Richmond Read-along 51
Welcome back to the Richmond Read-along! Today’s short story comes from Rabindranath Tagore, born in Calcutta in 1861. He was a proponent for using colloquial language in literature, and his most beloved stories cover the ups and downs of life for ordinary Bengalis at the end of the 19th century. Tagore’s writing won him the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913, but he was also an acclaimed painter and set up an experimental school. This story covers a man’s infatuation with his widowed neighbour (at a time when remarriage was heavily stigmatised for female widows) and contains the irony for which Tagore was best known.
My Fair Neighbour
My feelings towards the young widow who lived in the next house to mine were feelings of worship; at least, that is what I told to my friends and myself. Even my nearest intimate, Nabin, knew nothing of the real state of my mind. And I had a sort of pride that I could keep my passion pure by thus concealing it in the inmost recesses of my heart. She was like a dew-drenched sephali-blossom, untimely fallen to earth. Too radiant and holy for the flower-decked marriage-bed, she had been dedicated to Heaven.
But passion is like the mountain stream, and refuses to be enclosed in the place of its birth; it must seek an outlet. That is why I tried to give expression to my emotions in poems; but my unwilling pen refused to desecrate the object of my worship.
It happened curiously that just at this time my friend Nabin was afflicted with a madness of verse. It came upon him like an earthquake. It was the poor fellow’s first attack, and he was equally unprepared for rhyme and rhythm. Nevertheless he could not refrain, for he succumbed to the fascination, as a widower to his second wife.
So Nabin sought help from me. The subject of his poems was the old, old one, which is ever new: his poems were all addressed to the beloved one. I slapped his back in jest, and asked him: ‘Well, old chap, who is she?’
Nabin laughed, as he replied: ‘That I have not yet discovered!’
I confess that I found considerable comfort in bringing help to my friend. Like a hen brooding on a duck’s egg, I lavished all the warmth of my pent-up passion on Nabin’s effusions. So vigorously did I revise and improve his crude productions, that the larger part of each poem became my own.
Then Nabin would say in surprise: ‘That is just what I wanted to say, but could not. How on earth do you manage to get hold of all these fine sentiments?’
Poet-like, I would reply: ‘They come from my imagination; for, as you know, truth is silent, and it is imagination only which waxes eloquent. Reality represses the flow of feeling like a rock; imagination cuts out a path for itself.’
And the poor puzzled Nabin would say: ‘Y-e-s, I see, yes, of course’; and then after some thought would murmur again: ‘Yes, yes, you are right!’
As I have already said, in my own love there was a feeling of reverential delicacy which prevented me from putting it into words. But with Nabin as a screen, there was nothing to hinder the flow of my pen; and a true warmth of feeling gushed out into these vicarious poems.
Nabin in his lucid moments would say: ‘But these are yours! Let me publish them over your name.’
‘Nonsense!’ I would reply. ‘They are yours, my dear fellow; I have only added a touch or two here and there.’
And Nabin gradually came to believe it.
I will not deny that, with a feeling akin to that of the astronomer gazing into the starry heavens, I did sometimes turn my eyes towards the window of the house next door. It is also true that now and again my furtive glances would be rewarded with a vision. And the least glimpse of the pure light of that countenance would at once still and clarify all that was turbulent and unworthy in my emotions.
But one day I was startled. Could I believe my eyes? It was a hot summer afternoon. One of the fierce and fitful nor’-westers was threatening. Black clouds were massed in the north-west corner of the sky; and against the strange and fearful light of that background my fair neighbour stood, gazing out into empty space. And what a world of forlorn longing did I discover in the far-away look of those lustrous black eyes! Was there then, perchance, still some living volcano within the serene radiance of that moon of mine? Alas! that look of limitless yearning, which was winging its way through the clouds like an eager bird, surely sought—not heaven—but the nest of some human heart!
At the sight of the unutterable passion of that look I could hardly contain myself. I was no longer satisfied with correcting crude poems. My whole being longed to express itself in some worthy action. At last I thought I would devote myself to making widow-remarriage popular in my country. I was prepared not only to speak and write on the subject, but also to spend money on its cause.
