01 May 2002

Book Review: On the Shores of Eternity: Poems from Tagore on Immortality and Beyond, *****

To realize that death is an illusion, you either have to be very sophisticated or very simple. Tagore was both. I am awed by his use of language, pure crystals of wise innocence. Every word is personal, every word is universal. Those who met Tagore during his eighty years described him as one of the greatest souls of our age; Einstein considered him a sage. From what we learn in these poems, he certainly lived his own words. He kissed the infinite, he was not afraid to lose everything. And in this book, he allows us to approach death not with dusty words but with a silence that washes the soul. (From the Introduction by Deepak Chopra)

In this hauntingly beautiful volume, Deepak Chopra presents new English versions of poems by Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, a lifelong source of inspiration for Chopra and the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

When Tagore writes, "Death, my death / Whisper to me! / For you alone have I kept watch day after day," romantic ecstasy surges through every word. For Tagore the soul was more real than any object, and he sang of death as a joyful voyage home to the eternity from which we sprang. In these poems we experience a dramatic alternative to the fearful Western view of death. Through the magic of Tagore's lyricism we begin to understand that by becoming familiar with death, and watching it grow closer, we can come to live fully in the present moment.

As Tagore tells us so eloquently, "If you weep because the sun has gone out / Your tears may blind you to the stars."

I confess I had never read Tagore before and I was struck. This is the highest form of poetry. I am not sure how much is lost in translation, but with no hope I will ever read the original in Bengali this English version is as good as it is ever going to get for me. Poetry that is a bit cryptic, but open to readers making inroads if they are willing to make the effort. It is not easy and requires multiple readings, but it become penetrable and welcoming with time. The introduction helps a lot, while I agree with some other reviewers that the poems are more about eternal life than death.

The book is elegantly bound and has a beautiful hard cover, which explains the rather steep price, but it's worth it!

As this is mostly a travel blog, I would like to propose one poem among many which is very much to the point:

The Answer

I heard the sea and asked,
"What language is that?"
The sea replied,
"The language of eternal questions."

I saw the sky and asked,
"What holds the answer?"
The sky replied,
"The language of eternal silence."

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