Glimpses of Bengal
Sir Rabindranath Tagore
Part 1 out of 2
S.R.Ellison, Eric Eldred, and the Distributed Proofreading Team
GLIMPSES OF BENGAL
SELECTED FROM THE LETTERS OF
SIR RABINDRANATH TAGORE
1885 TO 1895
The letters translated in this book span the most productive period of my
literary life, when, owing to great good fortune, I was young and less
Youth being exuberant and leisure ample, I felt the writing of letters
other than business ones to be a delightful necessity. This is a form of
literary extravagance only possible when a surplus of thought and emotion
accumulates. Other forms of literature remain the author's and are made
public for his good; letters that have been given to private individuals
once for all, are therefore characterised by the more generous
It so happened that selected extracts from a large number of such letters
found their way back to me years after they had been written. It had been
rightly conjectured that they would delight me by bringing to mind the
memory of days when, under the shelter of obscurity, I enjoyed the
greatest freedom my life has ever known.
Since these letters synchronise with a considerable part of my published
writings, I thought their parallel course would broaden my readers'
understanding of my poems as a track is widened by retreading the same
ground. Such was my justification for publishing them in a book for my
countrymen. Hoping that the descriptions of village scenes in Bengal
contained in these letters would also be of interest to English readers,
the translation of a selection of that selection has been entrusted to one
who, among all those whom I know, was best fitted to carry it out.
_20th June 1920._
BANDORA, BY THE SEA,
The unsheltered sea heaves and heaves and blanches into foam. It sets me
thinking of some tied-up monster straining at its bonds, in front of whose
gaping jaws we build our homes on the shore and watch it lashing its tail.
What immense strength, with waves swelling like the muscles of a giant!
From the beginning of creation there has been this feud between land and
water: the dry earth slowly and silently adding to its domain and
spreading a broader and broader lap for its children; the ocean receding
step by step, heaving and sobbing and beating its breast in despair.
Remember the sea was once sole monarch, utterly free.
Land rose from its womb, usurped its throne, and ever since the maddened
old creature, with hoary crest of foam, wails and laments continually,
like King Lear exposed to the fury of the elements.
I am in my twenty-seventh year. This event keeps thrusting itself before
my mind--nothing else seems to have happened of late.
But to reach twenty-seven--is that a trifling thing?--to pass the meridian
of the twenties on one's progress towards thirty?--thirty--that is to say
maturity--the age at which people expect fruit rather than fresh foliage.
But, alas, where is the promise of fruit? As I shake my head, it still
feels brimful of luscious frivolity, with not a trace of philosophy.
Folk are beginning to complain: "Where is that which we expected of
you--that in hope of which we admired the soft green of the shoot? Are we
to put up with immaturity for ever? It is high time for us to know what we
shall gain from you. We want an estimate of the proportion of oil which
the blindfold, mill-turning, unbiased critic can squeeze out of you."
It has ceased to be possible to delude these people into waiting
expectantly any longer. While I was under age they trustfully gave me
credit; it is sad to disappoint them now that I am on the verge of thirty.
But what am I to do? Words of wisdom will not come! I am utterly
incompetent to provide things that may profit the multitude. Beyond a
snatch of song, some tittle-tattle, a little merry fooling, I have been
unable to advance. And as the result, those who held high hopes will turn
their wrath on me; but did any one ever beg them to nurse these
Such are the thoughts which assail me since one fine _Bysakh_ morning
I awoke amidst fresh breeze and light, new leaf and flower, to find that I
had stepped into my twenty-seventh year.
Our house-boat is moored to a sandbank on the farther side of the river. A
vast expanse of sand stretches away out of sight on every side, with here
and there a streak, as of water, running across, though sometimes what
gleams like water is only sand.
Not a village, not a human being, not a tree, not a blade of grass--the
only breaks in the monotonous whiteness are gaping cracks which in places
show the layer of moist, black clay underneath.
Looking towards the East, there is endless blue above, endless white
beneath. Sky empty, earth empty too--the emptiness below hard and barren,
that overhead arched and ethereal--one could hardly find elsewhere such a
picture of stark desolation.
But on turning to the West, there is water, the currentless bend of the
river, fringed with its high bank, up to which spread the village groves
with cottages peeping through--all like an enchanting dream in the evening
light. I say "the evening light," because in the evening we wander out,
and so that aspect is impressed on my mind.
The magistrate was sitting in the verandah of his tent dispensing justice
to the crowd awaiting their turns under the shade of a tree. They set my
palanquin down right under his nose, and the young Englishman received me
courteously. He had very light hair, with darker patches here and there,
and a moustache just beginning to show. One might have taken him for a
white-haired old man but for his extremely youthful face. I asked him over
to dinner, but he said he was due elsewhere to arrange for a pig-sticking
As I returned home, great black clouds came up and there was a terrific
storm with torrents of rain. I could not touch a book, it was impossible
to write, so in the I-know-not-what mood I wandered about from room to
room. It had become quite dark, the thunder was continually pealing, the
lightning gleaming flash after flash, and every now and then sudden gusts
of wind would get hold of the big _lichi_ tree by the neck and give
its shaggy top a thorough shaking. The hollow in front of the house soon
filled with water, and as I paced about, it suddenly struck me that I
ought to offer the shelter of the house to the magistrate.
I sent off an invitation; then after investigation I found the only spare
room encumbered with a platform of planks hanging from the beams, piled
with dirty old quilts and bolsters. Servants' belongings, an excessively
grimy mat, hubble-bubble pipes, tobacco, tinder, and two wooden chests
littered the floor, besides sundry packing-cases full of useless odds and
ends, such as a rusty kettle lid, a bottomless iron stove, a discoloured
old nickel teapot, a soup-plate full of treacle blackened with dust. In a
corner was a tub for washing dishes, and from nails in the wall hung moist
dish-clouts and the cook's livery and skull-cap. The only piece of
furniture was a rickety dressing-table with water stains, oil stains, milk
stains, black, brown, and white stains, and all kinds of mixed stains. The
mirror, detached from it, rested against another wall, and the drawers
were receptacles for a miscellaneous assortment of articles from soiled
napkins down to bottle wires and dust.
For a moment I was overwhelmed with dismay; then it was a case of--send
for the manager, send for the storekeeper, call up all the servants, get
hold of extra men, fetch water, put up ladders, unfasten ropes, pull down
planks, take away bedding, pick up broken glass bit by bit, wrench nails
from the wall one by one.--The chandelier falls and its pieces strew the
floor; pick them up again piece by piece.--I myself whisk the dirty mat
off the floor and out of the window, dislodging a horde of cockroaches,
messmates, who dine off my bread, my treacle, and the polish on my shoes.
The magistrate's reply is brought back; his tent is in an awful state and
he is coming at once. Hurry up! Hurry up! Presently comes the shout: "The
sahib has arrived." All in a flurry I brush the dust off hair, beard, and
the rest of myself, and as I go to receive him in the drawing-room, I try
to look as respectable as if I had been reposing there comfortably all the
I went through the shaking of hands and conversed with the magistrate
outwardly serene; still, misgivings about his accommodation would now and
then well up within. When at length I had to show my guest to his room, I
found it passable, and if the homeless cockroaches do not tickle the soles
of his feet, he may manage to get a night's rest.
I am feeling listlessly comfortable and delightfully irresponsible.
This is the prevailing mood all round here. There is a river but it has no
current to speak of, and, lying snugly tucked up in its coverlet of
floating weeds, seems to think--"Since it is possible to get on without
getting along, why should I bestir myself to stir?" So the sedge which
lines the banks knows hardly any disturbance until the fishermen come with
Four or five large-sized boats are moored near by, alongside each other.
On the upper deck of one the boatman is fast asleep, rolled up in a sheet
from head to foot. On another, the boatman--also basking in the
sun--leisurely twists some yarn into rope. On the lower deck in a third,
an oldish-looking, bare-bodied fellow is leaning over an oar, staring
vacantly at our boat.
Along the bank there are various other people, but why they come or go,
with the slowest of idle steps, or remain seated on their haunches
embracing their knees, or keep on gazing at nothing in particular, no one
The only signs of activity are to be seen amongst the ducks, who, quacking
clamorously, thrust their heads under and bob up again to shake off the
water with equal energy, as if they repeatedly tried to explore the
mysteries below the surface, and every time, shaking their heads, had to
report, "Nothing there! Nothing there!"
The days here drowse all their twelve hours in the sun, and silently sleep
away the other twelve, wrapped in the mantle of darkness. The only thing
you want to do in a place like this is to gaze and gaze on the landscape,
swinging your fancies to and fro, alternately humming a tune and nodding
dreamily, as the mother on a winter's noonday, her back to the sun, rocks
and croons her baby to sleep.
Yesterday, while I was giving audience to my tenants, five or six boys
made their appearance and stood in a primly proper row before me. Before I
could put any question their spokesman, in the choicest of high-flown
language, started: "Sire! the grace of the Almighty and the good fortune
of your benighted children have once more brought about your lordship's
auspicious arrival into this locality." He went on in this strain for
nearly half an hour. Here and there he would get his lesson wrong, pause,
look up at the sky, correct himself, and then go on again. I gathered that
their school was short of benches and stools. "For want of these
wood-built seats," as he put it, "we know not where to sit ourselves,
where to seat our revered teachers, or what to offer our most respected
inspector when he comes on a visit."
