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Two authors/poets that I most admire come from South Asia. Nepal’s Laxmi Prasad Devkota and India’s Rabindranath Tagore. Devkota is called Mahakavi, meaning great poet and Tagore is called Gurudev, or great teacher. Both of them were characterised by humility. Devkota going out of his way to give all of his money to the poor, once even giving someone the coat off of his back in the cold. He shunned material comforts and was critical of socialites and high society. Once, goes the story, he was invited to a high society party. He went to it, clad in rags and the usual everyday clothes that he wore, and was denied entrance by the doorman. He returned home, put on a suit and a nice tie and went back. The doorman now let him in. He walked up to the buffet, picked up a plate of food and thrust his tie into it, while saying “Eat! Eat!” As a direct result, he was incarcerated in a mental asylum where he wrote “Pagal,” once of his most famous poems. He was a chronic alcoholic and a chain smoker. But he wrote the most beautiful Nepali poems, evocative and ethereal. 

Tagore, on the other hand, stressed education for the masses above everything else. He was the first South Asian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and he was also knighted with an OBE. Subsequently, he gave it up to protest the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. He founded a number of schools and wrote extensively in Bengali, short stories, plays, novels and poems. Satyajit Ray adapted Ghare-Baire and Charulata as films. Tagore is a literary giant that most people don’t recognise. His genius has too often been eclipsed by less-talented individuals from India. His words are simple, and his style spare. He wrote like he lived, with high ideals and a spare lifestyle (not unlike Gandhi, with whom he didn’t really get along).

Flute Music
By Rabindranath Tagore

Kinu, the milkman’s alley
A ground floored room in a two storeyed valley
Slap on the road, window barred.
Decaying walls, windows crumbling to dust in places
Or strained with damp.
Stuck on the floor,
A picture of Ganesha,Bringer of Success,
From the end of a bale of cloth.
Another creature apart from me lives in my room
For the same rent;
A lizard.
There’s one difference between him and me:
He doesn’t go hungry.

I get twenty five rupees a month
As junior clerk in a trading office.
I’m fed at the Dattas’ house
For coaching their boy.
At dusk I go to Sealdah station.
Spend the evening there
To save the cost of light.
Engines chuffing,
Whistles shrieking,
Passengers scurrying,
Coolies shouting.
I stay till half past ten,
Then back to my dark,silent,lonely room.

A village on the Dhalesvari river, that’s where my aunt’s people live.
Her brother-in-law’s daughter –
She was due to marry my unfortunate self, everything was fixed.
The moment was indeed auspicious for her, no doubt of that –
For I ran away.
The girl was saved from me,
And I from her.
She did not come to this room, but she’s in and out of my mind all the time:
Dacca sari, vermilion on her forehead.

Pouring rain.
My tram costs go up,
But often as not my pay gets cut for lateness.
Along the alley,
Mango skins and stones, jack fruit pulp,
Fish-gills, dead kittens
And God knows what other rubbish
Pile up and rot.
My umbrella is like my depleted pay –
Full of holes.
My sopping office clothes ooze
Like a pious Vaisnava.
Monsoon darkness
sticks in my damp room
Like an animal caught in a dead trap,
Lifeless and numb.
day and night I feel strapped bodily
On to a half-dead world.

At the corner of the alley lives Kantababu –
Long hair, carefully parted,
Large eyes.
Cultivated tastes.
He fancies himself on the cornet:
The sound of it comes in gusts
On the foul breeze of the alley –
Sometimes in the middle of the night,
Sometimes in the early morning twilight,
Sometimes in the afternoon
When sun and shadows glitter.
Suddenly this evening
He starts to play runs in Sindhu-Baroya rag,
And the whole sky rings
With eternal pangs of separation.
At once the alley is a lie,
False and vile as the ravings of a drunkard,
And I feel that nothing distinguishes Haripada the clerk
From the Emperor Akbar.
Torn umbrella and royal parasol merge,
Rise on the sad music of a flute
Towards one heaven.

The music is true,
Where, in the everlasting twilight-hour of my wedding,
The Dhalesvari river flows,
Its banks deeply shaded by tamal-trees,
And she who waits in the courtyard
Is dressed in a dacca sari, vermillion on her forehead.


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