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Of love without marriage and marriage without love
- Dr. S.D. Desai

November 5, 2017

A rich silence in the well-designed spacious multi-level drawing room of Sugna Shah's Parijat bungalow, fully opening on to the lawn with a small jhula outside, looked inviting with a touch of the season's initial nip in the air, as freshening as the fragrant dainty flower that gives her residence name, turned even richer with a soft-spoken introduction to her Gujarati translation of Rabindranath Tagore's Shesher Kavita, hailed as a classic love poem in prose, as Antim Kavya (Gujarati Sahitya Parishad, 2017). Her daughter Shefali's vocal rendering, as pleasing as it was sensitive, of the poet's songs to the accompaniment of only the harmonium and Niranjan Bhagat's intermittent inputs coming alive with his literary insight added to the evening's pleasure.

Mothers of eligible daughters ever remain keenly hopeful, but the girls know Oxford-educated Amit Ray with his tastes is like the golden hue on the horizon, very much on this earth yet impossible to capture. An accident, a car accident on a bumpy road, brings him face to face with Lavanya. Against the backdrop of darkness, she emerges all lit up, like lightning. Much later, as time passes, their tuning seeks the language others do not speak. The language is like a bird's song, like a poet's fresh lyrical words. And yet, one is not a match for the other in matrimony, Lavanya thinks. She is a pure fragrant flower of God's creation. In love with an idea of her rather than her, Amit is a product of western education. The end of the novel without a tinge of sadness is perhaps unparalleled in world fiction. There is a Farewell Poem, Shesher Kavita, along with her wedding invitation to Amit. 'Let the goddess remain for you to adore,' she seems to whisper in it, 'My friend, farewell!'

Lavanya's heart is delicately feminine but she has a mind that is dispassionately analytical. Precocious, she knows what it takes to be husband and wife. It entails sacrificing individual freedom. It entails 'adjustment.' In marriage, on both sides, there is a tacit understanding to accept the other as he/she is. Lavanya respects freedom - as much her own as of Amit. She loves him but would choose to not marry him. Amit himself cherishes her love for him. He says of his love for wife Ketaki later, 'It's like the water in a pot to be filled daily.' As for his love for Lavanya, he says, 'It's a lake. It can't be brought home. My mind swims in it.'

Professor Bhagat, a nonagenarian noted Gujarati poet who understands Rabindranath to the core and can recall his works, characters and ideas with ease, points out that earlier during the year (1929) this short novel was written, Tagore had published another novel Jogajog, in which Kumudini, who had imagined her husband Madhusudan to be the paragon of virtue, feels disillusioned on finding him a boor who treated her as an object and walks out on him, leaving him humiliated in his ancestral home. (Unfortunately, she is made to return to him by the end on his entreaty.) So, in one novel he portrays love without marriage, in the other marriage without love. These works were a fitting response to the so called modernists whom Tagore called aghor panthis. The two novels not only reflect his contemporary sensibility, they reflect a thinking which is more modern than that of the 'modernists'.

Intellectual conversations did not make the evening any the less lively for all. Udgreev, eyes lowered, her hair flowing on sides, the blue bindi on the forehead glowing, Shefali Nayan sang six Tagore songs celebrating love permeating the universe, sitting against the backdrop of an exquisite pichhwai depiction of a visualization of Krishna's Daanleela, his romantic play with the gopis. The singing, without making it obvious, anchored the pleasing evening event. Her initial rendering invoked with delicate solemnity the source of this love: Aanandloke mangalaloke biraajo Satyasundara! The concluding song expressed on a metaphoric plane the desire of a mortal to have the being she loves close to her longer: Tumi jeo naa ekhani, ekhano aachhe rajani... ('Leave not yet, it's still the night...'). The singer has a trained voice and dedication that with seeming effortlessness carry the bhaava. An exponent of Rabindra Sangeet herself, Sugna Shah is quick to agree, 'It's important in this special genre.'

Dr. S.D. Desai, a professor of English, has been a Performing Arts critic for many years. Among the dance journals he has contributed to are Narthaki, Sruti, Nartanam and Attendance. His books have been published by Gujarat Sahitya Academy, Oxford University Press and Rupa. After 30 years with a national English daily, he is now a freelance art writer.