Tagore in the time of Corona
Many of us have suddenly found ourselves with plenty of time on our hands following the Covid-19 lockdown. Everyone is trying to keep themselves occupied in some activity or the other and reading seems to be a preferred choice with heart-warming books providing some escapism in these somewhat bleak times.
While some have their “to read” list, others are turning to feel-good novels that are comforting, elevating, inspiring or even reminding one of happier times.
One that springs to mind is Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘The Post Office’ which seems relevant even after a hundred years since it was written (in distressing times) by our Nobel laureate. More so in the current time of home quarantine with death, fear, anxiety, negativity and uncertainty looming large.
Tagore wrote this play (Dakghar) in Bengali in 1912. It was translated into English by none other than W. B. Yeats, the Irish poet who praised it as “perfectly constructed and conveys to the right audience an emotion of gentleness and peace.”
The play can be interpreted in many ways but the universal appeal to children and adults alike lies in the fact that it is about hope, freedom, kindness and of living life to the fullest in the face of death. Significantly, it is a simple story, yet profound.
‘The Post Office’ revolves around an eight-year-old orphan boy called Amal who is terminally ill and is confined indoors. He lives with his uncle and aunt who, to ensure his well-being, forbid him to go outside; so his only contact with the outside world is through the window. This is a bit inhibiting for a free spirit like Amal.
All along, in his child-like innocence, he hopes to get well and yearns for freedom, to be outside like everyone else. He even dreams of travelling around the big, wide world.
Yet, he doesn’t moan but makes the most of the situation, sitting by the window and chatting up all and sundry who pass by and thus endearing himself to the passers-by — the curd seller, the watchman, the village headman, the flower girl, street boys….
One day, Amal asks the watchman about a building on the opposite side. The watchman informs him it is the new post office and belongs to the king, adding (in jest) that Amal could receive a letter written by none other than the king himself.
Amal believes the watchman and waits in great anticipation for that letter.
Amid his suffering, Amal’s kindness is remarkable. He calls out to a group of boys and shares his toys with them and simply enjoys watching the boys play with the toys.
He not only tells the boys to remind the King’s postman to deliver his letter but also tells the village headman the same. Indeed, Amal can’t wait to get his letter. He even imagines becoming the king’s messenger to deliver letters.
The play ends on a sudden and slightly melodramatic note. The king, hearing about Amal’s deteriorating condition sends his messenger and physician to announce his arrival. Even in the face of death, Amal dreams up a happy life and tells the physician he feels well and no pain and is able “to see all the stars now twinkling from the other side of the darkness,” before going into eternal slumber.
The play, as said earlier, can be interpreted in different ways, particularly the ending. On the face of it, it represents the desire of a sick child to be free and be part of the outside world. At a deeper level it can be perceived as an allegory of the soul seeking what lies beyond and Amal’s deliverance from pain and suffering from the earthly existence. Tagore himself explained that Amal represents the man whose soul has received the call of the open road, an awakening in the world of spiritual freedom.
Whatever the interpretation, this short, compelling play is an eye opener in present times just as it was at the time it was written over a century ago. Tagore wrote the play at a time of profound grief brought on by a series of deaths including that of his wife and child.
In fact, ‘The Post Office’ was translated into English by W. B. Yeats and was aired over the radio in Europe during the Nazi occupation in World War II. The play was also performed in July 1942, in the Warsaw Ghetto, when the Polish doctor, educator, writer, and children’s rights activist Janusz Korczak had the children in his orphanage stage this play. It was the central theme of Amal who is faced with death and yet unafraid, that may have resonated with them. And then, within a month, Korczak and the children were taken away and gassed.
Death is inevitable and the cruel reality of impending death has hit hard as everyone on this planet comes to grips with so many deaths in the last couple of months due to the deadly coronavirus.
Today, there are children dying; children losing their parent or parents or a sibling and face intense suffering.
Tagore’s play can be a source of inspiration for children too just as it was meant to inspire the kids in the Warsaw orphanage and to find solace in Amal’s undying zest for life and acceptance of his mortality.
Equally, there are innumerable ‘warriors’ on the frontline such as doctors, health workers, maids, garbage collectors, vendors and hawkers, volunteers, law and order personnel and others who are answering the call of duty without fear even as the majority of us remain quarantined within the safe confines of our homes and looking out of our windows and balconies. We could do well to emulate Amal who also sits near his window gazing outside but crucially, learns to empathise and acknowledge the daily toil of the common people who work tirelessly to make things easier for others.
We are all like Amal, pining to go out and mingle with people, friends, teachers, colleagues; walk or jog around parks and malls and restaurants or theatres but we are confined at home for our own safety. How about looking outside our windows to take in the beauty of nature — the trees outside your house, the blue sky, the sun, the clouds, the rain and the rainbow, the song of the birds, the surprise visitors — birds, butterflies, bees, squirrels; or enjoying the fresh, unpolluted air or the cool breeze blowing.
As philosopher Michel de Montaigne said, “You can enjoy and appreciate your life by enjoying what you have; The value of life is not in the length of days but in the way we make use of them; a man may live long, yet very little.”