Nabin began to argue with me. ‘Permanent widowhood,’ said he, ‘has in it a sense of immense purity and peace; a calm beauty like that of the silent places of the dead shimmering in the wan light of the eleventh moon. Would not the mere possibility of remarriage destroy its divine beauty?’
Now this sort of sentimentality always makes me furious. In time of famine, if a well-fed man speaks scornfully of food, and advises a starving man at point of death to glut his hunger on the fragrance of flowers and the song of birds, what are we to think of him? I said with some heat: ‘Look here, Nabin, to the artist a ruin may be a beautiful object; but houses are built not only for the contemplation of artists, but that people may live therein; so they have to be kept in repair in spite of artistic susceptibilities. It is all very well for you to idealise widowhood from your safe distance, but you should remember that within widowhood there is a sensitive human heart, throbbing with pain and desire.’
I had an impression that the conversion of Nabin would be a difficult matter, so perhaps I was more impassioned than I need have been. I was somewhat surprised to find at the conclusion of my little speech that Nabin after a single thoughtful sigh completely agreed with me. The even more convincing peroration which I felt I might have delivered was not needed!
After about a week Nabin came to me, and said that if I would help him he was prepared to lead the way by marrying a widow himself.
I was overjoyed. I embraced him effusively, and promised him any money that might be required for the purpose. Then Nabin told me his story.
I learned that Nabin’s loved one was not an imaginary being. It appeared that Nabin, too, had for some time adored a widow from a distance, but had not spoken of his feelings to any living soul. Then the magazines in which Nabin’s poems, or rather my poems, used to appear had reached the fair one’s hands; and the poems had not been ineffective.
Not that Nabin had deliberately intended, as he was careful to explain, to conduct love-making in that way. In fact, said he, he had no idea that the widow knew how to read. He used to post the magazine, without disclosing the sender’s name, addressed to the widow’s brother. It was only a sort of fancy of his, a concession to his hopeless passion. It was flinging garlands before a deity; it is not the worshipper’s affair whether the god knows or not, whether he accepts or ignores the offering.
And Nabin particularly wanted me to understand that he had no definite end in view when on diverse pretexts he sought and made the acquaintance of the widow’s brother. Any near relation of the loved one needs must have a special interest for the lover.
Then followed a long story about how an illness of the brother at last brought them together. The presence of the poet himself naturally led to much discussion of the poems; nor was the discussion necessarily restricted to the subject out of which it arose.
After his recent defeat in argument at my hands, Nabin had mustered up courage to propose marriage to the widow. At first he could not gain her consent. But when he had made full use of my eloquent words, supplemented by a tear or two of his own, the fair one capitulated unconditionally. Some money was now wanted by her guardian to make arrangements.
‘Take it at once,’ said I.
‘But,’ Nabin went on, ‘you know it will be some months before I can appease my father sufficiently for him to continue my allowance. How are we to live in the meantime?’ I wrote out the necessary cheque without a word, and then I said: ‘Now tell me who she is. You need not look on me as a possible rival, for I swear I will not write poems to her; and even if I do I will not send them to her brother, but to you!’
‘Don’t be absurd,’ said Nabin; ‘I have not kept back her name because I feared your rivalry! The fact is, she was very much perturbed at taking this unusual step, and had asked me not to talk about the matter to my friends. But it no longer matters, now that everything has been satisfactorily settled. She lives at No. 19, the house next to yours.’
If my heart had been an iron boiler it would have burst. ‘So she has no objection to remarriage?’ I simply asked.
‘Not at the present moment,’ replied Nabin with a smile.
‘And was it the poems alone which wrought the magic change?’
‘Well, my poems were not so bad, you know,’ said Nabin, ‘were they?’
I swore mentally.
But at whom was I to swear? At him? At myself? At Providence? All the same, I swore.
Join us again tomorrow for the next Richmond Read-along!