A trip To Toronto for the love of Tagore
By 8:30 Aklima and I were on highway 416 en route to Toronto, where we hoped to arrive at Serene and Sagar’s Birchmont Rd. Apt. in Scarborough by 1 pm. Aklima’s journey actually started much earlier, at around 4:00 am, when she left her home in Montreal, to pick me up at Ottawa. She didn’t have to take this long detour—she could have gone straight to Toronto and I could have gone on my own. But she doesn’t trust me with the wheel anymore for long distance driving—she wouldn’t feel safe to let me drive alone. She is not my daughter, but anyone who doesn’t know me but knows her believes that I am her father. There is nothing I can do about it—-she seems to have taken over my life. I suppose I didn’t even try to do anything about it—- she is such a strong-willed girl that no protestation from me would have any effect on her. She is the kind of person that I always hoped every Bengali woman would become and be able to take charge of their own lives as well as the lives of their loved ones.
But what was it that drove Aklima to wake up at 3 in the morning, drive on dark lonely roads of Quebec and Ontario to reach Ottawa in time for breakfast with her adopted father, then dash out again for another long haul on crowded highways? Was it for a view from the top of the CN tower, a Blue Jays baseball game, a ride on the sightseeing bus on the Dundas Square, or the violin Concerto of Itzak Perlman at the Roy Thomson Hall? Or just to have a good time with old friends? Friends were part of the reason, but the most abiding reason was the love of Tagore—-the great Rabindranath Tagore, the legendary Bengali poet who is now known the world over and revered by poetry-lovers in every language. We, Aklima and I are, quite unabashedly, Tagore-fanatics. We believe, at least I do, that Tagore was much more than a poet and a lyricist for the middle class Bengali nation—he was like a god who created a cultural air-space in which we sustain our life by breathing in it. In fact he gave us an identity—a right to call ourselves “Bangalis”. Personally I make a distinction between one who is a Bengali by birth and one who has had to work hard to become a “Bangali” by having traveled the path traced by this great man. In my books not every Bengali-speaking person is a true “Bangali”. This is based on my conviction that an educated and enlightened Bangali realizes in course of time that there is no feeling that he/she feels that Tagore didn’t feel and describe in the most eloquent manner in one of his songs or poems or stories; no emotion he/she ever felt in the core of his/her heart that didn’t become immortal and luminescent in his writings. He is there in every subliminal layer of our existence—-we find him in our hopes and despairs, in our joys and distresses, in our loves and rejections. He brings light in our darkness just as he brings us the soothing coolness of shades when we are dazzled by the harshness of urban light.
Aklima and I were there because we had tickets for an evening program at Toronto’s Berkeley Street Theatre featuring the famous Tagore play “The Post Office”(May 7-June 4,2011), produced by Toronto’s Pleiades Theatre Company. Obviously it was with great excitement and anticipation that the two of us proceeded toward 26 Berkeley Street, after a hearty meal at Serene’s place. Thanks to Sagar’s help with a google-generated road-map we had no trouble finding the place that would otherwise be quite a challenge to find in a maze of unfamiliar Toronto streets. The building wasn’t exactly a showcase of modern architectural creativity, rather an unpretentious old brick-walled house that looked anything but one that could host top quality professional plays. Nonetheless, the place was full, the crowd was eager and enthusiastic, people of all ages and all nationalities, who obviously heard or knew who Tagore was, perhaps even loved him as a man who could sing into their hearts and speak the words in a way he could but they could not, yet always wanted to. A sublime Tagorian serenity seemed to have pervaded the air. Meanwhile four other local friends joined the two of us, and thanks again to Sagar’s journalistic connection the six of us found ourselves right in the front row, in full view of the actors and other stage-hands. We couldn’t possibly ask for more comfortable seats.
Now a few words about the play itself. First, I have a confession to make—-I am completely ignorant in the art of theatre or stage drama. It would be presumptuous on my part to try to write a critique of the play that I, along with Aklima and others, had watched on the night of May 21, and enjoyed every moment of it. All that I can, and will venture to offer, if anyone would care to read, is my personal impression of the play and what I thought of the overall production.
As explained in the synopsis of the brochure the play is like a sonata: it’s divided in three ‘movements’ or parts, of which the first is just to set the tone and style, as well as to introduce the background of the main story. Madhab Dutta and his wife, a childless couple, adopts a boy called Amal from a nearby village who, however, is afflicted by an apparently incurable illness, for which the rural “healer”, an inflexible and severe pundit, dogmatically adherent to the scriptures, prescribes lifelong captivity in the confines of Dutta home. All that is granted this hapless boy is a view from the living room window. This brings us to the second part of the story where the window becomes the only access for the boy to the outside world with all its magical sounds and scenes and happenings. He hears the local huckster hawking his buckets of curd : ”Doi, Doi” (curd in colloquial Bengali), which to Amal sounds like the song of freedom. So he invites the hawker in the house and begs him to teach him how to say:”Doi, Doi”. He sees a beggar in the street going door to door begging for alms, and he thinks what fun it must be to be able to visit every house in every village, so he wants to be a beggar when he gets well and goes out! But the most abiding scene for him is the sight of a building under construction which was to be the King’s Post Office. Oh, what a wonderful idea—-the mighty King’s very own Post Office. Would he be allowed to deliver the royal mail when he is cured? Would anyone care to send him a letter? Better still, would the King himself write a letter to him? He wonders. Which brings the audience to the third part of the story where the kind-hearted King does better than send a letter—-he sends his Royal Healer to heal the boy.
It’s all a beautiful dream, of course, a typical Tagorian portrait of a captive child’s helpless cry for freedom. Freedom from his own rotten body, freedom from the torment of the “healing” he has been subjected to. The story, to me, is not just the story of an imprisoned boy fantasizing the magic of life outside his window, but symbolizes the voice of all captive souls all over the world. It’s a heart-rending call for rescue from the tyranny of heartless captivity—tyranny of all kinds.
To me it is a mesmerizingly beautiful story, magnified by flawless acting by its cast and, in particular, by the lead character Amal played superbly by Mina James. She was just unbelievable.
Was it an absolutely perfect evening? Yes, it was. Almost. To me there was just one tiny blemish that, in my opinion, could and should have been avoided—the concluding song:”Bhalo achhi, bhalo theko”. On its own it’s a beautiful song, but alongside Tagore’s “Post Office” it sounded sadly out of place. At least to my untrained ears. With so many songs of Tagore available on human mind’s eternal longing for freedom, as well the joy and ecstasy of freedom itself, was its inclusion really necessary?
In the end, however, my hats off to everyone involved in the production of this fabulous piece of art that has given us so much joy that Aklima and I had no problem going back home singing Tagore songs all the way.
May 29, ‘11