"All people must die. The human body must come to an end in one way or another; if mine ends following its natural course, where's the harm in it? What's the point of tearing it to shreds? It is better to return this body intact to Him."
This is how Rabindranath Tagore expressed his feelings about the likelihood of having an operation during his last days. In comments made to Rani Chanda, who served as his scribe noting down letters and poems dictated by Tagore from his sickbed, he made it clear that he didn't want to go through the operation (suprapubic cystostomy)—instead, he trusted Kabiraji treatment. He said so himself to his son Rathindranath Tagore: "Rathi, Kabiraj has said that he hopes his medicine will help me get better. But it will take some time. Ah! What a relief it will be if my body is spared the shredding!"
On July 9, 1941, when Dr Jyotiprakash Sarkar visited Shantiniketan to inform the poet of the decision on his operation, he also told the doctor that he would like to keep his trust in Kabiraj and not be pulled into a needless surgical procedure. The next day, he would summon Kabiraj Kamalakanta Ghosh and ask him, jokingly, to unleash his Brahmastra (a weapon of mythical powers created by Lord Brahma) to save him from the incursion into his body.
Tagore was never one to succumb to weeping or impatience but the prospect of an impending operation began to take its toll on him. It engulfed his whole being. After Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy's visit on July 16, during which he stressed the importance of a surgery, he burst into tears and told his daughter-in-law Pratima Devi, "Mamoni, today the decision was finalised. They will cut me. They will not spare me."
It was not a unanimous decision, however. His personal doctor, Nilratan Sarkar, was opposed to it as he preferred regular treatment, while Bidhan Chandra Roy was convinced that an operation was the only remedy for his condition. Rathindranath, who saw his father's objection as childishness characteristic of old age, sided with the latter point of view.
Finally, on July 25, Tagore left Shantiniketan for Jorasanko for the purpose of the surgery. As he was being given a farewell by the students of Shantiniketan Ashram, he was seen repeatedly wiping his tears. Did he somehow realise that this was going to be his final departure from a place that he had first entered with his father as a ten-year-old some 70 years ago? On the train on his way back home, he was his usual cheerful self again. The news of his return to Kolkata was kept a secret to avoid crowding by worried followers.
At the Jorasanko Thakurbari, living arrangements were made for him at the Pathorer Ghar ("stone house") on the second floor of the building which was earlier used as a sitting room. A temporary operation theatre was set up near the veranda and, unbeknownst to him, July 30 was fixed as the date for his operation.
Meanwhile, Tagore kept writing, or rather dictating, poems. These poems from the last stage of his life, faithfully recorded by Rani Chanda, are illustrative of his intrusive thoughts about the fundamental questions of life. But he didn't lose his sense of humour either. On July 27, he said jokingly, "Doctors are in deep trouble over my condition. They are upset as they can't find anything objectionable about my heart, my lungs. How can they treat a patient who has no illness?"
On July 29, he came to know from Dr Jyotiprakash Sarkar that his operation would be carried out with local anaesthetics without making him lose consciousness. He asked him how it worked and whether he would feel any pain. Jyotiprakash assured him that he wouldn't feel any more pain than he did during daily glucose injections: "Don't think about it at all. It may so happen that you will be dictating poems as usual while the operation is going on." He was relieved to hear that.
On the morning of July 30, he again asked the doctor if a date for his operation was fixed, to which the latter replied in the negative, to spare him the stress of having to wait for the moment. In truth, all preparations for the procedure had been completed by then. At 10 am, Tagore instructed Rani to write a letter to Pratima Devi, who had stayed back at Shantiniketan on account of her being ill with bronchitis. The letter began with—"Mamoni, I don't find joy in writing this letter to you because I can't write it myself…" Once the letter was finished, he signed, with a trembling hand, "Babamoshai". It was quite illegible as the letters were entwined with one another. This was the last time the poet ever held a pen.
Soon after, surgeon Lalit Mohan Bandopadhyay entered the room and said, casually, that it was a good day for operation and asked if he was okay to go ahead with it. "Today?" Tagore asked, then, after a brief pause, agreed, saying perhaps it was better this way, to have it abruptly. At 11 am, he was carried on a stretcher to the operation table. The procedure started at 11:20 am under the supervision of Lalit Mohan Bandopadhyay, and it was finished within half an hour. Tagore was visibly in pain during the operation but didn't utter a single word about it. Once everything was done with, he was taken to his room. Seeing anxious faces surrounding his bed, he felt amused and said, smilingly, "What are you thinking? Happy now?"
On July 31, he lay benumbed all day, hardly moving a muscle. In the evening, he opened his eyes to again see some anxious faces. Even in this painful state, his spirit was unbroken. He tried to cheer them up, saying, "Why such solemn faces? Let me see your smile!"
The next day, he started having hiccups which added to his pain. He worried that medicines given by the doctors were a result of misdiagnosis and thus ineffective. The next night, he lay in a semi-comatose state. He refused to eat. He refused to listen to his carers. On August 3, his condition deteriorated further, so Pratima Devi was called up and told to come to Kolkata.
On August 4, he was a little more responsive and spoke occasionally, albeit haltingly. Pratima Devi had come by then. "Babamoshai, I am here, your Bouma," she said, gently touching him. He opened his eyes to see her face, and drank the water she gave him. On August 5, there was no response from him. He lay totally unconscious. He was given saline solutions. An oxygen cylinder was brought in. His cheeks were swollen by then, his left eye red and constricted, and his feet and fingers sweating. There were no signs of improvement on the next day either.
On the morning of August 7 (or Sraban 22 in the Bangla calendar), the whole yard of the Jorasanko Thakurbari was swarming with relatives, friends and his countless devotees. The eastern sky slowly lit up. Champa flowers were brought in and spread on his two legs. His feeble body was barely responding to the lifesaving attempts of his doctors. It was 12:10 pm when his body finally gave out.
The news of Tagore's death, as could be expected, was met with a riotous display of grief by the swelling crowd outside. We get a glimpse of this moment from various eyewitness accounts. While his body was being bathed and prepped for the last rites, a section of the crowd broke in the house. The resulting chaos led to a forced reversal of plans that Tagore had himself laid out for his last rites: "I want to depart under the open sky in the bountiful land of Shantiniketan, in the midst of my children. There will be no cheers, no frenzied devotion. The only gathering will be that of the calm, still nature. I will have my peace from the synergy of nature and my loved ones. My body will be merged with Shantiniketan—this is my wish."
He wanted his departing moment to be peaceful and away from the boisterous crowd of Kolkata chanting "Hail to World Poet", "Hail to Rabindranath", "Bande Mataram". In reality, the opposite happened. Some people who had no association with the Thakurbari took over his body and marched to the Nimtala Crematorium, joined by thousands of mourners behind them. There were even incidents of tearing strands of his hair and beard to be kept in private collections. Even Rathindranath Tagore could not perform the rite of applying fire to the mouth of his father's corpse at the time of cremation, as he couldn't get through the attending crowd. All India Radio aired a live commentary on the entire mourning procession.
Despite his reservations, Rabindranath Tagore was given a hero's farewell in the end, by the people who loved him, whose souls he had touched through his music and poetry.
Partha Pratim Bhattacharjee is Chief Reporter at The Daily Star. The article was translated from Bangla by Badiuzzaman Bay.