I could hardly repress a smile at this torrent of eloquence gushing from
such a bit of a fellow, which sounded specially out of place here, where
the ryots are given to stating their profoundly vital wants in plain and
direct vernacular, of which even the more unusual words get sadly twisted
out of shape. The clerks and ryots, however, seemed duly impressed, and
likewise envious, as though deploring their parents' omission to endow
them with so splendid a means of appealing to the _Zamindar_.
I interrupted the young orator before he had done, promising to arrange
for the necessary number of benches and stools. Nothing daunted, he
allowed me to have my say, then took up his discourse where he had left
it, finished it to the last word, saluted me profoundly, and marched off
his contingent. He probably would not have minded had I refused to supply
the seats, but after all his trouble in getting it by heart he would have
resented bitterly being robbed of any part of his speech. So, though it
kept more important business waiting, I had to hear him out.
We left the little river of Kaligram, sluggish as the circulation in a
dying man, and dropped down the current of a briskly flowing stream which
led to a region where land and water seemed to merge in each other, river
and bank without distinction of garb, like brother and sister in infancy.
The river lost its coating of sliminess, scattered its current in many
directions, and spread out, finally, into a _beel_ (marsh), with here
a patch of grassy land and there a stretch of transparent water, reminding
me of the youth of this globe when through the limitless waters land had
just begun to raise its head, the separate provinces of solid and fluid as
Round about where we have moored, the bamboo poles of fishermen are
planted. Kites hover ready to snatch up fish from the nets. On the ooze at
the water's edge stand the saintly-looking paddy birds in meditation. All
kinds of waterfowl abound. Patches of weeds float on the water. Here and
there rice-fields, untilled, untended, rise from the moist, clay soil.
Mosquitoes swarm over the still waters....
[Footnote 1: On the rich river-side silt, rice seed is simply scattered
and the harvest reaped when ripe; nothing else has to be done.]
We start again at dawn this morning and pass through Kachikata, where the
waters of the _beel_ find an outlet in a winding channel only six or
seven yards wide, through which they rush swiftly. To get our unwieldy
house-boat through is indeed an adventure. The current hurries it along at
lightning speed, keeping the crew busy using their oars as poles to
prevent the boat being dashed against the banks. We thus come out again
into the open river.
The sky had been heavily clouded, a damp wind blowing, with occasional
showers of rain. The crew were all shivering with cold. Such wet and
gloomy days in the cold weather are eminently disagreeable, and I have
spent a wretched lifeless morning. At two in the afternoon the sun came
out, and since then it has been delightful. The banks are now high and
covered with peaceful groves and the dwellings of men, secluded and full
The river winds in and out, an unknown little stream in the inmost
_zenana_ of Bengal, neither lazy nor fussy; lavishing the wealth of
her affection on both sides, she prattles about common joys and sorrows
and the household news of the village girls, who come for water, and sit
by her side, assiduously rubbing their bodies to a glowing freshness with
their moistened towels.
This evening we have moored our boat in a lonely bend. The sky is clear.
The moon is at its full. Not another boat is to be seen. The moonlight
glimmers on the ripples. Solitude reigns on the banks. The distant village
sleeps, nestling within a thick fringe of trees. The shrill, sustained
chirp of the cicadas is the only sound.
Just in front of my window, on the other side of the stream, a band of
gypsies have ensconced themselves, putting up bamboo frameworks covered
over with split-bamboo mats and pieces of cloth. There are only three of
these little structures, so low that you cannot stand upright inside.
Their life is lived in the open, and they only creep under these shelters
at night, to sleep huddled together.
That is always the gypsies' way: no home anywhere, no landlord to pay rent
to, wandering about as it pleases them with their children, their pigs,
and a dog or two; and on them the police keep a vigilant eye.
I frequently watch the doings of the family nearest me. They are dark but
good-looking, with fine, strongly-built bodies, like north-west country
folk. Their women are handsome, and have tall, slim, well-knit figures;
and with their free and easy movements, and natural independent airs, they
look to me like swarthy Englishwomen.
The man has just put the cooking-pot on the fire, and is now splitting
bamboos and weaving baskets. The woman first holds up a little mirror to
her face, then puts a deal of pains into wiping and rubbing it, over and
over again, with a moist piece of cloth; and then, the folds of her upper
garment adjusted and tidied, she goes, all spick and span, up to her man
and sits beside him, helping him now and then in his work.
These are truly children of the soil, born on it somewhere, bred by the
wayside, here, there, and everywhere, dying anywhere. Night and day under
the open sky, in the open air, on the bare ground, they lead a unique kind
of life; and yet work, love, children, and household duties--everything is
They are not idle for a moment, but always doing something. Her own
particular task over, one woman plumps herself down behind another, unties
the knot of her hair and cleans and arranges it for her; and whether at
the same time they fall to talking over the domestic affairs of the three
little mat-covered households I cannot say for certain from this distance,
but shrewdly suspect it.
This morning a great disturbance invaded the peaceful gypsy settlement. It
was about half-past eight or nine. They were spreading out over the mat
roofs tattered quilts and sundry other rags, which serve them for beds, in
order to sun and air them. The pigs with their litters, lying in a hollow
all of a heap and looking like a dab of mud, had been routed out by the
two canine members of the family, who fell upon them and sent them roaming
in search of their breakfasts, squealing their annoyance at being
interrupted in enjoyment of the sun after the cold night. I was writing my
letter and absently looking out now and then when the hubbub suddenly
I rose and went to the window, and found a crowd gathered round the gypsy
hermitage. A superior-looking personage was flourishing a stick and
indulging in the strongest language. The headman of the gypsies, cowed and
nervous, was apparently trying to offer explanations. I gathered that some
suspicious happenings in the locality had led to this visitation by a
The woman, so far, had remained sitting, busily scraping lengths of split
bamboo as serenely as if she had been alone and no sort of row going on.
Suddenly, however, she sprang to her feet, advanced on the police officer,
gesticulated violently with her arms right in his face, and gave him, in
strident tones, a piece of her mind. In the twinkling of an eye
three-quarters of the officer's excitement had subsided; he tried to put
in a word or two of mild protest but did not get a chance, and so departed
crestfallen, a different man.
After he had retreated to a safe distance, he turned and shouted back:
"All I say is, you'll have to clear out from here!"
I thought my neighbours opposite would forthwith pack up their mats and
bamboos and move away with their bundles, pigs, and children. But there is
no sign of it yet. They are still nonchalantly engaged in splitting
bamboos, cooking food, or completing a toilet.
The post office is in a part of our estate office building,--this is very
convenient, for we get our letters as soon as they arrive. Some evenings
the postmaster comes up to have a chat with me. I enjoy listening to his
He talks of the most impossible things in the gravest possible manner.
Yesterday he was telling me in what great reverence people of this
locality hold the sacred river Ganges. If one of their relatives dies, he
said, and they have not the means of taking the ashes to the Ganges, they
powder a piece of bone from his funeral pyre and keep it till they come
across some one who, some time or other, has drunk of the Ganges. To him
they administer some of this powder, hidden in the usual offering of
_pan_, and thus are content to imagine that a portion of the
remains of their deceased relative has gained purifying contact with the
[Footnote 1: Spices wrapped in betel leaf.]
I smiled as I remarked: "This surely must be an invention."
He pondered deeply before he admitted after a pause: "Yes, it may be."
ON THE WAY.
We have got past the big rivers and just turned into a little one.
The village women are standing in the water, bathing or washing clothes;
and some, in their dripping _saris_, with veils pulled well over
their faces, move homeward with their water vessels filled and clasped
against the left flank, the right arm swinging free. Children, covered all
over with clay, are sporting boisterously, splashing water on each other,
while one of them shouts a song, regardless of the tune.
Over the high banks, the cottage roofs and the tops of the bamboo clumps
are visible. The sky has cleared and the sun is shining. Remnants of
clouds cling to the horizon like fluffs of cotton wool. The breeze is
There are not many boats in this little river; only a few dinghies, laden
with dry branches and twigs, are moving leisurely along to the tired
plash! plash! of their oars. At the river's edge the fishermen's nets are
hung out to dry between bamboo poles. And work everywhere seems to be over
for the day.
I had been sitting out on the deck for more than a quarter of an hour when
heavy clouds rose in the west. They came up, black, tumbled, and tattered,
with streaks of lurid light showing through here and there. The little
boats scurried off into the smaller arm of the river and clung with their
anchors safely to its banks. The reapers took up the cut sheaves on their
heads and hied homewards; the cows followed, and behind them frisked the
calves waving their tails.
Then came an angry roar. Torn-off scraps of cloud hurried up from the
west, like panting messengers of evil tidings. Finally, lightning and
thunder, rain and storm, came on altogether and executed a mad dervish
dance. The bamboo clumps seemed to howl as the raging wind swept the
ground with them, now to the east, now to the west. Over all, the storm
droned like a giant snake-charmer's pipe, and to its rhythm swayed
hundreds and thousands of crested waves, like so many hooded snakes. The
thunder was incessant, as though a whole world was being pounded to pieces
away there behind the clouds.
