Calcutta, apart from being Rabindranath Tagore's place of birth, saw the blossoming of his poetic ability and inspired his first surge of creativity in the spring of his life. Yet, in his later years he looked upon it as a "cage of bricks" and enjoyed his escapades to the countryside of Shilaidaha or Santiniketan where he could lose himself in the changing beauty of nature with every season or stumble upon his true self in the vastness of the Universe.
At the same time he was not immune to the well-being of the city of his birth. It was reflected in his concern to evolve a proper system of street planning and house numbering or when he wished that it citizens should have access to health, nutrition, education and live in harmony. In this edition, we delve in Tagore's writings and letters to look at the city of joy through the eyes of the bard of Bengal.
In his memoirs, Chhelebela written for children, Tagore mentioned: "I was born in old (sekele) Calcutta." He reminisced the days when there were no trams, buses or motorcars, before the advent of either electricity or piped water; of a time when there was not much distinction between Calcutta and its neighbouring villages.
He described the city with hackneyed carriages being the fastest mode of transport although the sickly looking horses were no better than skin and bone. The days were passed languidly without any element of rush. During the day, the men folk would proceed to their workplaces, often leisurely after a few smokes or chewing paan, travelling in shared carriages or in palanquins. The rich had their own carriages bearing their distinct insignia and partially shielded in leather covers. The coachman would sit in front and the sudden yells of two footmen at the back would leave the men on foot shocked and surprised.
His ancestral house at Jorasanko had a pond, coconut and other trees like banyan, a dhenki (a husking pedal) and a golabari (a circular granary to keep paddy). In a delightful analogy, Tagore said in earlier days the rural and urban forms of life were like young brothers and sisters with plenty of resemblances but nowadays it is difficult to discover any similarity between the siblings.
There were neither gas lights nor electricity in the Calcutta of his yesteryears. Kerosene lamp, while making its debut dazzled the inhabitants with its illumination. Every evening the domestic help would come to every room of the large mansion-like-house to light up oil lamps.
The city was yet to see the advent of piped water. Water carriers would carry drinking water in clay pots from the Ganges during months of February and March and fill up the large jars kept in a dark room on the ground floor for the consumption of the whole family, throughout the entire year. When piped water came in Tagore related his exuberance in beautiful language bordering on lyricism. "I would go up to Babamoshai's (his father) room on the second floor and enjoy the shower at that unearthly hour to my heart's content. It was not merely to soothe myself but to rein in my desire; on one hand there was liberty, on the other- restraint and taken together the company's flow of water would be like pleasurable pricks on my mind," he reminisced in Jeevan Smriti.
There were canals along the streets through which water from the Ganges would enter the ponds during high tide and when the barricades were drawn it created a delightful cascade accompanied by the gurgling sounds of bubbling water. But one thing was common throughout his life - the problem of water logging at Jorasanko. Young Rabi would desperately wish during the monsoon that his tutor would not be able to wade through the waist deep water but often his hopes were dashed. Even when he was permanently residing in Santiniketan he would complain about the streets in the neighbourhood of Jorasanko, submerged even after a brief shower.
He also gave a vivid description of the evenings in the city during his childhood; at that time Calcutta was hardly awake after sun down unlike the present when electricity dispels all darkness. "But nowadays (at his old age) there might be less work after dusk but there is no scope of respite; as if the wood in the earthen stoves had gone off but the coal was still smouldering. Oil factories and the whistles of the steamers have fallen silent, the labourers left the factory premises, and the oxen carrying jute are resting below tin sheds. Throughout the day the city endures diverse worries and tension that even at night its nerves still remain taut," the poet observed.
"At our times the work left over would simply remain buried under covers beneath the shadows of the dark city. A hush would fall upon the evening sky sparsely broken only by the yells of the footmen on horse carriages returning with those who had gone out for fresh air at Maidan," Tagore wrote in his memoirs.
In the hot season, the hawkers would call out "barif" carrying kulfi ice-cream in earthen pots and making the young poet's heart churn in desire for its cold sweetness. Another familiar voice called out "belphool" since in the summer evenings the women would wash themselves, put fresh clothes and deck their fashionably tied buns with garlands of fresh flowers.
In a striking comparison on how the concept of entertainment changed over the years in the city, he once wrote, the older age was like a prince, his munificence to those around him was occasional but the new age is like a trader's son, always ready with his wares on display, his customers emerging both from the main thoroughfares and the narrow lanes.
The poet said, unlike today, the crowd hanging from the footboards of trams, on their way back from work or college, would not head for Maidan to watch football matches or be seen in front of cinema halls. The sole entertainment would be limited to putting up Jatra shows by the youths of the well-to-do families who double up as women as well.
