4 Jul 2010

Death's Grief by Rabindranath Tagore

Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh

Note: Recently, I lost a loved one to cancer. Though not born into our family, the person had become family for us, and the death only showed me how attached I had been, without ever realizing that when the person was around. As I grappled with this loss, almost unable to accept the reality of it, I turned to Tagore for some solace. The piece below, part of Tagore's autobiography, reflects how he himself felt the depth of grief following his sister-in-law's death, and how his heart finally found acceptance and even peace. Worked as a balm for me in these difficult moments.

That there could be any gap anywhere in life wasn’t known to me at that time; everything seemed tightly knit within laughter and tears. Nothing could be seen beyond that, hence I had received that as the ultimate truth. Suddenly, when death emerged out of nowhere and, within a moment, created a hole in the middle of this very manifest life, my mind was totally puzzled. All around me, trees, land, water, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the planets firmly continued to be as they were, yet that, which amid them was just as true as themselves—in fact, which, the body, this life, the heart had, through a thousand touches, known to be even truer than all these supernal entities—when that loved one dissolved like a dream within no time, it seemed to be an utter collapse of the self! How could I reconcile what remained with what was no more!

A darkness emerging from this pit attracted me all the while. I kept circling and returned to the same spot, looked at that same darkness and searched for something in place of what had been lost. Humans can never entirely believe in nothingness. Whatever isn’t there is untrue, and whatever is untrue isn’t there. That is why the effort to see within what can’t be seen and the search for acquiring that which can’t be had never stops. Just like a sapling, if bound inside a dark fencing, keeps growing upright on its toes in a desperate attempt to get past the darkness and raise its head in light, all my heart and soul, when suddenly fenced by a ‘not there’ by death, desperately kept trying to come out to the light of ‘is there’ within that boundary. There’s no greater misery than to realize that the path to cross that darkness isn’t visible within that darkness.

However, in the middle of this despairing grief, a breeze of happiness would flow in my heart every now and then, taking me by surprise. The sad fact that life is not absolutely and inertly definite lifted a load off my chest. I felt joyous thinking that we aren’t imprisoned within the stone walls of unmoving truth. That which I had held on to had to be let go of. When seen from the perspective of loss, this evoked pain, but when I saw it from the angle of freedom, I felt spacious peace. That day, I, for the first time realized like a strange truth, that this world’s enormous weight balances itself with the give-and-take of life and death and flows in every direction thus; that weight won’t crush anyone with suppression—no one would have to bear the tyranny of a sole master called life.

This apathy made nature’s beauty even more deeply exquisite for me. For some days, my blind attachment to life nearly disappeared—trees swaying against bright skies would rain a burst of delight down my tear-washed eyes. Death had brought about the distance necessary for viewing the world with completeness and beauty. Standing detached, I watched the world’s image on the vast backdrop of death and knew it to be beautiful.

For a while at that time, a carefree attitude took over my heart, which was also reflected in my outward actions. I found it laughable to conform to the society’s courtesies by considering them to be a great truth. All that wouldn’t touch me at all. For a few days, I was completely oblivious to who thought what of me. I would just drape a thick shawl over my dhoti and wear a pair of chappals to go to Thacker’s shop for buying books. My meals were also characterized by haphazardness. For some time, my bed, even during rains and winters, remained on the balcony of the second story; there, I could see the stars eye to eye and meet the light of the dawn without any delay.



Not that any of these was an austerity for practicing detachment. This was more like a holiday for me. When I found the cane-wielding teacher of this world to be a deception, I ventured to taste freedom by trespassing even small controls. If one fine morning one woke up and found out that the earth’s gravitational pull had lightened by half, why would one want to carefully tread the official path? One would, most definitely, wish to jump across the four-five storied houses on Harrison Road, and if, while enjoying the breeze in Maidan, one came across a monument, one wouldn’t even want to walk past it, but rather to leap over it. My condition was similar—the moment the pull of life loosened under my feet, I was eager to completely leave the beaten path.

On the terrace of our house, alone at night, I would run my fingers like a blind man all over the night, in hopes of seeing a flag atop any peak in the domain of death or a letter or even some symbol etched on its black stone gates. Then, the next morning when light filled my bedding on the balcony, I would open my eyes and find the covering of my heart clearing away; I would find that the expansive view of life appeared as dew-fresh new and marvelous to my eyes as the way in which the world’s rivers, mountains and forests dazzle with the lifting of a fog.

Photo courtesy: Forest Poetry

15 comments:

sanju said...

I haven't read the autobiography of Tagore. But reading this moving piece surely gives the solace so needed during difficult times.

Sanju

onipar... said...

I'm so sorry. This was a beautiful excerpt, and I'm glad it helped you through this difficult time.

jason evans said...

Even though you are incorporating it into the wholeness of life, I'm still sorry for this loss.

Tabitha Bird said...

Sorry for your loss. There are some very wise words here.

Bhaswati said...

Thanks, Jason. The loss can never be made up for, only reconciled with. For days following this death, I couldn't get past some very morbid thoughts. Then I read this piece, which seemed to echo my mental state. The peace that the poet gradually felt following his loss, slowly seems to be permeating my heart too. All the while, the person, while physically absent, continues to be there, bright as ever.

Tabitha, many thanks for your kind words.

Bhaswati said...

For some reason, two of the earliest comments to this post seem gone now. For a while, Blogger has been acting funny with me, so I don't know what happened. Good thing is I saved those two comments and am posting them below this.

Sorry, Sanju and Onipar.

Bhaswati said...

Sanju's Comment:

I haven't read the autobiography of Tagore. But reading this moving piece surely gives the solace so needed during difficult times.

Sanju

Bhaswati said...

Onipar's Comment:

I'm so sorry. This was a beautiful excerpt, and I'm glad it helped you through this difficult time.

Bhaswati said...

Sanju, I agree with you.

Oni, thanks, friend.

onipar... said...

Thank you for reposting. They seem to have reappeared now at the top as well. :-)

Bhaswati said...

Have they, Oni? I still don't see them! Time to move to Wordpress, I think...

White Square said...

Thanks Bhaswati, Check out special issue of India Perspective on www.issuu.com/indiandiplomacy
regards
abhay

Bhaswati said...

Thanks for the link, Abhay! It looks like a not-to-be-missed issue.

Arun Mukhopadhyay said...

I had two younger brothers, Dr Aloke Mukhopadhyay, and Economist Ashoke Mukhopadhyay--both died in accident--Dr Aloke,was swallowed by a whirlpool, while swimming in a hilly river,and it was before the eyes of me(31yrs then)and my wife--my next brother Ashoke, died of an accident,got a head injury;--and could not recover in the hospital. All these are so terrible,--I found great solace reading Rabindranath Thakur's "Mrittushok"--Grief on the demise of a loved one--and I thank Bhaswati for her English Translation of it.--Arun Kumar Mukhopadhyay, I E S (Retd)

Bhaswati said...

Arun babu, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for taking the time to read and comment. No amount of words can assuage the pain one experiences with loved ones' deaths, but somehow, Tagore touches us in a way that helps the healing begin.

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