The cycle rickshaw still held sway on the streets of Ratanpally. The quiet neighbourhood was yet to surrender its tranquility to the honking hullabaloo of the pre-curfew rush, and at this early hour it was a real ghost town. The usual steady trickle of maidservants were heading to work. In their flowing saris they moved with a patina of serenity, benevolent djinns slipping silently over the red-dirt roads, only their wind-blown shadows betraying their worldly presence.
Reverend Morris had passed the old manor house countless times, blind to the spring’s relentless advance. Today, as he glanced up at the flame vine over the white portico, its progress was palpable. The winter blooms had all but disappeared, but the leafless tree at their flanks was aflame with a vivid saffron-red – flowers of different biological heritage but same brilliant hue. Clinging by their parrot-beak petals they were a veritable clamour of colour against the hard, cloudless sky.
It was a majestic performance of death and rebirth. A promise of vernal abundance from the bountiful winter creeper, lending its spent, fiery flesh to the skeletal limbs of a kindred soul. A consecrated offering to the sacred Palash tree. To those fire-licked arms. There held the flame of the forest.
Morris had always struggled with that time-honoured piece of ancient Indian wisdom, held in inviolable sanctity even within its most logical traditions. Witness to this dazzling display of reincarnation, something inside him changed.
So begin my first tentative steps into the world of fiction. Written in April 2020, as the extent of a worldwide pandemic was becoming clear, these thoughts were drawn from a profound personal experience that took place months before the crisis had entered our collective consciousness. I probably would have never put these words down had the world not crossed an historic Rubicon. Thrust into an enforced period of self-reflection, like millions of others across the planet, I was finding my own way to deal with the complex emotions I was experiencing in my place of isolation. I found catharsis through writing.
Many people during this time have sought refuge in the consumption of art, and also by sublimating their anxieties and fears into its creation. Mine was an attempt at a novella about a Unitarian priest, caught between two worlds, who tries to navigate his way through the existential anguish of a crisis of faith, precipitated by personal tragedy and collective upheaval, after he relocates with his family from the bucolic English countryside to the Arcadian suburbs of Santiniketan.
On a subconscious level the main character’s feelings are an extension of my own during a period of transition in my life that coincided with an historic crisis, becoming a meditation on what it means to be human, on what we see to be objectively and subjectively true. There is something almost preternatural in my depiction of a man who finds meaning following an illusory vision in nature. From the standpoint of reason these are poetic exaggerations. From that of the heart, however, of subjective feeling freed from the limits of objective facts, they are true.
Through osmosis – stemming from a newfound opportunity to read many of the books I had always wanted to read but never quite found the time – I was heavily influenced by two literary giants who had a profound understanding of such philosophical tensions and the human condition, of man’s relationship to nature, and of the value of art in times of crisis and uncertainty: Leo Tolstoy and Rabindranath Tagore.
A steadfast liberal mindset
Since the world went into lockdown bookshops have seen a surprising run on the novel, especially of the classics. War & Peace, Tolstoy’s masterpiece set in the time of the Napoleonic wars, in particular, has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, perhaps because its real-time structure offers a lifelike narrative unparalleled in world literature.
As people seek respite from an uncertain reality, its verisimilitude and complex character studies provide sanctuary and reassurance in the face of uncertainty, offering proof that such trials and tribulations are certainly nothing new; it carefully charts individuals’ seesawing emotions as a crisis unfolds in the world outside, mirroring our own stilled but fluctuating psychological states.
Like Tolstoy, Tagore was aware of the value of art, once declaring it to be: “as important as bread, and not less vital in days of famine, pestilence and war”. Both authors held an oracular status in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and although it is often Gandhi who springs to mind when parallels are drawn between grand figures of East and West, owing to the famous “Tolstoy Farm” (Gandhi’s utopian community, and headquarters of the Satyagraha campaign in the Transvaal, which drew on the nonviolent ideals of Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You), it is Tagore’s philosophy that most closely resembles that of the world’s greatest novelist.
Tagore once said of Tolstoy, in one of few known references, that he was “the conscience of Europe but that his was a voice crying out in the wilderness”. Both men understood the value of science but distrusted the hubristic rationalism of a supposedly “enlightened” West. Further cursory comparisons show many similarities between the two writers: an equal distrust of institutionalised religion; a steadfast liberal mindset; passion for primary education; respect for the common man, and love of folklore. But at the heart of their philosophy was a humanism that sought harmony with nature, and answers not in dogmatic certitudes, or in binary thinking, but in grey areas and the gaps between.
