Leopards and leeches are permanent partners in a dilapidated home nestled in the dense forests of Uttarakhand where Rabindranath Tagore once found inspiration for his epic, Gitanjali.
Big stones on which India’s most famous bard used charcoal to pen some of his classy songs are lost, stolen many years ago by those who discovered it first. Also stolen were furniture, among them a mahogany reclining chair which his terminally ill daughter Renuka used to gaze the stars.
“Everything is lost, we don't encourage visitors to go there. It's a steep climb, the road full of leeches. Leopards routinely bring their kill inside the place,” says Prakash Singh, a caretaker at the forest rest house at Mahesh Khan.
Strangely, the expansive house, a decade ago, was still worth a visit, the place maintained by the forest department which had put up signages that claimed it as Tagore Top, or the abode of Tagore. But then, everyone lost interest because there was no cash for maintenance. No one showed interest in getting Tagore’s books and copies of his paintings to decorate the place. Some furniture was lost, others devoured by termites. Worse, Tagore was not from the hills, not one of the hills. He was from faraway Bengal, from the plains. The interest thinned and dimmed.
Once abandoned, jungle creepers and weeds took over the home, female leopards found it a great spot to deliver babies. When the wild cats left the place, barking deers took shelter during winter and rains. Couple of years ago, the roof collapsed due to neglect and rains, bloody leeches growing in abundance in the slush. The visitors, expectedly, stayed away and Tagore Top — 82,000ft above sea level — was only a sign board near the entrance of Mahesh Khan forest rest house, located 36 km from Nainital.
Only tales remained.
Stories handed down through generations like Phantom chronicles say the bard, who lived with his terminally ailing daughter in the spacious home, completed nearly one fourth of his works that eventually comprised Gitanjali that helped him win the Nobel Prize a decade later in 1913.
Singh, who has lived at Mahesh Khan that translates into the abode of Lord Shiva for over a decade, says he was witness to discussions between state government officials to renovate the dilapidated home. But he would not comment as to why no decision was taken to restore the home to its former glory.
Kolkata-based Tagore researcher Tanvee Nasreen says it's a pity that no one has ever thought of restoring the Mahesh Khan home of the Nobel laureate, nor other homes he stayed at during his visit to the hills of Nainital.
She said last year, on his 154th birth anniversary, there was a plan to create a Tagore trail connecting Ramgarh, Almora, Ranikhet and Mahesh Khan but the move — initiated by the Uttarakhand government — failed for unknown reasons.
Tagore was in Mahesh Khan in 1903, along with Renuka who was recuperating from tuberculosis. Doctors had advised that the Himalayan air would do her good. The poet returned there in 1914, 1927 and 1937 and also visited Ramgarh and Almora.
“Mahesh Khan is special to Tagore because it was there he conceptualised Gitanjali. Tagore also composed several children’s poems, eventually compiled and published as Sishu (The Child, 1903). The English title was later changed to The Crescent Moon," says Nasreen.
He also wrote about his train journey from the East to the North, watching from the windows of his first class compartment a life in a moonlit night. Historian Prasanta Paul, who meticulously chronicled the bard’s life, mentions the journey to Nainital and how Tagore used carriages lifted by men to reach Mahesh Khan.
Tagore historian Professor Sitabrata Chattopadhyay says Renuka died in September 1903, the same year she visited Mahesh Khan. Tagore was very attached to his daughter who he fondly called Rani. In 1901, when Renuka was 10-and-a-half years old, her father married her to a husband she had never met. “This was surprising because Tagore was — actually — against child marriages and even argued against the system in a letter to his wife (20 July, 1901). He hoped the change of climate will help Renuka recover. But it did not happen.”
Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson, who wrote what is known as a definitive biography of the poet, titled Rabindranath Tagore — The Myriad Minded Man, claim the journey to Mahesh Khan was long and difficult, the poet sometimes carrying his ailing daughter in his arms. He keep her entertained and cheerful, for she was moody and high-strung.
In an animated discussion over soggy buns and sweetened tea, Anant Joshi, a Nainital-based historian remembered his grandfather telling him tales of Tagore in Mahesh Khan and how the bard would place chairs outside his home and sit to watch the stars in the night. “He would often sing as the stars blazed out wonderfully through the clear mountain atmosphere, showing Renuka constellations and treating her to some astronomical discourses. Sometimes, lying on her bed, Renuka could see snowy peaks shimmering in the starlight.”
Now, the very room where Renuka stayed is full of leeches and lizards; big-sized bats fly in and out with ease in the night.
Senior officials of the Forest Department of the Uttarakhand government say they have no plans to renovate the place, nothing even is on paper. “We have not heard anything, the place is virtually in ruins,” says Mahendra Singh Rawat.
In faraway Santiniketan, officials at Viswa Bharati University, say they were not in a position to renovate the poet’s disbanded home. “This is a decision for the state governments of Uttarakhand and West Bengal. We do not have a renovation plan for his home in Mahesh Khan,” a VBU official said in a telephonic interview from Santiniketan, 160 km from Kolkata.
The official, who spoke in his personal capacity, said the best option would have been a Tagore circuit for those interested in the bard’s life: “It has not happened, not been discussed ever.”
A pity, especially because Tagore — a household name in Bengal — is now almost a Rs 300 crore plus pan-Indian industry spanning books, movies, plays, poems, songs and music. Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee is a Tagore fan, she even pushed her officers to play Rabindra Sangeet at traffic intersections when she came to power in 2011.
It is dark at Mahesh Khan, time for the bats and barking deer to occupy a place that once belonged to India’s most famous bard.