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.
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.