An Indian in England
By Ruma Chakravarti
On the train from Dover that morning, there were several people. There was the Colonel, retired and lately of Afghanistan and the widow Grimalkin. There were the Knickerbocker twins on their way to work in the city. There was Miss Motlop, a distressed gentlewoman who was the widow’s long suffering companion and woman Friday. Her rather extraordinary bosom had defied every attempt at being confined by the widow Grimalkin, and attracted the admiring eyes of every male in the compartment. The only men who were oblivious to her charms were a group of foreign gentlemen dressed in a curious blend of Eastern fashion and Savile Row style. Two were young men, handsome and straight-backed in the way of a lot of the visitors from the East. They were probably in their early twenties, one a little shorter than the other. With them was a young woman who studied everything with a sort of delightful curiosity and wonder. She wore a saree and a buttoned long coat despite the English summer. The fourth member of their group was a tall man with patrician features, a flowing beard and white hair in a long robe. His eyes were mostly closed during the journey and in his arms he held a brown leather case. The young woman talked to him each time she saw something new. When one of the young men tried to rebuke her for this, she protested and went and sat next to him.
The rest of the passengers watched them curiously, their eyes drawn to their elegant clothes and the aristocratic bearing of all four. The widow Grimalkin thought him quite attractive and sighed more ferociously than usual as she bemoaned the lack of unattached elderly men of substance in the village of St. Margaret’s Bay. The young Indian woman, for that is the country the foreigners were from, started at the sound and turned to her companion to say something about the changing landscape outside the window. The pristine Kent countryside in which they had begun their journey was now far to the south. In its place were the smokestacks and chimneys of London, the heart of the great machine that was the British Empire. The English passengers began to focus on their belongings and reticules. In due course, the train pulled into London with a great puff of steam.
The widow Grimalkin now asked the young Indian woman where they were going. She answered softly and all that the widow heard were the words ‘Artist’ and ‘-Stein.’ It sounded like one of those Russian artists who came over to London now that the Tsar was dead and spouted communism to the impressionable youth of England. She had been horrified by the brutality of the manner in which the Tsar and the Tsarina who was British after all had been dealt with. Still curious, she asked with a delicate shudder where the artist lived. When told it was in Hampstead, she was somewhat appeased.
At the station, the people descending from the train formed snakes of humanity that merged and separated from each other as one, parting when they came upon the Doric columns on the platform and porters pushing luggage carts and joining again as they passed them, eventually passing out of the gates of the station into the penumbra of that great hive of activity. By the time they had reached the outside, the passengers of the compartment were nearly invisible in the sea of hats, suits and umbrellas that made up most of the six thousand people that came into the city each day. For a brief moment Miss Motlop saw the Indians as she stepped to the edge of the pavement and hailed a horse drawn carriage. They were looking around them with some wonder as omnibuses and carriages rushed past. Then she and her mistress were both off towards Cheapside, where they were to spend a week with her sister and she could see their foreign co-passengers no longer.
The Indians stood on the pavement looking around with interest at their surroundings. ‘There are more things in heaven and earth Horatio..,’ said one of the younger men to the other and they all smiled at each other. The young woman said softly, ‘Or in London town!’
The elderly gentleman looked at her and felt delight in her wonder. He had been to England in his youth but this visit was poignant for a different reason. He had wanted to show his wife the world outside the family home and estates. But she had been dead these past ten years. It was as though a part of him had died with her. He would not have come had it not been for his son’s insistence that he join them. He had received invitations from various luminaries such as Yeats and Rothenstein to visit England. But he was also glad that he came as he saw his daughter-in-law’s child-like wonder at everything that she saw for the first time. She had marveled at the telephone in their rooms in Dover, picking it up to listen to the operator again and again. Then there was the gas heating in the rooms, one simply had to drop a coin and wait for the heat to turn on. She would have had them all eat ice-cream for breakfast, lunch and dinner if they had agreed! Her wonder at each thing reminded him of the boy he had once been half a century earlier. He had planted a few seeds in a heap of dust that had escaped the notice of the household cleaners. He watered them carefully over weeks, watching as they unfurled their young shoots and leaves in defiance of their lowly birth. But one day all was lost when he returned home to find that the seedling forest had been removed and the corner swept clean diligently. How he had cried to see them gone.
One of the younger men hailed a horse drawn carriage. Even though the driver of the brougham was expecting to bargain with what he called these foreign types, he was pleasantly surprised. When he saw the handsome features of all the company he was certain this was a maharaja from the colonies. He bowed deeply as they all got into the carriage and then they were on their way to Charing Cross to catch the Two penny Tube as the underground railways were called.
Once they had descended into the bowels of the earth to catch their train, they thought there could surely be nothing that would surprise them anymore. The lights, the Victorian lacework on the columns, the secret fear of being so far underneath the busy London streets above – everything made the group fall silent. They looked at each other in the cold artificial light and stared into the darkness of the tunnels that swallowed the tracks at both ends of the platform in the distance. After a while the young woman was the first to speak.
‘This is such a strange feeling, as though we have entered the underworld.’
‘Sita’s entry to the underworld – from a play title to real life event!’
