What Burns means to me
ONE rainy Sunday afternoon when I was a girl, in London, my geographer mother had been looking at her maps when she started singing a beautiful song in Bengali about remembering and meeting up with old friends. I loved that song. When we returned to India, the same song – an adaptation of Auld Lang Syne by the 1913 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature Rabindranath Tagore – was a hit for Debabrata Biswas and became a Bengali favourite.
Around that time, I saw the film Charulata and heard a song about spring, a stream and birds, again by Tagore, which I later identified as Ye Banks and Braes. I was hearing Burns without realising it.
So I grew up hearing Burns sung in Bengali, immortalised by some of Bengal's greatest intellectuals who doubtless appreciated the Scottish bard's work and made it popular among the song- and poetry-loving Bengali audience.
As a girl, I heard my parents' friends talking about English Romantic poetry and they loved showing off, quoting from Wordsworth, Shelley and Burns. A few years later, when I was studying English at Calcutta University I discovered that Burns was not really a contemporary of Wordsworth or Shelley and was actually, like Blake, a precursor of the Romantic movement.
I was fascinated by his 'ploughman-poet' image, a poet who could leave his plough and win over the ladies with his appealing verse. I still knew him as part of the 'English' canon and thought of Holy Willie's Prayer and The Rigs o' Barley as poems that used 'quaint' language. It was my Scottish Professor, Kitty Datta at Javapur University, where I did a Master's in English, who made me realise that Burns was using the Scots language and from then on I read him as a bard of the Scottish nation.
For me he remains a love poet at his winning best, love that is always tinged with the looming cloud of parting in A Red, Red Rose (which my husband Neil sang the day he proposed) and Ay Fond Kiss. His democratic spirit has a resonance for me in the carefree chorus from The Jolly Beggars,
A fig those by law protected!
Liberty's a glorious feast!
Courts for cowards were erected,
Churches built to please the priest.
I like his cheek, his liberalism and his sense of brotherhood, all of which I can identify with as a Bengali, for Bengal loves its radical poets, thinks left and nurtures socialist dreams.
But as a writer and academic, I think he has done what national bards should do – gather folk songs like wild flowers and touch them with his artistic flourish to make them the perfect inhabitants of a poetry garden for posterity. This is what Tagore did for Bengali poetry and folk songs with his artist's brush. For me this links the two national bards from my two countries in their fulfilled mission of preserving the rhythm and rhyme of their nations for the world.
And now, as I look forward to being at home among Indians and Scots at the Kolkata Book Fair, where Scotland is the theme country this year, I look forward to hearing Auld Lang Syne sung alongside Tagore's adaptation of it and I know my mother will be watching, with approval, from wherever she is now.