What would Rabindranath Tagore have made of the covid-19 pandemic?
On the writer’s 159th birth anniversary, a much-loved poem of his holds a mirror to our troubled times
Rabindranath Tagore was born on 7 May 1861 into a world that had only a foggy understanding of inoculation. In his time, smallpox wiped out millions, but is now eradicated, thanks to vaccination. Yet, ever new challenges confront us even in the 21st century—as the covid-19 outbreak, with no vaccine against it so far, has shown.
What would Tagore have made of this moment? As a Renaissance man, deeply invested in science and knowledge, he would have marvelled at the advances made by medicine. In his lifetime, the odds were stacked against humans. In 1902, when the poet’s wife Mrinalini Devi fell mysteriously ill, for instance, doctors failed to diagnose her malady. She died later that year, barely 30, leaving behind her husband and five children.
In the 1860s and 70s, when the poet was an adolescent, cholera and the plague, along with small pox, were the most aggressive killers. In the 1880s, Louis Pasteur developed vaccines for chicken cholera as well as small pox, but decades would go by before diseases like measles, mumps, polio and diphtheria could be controlled through successful mass vaccination.
Even so, the rate of inoculation was far from widespread or equitable. In undivided India, for instance, ruled by the colonial government, the healthcare system was skewed in favour of the rich, like the Tagore family, the upper-castes, and the British. The poor, both in urban and rural areas, faced the ire of epidemics like the bubonic plague of 1896-98.
Tagore was acutely aware of this injustice. In his 1916 novel Chaturanga, an affluent man turns his home into an infirmary for the destitute as the plague breaks out, and eventually succumbs to the disease that he contracts while nursing the sick.
Shadowed by death
With more than 70 years of independence and a semblance of welfare state, the situation in India hasn’t improved as much as it should have. Like the covid-19 pandemic, when the Spanish flu broke out in 1918, many died in the country. The Hindi writer Suryakant Tripathi ‘Nirala’ lost half of his family. MK Gandhi contracted the disease, but recovered. The mortality rate was so high that the nation ran into a shortage of logs to cremate the dead. In an uncanny parallel, covid-19 is also leaving morgues overrun with the deceased.
Tagore was keenly aware of death from an early age, having lost his mother when he was young and, shortly after, his beloved sister-in-law Kadambari Devi. Moreover, epidemics like cholera and small pox recurred in his time. In one of his best-loved poems, Puratan Bhrittya (“An Old Servant"), the pox plays a crucial role as a leveller between the classes, showing up the structural iniquities internalised by the society Tagore lived in.
Composed in 1895, this long narrative poem tells the story of Keshta, an ancient but trusty butler to the narrator, who is a privileged upper-caste man. In a galloping rhyme and bittersweet tone, it tells the story of Keshta’s unfailing fealty to his employer, even though he is frequently reprimanded—sometimes hit—for being forgetful, clumsy and indolent.
Although casual violence toward service staff was common in his time, Tagore wrote of the retinue of attendants who took care of him as a lonely child with compassion and love. In Chhelebela, a memoir of his boyhood days, he fondly remembers several of these men and women, who looked after him, gave him company, and served him with an unflinching devotion.
The price of loyalty
In Puratan Bhrittya, the mistress of the house is exasperated with Keshta. The master fires him in a fit of rage, only to find the loyal servant back at his side the morning after, serving him tobacco.
When the narrator embarks on a pilgrimage to Vrindaban, Keshta trumps Nibaran, who was supposed to originally go with his master, and joins him instead. Outraged but also amused, the narrator bears with Keshta, since he can’t seem to get rid of him. And in a shocking turn of events, Keshta proves to be a blessing.
Afflicted with the lethal small pox while away, the narrator is laid low in the apartment he shared with other pilgrims. His companions promptly desert him, but not Keshta, who nurses him day and night back to health. As his master regains his spirit, Keshta catches the disease and eventually dies of it.
Tagore’s genius lies in manipulating the voice of the narrator: brash, arrogant, entitled, but also a bit mournful in the end, though never fully repentant for his mistreatment of Keshta. The dynamics of their relationship holds a mirror to the realities of our volatile times, where yet another contagious disease has exposed the rifts in our society.
Be it in the plight of the migrants who build our cities, the domestic workers who make our lives comfortable, or the numerous others who keep the social machinery well-oiled, the parallels persist with heart-wrenching vividness.