Rabindranath Tagore- a narrative poem
Translated by ©Monish R. Chatterjee (2019)
Goblinesque of appearance, he was a fool beyond measure
Anything went missing, screamed the mistress, "Keshta stole our treasure."
From dawn till dusk, I swore on his father's name- barely any heed he paid
The caning exceeded his earning, yet witless was he, of such stuff was he made.
The need was great, lustily I call him, at the top of my lungs, "Keshta!!"- I scream
I rush from nook to nook, hearing nothing but silence as I scour land and stream.
If you gave him three, one is all that remained- of the rest he knew naught
If you gave him one, in the flash of an eye, it was three pieces he brought.
Anywhere, any time of day- morn or noon, he eked out nap time aplenty-
Even as I raised a din and hurled the choicest epithets- "rake, dummy, donkey!"
Standing by the doorway, with a silly grin on his face, making my blood boil
I concede, to relinquish maya for dear old Keshta, my mind was ever in turmoil.
At times the mistress would complain in distress, "This torture no more can I take
Here is your home and hearth, here is Keshta- with him a happy home make.
Cares little for any rule, style or manner, for pots and pans, milk or honey
Things disappear, while only like waste water, down the drain goes our money."
"Send him to the bazaar- and you scarce see him the livelong day
Can we not search near and far for a better servant, can we not find a way?"
Riled, I rush out in a hurry, drag him in by the tufts on his head, resolving anew
Reproach with the harshest rebuke, "Get out now, you scoundrel, I'm rid of you!"
Slowly and quietly would he walk away, and oh- good riddance! I would think-
The very next morning, with my hookah nicely assembled, there he was in a blink.
His countenance tranquility itself, no trace of sadness, nor any sign of torment-
Try as you might to be rid of him, he leaves not, my hopeless old manservant!
That year, through my work as a broker, I received a hefty windfall -
For a pilgrimage to Vrindavan, I decided, I now had the wherewithal.
The mistress, thereupon, wished to accompany me, so to her thus I spoke-
The merits of the husband, they say, extends to the wife, else we would go broke.
Tying up many a bundle with cords, a little tugging here, some tightening there
Amid jingling bangles and packing boxes, spoke my weeping homemaker fair-
"Far from home, with none but Keshta by your side, oh how you will suffer."
To which I reassure her, "Good heavens, no! It'll be Nibaran, and not the duffer."
The train steamed on, presently alighting at Bardhaman, I witness, alas
My Krishnakanta, cool as a cucumber, with my tobacco pipe, there, in a flash!
How much longer, I ask myself again, must I tolerate his foolish impudence-
Yet, no matter his faults, I admit, I was rather glad to behold his countenance.
At long last, I stepped off the train at the Sree-Dham, whereupon to my right
And my left, my fore and aft, in a flash was I mobbed by panda hordes, might
I confess, in an instant squeezing the living daylights out of me. Six or seven
Of us soon found a shared rental- yes, thought I, the nearest thing to heaven.
Where, alas, the damsels of Vraja, where the fabled woods, where was Hari
The Gardener? Springtime? Accursed luck, dreaded smallpox, lethal and scary
Found me. One by one, every last roommate vacated the quarters of our dream
While, forlorn in my room lay I, even as pox lesions swamped my every limb.
Night and day, in the most pathetic voice I whisper, "Keshta, please come to me-
At long last, traveling so far from home, I might not live another day to see."
Just to behold his face, in dismal days, filled my heart like an asset most beloved
Through dark days and dreary nights, vigilant, my old manservant by my bed.
Pours water in my mouth, asks if I felt better, feels my temple for fever-
Standing vigil, with nary a wink, while not a grain of rice crossed his lips, ever.
And time and again assured he, "Master, mark my words, have no fear -
You will get well, return back home, and once again see the mistress dear."
Before long, regaining my health, as I was up and about, the fever set upon him
My life-giver appropriated my fatal disease as each day his prospects grew dim.
Losing consciousness, he lay there for a day or two, until no pulse in him was left
For so long had I tried my all to be rid of him, at long last of him was I bereft.
Not long after, my pilgrimage over, I was back at my homestead, verdant-
No longer with me, my perennial companion, my faithful old manservant.
Maya- the Indian concept of creation being an alluring illusion.
Vrindavan- the fabled childhood home of the boy Krishna among cowherds.
Krishnakanta, Keshta- Bengali name meaning the Dark One, and its endearment.
Sree-Dham, Vraja- alternative names of the sacred childhood home of Krishna.
Within his vast oeuvre, Rabindranath Tagore wrote a number of incomparable narrative poems. These poems told the stories of often overlooked, yet deeply humane and ordinary lives. This quality is frequently present in a majority of his short stories as well. Of his many narrative poems, this one about an old house-servant, is especially lyrical and deeply moving. The great challenge is of course the virtually impossible task of re-writing such a lyrically unrivalled piece of writing in another language. Tagore's Puratan Bhritya has moved generations of Bengalis of all ages to the very depths of their being. Here is the tale of a well-to-do, somewhat happy-go-lucky Bengali Zamindar (in some ways similar in terms of the background and social standing to Tagore himself), who is served by a loyal yet deeply scorned manservant named Keshta, who, despite being repeatedly abused, scoffed and periodically ordered out of the household (often instigated by Zamindar's irate wife, who considers Keshta nothing more than a wasteful nuisance for the family), refuses to leave his employer, for whom he clearly holds an astonishing sense of devotion. The great drama and irony of the story occurs, of course, with the Zamindar discovering that Keshta has accompanied him instead of his more-preferred servant Nibaran, and in the end how Keshta nurses him back from the very doorstep of death after all his pilgrim friends abandon him once he contracts small pox in holy Vrindavan. In return for his exemplary service for his Master, Keshta is rewarded with the virulent small pox himself. The Zamindar, of course, does not have the slightest ability to return his loyal servant's service, and the much-derided Keshta succumbs to the deadly disease.
Translation and commentary copyright: © Monish R Chatterjee