Tagore, Tagore's grandfather purchased his zamindary in three districts of present Bangladesh and formerly East Bengal, namely Kushtia (Shelaidah), Pabna (Shahjadpur) and Rajshahi (Patisar). These three districts comprised of Tagore's Bangladesh. By Bengal he meant East Bengal, the present Bangladesh. Here Rabindranath lived and grew up as a world poet.    His works, be it songs, poems, stories, novels or essays, perfectly reflect Bangladesh and her cultural heritage. But nothing is absolutely as shining as those of his letters, known as Chhinnapatrabali or torn leaves which contained matters relating to Bangladesh.   Each of his letters, not less than 250, presents Bangladesh with all her beauty, glory and glamour.  These letters are unique and significantly a marvel of words taken from life.  In each letter, a beauty is born. In fact, these are brilliantly radiant with the hue of water and culture. He epitomized the Padma and its tributaries and the people around it. Rabindranath presents these letters as 'Glimpses of Bengal'. Bangladesh is a country where 'nature never betrays the soul that loves her'. Shelaidah, Shajadpur, Patisar -  all symbolize water and culture with the Padma flowing by majestically creating, destroying and again recreating until she meets her love-the Bay of Bengal. Life is portrayed with all its pleasure and pain, sorrow and enjoyment with sorrow dominating.
These letters of Rabindranath Tagore which were entitled as Chhinnapatra or Torn Leaves bear the testimony of the poet's deep love of the countryside of Bangladesh. He moved through the villages and came to them   as close as he could be, viewing the  day-today village life of men, women and children from his boat.
 In these letters, Rabindranath presented a picturesque description of village life and he also stated that his stay in Bangladesh was the most productive period of his life. As a young man he intended to explore the unknown glory of Bangladesh and the metaphysics of life there on from its deep delved earth. These letters, thus,  in no way,  is a kind of 'literary extravagance' as Tagore claimed jokingly in the 'Introduction' of his book, 'The Glimpses of Bengal', rather these suggest how deep and penetrating was his power of observation  in analyzing the  human life and the mystery of the world as an onlooker while moving through rivers and villages of Bangladesh. He had enjoyed the village life closely and could understand the darker and brighter aspects of it. Poverty, though reigned supreme in villages of Bangladesh, yet the rural people could understand, if 'winter comes', spring cannot be far behind. When the earth is dead because of severe drought, it again gives birth to life when rain comes in. These letters present a philosophy that concerns not only the human life cycle, but it takes into considerations the life cycle of nature also, -- 'From dearth to plenty and from death to life is the progress of nature.'  There is, thus, always 'a motion and a spirit that impels all thinking things and all objects of all thoughts and roll through all things....' One needs a blessed mood to discover the workings and the secrets of God's treasure in nature. Both human life and nature are thus well knit in God's plan.    Here the land river and people all have become one and live through all his letters. These letters Rabindranath which he translated from Bengali into English were few in number. They reflected the common and ordinary human life with all its pleasure and pain that continued existing in villages of Bangladesh and Rabindranath viewed all these as the zamindar or the landlord very closely through the window of his boat, known as 'Padma Boat.
Rabindranath commented, "The letters translated into 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 characterized 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 of my life has ever known. Since these letters synchronize 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 whom, among all those whom I know, was best fitted to carry it out". RabindrnathTagore, 20th June, 1920
"Chhinnapatra", the letters of Rabindranath Tagore, are addressed to Indira Devi Choudhurani, his niece and daughter of Satyendranath Tagore, his elder brother, are unique as it reveals Tagore in his totality. These letters are not ordinary. These are also works of art and contain literary excellence.
