Budhhadeva Bose belonged to that generation of Bengali poets of the thirties and forties who fought tooth and nail to escape the all-pervading genius of Rabindranath and establish a personal idiom. He succeeded, but the fascination, admiration, or even awe of the older poet remained. In 1941, Bose published the memoirs of his recent visit to Santiniketan in ‘Sab peyechhir deshe’ (The land where I found it all). By the time the book was in print, Tagore had passed away, and what had been conceived as a gift of gratitude turned into an elegy, one poet’s homage to another. The book has been a favorite among the Bengali readers ever since.Santiniketan in this heat? Are you crazy? The guest house has been shut down, the tanks have dried up, the days are unbearable with the stinging heat--- the air was thick with statements like this. The poet was ill; it was doubtful whether he would be able to see us. We didn’t worry about the heat or water-shortage, but the entire point of the visit was to meet the poet. It was a long time since we had seen him last. That was during the Easter of 1938; Rabindranath had just recovered from an illness. We stayed at Punascha, the poet was living in Shyamali then. Every morning, he would sit on a cane chair in the shade of a small mango tree behind Shyamali; the mail would pile up on the table in front of him, a couple of torn envelopes would flutter to the ground and mingle with dry leaves--- we would go and sit with him. At that time, Samar Sen was there, as well as Kamakshiprasad Chattopadhyay; we enjoyed their company through the day. We reached Santiniketan at midnight; as soon as the taxi came to a halt in front of the guest house, a window on the first-floor popped open; first Samarbabu’s vest-clad upper torso came into view, then Kamakshiprasad’s head ---next there were footsteps on the stairs, Kamakshiprasad appeared with a lantern in his hand, halfway up the stairs we met Samarbabu. We all went upstairs to their room. Not much to relate, but even today it is a pleasure to recall the sweetness of that moment of getting together with friends. The bigger things in life sink under, it is of such little moments that magic memories are born and built.
The book is in two parts, titled Santiniketan and Rabindranath, respectively. Buddhadeva himself made a translation of the segment titled Rabindranath, albeit in somewhat edited and condensed form, as The Last Days of Rabindranath : Record of a Visit to Santiniketan. But the entire book has not been translated before. Nandini Gupta will translate this book which will be published in installments in Parabaas.
The night was still, all around us the trees were silhouetted in the feeble light of the moon. I can recall that the first thing that struck me was the chirping of the birds. The nervous warbling of moon-bewitched birds was alien to our unused city-bred ears---as if we had forgotten that in this world birds sing. But the fact of hunger is not so easily forgotten. We asked the manager for something to eat; he shook his head. Tea? Within a few moments, cups of tea arrived. On the open roof, in the blossoming moonlight I found the tea very refreshing; at the moment, the mind was suspended in such an unusual state of fulfilment that we hardly minded having missed dinner. Samarbabu said, “Rabindranath readied Punascha for you and waited for you all of yesterday--- you neither came nor sent word, I think he is displeased. You should at least have wired.” We should have, no doubt; but I could not muster enough remorse for the lapse, I was feeling so happy. We occupied the two beds in the room; the two friends laid out a narrow bed-roll in the veranda and crawled under a very low-slung mosquito-net, the sight of which I shall never forget. Our soft murmurings had opened up a fine crack in the deep stillness around, now it became whole, inviolate again; we went to sleep with bird-song.
The next morning, we had some tea and were just preparing to go out, when an attendant arrived from Uttarayan, and laid before us a tray covered with a white cloth. On lifting the cover, we found all sorts of delicacies, in considerable variety and quantity. That the news of our having missed dinner had reached so early, and such elaborate arrangement for satiating our pent-up hunger had been made with such alacrity, surprised us as much as it pleased us. It is not in my nature to tarry in the presence of food, so I fell to it immediately; neither did I notice any lack of enthusiasm on the part of my friends. I called out to Makshirani  but to no avail, she was in the bathroom, and after emerging from there wasted some more time on her toilet. The result was that not even a half a piece of those wonderful sandeshs  remained for her---not my fault, believe me---my friends should have set aside a few, but these days the young are singularly lacking in chivalry. All in all, Makshirani ate little, she has a somewhat complex relationship with food. It is not that she is averse to eating or that she does not enjoy her food; but I have always noticed that the moment food is ready, she becomes absorbed in some pressing business, or simply becomes scarce. When tea is brought in, she has just called in the man selling printed cloths; when dinner is served she is busy sewing. Not only the clamouring of the importunate male, but even the beckon of food or drink is mercilessly ignored; then again at some impossible hour she would feel the stirrings of hunger, and be disappointed in her quest for food about the house. We men are vulgar creatures; accosted with food when hungry, we begin to eat ravenously and do not stop till satiated, and stop only then; thereafter we feel no need to eat till the clock points to the next meal-hour. But Makshirani likes to savour her food at her own will and pace, and will not be ruled by the clock; she is unmindful of food at the appointed hour, but at un-appointed hours, I do not see her averse to a little fruit, some sweets or even pickles. In any case, little of that morning’s magic feast went to her. The other thing that this incident is proof to is that poets do not lack in appreciation for good food; though when I first lifted the cover I thought, “Goodness, who is going to eat all that?” I do not remember that any of it was ultimately left uneaten.
A little later we were transferred to Punascha.
The first thing Rabindranath said was, “You have paid aptly for being the nocturnal creatures you are, haven’t you? How was it to fast all night? If ever you write about this visit, I hope you will leave that out.”
