The scene: a tea shop. Adjoining it is a small room where some school and college textbooks, many of them second-hand, are displayed for sale. Some of them are English translations of modern European stories and plays. Boys, often out of money, come in, browse and leave. The proprietor of the shop, Kanai Gupta, does not object. He is a pensioner, a former sub-inspector in the police force.
The shop faces the main road and is flanked by an alley on the left. For those who wish to enjoy their tea in seclusion, part of the room has been screened off with tattered sacking. Today, in that partitioned area, signs of some special arrangements can be seen. To compensate for the shortage of stools and chairs, some packing cases bearing the stamp of a Darjeeling tea company have been placed there. Even the pieces of crockery have clashing designs. Some cups are made of blue enamel, others are of white china. On the table, a bunch of flowers, arranged in a milk jug with a broken handle.
It was almost three in the afternoon. When they invited Elalata, the boys had insisted that two-thirty was the precise time for the appointment. Even a minute’s delay wouldn’t do. An odd time for an invitation, but that was when the shop would be empty. From four-thirty onwards, a crowd would assemble there, thirsting for tea.
Ela arrived punctually. But there was no sign of the boys – not a single one. She waited alone, wondering if she had made a mistake about the date. Presently, Indranath entered the room. She started, for there was no likelihood of encountering him in such a place.
Indranath had spent a long time in Europe. He had earned great renown within the scientific field. He was entitled to a high position in his own land as he had glowing letters of reference from European professors. While in Europe, he had occasionally met Indians blacklisted for political reasons. Upon returning to his home country, it was this shameful fact that proved to be a stumbling block for all his endeavours. Eventually, on the strength of a special recommendation from a famous English scientist, he obtained a position as professor, but, this placed him under the authority of an unworthy superior. Unworthiness is usually accompanied by excessive jealousy. Indranath’s attempts at scientific research began to be sabotaged by his boss at every stage. Finally, he was transferred to a place that did not have a laboratory. Indranath came to realise that in this land, the path to pursuing his highest aspirations was closed. He could not bear to face the dreadful prospect of a future where he would spend his last days on a meagre pension after the endless grind of the teaching routine. He knew for sure that he had the calibre, in abundant measure, to gain renown in any other country of the world.
Eventually, Indranath started a private coaching centre for lessons in German and French. Alongside, he also took to tutoring college students in botany and geology. Gradually, from the hidden depths of this institution, a secret cause took seed and spread its roots across prison courtyards, creating a vast, complex network.
“Ela, what brings you here?” Indranath enquired.
“You forbade the boys to visit me at home,” Ela responded. “That is why they have called me to this place.”
“I received news of that earlier and immediately dispatched them elsewhere on urgent work. I have come to apologise on their behalf. I will repay the bill as well.”
“Why did you ruin my party?”
“To suppress the fact that you empathise with the boys. Tomorrow, you will find an article in your name which I have sent off to the papers.”
“Did you write the article? Pseudonyms don’t suit your pen. People won’t believe that it is not forged.”
“It is unformed writing, left-handed. No sign of intelligence, just some good advice.”
“What does that mean?”
“You write that the boys are set to destroy the country through untimely action. To the women of Bengal, you make an emotional appeal – they should try to pacify the rage of these wretched boys. You say that scolding from afar will not reach their ears; it will be essential to plunge into their midst, to get to the heart of their collective intoxication. The authorities may indeed grow suspicious. So be it. You say: ‘O race of mothers, if you can save the boys even by taking their punishment upon your own heads, your deaths will be worthwhile.’ You reiterate the phrase ‘O race of mothers!’ I have set those words, soaked in salt tears, in the very heart of your written piece. Those words will bring tears to the eyes of maternal readers. Had you been a man, it would not have been impossible for you to win the title of Raibahadur after such a stellar performance.”
“I can’t say that the words you have written are utterly impossible to pass off as my own. I love these suicidal boys. Where can you find boys like them? They were my collegemates once! At first, they wrote all sorts of nonsense about me on the blackboard. They’d call out from the back of the classroom, addressing me as Chhoto Elaach – small green cardamom – and instantly look away at the sky, feigning innocence! My friend Indrani was a fourth-year student. They called her Boro Elaach – big black cardamom. The poor girl – she was wide of girth and her complexion wasn’t dazzling either. Many girls would object to such minor taunts, but I took the side of the boys. I knew it was because they were unaccustomed to the sight of us girls that they lost their balance and sometimes even made offensive remarks. But that was not intrinsic to their nature. When they got accustomed to our presence, they were able to interact with us more easily. Chhoto Elaach became Ela di. Occasionally, some of their voices acquired a hint of honey – and why not? It never made me afraid. From experience, I have learned that it is very easy to deal with boys, as long as girls don’t consciously or unconsciously try to hunt them down. After that phase, I found that one by one, the best of the boys – those who were not narrow-minded, who respected women as worthy men should...”
“In other words, those who don’t let their desires ferment and froth over, unlike the smart young men of Kolkata...”
“Yes, they are the ones I am talking about. The ones in desperate pursuit of death’s messenger. Most of them are Bangals, hailing from East Bengal like me. If they run after death, I don’t want to remain alive, safe in my domestic corner. But look, Mastermoshai, let me tell you the truth. With the passage of time, my purpose is growing into an addiction rather than an objective. Our efforts seem to proceed at a random pace, guided by our whims, without rhythm, beyond the limits of reason. I don’t like this. All those boys seem to be surrendered up for sacrifice at the altar of some blind power. It makes my heart burst.”
“My child, this very repugnance is the prologue to the epic battle of Kurukshetra. Arjun too had been overcome with repulsion. When I started studying medicine, I had almost fainted in disgust at the prospect of dissecting a corpse. That disgust is itself disgusting. At the root of power lies the pursuit of cruelty; forgiveness perhaps comes at the end. You say – all of you – that women are a race of mothers. But that is not something to glory in. After all, mothers are created by nature in the natural course of things. Even animals are no exception. What matters more is that women embody Shakti – power personified. That is what you must prove, moving beyond the swamps of kindness and tenderness to set foot on firmer ground. Power! Give men power!”
“You are trying to distract us with all these grand pronouncements. You project us in an exaggerated light. We cannot live up to such extreme demands!”
“Demands are realised only by the strength of what they assert. Whatever we believe you women to be, that is what you will become. Likewise, you, too, must believe in us so that our endeavours can succeed.”
“I like drawing you out, making you talk, but this is not the time for that. I wish to say something myself.”
“Very well. Not here, though. Let’s go into that room at the back.”
Radha Chakravarty is a writer, critic and translator and former Professor of Comparative Literature and Translation Studies at Ambedkar University Delhi . She has co-edited The Essential Tagore, nominated Book of the year 2011 by Martha Nussbaum, translated several major Bengali writers from India and Bangladesh, and edited several anthologies of South Asian writing. She contributed to “Pandemic: A Worldwide Community Poem” (Muse Pie Press, USA), nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2020.
Excerpted with permission from Four Chapters, Rabindranath Tagore, translated from the Bengali by Radha Chakravarty, Penguin Classics.