Excerpt from ‘Fall Winter Collections’
By Koral Dasgupta
I have experienced Tagore by reading and re-reading his work. All through my growing years and even today, as I read Tagore’s poems, autobiography, short stories and novels, and stare endlessly at his paintings, also listening to those limited songs and recitals available in his own voice, I try to form my own idea about the literary genius. His life, his thoughts, his philosophy, and an infinite “why” to everything he stood for. From the little that I have understood him, I have deciphered that you find him in the abundance of nature; he exists in the spontaneity of things.
His vision was to dodge rules and break the system and vibrantly reconstruct. His path was that of sublime grace. That’s why the idea of Santiniketan appealed to him. Mridangam, the house where the sculptor resides in my fiction, actually exists in Santiniketan. It isn’t called by that name, but is owned by a professor of Kala Bhavana. Unfortunately, the accommodation was taken just before I arrived. But the house stayed within me like some unfulfilled dream, until a character of my book finally took possession of the enchanting first floor! I have tried to steer Fall Winter Collections in a way that questions existing practices without necessarily challenging them. I have tried to float a distinctly different thought, without pushing it loud.
For the three years that I lived in Santiniketan, I felt this is the only language of the place. The moment you try to walk ahead of this invisible code of conduct, either to achieve over or to defeat another human being, you stop enjoying it! While submitting an excerpt for the Café Dissensus issue, ‘The Everyday and Other Tagore’, I thought it would be interesting to review Santiniketan and its people from the point of view of an outsider. Hope the readers enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
They put me up in a guest house initially. Soon after, I shifted to a space of my choice. It is a paying-guest arrangement but I am floored by the look of it. The house is at Simanta Pally. A huge gate with beautiful creepers growing on it opens on to a pebbled path that leads to a huge bungalow. Engraved outside was its name, Mridangam, along with the names of the owners, in Bengali script. The entrance has a tulsi stand. The bungalow belongs to an army Major. His retired parents are residing here with two full-time servants. The interiors are tastefully done; but more attractive than that are the inviting smiles of the residents who greet me in. They lead me to the first floor that is connected to an external door and marble staircase. The first floor has one bedroom and a small study with minimum furniture; the bedroom door on the rear end opens on to an extended terrace. Heaven, absolute heaven! I shifted immediately and the couple helped me settle in.
It is evening and I walk aimlessly to explore the place. Santiniketan is very green and close to nature. As I walked, I could hear a tanpura and mridang playing afar. My foot-steps followed the music driven by a natural instinct. But though the audibility grew with my advances, I didn’t seem to reach the destination. It was difficult to locate the direction beyond a point and I stopped to rest. The sun had set and it would be dark soon. I looked around for help. A girl with a long braid and sari walked her cycle, not too far away. My loud ‘excuse me’ shatters the melancholic silence but does not seem to affect her. I ran and reached closer; in broken Bengali uttered, I need help. She looked and I froze. Parul Aunty, my first model! As she turned, I shrieked in horror! Half of her was the original human face and the other half was my sculpted clay-work!!
I woke up in sweat. This was my first night, or nightmare, at Mridangam. As I poured gallons of water down my throat, I was struck by the beauty of a winter morning outside, unfolding itself to sunshine. It was foggy at 5:35 am and visibility was restrained. In the next five minutes I brushed, changed, wrapped a shawl around myself and stepped out. The pebbles below my feet were moist with dew. I opened the main gate and walked on aimlessly, trying to acquaint myself with the roads. I walked past the Upasana Griha, trying to take a closer look from the locked exteriors. It is a hall with white walls sculpted gracefully with coloured glasses adorning the arches and marble floors. I stood there, trying to imagine the poet and his disciples chanting here. And then turned homewards.
A few steps away from my residence, I stopped at something unusual. This house was standing abruptly on the road, unlike the other constructions that had a garden as a prelude. There was a coconut tree on the roadside and a small path connected it to the veranda with the main door. And on the outer wall of the entrance, there was a huge brass Saraswati, sensuously holding her veena. Her clean architecture and the flowers near her feet suggest that she is worshipped and cleaned regularly. But I had never known a Hindu household that keeps a god outside their home! The windows were open but my view was blocked by curtains. If windows were open so early on a winter morning, then the occupant would surely not be sleeping. I had a strong urge to knock and ask why your god is seated outside. It was a cultural shock to me and my pious Rajput upbringing. Should I knock, I asked myself. No, a voice said, it’s none of your business. I moved away.