With my chin resting on the ledge of an open window facing away from the
wind, I allowed my thoughts to take part in this terrible revelry; they
leapt into the open like a pack of schoolboys suddenly set free. When,
however, I got a thorough drenching from the spray of the rain, I had to
shut up the window and my poetising, and retire quietly into the darkness
inside, like a caged bird.
From the bank to which the boat is tied a kind of scent rises out of the
grass, and the heat of the ground, given off in gasps, actually touches my
body. I feel that the warm, living Earth is breathing upon me, and that
she, also, must feel my breath.
The young shoots of rice are waving in the breeze, and the ducks are in
turn thrusting their heads beneath the water and preening their feathers.
There is no sound save the faint, mournful creaking of the gangway against
the boat, as she imperceptibly swings to and fro in the current.
Not far off there is a ferry. A motley crowd has assembled under the
banyan tree awaiting the boat's return; and as soon as it arrives, they
eagerly scramble in. I enjoy watching this for hours together. It is
market-day in the village on the other bank; that is why the ferry is so
busy. Some carry bundles of hay, some baskets, some sacks; some are going
to the market, others coming from it. Thus, in this silent noonday, the
stream of human activity slowly flows across the river between two
I sat wondering: Why is there always this deep shade of melancholy over
the fields arid river banks, the sky and the sunshine of our country? And
I came to the conclusion that it is because with us Nature is obviously
the more important thing. The sky is free, the fields limitless; and the
sun merges them into one blazing whole. In the midst of this, man seems so
trivial. He comes and goes, like the ferry-boat, from this shore to the
other; the babbling hum of his talk, the fitful echo of his song, is
heard; the slight movement of his pursuit of his own petty desires is seen
in the world's market-places: but how feeble, how temporary, how
tragically meaningless it all seems amidst the immense aloofness of the
The contrast between the beautiful, broad, unalloyed peace of
Nature--calm, passive, silent, unfathomable,--and our own everyday
worries--paltry, sorrow-laden, strife-tormented, puts me beside myself as
I keep staring at the hazy, distant, blue line of trees which fringe the
fields across the river.
Where Nature is ever hidden, and cowers under mist and cloud, snow and
darkness, there man feels himself master; he regards his desires, his
works, as permanent; he wants to perpetuate them, he looks towards
posterity, he raises monuments, he writes biographies; he even goes the
length of erecting tombstones over the dead. So busy is he that he has not
time to consider how many monuments crumble, how often names are
There was a great, big mast lying on the river bank, and some little
village urchins, with never a scrap of clothing, decided, after a long
consultation, that if it could be rolled along to the accompaniment of a
sufficient amount of vociferous clamour, it would be a new and altogether
satisfactory kind of game. The decision was no sooner come to than acted
upon, with a "_Shabash_, brothers! All together! Heave ho!" And at
every turn it rolled, there was uproarious laughter.
The demeanour of one girl in the party was very different. She was playing
with the boys for want of other companions, but she clearly viewed with
disfavour these loud and strenuous games. At last she stepped up to the
mast and, without a word, deliberately sat on it.
So rare a game to come to so abrupt a stop! Some of the players seemed to
resign themselves to giving it up as a bad job; and retiring a little way
off, they sulkily glared at the girl in her impassive gravity. One made as
if he would push her off, but even this did not disturb the careless ease
of her pose. The eldest lad came up to her and pointed to other equally
suitable places for taking a rest; at which she energetically shook her
head, and putting her hands in her lap, steadied herself down still more
firmly on her seat. Then at last they had recourse to physical argument
and were completely successful.
Once again joyful shouts rent the skies, and the mast rolled along so
gloriously that even the girl had to cast aside her pride and her
dignified exclusiveness and make a pretence of joining in the unmeaning
excitement. But one could see all the time that she was sure boys never
know how to play properly, and are always so childish! If only she had the
regulation yellow earthen doll handy, with its big, black top-knot, would
she ever have deigned to join in this silly game with these foolish boys?
All of a sudden the idea of another splendid pastime occurred to the boys.
Two of them got hold of a third by the arms and legs and began to swing
him. This must have been great fun, for they all waxed enthusiastic over
it. But it was more than the girl could stand, so she disdainfully left
the playground and marched off home.
Then there was an accident. The boy who was being swung was let fall. He
left his companions in a pet, and went and lay down on the grass with his
arms crossed under his head, desiring to convey thereby that never again
would he have anything to do with this bad, hard world, but would forever
lie, alone by himself, with his arms under his head, and count the stars
and watch the play of the clouds.
The eldest boy, unable to bear the idea of such untimely
world-renunciation, ran up to the disconsolate one and taking his head on
his own knees repentantly coaxed him. "Come, my little brother! Do get up,
little brother! Have we hurt you, little brother?" And before long I found
them playing, like two pups, at catching and snatching away each other's
hands! Two minutes had hardly passed before the little fellow was swinging
I had a most extraordinary dream last night. The whole of Calcutta seemed
enveloped in some awful mystery, the houses being only dimly visible
through a dense, dark mist, within the veil of which there were strange
I was going along Park Street in a hackney carriage, and as I passed St.
Xavier's College I found it had started growing rapidly and was fast
getting impossibly high within its enveloping haze. Then it was borne in
on me that a band of magicians had come to Calcutta who, if they were paid
for it, could bring about many such wonders.
When I arrived at our Jorasanko house, I found these magicians had turned
up there too. They were ugly-looking, of a Mongolian type, with scanty
moustaches and a few long hairs sticking out of their chins. They could
make men grow. Some of the girls wanted to be made taller, and the
magician sprinkled some powder over their heads and they promptly shot up.
To every one I met I kept repeating: "This is most extraordinary,--just
like a dream!"
Then some one proposed that our house should be made to grow. The
magicians agreed, and as a preliminary began to take down some portions.
The dismantling over, they demanded money, or else they would not go on.
The cashier strongly objected. How could payment be made before the work
was completed? At this the magicians got wild and twisted up the building
most fearsomely, so that men and brickwork got mixed together, bodies
inside walls and only head and shoulders showing.
It had altogether the look of a thoroughly devilish business, as I told my
eldest brother. "You see," said I, "the kind of thing it is. We had better
call upon God to help us!" But try as I might to anathematise them in the
name of God, my heart felt like breaking and no words would come. Then I
A curious dream, was it not? Calcutta in the hands of Satan and growing
diabolically, within the darkness of an unholy mist!
The schoolmasters of this place paid me a visit yesterday.
They stayed on and on, while for the life of me I could not find a word to
say. I managed a question or so every five minutes, to which they offered
the briefest replies; and then I sat vacantly, twirling my pen, and
scratching my head.
At last I ventured on a question about the crops, but being schoolmasters
they knew nothing whatever about crops.
About their pupils I had already asked them everything I could think of,
so I had to start over again: How many boys had they in the school? One
said eighty, another said a hundred and seventy-five. I hoped that this
might lead to an argument, but no, they made up their difference.
Why, after an hour and a half, they should have thought of taking leave, I
cannot tell. They might have done so with as good a reason an hour
earlier, or, for the matter of that, twelve hours later! Their decision
was clearly arrived at empirically, entirely without method.
There is another boat at this landing-place, and on the shore in front of
it a crowd of village women. Some are evidently embarking on a journey and
the others seeing them off; infants, veils, and grey hairs are all mixed
up in the gathering.
One girl in particular attracts my attention. She must be about eleven or
twelve; but, buxom and sturdy, she might pass for fourteen or fifteen. She
has a winsome face--very dark, but very pretty. Her hair is cut short like
a boy's, which well becomes her simple, frank, and alert expression. She
has a child in her arms and is staring at me with unabashed curiosity, and
certainly no lack of straightforwardness or intelligence in her glance.
Her half-boyish, half-girlish manner is singularly attractive--a novel
blend of masculine nonchalance and feminine charm. I had no idea there
were such types among our village women in Bengal.
None of this family, apparently, is troubled with too much bashfulness.
One of them has unfastened her hair in the sun and is combing it out with
her ringers, while conversing about their domestic affairs at the top of
her voice with another, on board. I gather she has no other children
except a girl, a foolish creature who knows neither how to behave or talk,
nor even the difference between kin and stranger. I also learn that
Gopal's son-in-law has turned out a ne'er-do-well, and that his daughter
refuses to go to her husband.
When, at length, it was time to start, they escorted my short-haired
damsel, with plump shapely arms, her gold bangles and her guileless,
radiant face, into the boat. I could divine that she was returning from
her father's to her husband's home. They all stood there, following the
boat with their gaze as it cast off, one or two wiping their eyes with the
loose end of their _saris_. A little girl, with her hair tightly tied
into a knot, clung to the neck of an older woman and silently wept on her
shoulder. Perhaps she was losing a darling Didimani  who joined in her
doll games and also slapped her when she was naughty....
