The Last Poem

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What I gave you was your own gift

The Last Poem (Shesher Kobita) was written by Rabindranath Tagore and first published in Bengali in 1928. It follows the story of Amit Ray, an Oxford educated barrister with unconventional tastes, and Lavanya (pronounced Labonno), a scholar and a very independent minded daughter of a professor. The pair coming from very different socio-economic backgrounds meet unexpectedly and begin a romance in Shillong, Meghalaya which is woven and unwoven though poetry and clever dialogue. The novel is less focused on plot than it is on the full range of core human experiences. Of love, ego, humiliation, humility, and so on.

I bought myself a translated copy published in 2011 by Dilip Basu ( late UCSC professor of history) about three years ago. My father was delighted to see it on my bookshelf and exclaimed it’s a really popular novel, but he’s only seen the TV serial.

I was not aware of it’s specific popularity only that it was written by Tagore was enough for me to purchase it off amazon on a whim. Admittedly, the first time I read it, I could not grasp the full depth of the characters or their situation. It has taken me a few reads to deeply appreciate and reflect on this story.

The novel begins with an introduction to Amit by an unknown narrator who introduces himself as a young author. Amit is from an upper middle class family whose father is also a barrister. Amit likes to stick out and will always find a way to stir controversy either through his words or his choice of fashion. Very much like Tagore himself. If you have seen photographs of Tagore, you will know how much of a unique sense of personal style he’s had through every stage of his life.

I believe the character of Amit directly reflects Tagore. If you have read his memoirs and biography, you will notice very similar characteristics and antics demonstrated by Amit such as attributing original poetry to made up poets to get reactions from peers in literary circles. An episode reminiscent of Tagore’s archaic poetry attributed to the made up poet Bhanusimha.

Amit is pestered by his sisters to get married to which he refuses. He has several admirers but is disinterested in them because they lack culture even though they are highly educated.

Amit decides to get away and go to Shillong for the summer because “no one in his family ever went there; and the hunt for suitable young men was not very keen there.” There in a road accident in the mountains he meets Lavanya with whom he is instantly smitten. She is unlike the women he’s met at Oxford or the ones in his social circle in Kolkata. She’s different in his mind. And for Lavanya is was a “moment of self discovery for her.”

Lavanya is the motherless daughter of a college head principal. She is a deeply serious intellectual and academic. Her father believes “his daughter’s intellect had reached supreme level of sophistication–she didn’t need a husband.” I suspect her family is Brahmo (an of shoot of monistic Hinduism influenced with Christianity focused on social reform in the 19th century founded by Raja Rammohan Roy.) She takes on the job of being a private tutor to widowed Yogamaya’s children in Shillong.

In due time, the pair become engaged.

Amit is so enamored by Lavanya he begins to become someone other than himself. And to Lavanya’s dismay, views Lavanya as someone other than herself. She tells him that she is just ordinary and routine based. Not the goddess or muse of his poetry. That in time, she will become boring to him compared to his spontaneous (and I will add impulsive) character. She says,” The more I read of love in literature, the more I am convinced that tragedy in love occurs when two people will not concede each other’s individuality, where each strives to impose one’s will on the other, where one attempts to mold the other in one’s own image.”

I will stop here with the contents of the book as to not give away the rest and reflect on the characters of Lavanya and Amit and my own identifications with both of them.

At first, I was repulsed by Amit only to accept that I was repulsed because I find my own self reflected in his ways of being. I may not be an Oxford educated child of a wealthy family, but the unconventionality of Amit reminded me of myself. For Amit, it was an attempt to garner attention. An ego boost. I hated the attention I had gotten when I was younger for sticking out & being different until I learned to turn it around, take pride, and make it my asset. My ego gets a kick out of it in healthy doses.

Amit’s pathetic literary heart is also something I sympathize with. Amit is certainly not an introvert, but he exhibits a deep, imaginative, and rich inner life which he is very much in touch with. He is much more expressive and emotion based than Lavanya. What he learned from Lavanya was acceptance (sometimes I think he doesn’t learn anything at all.)

