Basanta Koomar Roy (a veteran journalist living in the United States since 1910)
Angel (Basanta Koomar’s house keeper)
Samar (A young journalist who wants to interview Basanta Koomar Roy)
Basanta Koomar’s apartment.
A morning in October 1947.
(Basanta Koomar Roy’s living room. The room is sparsely decorated. A desk and chair at one side. Few comfortable chairs and a table on the other side where most of the action takes place. The room has one exit to the hallway leading to the door outside. The other door leads to the inside of the house or apartment. Basanta enters putting on a coat jacket. He looks around looking for something.)
BASANTA (To Angel who is inside) : Angel! Angel! Where is my tie? I left it on the chair.
ANGEL (Offstage) : It’s with me.
BASANTA : Why did you take it? Bring it to me – quick!
ANGEL : It was all crumpled up. Here, take it now – it’s all smooth and ironed. You cannot sit in front of a camera with a crumpled tie.
BASANTA : Thank you! You are an Angel indeed. (BASANTA puts the tie on). The journalist will be here any moment – and yes, if he brings in a photographer with him, I should not disappoint him.
ANGEL : Of course not! (Fixes his tie knot) There you go – a handsome young man!
BASANTA (Laughs) : You mean a handsome old man! To tell you the truth, I am feeling a bit nervous.
Nervous? The famous journalist Basanta Koomar Roy nervous to sit in front of another fellow journalist? That can’t be true!
BASANTA : Oh yes, I am. All these years – since 1912, I have been taking interviews of others, but I never had to give an interview myself. Now, I know how much those people hated me.
ANGEL : Oh, you’ll be just fine. Be yourself, and you’ll be all right.
BASANTA : You are right. I need to be myself – the jolly old Basanta Koomar Roy! The man who brought the East to the West! You know – that’s what someone told me the other day! Don’t you think it’s a great complement?
ANGEL : I like it! Now, why don’t you sit down and rest a little – gather your thoughts you know! I’ll get the refreshments ready.
BASANTA : Yes, I should prepare myself! (Sits down on a chair) I should get my thoughts organized – rehearse my answers a little. (Pause) What do you think he’ll ask me?
ANGEL : Mr. Roy, you are getting overly anxious. Let me get you a cup of tea – it will help you calm down.
BASANTA : You know, I can guess what he’ll ask. He’d like to know about my contributions to the Indian freedom movement, my association with Friends of Freedom for India, my work as the editor of India News Service. He’d like to know about Lala Lajpat Rai, the lion of Punjab, about Tarak Nath Das, Saranghdhar Das, M. N. Roy… Aah… those days… those glorious days… how we worked in secret, how we fooled those British spies – it was a thrilling life. Now that India is independent, I am dying to tell those stories. I always wanted to write a book about those days…
ANGEL : That sounds like a great idea. Tell your interviewer about it. It’ll give you some advance publicity.
BASANTA (Laughs) : Yes of course! I need publicity – I thrive on publicity.
(The door bell rings.)
BASANTA (Standing up) : There you go. It must be our guest publicist!
ANGEL : Wait. Let me get the door.
(Angel walks to the door. BASANTA follows her few steps, then stops. Angel comes back with Samar, a young man with a folio bag in his hand.)
ANGEL : Mr. Roy, this is Mr. Ghosh. Mr. Ghosh, please meet Mr. Basanta Koomar Roy.
SAMAR (Comes forward and shakes BASANTA’s hand) : Pleased to meet you Mr. Roy. I am Samarendra Nath Ghosh.
BASANTA : The pleasure is all mine Mr. Ghosh. (Looking around) Is there anybody else with you?
SAMAR (A bit puzzled) : Anybody else?
ANGEL : Oh, we were just wondering if any photographer’s with you. Most journalists do bring along a photographer with them you know.
SAMAR : No no – I am only an apprentice. I don’t have any photographer with me.
BASANTA : Your editor doesn’t want a photograph along with the interview? A photograph always draws the reader’s attention to the story.
SAMAR : I agree. I’ll ask my editor. If he agrees to insert a photograph, I can come again with a cameraman. Will that be all right?
BASANTA : Yes of course. Mr. Ghosh, please be seated.
SAMAR : Please call me Samar.
BASANTA : Sure, sure! After all we are colleagues – and you are far too younger than me. Please sit down Samar.
(Samar sits. Basanta too sits down in a chair opposite to Samar)
ANGEL : Would you like a cup of tea or coffee Mr. Ghosh?
SAMAR : Tea would be fine. Thank you.
BASANTA : I’d like some tea too. And get some refreshments for our guest, will you?
ANGEL : Yes of course! You gentlemen talk, I’ll be back soon.
(Angel goes out of the room)
BASANTA : Isn’t she nice? I don’t know what I could have done without her.
BASANTA : So young man! You want to interview me.
SAMAR : I cannot thank you enough for this opportunity!
BASANTA : Oh you are most welcome. You know, looking at you reminds me of my youth – my early days in this profession. Tell me Samar, do you enjoy your job?
SAMAR : Yes I do. I have just started – I have a long way to go. Mr. Roy, I have been following your career, and I was amazed the way you established yourself in this country. I am looking forward to get some tips from you.
BASANTA : I can give you one tip right away Samar. I believe, a journalist must always have a mission.
SAMAR : A mission?
BASANTA : Yes, a mission! A mission that drives him to do what he does. My mission was to bring forth my country to the American people – to bring India closer to America. I wanted Americans to appreciate our rich cultural and spiritual heritage. My mission was to build support for India and for her freedom.
SAMAR : I know.
