The dimensions of Love and Passion

Writer: Syed Badrul Ahsan Category: প্রবন্ধ (Essay) Edition: Dhaboman - Winter 2017


Samson and Delilah loved. Dido and Aeneas loved. Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal loved. Heloise and Abelard loved.

Perhaps Jibanananda put it very well. And he did it all too briefly. And that’s the paradox. He only mentioned Banalata Sen. We know nothing else about her, save for the fact that she inhabited a place called Natore. That the poet was enamoured of her, indeed of her beauty, of the magic in her eyes, is a truth we cannot help observing. Is that love? Can love be silent in its passion?

For an answer, we go to another of our own. For Rabindranath Tagore, love was of the essence. In him love came in its myriad dimensions --- love of God, of nature, of woman. Focus on the poetry he directed at women, at their beauty of mind and physical dimensions. When you hear shunilo shagorer shyamolo kinare, you understand one more time the meaning of love. No, your love may not find clear expression in terms of diction. But it works in you just the same. And yet that is not what you can say about the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. His feelings of passion for Maud Gonne went overboard, to a point where his unrequited love turned into a public affair. But read his poignant lines for Gonne: ‘When you are old and grey and full of sleep and nodding by the fire . . .’

Love, you will then have reason to acknowledge, comes shaped in a variety of colours. Turn to Nazrul, in whose poetry it was the entirety of woman’s beauty which came draped in song. In mor priya hobe esho rani debo khonpae tarar phool it is a woman you idolize and within that idolizing comes your very rich sense of idealism. After all, love is a matter of great idealism and the one you love is necessarily the object of your devotion. Perfection is never an idea in the fullness of bloom, but in poetry perfection of love is all. The love of Portia for Brutus and that of Calpurnia for Caesar rests on the principle of perfection, the perfection in this instance being the qualities which define the men in their lives.

So why do we love? For an answer --- and there are

loads of answers to that single question --- think back on the old fairy tale of Rapunzel. ‘Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair’, calls out the young man below her window. We know he loves her, and he loves her hair. We know too he will soon climb, courtesy her long tresses, up into her chamber and do what men and women in love do. That doesn’t call for much imagination, does it? Pablo Neruda makes the entire thing clear for us: ‘I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.’ You have a rather graphically drawn image of desire here, of overpowering sexuality. The union of spring with the cherry trees is but a literary pointing to the bonds which have historically drawn men and women to each other. And, to be sure, literature consistently takes us all on a journey through the valley of passion. We love the growing relationship between Bathsheba Everdene and Gabriel Oak in Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd. And then we identify, surreptitiously, with the single night of passion Buddhadeva Bose brings into play in his defining Raat Bhor Brishti.


But love often moves past literature, to inform us that romance is reality, that it shapes a huge part of our outlook on life. The long-suffering Russian poet Anna Akhmatova’s platonic feelings for the scholar Isaiah Berlin have been a staple of literary conversation for a long time. But theirs is not the only love of the literary kind. Ask Frances Wilson. In her rich work, Literary Seductions, she comes forth with tales of writers and poets whose romantic relationships have had a clear influence on the literature they composed in their time. And those relationships, rather discreet in nature, were nevertheless underlined by unmistakable passion. And what is love without passion? The answer to that pretty rhetorical query comes through a study of the deeply carnal romance Anais Nin and Henry Miller enjoyed with each other. Theirs was love resting on the hot embers of the erotic. And eroticism is a fact of love life you cannot ignore. It was there in Cleopatra’s passionate affairs with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. And it underscored the sexuality which Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton brought into their relationship. The Indian actors Dev Anand and Suraiya, though constrained by the rigours of eastern convention, nevertheless went a long way in advancing the cause of their romance. They stumbled in the end, just as Dilip Kumar and Madhubala would do. But the energizing tale of the romance has remained.

All love is energizing. It is quite a different matter that love often leads to complications, as in the case of the hapless Devdas, or throws up new difficulties for one of the lovers, in this case the political hurdles Nelson Rockefeller ran into when he married Happy in 1962. The New York governor was never to make it to the White House, largely because of his desertion of his first wife and romantic entanglement with Happy. But observe Jawaharlal Nehru, whose platonic love for Edwina Mountbatten, and vice versa, certainly brought a spring into his steps and gave him a fresh degree of zest for living. The romance electrified Lady Mountbatten into spasms of sheer pleasure.