Lavanya, on the other hand, is introspective, logical, plays it safe (perhaps class plays into this characteristic), not very much in touch with her own capabilities of tenderness which she discovers when she falls in love Amit. A fact that she reflects on about a past romantic pursuit but chided herself out of it due to fear.

It’s a predicament I also find myself in many times as someone who is analytically bent as much as artistically (I have to remind myself the two qualities are not mutually exclusive).  Lavanya knows herself quite well but how much she experiences and accepts her self is another matter.  She chastises Amit for being overly romantic, but cries at herself when she says there’s no one in the world who loves more than she.

You will have to read the novel to get the full depth, layers, and contradictions of the characters.

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Nativity

I fasten the natal star to my nose
to remind me of home.

What exactly I’m trying to remember
I’m not entirely sure.

My ancestors call love
a good home

where bodies mold
comfort from the

clay of myths.
The honeyed longings of

tuberoses at midnight
spin dreams

of the god of memory
and the ancient soils

floating forever adrift
in the notes of my silent songs.

Emon Manab Janom

I like to listen to this when I am feeling powerless, self-loathing, or debilitated as a human being being face to face with my weaknesses and humiliating past experiences. Or when I feel paralyzed that I can’t do anything because of some of the ways I am marginalized.

I don’t think this song is meant for everyone and it certainly cannot be looked at through an arrogant lens. I think it is meant to honor the parts of ourselves we are taught to be shamed about and ignore while forced to find ways to survive the world we live in.

A human life like this will never happen again.
Do whatever your heart desires soon.
The Lord created infinite forms
but nothing is superior than human.
Even gods and goddesses
meditate to take the human form.
Due to immense luck
you’ve got this human boat (body).
Row it quick
Take care that it doesn’t sink.
Being human,
anything can be achieved
that is why the Lord created this form.
If you lose this time as human
I don’t see any hope
Lalon yearns
-Translation taken from subtitles of Tanvir Mokammel’s film Lalon

feeding rice to the earth

Rice holds a sacred place in my family’s heart of meaning making. I have always been told the little line on the belly of a single grain of rice says the names of Allah. That was why we would have to eat every single grain on our plate in order to receive full blessings. If any dry grains of rice spilled on the floor, my mother would be quick to warn us not to step on any. Stepping on rice was akin to stepping on God.

Rice is an important staple crop across Asia. People of Bengal depended on it for food, employment, and trade since it grew very well in the region. This is why it held in high esteem there.

In fact, the first solid food a baby in a Bengali home eats is rice. This ritual or ceremony is called annaprasanna (Sanskrit). Many Bengali Muslims refer to it simply as mukhe-bhaat (rice to the mouth). It might be in the form of rice pudding or very softly cooked rice.

During Ramadan, it is common to break fast with dates but in my family eating three grains of dry rice with water comes before the date.”Where is the rice?! We need rice at the table! How could you forget the rice!” my mother would exclaim. I thought everyone did that until I came across other Muslims not being familiar with the practice.

My grandmother used to sprinkle freshly cooked rice to the earth three times before eating it. She used to make an offering to or feed Maa Khaki in thanks. Khaki meaning earth or soil originating from the Farsi word for dust (khak). This practice was a synthesis of local goddess/fertility beliefs with possibly Sufi terminology. My grandmother had many earth based practices such as this. I am just sad to be finding out after her death.

Eating rice will be a little different now that I know this. Perhaps I will make an offering to Maa Khaki and give a few morsels to my grandmother who is coalesced with the earth.

চর্যাপদ- Chorjapod/Charyapada

Buddha Giving Safety (Abhayananda) to Mariners, Leaf from a Dispersed Pancavimsatisahasrika Prajnapramita, India or Bangladesh, Pala Period, Ink on Palm Leaf from Metmuseum website

Disclaimer: I have tried my best to compile information from various sources. Apologies for any inaccuracies as I continue to learn about this topic.

