Saturday, February 28, 2009

Encounters with Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)

From my earliest peregrinations into literature, apart from western works that were required reading, two Asian titles have remained fresh in my mind since my impressionable school days: Rabindranath Tagore’s ’s Gitanjali in the English version introduced by W.B. Yeats, and Khalil Gibran’s Tears and Laughter. I still hold these works dear, return to them often, and have since expanded my repertoire of readings into both Tagore and Gibran, in addition, needless to say, to dozens upon dozens of other writers, Asian, European, Russian, and a sprinkling of others from the rest of the world. My explorations into literature have continued apace, and, together with that, my collection of the world's greatest literary works.

My encounters with Tagore took me, beyond Gitanjali, into his other works, those in English and those translated from Bengali. The Gitanjali poems have been a profound, haunting presence, in terms of their ethereal beauty, themes as well as their eternal and universal values.

During my early days as a lecturer at the School of Humanities, University of Penang (later renamed Universiti Sains Malaysia) on its temporary, Malayan Teachers’ College, campus I directed and produced Visarjan (1890) or Sacrifice, possibly one of the first, if not the only, attempt ever in this country to stage Tagore; the production had a multi-racial cast. This powerful work has resurfaced several times in my life in various ways apart from the stage production, as a work taught and studied in class, but mostly as material for public readings followed by lively discussions. It became one of my ways to introduce Tagore to Malaysians—still generally unexposed to great literature--who had no inkling of the existence of this great Guru, prolific writer, and Asia’s first Nobel Prize winner for literature, the prize awarded to him in 1913 for Gitanjali. Sacrifice remains, for me, an important and essential work to demonstrate the conflict in the human soul between the principles of light and darkness.

Many other Tagore plays were included as the earliest examples of “modern” Indian drama in a course which covered selected plays of major playwrights between Tagore and contemporary dramatists, three of whom: Asif Currimbhoy, Girish Karnad and Pratap Sharma, I have had the good fortune to meet during visits to India. These plays were discussed, analyzed, written about. Besides Sacrifice, the other piece that became a favourite was Dakghar (1912) or Post Office. I also managed, with some help, to translate both Sacrifice and Post Office into Bahasa Melayu; these translations have remained unpublished.

In many ways Tagore’s dramatic works defy categorization. The groups or types into which modern Asian plays, including those from India, are usually divided, using western moulds, in keeping with western theatre history, literary or theatre movements, and aesthetics, have always remained unsatisfactory; and more so when it comes to Tagore. His plays, not exactly conventional, remain outside those moulds, as perhaps only adequate and sensitive productions can demonstrate, for, apart from their literary content, there are, in them, other elements such as dance and music, which must be taken into consideration. Such productions are non-existent in Malaysia. Thus, there has never come my way any opportunity to actually watch the plays on stage. The closest I could approach these works was through descriptions of productions, often brief, here and there in the literature, or an occasional film based on a Tagore play.

Writings on Tagore’s drama are also extremely limited in the English language and, since Bengali is not one of my languages, I have always felt a serious deficiency. Tagore the person came through to me adequately in other ways, through his own prolific books and essays, as well as writings on him by others. Tagore the poet, novelist and short story writer could be approached, through some extent, through his own works, Tagore the dramatist, however, remained a familiar but distant and fascinating figure, nebulous, unfathomable. .

These feelings were to be reinforced, and to some extent new possibilities were to open up, in February 2008, the critical point when it became possible for me to fulfill a long cherished dream to visit Shantineketan, the Abode of Peace. The opportunity came through an invitation to present a paper at the 3rd Indian Folklore Congress and International Folklore Congress from 18 to 21 February 2008.

I began to read about Tagore once again, and also to actually place him as well as his venerable institution, Visva Bharati in some kind of a tangible context. Now that, in some small way, I was to become part of the Tagorean landscape, such preparation seemed both appropriate and necessary. The university’s website afforded some assistance. The instructions received from the Conference Secretariat at the Oriya Studies Department of the university were amusing in their detail, essentially laying out what had to be done once I landed in Dum Dum airport so that, taking a train from rowdy Howrah in Calcutta, I could safely be met at the Bolpur station. That much was achieved without undue travail or mishap between the midnight landing and the midmorning arrival following several hours of waiting at the airport and a certain measure of harassment and anxiety typical of Howrah.

Bolpur came as a disappointment in its rustic and dusty simplicity. Perhaps I had expected something less rough, more cultured, associated, as it was, with the near-venerable name of Rabindranath Tagore. I was to realize, soon enough, that the association I had assumed was non-existent. Bolpur was merely the township with the closest station, the most convenient entry point, to the Abode of Bliss. Shantineketan lay some minutes away by road.

