This Side and That

 Across the Road

            The Houses jostle in rows.

                        All those who dwell in them, among the thin

Partitions, live thrust in, closed in.

            With voices set in various tones

                        They babble on and on

            About whatever comes to mind:

                        They take each other by the hand,

            Or sometimes slap

                        A friend upon the back

And drag him through the alleys for no reason,

Arm in arm, yet bickering out of season.

                        Perhaps they’ll turn  

            And ask you after your health, though not from real concern,

                        Or with some set joke, greet

            Each other on the road, if two should meet.

            Into your room they’ll come,

And start laughing at some mysterious fun.

            Picking out left-over scraps of news

From the papers, all Sunday afternoon they’ll bandy views,

                        Or wager their wars

            Over which is the prettier of two movie stars.

                        So hot grows the debate,

            Their very friendship seems at threat.

Hookah in hand, beside their doors they sit

                        And haggle with the pedlars in the street.

            Over and over cranking the same tune,

They try to pick up stage-songs from the gramophone.

                        Here a puppy starts

            All the house with its affectionate barks;

            There a squalling child upon the floor

Bangs its head, while the impatient mother scolds.

            The sound of shuffling cards; and then a din

From time to time, to thrash out who should win.

                        And one day from a taxi-cab descends

            The son-in-law, no less! Follows n o end

Of giggling among the girls-they nudge and pry,

            A flock round to put make-up on the shy young wife.

                        On terrace, gate-house, balcony,

Their comings and goings cast shadows continually.

                        There an opening, here a closing shutter:

            Upon the clothes-line, towels and dhoti flutter.

                        On every side, a hum

            All day and night, as of work being done.

                        In the courtyard, water flows

            From a tap someone forgot to close,

                        And up and down the stairs

            A constant dankness hangs upon the air.

                        The day wears on; the sound

            Of pots and pans being scrubbed rises around.

                        Ladles, tongs and spoons

            Clink in kitchen domestic tunes.

                        Mustard oil sputters inside

                        A pan of sizzling fish being fried.

The weaver woman brings for the young wife

            Saris bordered with a patriotic weave.

                        A little boy circles

            The courtyard on his toy tricycle.

                        The men rise and set, by the clock,

            Upon the horizon of the office block,

                        And their wives’ days abide

                        The ebb and flow of the tide

            Of work and rest, morning and afternoon.

                        Amidst all this, the untiring drone

Of a student cramming for examinations,

Till the neighbors quite lose patience.

Carried upon life’s flow,

            They mingle in many a fashion as they go:

The chatter of the known and the unknown

                        Raises flurries of foam,

            Swirling, tossing, flowing-

Meeting and conversing, coming, going.

On this side I, all through the still midday,

            Thrusting life’s facts far away,

Strive after life’s abstractions as my goal:

            Battling with my lonely soul,

                        All day I see to gain

            Futile explanation of the unplain.

                        Existence’ tide

Has flung me on the mind’s grey riverside:

            All round, the piercing light agleam

In the blazing midday, moisture-drained.

                        I think: just across the road

            The motley fripperies of the multitude

            In random flow encounter and collide,

Arousing many sounds and shapes all day and night.

                        They do not last for long:

            The clay bound mridangam

            Changes its beat, time and again.

            So every now and then

It impact makes the mind intent

            For the quickening touch

Of the all-pervading insignificant.

Yet from its lofty bank, the mind can’t fall

To mingle with the turgid Ganga of the All.

                       

I’ve been reading Tagore in translation, mostly the Gitanjali and The Selected Poems. This poem, titled “Epare-Opare” in Bengali, captured the sense of space I’ve been trying to imagine here, the proximity and distance of human life. The translation of this poem, written in 1939, is by Sukanta Chaudhuri, a professor of English at Jadavpur University.

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