I once came upon a blog called Bangladesh Unlocked where in the description it says “more Buddhism than Nepal.” Not what one automatically thinks about a Muslim majority labeled nation. There is a distinct and small Theravada Buddhist community mostly found in the eastern parts of the country especially in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

The most well known Buddhist Dynasty in Bengal  (now modern day Bangladesh and West Bengal) and Bihar is the Pala Dynasty/Pal Shomratjo. The empire differed from previous Buddhist empires such as that of Asoka and the Hellenistic infused Buddhist cultures of Gandhara (Modern-day Pakistan). Pala era Buddhism is described as being far removed from the Buddhism of the Buddha. Ruling for almost 450 years. The dynasty were the patrons of Mahayana/Mohajon Buddhism at a time when it began to wane in most parts of South Asia. It was founded by Gopala in approximately 750- 775 c.e. and saw expansion to modern-day territory of Uttar Pradesh during his son Dharmapala’s rule. During their reign, there was a proliferation of an indigenous type of Tantric Buddhism. There were several traditions and religions being practiced side by side at the time. Several forms of Vedic, Shaiva, Vaishnava (Pre-Bengal Vaishnavism of 12th c), Shakta, Jain, Naths, several Yogic groups, Tantric, Shamanic cultures and many others ( I don’t wish to portray this as some type of Utopia, I’m sure it was far from it though. But I think the plurality of ideas, practices, and beliefs to freely mix, thoughtfully co-create, or respond by making their own groups and myths is something to acknowledge. This is still happening of course but now it’s either surrounded with a headline of controversy or sensationalism and celebritydom as something novel.)

This dynasty had regular connections and diplomacy with Tibetan monks and monarchs. Much of the information about this era has been recovered from Tibetan texts and monographs.

Somapura Mahaviraha/ Great Monastery, Paharpur ruins 8th c. , Rajshahi, Bangladesh- UNESCO

The Somapura Mahavihara/Mohabihar was built during the reign of Dharmapala. It was a major intellectual site of the time in addition to others. Buddhist monks and scholars from China and Tibet came to study here and Bengali Buddhists went to Tibet to teach. Vajrayana Buddhism became popular and this was the time when Tibetan culture was being influenced by Tantra and vice-versa. Unfortunately with the rise of the Senas and the invasion of Bakhtiyar Khilji in the 13th century, many of these institutions were destroyed or abandoned. I want to emphasize the presence of Muslims in the region far before the Khilji invasion. Richard Eaton in The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier talks about the record from an Arab geographer named Mas’udi from 900s ce that were were Muslims living in Bengal during the Buddhist rule–mosty likely in the Buddhist Chandra Dynasty located in modern day Comilla due to trade routes.  Eaton states,

Mas‘udi’s remark about Muslims residing in Pala domains is significant in the context of these commercially and politically expansive Buddhist states, for by the tenth century, when Bengali textiles were being absorbed into wider Indian Ocean commercial networks, two trade diasporas overlapped one another in the delta region. One, extending eastward from the Arabian Sea, was dominated by Muslim Arabs or Persians; the other, extending eastward from the Bay of Bengal, by Buddhist Bengalis.[38] The earliest presence of Islamic civilization in Bengal resulted from the overlapping of these two diasporas.

The most well known and earliest text found from the period of the Bengali Tantric Buddhism (also known as Sahajayana) is the Charyapada/Chorjapod or Charyageeti –47 verses of poetry or songs composed by 22 poet-philosophers. The Charyapada was written sometime approximately between the Pala and Sena rule (950-1200 ce) when Buddhism was in decline due to the changing over to the Sena patronage of Hinduism. The Charyapada is described as mystical poetry that is meant to be sung and performed. It may be coded not only for its Tantric philosophy and for contemplation but for its critique on the rigid caste hierarchy revival being propagated by the Senas. Some of the verses talk about Buddhist and others about the opposition to caste and criticizing the laws barring lower castes from reciting the Vedas. It deals a lot with the everyday people, the body, contemplation, knowledge, existence, and landscape.

These texts were missing until scholar Haraprasad Shastri found them again in Nepal. There are also Tibetan translations of these songs.

Dr. Saymon Zakaria talks about looking for Bangladeshi identity and knowledge in the Charyapada than just 1971. I agree with him.

