Literature lovers can delight themselves with this Tagore classic, thanks to translator Dilip Basu.
Even considering the huge span of his work, Shesher Kavita remains one of Rabindranath Tagore's outstanding creations. The novel combines prose and poetry in a fine trellis-work to tell the love story of Lavanya and Amit. With dialogues between them so intense and sensitive that it needs reading and re-reading to appreciate the finer points, and intellectual nuances the novel ranks as one of the most cherished works in Bengali literature. Recently at a “meet the author” session with author Vikram Seth and his mother Leila Seth, herself an author of repute, during the Kolkata Book Fair, the “Suitable Boy” said that his mother wanted to name him “Amit” as she was hugely influenced by Bengali literature and the book particularly, during her years in Kolkata. Such is the aura of Shesher Kavita.
It is not an easy task to translate such a complex novel into English, keeping to the cadence of a romantic tale tinted with intellectualism, and at the same time retain the tone of the poems which are integral to the story. Translator Dilip Basu who teaches history at the University of California has done it admirably in The Last Poem. Basu calls it a “tribute to Rabindranath Tagore on his 150th birth anniversary” (2011).
The story's background is Shillong in Meghalaya. Tagore visited thrice the beautiful hill station of the North-East which used to be capital of Assam in colonial times. It is said that the serenity and beauty of the place so captured his imagination that it inspired him to write his book as a homage to love.
Amit Ray is the sophisticated, urbane Calcuttan who does not fully fit into the circle of rich, Anglicised elite of Calcutta. In an attempt to get away from the boredom of it all, he lands in Shillong where he meets Lavanya, a simple teacher. But it is her enigmatic personality and freshness that captivate him. Their worlds are different but their meeting on a rainy summer day brings them together instantly. Despite being soul mates, their world of intimacy falls apart due to extraneous intrusions. Perhaps the tragedy that such a sublime love story does not have a happy ending, belying almost a wish fulfillment by readers is what makes the slim volume even more unforgettable. The book ends with a “last poem” from Lavanya to Amit: “What I gave you is yours/ By everlasting right./ What others receive/ Are daily driblets of heart/ To tender solitude.”
There have been debates whether there is an autobiographical element in Shesher Kavita and that Lavanya is fashioned after the beautiful Ranu Adhikari (later Lady Ranu Mukherjee) who was in Shillong too during Tagore's sojourn. Even Amit Ray could be Tagore himself. Interestingly, at many points Amit Ray derides the poet calling him “imitating Wordsworth, he insists most perversely on continuing” to write poetry at the age of 62. All this adds to the enigma of the book, but it does not detract from the fact it is one of Tagore's best.
There are many gems from Tagore's pen in Shesher Kavita on “love” and conjugal relationship: “The ignorant think of wedding as a union — the real union of the hearts of the couple is ignored after the wedding.” (pg 97)
And beautiful imagery: “Most lives drag on from birth to death in the shadow of twilight, like bats in a cave.” (pg 88)
Tagore's story also portrays satirically the so-called high society of his day when people competed to show off the “Englishness” notwithstanding being born with brown skins. Katie (real name Ketaki) who hopelessly tries to attract Amit's attention is a prime example: “When she puffed a cigarette held between her manicured fingers, it was less for the sake of smoking than for decorative effect.”
Poor Cissie, Amit's sister, trying to imitate her, is in the ‘middle stage.' “…she did not mind having pickles and preserves in a tin meant for biscuits; between the plum pudding at Christmas and the Bengali rice cakes in winter, she really preferred the latter.” (pg 127)
The Last Poem has an added attraction — paintings by (late) Dinkar Kowshik, who was dean of Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan, which intersperse the book.
For lovers of literature, to be able to read this Tagore classic due to the translation is indeed a boon.