They stood at the rail as Rabindranath came on board, exhausted by his three-day train journey from Calcutta to Madras. He came with friends, learned and eminent men who formed a protective ring to save him from the harassment of adulation. Agni Sen had to content himself with the briefest of introductions, while Gayatri saw him only from a distance – nobody was allowed to come close. This was not what Agni Sen had expected. He was hurt by Dhiren’s possessive zeal, and retreated behind a book.

They found out later that the poet, who had expected three days of contemplative solitude gazing at the landscape of India as it passed before his train window, had managed nothing of the sort. At Kharagpur, the first stop after Calcutta, a group of schoolboys clambered into his compartment and thrust a motley collection of notebooks at him: school exercise books, sheaves of paper stitched together at home. They wanted autographs, and one of them begged Rabindranath to dash off a new poem before the train started moving again. As they went southward, they stopped every hour or so and at each station the platforms were crammed with people who had heard he was on the train. At one of these, an old man climbed on, joined his hands in a namaste, began what sounded like a speech in Telugu, finished it, bowed deeply and left.

At another a man came out of the crowds to the poet’s window, bearing a brass tray with a lemon, incense, flowers. He lit the incense and trailed the smoke over Rabindranath, then without a word melted back into the crowds.

One supplicant begged, pleaded, then harangued Rabindranath to stop overnight for a dip in the Godavari river, which he insisted was holier than the Ganga. At Kakinada, a professor of English who had lived for a time in Calcutta came in to speak to the poet in halting Bengali, gave up because he had forgotten the lines he had rehearsed, but desperate to wish the great man an appropriately literary Godspeed, began thundering “Half a league, half a league onward!” At Rajahmundry, two hundred students came to tell him they had got the date wrong and had been waiting at the station since the day before. The poet sat on his berth, tired and grey, pushed against the window, hidden by a mass of heaving bodies shouting “Rabindranath ki Jai!” and “Vande Mataram!” People came in during night-time halts to shine lanterns in his sleeping face.

If he had thought he would find peace on a ship in the middle of the sea, Rabindranath was mistaken. An American padre and his wife kept edging towards him if he so much as approached the deck, even as he turned away each time, casting pleading glances for rescue in the direction of his friends. At last, with no way out, he allowed them time. Once seated, they tried to prove to him that Christianity had much in common with Hinduism.

“I have grave doubts about that,” Rabindranath said.

“Why, we too have god the father!” they said.

“But you see, we also have god the mother, god the son, god the friend, god the lover. We even have god the sweetheart,” said Suniti Chatterji, one of the poet’s companions, with a mischievous gleam in his eyes. The padre, realising the improbability of an illustrious conversion, left the old man alone after that and he sat in his deck chair listening to the sea, reading, and sometimes lying back with his eyes closed, as if infinitely tired.

Gayatri edged towards him, retreated. She wanted to ask him if she could go to Santiniketan to learn painting from Nandalal Bose. Santiniketan was all she had dreamed of since her visit, what she craved was to be under its open sky in the company of other students, with pots of paint and bundles of brushes, grinding her own pigments as she had heard they did there. She had discovered that one of the friends with Rabindranath was the vice principal of Santiniketan’s art school. It was as if all had been divinely ordained: she would tell the poet about her visit, how she had longed to join the school then and not been able to. He would tell the vice principal to admit her to the school instantly.

Dreaming in this way as she leaned over the deck’s railings, no land in sight, only blue water, the conviction glowed within her like a secret flame: this voyage would lead her to her future. To her only possible life.

Yet she did not speak to the poet. She would not add to his sense of being besieged.

For a day or two she kept her distance on the deck, never coming close to where he sat, nor going so far that he would not notice her. Her calculated reserve worked: one day he called out to her. She ran to the empty chair next to him before he could change his mind. He had a presence that illuminated the deck like the glow from a second sun, she was stricken speechless, she sat straight-backed and tense, waiting to be spoken to. He said nothing. As far as their eyes could see were dancing waves and blueness paled by sunlight, above them lacy white clouds in a clear sky. All of a sudden, he asked her if she had noticed that when the ship cut a path through the foam and waves it sighed constantly. Did that never-ending sigh not sound as though the waters of the ocean were washing the earth with tears of grief?

She did not know what made her so rude, but she burst out laughing. “I’m not sad, I’m not thinking of tears. The water is blue and beautiful, I want to paint it.” Then she clapped her hand to her mouth, aghast at having contradicted him. Would he be too offended to speak to her again? But it must have been precisely her spontaneous refusal to be worshipful, so refreshing after the fatigue of being relentlessly adored, that made him seek out her company. He asked her to come and sit by him on the deck every day. She told him about her dance lessons and her painting in such garrulous detail it made her abject with shame to think of later, but if he found it vain or absurd he did not let it show. It was he who told her father about the German man they were to find on the raft. This artist, Walter Spies, knew more than anyone else about the dance and arts of that part of the world, Rabindranath said. He had been told that Spies would be his guide on his travels there. Gayatri too must meet him.

“One day you will go to Bali and Java, Myshkin,” my mother would say when ending these stories. “I’m going to take you. We’ll make the same voyage. We will find Walter again, and he’ll show us a thousand things.” She told me about her journey so many times, adding a new detail, leaving out an old one, remembering and forgetting, that I knew it backwards.

When she started off on her stories, what I listened to was the hum of her voice. It was a clear voice, as if it had been washed in a mountain stream, and she could do things with it that nobody else did.

It turned into a low growl when she told stories with lions in them, it became rich and melodious when she sang, it rose and fell like a high-pitched songbird’s when she tried enticing me to finish my glass of milk, it reached the corners of rooms when she whispered.

Excerpted with permission from All The Lives We Never Lived, Anuradha Roy, Hachette India.