Book Excerpts · translation

Excerpt: A brand new translation of Tagore’s Noukadubi (The Boat-wreck)

The Boat Wreck_Front

None of the facilities that poetry prepares for lovers is available in Calcutta. Where is the row of flowering trees, where the bower of vines beneath the full moon, where the honey-throated cuckoo’s songs? But still the magic of love is not thwarted in this harsh and arid metropolis devoid of beauty. Hundreds of times every day and every night, amidst this suffocating crowd of vehicles, through these tram lines imprisoned in iron bars, the evergreen god of love hides his bow and arrow to pass in full view of red-turbaned policemen.

When it came to the flowering of their romance, no one could claim that just because Ramesh and Hemnalini lived in rented houses opposite a seller of hides next to a grocery in Colootala, they lagged behind the inhabitants of pastoral abodes nestled within arbours. The tiny, discoloured, tea-stained table in Annada-babu’s house gave Ramesh no cause to feel the absence of a lake strewn with lotuses. Even though Hemnalini’s pet cat was no darkling fawn, Ramesh scratched its neck with ardent affection – and when it arched its back and abandoned its languor to lick itself clean, his enthralled gaze held the glory of this creature in no less esteem than that of any other quadruped’s.

Hemnalini’s determination to pass her examinations had prevented her from honing her skill at needlework, but now she had engaged herself with great concentration in learning the art from an expert friend. Ramesh considered needlework insignificant and unnecessary. His exchanges with Hemnalini were about literature and philosophy and he was kept at a distance when it came to embroidery. Which was why he often said with a degree of impatience, ‘Why are you so taken with needlework these days? It is useful only for those who have no other way to pass their time.’ Hemnalini threaded her needle with a smile and without a response.

Akshay said sharply, ‘All that is useful in the world is meaningless in Ramesh-babu’s judgement. You may be the greatest philosopher and poet in the world but you cannot survive a single day without these insignificant things.’

Ramesh girded his loins for a spirited argument, but Hemnalini interrupted him, saying, ‘Why must you enter into a debate over everything, Ramesh-babu? You have no idea how many unnecessary words it leads to.’ Lowering her head, she proceeded with her embroidery with great attention.

One morning, Ramesh discovered a blotter on his desk, bound in silk and satin. In one corner was the first letter of his name, while on the other was embroidered a lotus with golden thread. It took him not a moment to appreciate the history and the significance of the blotter. His heart danced and his soul accepted without debate or demur that needlework was not a trite affair, after all. Holding the blotter to his breast, he felt ready to accept defeat to Akshay. At once he placed a notepaper on the blotter and wrote…

‘Had I been a poet, I would have given you verses in response but I am deprived of this talent. God has not endowed me with the ability to give, but to take is an ability too. No one but the Almighty will know how I have accepted this undreamt-of gift. Giving is visible but receiving is concealed in the heart. Yours, Ever-indebted.’

The letter reached Hemnalini. They had no further conversation about this.

The rains closed in. The monsoon is not a pleasurable experience for urban society – it is better suited in the forests. The houses with their closed windows and roofs, the pedestrians with their umbrellas, and the trams with their curtains only turn muddy and filthy in their attempts to keep the rain at bay. Rivers and mountains and forests and plains offer a lusty welcome to their friend – the joy of monsoon. That is where the true celebration of rain is to be found – where there are no obstacles to the joyous meeting between the earth and the sky.

But new love places humans in the same category as mountains and forests. The incessant downpours made Annada-babu’s digestive machinery twice as inefficient but nothing could dampen Ramesh and Hemnalini’s spirits. The dark clouds, rolling thunder and clatter of raindrops seemed to bring their hearts closer. On some days, the morning showers became so torrential that an anxious Hemnalini said, ‘How will you go home in this driving rain, Ramesh-babu?’

In sheer embarrassment, Ramesh answered, ‘It’s not too bad, I shall manage.’

Hemnalini said, ‘Why must you get wet in the rain and catch a cold? You can easily have lunch with us.’

Ramesh was not in the least worried about catching a cold; his friends and family had never seen any signs of his being afflicted with this ailment. But he was compelled to spend rainy days under Hemnalini’s assiduous care – even the short walk home was considered foolhardy. At the slightest sign of rain, Ramesh would receive an invitation from Hemnalini for the traditional monsoon lunch of khichuri and its suitable accompaniments. It was clear that their anxiety about the possibility of catching a cold was not matched by their worry about indigestion.

Days passed. Where would these emotions lead? Ramesh was too immersed in them to have thought about the future. But Annada-babu was certainly thinking about it, as were others around them. In any case, Ramesh’s common sense was not as strong as his erudition and it had been further weakened by his current infatuated state. Annada-babu looked at him with expectation every day, but received no response.


(The Boat-wreck (ISBN: 9789352773183), translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha, and published by HarperCollins India, is now available in bookstores.)

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