A deity for many
Khushwant Singh

Khushwant Singh
Khushwant Singh

There was a time when I believed that Rabindranath Tagore was the greatest writer in the world. At school we recited his famous lines, Where the mind is without fear, as a part of our morning prayer. I mugged up Ekla Chalo (Walk alone), and was able to recite it in Bengali. I spent three months in Santiniketan, and read whatever I could find of his works translated into English, including Gitanjali, which I loved. We were allowed to have his darshan once a week, and saw him seated like a monarch on his throne in the huge garden of his mansion, Uttarayan.

He was awe-inspiring, and over six feet tall. He had long hair curling down to his shoulders, and a flowing white beard down to his chest. He was known as Santhal Raja because the region round Bolpur was predominantly populated by Santhal tribesmen. Later, I read other Bengali short-story writers, novelists and playwrights. I concluded some of them were better craftsmen than my icon Gurudev.

He was still the best as far as use of bejewelled words were concerned, and a great writer of songs. Once I was bold enough to say so at a meeting, and narrowly escaped being roughed up at Kolkata airport. Most Bengalis worship him as a deity and canít take a word spoken in criticism.

On the 150th anniversary of his birth, I turned over the pages of my personal notebook on which I put down memorable quotations. I spotted two right at the beginning. I reproduce them for my readersí benefit:

I hunt the golden stag;

You may smile my friends;

But I pursue that vision that eludes me;

I cross hills and dales;

I wonder through nameless lands;

Because I am hunting the golden stag;

You come and buy in the market;

And go back to your homes;

Laden with merchandise;

But the spell of homeless winds has touched me;

I know not when and where;

I have no cave in my heart;

All my belongings I have left far behind me;

I cross the hills and dales;

I wander through nameless lands;

Because I am hunting the
golden stag.

The second quotation is:

India has two aspects in one;

She is the householder;

In the other a wandering ascetic;

The former refuses to budge from the cosy nook;

The latter has no home at all;

I find both these within me;

I want to roam about and see all the wide world;

Yet I also yearn for a little sheltered nook;

Like a bird with its tiny nest for a dwelling;

And the vast sky for flight.

Dying thoughts

Asadullah Khan Ghalib had four obsessions: love for liquor, love for women, concern over loss of youth and dying. In one of his couplets he admits:

Maut ka ek din muayyen hai;

Neend raat bhar kyon nahi aatee

(When there is a date fixed for my death, why do I keep awake at night thinking about it?).

I also often think of death and try to solve its mystery. No one has yet come out with a plausible answer. But I have never, ever lost sleep over it. What bothers me is not dying, but the increasing dependence on other people, pain and humiliation that usually precedes death.

Consequently, when a few years ago His Holiness The Dalai Lama sent me a red string to tie round my wrist with his blessings that I have a peaceful exit, I was overjoyed. Although I do not believe in mystic powers and talismans, I did tie that string around my wrist for a day, and still keep it in my drawer.

For some reasons, I found comfort in reading poetry on the subject. The verses of Tennyson that I have committed to memory are:

Sunset and evening star;

And one clear call for me;

May there be no moaning at the bar;

When I put out to sea;

Twilight and the evening bell;

And after that the dark;

May there be no mourning of farewell;

When I embark.

The most recent pronouncement on the subject that I came across was in Haruki Murakamiís first novel Norwegian Wood. Most of his characters are college students, who spent a lot of their time boozing and fornicating. A few end up taking their own lives, including two of the narratorís closest friends. He writes:

"Death exists, not as the opposition, but as a part of life to learn. What I learnt from Naokiís death was that a truth can cure the sadness we feel from losing a loved one. No truth, no sincerity, no strength, no kindness can cure that sorrow. All one can do is to see that sadness to the end, and learn something from it. But what we learn will be of no help in facing the next sadness that comes to us without warning."

Sounds profound, but I am not sure what it means.

This is our India

Do not worry about those who have come through boats. Our forces can easily defeat them. Worry about those who have come through votes. They are our real enemies.

(Courtesy: Freedom First & Col TS Tanwar)