[Footnote 1: An elder sister is often called sister-jewel
The quiet floating away of a boat on the stream seems to add to the pathos
of a separation--it is so like death--the departing one lost to sight,
those left behind returning to their daily life, wiping their eyes. True,
the pang lasts but a while, and is perhaps already wearing off both in
those who have gone and those who remain,--pain being temporary, oblivion
permanent. But none the less it is not the forgetting, but the pain which
is true; and every now and then, in separation or in death, we realise how
ON BOARD A CANAL STEAMER GOING TO CUTTACK,
My bag left behind, my clothes daily get more and more intolerably
disreputable,--this thought continually uppermost is not compatible with a
due sense of self-respect. With the bag I could have faced the world of
men head erect and spirits high; without it, I fain would skulk in
corners, away from the glances of the crowd. I go to bed in these clothes
and in them I appear in the morning, and on the top of that the steamer is
full of soot, and the unbearable heat of the day keeps one unpleasantly
Apart from this, I am having quite a time of it on board the steamer. My
fellow-passengers are of inexhaustible variety. There is one, Aghore Babu,
who cannot allude to anything, animate or inanimate, except in terms of
personal abuse. There is another, a lover of music, who persists in
attempting variations on the Bhairab mode at dead of night, convincing
me of the untimeliness of his performance in more senses than one.
[Footnote: A Raga, or mode of Indian classical music, supposed to be
appropriate to the early dawn.]
The steamer has been aground in a narrow ditch of a canal ever since last
evening, and it is now past nine in the morning. I spent the night in a
corner of the crowded deck, more dead than alive. I had asked the steward
to fry some _luchis_ for my dinner, and he brought me some
nondescript slabs of fried dough with no vegetable accompaniments to eat
them with. On my expressing a pained surprise, he was all contrition and
offered to make me some hotch-potch at once. But the night being already
far advanced, I declined his offer, managed to swallow a few mouthfuls of
the stuff dry, and then, all lights on and the deck packed with
passengers, laid myself down to sleep.
Mosquitoes hovered above, cockroaches wandered around. There was a
fellow-sleeper stretched crosswise at my feet whose body my soles every
now and then came up against. Four or five noses were engaged in snoring.
Several mosquito-tormented, sleepless wretches were consoling themselves
by pulls at their hubble-bubble pipes; and above all, there rose those
variations on the mode _Bhairab_! Finally, at half-past three in the
morning, some fussy busy-bodies began loudly inciting each other to get
up. In despair, I also left my bed and dropped into my deck-chair to await
the dawn. Thus passed that variegated nightmare of a night.
One of the hands tells me that the steamer has stuck so fast that it may
take the whole day to get her off. I inquire of another whether any
Calcutta-bound steamer will be passing, and get the smiling reply that
this is the only boat on this line, and I may come back in her, if I like,
after she has reached Cuttack! By a stroke of luck, after a great deal of
tugging and hauling, they have just got her afloat at about ten o'clock.
7_th September_ 1891.
The landing-place at Balia makes a pretty picture with its fine big trees
on either side, and on the whole the canal somehow reminds me of the
little river at Poona. On thinking it over I am sure I should have liked
the canal much better had it really been a river.
Cocoanut palms as well as mangoes and other shady trees line its banks,
which, turfed with beautifully green grass, slope gently down to the
water, and are sprinkled over with sensitive plants in flower. Here and
there are screwpine groves, and through gaps in the border of trees
glimpses can be caught of endless fields, stretching away into the
distance, their crops so soft and velvety after the rains that the eye
seems to sink into their depths. Then again, there are the little villages
under their clusters of cocoanut and date palms, nestling under the moist
cool shade of the low seasonal clouds.
Through all these the canal, with its gentle current, winds gracefully
between its clean, grassy banks, fringed, in its narrower stretches, with
clusters of water-lilies with reeds growing among them. And yet the mind
keeps fretting at the idea that after all it is nothing but an artificial
The murmur of its waters does not reach back to the beginning of time. It
knows naught of the mysteries of some distant, inaccessible mountain cave.
It has not flowed for ages, graced with an old-world feminine name, giving
the villages on its sides the milk of its breast. Even old artificial
lakes have acquired a greater dignity.
However when, a hundred years hence, the trees on its banks will have
grown statelier; its brand-new milestones been worn down and moss-covered
into mellowness; the date 1871, inscribed on its lock-gates, left behind
at a respectable distance; then, if I am reborn as my great-grandson and
come again to inspect the Cuttack estates along this canal, I may feel
differently towards it.
Boat after boat touches at the landing-place, and after a whole year
exiles are returning home from distant fields of work for the Poojah
vacation, their boxes, baskets, and bundles loaded with presents. I notice
one who, as his boat nears the shore, changes into a freshly folded and
crinkled muslin _dhoti_, dons over his cotton tunic a China silk
coat, carefully adjusts round his neck a neatly twisted scarf, and walks
off towards the village, umbrella held aloft.
Rustling waves pass over the rice-fields. Mango and cocoanut tree-tops
rise into the sky, and beyond them there are fluffy clouds on the horizon.
The fringes of the palm leaves wave in the breeze. The reeds on the
sand-bank are on the point of flowering. It is altogether an exhilarating
The feelings of the man who has just arrived home, the eager expectancy of
his folk awaiting him, this autumn sky, this world, the gentle morning
breeze, the universal responsive tremor in tree and shrub and in the
wavelets on the river, conspire to overwhelm this lonely youth, gazing
from his window, with unutterable joys and sorrows.
Glimpses of the world received from wayside windows bring new desires, or
rather, make old desires take on new forms. The day before yesterday, as I
was sitting at the window of the boat, a little fisher-dinghy floated
past, the boatman singing a song--not a very tuneful song. But it reminded
me of a night, years ago, when I was a child. We were going along the
Padma in a boat. I awoke one night at about 2 o'clock, and, on raising the
window and putting out my head, I saw the waters without a ripple,
gleaming in the moonlight, and a youth in a little dinghy paddling along
all by himself and singing, oh so sweetly,--such sweet melody I had never
A sudden longing came upon me to go back to the day of that song; to be
allowed to make another essay at life, this time not to leave it thus
empty and unsatisfied; but with a poet's song on my lips to float about
the world on the crest of the rising tide, to sing it to men and subdue
their hearts; to see for myself what the world holds and where; to let men
know me, to get to know them; to burst forth through the world in life and
youth like the eager rushing breezes; and then return home to a fulfilled
and fruitful old age to spend it as a poet should.
Not a very lofty ideal, is it? To benefit the world would have been much
higher, no doubt; but being on the whole what I am, that ambition does not
even occur to me. I cannot make up my mind to sacrifice this precious gift
of life in a self-wrought famine, and disappoint the world and the hearts
of men by fasts and meditations and constant argument. I count it enough
to live and die as a man, loving and trusting the world, unable to look on
it either as a delusion of the Creator or a snare of the Devil. It is not
for me to strive to be wafted away into the airiness of an Angel.
2_nd Kartik_ (_October_) 1891.
When I come to the country I cease to view man as separate from the rest.
As the river runs through many a clime, so does the stream of men babble
on, winding through woods and villages and towns. It is not a true
contrast that _men may come and men may go, but I go on for ever_.
Humanity, with all its confluent streams, big and small, flows on and on,
just as does the river, from its source in birth to its sea of death;--two
dark mysteries at either end, and between them various play and work and
Over there the cultivators sing in the fields: here the fishing-boats
float by. The day wears on and the heat of the sun increases. Some bathers
are still in the river, others are finished and are taking home their
filled water-vessels. Thus, past both banks of the river, hundreds of
years have hummed their way, while the refrain rises in a mournful chorus:
_I go on for ever!_
Amid the noonday silence some youthful cowherd is heard calling at the top
of his voice for his companion; some boat splashes its way homewards; the
ripples lap against the empty jar which some village woman rests on the
water before dipping it; and with these mingle several other less definite
sounds,--the twittering of birds, the humming of bees, the plaintive
creaking of the house-boat as it gently swings to and fro,--the whole
making a tender lullaby, as of a mother trying to quiet a suffering child.
"Fret not," she sings, as she soothingly pats its fevered forehead. "Worry
not; weep no more. Let be your strugglings and grabbings and fightings;
forget a while, sleep a while."
3_rd Kartik_ (_October_) 1891.
It was the _Kojagar_ full moon, and I was slowly pacing the riverside
conversing with myself. It could hardly be called a conversation, as I was
doing all the talking and my imaginary companion all the listening. The
poor fellow had no chance of speaking up for himself, for was not mine the
power to compel him helplessly to answer like a fool?
But what a night it was! How often have I tried to write of such, but
never got it done! There was not a line of ripple on the river; and from
away over there, where the farthest shore of the distant main stream is
seen beyond the other edge of the midway belt of sand, right up to this
shore, glimmers a broad band of moonlight. Not a human being, not a boat
in sight; not a tree, nor blade of grass on the fresh-formed island
It seemed as though a desolate moon was rising upon a devastated earth; a
random river wandering through a lifeless solitude; a long-drawn
fairy-tale coming to a close over a deserted world,--all the kings and the
princesses, their ministers and friends and their golden castles vanished,
leaving the Seven Seas and Thirteen Rivers and the Unending Moor, over
which the adventurous princes fared forth, wanly gleaming in the pale
moonlight. I was pacing up and down like the last pulse-beats of this
dying world. Every one else seemed to be on the opposite shore--the shore
of life--where the British Government and the Nineteenth Century hold
sway, and tea and cigarettes.
9_th January_ 1892.
For some days the weather here has been wavering between Winter and
Spring. In the morning, perhaps, shivers will run over both land and water
at the touch of the north wind; while the evening will thrill with the
south breeze coming through the moonlight.
