The only literature Nobel laureate of India, Rabindranath Thakur aka Tagore, went and wrote a love story at the age of 67, some fifteen years after he had received the Nobel prize, which was back in 1913, the year that my father was born and Albert Camus was born and so on.
Sesher Kobita or The Last Poem was a Tagore kind of love story. The way Amit Ray, the bar-at-law from England, Bengali inellectual and iconoclast, courts Labannya, a ‘love object’ if ever there was one – just as women object to being treated as ‘sex objects’ these days – Amit is perhaps the worst kind of narcissistic romance-fantasizer in the guise of a woman-fancier ever conceived by man or pen – to plague women.
I must say in Amit’s defence that it’s Tagore’s daydream that we are dealing with. Nevertheless, to show Labannya sitting in the garden leaning against an eucalyptus (!) while the squirrels come to pick bits of walnut thrown by her – Tagore describes them as ‘hand-fed’ by Labannya – whereas I’ve seen these kritters behaving in a most obstreperous manner in Hyde Park, London, where they jump on to your shoe and hang by the crease of your trousers till you feed ’em… I mean, the Labannyas of today (eighty-seven years later) would have been up in arms hadn’t it been for the fact that Labannya dumps Amit in the end for a duller but more reliable and vastly more grateful nonentity called – you don’t want to know the name. Further, the ‘last poem’ of the title is not Amit’s but Labannya’s – and not just the last but the best poem in the lot.
So does Labannya win and Amit lose? There’s this undercurrent of competition between the two – or maybe there aren’t two, there’s only Amit and his daydream; maybe not even Amit and his daydram but Tagore and his daydream. As usual, when you read a love story written by a man – it’s a wonder women don’t laugh outright when they read the stuff men come up with, you know, about Labannya in the mellow morning sunlight among the misty Shillong hills feeding the squirrels – poor girl would have been ten times more worried about the spread of her sari on the grass; whether she should keep her sandals on or whether taking them off would be too much for Amit’s weak nerves; and, above all, how was she going to get up from the wet grass and not have Amit looking at her from behind and so on.
Women worry about things – well in advance – that men dream of, life has taught me. Women don’t improvise. You have to tell them from time to time that they are ‘spontaneous’ – huh, I’d like to see the woman who falls in love at first sight! A woman is merely mildly curious at first sight: is that hag hovering around him his wife or his mother? Ah, sister, is it? He’ll have to get rid of that paunch if he’s to have anything to do with me. He’s looking this way, he should see me in profile – and so on. And don’t tell me I’m being cynical. I was raised that way. By women.
Tagore was taking on the younger generation of Bengali poets who were beginning to show signs of unrest at his long reign. His way of doing it was to concoct Amit Ray as his alter ego, who, in his turn, concocts a ‘modern’ Bengali poet called Nibaron Chakraborty, and all of them rhyme away like a chorus of crickets not giving a damn about the fact that it’s supposed to be a novel. But that’s not how Tagore proves his modernity.
In The Last Poem, Tagore sets up Amit Ray as the archetype of the privileged, upper class, English-educated Bengali Romantic and then dismantles him while Labannya is like the moon rising at sundown, glow instead of glory, gentleness instead of passion. Women used to join the cloister in the olden days, Labbanya gets married and says goodbye to Amit and romantic love! She’s going to make herself useful! She gets married as she’d join an NGO!
I know where Tagore went wrong: in calling it The Last Poem, as if there can be a last poem – or a last word – in Love. A love poem will eternally be The Last But One Poem. Think of what the pill did to all the old plot lines for novels, from the romantic to the detective. Remember the old Frank Sinatra song? Love and marriage, love and marriage / They go together like a horse and carriage / This I’ll tell you brother / You can’t have one without the other.
You bet they can! And they can have love ’n sex too, all before, after and during marriage. The horse is inside the carriage these days, brother, ever heard of a thing called the motor car?