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Tagore, a friend I never met

Tagore, a friend I never met

Tagore’s works dedicated to the beauty of the Bengali mountains and rivers opened my eyes to what my village had to offer.

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Last Updated : 19 May 2024, 23:13 IST
Last Updated : 19 May 2024, 23:13 IST
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‘Wherever we find a friend, there begins a new life,’ so observed Rabindranath Tagore. As a young teen, I lived in China’s countryside, where life was uneventful. Desperate to search for some meaning, I found a friend in Tagore, and, through his eyes, I was able to see my monotonous life in a new light.

Tagore’s works dedicated to the beauty of the Bengali mountains and rivers opened my eyes to what my village had to offer. In the morning, I would wake with the expectation that the day would come to me “like a new gilt-edged letter.” I enjoyed how “the world awakens and the night takes flight.”

In the long, dull days, I would sometimes sit under the lengthening shadow of a big tree, a palm-sized yellow anthology on my chest. The afternoon sunlight “dancing on the ripples” was just like “restless tiny shuttles weaving golden tapestries.” When my eyelids grew heavier, I felt I was in the embrace of The Banyan Tree, melted into the light, turned into a zephyr, swept gently against the tree leaves, and swooped to the river bank to launch my Paper Boat.

Life, as I found out later,
is no small stream but a broad and torrential river. You come across rocks, rapids, whirlpools, and even small waterfalls. At every sharp turn,
I would look to Tagore for guidance.

Uplifting was his call for “light, my light, the world-filling light, the eye-kissing light, the heart-sweetening light.” Inspiring was his dreamy portrayal of a world where butterflies “spread their sails on the sea of light” and lilies and jasmines “surge up on the crest of the waves of light.” Nourishing was his tenderness as he remembered his mother through “the tune of some song that she used to hum while rocking my cradle.”

And to a young girl, the lost time reading his wise words is never lost, and some magic plans are being made in the hidden: “I was tired and sleeping on my idle bed, and I imagined all work had ceased. In the morning, I woke up and found my garden full with wonders of flowers.”

Tagore, besides his love of nature and life itself, also had a big heart for the well-being of humankind. He ardently pleaded with his motherland to cease living a puppet’s life and break free from the fetters of colonial rule. He condemned the dumping of opium and militarist aggression in China. He donated to China’s struggle for independence. In 1924—exactly 100 years ago —he first set foot on my country, where the Nobel laureate observed that India and China never thought of each other as “rivals on the battlefield” “but as noble friends, glorying in their exchange of gifts.”

The philosopher had this crucial message for his Chinese audience: Be proud of our shared Oriental cultural heritage, especially its focus on a spiritually fulfilled life, and be wary of giving that up for bits and pieces of the Occidental culture. 

During that trip, Tagore earned himself a Chinese name, proposed by his Chinese host and leading intellect, Liang Qichao. It was Zhu Zhendan. Zhu was
the name for “India” in Chinese; zhendan was a transliteration of “China” in ancient India.

I had the honour of once visiting the bard of Bengal’s ancestral home in Kolkata. In his final months, Tagore fondly remembered his trips to China:

Once I went to the land of China,

Those whom I had not met Put the mark of friendship on my forehead,
Calling me their own.

But it was really Tagore who had put a mark of friendship on the foreheads of generations of Chinese and Indians to come.


(The writer is a Beijing-based commentator)

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