BASANTA : And now that India has achieved its freedom, I feel that all my hard work has paid off. Oh, what a struggle it was to get any American magazine to print a story critical of the British. Blood is always thicker you know. (Pause) Oh, look at me – I have started to babble like an old man. I should let you to ask your questions, right? Tell me, what do you want to know? Should I start with how I got involved with the Indian nationalists? With Friends of Freedom for India?
SAMAR : Well, I want you to start even earlier…
BASANTA : Earlier? Well, you can say that my initial association with nationalist activities started with the Hindustan Association of America – I was the editor of their newsletter – The Hindustanee Student. Almost all nationalist leaders wrote in my journal – Lala Hardayal, Tarak Nath Das, Lala Lajpat Rai.
SAMAR : Mr. Roy, I think I need to make myself clear. I don’t want to talk about your experiences with the nationalist movement – that’s not my story!
BASANTA : That’s not your story? I don’t understand! You don’t want to know about my contributions to India’s freedom struggle?
SAMAR : No.
BASANTA : Then what do you want to talk about? What else do I have to say?
SAMAR : You have a lot to say Mr. Roy. I want to hear from you about Rabindranath Tagore.
BASANTA : Rabindranath Tagore? (Pause) What can I say about him? There are hundreds of pundits who can talk about him. You have come to the wrong person.
SAMAR : No I didn’t! You were the first person to write his biography in English!
BASANTA : That was a long time ago!
SAMAR : You were his friend, his disciple – that’s what the journals say about you.
BASANTA : I told you, it was a long time ago. I hardly remember those days.
SAMAR : It was only about thirty-five years ago. I am sure you haven’t forgotten everything…
BASANTA : It’s almost a lifetime ago – you were not even born then. Samar, you are wasting your time here. I have nothing to say about Gurudev. He passed away seven years ago – let his soul rest in peace.
SAMAR : Mr. Roy you told me, just few minutes ago, that your mission in life was to bring India closer to America, to bring our national treasures to the American people. Don’t you think Rabindranath Tagore was the best that we had to offer to the west?
BASANTA : Yes, he was the best – he was our pride!
SAMAR : And I know, that you had taken it up as your mission to introduce Rabindranath to the West – you wrote his biography. It was published in 1915 – just one and half years after he received the Nobel Prize.
BASANTA : Yes, I wrote his biography! And the reviewers and readers liked it better than anybody else’s – better than the one written by Earnest Rhyes. You know why? Because they liked the personal touch – because they knew that I speak the same language as Tagore – I come from the same country as Tagore – that I was an intimate friend of Tagore! Here is another tip Samar. Whatever you write, make it your personal story! Make your readers see the story through your eyes.
SAMAR : But what if I have no personal involvement in the story? Can I still claim to be a part of it?
BASANTA : Of course you are a part of it! An author can never be not involved in his story – he has to be a part of it.
SAMAR : I understand. Yes I agree, your book does have a personal touch. It illustrates very nicely your kinship with the poet. But…
BASANTA : But – what?
SAMAR : I understand, not everybody was happy with the book?
BASANTA : What do you mean?
SAMAR : Some critics, especially those in India, say that the book was nothing but a cheap way of making money at Tagore’s expense. It did not have anything of substantial value, only some praises and snippets from his Jibansmriti. They say you wrote the book to exploit his popularity for your personal benefit.
BASANTA (Enraged) : What? I wrote the book to exploit his popularity and make money? How could you say such a thing? Young man let me tell you, my first essay on Tagore was published in the July 1913 issue of the Open Court, and I wrote it even earlier – while Rabindranath was still in the USA. What does your critics have to say about that? Do they think I knew he was about to win the Nobel Prize when I wrote that article?
SAMAR : But you did…
(Angel enters with a tray full of pastries and tea)
ANGEL : Gentlemen, please don’t stop – keep talking. I’ll leave in a moment. Mr. Ghosh, milk and sugar in your tea?
SAMAR : Yes please – two teaspoons of sugar. Thank you.
(Angel prepares tea for Samar and Basanta)
ANGEL : Here Mr. Ghosh, have some pastry. I know Bengalees have a sweet tooth. You’ll like them.
SAMAR : Thank you Ma’m!
ANGEL : Oh you are most welcome. Mr. Roy, here is your tea. You please go easy on the pastries –
(BASANTA picks up his cup of tea)
SAMAR : Ma’m, may I ask you a question?
ANGEL : Ask me? Oh yes, of course you can!
SAMAR : Do you know Rabindranath Tagore?
ANGEL : Rabindranath Tagore?
SAMAR : Yes, Rabindranath Tagore the poet. Do you know him?
BASANTA : Samar, please leave Angel alone. She is my housekeeper – she doesn’t know anything about Rabindranath.
ANGEL : Of course I do. I know Rabindranath Tagore! I mean, I never met him – but I know him through his writings – Gitanjali, Sadhana, Crescent Moon…
BASANTA (Amazed) : Angel, I never knew – you never told me about this?
ANGEL : I should have? I am sorry –
BASANTA : No, you don’t have to be sorry. I just never thought you’d like reading them – most Americans have forgotten him.
SAMAR : Did you like them Ma’m? I mean Tagore’s poetry –
ANGEL : Oh yes I did. They were exquisite.
SAMAR : Where did you read them? Here, from Mr. Roy’s collections?
ANGEL : Yes, I read some from Mr. Roy’s shelf. But I came to know of Tagore when I was in my fourth grade. In our school, in Buffalo New York, we read the poems from The Crescent Moon. I remember, after reading the poems, a girl in our class wrote a letter to Tagore and he replied back. She proudly read the letter standing in front of the whole class.
SAMAR : That’s amazing! Fourth graders in Buffalo New York read Tagore? Ma’am, do you remember what he wrote in that letter to the girl?
