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Himalaya

Day 124: Chandpur to Mongla

Michael Palin - HimalayaThere is something about the dignity both of the man and his slow work that leaves an impression. And the fact that he never once looks up as a yellow 1920s paddle steamer with 700 people on board goes by.

The morning wears on. The sun grows stronger, but I find it hard to tear myself away from the deck rail. The dancing silver patterns of light reflected on the water, the gradual release of the countryside from the mist, the sound of a flute drifting across, all create a feeling of the world slowed down, a seductive and fragile sense of peace.

Moni and I are talking about this, about how the world's most crowded country can offer such a sense of calm, and she asks if I've read any of Tagore's work. I'm ashamed to say I haven't. Rabandranath Tagore was the Shakespeare of Bengal. A crude metaphor, perhaps, but it reflects his status here. He was a poet and playwright and, though he was a Hindu, he wrote of the universal preoccupations of Bengalis and particularly of the countryside, which, Moni thinks, has changed not at all since he died over 60 years ago. He had an international reputation, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, and being awarded a knighthood by the British, which he returned in protest at the massacre in Amritsar in 1919. (Evidence of which I saw on Day 30.)

A lot of Moni's favourite songs are Tagore's poems set to music and she sings some to me as the countryside he celebrated slips past. As Moni points out, he was sympathetic but never sentimental about the rural life. We are in what they call 'cyclone alley', and in Tagore's time, just like now, this golden panorama of huge skies and wide water, of rice paddies and thatched houses, bordered by the long, dark outline of the mangrove forest, could be transformed overnight into a killing field by the storms that brew up over the Bay of Bengal.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Himalaya
  • Chapter: Day 124: Chandpur to Mongla
  • Country/sea: Bangladesh
  • Place: Jahlokati
  • Book page no: 281

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