Visva Bharati University had its genesis in a school started by Tagore with merely four pupils in 1901 at the location of Brahmachariya Ashram, started by his father, Debendranath Tagore, in 1867.Visva Bharati properly came into being in 1921. To set it up, Tagore used part of the money he received from the Nobel Prize.Today the campus is still a stately sprawl of trees, with buildings from the thirties, mostly cream or yellow in colour, sitting here and there, almost cast as it were, upon open spaces, reminding one of the principle Tagore borrowed from the Upanishads, that education should be imparted in the open, literally under trees.Visva Bharati, continues the old practice of offering certain classes in that manner. But the campus is a compromise between the ancient and the new. It is obviously designed for those who enjoy the company of trees.

The flowers were blooming; one could smell Spring in the still chilly air. Walking between the seminar venue at the Oriya Studies Department and the guest house for meals each day, one could “experience” Shantiniketan, quiet at that time of the year, except for small groups of students, presumably, sitting here and there under trees or in open spaces, in discussion or writing, perhaps in the manner in which Tagore sat, surrounded by his four pioneering pupils, disciples one would more appropriately say, given Tagore’s title as Gurudev, perhaps little realizing the kind of graduates his institution would produce, including, besides him, another Nobel Prize winner in Amartya Sen, the cream of an impressive list of alumni..

And, as if to further enhance this feeling of quaintness, under a large tree every morning sang a Baul singer, Hindu or Muslim, I saw no reason to know, mystic in a tradition of art in which religious differences disappear, playing his single-stringed ektara, receiving a voluntary rupee or two from those who cared to stop. It was altogether a world distant in every way from the present. And everywhere, in Bolpur as well as in Shantineketan, one could sense the presence of Tagore. His portraits rather than those of local VIP’s or national leaders adorned the buildings, while his spirit filled the very air.

Following a visit there, Shantineketan becomes a permanent part of the memory, connecting tradition and modernity. In me the visit rekindled a desire to revisit Rabindranath Tagore, the poems, exquisite in their simplicity and profoundly alive, the novels fresh with the smells and sounds of the Bengali landscape and the plays, complex and diverse in style as well as content. I resolved that I must look for a Bengali-literate partner to explore his plays, perhaps, if time permits, to complete an appropriate study.

There is, thus, always the possibility of a return to Shantineketan.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Mamak Booksellers of Macalister Road, Penang

Recently a bookseller, Nahul Meera, also known as Nagore Meera, passed away in Penang. Nagore, a town in Tamil Nadu, India, located approximately 4 km north of Nagapattinam, is famous for a prominent Muslim shrine (dargah), one of India’s most important, dedicated to the 16th century saint Syed Shahul Hameed. During the annual 14-day feast (urs or kanduri) this shrine attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors, Hindus and Muslims, from within India and elsewhere.

Syed Shahul Hameed has many devoted followers in Penang, among these Meera’s family and those of other Tamil Muslim (Mamak) traders and businessmen. At the corner of Chulia Street and Penang Street stands a modest but appealing mosque-like structure, a memorial in honour of the saint of Nagore. Replicating the design of the original shrine complex in Nagore, this memorial is maintained by the local Mamak community.

Meera will be remembered as perhaps the most well-informed or “learned” of Penang’s secondhand book dealers, one of the dozen or so, whose derelict stalls once lined Macalister Road just outside a heritage building, the old King Edward Memorial Hospital, which in recent years was used by several non-governmental organizations. He was often consulted as a resource person familiar, in particular, with the history of Penang’s Tamil community, Muslims and, to some extent, Hindus. Thus, in some ways, he contributed to the recording of the State’s oral history. As a young man, before becoming a dealer in secondhand books, Meera worked as a salesman in a toy shop in Chulia Street; it was during those days, in 1967, that I first met him.

The booksellers of Macalister Road, most of them Mamaks, and two belonging to the Chinese community, were shifted by the City authorities, under protest, after several suggested alternative venues were rejected by them, to the far end of the first floor of Chowrasta Market on Penang Road. Most of them have passed away. The places of several have been assumed by their sons, and in one case, at least, there is already a grandson being trained to inherit the business.

But the institution of secondhand book buying and selling, possibly started in Penang in the nineteen forties along Teck Soon Street, now buried under the massive Kompleks Tun Abdul Razak (KOMTAR) structure, has changed considerably with the shifting face of Georgetown itself. Today there are other lesser-known stalls here and there in the city, as well as a handful of shops on Chulia Street--book exchanges rather than secondhand bookshops--catering mainly for budget tourists; but these have not reached the kind of fame or status attained by Macalister Road’s Mamak stalls.

While the benefits to those who wished, for whatever reason, to get rid of their used books, often as mere scrap paper, were quite obvious, they were infinitely greater for the countless regular visitors to those stalls, casual buyers, collectors as well as dealers from far and near, including one unusual buyer—a westerner who ran a secondhand bookshop in Thailand. The range of materials available was amazingly wide. A lucky visitor could occasionally, in the often messy “system” of these secondhand booksellers, pick up, on a timely visit, something rarely seen and long sought after, worth substantially more than what the bookseller asked for it. Some, like me, have, through consistent and dogged search for books and other printed materials of all descriptions, documents, even stamps and records in these Mamak stalls as well as elsewhere within and outside the country, built up sizeable, varied and invaluable collections.

