It is the sesquicentenary year of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore's birth. The prime minister is himself leading the nation in chalking out celebration plans. There is of course a special interest in West Bengal and, across the border, in Bangladesh. There is also an effort to reassert his status as a national icon. Even as I write this piece, the West Bengal chief minister has written to the prime minister asking him to stop Tagore's paintings from going under the hammer at the Sotheby's in mid-June. He has argued that they are "priceless treasures" of Indian culture and they should be brought back. We had seen a similar consternation last year when some worldly possessions of the man, whom Gurudev called the 'Mahatma,' were being auctioned in New York.
Scurrying to save the scattered physical belongings of our heroes, is becoming a familiar new way of expressing our anxious gratitude to them. Yes, 'anxious gratitude,' because it follows only a partial release of anaesthetised memory; because it is more to save ourselves from an embarrassment than staking genuine claim to an intellectual legacy and because it always follows a media event.
Let me recall what happened last September when there were no such pressures and preparations were not even on the horizon for Gurudev's 150th birthday.
I was in Kolkata for a seminar and had kept aside a couple of days for unplanned encounters with the city. It was my longstanding wish to visit Thakurbari, the ancestral home of Tagore in the city, but I didn't know how to get there. The word 'Jorasanko' more than 'Thakurbari' had been transfixed in my mind ever since I had read about it in my growing up years. But it had perhaps faded in my memory that Thakurbari was in Jorasanko. I mistook 'Jorasanko' to be the name of Tagore's house rather than a locality in the north of Kolkata. Without knowing what it meant I had marvelled at the rounded sounds that constituted the word. With a literary milieu at my own home, everything that was Bengal and Bengali was exotic excepting perhaps the humble mustard.
We watched and re-watched Ray and hopelessly romanticised Charulata. We heard Hemanta Mukherjee sing Rabindra Sangeet; 'Bhuvana Mana Mohini' was the anthem. We thought Sharatchandra, Bimal Mitra and Bhibuthibhooshan Bandopadhyaya deserved the Nobel as well. Ahobala Shankara, a legend among translators, was rendering the tomes of all these great men into Kannada, my tongue. A bust of Tagore from Shantiniketan found a pride of place in our study. My grandmother kept two tiny photo frames of Ramakrishna and Sharada Devi. At the feet were champaks, unstringed jasmine or pink hibiscus. The meditative tune of Kalinga Rao for a Kannada poem on Sharada Devi by Kuvempu was a prayer. There was also a huge poster of Vivekananda, the 'Hindu Monk of India.' A visit to K. C. Das on St. Mark's Road in Bangalore for 'rasagolla' and 'sandesh' signified a certain cultural evolution. When TV came, Doordarshan aided this construct as Bimal Mitra's Muzrim Hazir Ho, Sunil Ganguly's Sei Somoy and a few other Bengali works were being serialised. To top it all was my uncle's Kolkata travelogue, aptly titled Jana Gana Mana. All this in the pre-free market and the pre-Babri years, when your consumption was predictable and your nationalism had a certain innocence. We consumed and consumed Bengal until we read about the 'death of the bhadralok'. The middle classes across India had moved on simultaneously, by the mid-90s.
Anyway, returning to my quasi-pilgrimage to Thakurbari, I wasn't in possession of a city guide; I didn't want to Google; I was reluctant to be a tourist and hence, decided to play a little game. I got into a taxi in Ballygunge and simply told the driver to take me to Tagore's home. The rules of the game did not permit me to give any extra instructions. My logic was that Tagore being a folk-hero and a demi-god, everyone living in the city would obviously know the shrine. Also, a taxi driver would be all the more familiar because people visiting the city must be asking him to take them to Thakurbari all the time. The fact that the taxi driver did not ask me for clarifications pleased me a great deal. There is this popular feeling in the south of India that the Tamils and Bengalis exude great pride in their language and culture and you can't generally fool around with them. I thought how true this perception was and sat back watching the chaos on the streets. The driver kept going in a straight line for about 15 minutes, then took a right angle turn and moved on without an exhibition of doubt to our destination.
