It was in my second year in college (1994-95), when I went on a weekend trip to Siliguri by train and from there, went to Mirik by road. I was with my parents and a young artist couple: Ramlal and Sohini Dhar. Ramlal kaku, Sohini di, and Baba had been invited for an Art Camp along with many stalwarts of the Bengal Art scene. After the event we decided for some sightseeing; hence, Mirik.
I had just read Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’ in class and was full of wonder at the sweep of the master’s lines. I was carrying with me another book, though: Robert Gittings’ edition of Keats’ Letters. I was reading it. I began the book sceptically, for I was told by my teachers to read a little more, to develop a ‘bank’ of literary knowledge, as it were. I knew that letters said more, and revealed much, beyond the ‘works’. We had, probably, by then also read the Nightingale, by Keats in class. I began the letters gingerly, but soon found myself riveted to Keats’ words; one by one, the letters almost sat on my self and ran through my blood, and like Keats’ they somehow echoed my own senses.
I do not possess any photograph of the trip, but the landscape on our way to Mirik sat on my eyes; it brought alive Wordsworth’s poem to an extent, which made me realize the universality of good poetry. I started believing in his words. The relevance of ‘poetic truth’ could not, perhaps, then be comprehended, but poetry had an effect on me. Now, after so many years, I realize how the seeds had been sown.
Keats was creating magic and one letter after another brought in echo after echo, thought after thought. The identification was total; not for once did I think that there was time separating us, the fact that he was a man and now dead, but that I hungered for articulation and here was one poet who was articulating ‘in full throated ease’ – I even wept at his cries for life, as his last letters to Fanny register. In order to hold on to him, I copied bits and pieces of the letters in my own hand as if reliving his sorrow. I did not get them photocopied.
Time progressed. I courted poetry and married literature. Many years, many moments, many classes – the vividness of virgin pleasures dimmed, became fainter. But occasionally, they came back in sparks. Keats was being re-discovered, but, academically, in classes, in exam scripts, also in theses dissertations, also as a postcolonial reader, but that little girl’s love seemed to have been washed out. But old things stay, as they say. Recently, again re-reading Monckton Milnes’ edition of the poet’s life brought back that tiny, hot tempered, passionate little poet. Again, those hand written letters dimmed my vision and brought me closer to my former self.
Last summer we had gone to the Spanish steps in Rome. A place lit in sunshine, full of tourists from all over the world, taking ‘selfies’ on their mobile phones. Lots of noise. We had decided to do it walking, touching several spots. I was clicking, too, all the time thinking of those last moments of the little man, when he told his friend to put the last letter of Fanny in his coffin, unopened. I didn’t know exactly where 26 Piazza de Spagna was located, but I assumed, somewhere around. Two hundred years and more, little man, and still counting, water has a lot of power, you know.
Time took away Ramlal kaku, too, rather untimely. He was among the few who realized that this girl was sensitive, as she dared air her views about this poet to him and Sohini di. Those memories will last.