SONGSOPTOK: Most Bengalis are introduced to Rabindranath through ‘Sahaj Paath’. With that introduction, people become familiar with him in their own ways.  Can you share with us how you developed that relationship?

SOUMYA:   Sahaj Path was a natural sequel to Barnaparichay, which introduced me to the Bengali language. Sahaj Path, however was extremely student friendly, which was not the case with Barnaparichay – a small booklet with a depressing pink colour and which had only one picture of interest – “Bidyasagar Mahasai-er Bati”. Sahaj Path was extremely readable, with large wide spaced Bengali fonts and an abundance of linocuts featuring as illustrations to the text and poetry. Sahaj Path had four volumes, if I remember correctly, and each was distinctive in its own manner. My relationship with the text extended beyond the school hours and well into my leisure time, as it served both as a school text and a story book. Years later I would recall at times the article on St. Bernard dogs, and many more. The King of Moustaches Gnopheswar, the village belle P(n)utu who had never heard of glycerine soap, Binu who dreamt of the colossal city of Kolkata moving are unforgettable memories. The school I went to encouraged reading and as a result Sahaj Path became a good friend, since by delving into its depths you could make your mother assume that her child was indeed concentrating on studies, yet with that book in hand you could escape into the realm of imagination.

SONGSOPTOK:   If we analyze carefully, we will see a gradual unfolding of Rabindranath in us through different stages of our life, from childhood to adulthood. We may not be prepared for this evolution, but Rabindranath leads us through this developmental process to the blooming of our lives. Can you share with us how your personal development was influenced by Rabindranath?

SOUMYA: A very difficult question, since my association with Rabindranath was something which I was brought up with, in my family as in my school. From a very early age I remember the German record player which my father bought second hand playing Rabindrasangeet renditions by Debabrata Biswas on monsoon evenings, his sonorous voice melding with the bells of the ‘chanachur’ vendor or the call of the peanut seller. For prayers our school relied exclusively on Tagore. I remember my first day in school, where, lined up with my classmates in a small field strewn with pine needles we sang ‘Alo amar alo’ – that was the best rendering of the song that I have come across. The Rabindrajayanti celebrations preceding the start of the summer vacations was an event of great excitement to us. Our poetry text in school in the senior years was Katha o Kahini where each individual poem is associated with it unforgettable memories, associations and nuances. This was how I evolved with RNT, unknowingly, but as a part of a process as natural as the air we breathe.

SONGSOPTOK:    Which aspect of Rabindranath most impacted your young adulthood?

SOUMYA:  His wide wide wide span of knowledge and his command over rhythms were perhaps the traits which inspired immense awe and liking in me. In our school we had a group of teachers steeped in Rabindrik knowledge, traditions and mores. In July, there was the Briksharopon celebration, where students blessed with musical skills invited into the household the saplings…..the savior of the earth with “ai ai ai amader anganey, atithi balok tarudal”………..the ceremony making its way through “maru bijoyer ketan urao shunye” and finally ending with ‘matir buker majhey bandi je jal lukiye thakey”…………this, incidentally was a favourite song of my geologist father. Then there was the ethereal harbinger of monsoon……”pub sagarer opar hotey kon elo parabasi”………all these were part of my young adulthood. On a lighter vein, Rabindranath’s ‘Bibaho’ was used as a tool for embarrassing our young Bengali teacher…….as we would ask, with guileless miens, “Sir, amader bibaho hobey na?” essentially used as an innuendo……These singly and severally influenced me, as it continues to do so even in the twilight I am passing through now.

SONGSOPTOK:   How would you explain the rediscovery of Rabindranath at different phases of life? Won’t you agree that this rediscovery is a consequence of journeying with him? Or do you feel that this rediscovery happens mostly at the intellectual level instead of being soul-bound?

SOUMYA:  As mentioned earlier, journey with Tagore was not really a conscious course… it just came naturally. Let me give you some examples. I was a callow youth in college, studying engineering and more than engineering I was into student politics. Left politics, mind you, which required some understanding of philosophy and economics, among other things. There was this lady who had the misfortune of being attracted to me which resulted in a proposal which I was unable to respond positively to. Later, much later, this lady sends me a note……”ami bahu basonai pranponey chai, bonchito kori bnachaley morey”…………the heart-wrenching feeling still rankles. This was Rabindranath speaking, extracting from the event just the antithesis while the whole, when merged, emerged as a philosophical tenet…………

Years later, as a participant of a Marxist study circle many of us were trying to fathom contradiction in its real and applied sense. The pastor of the flock, an experienced communist unearthing the intricacies of Marxist philosophy, resorted to Rabindranath. He referred to my favourite song….”chokher aloi dekhechilem chokher bahirey”…….. I looked beyond my field of vision through my own vision……..well, comrades or not……that WAS contradiction exemplified…..and that was not borrowed from Marx, but from Rabindranath, who, while not a Marxist, envisaged in his own manner what Marx did in the form of a theory, a doctrine.