ANGEL : No, not really. But I remember, it was something very nice. So when I saw the book again on Mr. Roy’s shelf, those childhood memories came back to me. I had to read those poems again. Mr. Roy is right! I really did forget Tagore. But, thanks to Mr. Roy’s bookshelf. It reminded me of Tagore after all these years.
SAMAR : Then you must have read Tagore’s biography written by Mr. Roy?
ANGEL : No I haven’t! Mr. Roy, you never told me you wrote Tagore’s biography! I never saw the book on your shelf!
(Roy does not answer)
SAMAR : Ma’m, Mr. Roy is one of the very few people who were responsible for making Rabindranath Tagore popular in this country. Whoever read his book could see Tagore like a very close friend. You know why? Because Mr. Roy was indeed a very special friend of Rabindranath Tagore!
ANGEL : Is that so Mr. Roy? You never told me you were Tagore’s friend.
SAMAR : Ma’am, I came here to listen to the story of Mr. Roy’s friendship with Tagore. I want to know how he saw Tagore over the years, in a distant country, where the great poet came with a mission – a mission to make the West meet the East – to make the Occident embrace the Orient as a dear friend…
BASANTA : And that was a mistake! A big mistake! A poet should remain a poet and not become a preacher! A man cannot be everything….
SAMAR : But the West saw him as the great mystic from the East. They wanted to listen to his speeches – they wanted to learn from him the secrets of ancient oriental spiritualism. Didn’t they?
BASANTA : Speeches and lectures fade away! The spiritual rhetoric, the political statements, they don’t last long. What lasts is the melody of hymns, the rhythm of poetry and the beauty of words. I told him, he should concentrate more on making his poetry and songs available to the West in English, rather than trying to lecture them on spiritualism and nationalism. Leave it to those swamis and politicians – he is a poet first.
SAMAR : When did you tell him? And what did he say in response?
BASANTA (Suddenly realizing that he has spoken too much) Nothing! He said nothing! Samar, I have nothing more to say about Gurudev. Please excuse me!
(Basanta gets up from his chair and is about to leave the room)
SAMAR : Pardon me – but I cannot believe you have nothing more to say about Gurudev. I am sure you have more to tell us. Please, Mr. Roy, tell me more!
(Roy does not answer)
ANGEL : Mr. Roy, why don’t you tell us more about Tagore? Where did you meet him first? Did you know him in India?
BASANTA : I have said enough already. I cannot tell you anything more! Please don’t ask.
ANGEL : But why not? The young generation, Mr. Ghosh’s generation, would like to know from a friend of Tagore, how was he, what was he like! Don’t you owe them anything?
BASANTA : Mr. Roy – are you scared to talk about Gurudev? Is there any secret that you are trying to hide?
ANGEL : Mr. Ghosh! You should not be talking to him like that!
BASANTA : It’s all right Angel! He’s a journalist and he is trying to provoke me. I can understand that! (Turns back to Samar) Samar, I am glad that you – young people like you – are still inquisitive about Tagore. I wish I could have helped you. But I can’t! I promised him.
SAMAR : Promised him?
BASANTA : Yes! He made me promise that if I want to remain his friend, I should never write anything about him or his works, I should never talk about him in any public event, I should never try to translate any of his writings. (Pause) I would never give up my friendship with him – not for the world!
SAMAR : But… he is dead!
BASANTA : Dead? Who says he is dead? He is alive in me – he always will be! He will always be my friend.
ANGEL : Calm down Mr. Roy. Please don’t get so excited. Your doctor advised you not to stress yourself. Please sit down. Let me get you a glass of water.
(BASANTA sits down)
BASANTA : I am all right Angel. I don’t need water. Would you please pass me my tea?
(Angel brings him the tea. Samar suddenly gets up and tears off the page he was writing on his notebook. He closes the notebook, and puts it down on the table. Roy looks at him amazed.)
SAMAR : Mr. Roy, you promised Gurudev that you would never speak about him in a public event, or write about him in any magazine. But you can talk about him in private, right? Fine, I promise you I’ll not write about this interview either! Whatever you say, will only stay with me.
BASANTA : But why?
SAMAR : Let’s say, I have my reasons. Will you tell me now?
(BASANTA is still reluctant)
SAMAR : Trust me Mr. Roy! I am a man of word! When I make a promise, I keep it.
ANGEL : Mr. Roy, please don’t disappoint this young man! He came to you with lot of hope –
(Basanta sits still without a word)
SAMAR : Fine. If you really don’t want to say, I won’t force you. I am sorry to waste your valuable time. I’ll take your leave now. Ma’m thank you for the tea and pastry.
(Samar walks towards the door.)
ANGEL : Mr. Roy, Mr. Ghosh is leaving….
(Basanta sits with his eyes closed – he faintly hums a tune – “Naba Anande Jaago Aji – Naba Rabi Kirone…”. Samar stops at the door.)
BASANTA (His eyes still closed) : It was a gloomy and foggy January morning in Urbana Illinois… 1913. With white snow all around, I stood in front of 508 West High Street…. And I heard this song – Naba Anande Jaago Aji Naba Rabi Kirone – I could hear him singing… Rabindranath Tagore! Oh what a wonderful voice… His daughter in law, Pratima, was singing with him. I stood there mesmerized, in the cold, and listened to the music… It was ethereal… I couldn’t get to ring the doorbell…
(Basanta stops. Samar has come back, listening intently.)
SAMAR : Then what? Did you ring the bell?
BASANTA (As if waking from a trance) : What? Oh yes yes, I did. His daughter-in law opened the door for me. As I walked in, I saw him in the living room – sitting in an arm chair – in his gray robe – his long beard flowing down to his chest. He stood up to welcome me – as if we were old friends meeting after a long time.
SAMAR : So you never knew him in India?
