Transcript: While signing on a book of autographs, Rabindranath Tagore had written something interesting. He was asked what he considered his best quality. “Inconsistency,” he had replied. “And your greatest failing?” the autograph seeker had asked. He answered, “The same.”
This implies that Tagore knew inconsistency was one of his characteristic traits, which served as his greatest asset as well as the greatest undoing. We all know that geniuses are often driven by their whims and fancies. If so, to expect from Tagore an exceptional steadiness would be unfair. However, given that he was image-conscious, he would camouflage his eccentricity and sheer madness behind a veil of stoic demeanour. Let’s hear some tales about his foibles and idiosyncrasies.
The poet was once fascinated by medicinal pills. He would distribute it among others and consume these pills himself, albeit in an interesting manner. Little bottles of medicines adorned his desk. Every now and then, he would pour into a palm four or five pills from these bottles and devour them. How much this affected him physically or neurologically is difficult to tell. What is known is that these pills had become an inalienable part of his life at one point.
These eccentricities were peculiar. He would say the body was paramount. So, whoever prescribed him anything, he would adopt that as his regimen. Once somebody advised him that peeled off gooseberry was good for the health. Now, Tagore’s garden was full of these plants beneath which lay Indian gooseberries in abundance. Tagore ordered that he be served these gooseberries peeled off every day. This was when a play was scheduled to be staged in Calcutta within days. Tagore had to attend it. On this occasion, he carried some gooseberries along. All that his servants had as their job those days was peeling off gooseberries. Onlookers were amused. But the poet couldn’t care less. This episode of gooseberries went on for days until one day, Tagore fell ill. He had to be bed-ridden. A proper doctor and prescribed medicines had to follow. Attending the plays regularly had to stop. Tagore fumed. What a farce!
The chapter of gooseberries ended. But until a few years before his death, Tagore never neglected his health. Raw salads and even leaves of a mustard plant he would chew before the regular meal of rice. And the servants were told the leaves had to be plucked just before his meal. In fact, they would uproot the whole plant and place it before him on the dining table next to his dish.
Tagore had another fixation. Getting new houses built and moving from one house to another as his whim dictated. The versatile poet would settle for no less variety even in the choice of his dwellings. There is hardly an ashram or an old house in the campus that Gurudev never used. When he stayed in Dehli, he would compose poems on the balcony under the scorching sun. He would say the hot winds and the burning heat of the sun triggered creativity all the more in him. While the neighbourhood would rest behind closed doors, he would write and write. For respite from the summer, all he had was a hand-held fan. This continued till a ripe age, with the restlessness of a youngster in the evening of his life, moving from Udayan to Uttarayan. He moved to Konark. The houses were actually small hutments here. Hardly one person could squeeze himself into each. He lived for some time in Mrinmayi. Then there was a mud house he had named Shyamali. It was washed away partly under heavy rain. He then built a new house called Punashcha, stayed there for a while. He grew restless again. And so, Udichi was built. That was his last house.
While he built and built and built, he could never rest at one place. The newly built houses would lay unattended once finished. He would return to one if his eccentricity ever so dictated. Take Shyamali, for instance, replete with his sitting arrangements with books and scrapbooks, his pen, a bed, a table, etc. Hardly a few days passed when he moved to the first floor of Uttarayan. From there he went to the second floor and, some days later, descended back to the first. One fine morning, he decided he would work out of a studio called Chitrabhanu that belonged to his daughter-in-law. From there, he moved to the room in Udayan that was designed in the Japanese style.
And it wasn’t merely changing homes. He was as fussy about the interior decor. The scene inside would change quite often. Once his whim dictated that the house be decorated with iron rods, no, not chimes. So, all the rooms suddenly had rods hanging from the ceilings, dangling between the books, scraps, his bed and all that. He even asked for a hard bed and other pieces of furniture like chair, table, desk, etc made of concrete once. There is a bed Tagore had used, which still rests in the compound of his house Shyamali. He went for a play at another point of time to Calcutta. One fine day, austere living caught his fancy. He ordered that he would henceforth lie on nothing but blankets. That too, the crudely made indigenous variety. The mattresses gave way to 25-30 odd blankets. Not just that, the blankets would be laid on the floor as carpets and hung from the windows as curtains. The Jorasanko house got filled with blankets.
But the very next day, there was trouble. The whole body began itching. Bed bugs! The servants were ordered to get rid of the nuisance. Dusting the blankets, washing them, drying them under the sun, … they tried everything. But there was no bug in the first place. Actually, the rough texture of the blankets was causing the itch. But he insisted there were bugs in them.
Now, the poor servants would every day put those 30 odd blankets in the sun. When that did not help, Tagore said it must be mosquitoes. Repellants were ordered promptly. And there he goes again. He ordered that even his clothes be sprayed, rather drenched, with mosquito repellants. Days went by this way. In fact, before the poet’s health declined, he kept sleeping on blankets.
Besides, Tagore liked going out during every vacation. As beaming with anticipation as little children! Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Mongpu, Puri and what not! If nothing else, Boranagar or Chandannagore! Or at least, within Calcutta, Jorasanko, Chowringhee, Kharda…
That was about his whims. What about his fancies? Well, as and when Tagore would be happy, he would recline on a chair, swing his legs and, in between, clear his throat so loud, the roar could be heard from the remote corners of the ashram.
It’s clear what a child lived inside him. But it’s equally true that it was because of this sheer madness that so many decades later, he still surprises us with his genius. Even today, he remains the best magician Bengal has ever produced.