These letters are unique in a sense that Tagore tried to understand nature and people of Bangladesh as he moved through the Padma, the Gorai and Ichhamoti and their tributaries.  Here he has been able to come close to the people in their day today life. He shared their pains and pleasure, their odds of life. Here he gets the pulse of poetry and is close to nature and human life. He is here more romantic than Wordsworth. He has seen life more than he did. His works are the true voice of his feeling. Rabindranath was fully committed to his people. He was not a social reformer but a poet who was visionary. Land River and People of Bangladesh made him so. Tagore owed his greatness to them. In "Chhinnapatra" Tagore comes out with all the glory of his life and stands supreme. Bangladesh was a kind of heaven to him; every part of it was sacred and precious.  Here he gets nature as his friend and guide and learns the philosophy of life. The Padma is symbolic to him.  In exposing the hidden treasures of nature, Rabindranath seeks a divine breath and he was blessed with a mood that took him to the deep delved earth and it was kind of a radiant rebirth which made Rabindranath a great poet of all time. In his letters, the Torn Leaves (Chhinnapatraboli), he initiates his readers into the secret of his soul. Nature became the educator and it left a tremendous impact on his senses and mind alike.  'It speaks to the child in the fleeting emotions of early years, and stirs the young poet to an ecstasy, the glow of which illuminates all his work and the rest." Nature became once again a safe guide to his wisdom and goodness; it was this instinct with him that could feel the irradiating presence of the Divine, Tagore's 'Jivan -Devta', the Lord of his life. In Bangladesh he developed a kinship between man and nature. Here he nourished his hopes for a brave new world. He changed the concept of the ruling clique, the zamindars  or the lords of the land. The strong republican sympathy prevailed upon him as a glow to his pictures of rural life in Bangladesh. "Here the real and the ideal meet and blend." Rabindranath Tagore at last found his solace and love in huts where common people lie in bliss and fully contented and sleep with no tension of life.   His letters give a picturesque description of the rural Bangladesh surrounded by the Ganges (the Padma) and his tributaries. These rivers are sometimes full of waters during wet season and sometimes are without or limited water during dry season.  
Below are the few examples of Tagore's letters, translated by him and here these are quoted from his book, 'The Glimpses of Bengal'.
Tagore writes:
Shelidah, 1888.
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 current less 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.
Shelidah
16th  June 1892.
The more one lives alone on the river or in the open country, the clearer it becomes that nothing is more beautiful or great than to perform the ordinary duties of one's daily life simply naturally. From the grasses in the field to the stars in the sky, each one is doing just that; and there is such profound peace and surpassing beauty in nature because none of these tries forcibly to transgress its limitations.
Yet what is one does is by no means of little moment. The grass has to put forth all its energy to draw sustenance from the uttermost tips of its rootlets simply to grow where it is as grass; it does not vainly strive to become a banyan tree; and so the earth gains a lovely carpet of green. And, indeed, what little of beauty and peace is to be found in the societies of men is owing to daily performance of small duties, not to big doings and fine talk.
Perhaps because the whole of our life is not vividly present at each moment, some imaginary hope may lure, some glowing picture of future, untrammeled with everyday burdens, may tempt us; but these are illusory.

Shelidah
2nd Asarh /June 1892.
Yesterday, the first day of Asarh, the enthronement of the rainy season was celebrated with due pomp and circumstance. It was very hot the whole day, but in the afternoon dense clouds rolled up in stupendous masses. I thought to myself, this first day of the rains, I would rather risk getting wet than remain confined in my dungeon of a cabin.
The year 1293 (1886 AD) will not come again in my life, and, for the matter of that how many more even of these first days of Asarh will come? My life would be sufficiently long could it number thirty of these first days of Asarh to which the poet of the Meghaduta has, for me at least, given special distinction. It sometimes strikes me how immensely fortunate I am that each day should take its place in my life, either reddened with the rising and setting sun, or refreshingly cool with deep, dark clouds, or blooming like a white flower in the moonlight. What untold wealth!
A thousand years ago Kalidash welcomed that first day of Asarh; and once in every year of my life that same day of Asarh dawns in all its glory-……………..