It was 2002. I was travelling to Kolkata for the Puja holidays. I had a traumatic experience of being involved in a near-fatal road accident a few days earlier, and while my corporeal form bore erasable testimony to the incident, my psyche still carried with it indelible marks. The train was crowded, the ambience hot and humid, the travelers wanted to be back home, and many were complaining – about life in general. I, who had witnessed death from very close quarters a few days before, was just glad to be surviving. And it was in that instant RNT appeared in the form of his creation…….”ei je herinu chokhe aparupo chobi / arun kirono majhe probhatero robi/ ei to sokoli pran / tripti koruko daan”.
My father left us in November 2003. A month later, I, along with my family, was compelled to attend a typical ‘cultural programme’ where Tagore’s presence was inevitable. A shy teenage girl started tremulously “amar hiyar majhe lukiye chiley”……and gradually gaining in confidence, she rendered a beautiful last line ……”ami tomar gan to gaini”. It was at that moment I came to realise that my father indeed resided inside me in more ways than what genetics suggests…he was with me in my limited successes and unlimited failures…….and I never cared to sing his paean.

I still cannot listen to this song without tears welling for the time I lost in understanding my father…and this is Rabindranath’s gift to me. He resides in our souls, beyond the reach of dry intellect. He nourishes us, rebukes us, punishes us, solaces us, enthralls us. Intellect has many candidates claiming individual domains: let Rabindranath reside in our souls, eternally.

SONGSOPTOK:   Can you comment on the influence of Rabindranath in your personal life and on your cultural engagements?

SOUMYA: His extraordinary capability of philosophizing events g rave and mundane. I have heard that he composed the song “bishwa jakhan nidramagan gagan andhakar”…..when the world is in deep slumber, when the sky is filled with darkness, someone strikes unfathomable chords in the lyre of my heart…..when he, sleepless, was tending to his terminally ill daughter.

Secondly, his huge zest for life.

Third, his ability for submission to a higher order in life.
Why do these appeal to me most?

Because, I have lost my equanimity and the capacity of putting in a philosophical perspective issues serious and ordinary in the abrading course of the day to day life.

Because I never had, or can have the love he had for life…almost bordering on lust for life. I am a loser, a defeatist, and Rabindranath was never so.

Because, I as an atheist, could never surrender to powers beyond human comprehension. I wish I could, in these deeply troubled times.

SONGSOPTOK:  We are all aware of the immense influence that Rabindranath exerts on the modern Bengali society. However, the guidance that he provided about societal development has not been pursued. He emphasized rural economic self-reliance. He wanted to establish cooperative system as a way to counter capitalism. We chose to ignore his views. How would you address this topic?

SOUMYA: Did we really choose only to ignore his views on societal development? I have a feeling that we chose to forget many things he embraced. We have come across erudite expositions about Tagore in different places, in different circumstances, in different moods ad nauseam, but we never did try serious critiques of his philosophy and his creations. We have really not matured as a race as we can not bear criticisms. We try to iconize individuals and trivialize criticisms. One who refuses to grant the stature of a god is portrayed as an enemy of the masses, an enemy of culture. On the other hand, attempts are made to stick labels and remove him to oblivion, as happened three decades back through the withdrawal of the Sahaj Path as a text for children. What the society needed at that point of time was a healthy discourse on the relative merits and demerits of Sahaj Path and not subsequent action, not a withdrawal following some ill conceived diktat. The same logic applies to his societal experiments. And I feel that there still remains enough space for the initiated to examine his ideas and come up with a really serious critique. This was one facet of Rabindranath that has not been investigated to the extent it deserved.

SONGSOPTOK: There is another issue that Rabindranath unequivocally championed - the importance of mother language in education! He argued that children should be instructed only in their mother tongues till the age of twelve. On the other hand, Bengali parents would like to send their children to English-medium schools if they can afford to do so. What is your opinion on this issue?

