This Bengali New Year is special and no, not in a good way. We, as a nation, have been under complete lockdown for almost a month now and it looks like it’s going to be there for at least 18 more days. I’m missing my family and friends and for some strange reason that I still don’t fully understand, I’ve been missing my late grandfather terribly for the past couple of days. In fact, last weekend, I got transported back to the early 90s when I was a little girl and used to be my grandfather’s pet. I was the first grandchild he ever had, so to say that I was the apple of his eyes would be an understatement. My love for literature, arts, culture and history can be single-handedly credited to him.

Some Memories are for Keeps

There’s one memory with him in particular, that sneaks up on me all the time, even when there’s no trigger and I’m least expecting it. It is the memory of the wooden bed in Dadu’s house, a dark brown teak wood bed with an elaborately carved headboard. I’d sit with Dadu on that bed, with a Sanchayita or Geetanjali in his hand and he’d read out songs and poetry to me for hours. Some would be easy, some would be difficult, but the rule was whatever text it may be, he’ll read out every line and I’ll repeat that line right afterwards. I was about 6-7 years old. I hardly understood half of what Dadu tried to explain to me, but those lines, his exact enunciation and tones, they still ring in my ears as if I just heard them yesterday.

The World of Imagination

From the little I could comprehend, the tiny I, started building a vast world of imagination in my head where characters from different poems of Tagore would roam aimlessly across my mind. Which is why my idea of Sanyasi Upagupta and Basabdutta weren’t hard to put forth on paper through a black pen and colors of various kinds.

Why I chose Abhisar

Abhisar was one such a poem that influenced me heavily, a poem that my grandfather used to recite with overflowing passion, projecting each word in a different way: some tender, some mundane and some full of terror. I remember how his voice would tremble just a little and his eyes would mist up his glasses every time he’d come to the last line. Irrespective of the words, I could always sense that he was filled with joy and sadness at the same time as he’d close the book and sit quietly for a bit, breathing deeply and controlling his tears.

My family often talks about how I learnt good grammar from my grandfather (Nerd alert!). But truth be told, the most invaluable lesson I learnt from him is the ability to feel deeply and to be moved by beauty irrespective of whether I’m in ecstasy or pain. That was his legacy, his gift to me that keeps on giving, even years after he is gone.

The word abhisar literally means a secret rendezvous of lovers. But every time I tried to translate its sense in the poem, I could hear Dadu enunciating ‘abhisar’ with his characteristic passion and I just knew I had to keep it as it is. Some words get lost in translation and I sure didn’t want abhisar, to be one of them.

If you want to read the original poem, you can find it here.


Sanyasi Upagupta from Tagore's Abhisar
The young monk Upagupta, as seen in my imagination.

Sanyasi Upagupta
Was once asleep at the foot of the Mathurapuri walls –
The breeze had blown out the lamps of the city,
Doors of the city hall were shut,
The stars of the night sky were hidden behind heavy clouds of monsoon.

Whose anklet clad tinkling feet suddenly struck against his chest!
The sanyasi woke up with a start,
His dreamy trance shattered in a moment,
And the harsh brightness of a lamp hit his beautiful, forgiving eyes.

The city dancer was going for an abhisar, drunken in her own youthfulness.
With her body was wrapped in the bluish hem of her robe,
Her jewelry jingled with movement,
When her feet accidentally touched the sanyasi, Basabdutta stopped in her tracks.

She held up her lamp to look more clearly at his bright, youthful appearance.
His face was calm, smiling, tender,
His eyes, radiated compassion,
And on his incandescent forehead, peace and tranquility blossomed like the moon.

The lady now spoke in her charming voice, her eyes overflowing with embarrassment—
“Please forgive me, young sanyasi,
Pray be kind enough to come with me to my house—
The surface of this earth is too austere, this cannot be your bed.”

The sanyasi said gently, “O infinite beauty,
My time has not come yet,
Please continue on your way,
The day it will be my time, I’ll go to your garden by myself.”

A rainstorm showed its gigantic chasm just as a lightning struck out of the blue.
The woman trembled in terror,
A bugle of destruction whistled along the wind,
And high above, a thunder rolled with laughter, as if at the irony of it all.

It’s beautiful spring evening, the year hasn’t ended still.
The wind is fervent and restless,
The trees are full of buds,
Bakul, parul and rajanigandhas have blossomed in the king’s garden.

The breeze is carrying intoxicating tunes of a flute from miles away.
The city is empty because all its citizens,
Have flocked to the flower festival in madhuban,
While glancing at this vacant town, the full moon silently smiles to itself.

In those empty streets flooded by moonlight, the sanyasi is a lone traveler.
Above him is a canopy of trees,
And the cuckoo is calling again and again,
After all these days, is it finally the night of his abhisar?

Leaving the city behind, the sceptered sanyasi went to the end of the city walls.
He stood next to the moat–
In the shadow of the dense mango trees
Who is that woman lying on a lone corner near his feet?

Basabdutta from Tagore's poem Abhisar
The ailing Basabdutta, lying on the ground all alone and in pain.

The entire surface of her skin is covered with lethal rashes of small pox—
Her body, blackened with the darkness of disease
Has been hauled by the citizens and thrown outside the common moat
In order to get rid of her poisonous company.

The sanyasi sits down and lifts her numb head up on his lap—
He pours water onto her parched lips,
He chants some blessings over her head,
And smears a cool sandalwood paste across her body with his own hands.

Buds are shedding, cuckoos singing, the night is tipsy with moonlight
“Who are you, o kind soul”,
She asks, the sanyasi replies—
“Tonight, my time has finally come, I’m here Basabdutta.”