July 18, 2011 (Calcutta Tube / IBNS): On a serious border assignment to Bangladesh, Alka Pande, a non-Bengali, takes a break at the sprawling ancestral house of Bengal’s renaissance poet Michael Madhusudan Dutta in Jessore. There the unfamiliar writer digs out an untold love story of the bard and learns about the lineage of tennis ace Leander Paes
It was by chance I got to know this amazing love story. During my recent work related visit to Bangladesh my Bengali colleagues – travelling with me – expressed their keen desire to go to the 19th century poet and dramatist Michael Madhusudan’s ancestral house. I was not at all amused by the idea but I did strongly feel an intense excitement around me. Since it was comparatively a freer day for us I followed my co-passengers. The only thing which intrigued me was the name – Michael Madhusudan Dutta! I was curious to know more about this man with such an unusual name of Hindu and Christian blend.
I have no qualms in acknowledging my ignorance. Honestly, I had never heard this name before in my life. My colleagues (incidentally all Bengali) were discussing about this gentleman with an unusual name. A week in Bengal and I could gauge the essence of their conversation. Soon some excitement started brewing inside and I found it difficult to restrain any further. I was curious to know more about this man.
I was told that Madhusudan was a great litterateur and is revered highly in Bengali literature. A poet, Madhusudan is the man who introduced Sonnet to Bengali poetry. Later I found out from a profile of his on the InteRnet that he had experimented with diction and verse forms, and had “introduced Amitrakshara, a form of blank verse with varied caesuras, and many other original lyric styles.”
Impressive indeed! The mystery started unfolding… the poet was highly influenced by English culture and during his visit to England he changed his name to Michael Madhusudan from Madhusudan Dutta. So deep in the western culture, Madhusudan got married also to western women – first to Rebecca Mactavys from Scotland and then to Henriata Sophia White from France. The son’s love for west infuriated father Rajnarain who belonged to a traditional Bengali family. The anger overpowered emotions and Rajnarain disowned his son for leaving his own culture and religion.
The story gave me enough to chew on. My curiosity got ignited. I wanted to know more about this man from Sagardari village on the bank of Kopotakho river, located 56 km from Jessore district in Khulna division of Bangladesh.
The journey began….. All five of us in a Toyota mini van. Outside it was a humid afternoon of early June but the inside temperature of van was cold. We were wrapped with thrill and excitement. It was a long drive towards the countryside. The big huge trees of Date Palm, Jackfruit, Betelnut, Palm (and several other trees which I failed to recognise) on both the sides of the road were providing much needed shade from the bright sun. There was not a single patch of land which was barren and where one could see soil.
The fields were lush green with Jute and rice plantations. We could see a few farmers tilling their lands. The surroundings set the perfect preamble to our intriguing journey.
We were busy chatting when suddenly our van driver Shibu slowed down at some structure and asked us if we were interested in taking its photo. Two white slanting pillars in the shape of flame – this was the first gateway to Madhusudan’s house farther down. One bore a tiled picture of the poet whereas a scribble in Bengali adorned the other. My friend translated the Bengali scripture for me – “Oh passerby, please stop for a while and have a look, this is the place where Madhusudan, the son of Raj Narain Dutt and Janhavi was born and lived”.
We didn’t realise, we were close to our destination. The excitement was multifold as we entered the formal gates of the poet’s house.
Finally, we were there in front of an old typical Bengali house. The place is now a museum. We bought the tickets for 20 taka (Bangladesh currency) each and started our journey into the past.. It was like going back into the time machine.
Michael Maadhusudan was born on January 25 in 1824 and died before he could see the fiftieth winter of his life, on June 29, in 1873. A learned man he knew 12 languages, including French, Italian, German, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, English and of course, Bengali.
The museum – which once used to be the home for the great poet – displays many things which the poet used, like his chest of drawers, desk, cupboard and most importantly the photographs and other pieces of infoRmation about Madhusudan’s life.
One of the photographs is of Jennifer Paes – the mother of Leander paes – the ace tennis player of India.
The instant connect to India and to 21st century with a poet of 17th century was incredible. For a minute I stood awestruck. I could not believe to be standing inside the ancestral house of our loved Tennis star Leander Paes! Michael Madhusudan was the Great Great Grand father of Leander.
It felt strange to turn so many pages of history and connect it to the present.
Before I could get over this nostalgic feeling, the caretaker of the museum Mohd Akmal Hussain brought us to the front yard of the house. There stood the bust of Madhusudan on a pedestal with the same scribble, which we saw at the white gates at the entrance. So far, it didn’t mean much to me. But the caretaker Hussain started the amazing story behind the scripture.
“Before leaving for the west Madhusudan was madly in love with a Kayastha (a caste) girl Deoki. The love could not bloom between the two as Madhusudan pursued his other passion in life, which was poetry. He moved to the west where he converted to Christianity and the bud of love withered before it could bloom.”
The truth is that love never dies. It gets buried deeper inside and becomes stronger when snubbed and forced to remain silent. Like amber the romance between Madhusudan and Deoki must have continued to simmer somewhere at the bottom of their hearts.
“When Madhusudan was on his death bed in Kolkata, Deoki could not hold herself back and visited her love. Knowing well that he was about to leave this world, Madhusudan admitted of his love to Deoki and also admitted to his selfishness which forced him to follow his passion instead of realising the dream which they both had seen together. He was also remorseful for his behaviour towards his parents and had no qualms in admitting to his follies.”
As a poet the best he could do was to pen his feelings and share them with the world. That was the time when he scribbled those lines that we saw at the entrance and also at the pedestal on which rests his bust now.
Madhusudan’s father had migrated to Kolkata leaving this house but Madhusudan came back to his ancestral house in Sagardari in Jessore district, before his death and gave away the property to the locals.
Such a memorial languished in absence of maintenance for years. It was only in 1996 the Bangladesh government sanctioned a grant on 90 million taka for the restoration of the house. Although the full money could not be released as the government changed yet whatever was released it was enough to at least save this rich heritage from crumbling.
The story numbed us for a while…. the most amazing love story we came across in years, especially after knowing the association of Madhusudan with the tennis player of today.
We stayed there for a while letting our emotions settle down. The ambience around us was filled with a strange silence telling several tales. We were getting late for our next assignment related to work but none of us wanted to leave the place.
With heavy hearts we stepped out of that grand old building.
(Images by Sujoy Dhar)
Trans World Features (TWF)