The creative genius who bore suffering silently
Six feet two inches in height, Rabindranath Tagore had to strive hard to hold his head high. The 14th child in a family of 15, he alone was sufficient reason why India should not worry too much about family planning. And 150 years after his birth, he continues to grow in stature as the subcontinent`s greatest creative genius.
Those who know many languages claim he has no equal anywhere on earth. The issue is not whether he is the Mt Everest, but, say after another 150 years, will anybody believe that such a man ever walked this earth?
And yet, the obstacles he overcame, the treatment he received from his contemporaries when alive, the endless chain of suffering he underwent are worth recounting. Here are some snippets.
There was lunacy in the Tagore family which came from the mother Sarada Debi`s side. One of her brothers had insanity and two of the poet`s elder brothers divided their time in asylum and the house at Jorasanko. It is said when the news of the Nobel prize reached Calcutta in 1913, one of these brothers started shouting, claiming that he was the real author of Geetanjali.
They were originally Sandilya gotra Banerjees, grandfather prince Dwarkanath had opened a Bank of Bengal account as `Thakur` and later turned `Tagore`.
Was Rabindranath rich? Prince Dwarkanath was one of the richest Indians of the nineteenth century, but his firm Car Tagore & Co went bankrupt shortly after his untimely and unexpected death in England and son Debendrath, more a rishi than a businessman filed insolvency. He sold everything, including jewellery, but the zamindari remained in hand and Rabindranath regrets around the Nobel Prize time that he had miserably failed to earn money either from his writings or other efforts.
He often borrowed money from friends, relatives and moneylenders at punitive interest rates, his collaterals being residential properties, family jewellery, copyrights and stocks of unsold books. At one time he offered his entire copyrights for Rs 10,000, but had no success.
Was he a good-for-nothing in studies and became a school dropout? Records show, the reluctant schoolboy topped the list in Bengali language and annoyed his teacher Haranath Pandit who insisted on a second exam. Even then Rabindranath topped. His unhappy school days led him to found a great educational institution at Santiniketan.
Death and bereavement were the poet`s lifelong companion. It began with the death of his mother when he was 14, following an injury from a collapsed iron safe. Seven years later, on the very day of his marriage, his elder sister`s husband died. Shortly thereafter, Kadambari Debi, his brother`s wife, committed suicide by taking poison, a tragedy which left its mark on him forever.
Following the Tagore family tradition, his bride Mrinalini came to the Jorasanko house to be married. She bore him three daughters and two sons. Yet, the family is now extinct. Mrinalini developed appendicitis and died in 1902. The poet, criticized for sticking to homoeopathy, became, for some years, a vegetarian. The death of his beloved youngest son Samindranath at the age of thirteen was another big blow.
The relationship with the three sons-in-law were far from happy, although he bore their expenses for higher education. Eldest daughter Madhurilata, the most beautiful among them all, developed TB and died at the age of 32.
Malicious rumours were spread about the poet marrying for the second time and Dwijendralal Roy, an eminent writer, took the trouble of staging a play on this possible marriage! Another rumour suggested that the poet had already approved of a beautiful girl from Assam! In desperation, the poet approached a friend, attached to a newspaper, to issue a denial.
The relationship with the British was always a mixture of hate and love. His first sojourn in England was at the age of 17, when he studied for a short while in a London school. Records reveal that he had plans to sit for the Indian Civil Service examination, like his brother Satyendranath, and applied for an age certificate from the local government.
His first book, a 54-page collection of Bengali poems, was published by a close friend, Prabodh Chandra Ghosh. Priced six annas (36 paise), it received good reviews, but even 500 copies could not be sold. The unsold stock was a source of embarrassment to the poet. Thereafter, no publisher worth the name showed interest, and printing was funded by the poet or his family members. His luck with booksellers and unsold stock was bitter. At one stage, for an advance of Rs 1,100, he sold the unsold stock of twelve books, which were advertised as "printed on best papers, full of emotions and attractive commission on sale".
At one time, Rabindranath desperately looked for a publisher who will buy his copyrights for a paltry sum, but even that effort failed. His bad luck with publishers continued till he set up his own publishing house Visva Bharati after winning the Nobel Prize.
The volume of Tagore`s literary output is formidable. Even decades after his death, the collection of all his writings and letters is not complete. His daughter-in-law has left behind an account of a normal day in his life. Retiring at 12 midnight he will wake up at 3 to do his prayers, followed by tea at 4 am. Then he would write nonstop up to seven. After breakfast another writing session up to eleven, followed by early lunch. Never any rest post-lunch, only studies and writings. Tea at 4 pm was a welcome break. Dinner at 7 pm After dinner, no wastage of time, but another marathon writing session till midnight.
At the famous Alipore Bomb trial in 1909, in which Sri Aurobindo was involved, one of the young accused, Ullaskar Datta, dared to sing in open court a Tagore song and thus was responsible for the earliest translation next day in English newspapers - "Blessed is my birth, for I was born in this land".
Bengali Gitanjali (1,000 copies) was published in Calcutta on April 1910 -- soon efforts began to reach the English speaking world. Three short stories translated by Sister Nivedita were sent to a British magazine, but were straight away rejected. Even the manuscipt was mislaid.
In 1912, his second voyage to England aimed at trying the English speaking world and also to get his painful piles treated. On an exercise book, he himself translated the poems, which later brought him the Nobel Prize. In London, his son Rathindranath lost the manuscript (the only copy) in an underground railway coach. A desperate Rathindranath, as a last resort, went to the lost property office the next day and got back the priceless notebook. This was handed over to the British sculptor Rothenstein whom he had met earlier in Calcutta. The rest is history. An admiring Rothenstein typed three copies and initiated a limited edition (250 copies for sale) at 10 shilling 6 pence. The date of publication was Nov 1, 1912. Later, Macmillan published a modestly priced second edition and up to February 1914 sold 19,320 copies.
The news of the Nobel Prize reached Calcutta on Nov 14, 1913. A cheque from the Chartered Bank for Rs. 116,269 followed. The Income Tax Department played its role immediately and Rs. 2,070.50 had to be deposited. Another Re 1 was spent as stamp duty for a formal application claiming tax exemption. Tagore biographers do not know the fate of that effort! Around Rs 30,000 were paid to clear urgent debts and the rest deposited with his favourite agricultural bank. This bank, in due course, failed.
Even the Nobel Prize news was received with a pinch of salt. It was said the writings were not his, the credit should go to Yeats. Others talked about Swedish authorities being bribed. Some contemporaries in Bengal felt they also deserved the Nobel and quickly posted copies of their books to Sweden.
The number of ardent admirers were no less. They chartered a special train from Howrah to Bolpur and offered him greetings. For the first time the poet`s patience broke and in his reply to the felicitation he recalled the many unkindnesses received which made it difficult for him to accept the greetings of his fellow countrymen. So disturbed were some of the guests that they refused the poet`s tea and snacks and returned to the special train waiting at Bolpur.
Tagore later regained his cool, and wrote a letter of apology. He even visited some personalities in Calcutta seeking forgiveness.
The poet who bore all humiliation and suffering silently all his life only once lost his calm as the world recognized his creation.