Better than Fiction (non fiction)

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No Coward Soul -  A Critical Study 

                                     No Coward Soul is Mine 
                                              Emile Bronte 
                                
                 Grow old along with me!
                 The best is yet to be,
                 The last of life, for which the first was made:
                 Our times are in his hand
                 Who saith ‘A whole I planned,
                 Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!’

Emile Bronte’s No Coward soul of Mine reflects the Byronic faith in God as expressed in the first stanza of Browning’s Rabbi Ben Ezra. When circumstances are depressing, deep and unflinching faith in God sustains the poet. She is not a coward soul and she does not tremble in the world’s storm-tossed sphere. She sees the glory of Heaven shine everywhere, and her equally shining faith shields her from fear. 

 

Emile feels the presence of God within her breast, the presence of the almighty, omnipresent deity. This resounds what is said in the Gita: “God resides in the hearts of all.”  

 

The Supreme Lord, O Arjuna, dwells in the hearts of all beings, by His Maya, to revolve (as if) mounted on a machine. 18.61
                                    
She too believes in the “undying life,” in the immortality of the soul. The poet considers the variegated creeds as vain and divertive; they are worthless as withered weeds or the “idlest froth” of the ocean that grows and vanishes at the same time. She believes that doubt cannot find shelter in the heart of one who, with rock-like steadfastness, holds on to God, the infinite and immortal being. Emile also holds that the spirit of God animates the beings and pervades all. God’s love is all-embracing, and His spirit “changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears.” The poet’s staunch faith in God is expressed when she says that even if earth and man are gone, and suns and universes cease to be, God will be there, sustaining creation. For a believer in God, there is no room for death. Death cannot destroy even an atom under God’s care. This is because God’s is an eternal existence, never subject to decay.   

The poem is a bold assertion of the poet’s faith in God, and it is this faith that makes her pronounce that her soul is not cowardly. Emile means to say that one suffers from fear and cowardliness when one lacks in faith in God, the ultimate reality and the immortal being. She does not believe in any creed; her relationship with God is direct. That is why she boldly claims – “Vain are the thousand creeds” – which implies that creeds are just but weeds in the garden and bubbles of foam in the sea. Bronte’s concept of God is also clear and almost Vedantic. In her view, God is infinite, eternal and all pervading. It is God’s love that holds the creation together. His spirit “pervades, and broods above / changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears.” These words reflect the Vedantic view 

that God is the ultimate creator, sustainer and destroyer. God is the Being and the Breath of the creation. Emile Bronte belonged to the Victorian Age when the world of religion was overshadowed by conflicts and creeds. The existence of God as the Supreme Being was not firmly cherished. It is in this ambience that Emile Bronte pronounced her deep faith in God, the Supreme Lord of creation.  

 

A lyric, as we know, is a fairly short poem consisting of utterance by a single speaker, who expresses a state of mind or a process of perception, thought and feeling. Many a lyric is song sung in solitude. The Greeks defined a lyric as a song to be sung to the accompaniment of a lyre (lyra). A song is still called a lyric in  the musical world. We also use the term loosely to distinguish it from a narrative or dramatic verse of any kind. A lyric is short, not often longer than fifty or sixty lines, and often between a dozen and thirty lines. It usually expresses the feelings and thoughts of a single speaker in a personal and subjective fashion. Emile Bronte’s poem is an expression of religious thought in lyrical tone. It is short in length, compact in thought, subjective in tone and is the sincere outpouring of a soul devoted to God. It is, in the language of Wordsworth, the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, and the very first line bears evidence to the rock-like conviction of the poet. 