Without knowing the prior histories and cultures of 1971 then what is the point?

My favorite pada from the Charyapada would probably be number 27 by Bhusukupa:
Original Language:

adharaati var kamala bikasau/
batis yoini tasu anga uhlasiu//(ধ্রু♪)
chaliuaw ShaShahara magey avadhooi/
rawawNawhu Shahajey kahei//(ধ্রু♪)
chaliaw ShaShahar gau nivaNeyN/
kamalini kamala bahoi paNaleyN//(ধ্রু♪)
virmananda vilakshaNa sudh/
jo ethu bujhai so ethu budh//(ধ্রু♪)
vusuku vaNoi moi bujhhiaw meleyN/
sahajananda mahasuha leeleyN//(ধ্রু♪)
(taken from Tanvir Ratul’s book Charyapada. This language is the ancestral language of modern languages of Bengal, Assam, Orissa, and Bihar.)

ardho ratri bhore bhikashito holo phool
moha anonodo kore jogini rongo mul
abhodhuti ghore chandro ke chalan diye
rotno chere ore thaken shohoj hoye
chondro gelo oye Nirban pothe bheshe
komolini boye komol podo roshe
ardho ratri bhore bhikashito holo phool
moha anonodo kore jogini rongo mul
birom anondo shob shomoy shuddho
jara bhojen kotha tharai Buddho
Bhushuku bolen milone bhujechi ami
shohoj anondo moha shuk lila shami
(Translated to modern Bengali by Dr. Saymon Zakaria scholar of Bangladeshi folklore)

English:
The lotus blossomed at midnight.
Bodies of thirty two yoginis were in ecstasy.
The moon descended on the ‘abadhuta marg’.
The jewels describe the greatness of Sahajananda.
The moon floated toward the path of Nirvana.
The lotus flows down the nerves.
One who experiences the four happiness’
the one who understand this is the true Buddha.
Bhusuku says: in union I have perceived Shahajanada.
(Taken from Open Knowledge Foundation Network India with a couple of modifications I made based on the Bengali translation above.)

I think I just liked the way it sounded in Bengali. I haven’t quite understood it completely, but I think that is why I like it. It makes me contemplate about it. The imagery is very beautiful though. Chondro gelo oye nirban pothe bheshe/ The moon floated toward the path of Nirvana is my favorite line.

According to Shah Alom Dewan, these songs are deha-tattwa (body philosophy). He compares the student to the moon and the sun to the Guru. The moonlight has no complete separate identity. It is dependent on the sun’s light to be illuminated. When the sun sets the moon is illuminated and casts its light. Just like a student inheriting and illuminating knowledge from a teacher.

It was quite difficult to find information about the Sahaja Buddhism of Bengal. I had to look through musicology articles, literature books, art history books, history books, and Youtube. I could not find articles or books in English about it under the topic of ‘religion’ unless it involved the Bauls. They probably do exist, but I just could not find them.

I am not finished with learning about this topic. This is just my start.

I have to acknowledge the minority status and prejudice Bengali Buddhists in Bangladesh and India are currently facing. I break at the news of attacks.
I feel similarly about Muslims in Buddhist majority nations as well as our past shared histories and cultures are either forgotten, ignored, and erased.

Citations and Further Reading:

Bagchi, Jhunu. “The History and Culture of the Pālas of Bengal and Bihar, Cir. 750 AD-cir. 1200 AD Abhinav Publications.”

Dasgupta, Biplab. European trade and colonial conquest. Vol. 1. Anthem Press, 2005.

Eaton, Richard Maxwell. The rise of Islam and the Bengal frontier, 1204-1760. Vol. 17. Univ of California Press, 1993.

Van Schendel, Willem. A history of Bangladesh. Cambridge University Press, 2009.

