Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore is to Indians what William Shakespeare is to Britons and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is to Germans. 75 years after his death, Tagore is still adored with a rare fervor by Indians, especially people of Bengal. But although so much has been written about him and his works, there is hardly any write-up on how he died. On his 75th death anniversary, an exhibition was conducted early this month in Tagore’s home in Chitpur detailing his last days, the treatment he received and the people who were by his side.
Venturing out of bed at 6 am on a Sunday morning is quite a task especially when it drizzles. But when I am making it to the most famous address in Kolkata, then everything is worth it.
I was headed for writer, poet, playwright and visionary Rabindranath Tagore’s home on his 75th death anniversary.
Rabindranath Tagore was the first Indian to have won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. In fact, he was the first non-European to have won it. A prize that he returned as a mark of protest after the British massacre of Indians at Jalianawala Bagh, Amritsar, on April 13, 1919.
The strains of Tagore’s songs that depict the beauty of death pervaded the red walls of his home Jorasanko Thakurbari as we walked through the gates. A part of his home is now the Rabindra Bharati University.
While other parts of Kolkata have moved ahead in leaps and bounds with skyscrapers and malls dotting the skyline, Chitpur, where Tagore’s home Jorasanko is located, has strangely remained in a time warp.
The tram tracks run in front of the lane, early morning ablutions take place on the streets and a group of students stand near a tea-stall having hot steaming tea in bhars (mud cups).
Rabindranath Tagore’s home enjoys as much attention as Shakespeare’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon. On a daily basis it is thronged by as many tourists and researchers as Shakespeare’s home is. In fact, although born centuries apart, if Shakespeare is hailed as the greatest writer in English, Rabindranath Tagore is the greatest writer in India.
So for people like me who have grown up on a perpetual high dose of Tagore’s literature which constitutes songs, plays, fiction and short stories, this experience of walking into Tagore’s home on his 75th death anniversary is goose-bump worthy.
But on this particular day, I had something else on my mind. I was there to know more about a time of Tagore’s life about which not much has been written or talked about.
This was probably because of the demi-God status that Tagore holds in the heart of the Kolkatan or the Bengali and people did not want to dwell on his death which came after considerable suffering.
But for the first time, Vishwa Bharati University in association with the Kolkata Prostrate Cancer Foundation, was having an exhibition where there were pictures and details of his last days, the treatment he received and the people who were by his side.
Dr Amit Ghose, the founder of Kolkata Prostrate Cancer Foundation and the person behind the exhibition said, “A leading group of doctors have been examining the medical details and it is clear he was suffering from an enlarged prostrate that was stopping his urine flow.”
Tagore’s room, where he breathed his last, has remained largely untouched, although the bedspread looked relatively new. The elongated verandah (roofed, open-air gallery) that runs through the front was the place where two legends of the medical profession in India, Dr BC Roy and Sir Nilratan Sarkar, set up a completely sterilized and properly equipped operation theater to perform a surgery on him.
Tagore complained of discomfort when he was in his home in Kalimpong, a place located in the hills of West Bengal, but he was brought back to Jorasanko for treatment. He refused conventional treatment, sought herbal cure and moved to Shantiniketan, where he had founded the Vishwa Bharati University which he expanded with the money he got from his Nobel Prize. Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, film-maker Satyajit Ray and former prime minister Indira Gandhi are alumni of the Vishwa Bharati University.
Rabindranath Tagore was a man with the most progressive world view and deeply wished for independence for India. In 1940 when health was failing him, he stayed on in Shantiniketan and had meetings with Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose talking about their agenda to push for India’s freedom.
Tagore’s Jorasanko home is now a museum and contains a lot of his memorabilia and history, but nothing so far had been exhibited on his last days.
“This is the first time we are talking about Tagore’s last days. It took a lot of convincing to bring Tagore home from Shantiniketan. The operation was performed and it was successful. But sadly he developed septicemia and never recovered from it,” said Dr Ghose.
But Tagore’s last days were an example of how in the face of all the odds, he kept writing his songs, humming them often, smiling deeply, and meeting with his relatives, friends and well-wishers.
The exhibition tells the story of how his granddaughter, daughter-in-law and other men and women in the family formed a team looking after him day and night, trying their level best to nurse him back to health.
“The kind of love and care Rabindranath Tagore had got from everyone around him also is something to talk about. The doctors treating him tried their level best and they often sat by his bedside holding his hand hoping the pain and the discomfort would subside,” said Dr Ghose.
What is even more phenomenal is that 75 years after his death, people continue to love him with the same veneration. The students of Vishwa Bharati University had decked up in sarees with white flowers in their hair. They had done white rangoli on the verandah and everyone present sang a song in remembrance of the poet.
A poignant moment it was. Then my eyes went to a photograph from the exhibition showing the roads of Kolkata teeming with millions who had come to show their last respect to Tagore on his final journey on August 7, 1941.
I looked up one last time at the verandah where the operation had been performed and where Tagore had stood a thousand times thinking of the lines of his songs. My goose bumps came back.
Amrita Mukherjee is a freelance journalist who writes on social issues in India with focus on women. She divides her time between Dubai and India and blogs at www.amritaspeaks.com
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