Books

AMADER SHANTINIKETAN by Shivani (translated by Ira Pande). Vintage Books, Penguin, Delhi, 2021.

 

Amader Shantiniketan is not a book to borrow and return. It is a book to be kept within reach and revisited frequently, such is the magic and charm of its narration. The text has been arranged like a diptych. The first part contains the reminiscences of translator Ira PandeÕs mother, eminent Hindi writer, ShivaniÕs years spent in Shantiniketan (1935-1944); while the second is a collection of tributes dedicated to some of her ashram contemporaries. The shared experiences bind the two sections together.

The importance of this slim volume is totally disproportionate to its size.At one level, it is the voice of a naive and innocent girl, who was admitted into the Patha Bhaban or primary section of Rabindranath TagoreÕs phenomenal recreation of the gurukul in a remote corner of Bengal. At another, it is a first hand and authentic documentation of a unique experiment in pedagogy, cosmopolitanism, Ōcultural cross-pollinationÕ and social equality. Yet it is neither heavy nor pedantic. It reflects a childÕs bemusement and the intimacy and warmth of the tone suggests letters from a friend allowing entry into what appears to be an almost Utopian world. Every image is evocatively imbued with delight and immediacy.

There is no strict chronological timeline; the reader follows ShivaniÕs journey from twelve to twenty one. There is an almost cinematic quality to the way she tells her story. We can actually hear the melody of a Santhal flute or see a squirrel scamper across a branch.

Shivani is mischievous, intelligent, outspoken and always ready to embark on a new adventure. There is a hilarious account of an uprising against the ubiquitous ŌpotolÕ (pointed gourd) in the student mess with posters painted by Jaya Appasamy, the problem being finally resolved by Tagore himself. Another is her response to a chauvinist matrimonial ad in the Tribune; or her coaxing of Tagore to write an appreciation of a poem by Keats which fetched a dismal four out of ten from the English teacher.

GandhiÕs birthday was a day of reverence and reflection at the ashram.The support staff was given the day off and the children cooked, swept and cleaned the toilets. In the evening, kabaddi and khokho matches were arranged for the staff.

Shivani paints outstanding portraits of her teachers. They were not merely intellectual giants, but they believed in TagoreÕs ideal of simple living and universal learning. Thus, the Hindi scholar, Hajari Prasad Dwivedi, would assemble the children and point out the marvels in the sky, the Great Bear and the Milky Way. There was deep trust and love between the students and teachers. They chided Hajari Prasad when he grew a beard, caring little for his protests that he had painful boils on his face. They enjoyed freedom, but it was this very freedom that taught them self-control and discipline.

There are sensuous descriptions of all manners of food. The simple act of making a duckÕs egg omelette at a rural market becomes a story in itself.

If you did not know that Shivani was a writer, you could almost believe that you were reading the memoirs of an eminent singer. Music infuses the book, it finds its way on every page. Even the cook from Chhapra, Sarju Maharaj, would finish making dinner at 5 pm so that he could join the rehearsals of TagoreÕs famous dance dramas. Kshiti Mohan Sen prophesied a great future for her as a singer, but life took her in another direction.

It would, perhaps, help this part of the book to have a dramatis personae of the various featured characters. RabindranathÕs son, RathindraÕs wife was called Pratima. She was his only daughter-in-law and was known universally as Bouthan in the ashram. Shivani, however, refers to an Amitadi as his daughter-in-law. Amita was the daughter-in-law of Dwijendranath Tagore. Later in the book, Shivani reverts to the name Pratima. The granddaughters were Pupe (Nandini) from his sonÕs side and Nandita from his daughter MeeraÕs side.But since these clarifications are not made, the reader may find it difficult to make the necessary connections.

Friends and Others in Part II has a far more sombre, almost melancholic note. Satyajit Ray is the most famous subject, but it is her accounts of Bhagwati Dwivedi and her older sister, Jayanti that stand out in the wealth of the descriptive details of their various interactions. BhagwatiÕs portrayal powerfully brings to life the disillusionment suffered by these stalwarts once they stepped outside the gates of Shantiniketan. Much of the essay on Bhagwati deals with the bureaucratic shackles that bound and finally snuffed the life out of her husband, Hajari Prasad. There are others in Part I, such as the once-powerful figure of Rani Chanda, sitting Miss Havisham like in her dusty sitting room, waiting for death to claim her. It is this fearlessness and philosophy that gives ShivaniÕs book profundity and permanence. She does not shy away from loss but points to the beauty of renewal.

The translated language is so fluid and lilting that you forget it is not the original language of the text. Shantiniketan inspires the reader to return to Ira PandeÕs previous translations of two others of her motherÕs works.

We live in an increasingly divided world of a cynical mockery of TagoreÕs values of secularism and respect for difference.This book could not have come at a better time as a reminder of a lifelong commitment to humanity and inclusiveness. It deserves to be read and recommended widely and could well become the starting point of a discussion on whether education could not be made more liberal and emancipating again.

 

Behula Chowdhury

Former Senior History Teacher

La Martiniere for Girls, Kolkata