Every year one such great, time-hallowed day drops out of my life; and the time will come when this day of Kalidas, this day of the Meghaduta, this eternal first day of the Rains in Hindustan, shall come no more for me. When I realize this I feel I want to take a good look at nature, to offer a conscious welcome to each day's sunrise, to say farewell to each day's setting sun, as to an intimate friend.
What a grand festival, what a vast theatre of festivity! And we cannot even fully respond to it, so far away do we live from the world! The light of the stars travels millions of miles further off are we!
The world into which I have tumbled is peopled with strange beings. They are always busy erecting walls and rules round themselves, and how careful they are with their curtains lest they should see! It is a wonder to me they have not made drab covers for flowering plants and put up a canopy to ward off the moon. If the next life is determined by the desire of this, then I should be reborn from our enshrouded planet into some free and open realm of joy.
Only those who cannot steep themselves in beauty to the full, despise it as an object of the senses. But those who have tested of its inexpressibility know how far it is beyond the highest powers of mere eye or ear-nay, even the heart is powerless to attain the end of its yearning.

Letter
On the way to Goalunda,
21st June 1892
Pictures in endless variety, of sandbanks, fields and their crops, and villages, glide into view on either hand --- of clouds floating in the sky, of colors blossoming when day meets night. Boats steal by, fishermen catch fish; the waters make liquid, caressing sounds throughout the livelong day; their broad expense calms down in the evening stillness, like a child lulled to sleep, over whom all the stars in the boundless sky keep watch - then, as I sit up on wakeful nights, with sleeping banks on either side, the silence is broken only by an occasional cry of a jackal in the woods near some village, or by fragments undetermined by the keen current of the Padma, that tumble from the high cliff like bank into the water.
Not that the prospect is always of particular interest--- a yellowish sandbank, innocent of grass or tree, stretches away; an empty boat is tied to the edge; the bluish water, of the same shade as the hazy sky, flows past; yet I cannot tell you how it moves me. I suspect that the old desires and longings of my servant-ridden childhood----when in the solitary imprisonment of my room I pored over the Arabian Nights, and shared with Sinbad the sailor his adventures in many a strange land --- are not yet dead within me, but are roused at the sight of any empty boat tied to a sand bank.
If I had not heard fairy tales and read the Arabian Nights and Robinson Crusoe in childhood, I am sure views of distant banks, and the farther side of wild fields would not have stirred me so-the whole world, in fact, would have had for me a different appeal. What amaze of fancy and fact becomes tangled up within the mind of man! The different strands-petty and great-of story and event and picture, how they get knotted together!"
Tagore's letters are a kind of poetry, different in color and shape, presenting life with so much ease and comfort! Tagore became a different man when he was in touch with the land, river and people of Bangladesh in his youth and looked very much mature much ahead of the time and space. In fact, it is Bangladesh that made him the world poet. His letters best represent the country Bangladesh with all her magnanimity and gracious sights and sound, together with pleasure and pain.
Tagore used to move from Shelaidah (Kushtia) to Shajadpur in Pabna and Patisar in Rajshahi in boats through the Padma and its off-shoot rivers. The Padma dominated all his lives.
The impact of the Padma on Tagore was deep and penetrating. It actually made him the world poet. He wrote all his great works while he lived in this part of Bengal. In the dry season during winter, the Padma shrank to a small river, the whole family used to live on the houseboat, the 'Padma' "moored on one of the gleaming white, spotlessly clean sandbanks known as chars". Tagore was awarded Nobel Prize for his works, Gitanjali, or Song Offerings, which he composed and translated during his stay in Bangladesh. His letters, known as Chhinnapata or Torn leaves are world class and they present not only Tagore but also Bangladesh in  totality.

(The writer is a former Visiting Scholar, Harvard Divinity School and Center for World religion, Harvard and Pro-Vice Chancellor, Northern University Bangladesh, Banani, Dhaka. e-mail: ranwar.karim@gmail/ yahoo.com)

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