SOUMYA:  Bengali as a race is suicidal, as has been observed by the erudite. Bengali, as a race that is also delusional. Nowhere in the civilized society other than in the unfortunate state of ours would you come across people stating with obvious vanity that their children do not know Bengali. Knowing Bengali is not considered to be classy enough. Studying in vernacular schools is passé. That is why Charuchandra Institution is baptized as St. Chero, Tarasundari Memorial Girls High School as TSM, Jogeshchandra College as St.Yoges, etc. Unfortunately, Tagore’s stress on the mother tongue as a medium of instruction was construed by the erstwhile state regime as an opposition to English, the reason why the latter was discontinued in every form. Whether the action was correct or whether the explanation is as simplistic as portrayed is debatable; but I perceive the recent craze bordering on frenzy for putting children in English Medium schools as a severe backlash to that discontinuation.

I was a student of the Bengali Medium. I had to write papers in science, history, geography, etc. in Bengali, which I did with great pleasure. Fortunately we had in the school teachers who taught us not to detest any specific language, but to thrive from the best every language has on offer. Our transition to the English Medium in the high school level was therefore seamless. I feel that this is the right way, and this has been practiced earlier in the same schools, within the same system. Why not revert back then?

We shall not be able to. Bengalis, as I said earlier, is delusional as a race. These children, who are being denied their right to the correct form of education will continue to be hounded by participles, gerunds, infinitives, similes and metaphors in the same manner as they would be with sandhi, samash, natwa satwa bodh. They would neither learn English properly, nor would they be comfortable in Bengali. It is a catch 22 situation: a dilemma or difficult circumstance from which there is no escape because of mutually conflicting or dependent conditions.

The delusional Bengali, however, will ’adjust’: we have been doing this for years now!! As for Rabindranath, may his soul rest in peace, may his notions die a natural death. ‘Sajaye gujaye, goditey boshaye, byatarey banabo dharmabaap /Manashar puja dher beshi bhalo, ke chai pushitey jyanto saap?’

SONGSOPTOK:  We are all too enamored about globalization, yet we lack interest to (re)introduce Rabindranath globally. What is your opinion? How and who can be trusted with that responsibility?

SOUMYA: I have no ready answer to this question. I shall have to think before I attempt this.

SONGSOPTOK:   Is Rabindranath’s relevance among the younger generations on the decline? If so, what is the cause of that?

SOUMYA: There definitely is a marked decline. If Bengal has been in the grip of characterless mediocrity for the last few decades, it is in the grip of counter culture now. Bengali is losing ground steadily to English, to Hindi, and more importantly to Hinglish. Our children are more comfortable in Hindi: they have learnt the language from TV, from films, from serials. Parents do not encourage children to learn and appreciate Bengali. How can they appreciate Rabindranath then, whose profound thoughts were expressed  through his mother tongue. Today (May 9, 2015) the Bengal government has come up with an English ad in the major newspapers: Kabiguru has been transformed to Kuviguru!!!

There of course are isolated pockets of deep influence. However, this does not represent the prevalent reality.

Cause? There are so many!! But first and foremost is the inner sense of shame of being born as a Bengali which most Bengalis carry deep within themselves.

SONGSOPTOK:   Rabindranath emphasized the need to develop egalitarian views instead of egocentric ones. Unfortunately, we as a society are receding into our impenetrable egotistic armor. How much has this behavior impacted you?

SOUMYA:  At every walk of life.

SONGSOPTOK:   What is your optimism about the relevance of Rabindranath in Bengal of the future generations?

SOUMYA: I resort to Stephen Spender. I have taken the liberty of altering the first line of the final stanza.
What I expected was

Thunder, fighting,

Long struggles with men

And climbing.

After continual straining

I should grow strong:

Then the rocks would shake

And I should rest long.

What I had not foreseen

Was the gradual day

Weakening the will

Leaking the brightness away,

The lack of good to touch

The fading of body and soul

Like smoke before wind

Corrupt, unsubstantial.

The wearing of Time,

And the watching of cripples pass

With limbs shaped like questions

In their odd twist.

The pulverous grief

Melting the bones with pity.

The sick falling from earth

These, I could not foresee.

But yet I always expect

Some brightness to hold in trust,

Some final innocence

To save from dust;

That, hanging solid,

Would dangle through all

Like the created poem

Or the dazzling crystal.

[Soumya Sen Sarma lives & works in India. He is a Senior Research Scientist at CMERI, Durgapur]

We sincerely thank you for your time and hope we shall have your continued support.
Aparajita Sen
(Editor: Songsoptok)


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