Rabi Thakur

This is a poem by Purnendu Patri that I translated for Rabindranath Tagore’s 150th birthday. The dude sure gets a lot of love.

Rabi Thakur

The season of the storm is summer. Blowing away the routine cyclical intervals, flying a banner of dust does she come running. Before her comes lightning, alighting the path. Piercing is the glow of his grin. Behind her walks thunder. At his back, a great kettle drum. I can see that the sky is on fire. The bloody hibiscus seeps into the sunlight’s magnolia bud. Breezes stir, become whirlwinds. Waves of vermillion swirl in the marrow of the drowning river. The forest shivers. The universe awakens, suddenly animated. In this summer, like this summer, is the birth of Rabi Thakur. Not in the golden autumn, not in the icy night of winter, not in the flower colored spring, he was born in this fierce, piercing summer.

This wild summer’s red-ochre mark adorns the forehead of his birthday. Nature is born anew in the summer. We are all born anew this summer. The twenty-fifth of the month. On Rabi Thakur’s birthday.

The calendar is not necessary. Nor is asking about the date.  From the very start there is a shifting in the heart. The twenty-fifth day of summer is coming–Rabi Thakur’s birthday.

These Durga puja days are blind to the lightning. Pained at the shriek of the microphone-machine. Traumatized at the donation collection maze. By the end, on the day of the immersion festival, anxious that a hand-grenade fight may yet break out. On our day of holi we hide, shying behind our ripped tunics and patched dhotis. There are no celebrations on the birthdays of our civil heroes and nation-loving leaders, only meetings. There are processions, not of people, but of motor-trucks. The streets of the city don’t tremble in human noise, but in the tyranny of cacophony.

The only goal through all of these streaming currents of birthdays is the stage or the meeting field. And once having reached there, everything ends.

The sound of tram wheels the next morning, car horns and the clamor of the traffic don’t play a tune in the ears of the grand assembly from yesterday. On Rabi Thakur’s birthday speakers don’t come to give speeches. People come to tell stories. There are no fist-curled jihads on this birthday. Just an uncontrollable flinging of fistfuls of joy. There is the scent of flowers, there is the char of incense, and there is the holiness of polite reverence.

Dodging the meeting field, passing Calcutta’s winding alleys, main roads, clubs, libraries, passing alongside the rail-line under the shadow of the mango groves, the whisper of the coconut trees, crowds of myna birds perched on calabash shelves, the silvery ripples of the pond water, through the horizon-touching fields and into villages and townships spreads this joy. The birthday conch blows. Not for a day, not for two days, even longer than a week–these celebrations last a fortnight. Even after printing for almost a month, the newspapers don’t seem to run out of its news.

I’ll talk about the villages instead. Where the rustle of the newspapers haven’t yet been heard, where there is no worship but Durga puja, no festivites besides Shiva puja,

where collecting donations on any other day but Saraswati puja doesn’t prompt an uproar, where they understand no poetry but the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and the Panchali by Dashu Ray, where there are no songs but those of Ramprasadi Baul, spirituals, and movie songs, even in villages like these they celebrate Rabi Thakur’s birthday.

Wives of well-to-do households lend out their treasured saris to swag the stage. Lend them out even knowing that they’ll catch and rip on a bamboo knot in a sudden gust of wind. If you ask the farmer who has bought bamboo to make a storage unit, he will carry the bamboo to you on his own shoulders. The cot-frames of five houses join together to create a stage. Bedsheets tied together make curtains.  Someone acquires from who-knows-where a tiny framed picture of Rabi Thakur. It disappears quickly under garlands of kurchi flowers.

Bones break while climbing on a tree bough trying to pick flowers, stomachs upset from eating wild fruit, too many get beat up in Bokshi’s fruit orchards, even more eat rose apples, putting garden snakes in teacher’s desk, keeping pet toads in pole holes–all these hood-rat gangs of boys come together on that day. Their fresh young impish faces glitter under the light of the PetroMax. For one day of the year they become new. Some are hand-on-heart Birpurush. Some are hiding from mother, blossom on a magnolia branch little Bholanath. Some are passengers on the golden boat. Bright dark complexions, bead necklaces around their necks, abandoning doll-play for vibrant saris, abandoning school for the kitchen spatula, all those domesticated lifeless girls for just that one day, like a suddenly sung new song by Valmiki, surprise everyone by reciting “The Awakening of the Waterfall”. The pain of the king’s beloved son leaving by the room’s back door cause some voices to waver like the rustling of leaves on a tree.

A teacher from the girl’s school one town over sings a concert of Rabindrasangeet in his tone-deaf voice. After the festivities have ended, indoors and outdoors, at school and in town, phrases from those songs endure from voice to voice–Let a hurricane rise, let the winds run away, I shall never return. Some sing–Lighting the ribs of my own chest on fire.

The ladies of the household insist that their embroidery cloth be written with lines from a Rabi Thakur poem. What shall I write? Lines from which poem?

Have no fear, oh have no fear.

The poems are written on the cloths. All around are blues crimsons greens yellows colorful floral designs. In the center in brown thread, every afternoon with sleepless eyes in tired relaxation from work, are embroidered those four lines: “On that rising path I hear someone’s song.”

Is it only in threadwork? No. After his birthday, our hearts are also embroidered in threads of so many colors with Rabi Thakur’s writing. His birthday doesn’t run out after his birthday, every day is his birthday. It is the twenty-fifth day of summer every day.

Among each day and each person, we walk together and mingle with him. Our cursive is Rabi Thakur. Our style of speaking is Rabi Thakur. In our love letters hide Rabi Thakur. Inside test papers, Rabi Thakur. Our deepest joy or secret pain’s song is Rabi Thakur. In our Saraswati worship is Rabi Thakur. In our desire to be playful is Rabi Thakur.

Keeping the motherland the apple of the eye is Rabi Thakur. The internationalism of using other countries to set an example is Rabi Thakur’s. The determination to bring our culture down to earth is Rabi Thakur’s. The struggle of snatching our civilization away from the monster’s hands is Rabi Thakur’s. In the sky, on the earth, in all the rain that falls in our memories, the rhythm is Rabi Thakur’s. The scent of all the flowers that bloom is Rabi Thakur’s. That’s why every day is his birthday. He shall never die. If the ancient destroyer of history came to India to extinguish all lamps of worship, still a single god’s pedestal will remain forever embedded in the soil. Which god? Rabi Thakur.

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