She is a painter, but she does not paint on canvas. She uses a pen and paper instead of paint. She herself said recently, "Initially, I wrote poems but within two to three years I realized that poems were not my form. I needed a larger canvas so switched to writing short stories and novels". That is how she painted Purno Chobir Mognota, which was published in 2008. The original title means, 'Engrossment of a Complete Picture'. It has now been translated as 'The Painter's Palette' by Debjani Sengupta, at Delhi University, who is a writer who is doing an admirable job trying to bridge the writings from the two Bengals, through English. Selina Hossain is the Bengali author, who had written thirty-two novels, seven collections of short stories, and has won the prestigious Bangla Academy Award. Her novels and short stories have been translated into English, Russian, French, Japanese, Korean, Finnish, and many languages of India. It is time to translate her books into Sinhala, but from the original Bengali and not from the English translations. Another of her wonderful novels available in English translation is 'Plumed Peacock', which is also a painting done with her pen and ink.
Purno Chobir Mognota is a biographical novel woven around the time Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore spent in Shahjadpur, Shelidah and Patisara and the river Padma. It had been written after researching this subject for over ten years, reading all the stories and poems Gurudev had written while he was looking after the Tagore family estates, and also his notes and letters. It is the Padma river and the river basin which turned a Zamindari (landlord) into the Gurudev and it is the story Hossain is telling us here. She puts these words into the mouth of the village postman, Gagan, "Padma flows inside my body....I feel the river coursing through my veins". It is the same river which flowed through Rabindra's veins, and that is what would have made him feel one with the people here.
Rabindra had spent the first thirty years of his life in the Tagore family home, Thakurbari, at Jarasanko, in the bustling city of Kolkata. "He was born into a family of intense artistic activities....At Jarasanko there was music and poetry...and there was a large household with servants and maids to look after the younger children". But he would not have known what poverty was, or what it would be to stand helplessly on the thatched roof of a mud hut when the whole village was under water during the monsoon. He would not have known the suffering of the poor tenants in the land owned by Zamindari, who bled the poor people to death on behalf of the white masters.
But Padma had changed him and his view of life. It was the pain and suffering around him which had made him a poet and most of his best creations had been done while he lived on his riverboat and at the Kuthibari (the house of the landlord) as the Babumoshai.
He developed the courage to face all such unimaginable suffering through his poems and stories, as we find in the story of the fate of the dark skinned beauty, Krishnakoli, or the youth Photik, and it is this strength which had enabled him to endure his own losses and his pain as his dear wife passed away in 1902, and then his daughter Renuka in 1903, while he waited at their death beds helplessly. In 1907 his youngest son Shomindranath died. Gurudev had written "When his last moment was about to come I was sitting alone in the dark in a room next to his, praying intently for his passing away to his next stage of being in perfect peace and wellness."
It was Shelidah which paved the way for him to receive the Nobel Award. When Rabindra fell ill just before he was to set sail for England, and the doctors advised him to rest, he decided to go to Shelidha. "He decided to translate some of his poetry and songs into English....He took his time, working slowly, without a sense of frenetic activity, savouring the words....The Gitanjali's English manuscript thus came into being in the salubrious climate of Shelidah, a place where the poet had always felt at home."
When Rabindra was leaving Shelidha for the last time, Hossain described his thoughts. "He was going back with the truth in his heart. Farewell Shelidah, Farewell. Shelidah, the playground of his youth, the workplace of his dreams, Sheildah of his heart!"
One discordant note in the book was the capture of turtles for their meat and consumption of turtle eggs. It is not easy to imagine Gurudev allowing it, or that Mirnalini, Gurudev's own 'Chuti', would kill the animal and cook its flesh. But no human being is perfect, and we all have our weaknesses and our oversights.
Reading Purno Chobir Mognota in the original, Selina Hossain would surely take us back to the end of the 19th century, 1891 to 1901, and make us feel we are there in Shelidha, listening to Rabindra's poems, or listening with him to a baul song or the singing birds. The translator has tried her best to give us the same feeling, but we would never know the wonder of the original creation.
Hossain had once commented, "At the end of the novel I express my theme by making a contemporary parallel saying that he dedicated his song ‘Amar Sonar Bangla Ami Tomai Bhalobasi...’ to the people of the land. This song was accepted as the national anthem of Bangladesh in 1971." But probably it is not what Gurudev Tagore would have wished, for his beloved Shelidah and the Padma to belong to another country now. He would also have wished for a truly universal anthem for all life on earth.