BASANTA : Yes, I knew him in India but never in person. That was our first meeting. In India, when I was a student, I was one of his greatest fans. I always wanted to meet him – but I could never make it. He was a huge celebrity. I read all his poems, his short stories, his novels, his plays – I sang his songs. (Chuckles) Here is a funny story you’ll like. Once at our boarding house in Calcutta, I was trying to sing a love song of Rabi-babu, my friends there shouted at me, “What makes you sing that nautch-song?” I told them it was one of Rabi-babu’s songs, but they didn’t believe me. They thought Rabi-babu could never write a sensuous song like that. I had to show them the verses in print and then only they believed me.
ANGEL : But why wouldn’t they believe?
BASANTA : Because they felt that a person like Rabindranath could never write a romantic song. The educated middle class Bengali looked down upon such sensual love songs. Such songs were thought to destroy the morals of the Bengali youth!
SAMAR : Did you think so too?
BASANTA : Of course not! I told you, I was singing the song. Remember, Rabindranath was the best romantic poet India ever had! He always had this duality in him – always – he was as much spiritual as much he was a romantic!
SAMAR : Do you really believe that Rabindranath was the best poet India ever had?
BASANTA : Yes, I did and I always will. But those days, not too many people agreed with me, especially the Bengalees in America. In one Bengali get together in Chicago, when I made that statement, the so-called educated and enlightened Bengali young men there were furious at me. One of them shouted – “Damn it Basanta! What nonsense are you taking about.” Another said, “Was there ever a greater poet in Bengal than Madhusudan Datta? Nothing can beat his Meghnad Badh Kabya.” The third literary Bengali babu calmly commented, “Yes, Rabi-babu is a great poet, but to call him our greatest poet of all times is to betray one’s ignorance of Bengali literature. He can never measure up to the level of Nabin Chandra Sen.”
ANGEL : That’s odd! I thought you told me Bengalees always appreciate good art and literature.
BASANTA : Angel, Bengalees here in America think that they know everything – they have seen the best of the orient and the occident, hence their judgment is unquestionable! There was this other person, a staunch devotee of Dwijendra Lal Roy. He said, “Rabi babu knows well how to begin a poem but he cannot even keep up a high standard of excellence in a single lyric.” And he doesn’t end there. According to him – As a dramatist, Rabi-babu is nowhere near Dwijendra Lal Roy. His love lyrics are poor imitations of our Vaishnava poets of the old days. Finally he said, “Let the Europeans and the Americans rave over Tagore. But there is nothing new for us in his writings.” Can you believe it?
SAMAR : When did this event take place? Before Gurudev won the Nobel Prize or after?
BASANTA : What do you think? Of course before the Nobel Prize! Oh, you should have seen how they changed their opinion overnight after the Prize announcement!
ANGEL : It is amazing, how short sighted and narrow minded these critics could be. Maybe they failed to recognize his genius because he was so close to them, because he was one of them.
BASANTA : Angel, Rabi-babu’s genius was so overwhelming – it was difficult for anybody to grasp his greatness. He excelled in everything – poetry, music, essays, short stories, novels, drama, painting – everything! Nobody in India came even close to his versatility. Maybe he delved into too many things, but he was good in all of them! You know, he once said, “I am like a coquettish lady that wants to please all her lovers, and is afraid to lose a single one. I do not want to disappoint any of the Muses.” (Laughs)
SAMAR : Let’s go back to Urbana Mr. Roy. Did you arrive at his house unannounced? Was Rabi-babu surpised to see you?
BASANTA : No no – I had written to him earlier. He knew I was coming. I found out almost accidentally that Rabi-babu was in Urbana – only about hundred fifty miles from Chicago where I was staying at that time. I read some of his poems in the Poetry magazine and was so excited that I called the editor Mrs. Harriet Monroe. She told me that Tagore was staying with his son in Urbana.
SAMAR : Tell me more. What did you discuss with him?
BASANTA : We had some regular chit-chat! I asked him, things like how did he like this country!
ANGEL : And what did he say?
BASANTA : He said he liked the sunshine – the beautiful sunshine even when the thermometer goes below zero, and the reflections of sun’s rays on the snow – I love it all! Those were his exact words! Talking about nature, his face lit up as with a halo. He said – today it is exceedingly gloomy here, but I feel sure that tomorrow will bring one more of those enchanted American days! He was such an optimist! Oh yes, another very amusing thing he mentioned, and I am sure Angel, you’ll enjoy this comment.
ANGEL : Tell me, please!
BASANTA : He felt that this practice of American women doing all the housework themselves, without the help of any servants, was extremely liberating. Even his daughter-in law had to do all the housework in Urbana. He acknowledged that Americans do get help from gadgets and appliances, and he wished that such conveniences could be introduced in India to free the house from the tyranny of the servants! (Laughs) I am sure Rabi-babu was thinking about his childhood when he said that!
(Angel looks at him puzzled. Samar smiles.)
SAMAR : Ma’m, you should read Mr. Roy’s book to know what he means.
BASANTA : Lucky for Pratima, she didn’t have to do the chores for long. Two Indian students agreed to do all the housework in return for board and wages. And this too amazed him a lot. He was glad to see that these students didn’t feel ashamed to do such work – for you know, if they were to do this kind of job in our country they would have been too ashamed to lift their face. He was really proud of those Indian boys. (Pause) But his views about the American people were not very positive though, at least not till then.
ANGEL : Why?
BASANTA : He said, “Americans are great businessmen, splendid organizers, agriculturists and engineers – but there is no culture in them”. Laughingly he said – “I wish they had more culture even though their agriculture suffered a little!” But what more could he ask for in Urbana? The best he could do was to meet few Unitarians who made him into a preacher from a poet. People worth meeting, mostly live in the big cities like Chicago, New York. He agreed, and said that he was going to Chicago to meet Harriet Monroe, Mrs. Moody and many others. I was thrilled, and asked his permission to accompany him on his trip to Chicago.