They moved away from the edge as the people already waiting around them seemed to do the same. In the distance lights appeared, like the eyes of a giant worm inching towards the waiting crowd.
‘Here comes the train, ready to eat us all up here and spit us out further along the track,’ said her husband. The elderly gentleman smiled to himself. His son had absorbed some of his wife’s delight at their new surroundings and was shedding his usual serious manner. He thought of a few lines, a poem about a chance meeting between two people on a train. As they waited, he tried to focus on the words; his memory was as good as ever but he would need to write it down soon. Then the train rushed into the station and stopped. They got in once the crowd in front had cleared. Soon the guard announced that the doors were closing and the train started. The group sat down on the tartan seats and looked about them. Opposite sat a youth with a dreamy expression on his face and a small pocket book in his hands. He wrote a word every now and again in its pages with a stubby pencil and erased it almost immediately. Old eyes met young ones and an ancient shared understanding passed between the two.
An hour later, just as the group was about to walk up the steps of a house in Hampstead, the young woman looked at her husband and then at her father-in-law. Her face fell as she said, ‘The book? Where is the book?’
When Alice Rothenstein opened the door to their guests it was clear that they were greatly agitated. She expected it was over being overcharged for a fare or something similar but it soon turned that they had lost something of far greater value. She invited them in and called for her husband. The group entered the Rothenstein residence with fallen faces. William Rothenstein came from his study and shook hands with the elderly gentleman. Alice and her sister Grace made sure everyone was seated and rang for tea and refreshments to be brought.
‘It is such a pleasure to meet you Mr. Tagore! I have been telling my friends about your poetry. Indeed, your words are my constant companion as I keep them on the nightstand by my bed.’
‘I am pleased to meet you too. It has been my sole wish to do so, at least for these past three months. But I am afraid I have some bad news; the book of poetry that I translated and brought with me seems to have been lost on the trains. That was my only copy.’
Rothenstein was shocked to hear this. He had been to see this Indian poet in India and had met him in his school in rural Bolpur near Calcutta. His home was just the sort of place that a visiting poet seeking wider friendships in the West might visit. But the loss of the poems was a tragedy that would cast a long shadow over the finest of dinners and the most convivial of gatherings. Rothenstein noticed that the poet was the least agitated of the group even though he was the one who had lost the most.
‘Let us eat first. We will then think of what to do. The ladies have prepared a beautiful meal for you all,’ Rothenstein said as he looked at Alice.
The next day a messenger was sent to the Railways Lost and Found Offices. In Hampstead everyone went about their day, each secretly hoping that the book would be found. Visitors dropped in. Among them was Ezra Pound who came for lunch and stayed the night, sitting on a chair by the Indian poet’s side and listening to him speak as a disciple might at the feet of a great prophet. There was little to indicate any inner turmoil on Tagore’s part. Towards the afternoon, the doorbell rang and Alice Rothenstein answered it thinking it was her favourite, the writer G.B. Shaw, who had promised to come and meet Tagore. But it was the messenger who had been sent to find out about the book.
In his hands he held a leather folio bag. As soon as the Indian visitors saw it, they broke into animated talk. Their smiles were enough to inform their hostess that this was indeed the lost collection of poems. She took it from the boy and gave it to Tagore, who opened the clasps and took out the manuscript and said, ‘Thanks be to the unknown person who found this and made the effort to hand it in! My only copy, how naïve have I been!’
‘Please sir it was a young man the clerk said. He found it on the Tube and as he was a poet himself, he took a look at them,’ the messenger boy said, pleased that his trip had been successful.
Alice smiled at him and said, ‘Thank you Dodds that will be all. There is cake and tea in the kitchen for you. Ask the cook to put in some extra sugar and make it just the way you like it.’
This is where the story ends, at least that of the lost manuscript. Tagore was to win the Nobel Prize in Literature the following year for these very same translations; Song-Offerings, as it was called although neither he nor his hosts knew this at the time.
But this is not just Tagore’s story. Wilfred, the young man who had found the manuscript, went away to France at the end of that year. When the Great War broke out in 1913, he stayed on in France as an English tutor. He was doing what later generations would call conscientious objection, decrying the violence of war. But even he could not stay away from it when he read the English newspapers his dear mother sent him, with their growing lists of war dead and description of the horror his people were going through. He joined the war in October 1915 and died a week before it ended on November 4th 1918. He was twenty five. After his death, his belongings were sent back to England to his mother in Shrewsbury. The war had ended by then. Among these was a pocket book inscribed with a few lines the young poet had read years ago in a handwritten manuscript on the London Underground.
“When I leave, let these be my parting words: what my eyes have seen, what my life received, are unsurpassable”
Wilfred Owen was arguably Britain’s best war poet. Sir Rabindranath Tagore, as his mother Susan Owen addressed a letter that she wrote to Tagore in 1920, was certainly India’s finest.
[About the image: A sketch made by Rothenstein during Rabindranath Tagore’s stay at the Hampstead house in 1912]
Ruma Chakravarty came to India on 29th September 1973 to live there after leaving Zambia. Left India in May 1986 to live in Australia. Started as a Science teacher and then became a Maths person. Loves most things except cruel people, lies, wickedness…so not that different from you or you!
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.