There is no doubt that Spring is well on its way. After a long interval
the _papiya_ once more calls out from the groves on the opposite
bank. The hearts of men too are stirred; and after evening falls, sounds
of singing are heard in the village, showing that they are no longer in
such a hurry to close doors and windows and cover themselves up snugly for
To-night the moon is at its full, and its large, round face peers at me
through the open window on my left, as if trying to make out whether I
have anything to say against it in my letter,--it suspects, maybe, that we
mortals concern ourselves more with its stains than its beams.
A bird is plaintively crying tee-tee on the sand-bank. The river seems not
to move. There are no boats. The motionless groves on the bank cast an
unquivering shadow on the waters. The haze over the sky makes the moon
look like a sleepy eye kept open.
Henceforward the evenings will grow darker and darker; and when,
to-morrow, I come over from the office, this moon, the favourite companion
of my exile, will already have drifted a little farther from me, doubting
whether she had been wise to lay her heart so completely bare last
evening, and so covering it up again little by little.
Nature becomes really and truly intimate in strange and lonely places. I
have been actually worrying myself for days at the thought that after the
moon is past her full I shall daily miss the moonlight more and more;
feeling further and further exiled when the beauty and peace which awaits
my return to the riverside will no longer be there, and I shall have to
come back through darkness.
Anyhow I put it on record that to-day is the full moon--the first full
moon of this year's springtime. In years to come I may perchance be
reminded of this night, with the tee-tee of the bird on the bank, the
glimmer of the distant light on the boat off the other shore, the shining
expanse of river, the blur of shade thrown by the dark fringe of trees
along its edge, and the white sky gleaming overhead in unconcerned
7_th April_ 1892.
The river is getting low, and the water in this arm of it is hardly more
than waist-deep anywhere. So it is not at all extraordinary that the boat
should be anchored in mid-stream. On the bank, to my right, the ryots are
ploughing and cows are now and then brought down to the water's edge for a
drink. To the left there are the mango and cocoanut trees of the old
Shelidah garden above, and on the bathing slope below there are village
women washing clothes, filling water jars, bathing, laughing and gossiping
in their provincial dialect.
The younger girls never seem to get through their sporting in the water;
it is a delight to hear their careless, merry laughter. The men gravely
take their regulation number of dips and go away, but girls are on much
more intimate terms with the water. Both alike babble and chatter and
ripple and sparkle in the same simple and natural manner; both may
languish and fade away under a scorching glare, yet both can take a blow
without hopelessly breaking under it. The hard world, which, but for them,
would be barren, cannot fathom the mystery of the soft embrace of their
Tennyson has it that woman to man is as water to wine. I feel to-day it
should be as water is to land. Woman is more at home with the water,
laving in it, playing with it, holding her gatherings beside it; and
while, for her, other burdens are not seemly, the carrying of water from
the spring, the well, the bank of river or pool, has ever been held to
2_nd May_ 1892.
There are many paradoxes in the world and one of them is this, that
wherever the landscape is immense, the sky unlimited, clouds intimately
dense, feelings unfathomable--that is to say where infinitude is
manifest--its fit companion is one solitary person; a multitude there
seems so petty, so distracting.
An individual and the infinite are on equal terms, worthy to gaze on one
another, each from his own throne. But where many men are, how small both
humanity and infinitude become, how much they have to knock off each
other, in order to fit in together! Each soul wants so much room to expand
that in a crowd it needs must wait for gaps through which to thrust a
little craning piece of a head from time to time.
So the only result of our endeavour to assemble is that we become unable
to fill our joined hands, our outstretched arms, with this endless,
8_th Jaistha_ (_May_) 1892.
Women who try to be witty, but only succeed in being pert, are
insufferable; and as for attempts to be comic they are disgraceful in
women whether they succeed or fail. The comic is ungainly and exaggerated,
and so is in some sort related to the sublime. The elephant is comic, the
camel and the giraffe are comic, all overgrowth is comic.
It is rather keenness that is akin to beauty, as the thorn to the flower.
So sarcasm is not unbecoming in woman, though coming from her it hurts.
But ridicule which savours of bulkiness woman had better leave to our
sublime sex. The masculine Falstaff makes our sides split, but a feminine
Falstaff would only rack our nerves.
12_th Jaistha_ (_May_) 1892.
I usually pace the roof-terrace, alone, of an evening. Yesterday afternoon
I felt it my duty to show my visitors the beauties of the local scenery,
so I strolled out with them, taking Aghore as a guide.
On the verge of the horizon, where the distant fringe of trees was blue, a
thin line of dark blue cloud had risen over them and was looking
particularly beautiful. I tried to be poetical and said it was like blue
collyrium on the fringe of lashes enhancing a beautiful blue eye. Of my
companions one did not hear the remark, another did not understand, while
the third dismissed it with the reply: "Yes, very pretty." I did not feel
encouraged to attempt a second poetical flight.
After walking about a mile we came to a dam, and along the pool of water
there was a row of _tal_ (fan palm) trees, under which was a natural
spring. While we stood there looking at this, we found that the line of
cloud which we had seen in the North was making for us, swollen and grown
darker, flashes of lightning gleaming the while.
We unanimously came to the conclusion that viewing the beauties of nature
could be better done from within the shelter of the house, but no sooner
had we turned homewards than a storm, making giant strides over the open
moorland, was on us with an angry roar. I had no idea, while I was
admiring the collyrium on the eyelashes of beauteous dame Nature, that she
would fly at us like an irate housewife, threatening so tremendous a slap!
It became so dark with the dust that we could not see beyond a few paces.
The fury of the storm increased, and flying stony particles of the rubbly
soil stung our bodies like shot, as the wind took us by the scruff of the
neck and thrust us along, to the whipping of drops of rain which had begun
Run! Run! But the ground was not level, being deeply scarred with
watercourses, and not easy to cross at any time, much less in a storm. I
managed to get entangled in a thorny shrub, and was nearly thrown on my
face by the force of the wind as I stopped to free myself.
When we had almost reached the house, a host of servants came hurrying
towards us, shouting and gesticulating, and fell upon us like another
storm. Some took us by the arms, some bewailed our plight, some were eager
to show the way, others hung on our backs as if fearing that the storm
might carry us off altogether. We evaded their attentions with some
difficulty and managed at length to get into the house, panting, with wet
clothes, dusty bodies, and tumbled hair.
One thing I had learnt; and will never again write in novel or story the
lie that the hero with the picture of his lady-love in his mind can pass
unruffled through wind and rain. No one could keep any face in mind,
however lovely, in such a storm,--he has enough to do to keep the sand out
of his eyes!...
The Vaishnava-poets have sung ravishingly of Radha going to her tryst with
Krishna through a stormy night. Did they ever pause to consider, I wonder,
in what condition she must have reached him? The kind of tangle her hair
got into is easily imaginable, and also the state of the rest of her
toilet. When she arrived in her bower with the dust on her body soaked by
the rain into a coating of mud, she must have been a sight!
But when we read the Vaishnava poems, these thoughts do not occur. We only
see on the canvas of our mind the picture of a beautiful woman, passing
under the shelter of the flowering kadambas in the darkness of a stormy
_Shravan_ night, towards the bank of the Jumna, forgetful of wind
or rain, as in a dream, drawn by her surpassing love. She has tied up her
anklets lest they should tinkle; she is clad in dark blue raiment lest she
be discovered; but she holds no umbrella lest she get wet, carries no
lantern lest she fall!
[Footnote 1: July-August, the rainy season.]
Alas for useful things--how necessary in practical life, how neglected in
poetry! But poetry strives in vain to free us from their bondage--they
will be with us always; so much so, we are told, that with the march of
civilisation it is poetry that will become extinct, but patent after
patent will continue to be taken out for the improvement of shoes and
16_th Jaistha (May)_ 1892.
No church tower clock chimes here, and there being no other human
habitation near by, complete silence falls with the evening, as soon as
the birds have ceased their song. There is not much difference between
early night and midnight. A sleepless night in Calcutta flows like a huge,
slow river of darkness; one can count the varied sounds of its passing,
lying on one's back in bed. But here the night is like a vast, still lake,
placidly reposing, with no sign of movement. And as I tossed from side to
side last night I felt enveloped within a dense stagnation.
This morning I left my bed a little later than usual and, coming
downstairs to my room, leant back on a bolster, one leg resting over the
other knee. There, with a slate on my chest, I began to write a poem to
the accompaniment of the morning breeze and the singing birds. I was
getting along splendidly--a smile playing over my lips, my eyes half
closed, my head swaying to the rhythm, the thing I hummed gradually taking
shape--when the post arrived.
There was a letter, the last number of the _Sadhana Magazine_, one of
the _Monist_, and some proof-sheets. I read the letter, raced my eyes
over the uncut pages of the _Sadhana_, and then again fell to nodding
and humming through my poem. I did not do another thing till I had
I wonder why the writing of pages of prose does not give one anything like
the joy of completing a single poem. One's emotions take on such
perfection of form in a poem; they can, as it were, be taken up by the
fingers. But prose is like a sackful of loose material, heavy and
unwieldy, incapable of being lifted as you please.
