Paan & the Mesabji

A couple of weeks ago I saw a series of NHS posters about the increased incidence of oral cancer in people who chew paan. One of them was in Bangla and it instantly brought to mind the image of the Mesabji, or teacher, who presided over the little ‘school’ at the house of my friend, N. I was ten or eleven at the time. The ‘school’ was held on Saturdays and was compulsory for my Bangladeshi friends, which inevitably meant it was something of a chore for them; whereas i attended of my own free will and loved every minute of the experience.

During the first half of the class we learnt how to read the Qur’an – and I do mean read: there was never any expectation that we should be able to comprehend the words we were reciting; it was enough that we could speak them. We started by learning the Arabic alphabet. Actually, what we learnt was the Bangla pronunciation of the letters: ا alif, ب ba, ت ta, ث sa. After that, we worked our way through vowel markers and joined up letter forms until we could read words and, eventually, sentences.

In the second half of the class we turned our attentions to Bangla. My friends had the advantage over me then, as they understood what we were reading. I struggled along with the help of N. I could already read the script however: I think I’d learnt it the year before with N’s assistance; but my grasp of the the language itself was minimal. I seemed to spend the whole time grappling with the first lesson in আমার বই, ‘Āmār Bai’ (‘My Book’). Āmāder desh shundâr desh* is the only bit of it I can still recall.

Nevertheless, I loved it: Arabic and Bangla alike. I even loved the fact that we had to do a funny ritual (uzu) in which we washed our hands, feet etc before we had the class. I didn’t understand why we had to do these things until a couple of years later when my friends’ dad acquired a couple of books in English, but it scarcely mattered: participation in a ritual generates a meaning of its own.

The mesabji himself spoke no English. He communicated with me entirely through smiles and via valiant attempts at interpretation by my friends. I remember how keen he was to try and learn though. He used to sit and pore over Ladybird books, even as we grappled with Arabic and Bangla. I can picture his face now: the childlike expression contrasting with his long grey beard, as he stares at an illustration of a toothbrush and attempts to say the word on the page opposite. “Tootbrash” is how it always comes out, no matter how hard he tries.

He was such a gentle old man, at least with me; and I revelled in my ‘special pupil’ status. As a ‘convert’ I could do no wrong**. At the end of the class my friends’ mum would bring the paan. The bright green leaf and the red stain on the Mesabji’s teeth were the signal that the class was ending; which explains, I suppose, why I’ve never liked the stuff.

* Our land is a beautiful land”, or thereabouts.
** By contrast, N’s brother A could do no right. The poor lad had a stammer. He was punished with a rap on the knuckles each time he fluffed a word, which happened more and more often, as he got more and more nervous.

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You may have millions of stars and planets: Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1942): Bengali polymath and Nobel laureate. He has been one of my literary heroes ever since i was introduced to his work as an undergraduate student studying – supposedly – Bangla (Bengali). I remember the first time i encountered his writing. It was a letter, which he wrote home while travelling from India to Britain. I no longer remember the exact contents, only that in it he mentioned the Suez Canal. What i do recall is being awestruck, even with my very limited command of Bangla, by the beauty of his writing.

Reading him in English is, by contrast, a much more frustrating experience. The songs and poems fare especially poorly. Translators seem obsessed with rendering the most minute details of Bengali life to the exclusion of the real essence of the poetry. Do we really need to know the name of every musical instrument, flower or season? Tagore’s is the poetry of transcendence, of the way in which the particular points towards the universal; footnoting and exotic vocabulary can only get in the way. Nevertheless, i enjoy the translations by Brother James, especially of the song lyrics. They communicate the rapture, the devotion which is at the poems’ heart:

“…

You may have millions of stars and planets,
but you don’t have me.

You won’t be able to tolerate that,
You’ll have to draw me to Your side,
for You are alone
if i am alone.”

(Gitali 77, excerpt)

Tagore also wrote novels, short stories and plays. He painted, he founded a school – in fact the breadth of his accomplishments is astonishing. I feel almost as if i’m trivialising him then when i say that of all his works it’s what Wikipedia describes as his “autobiographies” which are my great loves. Two books in particular, “Glimpses of Bengal” and “My Reminiscences”, go everywhere with me: I carry them round with me on my iPhone to turn to when i feel drained by life’s pressures. Tagore had a magical memory. I don’t just mean that his memory was good, but that he remembered what mattered, the things that could make a scene live again for a reader – even one who’d never seen his world or anything remotely like it.

I’ll conclude by giving two very different examples, one from each of the titles I’ve just mentioned. Not exactly favourite passages, but ones i’ve alighted on tonight as i’ve been flicking through the books. The first i find touching – although others will perhaps consider it a bit mawkish:

“I saw a dead bird floating down the current today. The history of its death may easily be divined. It had a nest in some mango tree at the edge of a village. It returned home in the evening, nestling there against soft-feathered companions, and resting a wearied little body in sleep. All of a sudden, in the night, the mighty Padma tossed slightly in her bed, and the earth was swept away from the roots of the mango tree…”

(“Glimpses of Bengal”)

The second is just funny, but to understand it you need to know that the arrival they are awaiting is that of their dreaded English language tutor:

“It is evening. The rain is pouring in lance-like showers. Our lane is under knee-deep water. The tank has overflown into the garden, and the bushy tops of the Bael trees are seen standing out over the waters. Our whole being, on this delightful rainy evening is radiating rapture like the Kadamba flower its fragrant spikes. The time for the arrival of our tutor is over by just a few minutes. Yet there is no certainty…! We are sitting on the verandah overlooking the lane watching and watching with a piteous gaze. All of a sudden, with a great big thump, our hearts seem to fall into a swoon. The familiar black umbrella has turned the corner undefeated by such weather! Could it not be somebody else? It certainly could not! In the wide world there might be found another, his equal in pertinacity, but never in this little lane of ours.”

(“My Reminiscences”)

So there you have it: my plea for Tagore. Do not be put off by translations which seem designed to convince you he is unreadable, or by the idea that his work is all esoteric and mystical. It isn’t. If at least one person who reads this post falls under Tagore’s spell then my work here will be done!