Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Reading Travels:Under The Crescent Moon

South Asia: Month IV, fourth reading and travel

In the month of May I had decided to return to Kolkata ( Calcutta) and Western Bengal, because for the European born traveler the Bengali region had been for long one of the most familiar gates to the India's enchanting landscapes and culture. Perhaps it was where they discovered the most intriguing voices to guide them through an uncharted territory of amazing historical, religious and cultural confluences.

Among these voices I chose one of the most recognizable ones as my own guide: Rabindranath Tagore. In the 1913 Presentation Speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature, he is portrayed as "an author who, in conformity with the express wording of Alfred Nobel's last will and testament, had during the current year, written the finest poems «of an idealistic tendency.»"

«Idealistic tendencies» nurtured by Tagore the mystic and Tagore the philosopher, but best expressed by Tagore the poet.

The poet whom, as he went searching for his master, only found him in the last hour of the sunset, as:

"The sun glistened on the sand, and the sea waves broke waywardly.
A child sat playing with shells.
He raised his head and seemed to know me, and said, "I hire you with nothing."
From thenceforward that bargain struck in child's play made me a free man
The Last Bargain/ The Crescent Moon

There were two reasons for including Tagore's Crescent Moon on the list of books for my South Asian reading travels. The first and most difficult to admit is my (hard to excuse) ignorance of Tagore's work: other than the Crescent Moon I only read the Gardener. And second, it is part of a broader project I am trying to develop with my youngest -preschool age children - explore the English language, human nature and world cultures by illustrating together poetry, short stories and fables. And since Tagore translated its own poems from Bengali to English they are enriched by the South Asian dialect through its unique inflections.

Imagine the astonished look on my face when I realized that in spite of being labeled a Tagore’s only children book, it is not easily accessible to children. The upside: reading it is an enriching experience for the adult reader as much as it will be for the YA reader. Here is one of my favorites in which the poet portrays the way we get drawn in our daily worries and forget that what is most important : about us and our life. Our ideals.

CHILD, how happy you are sitting in the dust, playing with a broken twig all the morning.
I smile at your play with that little bit of a broken twig.
I am busy with my accounts, adding up figures by the hour.
Perhaps you glance at me and think, "What a stupid game to spoil your morning with!"
Child, I have forgotten the art of being absorbed in sticks and mud-pies.
I seek out costly playthings, and gather lumps of gold and silver.
With whatever you find you create your glad games, I spend both my time and my strength over things I never can obtain.
In my frail canoe I struggle to cross the sea of desire, and forget that I too am playing a game.

Note the apparent simplicity of the verse, the same one can experience reading the Gardener, the same as the simplicity of a lake which is not plain , nor austere but needs no excess of ornaments to charm us.
Another puzzling fact , Tagore’s mother died when he was thirteen , yet there are few men voices in poetry able to write an homage to all mothers which is not overdramatized, nor overwrought, nor awkward…but natural: “I do not love him because he is good, but because he is my little child. /How should you know how dear he can be when you try to weigh his merits against his faults? /When I must punish him he becomes all the more a part of my being.”

This is why I chose to close my review with no conclusion or suggestions for you, but with a tender lullaby so musical that one must sing it rather than simply read it out loud:

WHO stole sleep from baby's eyes? I must know.
Clasping her pitcher to her waist mother went to fetch water from the village near by.
It was noon. The children's playtime was over; the ducks in the pond were silent.
The shepherd boy lay asleep under the shadow of the banyan tree.
The crane stood grave and still in the swamp near the mango grove.
In the meanwhile the Sleep-stealer came and, snatching sleep from baby's eyes, flew away.
When mother came back she found baby travelling the room over on all fours.
Who stole sleep from our baby's eyes? I must know. I must find her and chain her up.
I must look into that dark cave, where, through boulders and scowling stones, trickles a tiny stream.
I must search in the drowsy shade of the bakula grove, where pigeons coo in their corner, and fairies' anklets tinkle in the stillness of starry nights.
In the evening I will peep into the whispering silence of the bamboo forest, where fireflies squander their light, and will ask every creature I meet, "Can anybody tell me where the Sleep-stealer lives?"
Who stole sleep from baby's eyes? I must know.
Shouldn't I give her a good lesson if I could only catch her!
I would raid her nest and see where she hoards all her stolen sleep.
I would plunder it all, and carry it home.
I would bind her two wings securely, set her on the bank of the river, and then let her play at fishing with a reed among the rushes and water-lilies.
When the marketing is over in the evening, and the village children sit in their mothers' laps, then the night birds will mockingly din her ears with:
"Whose sleep will you steal now?"

Note: A free e-copy of the "Crescent Moon" is available as part of the Gutenberg Project . Please do doublechek the specific copyright laws in your country before downloading it

1 comment:

Paul said...

A fantastic introduction to a poet I hadn't heard of before. Thanks, it's always great to find new gems.