SAMAR : So when did you make your prediction about the Nobel Prize?
ANGEL : You predicted, Tagore would win the Nobel Prize? How could you?
SAMAR : Yes Mr. Roy, how could you make such a prediction? It was almost unthinkable for an Indian to win the Nobel Prize at that time.
BASANTA : Why was it unthinkable? Anybody who studied world literature could see that there was no one comparable to Rabi-babu that time. You don’t have to be an astrologer to figure that out!
SAMAR : But he was hardly known to the world. Gitanjali was only published a month ago.
BASANTA : Well, that’s why I told him to translate more of his works. I strongly believed that if people knew about his work, then Nobel Prize couldn’t be far away. But I never guessed that he’d win the Prize the same year.
SAMAR : You wrote that Gurudev was quite sceptical about your prediction. He didn’t believe that Asians were eligible for the Prize!
BASANTA : Yes, he was concerned about the prejudice against coloured people. He thought that if Asians were eligible then Dr. Jagadish Chandra Bose should have won it long ago. I assured him that most continental Europeans do not have such prejudice. That is typical of the Brits and the Americans. Countries like Sweden, Denmark, Norway rather looked upon oppressed Asian countries with sympathy.
ANGEL : And what did Tagore have to say about that?
BASANTA : He laughed! He laughed and said, “You seem to be bent on awarding me the Nobel Prize. You are the first man to suggest it to me.” Then he said that if he won the Prize, he’d use it to start an industrial department in his school in Bolpur. And then he laughed again and said, “We are getting to be too imaginative this afternoon.”
SAMAR : (With sarcasm) It was imaginative indeed!
BASANTA : What do you mean?
SAMAR : Mr. Roy, are you sure you had this conversation with Gurudev?
BASANTA : Why? You don’t believe me? You think I am lying? You think I lied in my book? Do you think Rabi-babu would have approved if this were a lie?
SAMAR : Approved? Did you ever seek his approval?
BASANTA : I sent him a copy of my book –
SAMAR : That you did after the book was printed. And in case you are not aware, he never read your book.
ANGEL : But why? Why didn’t he read the book?
SAMAR : That’s what I’d like to know. Mr. Roy, why didn’t he read your book?
BASANTA : How should I know?
ANGEL : I don’t understand! Mr. Roy, didn’t you seek his approval before publishing the book.
BASANTA : It wasn’t necessary.
SAMAR : It wasn’t necessary? You were writing a biography of a world famous man, and you didn’t think it was necessary to seek his approval?
(Basanta goes to his desk and pulls out a copy of the book from a drawer and throws it in front of Samar)
BASANTA : Open the book and read the introduction. I have clearly mentioned that this book was based on the articles that I had written earlier in various magazines. I acknowledged Rabi-babu’s son Rathindranath for helping me with books and pamphlets. I had also mentioned that I took explicit permission from Mcmillan for using Rabi-babu’s poems.
ANGEL : So Rabindranath knew that you were writing this book!
SAMAR : He might have been aware of the fact that you were writing the book, but he was not aware of the content. He refused to touch your book. He wanted the book to be returned to you.
ANGEL : But why? Was he angry with you Mr. Roy?
BASANTA : Samar, this meeting is over. You may leave now.
SAMAR : You don’t want to answer Angel’s question?
BASANTA : Samar, I told you to leave – now!
SAMAR : Fine, I’ll leave. But I’ll leave knowing that Gurudev was right in his judgment about you. He was never your friend.
BASANTA (Almost trembling with anger) : I TOLD YOU TO GET OUT OF MY HOUSE!
(Samar looks at him and walks to the door)
ANGEL : No Samar! Please wait! Mr Roy –
BASANTA : ANGEL! Let him go!
(Samar leaves. Basanta sits down on a chair – he is still very upset.)
BASANTA : Angel, please get me a glass of water.
(Angel leaves to get the water. Basanta walks restlessly, picks up the book, and throws it back on the table. Angel enters with a glass of water, and hands it to Basanta.)
BASANTA : Angel, I am sorry. I yelled at you. Please forgive me.
ANGEL : It’s all right! I did cross my boundary – after all I am just a housekeeper.
BASANTA : Please Angel. Don’t speak like that – I told you I am sorry! (Pause) That boy had the audacity to challenge me! How dare he tells me that Rabi-babu was not my friend? Whenever I met him, he welcomed me with open arms. Even after the book was published, when he visited America in 1916 – I met him. I accompanied him to his lectures. I even arranged a lecture for him.
ANGEL : Then why didn’t he read your book? Why did he make you promise not to write or talk about him anymore?
(Basanta is silent)
ANGEL : It’s all right! You don’t have to tell me. I was just curious.
BASANTA : Jealousy is a dangerous thing Angel. Jealous people can cause immense damage to one’s reputation, to one’s career! I was just a victim of some viciously jealous people who unfortunately had more access to his ears and attention.
ANGEL : Who could be jealous of you, and why?
BASANTA : Many – many people Angel – especially those who claimed to be friends of Tagore. Just because they were close to him, they thought Tagore was their property. They thought, only they should have the privilege of representing Tagore. They poured viscous lies about me into his ears – they accused me of stealing his work – they told him that I am spreading all sorts of lies and misinformation about Gurudev. And you know what hurt me the most? Gurudev believed them!
ANGEL : But why would they do such a thing? Why did they hate you so much?
BASANTA : Because they didn’t like the fact, that I was being credited by the media! They didn’t like the adulation I was receiving from the American people for introducing Tagore to them. My book was selling like hot cakes – the reviewers were praising my book with flowery superlatives. I was invited all around the country to speak about him – the publishers begged me to write articles on Tagore every month – they begged me to translate his poems for their publication.
