Shivani is the nom de plume of one of India’s finest writers, Gaura Pant. For anglophone readers, it is thanks to Shivani’s daughters – celebrated journalist Mrinal Pande and exceptional translator Ira Pande – that a host of her works is available to read. The latest of these is Shivani’s fabled recollections of the time she spent in Shantiniketan during her schooldays, when founder Rabindranath Tagore was alive and on the premises: Amader Shantiniketan, translated by Ira Pande.
First published in the 1960s by New Age Publishers, Calcutta, the book did not receive a great deal of publicity or exposure, as the translator’s introduction reveals. As Shivani wrote by hand and handed the original manuscript over to the publisher, what remained was only the published version to be used as the basis for future editions and translations.
As the original work was rather slim, Pande has added another section, where the author pays tribute to her friends from her schooldays, among whom are the director Satyajit Ray and Jayanti, Shivani’s sister, whom Tagore called “Bharat Mata”.
In Tagore’s company
In her early teens, Shivani was sent to Shantiniketan along with her siblings, where the “classes were not closed in within walls that shut out the outer world, nor did they have ceilings to close our minds.” Remembering Gurudev, whose teachings lay the foundation of a perceptive and alert mind, a testimony to which is this memoir itself, Shivani writes: “Framed against the glow of the setting sun, he looked unlike any human being I had ever seen, and to my child’s eyes, he seemed to be what I imagined god would look like.”
But this memoir is not burdened with reverence alone, it brims over with humour and anecdotes that make you feel like you’re listening to an aunt recalling family gossip. In one such instance, Shivani recalls a classmate she was envious of. Afraid of being outperformed by his “Tamil genius,” she reached out to Gurudev to write her English assignment.
Tagore refused, but Shivani convinced him somehow. Appalled at being given 4 out of 10 for the assignment, she went running to Gurudev, taking along with her a note by her teacher, Dr Aronson: “Too elusive.” (The genius got 6.) When she narrated the whole incident to Gurudev, he “threw back his head as he laughed. ‘Don’t tell anyone I wrote it.’” Shivani also fondly recalls Amita Sen’s son Babloo, the little boy who would go on to becoming a great economist and, later, a Nobel laureate: Amartya Sen.
Dialogue with the past
Her Kumaoni life wasn’t any less interesting. Jayanti – who was “a river that lost its way in the sand” in Tagore’s words – never wanted to get married, but there was one suitor, a dandy “Lord”, who would stalk her. To ensure he never crossed their paths, for a bribe of five rupees, the author spat on him, declaring: “My sister will never marry you.” This story was later converted into a short story by the renowned Hindi poet Sumitranandan Pant.
The last time I read a text where names of well-known figures and the founding leaders of the country were peppered throughout, as if the author was mentioning her neighbours next door, was All These Years: A Memoir by Raj Thapar – journalist and founder of Seminar. The material privileges that the Thapars enjoyed were not part of Shivani’s upbringing, but she had the rarest of rare privilege of studying among present and future geniuses like Ray, of being taught by a Nobel laureate and babysitting a future laureate.
Revisiting a past that is long forgotten and feels like the stuff of dreams – viewing the constellations through naked eyes – Shivani’s memoir can be called, in the words of American neuroscientist Rosalind Cartwright, “a continuing act of creation.”
With her craft, she revives those long gone, creating an illusion of their warm and undying access. In the process, an exchange of tales and experiences takes place between the living and the dead, new contours of memories unfold, and compelling stories are told. And with this posthumous publication, Shivani herself straddles the worlds of both the living and the dead.
This is why it is fitting to remember another memoirist – the author and neurologist Oliver Sacks, whom The New York Times called the “poet laureate of contemporary medicine”. In his essay, “Speak, Memory”, Sacks wrote: “Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.”
Those many minds of the author, the translator and the characters in this memoir are effectively visible at work in Amader Shantiniketan. A rare brilliance emanates from them, illuminating the mind that surrenders to get transported into its world. For her remarkable prose and her translator’s attention to detail, this memoir can be read a hundred times over.
Amader Shantiniketan, Shivani, translated from the Hindi by Ira Pande, Vintage.