If I could finish writing one poem a day, my life would pass in a kind of
joy; but though I have been busy tending poetry for many a year it has not
been tamed yet, and is not the kind of winged steed to allow me to bridle
it whenever I like! The joy of art is in freedom to take a distant flight
as fancy will; then, even after return within the prison-world, an echo
lingers in the ear, an exaltation in the mind.
Short poems keep coming to me unsought, and so prevent my getting on with
the play. Had it not been for these, I could have let in ideas for two or
three plays which have been knocking at the door. I am afraid I must wait
for the cold weather. All my plays except "Chitra" were written in the
winter. In that season lyrical fervour is apt to grow cold, and one gets
the leisure to write drama.
_31st May 1892._
It is not yet five o'clock, but the light has dawned, there is a
delightful breeze, and all the birds in the garden are awake and have
started singing. The _koel_ seems beside itself. It is difficult to
understand why it should keep on cooing so untiringly. Certainly not to
entertain us, nor to distract the pining lover--it must have some
personal purpose of its own. But, sadly enough, that purpose never seems
to get fulfilled. Yet it is not down-hearted, and its Coo-oo! Coo-oo!
keeps going, with now and then an ultra-fervent trill. What can it mean?
[Footnote 1: A favourite conceit of the old Sanskrit poets.]
And then in the distance there is some other bird with only a faint
chuck-chuck that has no energy or enthusiasm, as if all hope were lost;
none the less, from within some shady nook it cannot resist uttering this
little plaint: chuck, chuck, chuck.
How little we really know of the household affairs of these innocent
winged creatures, with their soft, breasts and necks and their
many-coloured feathers! Why on earth do they find it necessary to sing so
_31st Jaistha (June)1892._
I hate these polite formalities. Nowadays I keep repeating the line: "Much
rather would I be an Arab Bedouin!" A fine, healthy, strong, and free
I feel I want to quit this constant ageing of mind and body, with
incessant argument and nicety concerning ancient decaying things, and to
feel the joy of a free and vigorous life; to have,--be they good or
bad,--broad, unhesitating, unfettered ideas and aspirations, free from
everlasting friction between custom and sense, sense and desire, desire
If only I could set utterly and boundlessly free this hampered life of
mine, I would storm the four quarters and raise wave upon wave of tumult
all round; I would career away madly, like a wild horse, for very joy of
my own speed! But I am a Bengali, not a Bedouin! I go on sitting in my
corner, and mope and worry and argue. I turn my mind now this way up, now
the other--as a fish is fried--and the boiling oil blisters first this
side, then that.
Let it pass. Since I cannot be thoroughly wild, it is but proper that I
should make an endeavour to be thoroughly civil. Why foment a quarrel
between the two?
_16th June 1892._
The more one lives alone on the river or in the open country, the clearer
it becomes that nothing is more beautiful or great than to perform the
ordinary duties of one's daily life simply and naturally. From the grasses
in the field to the stars in the sky, each one is doing just that; and
there is such profound peace and surpassing beauty in nature because none
of these tries forcibly to transgress its limitations.
Yet what each one does is by no means of little moment. The grass has to
put forth all its energy to draw sustenance from the uttermost tips of its
rootlets simply to grow where it is as grass; it does not vainly strive to
become a banyan tree; and so the earth gains a lovely carpet of green.
And, indeed, what little of beauty and peace is to be found in the
societies of men is owing to the daily performance of small duties, not to
big doings and fine talk.
Perhaps because the whole of our life is not vividly present at each
moment, some imaginary hope may lure, some glowing picture of a future,
untrammelled with everyday burdens, may tempt us; but these are illusory.
_2nd Asarh (June) 1892._
Yesterday, the first day of _Asarh_, the enthronement of the rainy
season was celebrated with due pomp and circumstance. It was very hot the
whole day, but in the afternoon dense clouds rolled up in stupendous
[Footnote 1: June-July, the commencement of the rainy season.]
I thought to myself, this first day of the rains, I would rather risk
getting wet than remain confined in my dungeon of a cabin.
The year 1293  will not come again in my life, and,
for the matter of that, how many more even of these first days
of _Asarh_ will come? My life would be sufficiently long could it
number thirty of these first days of _Asarh_ to which the poet of the
_Meghaduta_ has, for me at least, given special distinction.
[Footnote 1: Of the Bengal era.]
[Footnote 2: In the _Meghaduta_ (Cloud Messenger) of Kalidas a famous
description of the burst of the Monsoon begins with the words: _On the
first day of Asarh_.]
It sometimes strikes me how immensely fortunate I am that each day should
take its place in my life, either reddened with the rising and setting
sun, or refreshingly cool with deep, dark clouds, or blooming like a white
flower in the moonlight. What untold wealth!
A thousand years ago Kalidas welcomed that first day of _Asarh_; and
once in every year of my life that same day of _Asarh_ dawns in all
its glory--that self-same day of the poet of old Ujjain, which has brought
to countless men and women their joys of union, their pangs of separation.
Every year one such great, time-hallowed day drops out of my life; and the
time will come when this day of Kalidas, this day of the _Meghaduta_,
this eternal first day of the Rains in Hindustan, shall come no more for
me. When I realise this I feel I want to take a good look at nature, to
offer a conscious welcome to each day's sunrise, to say farewell to each
day's setting sun, as to an intimate friend.
What a grand festival, what a vast theatre of festivity! And we cannot
even fully respond to it, so far away do we live from the world! The light
of the stars travels millions of miles to reach the earth, but it cannot
reach our hearts--so many millions of miles further off are we!
The world into which I have tumbled is peopled with strange beings. They
are always busy erecting walls and rules round themselves, and how careful
they are with their curtains lest they should see! It is a wonder to me
they have not made drab covers for flowering plants and put up a canopy to
ward off the moon. If the next life is determined by the desires of this,
then I should be reborn from our enshrouded planet into some free and open
realm of joy.
Only those who cannot steep themselves in beauty to the full, despise it
as an object of the senses. But those who have tasted of its
inexpressibility know how far it is beyond the highest powers of mere eye
or ear--nay, even the heart is powerless to attain the end of its
_P.S._--I have left out the very thing I started to tell of. Don't be
afraid, it won't take four more sheets. It is this, that on the evening of
the first day of _Asarh_ it came on to rain very heavily, in great
lance-like showers. That is all.
ON THE WAY TO GOALUNDA,
_21st June 1892._
Pictures in an endless variety, of sand-banks, fields and their crops, and
villages, glide into view on either hand--of clouds floating in the sky,
of colours blossoming when day meets night. Boats steal by, fishermen
catch fish; the waters make liquid, caressing sounds throughout the
livelong day; their broad expanse calms down in the evening stillness,
like a child lulled to sleep, over whom all the stars in the boundless sky
keep watch--then, as I sit up on wakeful nights, with sleeping banks on
either side, the silence is broken only by an occasional cry of a jackal
in the woods near some village, or by fragments undermined by the keen
current of the Padma, that tumble from the high cliff-like bank into the
Not that the prospect is always of particular interest--a yellowish
sandbank, innocent of grass or tree, stretches away; an empty boat is tied
to its edge; the bluish water, of the same shade as the hazy sky, flows
past; yet I cannot tell how it moves me. I suspect that the old desires
and longings of my servant-ridden childhood--when in the solitary
imprisonment of my room I pored over the _Arabian Nights_, and shared
with Sinbad the Sailor his adventures in many a strange land--are not yet
dead within me, but are roused at the sight of any empty boat tied to a
If I had not heard fairy tales and read the _Arabian Nights_ and
_Robinson Crusoe_ in childhood, I am sure views of distant banks, or
the farther side of wide fields, would not have stirred me so--the whole
world, in fact, would have had for me a different appeal.
What a maze of fancy and fact becomes tangled up within the mind of man!
The different strands--petty and great--of story and event and picture,
how they get knotted together!
_22nd June 1892._
Early this morning, while still lying in bed, I heard the women at the
bathing-place sending forth joyous peals of _Ulu! Ulu!_ The sound
moved me curiously, though it is difficult to say why.
[Footnote 1: A peculiar shrill cheer given by women on auspicious or
Perhaps such joyful outbursts put one in mind of the great stream of
festive activity which goes on in this world, with most of which the
individual man has no connection. The world is so immense, the concourse
of men so vast, yet with how few has one any tie! Distant sounds of life,
wafted near, bearing tidings from unknown homes, make the individual
realise that the greater part of the world of men does not, cannot own or
know him; then he feels deserted, loosely attached to the world, and a
vague sadness creeps over him.
Thus these cries of _Ulu! Ulu!_ made my life, past and future, seem
like a long, long road, from the very ends of which they come to me. And
this feeling colours for me the beginning of my day.
As soon as the manager with his staff, and the ryots seeking audience,
come upon the scene, this faint vista of past and future will be promptly
elbowed out, and a very robust present will salute and stand before me.
_25th June 1892._
In to-day's letters there was a touch about A---'s singing which made my
heart yearn with a nameless longing. Each of the little joys of life,
which remain unappreciated amid the hubbub of the town, send in their
claims to the heart when far from home. I love music, and there is no
dearth of voices and instruments in Calcutta, yet I turn a deaf ear to
them. But, though I may fail to realise it at the time, this needs must
leave the heart athirst.