(Samar has returned and has heard the last part of Basanta’s statement)
SAMAR : So you started to translate them without Gurudev’s permission? You thought you were doing him a favour?
BASANTA : You? Why did you come back?
SAMAR : I left my notebook on your table. I’ll leave.
(Picks up the notebook from the table and turns back to leave.)
ANGEL : Wait! Mr. Roy, tell him what you told me just now. Tell him about those people who spread lies about you!
BASANTA : Why should I? Who is he? He is just one of those sensation seeking journalists who wants to spread some more lies about me – wants to disgrace me further!
SAMAR : Disgrace you further? No Mr. Roy, I have no intention of disgracing you any further. I was hoping that you’d help me understand Rabindranath Tagore – not as a genius, not as the great Nobel Laureate poet or philosopher – but as a human being – a human being with all his foibles, with all his goodness and bitterness.
ANGEL : Tell him Mr. Roy! Tell him your story. Samar has promised not to write about this, didn’t you Samar?
SAMAR : Yes I did and I’ll keep my word. (Pause) Mr. Roy, maybe I should tell you a little more about myself. I am a student of Gurudev’s Ashram – I graduated from Visva Bharati University. During my entire student life, I never heard of you or read about you. Just before I graduated, I happened to go through some of Gurudev’s books and I noticed a book titled “Rabindranath: The Man and his Poetry” by Basanta Koomar Roy. The book had a small note on it, in Gurudev’s distinctive handwriting – “Please return to B.K.Roy, P.O. Box 77, New York City.” I was puzzled to say the least. I searched through the archives and was able to find some of your articles and translations from The Open Court, Independent, Yale Review and few others. I asked myself, why would Gurudev want to return the first ever English biography of his, written by a fellow Bengali in America? It was well written too, didn’t seem to have any factual errors either. Then why was he ignored? Why was he never mentioned? I asked around, but nobody seemed to know. Finally I met Rathi Thakur. I sought the courage and asked him, who is this Basanta Koomar Roy? He smiled and asked, “Why do you want to know?” I told him I want to know the truth! Why was this person, who apparently did so much to popularize Gurudev in America, completely ignored and neglected by him and Vishwa Bharati?
BASANTA : And what did he tell you?
SAMAR : Do you really want to know?
BASANTA : Yes, I do! I have always considered Rathi as a good friend! I’d like to know what he thought about me.
SAMAR : He did acknowledge that you were his friend as well as his father’s. But according to him, you did not honour their friendship.
BASANTA : I did not honour our friendship?
SAMAR : He said, Gurudev received several complaints from his friends in America about you. They said, you were translating his works freely in cheap magazines and making money. You have been spreading lies about him and bad mouthing him in your articles and lectures. Gurudev was so disgusted that he refused to read your book.
BASANTA : Lies! All Lies! I have never spoken ill about him – ever! I never wrote anything to dishonour him. Rather I was criticized for idolizing him in all my speeches and articles.
SAMAR : He said they sent him proof!
BASANTA : What proof? Show me the proof! I want to see them!
SAMAR : I don’t have them. Rathi Babu didn’t have them either.
BASANTA : There you go! Rabi-babu had to believe whatever his American friends told him.
ANGEL : But why would he believe them? You were his friend too?
BASANTA : Do I have to spell that out to you? Those friends were more important to him than a poor Bengali journalist who had no other quality except writing about him.
SAMAR : They say you translated his works without his permission – isn’t that a good enough reason for him to be angry with you?
BASANTA : Yes, I have translated some of his works for which I couldn’t get his permission all the time. You know it takes months to get his permission all the way from India? The publishers couldn’t wait that long! Still I sent them to Gurudev – and in most cases he never replied back.
SAMAR : Mr. Roy, Gurudev is well known for writing letters to his friends. Didn’t he ever write any letter to you regarding this issue? I didn’t find anything in the archives.
(Basanta does not answer)
SAMAR : He never wrote you a letter?
BASANTA : No he didn’t. (Pause) But….
(Angel and Samar look eagerly)
BASANTA : He spoke with me.
SAMAR : He spoke with you? When? Where?
BASANTA : In New York – It was November or maybe December of 1916 – it was his second visit to USA. Whenever I tried to meet him, his assistant Pearson rudely stopped me at some pretext or other. When I demanded to know why they wouldn’t let me see him, he said Rabi-babu does not want to see me.
ANGEL : So what did you do? How did you meet him?
BASANTA : I kind of tricked them. Rabi-babu arranged for a press conference at his house, and I went in as a member of the press. Pearson wanted to stop me, but he didn’t dare to stop a journalist. I went in, but I didn’t ask a single question. The room was filled with reporters and photographers. He sat in a chair in one side of the room and answered their questions. I stood there silently and listened to all that he said.
SAMAR : What did he say?
BASANTA : He was praising America and predicted that all that is best in Western civilization will eventually find lodgment here – in this young America. He was also critical of America for its immigration policies, especially in barring Indian students from coming to study in America. He said, “Such a policy would certainly react on your civilization.” He was talking about India’s freedom – he predicted that time is coming when India would be self-governing and we would achieve freedom without using any violent methods. Can you believe it? It was long before Mahatma Gandhi started his non-violent movement for India’s freedom! I listened intently to this great man, and thought how did I ever dare to measure this man, judge this man. Tears were flowing down my cheek, and I hid my face when his eyes met mine. When the press conference was over, as I was about to leave with the other reporters, he called me – “Basanta, don’t go – wait!” And I stopped.
