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.