As I read to-day's letters, I felt such a poignant desire to hear A---'s
sweet song, I was at once sure that one of the many suppressed longings of
creation which cry after fulfilment is for neglected joys within reach;
while we are busy pursuing chimerical impossibilities we famish our
The emptiness left by easy joys, untasted, is ever growing in my life. And
the day may come when I shall feel that, could I but have the past back, I
would strive no more after the unattainable, but drain to the full these
little, unsought, everyday joys which life offers.
_27th June 1892._
Yesterday, in the afternoon, it clouded over so threateningly, I felt a
sense of dread. I do not remember ever to have seen before such
Swollen masses of the deepest indigo blue were piled, one on top of the
other, just above the horizon, looking like the puffed-out moustaches of
some raging demon.
Under the jagged lower edges of the clouds there shone forth a blood-red
glare, as through the eyes of a monstrous, sky-filling bison, with tossing
mane and with head lowered to strike the earth in fury.
The crops in the fields and the leaves of the trees trembled with fear of
the impending disaster; shudder after shudder ran across the waters; the
crows flew wildly about, distractedly cawing.
_29th June 1892._
I wrote yesterday that I had an engagement with Kalidas, the poet, for
this evening. As I lit a candle, drew my chair up to the table, and made
ready, not Kalidas, but the postmaster, walked in. A live postmaster
cannot but claim precedence over a dead poet, so I could not very well
tell him to make way for Kalidas, who was due by appointment,--he would
not have understood me! Therefore I offered him a chair and gave old
Kalidas the go-by.
There is a kind of bond between this postmaster and me. When the post
office was in a part of this estate building, I used to meet him every
day. I wrote my story of "The Postmaster" one afternoon in this very room.
And when the story was out in the _Hitabadi_ he came to me with a
succession of bashful smiles, as he deprecatingly touched on the subject.
Anyhow, I like the man. He has a fund of anecdote which I enjoy listening
to. He has also a sense of humour.
Though it was late when the postmaster left, I started at once on the
_Raghuvansa_, and read all about the _swayamuara_ of
[Footnote 1: Book of poems by Kalidas, who is perhaps best known to
European readers as the author of _Sakuntala_.]
[Footnote 2: An old Indian custom, according to which a princess chooses
among assembled rival suitors for her hand by placing a garland round the
neck of the one whose love she returns.]
The handsome, gaily adorned princes are seated on rows of thrones in the
assembly hall. Suddenly a blast of conch-shell and trumpet resounds, as
Indumati, in bridal robes, supported by Sunanda, is ushered in and stands
in the walk left between them. It was delightful to dwell on the picture.
Then as Sunanda introduces to her each one of the suitors, Indumati bows
low in loveless salutation, and passes on. How beautiful is this humble
courtesy! They are all princes. They are all her seniors. For she is a
mere girl. Had she not atoned for the inevitable rudeness of her rejection
by the grace of her humility, the scene would have lost its beauty.
_20th August 1892._
"If only I could live there!" is often thought when looking at a beautiful
landscape painting. That is the kind of longing which is satisfied here,
where one feels alive in a brilliantly coloured picture, with none of the
hardness of reality. When I was a child, illustrations of woodland and
sea, in _Paul and Virginia_, or _Robinson Crusoe_, would waft me
away from the everyday world; and the sunshine here brings back to my mind
the feeling with which I used to gaze on those pictures.
I cannot account for this exactly, or explain definitely what kind of
longing it is which is roused within me. It seems like the throb of some
current flowing through the artery connecting me with the larger world. I
feel as if dim, distant memories come to me of the time when I was one
with the rest of the earth; when on me grew the green grass, and on me
fell the autumn light; when a warm scent of youth would rise from every
pore of my vast, soft, green body at the touch of the rays of the mellow
sun, and a fresh life, a sweet joy, would be half-consciously secreted and
inarticulately poured forth from all the immensity of my being, as it lay
dumbly stretched, with its varied countries and seas and mountains, under
the bright blue sky.
My feelings seem to be those of our ancient earth in the daily ecstasy of
its sun-kissed life; my own consciousness seems to stream through each
blade of grass, each sucking root, to rise with the sap through the trees,
to break out with joyous thrills in the waving fields of corn, in the
rustling palm leaves.
I feel impelled to give expression to my blood-tie with the earth, my
kinsman's love for her; but I am afraid I shall not be understood.
_18th November 1892._
I am wondering where your train has got to by now. This is the time for
the sun to rise over the ups and downs of the treeless, rocky region near
Nawadih station. The scene around there must be brightened by the fresh
sunlight, through which distant, blue hills are beginning to be faintly
Cultivated fields are scarcely to be seen, except where the primitive
tribesmen have done a little ploughing with their buffaloes; on each side
of the railway cutting there are the heaped-up black rocks--the
boulder-marked footprints of dried-up streams--and the fidgety, black
wagtails, perched along the telegraph wires. A wild, seamed, and scarred
nature lies there in the sun, as though tamed at the touch of some soft,
bright, cherubic hand.
Do you know the picture which this calls up for me? In the _Sakuntala_ of
Kalidas there is a scene where Bharat, the infant son of King Dushyanta,
is playing with a lion cub. The child is lovingly passing his delicate,
rosy fingers through the rough mane of the great beast, which lies quietly
stretched in trustful repose, now and then casting affectionate glances
out of the corner of its eyes at its little human friend.
And shall I tell you what those dry, boulder-strewn watercourses put me in
mind of? We read in the English fairy tale of the Babes in the Wood, how
the little brother and sister left a trace of their wanderings, through
the unknown forest into which their stepmother had turned them out, by
dropping pebbles as they went. These streamlets are like lost babes in the
great world into which they are sent adrift, and that is why they leave
stones, as they go forth, to mark their course, so as not to lose their
way when they may be returning. But for them there is no return journey!
_2nd December_ 1892.
There is a depth of feeling and breadth of peace in a Bengal sunset behind
the trees which fringe the endless solitary fields, spreading away to the
Lovingly, yet sadly withal, does our evening sky bend over and meet the
earth in the distance. It casts a mournful light on the earth it leaves
behind--a light which gives us a taste of the divine grief of the Eternal
Separation and eloquent is the silence which then broods over earth,
sky, and waters.
[Footnote 1: _I.e._ between Purusha and Prakriti--God and Creation.]
As I gaze on in rapt motionlessness, I fall to wondering--If ever this
silence should fail to contain itself, if the expression for which this
hour has been seeking from the beginning of time should break forth, would
a profoundly solemn, poignantly moving music rise from earth to starland?
With a little steadfast concentration of effort we can, for ourselves,
translate the grand harmony of light and colour which permeates the
universe into music. We have only to close our eyes and receive with the
ear of the mind the vibration of this ever-flowing panorama.
But how often shall I write of these sunsets and sunrises? I feel their
renewed freshness every time; yet how am I to attain such renewed
freshness in my attempts at expression?
_9th December_ 1892.
I am feeling weak and relaxed after my painful illness, and in this state
the ministrations of nature are sweet indeed. I feel as if, like the rest,
I too am lazily glittering out my delight at the rays of the sun, and my
letter-writing progresses but absent-mindedly.
The world is ever new to me; like an old friend loved through this and
former lives, the acquaintance between us is both long and deep.
I can well realise how, in ages past, when the earth in her first youth
came forth from her sea-bath and saluted the sun in prayer, I must have
been one of the trees sprung from her new-formed soil, spreading my
foliage in all the freshness of a primal impulse.
The great sea was rocking and swaying and smothering, like a foolishly
fond mother, its first-born land with repeated caresses; while I was
drinking in the sunlight with the whole of my being, quivering under the
blue sky with the unreasoning rapture of the new-born, holding fast and
sucking away at my mother earth with all my roots. In blind joy my leaves
burst forth and my flowers bloomed; and when the dark clouds gathered,
their grateful shade would comfort me with a tender touch.
From age to age, thereafter, have I been diversely reborn on this earth.
So whenever we now sit face to face, alone together, various ancient
memories, gradually, one after another, come back to me.
My mother earth sits to-day in the cornfields by the river-side, in her
raiment of sunlit gold; and near her feet, her knees, her lap, I roll
about and play. Mother of a multitude of children, she attends but
absently to their constant calls on her, with an immense patience, but
also with a certain aloofness. She is seated there, with her far-away look
fastened on the verge of the afternoon sky, while I keep chattering on
_Tuesday, February 1893_.
I do not want to wander about any more. I am pining for a corner in which
to nestle down snugly, away from the crowd.
India has two aspects--in one she is a householder, in the other a
wandering ascetic. The former refuses to budge from the home corner, the
latter has no home at all. I find both these within me. I want to roam
about and see all the wide world, yet I also yearn for a little sheltered
nook; like a bird with its tiny nest for a dwelling, and the vast sky for
I hanker after a corner because it serves to bring calmness to my mind. My
mind really wants to be busy, but in making the attempt it knocks so
repeatedly against the crowd as to become utterly frenzied and to keep
buffeting me, its cage, from within. If only it is allowed a little
leisurely solitude, and can look about and think to its heart's content,
it will express its feelings to its own satisfaction.
This freedom of solitude is what my mind is fretting for; it would be
alone with its imaginings, as the Creator broods over His own creation.