Politicians too are in need of love, but few among them are able to negotiate the fine line between love and scandal. John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton were never equipped to be good lovers. Their reputation will forever be as womanizers who simply could not stay away from sex or the scent of a woman. And that is not what you can say about Jimmy Carter, who was frank enough, in the course of his campaign for the presidency in 1976, to tell Playboy magazine that he had lusted after women outside his marriage and that he had committed adultery many times in his heart. His ratings in the polls dipped, almost to a point where many thought the presidency was slipping from his grasp. He survived. The point though is the candour Carter gave vent to. He did not need to reveal his innermost thoughts, but in that post-Watergate situation he perhaps did not consider before he opened up the uproar his remarks would cause. Don’t forget that Gary Hart, well poised to be president of the United States in 1988, lost everything when he was spotted with a young Donna Rice seated on his lap on a yacht named, quite ironically, Monkey Business.

Love, in that broad sense and especially when it concerns man and woman, is a many-splendored thing. Aparna Sen understands that. All her marriages have been based on love. They ended when love flew out the window. Sen’s cerebral approach to life has been as intense as that of Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar,

ays been a rich celebration of the love which binds woman and man. For people outside the glitter of celebrity spotlight, love has since time immemorial been a matter of endless delight and sometimes unending frustration. Take a walk through the parks in this city and note, on the barks of trees, the various permutations and combinations of love etched there. There are always two names, a man’s and a woman’s, and that in itself gives the love of these unknown individuals a degree of immortality they are not aware of. We are. You look at the names, ingrained into the bark, wondering if they were carved years ago or yesterday. If

the passion was registered for posterity years ago, you have a new question coming up inside you: did these two lovers find success through a consummation of their love? Some other questions follow, naturally. Have these lovers grown into middle age in the serene happiness of romance? Or did they, never destined to be in union with each other, go their separate ways and find life’s meaning somewhere else?

‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’. That was Tennyson. Since life is an entirety of experience, since existence is forever a long battle for decent survival, love often falls by the wayside or slips out the window. Life is by and large quotidian, in that prosaic meaning of the term, and therefore there is always the possibility that the poetry which once made a man and a woman come together will mutate into the ordinary. Love, if you must know, stays above the ordinary. And it sometimes goes beyond the bounds of convention. Ever heard of love for the neighbour’s wife? Gay Talese came forth with a most illuminating work called Thy Neighbour’s Wife more than two decades ago. And there has been an amplitude of stories about what in Bengali is known as porokia prem. The term doesn’t translate well into English, where you are likely to stumble into such dark manifestations of romance as illicit love and adultery.

Can love be illicit? All passion is a matter of the heart. You see a beautiful woman, the glow of impending twilight suffusing her face, as she waits to catch a train at Edinburgh railway station. You steal a glance at her, she notices you noticing her and smiles. Moments later, you are on the same train. Her intoxicating beauty is all you feel. A couple of hours later, you drop her off at her doorstep. Your intended buss on her cheeks turns, without any effort on your or her part, into an unintended, long kiss of passion. That is love, fleeting and yet coming in the fullness of passion. You will never see her again. But for one brief, shining moment, you have loved a woman who needed to be loved. That railway station is gone, that twilight is in the past, that doorstep kiss is memory. But the heart in you beats furiously in remembrance of that twilight moment, as it beat on that long-ago evening.

All glory is fleeting. Sometimes love is a tentative affair when it comes to a question of tactility. On a ride through the quiet streets of insidious urban intent (with apologies to T.S. Eliot), she you love to distraction clasps your hand, gives it a good squeeze and whispers how much she loves the way you furtively touch her shoulders and neck as you walk by. You take a walk with her in a park, in the light of the winter moon. You hold out your arms and she glides into them as the waves stream in to the shore. In the breeze, she smells heavenly. On her lips is reason for inebriation. In her closed eyes is your treasure of songs. As a cloud crosses the moon, she holds you tighter in her grip. Your fingers play with her hair, with her everything, in that eternity of a moment in time and space.  You know you belong with each other.

Love looks, not with the eyes but with the mind. And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind. That was, you guessed right, good old Shakespeare. He spoke for generations beyond his. That is what every poet, every writer does. There is always a Peggotty somewhere out there and for her there is forever a Barkis waiting across the street and whispering that timeless message of enduring love, ‘Barkis is willing.’ The playwright Harold Pinter asked the historian Antonia Fraser, on a beautiful London night, ‘Must you go?’ 

Love matters. There are all the reasons why it matters.