But it is probably a mistake to attempt to analyse Rabindranath’s appearance in this manner. He is beautiful, not in any individual feature or gesture, not even in the holistic appeal of his tall, glowing, large figure. Actually his beauty does not lie in his beauty, but in his genius. We all know that Rabindranath is extraordinarily handsome; but his beauty is a little more than beauty, or may be it is not beauty of the temporal world, but that spoken of in aesthetics. Rabindranath has written somewhere that, by the conventional standards of beauty, no one would consider the face on the bust of Beethoven in his room beautiful; yet one is transfixed by that face, while hundreds of butter-soft youthful faces go unnoticed. Beethoven was ugly yet beautiful; Rabindranth’s beauty too belongs to that genre. Had he been ugly, his beauty would not have diminished; for in dress speech manner, in every small detail of his everyday life, in every small gesture, he is an artist and a creator; possibly none of the other great artists was as much of an artist as he. It is most fitting that Annadashankar has labelled him an Artist of Life. It is his genius that is reflected on his face; mere fairness of skin and sharpness of features do not make for such beauty. All his life is a work of art; he has not left life and art sundered but has blended the two with a unique chemistry; his life has bloomed with his art, and life has brought his art to fruition. For an artist, for one thirsty for beauty, his attraction therefore is intense. Goethe had said of Napoleon, “Here is a complete man.”; the same could be said of Rabindranath. After all the books have been read, all lands travelled, an mature scholar might come to Rabindranath and say, ---At last I have seen a complete man. The poet had just finished the ‘Prantik’, and was busy with the compilation of ‘Introduction to Bengali Poetry’. Books of poetry lay on his table---some were by us. He would say, about Bishnu Dey’s poetry, “If you can explain it to me, I shall reward you.” It goes without saying that I attempted to do nothing of that sort, nor did the poet press me unduly. But I found Sri Prashanto Mahalonobis terribly enthusiastic about discussing modern Bengali poetry. I remember, one evening we had a long discussion in Pratimadebi’s studio. Such a beautiful room; when I first went up to it, I was filled with wonderment. A hushed darkness lay all around; a few electric lights like fantastic fruits hung amidst the leaves of the trees, the stars in the sky close enough to touch. In such surroundings, on a charming evening in early Baisakh, one would rather read poetry than debate about it, but that is what we did; if a discussion between such unequals can be termed a debate. For needless to say, faced with Prashantababu’s relentless logic, I was able to make absolutely no headway; only this I have to say for myself, that I was as good a listener as he was an eloquent speaker.
For four days we immersed ourselves in the delightful and incomparable hospitality extended to us by the poet and his family, and then returned to Kolkata. The graciousness with which these people treat their guests has a special aura seldom to be found in our country. Such faultless efficiency hand in hand with such detachment is rare. Our comfort was always catered to the smallest detail, and yet there was none of that which in our country incorrectly goes by the name of intimacy. When we Bengalis decide to really make our guests feel welcome, we create such a uproar that he soon begins to prefer disinterest to such munificence. If I were to relate in detail what ‘Jamai-ador ’ of the old days signified, the Jamais of today, remembering the fathers-in-law’s daughters, might with difficulty hang on; but I can assert confidently that the non-Jamais will not be tempted. A blending of the east and the west has been a speciality of the Tagores; this family which has largely shaped the destiny of Bengal, is as much Indian as it is British in character. This marks their brand of hospitality as well. They arrange for all the material comforts of their guests, but then they let them be--- the person has no difficulty finding his own niche. That is what I liked, and found very refreshing. It is like leaving home simply to stay in another home. We generally try to make our guests as comfortable as possible, sometimes going to great lengths to ensure this; but we forget to give him enough privacy, enough respite, so that he may compose the days to his own tune. We want to make him ‘ours’, that there be no distance between us. That is not the right way. The respect for individuality, which is so much a part of Western courtesy---and which strikes us as an absence of feeling---is what makes for true satisfaction for both sides. This is something one finds in Rabindranath’s family; that there is no lack of the Bengali propensity for affection either, was brought to us when Pratimadebi filled a biscuit-tin with all kinds of savouries before we set off for home. It was a short journey, of only a few hours, and no food was necessary; but mere necessities do not suffice for us humans; that which is beyond the necessary is infinitely sweeter. To be frank, this unnecessary bounty did not bother us in the least; and as far as I can remember, though the food had ostensibly been provided for my daughter, when we came to Bardhaman, her parents and her father’s friends happily and noisily joined her; it was further discovered that the tin contained enough for all. What began with the royal feast described at the outset, continued till Bardhaman station on the way back; after that delightful regalement, I remember watching from the moving train the forlorn beauty of a weary dusk settling over the sky’s panorama.
As soon as another visit was proposed, all these happy memories came flooding back into my mind. The heat was not an issue---that time too we had experienced the fierce dry Birbhum summer. Besides, when the purpose is not sightseeing or change of air, but rather to see and hear an individual, then the weather becomes inconsequential. It wasn’t very cool here in Kolkata either. We wrote to the poet and to his secretary, outlining our plans. Sudhakantababu wrote back that the poet’s Shyamali itself would be available for us. So in the summer, when some were vacationing in the hills, and some were at the sea, we started our journey to that place ninety-nine miles away---
after the visit to Santiniketan
Published June 15, 2004