Takeaway

Tagore’s summer retreat

Sugato Mukherjee | Updated on February 06, 2021

Home in the hills: The bungalow was home to noted Bengali author Maitreyi Devi and her husband   -  SUGATO MUKHERJEE

A bungalow in Mungpoo, a village near Darjeeling, is a proud bearer of the Nobel Laureate’s memories

* On his four visits to Mungpoo over two years, the septuagenarian covered the last 10-km stretch from the village of Rambi in a palanquin

* Quaint little Mungpoo developed around a government-owned cinchona plantation

* Tagore was prolific during his Mungpoo staycations and produced some of his final works from this Himalayan residency

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With his close-cropped grey hair and a slightly stooping gait, Sisir Rahuth looks much older than his 47 years. But his melancholy eyes dance to life when he welcomes literature pilgrims to a certain house in the eastern Himalayas. His weather-beaten face breaks into a childlike smile as he narrates the stories of a man who made this bungalow his favourite summer retreat in the final years of his life.

That man had last visited this house more than three decades before Rahuth was born.

On a cold morning this January, as my car winds down Peshok Road, slicing through forests of pine, magnolia and birch, I wonder if this woodland has changed much since the summer of 1940 — when Rabindranath Tagore left Mungpoo, a village in the Darjeeling district of Bengal, with the hope that he would visit again, soon. He died in August 1941, at his ancestral house in north Kolkata.

There was hardly a paved road to Mungpoo in the ’40s. On his four visits to Mungpoo over two years, the septuagenarian covered the last 10-km stretch from the village of Rambi in a palanquin. His destination was a cinchona plantation bungalow, home of the writer Maitreyi Devi and her husband Dr Monmohon Sen.

Quaint little Mungpoo had developed around a government-owned cinchona plantation from 1864. This plantation of trees was where Sen, a quinologist who supervised the production of quinine from the bark of the cinchona tree, was posted. His wife, the daughter of scholar-philosopher Surendranath Dasgupta, was a protégé of Tagore. She was 16 when her first volume of verse was published with a preface by him. In 1976, she won the Sahitya Akademi award for her Bengali novel Na Hanyate.

Maitreyi’s Bengali memoir, Mungpoo-tey Rabindranath (the English translation Tagore by Fireside, by the author herself, is equally brilliant), is a vivid portrayal of a creative genius observed up close during his Mungpoo visits. The narrative conjures up a lively Tagore whose conversations with his hosts and visitors ranged from reflections on art and life to friendly banters, his indulgence in parlour games and the evening sessions when he read out his poems to a small and receptive audience. It also details the rigorous discipline he followed: The long hours he spent at his writing desk, when Tagore drifted away to another world and a young Maitreyi found him distant and solitary like a mountaintop.

Mungpoo resident Rahuth, caretaker of the bungalow that is now a museum called Rabindra Bhavan, shows us to this workstation. A mahogany writing desk and a sturdy chair, which was designed by the Nobel Laureate himself, sit by a window. Even the well-worn cushion has been preserved on the chair. A small cabinet still holds the assorted paint supplies, trays and brushes that Tagore used.

The bungalow with its creaky floorboards, fireplaces, Tagore’s manuscripts in wooden chests and old photographs lining the walls seems to be cocooned in a time long gone. The bedstead with an inclined backrest (designed, again, by Tagore and carved by his son, Rathindranath) remains in the same east-facing bedroom, where the early rays of the sun greeted the esteemed guest every morning. A large tree outside the window, which found mention in one of Tagore’s poems in a collection called Nabajatak, still stands in leafy splendour.

Tagore was prolific during his Mungpoo staycations and produced some of his final works from this Himalayan residency. A birthday celebration — on May 9, 1940 — played a role behind this creative burst. Tagore’s hosts were anxious about the arrangements for the special occasion. In Santiniketan, the day would have been observed amid fanfare, with international guests and literary doyens in attendance. Tagore resolved the dilemma by asking Maitreyi and Sen to invite workers of the local cinchona plantation and quinine factory to the house.

Among the guests that day was Rahuth’s father, then a little boy. “He had vivid memories of the poet. And my grandfather was one of the bearers of the palanquin that Tagore rode down the hill stretch from Rambi,” Rahuth says, with a tinge of pride in his voice.

The simplicity, warmth and liveliness with which the hill folk sang and danced on his birthday inspired Tagore to write a poem that was later included in a slender volume called Janmadiney (On birthday). Unfortunately, that very day, Tagore was informed of the death of his beloved nephew, Surendranath. In his grief, too, the man showed a “discipline of emotions”, Maitreyi observed in her memoir. His outpouring took the form of another beautiful poem.

In Rabindranath Tagore: Final Poems, a volume translated by Wendy Barker and Saranindranath Tagore, the final lines of this poem read thus:

“My own fire-grief burns —

Enkindles.

On evening’s forehead, the sun places

a blood-gleaming sign,

changes the coming night’s face to gold

just as death dresses me with a burning flame at the western edge of life.

In this light can be seen seamless life where birth, death are one. Such splendor illuminates a deathlessness hidden in the everyday by our senses’ limits.”

Sugato Mukherjee is a Kolkata-based writer and photographer

Travel log
  • Getting there
  • Mungpoo, perched at 3,700 ft, overlooks River Teesta, and is within easy driving distance of both Darjeeling (26 km) and Kalimpong (36 km).
  • Stay
  • Choose from one of the basic but effusively hospitable homestays. Mungpoo is a good base for exploring the tea gardens nearby.
  • BLink Tip
  • - Apart from the cinchona plantations, Mungpoo is also known for orchids. The local Orchid Park showcases around 150 varieties.
  • - If you have a day to spare, head to the adjacent hilltop for a quick tour of Dinchhen Sherap Chhoeling monastery and the beautiful Kalijhora Waterfall, the blackish waters of which cascade down about 1,800 ft to meet the Teesta.

Published on February 06, 2021

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