Often times when I tried singing the Tagore song, ‘Jhara pata go, aami tomari doley (I am one of you, O falling leaves)’, my mother told me nobody could sing it as well as Abhijit did. He had acquired quite a following in Krishnanagar in his all-too-brief twenty-two-year-old life, in spite of having spent much of it traveling abroad with his parents. All the young women in town were in love with him. And some of the men as well, I suppose, to have counted him as one among the ‘legendary sons of the soil’ alongside Subhash Chandra Bose and put him in history books.
My last three years in Krishnanagar were spent in the expansive compound of the state-run school for girls, mostly whiling my time away, sitting around, chatting or playing hopscotch under the sprawling canopy of its mango, jujube and tamarind trees. This is where I discovered the ultimate rebel who to my mind seemed like, and still is, the last word in courage, self-sacrifice and romantic passion.
In February every year students would put up a play at the school’s annual prize distribution event. I was too young to be given a part but would still hang around the fringes of the rehearsal hall. The actors – teenage girls with an air of understated conceit about them – would often talk in code between themselves, which made my presence on the scene appear all the more transgressional. The lure of getting to watch printed lines taking a different form each time they were spoken on stage prevailed over all else.
Dress rehearsals were even more captivating. Some of the older girls looked really attractive dressed in men’s clothing. For me the bronzed cheekbones, extended sideburns and a thin moustache, penciled in on the tender upper lips of pubescent women, created both allure and alienation.
I crushed on the girl who played King Vikramdev in Tapati, a play written by Tagore. She played a conflicted man – driven by a tremendous romantic longing for his wife and yet disagreeing with her views on governance. I still remember the dramatic build-up to the moment when Tapati, the Queen, says to King Vikram, “You have stepped down from the throne to stand here before me. Why don’t you let me have a place beside you, next to the royal seat?” I did not have any background on the geopolitical history of Kashmir, where the play is set, and therefore no clue as to what the political-ideological difference between the two characters was actually about. However, it was clear as water that the Queen, being from Kashmir, had a better understanding of local sentiment, and a smarter King would have tapped into that knowledge, using it as a resource. I secretly ached for both of them — two beautiful people, utterly and deeply in love, trying very hard to tear themselves apart from each other.
I was hooked, completely, when rehearsals for Tagore’s Raktakarabi (Red Oleanders) began. All the male characters in the play were besotted by Nandini – a force of nature who wore a sari the color of tender rice sheaves, and oleander blossoms in her hair. She was about the only person who seemed free to speak her mind and follow her dreams, in a cold, soulless, mining empire. Her many admirers included Kishore, a pubescent young laborer who picked her flowers and a loquacious Professor, a bit caught up in his own nested threading. There was also crazy Bishu, the singing miner. I suppose ‘crazy’ was a term of endearment as Bishu turned out to be the most self-assured character in the play who spoke with total clarity. And then there was the Governor, a smooth-talking villain, attractive in a macho and rugged way, despite his ‘polished crocodile teeth’. The king of the dark chamber was a bit of an unlikely suitor. He was the Big-Brother figure, watching over his colony of miners from the other side of a meshed enclosure, ready to annihilate them at the slightest hint of dissent, even as, all along, his wasted heart pined away for a little love. Nandini, however, was in love with Ranjan.
Ranjan never appeared on stage except in the last scene – his face unseen by the audience. I found this highly intriguing. There was a steady build-up about Ranjan in the play, constant talk about how he would march into the scene and liberate the miners from slavery, release the prisoners from the nether world and make them breathe the fresh harvest-scented air, all over again.
“He holds an oar in each hand and ferries me across the stormy waters, he catches wild horses by the mane and rides with me through the woods; he shoots an arrow between the eyebrows of the tiger on the spring, and scatters my fear with loud laughter. As he jumps into our Nagai River and disturbs its current with his joyous splashing, so he disturbs me with his tumultuous life. Desperately he stakes his all on the game and thus has he won me,” says Nandini of Ranjan, in Tagore’s own translation of his work.
The obvious sexual connotations in that passage – especially in the use of the Bengali word ‘tolpaad’ which might also be translated as ‘rake up’ or ‘rummage’ rather than Tagore’s own somewhat oblique ‘disturb’ – were not lost on me at the age of ten. If I ever had a boyfriend, I thought, I would want him to be like Ranjan, a long-haired man astride a wild white horse, riding against the wind, whose face the audience would never get to see.
My father had a theory that ‘Alice in Wonderland’ anticipated ‘Raktakarabi’, which, in turn, anticipated ‘1984’. It didn’t matter that there was no evidence to suggest Orwell had read Tagore (Tagore, however, had read Alice soon after it was published, he cross-referenced it in his introduction to Trailokyanath Mukhopadhyay’s ‘Kankabati’, published in 1923, a book which acknowledged having used Lewis Carroll’s original as a template). Baba believed writers did not necessarily have to read each other’s work to show traces of others in their own. It made me wonder though. Would Ranjan have gotten co-opted by the system as Winston Smith was, if he were placed in an Orwellian dystopia?
