In verity, it was a life fit for kings; the days a lingering adagio, each minute satiating. Firstly, there were no household chores needing attendance; everything was arranged by a pair of invisible, efficient hands, we had only to name our needs. An unthinkable luxury for people who labour the year round with household chores, and continue to do so even when travelling away from home. To fully appreciate our pleasure, one would need some experience of having had to run a household on such meagre funds as we do. The poet himself kept a mindful eye on us; the actions and affections of his family surrounded us at all times. Those directly responsible for our comfort, by which I mean the help at Ratankuthi, were ever polite and their service prompt. The cook was called Poncha, and his family history was tied up with that of Santiniketan. This part of Birbhum had been once part of the fiefdom that belonged to the family of Lord Sinha. One day, Debendranath was travelling to the Singhi home to partake of their hospitality. When he came to what is now Santiniketan, he fell in love with the place. He asked the bearers to put down the palanquin. Then he sat down alone under the famous Chhatim tree, for seven days and seven nights. The person who made sure that he stayed alive in that desolate, danger-ridden place, was the leader of the local pack of robbers. He took it upon himself to attend to the Maharshi’s needs, got him food from the neighbouring hamlet, and let no harm befall him. Later when the Maharshi came and built himself a small hut, he took this man on as his bodyguard. Poncha was that man’s grandson. The day I was told this exciting tale, I asked the other servant Kashi, “Was your grandfather a dacoit too?” He smiled blandly and said, “Yes sir. Do you see this red mud road that goes on to Siuri? My ancestors passed their time trying to kill off all those poor souls who travelled along this road.”
Not being bogged down by household chores, we had plenty of time. We had nothing to do all day. These words linger on my tongue with particular sweetness, because for the preceding few months I had been swamped under much work of all kinds, a lot of which had been unappetising. And yet lack of work did not make for despondency, for there was plenty of amiable company. The sun was very hot during the day, while it was too dark after sundown, so we did not get around much; but I have no regrets. Where it is possible to savour the outside from within the house, I see no reason to step out. I find it a very pleasant proposition. It was possible to go out at dawn, and also just before nightfall, but we mostly stayed at home.
With one exception. I woke early one morning, and without stopping for breakfast, went out to visit the Kopai with Kshitishbabu. Makshirani refused to accompany us on this expedition, which only speaks of her superior judgement, for I did not find the journey back pleasant, she would have found it unbearable. Kshitishbabu was a seasoned walker, he regaled us all way (the way was long, to say the least) with songs, stories, poetry, humour; but it does not embarrass me to say that while coming back his inborn capacity for fun admitted defeat in the face of my exhaustion. But anyway, I got to see the Kopai. Nothing much, a drying trickle of water, that does not come even up to the knee. In East Bengal, it wouldn’t have even been called a canal. But here, it was very much a river, the only liquid lifeline of this arid land carrying painfully to the thirsting heart of Birbhum, the caressing memories of the snowmelt in spring. Rabindranath has made Kopai an idiom for his prose-poetry, the first poem in Punascha bears witness to that fact. It has found its place in the history of Bengali literature by the side of the Padma.
Returning to Ratankuthi, we received summons from Rabindranath. We hurried to Uttarayan, where we were welcomed with cups of tea. The poet would joke about our late rising habits. One day, I had said, “If it’s all right with you, we could come at dawn.” He answered, “Well, it would be necessary to know what you mean by dawn, the day doesn’t dawn for everyone at the same hour.” True I am no early riser, but an unprecedented thing occurred within a day or so of arriving at Santiniketan---I began to wake early. I woke unaided, and found it easy to immediately get out of bed, rather it seemed impossible to stay in. It could be that the fresh air and the infinite stillness made for more profound sleep than we ever experience in Kolkata; also we slept outside the house, so were easily roused by the early morning light. Not only that, we finished our morning ablutions early and sat around waiting for tea. Tea was generally served somewhat late. In the meantime, there would arrive a note from Sudhakantababu, “Gurudev is waiting for you.” I would rush around calling for tea, waking the others. Makshirani did not sleep well at night because of the children, so she woke late. Jyotirmoybabu, who in his own home never left bed before nine, did not need much instigation here.
We spent a part of the morning with the poet, and then returned to a second cup of tea. After that, a few letters, a little reading, and lots of conversation took up the rest of the day. We never wanted for good company. There were Anil and Rani Chanda, Krishna Kripalani and Nandita Debi, Kshitish Ray, Sudhir Kar, and last but not the least, Sudhakantababu. Together they filled our days with sweet joy--- with laughter wit conversation and music. Anilbabu was ever the life of the party; his conversation was liberally sprinkled with humour, and delivered in a powerful voice that he made no attempts to moderate. On the other hand Rani Chanda spoke softly and smiled gently, green and gentle she was, like the land of Bengal. Kshitishbabu was an enchanter of young minds, neither was his sway over adult minds inconsiderable. He was always smiling, had a way with words, incessantly spouted songs and poetry, and with practised ease performed tricks like jiggling a hat over his head or throwing his voice into a glass. That Jyotirmoybabu was a competent magician came to light too late, just a couple of days before we were to leave. In those two days, Kshitishbabu learnt quite a few tricks from him, and gave us ample pleasure by attempting them before having mastered them fully; one must say that there was more merriment than wonder at his performance; generally a magic show does not elicit so much laughter. One hopes that afterwards he would have given as much pleasure to the Ashram residents, and there can be no doubt that his new accomplishment would set up a storm in the schoolrooms when children returned after vacation.
