The Statesman (Calcutta)
Sunday, 25 December 2011
Joy to the World
The Word That Transforms The World
DOES it not happen to all of us? Someone says something to us, or we read it ~ just a few words, or a sentence ~ and this stays in our mind, begins to ferment and produces emotions, be they sympathetic or antipathetic, which stay on and on within us. Some words may be uttered in jest, some are meant as advice or admonishment. Such experiences which we all share and which shape us, teach us to choose our spoken and written words most carefully. We writers have a special responsibility as our words may cause harm, for once made public, they cannot be called back. Sometimes we are made conscious of the weight of this responsibility when we receive letters from our readers. They recall thoughts we uttered which we may not even remember ourselves; this can be quite frightening, or indeed become a cause for joy.
Such cause for joy I had some weeks ago when I received a long e-mail from Germany. It came from a person who calls himself Ibuki. He recounted his entire life-story. Since many years now, he is a night guard in a psychiatric clinic. Originally however, his father expected him to learn the violin and dedicate himself to music. The reason was that as a very young man his father had spent seven years in internment camps as a Prisoner of War and returned home a severely traumatised man. The one thing which afforded him some relief was playing the violin. But Ibuki, instead of music, studied Social Work and followed his hobby of target-shooting.
A few years later, he renounced his hobby, sold his rifles and decided to take time off to work in Kolkata as an art dealer selling modern Indian art to European customers. This was not easy and he gave it up after some time. But he got to know his future British wife in Kolkata. She worked as a volunteer nurse in Mother Teresa’s asylum for the dying. When he married and returned with his wife, Ibuki found himself a job as night guard in a psychiatric clinic. In the quiet hours of the night, he learned to play the guitar and, the better he mastered the instrument the happier he became on two counts. He realised how deeply attracted the psychiatric patients became to his music.
Ibuki writes that he witnessed a noticeable change in them. They became more peaceful, less tense ~ the atmosphere in the clinic transformed. Then, he belatedly began to fulfil the dreams of his father who had meanwhile expired. Easing suffering through music! However, the clinic’s administration saw a problem. Would the guard remain alert to any problems that may occur during his night shift while playing? Was it his task to impart occupational therapy? A general ban on music during the night was pronounced.
What did Ibuki do? He writes that he “went underground”, continuing to play, but secretly and by threat of being dismissed. His patients kept the secret; he played the guitar to his own comfort and that of a small circle of inmates. This continued “for seven years”. Thereafter the burden of secrecy proved to become too heavy, and Ibuki wrote a long letter to the administration which finally allowed him to play his music openly. This permission must have been given grudgingly because some time later, he was shifted away from night duty.
What makes this story remarkable, especially for us in India? Ibuki writes that for many years a short poem by Rabindranath Tagore ~ in German translation ~ consoled him and gave him the strength to continue. The English prose translation of the four-liner is:
“The mountain must carry the weight of its snow all alone; but when it’s melted, it flows down and the whole world receives it with joy.”
The mountain ~ that is Ibuki himself. The heavy snow? That is his father’s war trauma; it is also the many lonely, and secret, hours of unauthorised guitar play weighing him down. When would the sun arrive to melt the heaviness on his shoulders? Ibuki knew that the sun must arrive and that its energy would transform whatever is oppressive into something which gifts life to the entire world. He concludes his letter: “My story can, if creative energy can be fused with it, result in something for the world at large.” He wrote his long letter to thank me because the translation of Rabindranath’s poem was mine.
Ibuki wants to write on his experience of the last decades; he hopes to be invited for small concerts in which he will also relate his story. What other great word of Tagore could further guide him?
I remember the two significant historical incidences when Rabindranath Tagore changed and rescued lives in Europe. During the First World War, an Indian soldier in the British Army was brought with both legs badly wounded. The German surgeon had to amputate them both to save the man’s life. He wanted to gain the confidence and permission of the terror-struck soldier. There was no language between them. So the surgeon pronounced the one Indian name he knew, “Rabindranath Tagore”, three times. Listening to this name, the wounded man relaxed and nodded consent.
During the Second World War a Polish doctor, Janusz Korczak, in charge of some 200 children, all living in the horrible conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto, staged Tagore’s play “The Post Office” with them ~ “to prepare them for the angel of death”, for they were sure to be deported to a concentration camp soon.
There must be many other such incidences unknown to me and unknown to anyone apart from the person to whom they happened. Is it not true that the Word is considered to be at the origin of creation both in eastern and western religious traditions? From the primeval word ~ the Om ~ the world, first in its subtle and then its grosser manifestation, is said to have evolved. In Christianity, the logos, the word, is at the beginning of creation, and it is identified as the Christ. It is a comforting thought at this Christmas season that the divine creative urge is symbolised by the Word. We all receive scriptural or personal revelations, be they religious or spiritual, intuitive, emotional or intellectual, through the Word.
The writer is a scholar based in Santiniketan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.