A book that throws new light on Tagore’s life but retains the flavour of a novel.
In this year of Rabindranath Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary, a slew of writings on him, translations of his works as also books based on his varied life have come out to enrich the publishing world. Ranu & Bhanu is one such, a translation of well-known Bengali writer Sunil Gangopadhyay’s novel of the same name.
‘Bhanu’ refers to Bhanu Singha, under which name Tagore wrote. ‘Ranu’ is Lady Ranu Mukherjee, a great beauty in her time, wife of industrialist Sir Biren Mukherjee and a patron of art whose name is associated with the Academy of Fine Arts in Kolkata.
Glimpses of the past
Gangopadhyay’s novel is partly based on Lady Mukherjee’s unpublished autobiography. The author has done seminal work on the city of Kolkata and also on historical figures, fictionalising them in his engaging style. Likewise, in this book, though focusing on the endearing relationship between the poet and young Ranu, his ‘muse’ in his autumn years, the author gives glimpses of an era when India’s independence movement was getting momentum, Tagore’s own political involvement and his contemporaries.
Though Tagore’s colossal personality and his creativity take centre stage, Ranu is equally important. She was on the threshold of adolescence when the poet met her — he was 60 years old then — at first through the letters she wrote to him as a young reader and admirer from Varanasi where her family lived. Tagore was going through a particularly stressful time; he had lost his beloved daughter Madhurilata, he was worried about arranging finance for his dream project Santiniketan while extraneous obligations pulled him from all sides. In the process his writing suffered.
Ranu was a precocious child. As she wrote to him from Varanasi she addressed him, like an adult, as “Robi Babu” and pleaded, “Why don’t you write stories anymore?” This unknown reader became more familiar through an exchange of letters and later Tagore brought her to Santiniketan. Highly intelligent and perceptive, Ranu filled the void of loneliness in his life; she could understand him, a balm to his soul, which had suffered many personal tragedies. At times she reminded him of Natun Bouthan — his sister-in-law Kadambari Devi, his ‘muse’ in the early years — who had committed suicide. And now in Ranu’s company, his poems, his plays, sprang to life again. It was a relationship many misunderstood. They were soul mates at a different level. The poet started humming again his long forgotten song: “…You are the evening star of my life/I shall never again lose my way on the seas./Wherever I go, I find you there,/Pouring your soothing rays into my tearful eyes.”
Ranu was a constant companion of Tagore whenever she was in Santiniketan, calling him “Bhanu Dada, taking part in his plays, discussing books or just sitting with him and combing his long tresses. She even accompanied his family to Shillong, where the poet wrote one of his greatest love stories, Shesher Kavita (The Last Poem). With her marriage into an immensely rich family, Ranu was thrown into a milieu perhaps less oriented towards poetry and novels and that special bond between Ranu and Tagore somehow got disrupted. The poet realid it more than anyone and at the end of the novel, he tells her: “Ranu, please do not call me Bhanu Dada any more. Bhanu Singha is lost forever. He cannot be brought back.”
Using Tagore’s original poems and songs, Gangopadhyay has added another dimension to the semi-biographical novel. Sengupta confesses that it was “the biggest challenge” to bring out the depth and nuances of the songs. Translation is always a challenge, particularly in the case of poets like Tagore.
But she has done a commendable job, both with the text and poems: “When the farewell tune played by a distant flute/Will drown the eveningsky/ With flowing tears I shall keep afresh the beauty of my own sadness.”
Indeed, the book throws new light on some unknown chapters in the lives of the Nobel Laureate and Lady Ranu Mukherjee and at the same time retains the flavour of a novel to make an absorbing read.