16 February 2012

Last night I took a walk with Rabindranath Tagore

There’s one poem from Rabindranath Tagore’s "Geethanjali" to which I return every now and then. Actually it often comes looking for me, and, as seems to be the case in these things, when a re-reading is long overdue. Tonight this poem arrived again, looking for me when I ought to have been looking for it. A beautiful girl with the softest eyes, seeing my gaze fall on the volume and my hand just about to reach for it, said, "this is not for you, because you are not in it". According to her I am too sinful to deserve such spiritually uplifting concoctions. I told her, "let me show you my favourite" and turned to the seventy ninth poem. Her eyes widened as she responded, "You can’t choose that. I just chose it!"

Perhaps it was Tagore. Perhaps the Geethanjali. Or perhaps it was something simple. Like two people who despite their constant arguments, being on the same wave length at one particular moment. "Wave length" might sound too clinical for my friend’s enlightened taste. Perhaps I should call it "spiritual platform". Or the mundane soil of human sorrow.

In this poem of four verses, there is one that I am particularly fond of.

"When I sit by the roadside, tired and panting, when I spread my bed low in the dust, let me ever feel that the long journey is still before me. Let me not forget for a moment, let me carry the pangs of this sorrow in my dreams and in my wakeful hours."

The other verses carried the same message, same tone and were decorated in the same philosophical colours, but they more readily referenced divinity; too readily for me anyway. The last verse, for example, goes like this: "When my rooms have been decked and the flute sound and the laughter there is loud, let me ever feel that I have not invited thee to my house. Let me not forget for a moment, let me carry the pangs of this sorrow in my dreams and in my wakeful hours." But then again, "god" or "truth"or whatever it is that one seeks, is always one’s own creation and I tend to think that for this reason alone it is in the final analysis a self-examination.

But Tagore is exquisite here, is he not? I had a friend, a young man from Brazil, who was doing a Masters degree in Production Engineering. Not surprisingly, his conversations were full of metaphors borrowed from his field. This man hungered for women like someone in a desert thirsts for water. His success rate was, he admitted, zero. One day he blurted out to all his friends: "Tell me how to optimise! How is it done? Tell me, tutor me, and I will pay you. In dollars." I offered, "Don’t try to ‘optimise’. Think ‘zero’ and then every little thing, every smile, every glance, even every rejection, will be positive." And added, "in these things, like in the case of making revolutions, there is no ready made text book; what works for me, may not work for you."

Zero. We never move. Our exertions bring us back to things we run away from. The ‘long journey’ is never done simply because it is a road that takes you nowhere. Someone once said, "you travel the world in search of the truth and return home to find it".

An argument for inaction? For lethargy? Perhaps not. Searching for self is not an exercise in self-indulgence. "Self" is the most complex and the most pertinent of all elements that a human being has to deal with. It is that which demands most attentive investigation and that which is most stubbornly ignored. "Self" is, I believe, a room with the widest windows that open to the most breathtaking landscapes. It is a room we never want to peep into because we fear its darkness, not realising that our eyes can pierce even the most dense darkness. I believe that it is in that deep penetration into "self" that one discovers the "us" that lives within. I think this is the "long journey" that Tagore talks about.

There was a time, a time of youthfulness, a time when, as The Eagles’ put it, "we thought we could change this world with words like love and freedom", a time when the heart was full of love for all and the mind was intent on doing things on the basis of "all for love". A time when I would respond to my mother’s occasional ticking off about me not coming home or making a home of the houses of my friends with this: "all mothers are mothers to me, all children brothers and sisters". Today, years later, I could say "all children are my children". Instead, I remain silent. I know that only my child is mine. Have I strayed off the street called "One Love"? Have I banished "community" to a country I do not wish to visit? I believe I have not.

Being a father, today, I understand other fathers. Watching my daughter with her mother, I think I understand motherhood better. I understand my father and mother better. My empathies are grounded, to put it in sociological-speak. Real. The long journey, I know now, I do not walk alone. The destination is not mine alone. The pangs of life’s sorrows do not make up too heavy a burden to carry, when there are companions on this journey. The trick, I tend to believe, is to resist "building community" and to concentrate on discovering it within oneself. It is thus that life yields "community" to an individual. Am I right Rabindranath?

The young girl believes I don’t have an ounce of spirituality in me. I don’t want to dispute her and this is not out of compassion. I don’t know anything about the spiritual. My journey’s direction I hope brings me closer to who I am. And there are moments when, during this expedition, I am tired and panting; there are times when I lay my bed low in the dust. At such times, I tell myself, "let me ever feel that the long journey is still before me". Somehow the pangs of my sorrow do not bite as viciously as they usually do.

This girl will walk her path, at her own pace, in her own way. Neither of us are running a race, and certainly not one against one another. We will meet again, I know. There will be no need for words, for argument. A smile, perhaps. Probably laughter. Especially if we have truly discovered that it is ourselves that we refuse to invite to share in the festivities.

[First published in 'The Island', April 27, 2003]
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