When the world erupted in equal parts joy and disbelief at the Swedish Academy choosing Bob Dylan for the Nobel Prize in literature, I was transported back to another lifetime, to a train station sometime in the mid-eighties.
I was 10 or 11, and my family was travelling for a vacation. At nine on a winter night, on an empty platform, we waited for the train to arrive. My father took out a small, rectangular piece of paper from his wallet, which unfolded and dropped down to become a long thin snake, and began to pace the platform singing some relatively obscure Rabindra shongeet that he had written on it. The train never came. Baba had forgotten to check the timing – it was at nine in the morning. But that is not why I remember the incident vividly. I remember because it struck me for the first time that day how deeply connected he was to those words strung to verse.
Time is a jet plane, it moves too fast. My father now flits in and out of sanity. But I could not but call him up on Thursday.
“Baba, Dylan has won the Nobel,” I told him.
He didn’t really register it – most of the time he is on a magic swirling trip – but I had to tell him to get even; because he and I had a longstanding sparring match going on: Bob Dylan versus Tagore.
There is no human feeling you cannot express through Tagore, he would say when I was tangled up in blue. No one, he would insist, is so diverse. Come mothers and fathers all over the land, I would snigger back. On a bookshelf in our house, he had stuck Tagore’s words: “I slept and dreamt that life was joy, I awoke and saw that life was but service. I served, and behold, service was joy.” I only wanted to dance beneath a diamond sky with one hand waving free, silhouetted by the sea.
For a long time I thought about my father like there’s a wall between us, like something there’s been lost. But now, when I look back, I realise I took too much for granted, I got my signals crossed.
Yes, like so many people around the English-speaking world, I can measure out my life in Dylan’s words. He has been and continues to be with me through life.
I can see that your head has been twisted and fed, I spat at the girl who broke my heart. Do you love me or are you just extending goodwill, I asked the woman who gave me shelter from the storm. When the first among my closest friends became a father, I texted him: How does it feel? Like a complete unknown, my friend wrote back. When I see the masters of war on television – rarely, I assure you – I worry about the hard rain that’s surely going to fall on my child’s world. And when my father sometimes wants to know when death will come, I tell him: Just remember, death is not the end.
Probably therein lies Dylan’s triumph – far beyond the skipping wheels of rhyme that have mesmerised wordmeisters and the critiques of some people who insist (ignorantly) that he can’t sing to save his life. His songs travel far beyond the limits of time and space. They tell different stories to different people at different times and different places. They defy their own context and are as chameleon-like as their “sampler”, as the Swedish Academy deliciously called Dylan. They sneak up on you till you feel a change coming on. “Mystery stories,” as he once described them.
My father, on the rare days he is not lost in the foggy ruins of his mind, sometimes still sings Tagore. I know the words resonate somewhere in his brain even as the dementia shrinks it. And I know that Dylan’s drawl will always heal my soul, when my time comes.
The Nobel prize and all the “writers” carping that literature has been hijacked by a song and dance man – as Dylan described himself – don’t matter. Neither do those sniping about other songwriters – because absolutely no other has had such an impact on such a large swathe of humanity.
I just want to thank the Swedish Academy for giving me an opportunity to get even with my father, even if it’s a Pyrrhic victory.