UNESCO 

Bengal Buddhist Association

Bengali Folktales and Fairy-tales

how mauw khauw, manusher gondho pow/ how mauw khauw, I smell a human

I remember this line from way back when I was a child. My mother would say it as she put on her winter gloves and wiggled her fingers in a menacing manner. I would imitate the line whenever I put on my own winter gloves. There are many lines like this I recall now and then from hearing stories from a long time ago. The how mauw khauw line comes from a story about a rakhosh/demon. The story is the Bengali equivalent of Jack and the Beanstalk.  William Alexander Clouston in his 1887 book Popular Tales and Fictions, Their Migrations and Transformations says the Bengali fairy tale probably has its roots in a story from the Mahabharata from which Lal Behari Dey, journalist and reverend, incorporated into his collections of folklore. See Rev. Lal Behari Dey’s Bengali Folktales from 1883 for English translations of Bengali folktales accompanied by illustrations of Warwick Goble.

“At dawn he used to cull flowers in the forest”

One of my most favorite folktales was Toona Tooni. I would listen to this one many times while my mother tried to get me to take naps in the middle of the day. I still haven’t been able to find any translations of it so far. I also could not find it in Bengali anywhere online. I am sure there must be one version of it in text somewhere out there, but I have failed to come across it. I plan to translate the version I heard in any case.

The tale of Toona and Tooni are about two little song birds who want to make peetha, a dessert, but they don’t have the ingredients. So Toona sets off to get them for Tooni to make. As they prepare the peetha, several animals pass by and ask what they are doing. They reply they are making peetha and each animal excitedly exclaims they want some too. But Toona and Tooni don’t plan to share and definitely not with the fox. They tell the animals to come back in the evening when they will be finished making it. In the meantime, they finish making and eating their peetha. The animals return in the evening only to come and see that Toona and Tooni are merrily singing up in the trees with full stomachs.

This story probably has connections to the Panchatantraanimal fables of South Asia. Many folktales I heard involved animals. My dad would tell tales about the Monkey and the Crocodile, The Hunter and the Tiger, and more I can’t recall specifically.

My parents also told stories of Kings and Queens called Roopkhotha/fairy tales. Some I am recalling are The Salt PrincessMadhumala ( it’s the equivalent of sleeping beauty) RoophbanShaat Bhai Champa (which “made such a deep impression on young Tagore that it was not only woven into a serious poem (written at the age of thirty) but also used symbolically in a song (written at the age of eighty)”. [Sen, Sukumar. “Tagore and Folklore.”] These fantastic stories were filled with faeries, angels, fakirs, talking animals and flowers, miracles, gods and goddesses, ghosts, witches, and spells.

Living at the edge of woodsy places as a child and being alone most of the times, these stories came to life in my mind. They still live with me. I recall them every now and then in moments of solitude when I try to recover parts of myself I have forgotten. Like the time I was told I was born out of the sky.

The Mendicant Garden/ফকির বাগান

After an informal oral history session with my parents, I learned about the Mendicant Garden/ Foykre Bagan and the practices of a village fubu/aunt. Her name was Goljaan Bibi or as she was affectionately called Gole Fubu. I’ve heard a few stories about her before in passing, but I am always trying to milk a much information about her as I can because I am told I am similar to her. She passed away years ago, but my mother jokes that she reincarnated as me.

Gole Fubu knew many practices. She was labeled superstitious and peculiar but everyone loved her. If there was anyone interested in preserving mixed practices and learning them, it was her. I asked my mother what she taught her and her siblings. She replied no one was interested. I was utterly disappointed. If I would have known her, I would have become a her disciple.

I listened to bits and pieces of what my mother could remember. Many times when my aunts or uncles were ill or if there was a new birth in the village, Gole Fubu would go out to the river during the tides. She would get in ankle to knee deep waters, recite a prayer, and offer the river a sacrifice of something like a bundle of stones or mixture of some sort in exchange for good fortune or healing on behalf of a child. Or she would go to what is called the Mendicant Garden where the wandering muscians, bauls, and fakirs would gather and offer a live chicken or two in exchange for blessings. She was keenly interested in the ways of the bauls. Interacting with such people did bring some criticism against her especially as a woman, but she did what she wanted.

Fubu knew what to do at every occasion and had a lot of knowledge you would think an illiterate person would not have.

This was only a vague recollection of her. I ache to know more about her. Though if she did return as me, I only hope I can be as half as wise and eccentric.