There was always much cause for laughter in the presence of Anilbabu and Kshitishbabu; and also when Nandita Debi was around. The poet’s granddaughter had a bright and lively sense of humour, she always brought with her into the room a gentle joyous breeze. Beside her, Krishna Kripalani’s intelligent, serene face made a nice contrast. He enjoyed banter, and sometimes joined in; but his face always wore a detached smile. He spoke little and softly, but was eager to discuss any subject. I had taken a liking to him right at the outset, mainly because he looked like Dilipda; but later, I found much more to like in him, certainly reasons deeper than a pleasing face.
It was probably due to Rabindranath’s influence that laughter is a staple diet in Santiniketan. The poet, when introducing a character in his writings, often says, “The man could actually laugh.”, or “The man has a sense of humour.” This trait was probably born of his own heart-rending experiences; for in his life he has many a time witnessed witless petrifying omniscience, something he has talked about in Chinnapatra. In the pages of Galpaguchha, he has in story after story pierced the balloon of a sombre sobriety with laughter. The English proverbially say of the Scots, that a Scotsman would need surgery before he gets the point of a joke. In response, a character in a comedy by the Scottish playwright Barrie says that he fails to see how surgery could put across the point of a joke. Such examples of an infinite lack of humour are not a rarity in our country. From the very beginning, Rabindranath had declared a jihad against this trait, and in his ashrama, conversation is profusely peppered with humour, something any visitor is bound to enjoy. Kshitimohanbabu was well known as a raconteur, Sudhakantababu was always making puns, and when he recounted incidents from Rabindranath’s life, emotion mixed with humour to create a unique blend. The lazy afternoon hours were enlivened with such stories.
In the afternoons, we had another visitor---Sudhir Kar. I have never seen another person as shy as he. An Englishman had said of a professor at the Dhaka University that the man was ‘magnificently shy’. In some people, even shyness takes on a character of its own; these two men made me realise that. Last time we were in Santiniketan, we had stayed in a room next to Sudhirbabu’s office, but never met him. This time too, the first day he came and said, “Gurudev has asked me to enquire after your well-being---lots of people must be doing that already---but since he asked me I thought I would drop by. I have never met you, but we have written…”. I said, “You must be Sudhirbabu, right?” After that, we talked for a long time. As he was leaving, he said, “When I was walking to your place, I kept thinking, okay first I’ll say Gurudev asked me to come, but what then?” Later though, it turned out, that both parties had plenty to talk about, and Sudhirbabu spent most of his spare time in our company. I’ll always remember him thus ---wearing khaddar, shoeless, an umbrella over his head, and some books in his hand. In the afternoons, he gave Makshirani singing lessons; as the sun blazed outside, the high and low notes mingled into the hours of my solitude filling them up with a drunken sweetness. When there were other people around, making small talk, Sudhirbabu normally sat silently with his gaze turned downwards, but in private he would animatedly discuss literature. In the late afternoons, we would go out; if the poet came out to sit on his veranda, we would go to him. At dusk, we would drag our chairs out into the open; the sky filled up with stars, and our minds with songs, words, joy. Nanditadebi sang us many of Rabindranath’s songs; there were a couple of students from Sangeet Bhawan who were equally obliging. My mind still rings with some of those songs.
For the sake of completeness, I have to mention one other person. She is Miss Petit, our neighbour at Ratan kuthi. She was a Parsi, a student of Kala Bhawan, her attire and manners were completely western. She had an easy way about her, and yet perfectly refined manners; in a short while we came to be on good terms. At first I had thought she had white blood in her, but when I heard her teaching another non-Bengali person the correct pronunciation of the word Chanda, I at once realised that she must be Indian. Her broken Bengali sounded sweet to our ears, and we spoke to her mostly in that language. Once, we even persuaded her to sing us one of Rabindranath’s songs. She would be busy all day but normally appear at dinner, and would join us sometimes after dinner, or even at dusk. She was a born raconteur, and from her stories it was quite evident that she had a sharp mind and enormous courage---later we gathered that her courage was a much talked about thing in Santiniketan. She lived in Ratan Kuthi round the year, even during vacations, and sometimes she was the sole occupant of the building. Living alone in that huge house flanked by open spaces, moreover sleeping out in the open---these are things that would set the hearts of most Bengali women fluttering. It was not as if she had not been in situations, but she got herself out of them. She went around with confidence and boldness, as if there was nothing to fear in the whole wide world; she was completely unconscious of the fact that there was anything remarkable or admirable about her attitude. We sincerely applauded her courage, but she would say, “Why? Everyone says to me---such courage! But what have I done? What is there to be afraid of? Snakes? Ghosts? Burglars or thieves?” We were embarrassed to admit that depending on the person and the circumstances, each of the above could be valid reasons. In terms of fearlessness, she could be a role model that not only Bengali women, but many men could aspire to.
Published September 29, 2006