It is hard to understand why some cheesy piece of pop music we used to jump up and down to as a teenager, and which we know in our adult years to be but a cheap and shoddy piece of tat, should, nonetheless, when heard in some café or in a busy mall, affect us so powerfully. The obvious answer is “nostalgia”, but that is merely to put a label on something that remains in essence mysterious.
It is not that nostalgia overrides all other considerations. I may feel nostalgic about the time I used to enjoy books by Enid Blyton, but I don’t think I could read them again with any pleasure. But I know that the pleasure I take in revisiting Treasure Island or The Hound of the Baskervilles is immeasurably enhanced by memories of childhood encounters.
Most strange is the resurgence of feelings for things one had thought one had left behind. I had thought I had left behind my Bengali heritage, dominated as it was, and still, I think, is, by Rabindraculture. I am sure Westerners often wonder why Bengalis keep banging on about Rabindranath Tagore all the time, as if there were no other cultural figure of note. I used to wonder this myself. In my teenage years, I was frankly fed up with his ubiquity. He had been, in effect, an extra member of our family: his poetry, his stories, and, above all, his songs, were omnipresent in our house. And I had thought I had walked away from all that. I had discovered the plays of Shakespeare, the great Russian novels, the operas of Mozart and the lieder of Schubert, and I felt, with some justification, that I had absorbed, and was continuing to absorb, all the culture I would need to sustain myself through my life. But then, one evening some twenty and more years ago, I was in an Indian restaurant with some Western friends; the background music, rather unusually even for Indian restaurants, was instrumental arrangements of Tagore songs (Rabindrasangeet), and all of a sudden, completely out of the blue, a melody appeared that almost reduced me to tears. Not that I physically cried: I don’t cry too easily. But I felt something unexpectedly welling up inside me. It wasn’t merely a resurgence of childhood memories: it was a recognition of something from my past that was beautiful and valuable, and which I had not left behind at all. To borrow an image from a great work of Western art, Ibsen’s Little Eyolf, what I experienced then was like those water-lilies that shoot up from the unfathomed depths of the waters and bloom suddenly upon the surface.
The song that had such an effect on me that day was Gram chhara oi ranga matir path: it is a song about the compulsion to leave one’s village behind, and the lure of the world outside:
The red-earthed path leading out from the village
holds the heart enthralled.
Oh, who is it for whom the heart pines
even as it wilts into the dust?
Who is it who calls me out from home,
pleading with me at every step?
Who is it who leads me out
to heaven knows where?
At what bend in the path will I see riches?
Where will I find myself washed up?
Where this path will culminate
my thoughts cannot encompass.
The irony of such a song arousing in me nostalgia, an ache for home, was not lost on me, but that red-earthed path leading out from the village leads into the village also. And exploring that village, the one I thought I had left behind, is also enriching. That sudden revelation in that restaurant was for me a first step in a journey back. For revelation it was: moments of epiphany aren’t restricted merely to James Joyce’s short stories.
Was this merely nostalgia, and nothing more? I don’t think so. I can listen to Mud’s Tiger Feet playing in the background in some café, enjoy the memories it reawakens of early teenage years, but feel no desire whatever to revisit 1970s British glam-rock music. Nostalgia may be a potent force, but I don’t think it necessarily blinds us to questions of worth and of value: true, it allows us to enjoy what we know to be valueless; but when it reawakens in us feelings for that which is indeed of value, the effect is quite different. It is like those water-lilies of Ibsen, shooting up from unfathomed depths and blooming suddenly on the surface.
I haven’t completed that journey back yet. I’m not sure I ever will. And in any case, the metaphor of the journey breaks down here quite quickly, as this journey back does not entail abandonment of the journey out. But at least I no longer wonder why Bengalis keep banging on about Tagore all the time: I now know, and, indeed, do a fair bit of banging on myself. So, while I’m still in the banging mood, let me indulge myself a little further.