(Basanta is tired. Angel gets him a glass of water. Basanta thanks her and takes a sip of water)
He was in a good mood that afternoon. He was smiling. “I hope these reporters are happy. What do you think?” he asked me. I tried to smile and said, “Gurudev, reporters are never happy! Happiness doesn’t make good news!” He laughed and said, “You are right. But what about you? Are you unhappy too? I hoped to see you earlier.” I was quiet for a moment – I couldn’t speak! Slowly, I asked, “But I understand that it is you who is unhappy with me. I was told you didn’t want to see me!” Gurudev smiled and said, “Yes, I was unhappy with you. I was angry with you.” “But why?” I asked. “What did I do wrong!” Gurudev got up from his seat and walked to the window overlooking the street. Little later, he turned and said to me, “Basanta, why did you come to see me?” “Why?” I asked! “Gurudev, you are here in my city and I won’t come to see you? Is that possible?” “But people don’t like to meet someone whom they hate. Do they? Only friends would like to meet their friends.” I was stunned – I couldn’t believe my ears. “Gurudev, why do you say this to me? I hate you? How could I hate you? I could hate myself, but I could never hate you.”
He came towards me, looked into my eyes and said, “But words come to me that give a different picture. They say you have been vilifying me – you have been dishonouring my trust in you.” I couldn’t stand straight. I sat down with my head in my hands – and could only say, “Lies! All Lies!” He looked at me and said, “Basanta, I know you have written lot of good things about me, maybe more than I deserve. And if at times you have crossed the boundary of truth in your writings, I can accept that as your poetic license – as a writer I know that emotions cannot always be bound in the shackles of dry facts. But what I hate is when someone breaks his trust of friendship. You did that Basanta – and you broke my heart!”
And what did you say?
I was dumbfounded! “I broke your trust?” I asked. “How could I break your trust?” He paused for a moment and said, “You remember, when you came to Urbana to meet me, you brought some of your translations of my poems and couple of my stories and essays?” “Yes I remember.” I said, “I read those translations to you. You liked them.” “Yes, I liked some of them, I liked that you were taking all this effort and trying hard to make my work reach out to the Americans. But I never gave you my permission to publish them. In fact, if I remember correctly, I suggested some changes to those translations. You must have thought that how could I, an Indian with no formal training in English could appreciate your writings. After all you have been making a living writing in English in America, right?” I didn’t know what to say – I was feeling so loathsome. He continued, “Basanta, some of the comments that I have heard may be lies, may be some frustrated outbursts of a jealous colleague. It is not the vile words or hateful comments that hurt – because the reader knows that someone else is writing them. But when a reader reads and makes judgment about something that is attributed to an author who never wrote it, or has no knowledge about it – it hurts the author even more. Basanta you have translated and published several of my writings in my name, and in most publications it was never mentioned that those were translated by you and not directly authored or translated by me. I don’t want to judge the quality of your translations – they might have been better than what I could have done – but why should I bear the responsibility of something that I have not done?” In defense I said, “But it’s not only me. Others are doing it too. They have translated your works without your explicit permission.” “Yes I know – but they are not my friends. I thought you were my friend!” He said. “Basanta, it is not the copyright laws that concern me. After few years of my death, everybody will have the freedom to do whatever they like with my songs and poems, with my stories and dramas. I can only sit in heaven and cringe when they decapitate my creations – I will have no power to protest. Until then, I would like to protect my children with whatever means possible, shouldn’t I?” I felt so ashamed – I could not look at his eyes. I could only say, “I am sorry Gurudev.
Please forgive me please…” He sat down beside me and said, “Basanta, look at me. I can forget everything, I can forgive everything and we can be friends again – only if you promise me something!” I turned to him, held his hands and said, “Anything – I’ll promise anything you ask – just let me be your friend.”
He smiled and said, “You have to promise me that you’ll never translate or publish any of my works, you’ll never again write about me in any magazine, journal or newspaper, you’ll not talk or give any lecture about me or my works at any public forum. Can you promise me that?” And I promised him – I gave him my word – I’ll never use him again in any of my work.”
What happened next?
Nothing much. I stopped writing about him. I stopped lecturing about him. I visited him often when he was in town and he spoke freely with me, although his assistants could never tolerate me.
He visited USA few more times later. Did you meet him then?
Yes, I did. His 1920 visit was very disappointing. He hoped to raise funds for his school, but the post war America was very different. His popularity was waning – the Tagore craze was no more. His denouncement of Knighthood didn’t go well with the Americans. They were British allies after all. He had to face a viscous propaganda campaign against him. There was this man – Rustom Rustomjee – a journalist sponsored by the British – who constantly wrote negatively about him in newspapers and magazines. There were others too – American media was not kind to him at all. It was a bad time for him. He was severely depressed and had several good reasons for it. His daughter was not doing well in India, his fundraising efforts were an utter failure and the cold New York weather was not favourable either. At one of our meetings, when he was complaining against the American people, complaining how he was disgusted of begging for money and how he wished he could go back to his own quiet life and wash his mind clear of all traces of ambition for helping the East and West meet in spiritual unity etc. etc., I told him straight at his face – that’s what he should do! He should stop playing the role of a mystic, philosopher and prophet, and go back to writing and reading poetry, composing and singing songs. He is first a poet, an artist and later a social reformer. He should stop preaching against nationalism, against western social life and political organizations. But he didn’t listen and kept on pleading and complaining – he was trapped in a shell of undue expectations and duties imposed on him by his so-called friends and dependents. And he vented all his resentment and grievances during his farewell speech at the Poetry Society in New York. I have never seen him behave like this – it was so unlike of him! I sat there stunned and listened to his futile outbursts! It was hard to hold back tears to see this great man lose his dignity. Still he came back again in 1930 – again with the hope of raising funds for the love of his life – his Vishwa Bharati.
Yes, I remember about that trip. I remember reading about him in the newspapers. Wasn’t he accused of being a communist supporter?
