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Can Tagore’s Mungpoo be saved from dying a silent death?

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Saheli Mitra speaks to cinchona plantation worker Shishir Raut, who still holds on to Tagore’s Mungpoo in the face of violence and utter neglect.

In the dusk of this life
Let me fill from the well of beauty
And refresh for one last time, my heart, body and soul
Let me cast away all striving,
All argument, all suspicion, all flame, all blind ambition…..

Those were the lines Tagore had recited way back in 1940, a year before his death, on a live programme for All India Radio. Sitting within the dilapidated walls of that very room, where Tagore once waited to feel the verdant valleys and welcome death through his myriad senses, I had spoken to daily wage earner Shishir Raut, a few years ago. And that’s when I witnessed a conflicting tale of utter neglect, passionate love and dedication of a few men of the Hills, who were protecting Tagore’s legacy in the face of repeated violence.

Tagore's writting table overlooking the mountain
The Entrance

The neglect of subsequent governments who did little to restore this Tagore abode, popularly known as Rabindra Bhavan, was palpable in every plaster that was on its way of decline, unkempt gardens, broken panes and lack of electricity after sunset. Yet, Tagore was still alive within the confines of that old, quaint and dilapidated bungalow, thanks to a handful of Nepali workmen of the cinchona plantation, headed by Shishir. What inspires these men from the Hills to hold on to Tagore’s memories?

It’s Shishir’s love for a poet who instilled in them a sense of pride and belonging, who could break the barriers of fences that surrounded this bungalow, who could embrace any visitor or workman with open arms. That fenceless, borderless world lies in tatters today, as Mungpoo and Darjeeling are almost cut off from the rest of Bengal, thanks to the present Gorkhaland agitation.

Still, Shishir and his men will celebrate Baishe Srabon today, in their own way, singing his songs and reciting his compositions in a language that is not their mother tongue. When the hills of Mungpoo and Darjeeling no more sing to Tagore’s sound of music, but chant slogans to break away from Bengal and form Gorkhaland, these handful of men whose mother tongue is Nepali, will recite his poems in Bangla.

Interior of the Rabindra Bhavan

Shishir’s grandfather was one of Tagore’s palanquin bearers when Rabindranath visited Mungpoo between 1938 and 1940. The house belonged to scholar Maitreyee Devi and her quinologist husband Manmohan Sen, who was the director of the cinchona plantation. In 1940, one year before his death, Tagore decided to celebrate his birthday at this quaint Himalayan hamlet with locals, the men from the Hills who served him. AIR director Lionel Fielding insisted the poet to recite his poem Janmadin that would be live telecast.

Mungpoo was like time travel for me. Overlooking the picturesque Nathula peak, the house had been recently given to Heritage Commission of West Bengal government who were assigned to convert it into a museum. Today, thanks to the violence in the Hills, the restoration work has stopped. But Shishir and his friends still protect rare pictures, paintings, paint-brushes and easels that Tagore used and even bio-chemic medicines he consumed along with rare letters written by his daughter in-law Protima Devi. I felt a sublime feeling of Tagore’s presence, in the eyes of those Hill men, who probably feel a greater void on Baishe Srabon than the urbanites of Kolkata.

Bio-chemic medicines Tagore consumed

But the riddling feeling is still unsolved, as the Hills burn again and the restoration work gets halted. Despite the state government’s attempt to bring normalcy, it seems this Baishe Srabon will again be remembered in silence. However, Mungpoo and Rabindra Bhavan will live on, till people like Shishir is alive. I had called him this morning to know about his plans for the day. He wanted me to recharge his data pack for Whatsapp as every business is shut down in the Hills, so that he could send me the pictures of the celebration. He left a hope that Mungpoo still celebrates the borderless ideology of Tagore, where love and not hatred reigns.

On this rain-washed Baishe Srabon, the solitude of that bungalow still haunts me, and a song automatically plays on my lips: Eshechile, tobu ashonai, janaye gele (You came, yet you didn’t come, that’s the message you sent).