Last weekend, I watched, after many years, Satyajit Ray’s 1964 film Charulata. I had long known this film to be a masterpiece, but on this viewing, it resonated particularly strongly, more so than it had done before. The film is steeped in Tagorean culture, and not merely because Ray had based the bare bones of the story on a novella by Tagore, Nastanirh (“The Damaged Nest”). While the outline of the story is Tagore’s, the motivations of the characters are very different, and the drama presented is almost entirely Ray’s creation rather than Tagore’s; but Ray himself was steeped in Tagorean culture, and one can sense Tagore’s presence throughout the film.
Over the title sequence, we hear what is effectively a fantasia, composed by Ray himself, based on a Tagore song; but where the Tagore song is upbeat and joyful, Ray slows down the tempo and casts it in a minor key: the result is heart-achingly melancholy and wistful.
(There are two more Tagore songs featured in this film – rather anachronistically, as the action takes place, we’re told, in 1879, when Tagore would merely have been eighteen years old. But it doesn’t really matter: only a pedant would object to such things.)
And I found myself utterly captivated, from opening frame to last. It is set in an aristocratic Bengali household. The husband, a wealthy liberal, spends all his time on his newspaper: he sees the dissemination of his liberal politics as the principal purpose of his life. However, his wife, Charu, is utterly isolated inside her mansion. The opening sequence is a virtuoso piece of film-making: we see Charu wandering from room to room aimlessly, seeing the world outside through her opera glasses. When the husband eventually notices that his wife is a bit lonely, he invites Charu’s brother and her sister-in-law to come over – the brother to help with the financial management of his newspaper, and the sister-in-law to keep Charu company: he doesn’t realise that the presence of the sister-in-law – a frivolous airhead – is no companionship at all for an intelligent woman such as Charu.
As with so many ladies from the 19th century literature, Charu has no outlet either for her intellect, or for her passions. Under similar conditions, Hedda Gabler turned psychotic and destructive. Emma Bovary is arguably in a similar situation, but, unlike Hedda or Charu, she is deeply unintelligent: her rebellion is as stupid as that she rebels against.
But the drama here is very different either from that of Emma Bovary, or of Hedda Gabler. Charu’s husband’s younger brother arrives, and there develops a relationship between them that, from his point of view, is but bantering, but, from her point of view, is something far deeper and far more intense: here she finds, as she thinks, a long sought-for outlet both for her passions and for her intellect. In both, she is mistaken.
The film has all the depth and complexity of a great 19th century novel. Much of it is very elegant, with an intricacy that one does not normally expect from a film; but there are powerful passions simmering underneath, and I had not remembered just how powerfully the passion bubbles up to the surface towards the end. But despite this, it remains a very subtle film. Among the major themes is betrayal: Charu’s brother betrays Charu’s husband; Charu’s brother-in-law, to Charu’s mind at least, betrays Charu; and Charu herself betrays her husband. But there’s no adultery, as such: the “action” is almost entirely what happens in the characters’ minds.
It is not a film that appears in any of those lists of “Greatest Ever Films” with all the Vertigos and Citizen Kanes. Most people, even self-proclaimed film-buffs, have not seen this film, or even for that matter heard of it. Why is this, I wonder? It is not because this film is quiet and slow and refined, whereas we prefer in our times the loud and the fast and the brash: Tokyo Story, as quiet as slow and as refined a film as can be imagined, regularly takes top spots in these lists.
I suspect that its relative neglect is due to its being steeped in a particularly Bengali culture – more specifically, a Tagorean culture – that makes it difficult for uninitiates to take in. But I may be mistaken: I am really not sure. All I know is that if I were asked to name my favourite film, right now, I’d name this, although, even were I to enumerate its many merits, I would find hard to account for the strength with which it resonates with me. I suppose it is all part of my “journey back”.
If I didn’t know better than to finish a post with a cliché, I’d write now “the apple never falls far from the tree”, but far be it from me to end on so weak a note! And I don’t really hold with what it expresses: far from being merely apples falling helplessly close to the tree, we have both the ability and the freedom to explore far and wide, and make what we like our own; and the currently fashionable principles of identity politics that question this ability and deny this freedom are, to my mind, mischievous and harmful. But I do feel that what we take in during our formative years – not necessarily consciously, but often, as it were, through the very pores of our skin – retains for us a particular significance: even when we think we have left them behind, they come back, and take us by surprise.