We conclude the extended celebrations of Gurudeb Rabindranath Tagore’s birthday with this touching tribute by our Guest Writer Antara Moitra, while she fondly recalls her visit to Jorasanko and reviews her favorite short story Kabuliwala.
Sometime ago when I visited Kolkata, I realized that though I am a huge Tagore fan I am yet to visit Jorasanko – the Nobel laureate’s birthplace. So I decided to set the ball rolling. All I needed to do was a bit of planning. After a quick research on the available modes of transport in Kolkata, I was convinced that the best way to reach this destination was by tram. I took the tram from BBD Bag (central Kolkata) to Jorasanko (a neighbourhood in north Kolkata). The tram passes through the narrow lanes in north Kolkata, imparting a glimpse of the old town, and was the perfect way to enjoy my first tram ride.
It took me around 20 minutes to reach the Jorasanko Thakur Bari – the house where Tagore was born and spent most of his formative years. Once inside, I was struck by the size and architecture of the impressive building. With huge courtyards, long corridors and windows with Venetian blinds, the place looked spectacular. When you get to enter Tagore’s room, you are bound to think of the sights, sounds and the natural surroundings that would have influenced him to produce such remarkable treasure trove of poems, novels, short stories, dance dramas, and much more. And the irony is that he loathed formal education – after a brief stint at several schools he refused to attend schools! He found them boring. He wanted to inculcate freedom of education in the educational system. He was against sitting inside a “closed” classroom and stressed on freedom of imagination. He felt that one’s relation with his cultural and natural environment was crucial, and goes a long way in imparting confidence in life.
This legendary maestro’s birthday, which falls on May 7, is celebrated worldwide with a rendition of his songs, poems and dance dramas. This year I pay tribute to my favourite author with views on one of his short stories – Kabuliwala. The heart-warming tale is based on the strong bonds between a father and a daughter. The story revolves around the tall, tough, turbaned kabuliwala (Rahman) from Afghanistan, the vendor who had come to Kolkata to earn a living, and five-year-old Mini. The two meet when one morning Mini notices the kabuliwala passing down the street and calls him home. Mini, who is initially shy, soon overcomes her fear of this huge man and in no time they become the best of friends. The kabuliwala, who has a daughter back home in Afghanistan, sees reflections of her in Mini and showers his affection by bribing her with raisins and almonds. Written in 1892 the story focuses on an extraordinary situation, and might have been unlikely in the normal day-to-day lives of families living in Kolkata during that period. So it is not surprising when Mini’s mother imagines the Afghan to be a kidnapper and is apprehensive of their daily encounters.
Respectfully addressed as Gurudeb, Tagore was a genius when it came to expressing the nuances of how people act or feel in different situations. In Kabuliwala Tagore’s craft is reflected in the way he weaves the emotions between two unusual friends who shared jokes and seemed to have their own little secrets! As you reach the end of the story, you are left with a heavy heart and can’t help but feel for this man – a father who loves his daughter so much that he carries in his robe a small piece of paper bearing the impression of her tiny hand. Because he misses his daughter he turns up every day at Mini’s house to spend time with her. When Mini’s father offers him money he refuses to take it, and declares that he gets treats for Mini while thinking of his little one and his intention was not to make profit.
This simple yet moving storyline appeals to people across all age groups and nationalities. Such is the power of Tagore’s words that you seem to be immediately transported to the bylanes of Kolkata and tend to visualize the kabuliwala roaming around the streets selling dry fruits and other merchandise. The story also connects me to my dad’s memories of a kabuliwala. While growing up in a small town in north Bengal, a certain kabuliwala was a regular visitor at my grandfather’s house. My father always described this Afghan as being the most loyal man he has ever met! May be Tagore too had one such visitor or may be he noticed them on his way to school, as during that time kabuliwalas were a common sight on the streets of Kolkata. In spite of their common occurrence, no other writer, however, has attempted to write a story revolving around kabuliwalas. It was Tagore’s insight and observation that he could weave a narrative around these men, who had become part of the mundane, everyday lives of the people in that part of the world.
The unconventional story that has been dealt with great sensitivity by Tagore has also influenced filmmakers. It was adapted by Director Tapan Sinha who made the classic Bengali film of the same name in 1957; there is also a Hindi version made in 1961 starring Balraj Sahni. Every time I finish reading the story, I am moved to tears. In this article I have not gone into revealing too much about the story. If you haven’t read it yet, I hope this write-up inspires you to grab your copy. Of course, Tagore does not need any publicity. He is an inspiration – an institution in itself, giving motivation to so many of us who aspire to soak in all that is almost magical and thought-provoking about him.
Antara Moitra works as an editor at a publishing house. Having been in the industry for almost a decade, she feels that there is no greater joy than pointing out an author’s mistake! When not working she is busy pursuing her other passions – travelling and writing. And like most Indians she is a cricket fanatic. She believes that life is short and there are tons of things to do, see, and accomplish before one dies.