Beyond Bygone

The undefeated humanist

Tagore’s valiant experience through pandemics and his personal tragedy find reflection in his literature that pinpoints the undying human spirit — the spirit we need today

The undefeated humanist

The present scenario reminds us of an English phrase – 'living under fear'. Indeed, phobia has gripped our imagination; we live in apprehension, as if anticipating an ominous consequence. Our conditions of living seem to be getting modified and the vigour of life has turned into morbidity. All sections of human existence reel under a peculiar stress, whose nature, though known, but remedy is still beyond effective knowledge. But this is not the first outbreak of pandemic; human civilization has witnessed substantial loss of human lives and resources even earlier. Literature from different eras has portrayed such debacle, to which Rabindranath Tagore's is no exception. Being a creator of great social and philosophical insight, Tagore — who personally witnessed the epidemic of 1898 plague, also saw the pandemic of the Spanish Flu in 1919, along with epidemics like cholera, smallpox, and influenza — dealt with such issues in his literary creation. Beyond fictional and creative explorations, tragedy arising out of intermittent epidemic outbreaks sometimes led Tagore to a deeper spiritual contemplation and a broader understanding of life.

Rabindranath Tagore himself got actively involved in social service during outbreaks of epidemics in the city. Immediately after the plague broke out in Calcutta in 1898, he assisted Sister Nivedita in organizing relief and medical aid for the victims of the dreadful pandemic. Nivedita could also rope in the services of Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose for the same cause. Tagore was himself turning out to be a healer for the wounds of sufferers. Apart from his hands-on service rendering for the patients, Tagore was raising his voice in favor of better treatment that the ailing people deserved. He was equally effusive in his accolades for Sister Nivedita and her unswerving dedication to the cause of humanity. The dreadful experience of public misfortune, born out of a disease, intensified humanism in Tagore and developed a sense of stoical fortitude within him, perhaps only to help him overcome his debilitating personal grief in the days to come. Rabindranath Tagore lost his youngest son Shamindranath in 1907 as he fell victim to the cholera epidemic. Such personal bereavement, however, engendered philosophical realisation in Tagore.

Rabindranath Tagore stood in the spirit of human assimilation. His poetry spread the essence of social unification as, to him, the mental barrier was repulsive. He had the mind to envisage the psychological factors involved in an epidemic. While dealing with a glimpse of a pandemic-ridden city in the grip of utter chaos and panic, Tagore could portray that when the plague first came to Calcutta, people were more fearful of the uniformed government employees who carted victims off to quarantine than of the disease itself. Now this is timeless in context. What we experience today in relation to mental trauma, triggered by a malady, is nothing so much different from what Tagore chronicled in his works. In 'Chaturanga' or the 'Quartet', the poet characterizes a selfless Jagmohan through whom he propagates the value of reaching out beyond the compartments of caste and religion, particularly during a pandemic. Tagore also raises a pertinent question through Jagmohan: "Should the sick be treated like criminals?" This sets us contemplating with the growing relevance of the question. Now Tagore is clearly vouching for socialization and fellow-feeling. Today, we all need to have the same empathetic attitude towards each other, if the present COVID-19 pandemic is to be combated. Swami Vivekananda once said – "They alone live, who live for others". Tagore's thoughts are no different from the character of Jagmohan who turns his own house into a hospital for the poor, sacrifices his own life, succumbing to the infection while nursing the infected. All these portrayals about an impending epidemic and consequent generous approach of certain individuals who uphold the flag of humanity make Tagore's vision contemporary even today. When we mistakenly say social distancing, little do we think that we cannot be socially distant in a pandemic, for it implies psychological distancing, something that Tagore rightly abnegated in his social philosophy. Tagore believed in social equality; in one of his famous poems 'Puratan Bhritya', the disease pox plays a crucial role of a leveler among the classes, showing up the structural inequities internalised by the society in which Tagore lived. The poem focuses on how Kesto, the old servant loses his life in the process of helping his master recover from smallpox. This again is a tale of catholicity displayed by a so-called downtrodden and uneducated. Whenever society is threatened by a huge crisis like a pandemic, it ought to break the social barriers in order to accommodate caring and sharing.

Education is certainly one of the most affected domains in the sway of pandemics and, yet, it is the education that can go a long way in curing the inhibitions and stigma which pervade human thoughts in any pandemic-like situation. Tagore, in his own idea of education, rejected cultural conservatism and separatism that have tended to grip us from time to time. The poet, even while portraying loss of life during pandemic, educates us about values that sustain the spirit of human survival. He regards each individual with compassion and goes deeper than what statistics or historical records can suggest. His works teach us acceptance even in the face of death, as it becomes a source of consolation, a way of sharing our common humanist concerns, as if resonating the Freudian thought – "The goal of all life is death".

To our surprise, Tagore has even dealt with the epidemic on a lighter note, but then again, it transmits a serious social message. The dialogue between his characters Dukhiram and Baidyanath in one of his 'Hasya Koutuk' reveals the fear generated in the mind of Baidyanath as his train halt-ed at Madhupur, an area infested with cholera infections. It is amazing to note that Tagore had developed some therapeutic measures to grapple with the situation. He relied on a concoction made of herbs and exchanged his views with his friend Jagadish Chandra Bose whom he informed that his students were highly benefited from the herbal preparation. The immediate similarity today is our attempts to boost our immunity depending on such native herbal compounds.

The delineation of pandemic in Tagore's work is both historical and modern as it captures the mood, the psyche and the reactions of endangered people across societies and ages. The poet's personal heart-rending loss recurs in his creative world as the character Harimohini in the novel 'Gora' laments the loss of her son and husband due to cholera. But at top of everything is the spirit of endurance that binds Tagore while dealing with hu-man suffering; and incidentally, it is the same spirit that we need to recreate as we brace the present challenge. Like Leo Tolstoy, Tagore believed that art was "as important as bread and not less vital in days of pestilence". His literary art still shines to illuminate the various psycho-social nuances of pandemic, for even in dealing with pandemic, Rabindranath Tagore stands eternal.

The writer is an educator from Kolkata. Views expressed are personal

Next Story
Share it