A story of two men

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Often in a mood of humour, I like telling people at times that my family, or clan if you will, has always had some sort of symbiotic relationship with Rabindranath Tagore. But let me sound a caveat here: Tagore and my ancestors were never linked by blood. What has always kept them together is in the sense of heritage. The poet remains one of the greatest Bengalis in history. And we, in our little village called Noagaon in Araihazar Upazila of Narayanganj district (don’t ask me why the place is called Araihaizar, or Two-and-A-Half-Thousand in the Queen’s language), have maintained a pure Bengali tradition in the way we have conducted ourselves. Of course, there is that small matter of religion. Tagore and his people had their particular religious convictions. For our part, we in this little village of ours have quite a few mosques and hundreds of devout people. As part of lost heritage, we have an abandoned Hindu temple as well. In essence, though, our Bengali identity, similar to Tagore’s, comes through our language, through our delight at the advent of Baishakh and the monsoon, through that certain consciousness of life being a tale of transience in this world. At the end of the metaphorical day, much like Tagore, we wait for that spirituality-driven boat to transport us to that other bank where life beyond life awaits us.

These bonds with Tagore, if you must know, first manifested themselves a year after the poet was born in 1861. In 1862, my grandfather, my dada, the father of my father, was born in a tiny village in what was then the eastern part of Bengal. That closeness in time, as I keep remembering and telling anyone willing to listen, is a significant factor in our Tagore connection. To be sure, you have so many other Tagores or Thakurs in our part of Bengal, today’s Bangladesh. But it is through my grandfather that I feel our links with Tagore get to have added substance. No, my dada was not a poet. And Tagore was not a pedagogue who taught faith. Even so, there was something which united them in a way that was rare, perhaps even unique. Tagore awoke at dawn, to sing paeans to the Creator. Tumi daak diyechho kon shokale / keu ta jaane na, the poet sang. Away in his beloved Noagaon, my dada remembered the Creator through invoking him in prayer. There is no God but God, or Allah, said he in the pre-dawn hours. All day long, Tagore sang of the mystery of Creation. All day long my dada intoned the verses which had the Quran sound majestic in all its intense energy through his village.

On this steamy afternoon, as I write these lines in Noagaon, it is my dada’s memory which assails me in pure Tagorean fashion. From where I sit and write, I note the pond before our village home and, across the pond, my dada’s grave. Close to forty three years ago, we buried him beside our pond. Born a year after Tagore, he outlasted Tagore in age by thirty three years. The poet was eighty when the heart in him stopped beating in 1941. My dada closed his eyes upon the world at a mentally alert one hundred and thirteen years when he passed on in 1975. On the day we buried my dada, the monsoon glimmered all across our village. There was water and then water and still more water that you could see all around. The family cemetery shone in all its brilliance under all that transparency of water, which meant my dada could not be buried there. A watery grave is not what we plan or dig on our own. It is for sailors at sea, or people perishing in riotous storms on the river, like my cousin whose launch capsized on an April day long ago and he went down with it, never to be found. So there was all this sheet of water in Noagaon, indeed all over Bangladesh, on the day my dada died. The raised ground around our pond was the one spot of earth where we could put him down. And we did, on that rain-drenched day in June 1975.

Rabindranath Tagore lived an eventful life, obviously. But so did my dada. He was president of the union board for twenty two years. He served as head moulvi at Kaliganj High School for decades. In that capacity he taught Arabic, but with that also came his teaching of Persian. He knew the language well, enough to write a book on Persian grammar. Many were the days when, as a schoolboy on holiday from Quetta, we conversed in English. Like any man of wisdom in the old days, he had a penchant for good conversation in fluent language. He wrote letters to me in perfect English, to a point where I learnt new vocabulary and new turns of phrase from him. And then there were the occasions when he wrote to me in Urdu, expecting me to respond in Urdu. I did. There was in him, in ways typical of our ancestors, a great predisposition to enrich the world of thought, a curiosity that was really an insatiable desire to understand the world. He had no radio; and television was yet to be. But through the fitful arrival of newspapers in the village, he kept in touch with global events. His opinions on those events turned out to be prescient.

There was something of a Tagore-like cult which came wrapped around my dada. He would peer at the sun and mention, correctly and without looking at a watch or clock --- he and the villagers had no such appendages to life --- the time of day. He knew all about plants; he could prescribe the herbs which could be used to treat various ailments regularly afflicting the villagers. He knew where those herbs were to be found in the village. His prescriptions worked, which meant people kept coming back to him for increasingly more mitigation of pain. His pani-pora, the religious practice of praying over a glass of water and then blowing into it softly, was legendary in Noagaon and the region around it. Those who drank that water felt relief and paid my dada back in the only way they could --- a fresh new gourd from the home patch, some eggs from home poultry, a coconut from the family palm, sometimes cooked rice accompanied by a fish curry. The villagers were steeped in poverty; and affluence had no place in my dada’s life.

The rainclouds clouds begin to converge in the skies above Noagaon. Tagore’s puja songs and my dada’s rendition of Quranic verses flow in mellifluous cadences through the leaves of the palms and trees wrapping my little village in the many hues of green. There was majesty in Tagore’s flowing beard when he sang through the gurgling waves of the ancient river. Serenity lent grandeur to my dada’s luxuriant white beard as he looked out at the world beyond his humble hut, in the fading light of day.

Forty-plus years ago, my dada, Moulvi Syed Mohibbur Rahman, went to his grave. No wise man has yet arisen to take his place. Seven decades-plus ago, Rabindranath Tagore mingled with the elements in a flurry of melody. No bard has emerged to paint poetry in the riot of colour that was so much a hallmark of the Bard.

  • DhakaCourier
  • Vol 34
  • Issue 44

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