That was what the Americans, especially the American media, thought of him or wanted to portray him as. He was in Russia just before coming to America, and he praised the Russians for their efforts in spreading education to the masses. The Americans were scared that if he keeps on praising the socialist ideals of Russia, it may not be a good message to the jobless struggling laborers of the country.
But why did he pick 1930 for his fundraising visit? It was the time of the great depression! Who could donate him money in those days?
Yes, it was yet another miscalculation on his part. But it was still not as bad as his 1920 visit. He received much better reception this time. He met a lot of important people – Einstein, Helen Keller and even President Hoover. But his fundraising efforts were not as impressive. Besides, he was getting old – he was tired of begging. He was not in good health either. He suffered a mild heart attack and had to spend several days in a small town in Lansdowne Pennsylvania to recuperate. When I heard the news, I rushed to see him. He was frail and weak. He said, “Basanta, you were right! I am only a poet! I want to escape from all this. But Rabindranath Tagore, profound prophet and philosopher – this false idea allows me no means to escape.”
That’s so sad! Didn’t you try to cheer him up? After all he had many admirers in America who liked him as a prophet and philosopher.
(Nodding his head)
No, they all have vanished by then. I told you, people forget speeches and lectures. Only the melody of songs and the beauty of poetry remain. And that’s why his farewell event, his last in front of the American public, at the Broadway Theatre was such a fitting tribute to this great man. It was only poetry, music and dance! Ruth St. Dennis performed in his honour. He stood at the centre of the stage and children sang and danced around him and placed garlands around his neck. And you know what that old beggar from the East did that evening? He donated the entire proceeds of the performance to the Mayor’s relief fund for the unemployed in New York City. I sat in the audience and cried – cried for the man who looked beyond the apparent glitz of the city and felt the pain of its citizens.
(Angel and Samar sit speechless.)
Well my friend, I hope you got what you were looking for. So what do you think of me now, a villain? A thief? A victim? Or, a friend?
Mr. Roy, please don’t misunderstand me. I am not here to judge you. Time will be the judge – future generations will decide what to think of you.
You are wrong my dear friend. Future generations will not judge me. You know why?
(Samar looks at him, puzzled)
Because the name Basanta Koomar Roy will be wiped away from the pages of history. Nobody will remember an expatriate Indian from Orissa, who tried to bring the best treasure of his country to the people of America.
No! That cannot be true…
Yes, that’s what my legacy will be – no legacy at all! (Laughs) But you know, I have no regrets. Yes, I admit – there might have been a tinge of self-promotion in whatever I did. And why not? Everybody seeks recognition – everybody wants fame and respect! I did too! But today, I feel fulfilled – I feel my mission has been successful. My country has achieved its freedom, and I had the friendship of my beloved Gurudev. The flames of his friendship still shows me the light during my darkest hours, and I wish to keep it burning till my last day. I don’t want anything more from this world.
(Samar gets up and prepares to leave)
I should leave now. Thank you Mr. Roy for your time. Thank you Ma’m. Goodbye!
BASANTA : Samar, can you do me a favour? You said you saw the book I sent Gurudev with his handwritten note on it, right? (Samar nods) Can you get that copy for me? Technically speaking, it is my property now. Can you get it for me?
SAMAR : I’ll try.
BASANTA :Thank you! Thank you very much. Goodbye Samar, and good luck to you.
(Samar leaves. Angel sees him to the door. As Samar leaves, she closes the door and comes back.)
BASANTA : Angel, can you please open that drawer on my desk.
(Angel goes to the desk and opens the drawer)
BASANTA : Do you see a blue file?
(Angel pulls out a blue file)
ANGEL : Is this the one?
BASANTA : Open that file.
(Angel opens the file)
These are all news clippings… magazine articles – from Open Court… Yale Review…. Oh my God, they are all on Rabindranath Tagore…
Yes. Somewhere in the middle you’ll find a poem – “East and West”.
(Angel looks for it and finds it)
You found it? Good! (Pause) Can you please read it to me?
The Last Flames by Sudipta Bhawmik
The blood-red line
That crimsons the Western sky
Is not the radiant red
Of the rays of Thy shooting dawn.
It is rather the terrible fire of the dying day.
On the seashores of the West
The funeral pyres are emitting
The last flames
Caught from the torch of a selfish and decadent Civilization.
The worship of energy
In the battle fields of factories
Is not worshipping Thee,
The Protector of the universe.
Perhaps the all-embracing rays
Of Thy light of joy
Are lying hidden on Eastern shores
Under the veil of humility
In the darkness of sorrow.
Yes, the rays of Thy light of joy
Are lying latent
In the East,
The soul of the World.
(Angel finishes the poem and looks at Basanta)
BASANTA : What do you think? It wasn’t too bad, right?
(Angel looks at him as lights fade out. Few moments later we see Angel in a narrow beam of light downstage. She is still holding the blue file open in her hands. She speaks, occasionally looking at some news clipping in the file.)
ANGEL : Basanta Koomar Roy, Indian author and free-lance journalist, who had lived in this country for many years, died on Sunday in St. Luke’s Hospital after a brief illness. His home was at 116 West Eightieth Sreet.
Born in Orissa Province, India, and a member of the Brahmin caste, Mr. Roy came to the United States around 1910 and studied at the University of Wisconsin, from which he was graduated and where he was later an extension lecturer. He was instrumental in arranging a lecture at the university in 1916 by the great Indian poet, the late Rabindranath Tagore.
Mr. Roy was long a writer and speaker for Indian freedom and has been active in the Friends of Freedom for India. He was the author of a biography of Mr.
Tagore and of “Dawn over India”, a book telling of the Indian underground movement against British rule.
The New York Times, June 8, 1949.
(Lights fade out)