 

Technically too, the poem is highly lyrical in as much as it is euphonic when being read. The arrangement of lines containing almost Wordsworthian language produces a musical note that pleases the ears. Written in iambic tri-meter with alternating with amphibrachic tri-meter the poem owns a current of rhythm that is neither harsh nor grating but very sweet and sedative. It seems the poem was written in a meditative mood and the poet’s utterance points to her conviction born out of realization after a long and deep contemplation. The first and the third lines are shorter whereas the second and the fourth lines are longer. The first line rhymes with the third, and the second line rhymes with the fourth. This creates a musical rhythm. The diction is simple, and the expressions are straightforward. The poem has a single orientation, and this orientation is the poet’s bold utterance about her faith in God, God that is all pervasive, infinite, immortal, loving and benign. God, in Emile’s opinion, is the Breath and Being, the creator, the sustainer and the destroyer. Emile’s poem, both for its theme and for its style, can be ranked with the lyrical poems of the best order.  

Dr.  Sibaprasad Dutta, Professor Emeritus of Jadavpur University · Departments of English & Philosophy  India · Kolkata. He's an accomplished scholar of Bengali; Bangla, Sanskrit (Saṁskṛta) authored two slightly acclaimed publications: (1) The Gita: Rendition in Rhymed English Verse with Sanskrit Text ( Second Edition:2015) available on Amazon and (2) The Shadow of Light: An Album of Poems ( 2015) available on Amazon and Barnes& Noble.  We also feature one chapter from his autobiography book in this issue of "Better Than Fiction" 

Chapter II  "The New Mother"

 "Across the Desert:  an autobiography of an obscure Indian"

by Prof. Dutta copyright 2016

 

Better a serpent than a stepmother! - Euripides

One day, not long after my mother’s death, I found my father absent from home. He did not tell me where he was going. I can only remember that in the meantime, Gunadhar Uncle, the brother-in- law of my father’s elder brother, visited our house accompanied by a gentleman who had a bicycle. Both Gunadhar Uncle and the gentleman came on bicycles, and the bicycles caught our fancy as in our village there was none. They must be great people, I thought, and as long as they stayed at our home, I pranced round the bicycles, occasionally ringing the bells and checking the wheels. My cousins joined me in my pursuit, and the wonder of us together surpassed that of climbing the Mount Everest.

 

Not finding my father at home, I enquired of my grandmother where my father had been. She did not say much, but only told me that he had gone to a place on an urgent piece of business and would be back home in three or four days. I cannot exactly remember who took care of our food – my two little sisters’ and mine – but it was probable that my Thakuma (grandmother) and Didi (grandmother-in- law) shared the job. About three days later, towards the evening, I heard talks that my father was coming back home in a palanquin with a new bride seated before him in the same palanquin. It became clear that my father had gone to marry the sister of the gentleman who had visited our house about a month back with Gunadhar Uncle.

 

The news excited me. I had visited one or two marriage parties earlier and seen elderly people distributing bidis to the guests. So, I walked across the canal that ran by our house, bought a bundle of bidis and waited for the marriage party to come. I felt important and assumed distinctive dignity as a boy who was attending his father’s marriage. They came soon, but not many people were there. There were six palanquin bearers, an elderly maid who carried a tin trunk containing the bridal trousseau, the new bride and my father. As the groom and the bride alighted from the palanquin, conch shells began to be blown by the women folk to welcome the bride and my grandmother came forward to receive the bride. She was seated on the verandah of our hut, the evening sun falling on

her face through a cleavage of the wall. My grandmother stepped into her room and stepped out with a small bowl containing some molasses. Taking some with her forefinger, she placed the sweet pulp in the mouth of the bride. I saw her licking it up with her long tongue.

 

I saw some hustle in our hut and around. I had no glimpse of my father. The palanquin bearers left after a meal. The evening hush settled down. A few lamps were burnt. A lantern that my mother carefully cleaned every evening was set alight and placed inside the room. I saw from a distance the bride occupying the bedstead, with two or four women seated around her. They were getting acquainted with the new guest. Some time later, somebody called me into the room. As I stepped in, the bride took me in her arms and pushed a luchi into my mouth. A woman told me in a merry voice, “This is your mother, Shibu.” The luchi was not tasty. I was trying to rush out of the room and spit it out. The arms of the bride were coarse. I felt extremely uneasy as long as she held me. Her embrace was not like my mother’s. A strong smell of cheap cosmetics made my stomach belch. Inwardly, I discerned that this was the new mother Kamala spoke of the day my mother died. I forced myself out of her arms and came to the verandah. It was not quiet as it used to be.

