On Rabindranath Tagore’s fascination with the theme of death

Rabindranath Tagore at his painting desk. PUBLIC DOMAIN IMAGE
03 July, 2014

Vantage will regularly feature extracts from the best current works of non-fiction. Our first selection comes from Death and Dying, a collection of essays edited by psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar.

On 10 September 1937, Rabindranath Tagore—poet, painter, philosopher, educationist, and perhaps the greatest multifaceted genius India has produced in the 19th and 20th centuries—fainted suddenly due to an attack of erysipelas. He was seventy-seven years old. Since there was no telephone in Santiniketan, in rural Bengal where he lived, he was in a coma for sixty hours before a medical team arrived from Calcutta and he began to respond to the treatment.

On 15 September, propped up on pillows, almost the first thing he did was ask for a brush and colours and paint a landscape on a piece of plywood he noticed lying in the room, “a dark wood with streaks of yellow light breaking through its gloom,” a painting one of his many biographers calls “remarkable . . . and obviously symbolic.” On 25 September, he wrote the first poem of a cycle of eighteen poems on life and death, dying and “afterdeath,” published under the title Prantik, the last one written on 25 December 1937. These poems, translated from their original Bengali by Tagore himself, are some of the finest meditations on death and afterdeath in world literature. Besides the fact that poetry is notoriously difficult to translate, especially from a non-European language into a European one, and that Tagore’s unrepentant romanticism may be alien to much of contemporary sensibility, the English translations of Prantik and the other poems in this essay also suffer from the drawback that Tagore was an indifferent translator. But as the poet and translator of some of Tagore’s poems, William Radice, observes, even the best of translators would have struggled with reproducing into English some of the characteristics of Bengali such as “its rich sound patterns, exploited to the full by Tagore, its elegantly economical and regular inflexional system or its abundance of vivid, onomatopoeic words ...”

It is not my contention that Tagore’s fascination with the theme of death had its origins in the somatic occurrence of his near-death experience, the sixty-hour sojourn in the borderland between life and death, which haunted the three months in which these poems (and the painting) were composed. All through his adult life, both in his prose writings and in his poetry, death had been a recurrent motif of his meditations. Elisabeth Kuebler-Ross, the author of the popular and widely influential On Deathand Dying, believed that no one had thought more deeply on death than Rabindranath Tagore and printed his quotations at the head of each chapter of her book.

Tagore’s preoccupation with death goes back to a traumatic event of his youth—the suicide of his Muse and the love of his life, his sister-in-law Kadambari, three months after the poet’s marriage at the age of twenty-three. In his first autobiography, penned at the age of fifty, he writes:

I had seen nothing beyond life, and accepted it as ultimate truth. When of a sudden death came, and in a moment tore a gaping rent in its [life’s] smooth-seeming fabric, I was utterly bewildered. All around, the trees, the soil, the water, the sun, the moon, the stars, remained as immovably true as before; and yet the person who was as truly there, who, through a thousand points of contact with life, mind and heart, was ever so much more true for me, had vanished in a moment like a dream. What perplexing self-contradiction it all seemed to me as I looked around! How was I ever to reconcile what remained with which had gone?

The terrible darkness which was disclosed to me through this rent, continued to attract me night and day as time went on. I would ever and anon return to take my stand there and gaze upon it, wondering what there was left in place of what had gone. Emptiness is a thing man cannot bring himself to believe in: that which is not, is untrue; that which is untrue, is not. So our efforts to find something where we see nothing are unceasing.

Just as a young plant confined in darkness stretches itself on tiptoe as it were, to reach the light, so the soul, when death surrounds it with negation, tries and tries to rise into affirmatory light … Yet amid unbearable grief, flashes of joy sparkled in my mind on and off in a way which quite surprised me. The idea that life is not a fixture came as tidings that helped to lighten my mind. That we are not forever prisoners behind a wall of stonyhearted facts was the thought that kept unconsciously rising uppermost in rushes of gladness.

Here, Rabindranath reminds me of the English poet John Keats, whose painful experiences of death of loved ones—father, mother and brother, before his own first haemorrhage that was to kill him at the age of twenty-five, led to an insight that is at the foundation of Keats’s work, namely that life accrues value precisely to the extent that one intensely experiences its fragility and transience.

The attempt to find a meaning in death is part of our universal heritage, as old as human consciousness of mortality. Where Tagore gives this search his imprint is in the insistence that death has a meaning because of the existence of life.

If to leave this world be as real as to love it—then there must be a meaning in the meeting and parting of life.
If that love were deceived in death, then the canker of this deceit would eat into all things, and the stars would shrivel and grow black.

In his own quest for the meaning of death, Tagore rarely succumbed to the temptation of denying its dread by imagining it, for instance in the following poem, as a longed-for bridegroom, an atypical lapse into thanatophilia that transforms dying into a dramatic and celebratory occasion.

Why do you whisper so faintly in my ears, O Death, my Death?

When the flowers droop in the evening and cattle come back to their stalls, you stealthily come to my side and speak words that I do not understand.

Is this how you must woo and win me with the opiate of drowsy murmur and cold kisses, O Death, my Death?

Will there be no proud ceremony for our wedding?

Will you not tie up with a wreath your tawny coiled locks?

Is there none to carry your banner before you, and will not the

Night be on fire with your red torch-lights.

O Death, my Death?

Come with your conch-shells sounding, come in the sleepless night,

Dress me with a crimson mantle, grasp my hand and take me.

Let your chariot be ready at my door with your horses neighing impatiently.

Raise my veil and look at me proudly,

O Death, my Death.

An extract from Death and Dying, edited by Sudhir Kakar (Penguin Books India, 2014). Reproduced with the permission of Penguin Books.

Saurabh is a lay psychoanalyst and writer based in Goa.