Till we can achieve something, let us live incognito, say I. So long as we
are only fit to be looked down upon, on what shall we base our claim to
respect? When we have acquired a foothold of our own in the world, when we
have had some share in shaping its course, then we can meet others
smilingly. Till then let us keep in the background, attending to our own
But our countrymen seem to hold the opposite opinion. They set no store by
our more modest, intimate wants which have to be met behind the
scenes,--the whole of their attention is directed to momentary
attitudinising and display.
Ours is truly a God-forsaken country. Difficult, indeed, is it for us to
maintain the strength of will to _do_. We get no help in any real
sense. There is no one, within miles of us, in converse with whom we might
gain an accession of vitality. No one near seems to be thinking, or
feeling, or working. Not a soul has any experience of big striving, or of
really and truly living. They all eat and drink, do their office work,
smoke and sleep, and chatter nonsensically. When they touch upon emotion
they grow sentimental, when they reason they are childish. One yearns for
a full-blooded, sturdy, and capable personality; these are all so many
shadows, flitting about, out of touch with the world.
_10th February_ 1893.
He was a fully developed John Bull of the outrageous type--with a huge
beak of a nose, cunning eyes, and a yard-long chin. The curtailment of our
right to be tried by jury is now under consideration by the Government.
The fellow dragged in the subject by the ears and insisted on arguing it
out with our host, poor B---- Babu. He said the moral standard of the
people of this country was low; that they had no real belief in the
sacredness of life; so that they were unfit to serve on juries.
The utter contempt with which we are regarded by these people was brought
home to me when I saw how they can accept a Bengali's hospitality and talk
thus, seated at his table, without a quiver of compunction.
As I sat in a corner of the drawing-room after dinner, everything round me
looked blurred to my eyes. I seemed to be seated by the head of my great,
insulted Motherland, who lay there in the dust before me, disconsolate,
shorn of her glory. I cannot tell what a profound distress overpowered my
How incongruous seemed the _mem-sahibs_ there, in their
evening-dresses, the hum of English conversation, and the ripples of
laughter! How richly true for us is our India of the ages; how cheap and
false the hollow courtesies of an English dinner-party!
If we begin to attach too much importance to the applause of Englishmen,
we shall have to be rid of much in us that is good, and to accept from
them much that is bad.
We shall grow ashamed of going about without socks, and cease to feel
shame at the sight of their ball dresses. We shall have no compunction in
throwing overboard our ancient manners, nor any in emulating their lack of
We shall leave off wearing our _achgans_ because they are susceptible of
improvement, but think nothing of surrendering our heads to their hats,
though no headgear could well be uglier.
In short, consciously or unconsciously, we shall have to cut our lives
down according as they clap their hands or not.
Wherefore I apostrophise myself and say: "O Earthen Pot! For goodness sake
keep away from that Metal Pot! Whether he comes to you in anger or merely
to give you a patronising pat on the back, you are done for, cracked in
either case. So pay heed to old Aesop's sage counsel, I pray--and keep
Let the metal pot ornament wealthy homes; you have work to do in those of
the poor. If you let yourself be broken, you will have no place in either,
but merely return to the dust; or, at best, you may secure a corner in a
bric-a-brac cabinet--as a curiosity, and it is more glorious far to be
used for fetching water by the meanest of village women.
_8th May 1893_.
Poetry is a very old love of mine--I must have been engaged to her when I
was only Rathi's age. Long ago the recesses under the old banyan tree
beside our tank, the inner gardens, the unknown regions on the ground
floor of the house, the whole of the outside world, the nursery rhymes and
tales told by the maids, created a wonderful fairyland within me. It is
difficult to give a clear idea of all the vague and mysterious happenings
of that period, but this much is certain, that my exchange of garlands
with Poetic Fancy was already duly celebrated.
[Footnote 1: Rathi, his son, was then five years old.]
[Footnote 2: The betrothal ceremony.]
I must admit, however, that my betrothed is not an auspicious
maiden--whatever else she may bring one, it is not good fortune. I cannot
say she has never given me happiness, but peace of mind with her is out of
the question. The lover whom she favours may get his fill of bliss, but
his heart's blood is wrung out under her relentless embrace. It is not for
the unfortunate creature of her choice ever to become a staid and sober
householder, comfortably settled down on a social foundation.
Consciously or unconsciously, I may have done many things that were
untrue, but I have never uttered anything false in my poetry--that is the
sanctuary where the deepest truths of my life find refuge.
_10th May_ 1893.
Here come black, swollen masses of cloud; they soak up the golden sunshine
from the scene in front of me like great pads of blotting-paper. Rain must
be near, for the breeze feels moist and tearful.
Over there, on the sky-piercing peaks of Simla, you will find it hard to
realise exactly what an important event the coming of the clouds is here,
or how many are anxiously looking up to the sky, hailing their advent.
I feel a great tenderness for these peasant folk--our ryots--big,
helpless, infantile children of Providence, who must have food brought to
their very lips, or they are undone. When the breasts of Mother Earth dry
up they are at a loss what to do, and can only cry. But no sooner is their
hunger satisfied than they forget all their past sufferings.
I know not whether the socialistic ideal of a more equal distribution of
wealth is attainable, but if not, the dispensation of Providence is indeed
cruel, and man a truly unfortunate creature. For if in this world misery
must exist, so be it; but let some little loophole, some glimpse of
possibility at least, be left, which may serve to urge the nobler portion
of humanity to hope and struggle unceasingly for its alleviation.
They say a terribly hard thing who assert that the division of the world's
production to afford each one a mouthful of food, a bit of clothing, is
only an Utopian dream. All these social problems are hard indeed! Fate has
allowed humanity such a pitifully meagre coverlet, that in pulling it over
one part of the world, another has to be left bare. In allaying our
poverty we lose our wealth, and with this wealth what a world of grace and
beauty and power is lost to us.
But the sun shines forth again, though the clouds are still banked up in
_11th May 1893._
There is another pleasure for me here. Sometimes one or other of our
simple, devoted, old ryots comes to see me--and their worshipful homage is
so unaffected! How much greater than I are they in the beautiful
simplicity and sincerity of their reverence. What if I am unworthy of
their veneration--their feeling loses nothing of its value.
I regard these grown-up children with the same kind of affection that I
have for little children--but there is also a difference. They are more
infantile still. Little children will grow up later on, but these big
A meek and radiantly simple soul shines through their worn and wrinkled,
old bodies. Little children are merely simple, they have not the
unquestioning, unwavering devotion of these. If there be any undercurrent
along which the souls of men may have communication with one another, then
my sincere blessing will surely reach and serve them.
_16th May_ 1893.
I walk about for an hour on the river bank, fresh and clean after my
afternoon bath. Then I get into the new jolly-boat, anchor in mid-stream,
and on a bed, spread on the planked over-stern, I lie silently there on my
back, in the darkness of the evening. Little S---- sits beside me and
chatters away, and the sky becomes more and more thickly studded with
Each day the thought recurs to me: Shall I be reborn under this
star-spangled sky? Will the peaceful rapture of such wonderful evenings
ever again be mine, on this silent Bengal river, in so secluded a corner
of the world?
Perhaps not. The scene may be changed; I may be born with a different
mind. Many such evenings may come, but they may refuse to nestle so
trustfully, so lovingly, with such complete abandon, to my breast.
Curiously enough, my greatest fear is lest I should be reborn in Europe!
For there one cannot recline like this with one's whole being laid open to
the infinite above--one is liable, I am afraid, to be soundly rated for
lying down at all. I should probably have been hustling strenuously in
some factory or bank, or Parliament. Like the roads there, one's mind has
to be stone-metalled for heavy traffic--geometrically laid out, and kept
clear and regulated.
I am sure I cannot exactly say why this lazy, dreamy, self-absorbed,
sky-filled state of mind seems to me the more desirable. I feel no whit
inferior to the busiest men of the world as I lie here in my jolly-boat.
Rather, had I girded up my loins to be strenuous, I might have seemed ever
so feeble compared to those chips of old oaken blocks.
_3rd July 1893._
All last night the wind howled like a stray dog, and the rain still pours
on without a break. The water from the fields is rushing in numberless,
purling streams to the river. The dripping ryots are crossing the river in
the ferryboat, some with their tokas on, others with yam leaves held
over their heads. Big cargo-boats are gliding along, the boatman sitting
drenched at his helm, the crew straining at the tow-ropes through the
rain. The birds remain gloomily confined to their nests, but the sons of
men fare forth, for in spite of the weather the world's work must go on.
[Footnote 1: Conical hats of straw or of split bamboo.]
Two cowherd lads are grazing their cattle just in front of my boat. The
cows are munching away with great gusto, their noses plunged into the lush
grass, their tails incessantly busy flicking off the flies. The raindrops
and the sticks of the cowherd boys fall on their backs with the same
unreasonable persistency, and they bear both with equally uncritical
resignation, steadily going on with their munch, munch, munch. These cows
have such mild, affectionate, mournful eyes; why, I wonder, should
Providence have thought fit to impose all the burden of man's work on the
submissive shoulders of these great, gentle beasts?
The river is rising daily. What I could see yesterday only from the upper
deck, I can now see from my cabin windows. Every morning I awake to find
my field of vision growing larger. Not long since, only the tree-tops near
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