Tagore among the Philistines
Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih is one the most important contemporary writers from Meghalaya. He writes poems, short fiction and drama in Khasi and English. He has a total of 13 publications in Khasi. This is an excerpt from the author’s forthcoming novel.
... But Hamkom was not done talking about Assam-type houses. He chattered on about houses outside Shillong, especially the Dak Banglas, ‘the inspection bungalows’ built by the British in strategic villages like Laitlyngkot on the way to Dawki on the Bangladesh border and Mawkdok on the way to Sohra. And of course, he also spoke, with the help of Bah Su, of the famous Circuit House in Sohra, the first seat of British governance in the Khasi Hills, as also about the famous Presbyterian Theological College, the oldest in Northeast India, established in 1887 by the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist missionary, Dr John Roberts. Though now the college has been renamed John Roberts Theological Seminary and shifted to a place near Shillong, the building is still very much there. But finally, he came back to Shillong and said, ‘But I think the most famous Assam-type houses, at least in Shillong, are Jitbhoomi and Brookside, no Ap?’
‘Why?’ Donald asked, immediately becoming interested.
Hamkom reacted to his question rather sharply: ‘You really don’t know anything about your own place, do you, Don? These houses were associated with Rabindranath Tagore, man! He visited Shillong in ... Ap, why don’t you tell, you are more familiar with it, no?’
At that moment I was trying to get in touch with Indalin, but when I failed to connect yet again, I agreed to help him out after asking Raji to keep calling Indalin’s number.
Tagore visited Shillong three times, in 1919, 1923 and 1927. During his first two visits, he stayed in the houses called Jitbhoomi and Brookside, both in Rilbong, and both incredibly lovely always looking freshly painted and well looked after. I can well imagine the poet sitting on the wide verandas, revelling in their quiet solitude and composing his poems. But in his last visit he stayed in Sidli House at Upland Road, Laitumkhrah, which belonged to the Raja of Sidli, present-day Goalpara District of Assam. While in Shillong, the Nobel laureate wrote poems, songs, dramas and novels, featuring the town in all of them. In the evocative poem ‘Shillonger Chithi’ (‘Letter from Shillong’), which he wrote while at Jitbhoomi at the request of two girls from Kolkata, he spoke about Shillong with great fondness and admiration. Since I had a prose rendering of the poem, in English, in my mobile phone, I proceeded to read it:
When the heat of the plains could not be assuaged by fans and sharbat, I rushed to the cool heights of the hills called Shillong. The mountain ranges with their mantle of clouds seemed to beckon weary travellers to take refuge in the deep shade of woods on their hill sides. The meandering streamlets follow their course with soft murmur, caressing the heart with their soothing music. Winds blow gently through the branches of pine trees driving away accumulated poison in the air and rejuvenating the weak and the sick with their life-giving breath.
Nature changes and unfolds a new lively face at every turn of the road cutting its way through rocky hillsides. Compared to Darjeeling, the cold is bearable here, a Kadai Shawl being enough to keep it at bay. Cherrapunjee, with its reputation of rains, though not very far away, the rain clouds do not shower frequently on us here. It is pleasant here to watch the moon play hide and seek through branches of trees, but it is still more pleasant when the wind scatters the scent of pine leaves all around. I am quite happy here roaming leisurely through the woods, picking flowers as I please or watching the dance of nameless birds or listening to the whistles of bulbuls. It is pleasant here during the noonday when the soft and sweet breeze is wafted from the pine groves standing guard on the hills. It is pleasant to watch the mosaic of light and shade fleeting by or the cultivated terraces on the hill slopes at a distance. It is pleasant to see when the sun is held captive behind clouds or when the sun makes peace with Indra, the rain god, illuminating the sky with its blue and red effulgence.
I concluded my reading by saying, ‘The translation is by the late J. N. Chowdhury, writer of The Khasi Canvas. It’s quite beautiful, isn’t it?’
Everyone agreed and clapped except for Dale, who was driving, and who could not really understand anyway.
‘Wow, man, that was a real gem, ya!’ Hamkom said excitedly. ‘And I think Tagore was the most famous personality ever to have visited Shillong, no?’
I wanted to say that that was not quite true, for, since the time of the British, Shillong had had many illustrious visitors, including the Viceroy and Governor General of India, Lord Willingdon, and his wife, Countess Willingdon, who came here on 4th October 1933, and another Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, who came on 28th July 1937. Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose was also supposed to have visited Shillong before Independence, for later during his tenure as the President of the Indian National Congress, he made some very complimentary remarks about Khasi traditional democracy, which he said he had personally witnessed.
Swami Vivekananda came in 1901 and stayed at a cottage in Laban called Ghouranga Lodge. C. V. Raman, the physicist and Nobel laureate visited Shillong many times, the last time as the guest of the state governor at Raj Bhavan, where at one point he was so lost gazing at the ‘enchanting blue of the Shillong sky’ from a niche in the garden that he caused quite a stir among the governor’s servants who were trying to find him for a late luncheon. Nirad C. Chaudhuri, another Nobel laureate, whose wife Amiya Dhar was from Shillong, also visited the town at least once and made references to it in his Autobiography of an Unknown Indian where he talked about the ‘medley of images formed by the stories of hills, pine trees, gorges, English babies, Gurkhas, pear trees and prayer halls’, though disappointingly, nothing about the Khasis. The list of great personalities who had visited Shillong could go on and on and could include prime ministers and presidents and pontiffs.
I wanted to say all that, but Bah Kynsai intervened and said, ‘Who told you Tagore was famous? Here he was famous only among Bengalis, na? Most Khasis, apart from those who read books, and these are few, do not know anything about him, you know that? And I can prove it with the following story, which really happened’.
According to Bah Kynsai’s story, one day some Bengali tourists from Kolkata came to Rilbong looking for Jitbhoomi and Brookside, where Tagore had stayed when he came to Shillong. The tourists met a Khasi man who was cleaning a wall by the roadside. They asked him, ‘Mama, do you know the houses where Rabindranath Tagore used to stay?’
The Khasi looked at them pensively and said, ‘Rabindranath Tagore ... I don’t think I know the houses ...’
The Bengali tourists were shocked beyond belief. ‘What!? You don’t know the houses where Rabindranath Tagore, our great poet, our Gurudev, used to stay!?’ they cried. ‘This is Rilbong, no? The houses are here, think very carefully, Mama. Rabindranath Tagore, the greatest poet of India, of the whole world even! You must know, you should know!’
Ashamed that he did not know, the Khasi tried very hard to remember the name. He looked at the sky thinking intently, all the while repeating, ‘Rabindranath, Rabindra, Rabin ...’ and then suddenly he shouted with sudden recognition, ‘Oh, you mean Bah Robin! He is working in PWD, come, come, I’ll show you his house’.
And with that he took them to a concrete house up the road and said, ‘This is the house of Bah Robin, but I don’t think you’ll find him at home. He’s gone to office’.
Bah Kynsai ended the story with a booming laugh and Hamkom cursed him good-humouredly for telling such a joke. But Bah Kynsai insisted it was a true story. He said, ‘There are many Khasis who are named Robin, na, that’s why that fellow thought they were asking about the house of his neighbour, Robin Lyngdoh’.
‘But not knowing Rabindranath Tagore is a damning indictment on our ignorance, Bah Kynsai’, Donald said seriously, although he had also laughed at the story.
‘Of course, it is. Who said it is not?’ Bah Kynsai replied....