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<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 153 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

May 7, 2004

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Letter from Shelaidah

Neeman A Sobhan

12 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, Rabindranath Tagore.

Kuthi-baari 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.

A 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)

I 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.

I 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 High Commission.

The 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.

Upstairs, 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 about?

I 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.

Sunlight 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.'

The 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.

In 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.



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