The other side of the story, from the perspective of the stall-keepers themselves, was also interesting in its own way; and it was not always entirely about making money. Meera, himself an avid reader, was, in fact, notorious for charging a pittance for whatever item he sold, particularly to someone like me. I had become more than a regular customer through our mutual involvement in many an activity in Penang, not, in every instance, connected with books. In his final weeks I was one of two researchers who had, in fact, interviewed him separately for information, which will find an eventual place in forthcoming books.

It is impossible, to be sure, to acknowledge the material benefits derived by these Mamak booksellers, who, while based on Macalister Road, continued to maintain close ties with their families in Tamil Nadu, South India. In the typical old world style of business, introduced into this country during prewar years by South Asians of virtually every description, and undoubtedly also by the Chinese, several of these Mamak booksellers made substantial fortunes from their trade, characteristically living frugally in Penang so that money could be sent off on a regular basis to their families in Tamil Nadu. One hears of estates acquired and mansions built in their native towns or villages. Seldom, in those days, did these traders bring their wives or children to Malaysia. In certain cases a son eventually joined the father, or a nephew his uncle in the expectation of living on in this country on a permanent basis.

But there are also other, less obvious, dimensions to this whole matter. Not in all instances did the Mamak booksellers return to India to benefit from their own hard-earned money.

There was the case of a pair of elderly brothers who specialized in Mills and Boon romances, selling these and other such novels, new or used, or renting them out for a small fee to female readers of almost every age.Their families lived well in Nagore, in the shadow, literally, of the famous shrine (dargah). When questioned as to why they preferred to be in Penang, standing or sitting on stools more than twelve hours each day at their not particularly hospitable bookstall rather than passing their twilight years in their native land, the younger of the two brothers, Abdul Lathif Maraikar, who managed the business, replied that he would not be able to live without anything to do. He had to keep himself busy. I perceived an important truth behind this almost philosophical answer, a truth well-known to many: boredom can kill, literally. But could he not keep himself occupied in other ways in the ease of his reportedly luxurious home in India? No. He knew no other way to keep himself busy, so great was his addiction to bookselling. Abdul Lathif Maraikar eventually passed away in Penang. I never found out what happened to his sibling.

Then there is the even more interesting story of Zakaria, the best-known and possibly wealthiest of the secondhand booksellers of Penang who owned substantial landed property in Tamil Nadu. Nahul Meera, who visited him during one of Zakaria’s home visits to his family, gave some interesting details. Travelling by bus, Meera was given instructions as to how Zakaria’s house could be reached. He was to get off the bus at a particular landmark, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, a gate manned by security guards. Reaching that point Meera made inquiries. He was told to wait, and, within a few minutes, a car arrived to pick him up. Meera discovered, to his amazement, that the gate, in fact, marked the entrance to Zakaria’s property; this consisted of acres upon acres of coconut palms. Meera was impressed by the number of workers employed by Zakaria and the wealth that was clearly generated by his land. This was a startlingly sharp contrast to the manner in which the Mamak petty traders and salesmen had been living in Penang for several generations, with little change in lifestyle.

I asked Zakaria why, given all his wealth, he chose to continue living in Penang in the manner in which he did, instead of returning to Tamil Nadu. The answer received was almost identical to that given by Abdul Lathif Maraikar: the fear of boredom. I was surprised, and even suggested that if there was indeed this apprehension, why did Zakaria not consider moving to a town near his estate in Tamil Nadu, to indulge in business or to invest in urban property? To this he responded that he could not see himself doing any other business; he was too involved with that of secondhand books, suggesting some kind of passionate immersion, normally seen, perhaps, just in “dedicated” book addicts like me. Zakaria would not even consider investing his money in Malaysia, for, after all, he held only the red identity card of non-citizens. Zakaria passed away in India during one of his home visits which took place every two years or so, each allowing him several months with his family. His business was taken over by his son-in-law, his apprentice and assistant for several years.

Penang’s Mamak booksellers are a dying breed, the number of stalls diminishing with the passing away of veteran dealers not succeeded by younger ones, and the lack of constant supplies to keep the trade going. Many of the older and larger collections, built up meticulously over years, even decades, have been sold off, usually tragically dispersed in countless parcels, the books trickling into the Macalister Road stalls. I remember, in particular, the impressive collection of the late D.R. Ramanathan, erstwhile mayor of Georgetown, going off in this fashion. Some of his volumes, like those of other collectors with well-known or easily recognizable names, have found a place on my own shelves. Unlike in Kuala Lumpur there is a notable absence of up-market secondhand bookshops in Penang; shops such as those, sterile and unexciting, that have, in recent decades, found a place in gleaming shopping complexes.

For older devotees of books the joy of discovering gems buried in heaps of junk will no longer be found in Penang. The island’s younger readers will never know the pleasures that could come from spending, even occasionally, an hour or two of one’s leisure time in the famous but modest Mamak bookstalls that, having had their inception on Teck Soon Street, once thrived on Macalister Road.