The women, in that age, were confined to the darkness of enclosed palanquins since travelling by carriages were considered to be a matter of shame. Umbrellas were not to be used either in the sun or during rain. If women wore "semij" (a long dress worn underneath a saree) or socks it was regarded as "memsahebi" indicating they had no sense of mortification. If one happened to meet a stranger all of a sudden, she would immediately cover her head till nose, stick out her tongue in embarrassment and promptly turn her back to the unknown male. Tagore's concern for the plight of woman is reflected when he observes: "The doors were closed upon them within the confines of the house as well as when they travelled in palanquins." The wives of the rich had an extra covering over and above the closed doors of the palanquin which appeared to him to be a "mobile graveyard". The women when they left home were escorted by the doorman, armed with brass covered lathis. Their tasks were primarily to sit at the front gate, scratch their beards, accompany the women to the house of the relatives and on festive days, they would escort the lady of the house to the ghats where the entire palanquin, carrying her inside, would be dipped into the holy water of Ganges.
Tagore, in his youth, occupied a number houses in Sudder Street, Chowringhee near Circular Road at various occasions, putting up with the families of his brothers - Jyotirindranath and Satyendranath.
It was in a house at Sudder Street near the Indian Museum and overlooking the trees of the neighbouring Free School Street that Tagore first got a glimpse of the mystic through his poetic vision. He was gazing at the scene of the sun rising behind the row of trees and in his own words, "Suddenly it appeared that blinds were drawn off from my eyes. I saw the world lit up by an all-pervasive halo where beauty and happiness flowed in abundance. The burst of this universal light had torn asunder the veil of many layered melancholia that gripped my soul and illuminated my inner being." Tagore penned his famous, Nirjharer Swapnobhango after this enlightenment of his poetic soul.
But more delightful is his poem on Calcutta in Sahaj Path where he dreams that the city had suddenly turned mobile and everything - the Howrah Bridge akin to a giant scorpion or the Monument - was on the move.
However, in later years of life, urbane Calcutta did not attract him anymore. But it did not deter his concern for the citizens of Calcutta. When Tagore turned seventy the Calcutta Municipal Corporation under the aegis of Mayor, Bidhan Chandra Roy chose to felicitate him on December 27, 1931 in front of the Town Hall. In his reply, the bard said that earlier it was the king who took upon themselves the duty of honouring the poet since they knew that literary creations would far outlive their kingdoms. However, now the men of genius have no place in the courts of the kings of India since the poet's language and that of the ruler have not struck up any friendship and that is why the civic body had taken upon itself the task of honouring the poet which has "filled my heart with great delight."
He wrote on to say, "Let this Corporation make the city of my birth great in the amenities of life, health and sanitation, and dignity and self respect. Let painting, sculpture, music and arts grow under its auspices and make the dwellings of the citizens, abodes of joy. Let this city wipe out its blot of illiteracy with all its dirt and uncleanliness; let her citizens enjoy plenty, have strength of body and energy of mind and be inspired with civic spirit born of joy; let not the internecine strife pollute her life; let her citizens of all races and all sects and communities unite in goodwill and keep her fair name untarnished and her peace undisturbed - this is my prayer."
But much more interesting was the letter (November 8, 1928) which Tagore good-humouredly wrote to Amal Home, the Editor of Municipal Gazette suggesting a change in the system of numbering the houses and street planning after failing to locate a house despite having its postal address. The police and neighbours failed too and after several journeys up and down the poet observed: "The present system of numbering houses and planning streets may be a splendid way of training the younger generation to become future Livingstones. But the course is, perhaps, too difficult, and I sometimes wonder if Livingstone himself would not have found exploration in Darkest Africa easier than fruitful exploration in the City of Palaces."
He proposed hanging of enamelled plates bearing useful information from the lamp posts.
? The board would display the numbers of houses in the street between two lamp posts on either side; an arrow would indicate whether the numbers are in the ascending or descending order.
? It should also bear the name of any street or lane opening out of the street and the number of such houses from which such street or lanes begins.
? The names of all public buildings or important places beside lamp posts should also be entered.
The poet who was aware of the revenue shortfall faced by civic bodies suggested that the corporation may have a source of income in case private individual or bodies wished to have their names on the direction plates for publicity purpose.
He wrapped off saying: "But in any case the assistance to the public would be so great that any expenditure should be considered a legitimate charge on the municipal revenue."
The poet also breathed his last in Calcutta, the metropolis which he had dreamt, instead of being just an Anglican city - a mere imitation of the cities of Europe - would come of its own, turn a new page and reflect our "national culture and artistic sensibility".