Tagore’s Gora and Ghare Baire (Home and the World) stand as masterful works in their own right, offering, like Tolstoy’s, nuanced analyses of political and psychological tensions during an important juncture in world history, posed by an emergent materialist, objective “Western” worldview, in contrast to an “Eastern” spiritual, subjective position that looked to the wisdom of the past. We learn more about the pre-Independence period by seeing the reactions of Tagore’s main protagonists in these novels, individuals who seek synthesis between these differing worldviews, than by looking at grand historical narratives.
Looking towards nature
I personally found a new hero in the character of Poreshbabu in Gora, whose quiet wisdom could offer valuable lessons for the politically polarised world in which we live today, particularly as such polarities manifest themselves more starkly in the face of a viral crisis and a renewed desire for certainties – seen in the continued rise of identity politics across the political spectrum. Through such characters, Tagore extolled the values of pluralism and tolerance, championing those who display such virtues as exemplars of “higher man”.
Both writers looked for answers in the real world and subjective experience, not in theories and ideologies. Ambiguities and contradictions in human nature are discussed at length in their essays (Tolstoy’s “Confessions” and “What is Art”, and Tagore’s “Religion of Man” and “Creative Unity” are among many such writings), but their philosophy and meditations on the human condition are most clearly expressed in their literary art, as well as in their views on nature.
Although critical of the excesses of the Romantic movement, Tagore and Tolstoy both subscribed to Rousseau’s passionate cult of nature: a belief that the original purity of human beings had been spoilt by the artificial demands of society and civilisation. One need only look at their civic missions to grasp the extent of their respective views on Man’s connection to the soil.
Tagore’s rethinking and unshackling of traditional utsavs (festivals) is but one example: Briksharopan, the tree-planting ceremony (now commemorated on the death anniversary of its creator, in August) and Halakarshon, the ploughing ceremony (also marked in August every year). Both came to represent Tagore’s secular celebrations of nature’s fertility and of man’s relationship to the earth.
Tolstoy eventually dedicated his life to the peasantry, whom he revered as the “true Russian people” exhibiting as they did, in his view, a closer connection to God than his arrogant aristocratic peers, owing to the former’s simple existence and close proximity to nature. His work on famine relief, and his revival of folklore and art for the common man – especially following his existential crisis and religious conversion (one which would ultimately lead to his excommunication from the Orthodox Church) – is particularly evident in his later life and writings, which, in his twilight years, he tried to make more accessible to these people of the soil.
Similar visions of education
Most telling, though, are strikingly convergent views on education. Their rural schools – Tolstoy’s Yasnaya Polyana and Tagore’s Santiniketan and Sriniketan – were testament to their similar pedagogical visions. Both aimed to educate peasants and took an holistic approach to education, to introduce a more practical curriculum tailored to life in the real world, but also to develop more rounded human beings via the use of art and literature within a natural setting.
I was struck recently by the concerns of a friend in Kolkata who agonised that, in the months since lockdown, her daughter had not been to school or felt the grass beneath her feet. A high rise apartment is a far cry from the educational visions set out by Tagore and Tolstoy, from Tagore’s ideal of the forest hermitage, or from the experiences of the simple peasantry idealised by Tolstoy (championed most clearly by Levin, Tolstoy’s alter ego, in Anna Karenina).
As many are confined to concrete boxes, we count our blessings that our own family can enjoy a little corner of Tagore’s green and lush Santiniketan. Our daughter sits for online classes at Sishuthirtha school in Santiniketan, and it brings us great comfort that she can still at least experience the simple joy of spending time beneath the trees in our garden. But these are fundamental rights and opportunities that have been curtailed for many a child during this crisis. As children also seek solace in books and the arts some could do worse than revisit the educational primers and folktales written by these literary greats (our seven-year-old, Rohini, is currently reading Tolstoy’s The Ant and the Pigeon).
As the world looks towards science in its frantic search for a vaccine to lead us out of this crisis, people are looking towards art again, to its wisdom and humanity, to its timeless expositions of the human heart, and to nature, to learn how to endure it. Political polarisation continues as the world is plunged into further uncertainty and economic strife.
We can only hope that through our common experience we can finally come to know that, though we are solipsistic creatures with innumerable layers of identity and complexity, there is also unity in our diversity, and in our primordial connection to nature. Two of the greatest literary figures to have lived came from two very different cultural universes, but it is instructive that in the values they held dear – shown in the ultimate truths of their art – they were, in many ways, one and the same.