Letter from Shelaidah
March 2004. A long stretch of dusty unpaved road from Kushtia,
made bearably bumpy by the sturdy SUV; a ferry crossing that
gives me a glimpse of the famous 'baaloo-chor' (white sand banks)
of the ebbing Gorai river; and a winding drive through picturesque
rural roads of Shelaidah in Kumarkhali Upzilla, brings us to
Kuthi-baari in the fading hours of the afternoon. The mild sun
of late spring or Choitro emits a golden light, and the shalik
birds are voluble as I walk up the pathway from the gate flanked
by sentinel betel-nut trees and a shabby bookstall. This last
and the ragged garden around me hit the first jarring notes.
The next moment my attention is consumed by the charming, double-storied
red house with green windows. I am actually here, at the country
retreat of one of the greatest literary figures of the world,
is more than a historic place; it was the beloved home of a
beloved poet. I expect it to be well maintained, and cherished
as dearly as we do the poet himself. The home of the lyrical
nature lover who gave Bengalis their most poetic passages of
natural and seasonal beauty ought to be surrounded by beauty.
The sight of the blotchy walls, the sketchy flowerbeds and patchy
grass is dismaying: humble private residences have better gardens
than the one that housed the pride of Bengal! I reassure myself
that the external neglect is an aberration and that the interior
of the poet's house will be redeeming, after all we are a nation
of poetry and Tagore lovers.
foreign consultant in our group asks, "He is the Shakespeare
of your language, right?" I nod. In Russia I visited the
well-kept Moscow town house of Tolstoy, and in St. Petersburg,
the beautifully maintained apartment of Dostoevsky. In Rome
I lined up for tickets to glimpse the tiny room where Keats
died, and the larger one where Goethe lodged during his youthful
sojourn in the eternal city. Now, I am excited to see the house
in which the Bengali Nobel Laureate spent his most creative
literary period (1890-1910)
rush up the steps of the scabby, red-oxide verandah and into
the first room like a child home from boarding school. "Where
are you?" I want to shout as I look around the shell of
a room devoid of his presence except for peeling walls covered
with enlarged black-and-white photographs.
hear the guide behind me drone: "Here we have 'chinta-mogno
(reflective) Robindronath' in Shantiniketon and here is Kobi-guru
with such and such…" Except for one photo of the houseboat
on which he would spend starry nights drifting on his beloved
Podda (Padma river), few photos are relevant to his life here
in his well-loved Shelaidah house, the locus of his best works.
Most are from another time and place, contributed by the Indian
next room contains a priceless relic: a broken armchair on which
the poet habitually sat. This is relegated to a corner like
a piece of junk in the attic. Better preserved are two paalkis
and a sedan chair on which he may have been carried around his
fiefdom. The next room, an office, contains an almirah and a
low desk where he attended to the grievances of his tenants.
He may have sat reading out his latest short story to his friend
the physicist Jogdish Chondro, but there are no explicatory
plaques to bring any of the rooms alive.
again I am disappointed. Except for the bedroom crammed with
a bedstead, elsewhere there are no furniture, drapes, rugs,
or personal memorabilia to remind of Tagore's life here. In
the impersonal study room, we get no sense of the literary nature
of Tagore. Nowhere can we feel that, at this desk Tagore polished
his poems, in this chair he wrote this play, on this teapoy
he rested his spectacles or tea cup. Why is it difficult to
collect and display everyday objects used by him or of the period
to give a sense of the man and his era? Why can't we press a
button to fill the room with his songs or poems composed here,
along with translation in English? Why aren't there copies of
manuscripts, letters or illustrative pictures of this period
and place? Why hasn't his houseboat been recreated to take visitors
on trips down his Podda route, passing the villages he wrote
walk out to the covered porch to see the countryside that inspired
the poet, and hear the music that he heard. The view is prosaic
and the song of the breeze among the trees (many of which no
longer exist) is muted. Frustrated, I defy the rules and creep
up to the rooftop now shut to the public. From here, finally,
I get a sense of the landscape that released the caged birds
of a poet's fancy to soar into the open skies. In the distant
horizon I can detect the line of the river, a spiritual lodestar
for him. Behind the house, I see the mango groves, no longer
as dense as in his time, and there is no fragrance of the mango
blossoms that Tagore remembered in his old age when far from
Shelaidah and care worn from his tragedy filled life he yearned
for the innocent joys of his younger days here.
is melting fast as I go down to the pond and sit near the lapping
steps of the ghat shaded by one Bokul tree, surviving twin of
the pair planted by the poet, under which he supposedly composed
the Gitanjali. A gentle breeze rustles among the coconut fronds
and a Bokul blossom drifts down. Suddenly a man appears with
a two-string instrument (dotara) and his young son. Keeping
time to the cymbals (mondira) played by the little boy, they
start a song of Lalon, the mystic poet who lived close by and
influenced Tagore's mystical poetry, such as: 'Thou art the
sky and thou art the nest as well/…But there, where spreads
the infinite sky/ for the soul to take flight in…/ there is
no day nor night, nor form nor colour,/ and never a word.'
song has ended a while. My eyes brim and I look away at the
horizon, now tinged with the setting sun. This would be a perfect
moment to feel at one with the universal spirit of love and
acceptance, and with the great poet who embraced it joyously
in spite of the sorrows in his life, were it not for the nagging
feeling I have that we have sold this extraordinary man short.
To cherish Tagore's memory we needed to cherish his home. Stratford-on-Shelaidah
is in shambles and we have not been proper caretakers.
this house dwelt a poet who spoke of universal love, who belonged
to humanity. Kuthi-baari doesn't just belong to us Bengalis
but to the world. It is a historic place worthy of being protected
as a UN World Heritage Site. We Bangladeshis have had the honour
of being its custodians but have not lived up to the trust.
To maintain Kuthi-bari as it deserves doesn't require money
but imagination, vision, political will, and the commitment
of all true lovers of poetry. We need to recreate a home for
our beloved poet to which poetry lovers from all over the world
will line up to pay good money to visit, generating funds for
its upkeep (and for making Shelaidah more accessible). It is
not enough to gather here once a year to sing and make speeches.
Tagore is our inheritance. Let us not squander this wealth.