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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 27, New Delhi, June 19, 2021

Reading Rabindranath Tagore in our Traumatic Times | Arup Kumar Sen

Friday 18 June 2021, by Arup Kumar Sen


The great Bengali poet, writer, thinker and artist, Rabindranath Tagore published a collection of short but deep observations on life world 100 years ago. One short piece incorporated in the Bengali collection, titled Lipika, narrated the trauma of a son after his mother’s death. Tagore’s narrative is summarized below:

The father returned home from the burning ghat. The seven-year-old son was standing alone absentmindedly in the window above the lane. When the father took his son on the lap, the child asked, ‘Where is my mother?’ The father raised his head and told, ‘She is in the heaven’. On that night, as his father tired of shock was weeping during the sleep, the child stood alone on the open roof. The dark houses around stood like sleeping. The child with bare body fixed his eyes on the sky. It seemed that the bewildered child was asking someone, ‘Where is the road to the heaven?’ The sky didn’t respond. Only the tears of silent darkness were witnessed in the stars. (translation mine)

We do not know whether the tragic story of life/death narrated by Rabindranath Tagore is real or imaginary. However, Tagore’s story is an organic part of our everyday life in the post-COVID world.

Let us narrate one such real life tragedy in Uttar Pradesh (UP), recorded in People’s Archive of Rural India (“UP: ‘Nothing can be done, duty has to be done’”,, May 27, 2021):

“She cries for hours on end, asking me to bring her mother”, says Shishupal Nishad of his seven-year-old daughter Navya. “But where do I bring her from? Even I feel I’m taking leave of my senses. We haven’t slept in weeks”, adds the 38-year-old labourer from Singtauli village in Uttar Pradesh.

Shishupal’s wife Manju- Navya’s mother -was a ‘shiksha mitra’ or para-teacher in the Singtauli primary school in Jalaun district’s Kuthaund block. Her name is No. 1,282 on the list of 1,621 schoolteachers who died of Covid-19 after compulsory duty in UP’s panchayat elections...

She was a mother of three and the family’s sole breadwinner, bringing home just Rs. 10,000 a month — the pathetic sum paid to shiksha mitras who work on contract and have no security of tenure...”

Rabindranath Tagore did not state any reason for the death of the child’s mother in his micro-story, but there was a hint in the story that the child belonged to a well-off family. But, the real life tragedy in UP recorded above is not so simple. It testifies how so many families, particularly those belonging to subaltern classes, has had to bear the tragic loss of lives and livelihoods in post-COVID times. And the modern State, which is supposed to protect the lives and livelihoods of citizens, played a coercive role in turning their life worlds upside down.

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