For quite some days I have been watching this house every time I cross it. I thought for once I will find its occupant lazing outside on the veranda. But it didn’t quite happen and each time I killed my instinct of knocking the door and going ahead uninvited. But the house makes a statement by itself, which draws my attention and my speed naturally slows down when I am walking past. Today happens to be a rare morning when I am out for a walk yet again. On my return, I turned to look at the brass Saraswati. She has been freshly washed and some flowers, which the locals call Tagor, are placed in a brass bowl in front of the deity; incense sticks burn beside the bowl. Automatically, I stop.
The main door is open. A pretty lady emerges with a cup of tea and a few biscuits. For a moment my focus shifts from the brass woman representing knowledge; wet hair lying carelessly all over claims my attention. Oblivious of my presence, she sits on the veranda leaning on a pillar. Her right side faces the road where I stand; she takes a sip from her tea, and starts playing with her hair making an effort to dry it. I have seen my mother do the same after bath to smoothen the tangles and dry the hair faster. I want to move away noiselessly, but end up making a sound as if I am clearing my throat. She jerks to attention, but composes herself fast and asks something in polite Bengali! In English I convey that I don’t speak her language. Briefly I introduce myself and add that without meaning to intrude, I am curious to know why she has placed the goddess outside her house! She smiles. ‘I want my home to represent knowledge. I see myself as a carrier of knowledge. So she welcomes my visitors and hints at what they can expect if they choose to enter!’
‘Why don’t you place your books outside, too, then? You care for your possessions and not the deity who symbolises it?’ I am shocked at my immodest articulation, quite a first time for me.
‘I don’t believe in gods and goddesses; am some kind of an atheist. Books are fundamental to my existence and I need to protect my ownership. Studying is a part of the air I breathe in. For you, Saraswati is a goddess and you are shocked that I have placed her outside my door. For me, she is a representation. A symbol. Just like a name-plate. It represents the person residing, but is not the person herself.’
Oh atheist, did she say? I have come across many of those smart, modern people who form their opinions before knowing enough about things. She must have prayed to God asking for something; when the wish was not fulfilled she picked up the goddess and placed her outside and decided that God is nothing but a religious symbol! My eyes rest automatically on her name-plate. It doesn’t disclose her name. It reads Mrigaya! Her eyes are smiling, having judged the next question that has come to me. ‘It means travelling to the forest to hunt wild animals, especially deer.’
‘I know Hindi and a bit of Sanskrit. So the word is not new to me. But may I know the relevance?’
‘I loved the word and hence named my house after it.’
I take two steps away from her. ‘Before I leave, may I share a thought with your esteemed intellectual wisdom? There is nothing called atheism, let me tell you. God is a faith. And there is no one among the silly, simple human beings, who can exist without a faith. It might be your relations, profession, a material possession, or anything on the planet that you trust and worship. From this limited interaction with you, I gather that you worship your books and everything that is a source of knowledge. That’s your faith, and that’s god for you. So please don’t call yourself an atheist!’ I turn to leave. Pseudo-intellectual, I tell myself!
‘Wait,’ she calls out from behind. I turn and find her walking towards me. She stands in front; I am enveloped by her sandalwood fragrance.
‘So Mr Philosopher is an ardent and orthodox follower of God, is it?’ That’s a direct attack. She is agitated. ‘Then what about those stone-studded rings on your fingers?’
Now where does that come from? At various times of uncertainty, I had knocked the doors of astrology to make my journey smoother. Soon after my fingers adorned a yellow sapphire, an emerald, a pearl and a solitaire. I look at them, totally confused! She continues sarcastically, ‘So you believe in God and worship God with all your being. You also care to be ritualistically and culturally appropriate … such is the passion of your faith. Then why on earth did you need those stones? If you trust god then why not just accept his decisions as though He knows best what is right for you? Why do you need to correct him with astrology?’
Koral Dasgupta is the author of Fall Winter Collections and Power of a Common Man. She is an academic, teaching Marketing Management studies in colleges. Her columns spread across websites and magazines explore art, education, mythology, travel, parenting, books, films and others. She is also an editorial and content consultant with corporates. Recently, she joined as an advisor for Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), Mumbai. Tweet her @koraldasgupta
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.