The Golden Boat

My advice to all artists, or to anybody trying to do anything creative, would be a dictum from the French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), toujour travailler, ‘work all the time’. And I’d add to that Überleben ist alles, ‘survival is all’, which is from the Bohemian-Austrian German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926).

Why does a writer write, or an artist create art? Because it is in his nature. As the fish swims and the bird flies. Not every fish is a great swimmer and not every bird is a great flier – some birds have even lost the power of flight. Fish are always in the water but birds are not always in the air – arists are more like birds than fish, in that sense. But birds too nest on the ground – or in trees. Birds too die and in the end the earth is as full of birds as the skies.

What does that teach us? It teaches us that an eagle is just another bird until it spreads its wings and soars. The artist is most an artist, all of an artist, when he creates. The rest of the time he is just an ordinary human being, but an ordinary human being dreaming of fame & fortune, in the short run, and of immortality, in the long. Hey, I like that ‘in the long’ – ‘run’ implied or understood – which is actually a German usage, a teutonism of the kind that can creep in after you’ve spent a lifetime – well, half a lifetime – in this country. Where was I?

The artist hopes for remembrance and dreams of immortality. The great Nirad C. Chaudhuri of the Bengalis, of The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian fame, was hoping, as a nonagenarian and with tears in his eyes, that the Bengalis, at least, would remember him. Martin Amis reportedly told Salman Rushdie that he was hoping to leave behind a shelfful of books – presumably after he’d checked into the Horizontal Hilton (which is one of the 101 euphemisms for dying I found online). I call it the Tragical History Tour of the artists, on the parallel of the Magical Mystery Tour of the Beatles.

All artists, politicians and Great Men – women less so, strangely enough – are desperate to get on to that bandwagon called History. Now check the full definition of ‘bandwagon’ on Merriam-Webster/Google: a bandwagon is a usually ornate and high wagon for a band of musicians especially in a circus parade, wow! Is there a better description of History, that Eternal Circus Parade that all Great Men – less so the women – are ‘dying’ to get into?

The trouble is that you cannot write – or paint or make music – for posterity just as you cannot write a classic, which would be like giving birth to a baby with a beard. You have to write a bestseller first, which will turn into a classic some day – hopefully, since not every bestseller turns automatically into a classic. Hence the only way to find out whether you are a Tagore or a Shakespeare is to live 155 years (counting from 2016), if you are Tagore, and 452 years, if you are Shakespeare.

Tagore, good that the name has cropped up: take the ‘Ta’ of Ta-Ta and the ‘gore’ of Al Gore and you’ll have Tagore, or Tagoray, if you are a German, since the British cannot pronounce any word, the French pronounce everything by half and the Germans pronounce every letter of every word – including the ‘e’ at the end of Tagore.

Robindronath Thakur aka Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was of course the national poet of the Bengalis who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 for some of the most atrocious translations of his own poems from a collection called Gitanjali. I say atrocious because my Bengali soul revolts when I see ‘ekti nomoshkarey probhu’ turned into ‘One salutation to thee, my God’. Tagore did the translations himself, partially while residing in the feudal mansion called Kuthi Bari of the Tagores in Shilaidaha, in the Kushtia district of today’s Bangladesh.

The purpose of Tagore’s many sojourns in the picturesque Bengali countryside was mainly or partially to manage the family estates. That he wrote some of the greatest poems & songs of the Bengali language in his spare time – such as Sonar Tori or The Golden Boat – while lounging comfortably on the family houseboat – I’m sure nobody has anything against it, though I’m yet to ask Marx & Engels.

From his houseboat, Tagore must have seen what I used to see on the Bag Bazar canal in my childhood, while sitting in the 79c bus on my way to ‘Dhaneshkhali’ for the summer or the puja holidays. One couldn’t see the canal from the Jessore Road, but one could see what looked like giant golden tortoises creeping across the green ricefields – just towboats laden with hay, or floating hayricks, as I’d find out later. No corn, please note.

Tagore, on the other hand, wrote a wonderful poem in which the Golden Boat of Time comes and takes away the golden corn of the artist, who gets left behind like the poor farmer – it is an image which has not left me since, ever since I came across that poem for the first time, at around the same age that I was watching my own Golden Tortoises crawl past Jessore Road trying to hide from the ferocious Tata Mercedes Benz buses. The buses won, as usual.

I also think of us ‘also-ran’ artists/writers – the scrub or the undergrowth of the art world in its semi-arid zones, if you like – I think of us as the farmers who have to take their meagre produce to the market, and haggle with the agents over the price, and get cheated by the middlemen and duped by the con men and harassed by the police…

No wonder we get drunk on hooch & go and visit bad women & come back and beat up our duteous wives – women are less violent – finally go and recruit ourselves as factory hands leaving the Golden Boat to find its golden corn at some other bend in the river the next time.

Love’s story

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?