I would not read ‘1984′ until another three years and feel utterly let down by its fatalistic protagonist. For a long time I could not forgive Winston for caving in for fear of physical torture. I had read about shining examples of courage and incredible moral strength displayed by the revolutionaries who were a part of the armed struggle to liberate India from British rule. Arrested and thrown in jail, they were made to lie naked on ice or would be caned, hung upside down from the ceiling, for refusing to give away information, help track down a fellow revolutionary. Some of them – like Masterda Surya Sen, for example, whose bust I would see on my way to school every day, bird droppings streaming down the temples and gathering in a small knot under the chin – had the last bone on their bodies crushed to powder before they were hanged.
And the indigo peasants fighting a war of resistance weren’t likely to have buckled under pressure either. The proof of this was in the vivid scenes of brutality and coercion in Dinabandhu Mitra’s play ‘Nildarpan’ (The Indigo Mirror), in which unwilling peasants and their wives and daughters are shown to be mauled and maimed mercilessly by the rapacious and tyrannical planters and their henchmen. The play made the British administration in Bengal distinctly uncomfortable, particularly when its English translation was published in 1859. Its publisher, Reverend James Long, was charged with sedition, slapped a heavy fine and the book confiscated from the market, in one of the earliest battles between the censor and free speech in British India.
I could think of yet more models of courage and fortitude in the nameless soldiers keeping a vigil at the border, trying to protect the motherland at the cost of their lives, like Lieutenant Abhijit Chatterjee did. Well, he was a bit reckless and needn’t have actually died perhaps, but the decision to step outside the bunker not knowing if he had adequate cover showed he was not afraid to put his life at stake.
The Naxalites too were, mostly, an indomitable lot, as far as I could tell. I had met one or two of them, now released from jail. The time spent in prison seemed to have sucked the lifeblood out of them. What remained simply did not add up. The ones I knew were just too exhausted, and too proud, to go back in time and pick up the pieces – use their often-privileged upbringing and university education to start all over again. Some of them had been too badly pummeled during police interrogation in jail to be able to secure gainful employment ever again anyway. Their distorted facial features and semi-vegetable state they were now in were emblems of resilience and moral integrity that I felt Winston Smith could learn from.
I was angry and upset with Winston that he had let Julia go – knowing she still loved him and he her, despite their apparent betrayal of each other. For a long time I hated Winston for not stopping Julia when she walked away from him, disappearing into the crowd on her way to the Tube station, for having given her up even before he had lost her irrevocably.
A few years later, when I listened to Shambhu and Tripti Mitra play the lovers Atin and Ela in a radio adaptation of Tagore’s novel ‘Char Adhyay’ (The Four Chapters), I seemed to have developed greater empathy for those who love not too wisely but too well. Listening to an audio recording of that play – which I heard on a now-extinct device, the cassette tape player – I was convinced no two people could possibly enact those roles with the kind of passion and emotional intensity the way the Mitras did if they were not completely in love with each other in real life, once and for all. I had heard the actor couple, married for a while, was now separated.
In the final scene Atin is sent on a mission to assassinate Ela, as the ultimate test of his loyalty to the revolutionary group to which they both belong, and she decides getting killed by her lover is one way of sealing their bond and be truthful to their political ideal. It seemed the only way they could be together was by destroying each other – like two planets lapsed from their orbits drawn to each other inscrutably and towards an inevitable fatal end, to paraphrase Tagore’s own image. In a strange way – almost clairvoyantly perhaps – the visceral energy the actor couple brought to that scene seemed to anticipate their moving apart from each other in real life, which, I could now see, was a certain way of loving after all – the kind that is, almost always, a little bit about despising each other as well.
I secretly believed Winston never quite stopped loving Julia. However, as he is shown to recognize towards the end, there was also truth in the lovers being ready to testify against each other, in having a role in the other person’s suffering, actively bringing it on, sometimes.
I read ‘1984′ in my mid-teens, at a time when I was having what I believed to be my first serious relationship – a bit too ambitiously perhaps, and laughably it now seems when I look back on my seventeen-year-old earnest and impassioned self, ready to give up anything to remain in love, including the man I loved if that’s what it took. We fought like puppies over a tennis ball all the time and kept hurting each other for no apparent reason except to create some sort of a resistance in our way to be able to renew and reconfirm that we mattered in each other’s lives. The friction and the not-too-subtle mutual hatred was probably the most obvious way of stating that we were in love, or at least wanted to be.
Now so many years later I think I know why those who love each other most truthfully and with pure emotion hardly ever get to be together in the long run. It’s the same reason why the finest poets of the world never get round to writing up their work.