 

Women were going in and out of the room. I stepped to a corner of the courtyard and stood watching the show. I threw my sight at the tree, which stood where my mother had been cremated. They were lost in the darkness. I could not imagine what the whole affair was. How was it that I got a mother, and that even a new one! Had she changed her appearance or was it a different woman? If she was not Ranu, then why did the women tell me that she was my mother? Entirely perplexed I began to search for my father, but he was nowhere to be seen.

After about two hours, my grandmother called me to take some rice. I took a little bit of it, and got up. ‘Why have you taken so little of food today, Sibu?’ asked my grandmother. I said nothing. She understood me and cleaned the place. Then she laid a pallet in her room and asked me to sleep there by her. I had not slept in her room ever before, so I said, ‘Why here? I shall sleep in our room by my father.’

‘That’s not possible,’ my grandmother said.

‘From today you will sleep with me.’

‘Will then my father sleep alone?’ I asked her with shock in my eyes.

‘Not exactly. He and the new bride will sleep together,’ she said sullenly.

 

I read sadness in her eyes, and disgust. I said nothing more but took my position on the pallet. My grandmother did not have a pillow as such. She used a bundle of old clothes for a pillow. She gave it to me. It was very hard, not like the one my mother made for us. I placed my head on it, and began thinking how the next morning would break and what I should do next morning. Sleep was not coming. In the little dark room which had no window, I was feeling suffocated. To be able to sleep I pressed my eyes. The day was gone for me.

 

Next morning, I found my father in a cheery mood. But I began to sob as he went out to the field without speaking to me first or fondling me. As the sun rose, the new bride came out and asked us if we would take some puffed rice. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘No,’ I said a minute later, and ran away to the mustard field. I kept myself busy for an hour doing nothing. An hour later, my father came back and took me in his laps. ‘Let’s take some puffed rice,’ he said. I sat by my father. The new bride brought two bowls of puffed rice and placed them before us. My father stood up, went into the room and then came out with two onions and two green chillies. The onion I took, and the green chilli I pushed towards my father. The breakfast was finished in five minutes.

After about two months, I heard whispers mixed with laughter among the womenfolk. Each time the new mother came out and talked to my aunts, she laughed bashfully, and there was a peal of laughter soaring up. One night, as I went to sleep with my grandmother, she said, ‘Sibu, your new mother will soon have a child.’

 

‘Why and how?’ I said stupidly.

‘This is what happens after marriage. Haven’t you seen all women have children?’

‘I’ve seen, but where will it sleep? Beside my father?’

‘Not by your father, but by the side of your new mother and your new mother will sleep next to your father. This is the rule.’

I kept mum for a while. I could not understand what was going to be about us three. ‘Then shall I continue to sleep with you for ever and ever?’ I said.

‘That’s right. Your father and your new mother talk and do important things throughout the night. They should not be disturbed.’

‘But what about Sobi? Where will she sleep?’

‘With me. From tomorrow. And Sankari will sleep with your Didi.'

I felt being atop an active Vesuvius.

‘Are we three a burden to my father?’ I began to feel.

‘Then next morning, I'll bring my books and keep them here in your room,’ I said to my grandmother.

‘That you can do,’ she said.

‘Where shall I read in the morning?’

‘In the verandah as usual.’

‘There’ll be no problem, I suppose?’

‘No. No problem. But, there will be none to help you. The new bride has never been to a school.’

 

A heavy sigh was coming out, but I suppressed it. I now understood what the death of a mother meant. 

Copyright  Better Than Starbucks 2017, a poetry magazine

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