After about 30 minutes, when the sweltering heat of the sun started to grow from within the torn rexine seat-cover of the taxi, I wanted to be sure that we were headed in the right direction. He appeared confident and I put back my gaze on the street. Suddenly, after about five minutes, he halted the car and said he'll step out to make an enquiry as he was a little confused. He went to a tea stall and started chatting with a small crowd of office-goers assembled there. As I kept watching him, he lit a cigarette and also managed to get a glass of tea for himself. He continued to chat till his tea got over. He stubbed the cigarette and returned. He mumbled something which I could not follow and took a 'U' turn. Again the straight-line-right-angle drive continued for about 15 minutes and we seemed to be moving away from the city. I got panicky and asked him to stop so that I could ask a local friend. He stopped and said no one had heard of Tagore's home in Kolkata and those whom he had enquired with had only given him a vague direction to Shantiniketan.
I called up my friend and he asked me to reach Central Avenue first. "Once you reach there anybody will tell you where the house is," he said. We took a 'U' turn again and reached Central Avenue in roughly 30 minutes. As we moved in, we started asking rickshawallahs and other taxi drivers about Thakurbari. They spoke incessantly, but, finally, asked us to enquire further down the road. I asked the driver to pull up at a place where we wouldn't affect the flow of traffic and made a call again to my friend. This time, he said, it is near the Girish Park Metro Station. The station was much behind us and again we took a 'U' turn. When we reached the station an impatient-looking man told us to go on the other side of the road and look for an arch to take a left turn. Due to the road divider, to take a 'U' turn we again had to drive up a small distance. We did that and started looking for an arch. The first one we found didn't look like a lane that would lead us to the revered poet's home. The second one led to a Durga puja pandal that was coming up, we certainly didn't want to get in there and be stuck. So our confusion began all over again. We stopped at a 'kachori' place and the owner said that we had to find an arch that was in between the two that we had just passed by and get into the Rabindra Bharati University where people would surely know the poet's house. Another 'U' turn was scary so the driver decided to reverse the vehicle. One needed enormous courage to do so on that street. Finally, we took a left turn under the right arch and hundred metres on an uncouth, nondescript street we stood in front of a part-open gate by the side of which was the varsity signboard. It is only then that we realised that Thakurbari had become part of the university campus. I was glad that the drudgery of the taxi was over.
As I entered the shrine, there was not a soul inside. As I reached the quadrangle of the magnificent mansion, someone from inside the window said I should go out and buy a ticket. At the ticket counter I was asked to take off my shoes and deposit my belongings in a locker. Photography was prohibited. The rest was peaceful. I was the only visitor. In the 'Japanese section' of the mansion an air conditioner was on and I felt sleepy. I sat in a corner and pretended to meditate. Nobody chased me out until I had recovered to see the rest of the house. When I asked if I could buy some memorabilia, they said the guy who ran the place was on leave. I do not want to interpret my experience. The lessons are obvious. The journey has become a metaphor. As I recount this, a photograph from the Chitpore series of my friend Saibal Das comes back to me. In the picture, big and small posters of Tagore are held by flimsy-looking clips on a string that looks like a clothes line. It is an empty roadside souvenir shop colonised by dust and visited by winds.
Now, as the sesquicentenary celebrations get underway and government advertisements are all over the place, I hear from friends in Kolkata that people are trooping into Jorasanko. They are standing in long queues on Central Avenue to reach Thakurbari. And still there are no signboards that lead you to the place. "You join the crowd and you'll reach there is what people are told. It is like the queues formed during the Durga puja outside the pandals. They stand for hours eating kachori and jalebi," a friend told me.
This was not the first time I was seeking an icon in his town by the method or game I have delineated above. In July 1990, I took a bet with my father that we could reach 'Udayaravi,' the home of Karnataka's cultural icon K. V. Puttappa or Kuvempu, in Mysore, by just asking an autorickshaw driver to take us there. We got into an auto on Devaraj Urs Road and the driver was as confident as the taxi driver in Kolkata. But finally he stopped in front of the house of a Puttappa, who was an official with the Mysore Urban Development Authority!
Needless to say, I lost the bet.