Out of all the poems I have read of Tagore, Camelia somehow stuck out. His style here is significantly different and the story, very urban and relatable. I remember being a teenager and reading it in Sanchayita for the very first time since my grandfather would often skip it as a poem for adults while reading Tagore out loud to me. “Oshob boroder kobita, tumi bujhte parbe na” (That’s a poem for adults, you won’t understand it.), he’d always say. Back then, I hadn’t yet realized that it was just a typical code for a love story.

Once I read it, I was moved. In my steady diet of Bollywood movies and Uttam-Suchitra nights during that time, I didn’t realize how longing can be silent and understated as well and how life falls beautifully into place no matter what.

An awkward meet-cute

The story is that of the poet himself (fictional, as far as I know) who falls in love with a young woman named Kamala on the bus and she suddenly becomes the center of his universe. The first time he saw her, he desperately wanted to show off his chivalry by telling off a man who was smoking a cigar sitting right next to her on the bus. But Kamala didn’t care for it. She got down, and the poet rarely ever got to see her again.

The accidental Camelia

When the poet heard from certain sources that Kamala’s family vacations in Darjeeling every year, he went there, in search of her. But he got to know on arrival that her family hadn’t come for a vacation that year. He was planning his way back when he incidentally came across a fan his, and the fan’s sister insisted on giving him a beautiful plant that usually flowers in the mountains as a present. After his initial annoyance with this extra burden of a potted plant, he suddenly get to know the plant’s name. Camelia.

And boom.

The name of the flower so deeply reminded him of his beloved that despite the difficulties of accommodating a potted plant in a railway carriage, he agreed to take it home.

And autumn arrived

Despite the pangs of his unrequited love, autumn arrived just on time like every year. The poet had followed trail of Kamala’s relatives and finally arrived at an anonymous little tribal village where Kamala’s uncle worked as an engineer. It was a beautiful place full of hills, rivers and valleys. The poet built a tent on the bank of a river next to the hills with nothing but the potted Camelia plant kept him company there. He waited for Kamala and watched his camelia bud. As expected, one day, he spotted Kamala and her family picnicking on the other bank. There was a young man in the group as well. He was wearing shorts and a silk shirt sitting beside Kamala and smoking an expensive cigar while Kamala absentmindedly tore the petals of a flower, as if lost in another world.

Oh, so this was a tragedy?

In that very moment, the poet’s world simply fell apart. He realized instantly that the man with Kamala was probably her family-approved lover who had come to holiday with them. The cigar also alludes to the fact that the man in the bus could also have been him, the man who he had arrogantly behaved with for smoking next to Kamala. Suddenly he felt like an extra, like a disturbance, like he didn’t belong there at all. He wanted to leave immediately but he just had to wait for the camelia to blossom so that he could send it to his beloved and bid her farewell forever.

Nope, it ain’t no tragedy

Finally, the time arrived and the poet called for the tribal girl who had been bringing him firewood all this while. She was supposed to carry the flower to Kamala as the anonymous poet’s parting gift to her. But when the tribal girl arrived, the poet saw that this girl had already plucked the camelia and had tucked it behind her own ear. The bright flower looked gorgeous against her dark, glowing skin. It looked as if it was meant to be, as if this flower was born not for Kamala as the poet had prematurely imagined, but for this beautiful girl instead. She asked the poet innocently, “Why did you call for me?” The poet looked at her and then at the flower with a smile and said, “That is why” and with that, he left for Calcutta.

Santhal Girl from Tagore's Camelia
Flower and Firewood Girl from Tagore’s Camelia

Life is beautiful

The story I told you isn’t accurate to its last detail. I have left many parts out and I believe I have added my own imagination to it as well. Because that’s what this poem and Tagore’s style of storytelling here, does best. It evokes beauty and imagination and hope within us not because of but despite its described circumstances. It makes us believe that meant to be-s are overrated and that at the end, life has a very strange and mysterious way of making things fall into right where they belong. Just like Tagore’s short stories, his narrative here as well ends a little abruptly, and leaves us with a sense of subjective closure but not an absolute ending.

I thought I’d translate this poem today, on 25th Baishakh, Rabindranath Tagore’s birthday. But I realized that Arunava Sinha, one of my favorite translators, has already done an excellent job. So, I’ll just leave you with a link to his translation of Camelia and my illustration. Hope you enjoy them.