Rabindranath TagoreI am sad that I finished reading this book. I wandered through the rivers of Bengal through the last one-month or so as I read the letters young Rabindranath Tagore or Rabi as he calls himself had written to his even younger niece describing the scenes of rural Bengal to her from his boat on river Padma and Ichomati. He was still to attain the fame that he did, but his passion for writing, his outlet for expressing the joy that the sheer nature gave him and his love for solitude is what comes across strongly through the letters. Written between 1887-1895 these letters also paint the landscape of Bengal as it existed then, the manners of rich and poor and the time that was available to them to pursue what they wanted. These letters take you back to that time and space and you realize the power of good writing and every time I put the book down, it was like switching back to the present with some effort.

Most of the letters have been written from a boat on the rivers while he was travelling to different parts of his estate to sort our official matters that he calls kachari. It seems that work comes in between his leisure time on the river and spacious houses surrounded by greenery. But it is obviously a skewed view as it seems he wrote only when he was boat, sometimes every day and sometimes with a wide gap. His dislike for Calcutta and its egalitarian requirements from him take the form of satire and he always questions the fake persona that he and others have to put for the sake of so called society. His dislike for the mannerisms of English men and women also brings out his funny side when he mimics them when he is forced to host them. At one place he says that in the village he is an Indian and in Calcutta he is more like a European.

In his solitude, he sometimes talks about the thoughts that go through his heart and mind. He observes the women on the banks of river and wonders how they are so malleable and how they are able to mould themselves in a new environment when they get married and move to their husband’s house. I think this inquisitiveness is something he has tried to explore in many of his novels when he tries to balance the personality of the woman as an individual and as a part of a new family unit and this is when she is establishing a relationship with her husband and his family. He shares his thoughts on his subjects who come to meet him and in a way has their fates in his hands. While he does what he is expected to do, he wonders what makes him different from these people.

He refers to Kalidas’s Meghdoota many times when he sees dense black clouds. He refers to the vaishnava poets whom it seems he read regularly. He refers to Arthashastra and Bhagwat, which is essentially what Indians of that era were well grounded in. He evaluates Raja Ravi Verma’s paintings and points out the flaws in them but overall finds them pleasing. He talks about writing for Sadhna – a periodical that he edited and most of times it seems like a responsibility to him, a monster that he had to feed just like I feel about my blogs sometimes. I could relate to his relationship with Sadhna, he liked editing it but did not like the binding it brought to him of deadlines. He mentions about book reviews and even in those days he said there are no good critics in India. He talks about the torture of reading a bad book and then writing a equally bad review for it, and I was laughing when I was reading it, as if someone has taken the words out of my mouth and written there. Imagine he wrote them good 125 years back.  He talks about composing music and the various ragas he hears from the villages during his traveling on the boats. He mentions that he composes the best in his bathroom because that is when he is completely alone and does not have to worry about what will others think of his music while it is still being composed. He talks about the music very often though he has not mentioned any formal training in the same.

In his philosophical moods he talks about the difference between a telegram and a letter and how it is easiest to express oneself in letters addressed to a person.  He talks about the difference between prose and poetry and he obviously has a huge bias towards poetry. He talks about the co-existence of eternal and everyday in our lives and the times when one takes precedence over the other. He talks about reading travelogues and mentions some across China, Tibet and Europe. He is looking out for a travelogue from South America and that shows while sitting in a small village in Bengal, he was still well connected with the rest of the world.

The gaps in the book were some names that were blanked out and I wonder why? It is evident who he was talking about but why the blanking out of names. Similarly he talks fondly about his young children for some time but for most of the times his family, specially his wife remain absolutely absent from the letters – I do not see that a practicality as he is writing to another person within the family, unless editors have edited out the letters or parts of letters mentioning the personal details.

A highly recommended read.

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