His body might show signs of ageing, his mind can’t. Kabir suman still bubbles with the enthusiasm of a 16-year-old. Just that in love, he no longer looks for a destination. It’s not important for a woman to cook for him, make his bed, but he can die hearing his beloved whisper, suman, suman…
Yellow is the colour of my true love’s hair… he sings the Donovan number, strumming on his guitar. “There’s a line â€” Mellow is the feeling that I get when I see her. I’ve changed it to yellow is the colour…” he tells us. When he says, “There’s nothing called mellow in love”, you have to agree. For love songs, the buck stops at Kabir Suman. For love? The word begins with Kabir Suman. A week before Valentine’s Day, the songwriter-singer admits that it’s love that makes his world go round. Excerpts:
When did you feel the first flush of love?
I was in school then, probably in Class X-XI. She was my neighbour. Sometimes, during my holidays, I would sing for her in the afternoons â€” Khodar kasam jaan ami bhalobeshechhi tomaye. She was an attentive listener. I didn’t feel the pangs though. And love without any pain is no love at all. I didn’t miss her, but I call it love… sexual love… no other love is possible. It proceeded to primary necking, maybe the first half-hearted kiss. There was no promise involved, no oath, no plans… when we parted ways, we just parted.
I again fell in love when I was in university. For the first time, I felt the inexplicable pain of love. In the late ’60s, Calcutta was the most beautiful city in the world and I would walk around aimlessly. At that time, I was suddenly exposed to literature. I was majoring in English and read works of Amiya Chakravarty, Sudhin Datta and Samar Sen…. Hey bekar premik, Kidderpore dock-e ratre jahajer shobdo shuni… Hey premer debota ghum je ashena tai cigarette taani. I had learnt to smoke by then, on my own money. I would earn `90 by giving three tuitions. Those were the glorious days of becoming aware of one’s identity as a young, forlorn man. I was in love, but it was unrequitted â€” gloriously, imperiously. Not a single day were we together, to say nothing of a kiss.
It must have been painful…
Oh, oh, oh… it was painful. But let me tell you about another great affair. There was a good-looking girl in class â€” a runner-up in an international beauty contest. I was, in those days, a political Bengali, and would wear dhuti-panjabi. This girl was very Anglicized, had a car at her disposal â€” rare in those days. One day, I had a terrible cold and was on the last bench. Suddenly, she sat beside me, snatched my notebook and started writing. When the class ended, all eyes were on me. In the next history class, I was no longer in the throes of a cold and what do I see? The girl was again next to me! By now, I had become the butt of public ridicule. The next day, she boarded the same bus I had taken. ‘Will you buy my ticket?’ she said. Then, she asked if I knew a Satinath Mukherjee song â€” Madhabi go madhuraate keno kande. Now, no more English! It felt like a midsummer night’s dream. By the time the freshers’ welcome came, I was already a known singer. I also used to broadcast, which made me stand out. We had a performance, where I was singing and she was supposed to dance. I was watching the show from the wings, when I heard a rustle. She was there, all dressed up. Slowly, she came towards me. I stood there, frozen in time. Then, she lifted her face and I, like a stupid fool, said no. She was hurt, very hurt. But I was already in love. Nine years later, when I had just returned from Germany, I met her again. She told me she had a child and lived in America. We spoke of old times and then she said, ‘Do you know I was profoundly, savagely in love with you?’ ‘Why?’ I asked, as she knew I was already in love with someone else. ‘I wanted to win you over,’ she replied.
What happened to the girl you were in love with?
She never looked at me. She was a poet and was proud that some magazine had carried her poems. Later, when I made a name, I remembered her with affection (laughs).
You spoke of physical love. What about platonic love that all poets, including Tagore, write on?
I don’t believe in it. Nishwasher sathe nishwash jodi na mishlo tahole bhalobasha-i ba ki, prem-i ba ki! Two human bodies come together to experience the pleasures they create. Nothing can match that feeling. I sincerely wish to die in one of those moments. The last impression of this world should be of the person I love, her face, her eyes. As for Rabindranath, I have written the greatest songs in Bangla after him. Had I written in English, I would have been turned into an institution. As it’s Bengal, my songs are neglected. Now that I’m ageing, I live with Tagore. The older I grow, the better I understand his songs. Majhe majhe amar mone hoy, uni janten na bhalobasha kake bole. Or else, he wouldn’t be writing songs on platonic love.
Love also led you to tie the knot with Maria…
Marriage has nothing to do with love. If friendship grows into love, then friendship is the first casualty and if marriage happens out of love, then love is the first casualty. I had to marry, as in those days, you couldn’t sleep together without being married.
What led to the break-up?
What kills love is the sense of possession. Love dies when you are made answerable for everything. Marriage becomes a court of law â€” you are accused or someone else is.
But being possessive is natural to a man in love…
It might sound strange, but I’ve never been possessive in my life. To quote Robert Browning â€” My face, my moon, my everybody’s moon/Which everybody looks on and calls his. Because of what I feel, people have misunderstood me, I’ve been criticized, maligned…
Isn’t separation crucial to love?
The western world doesn’t look at separation the way we do. It’s reflected in a Tom Paxton song â€” As I lie in my bed in the morning/ Without you, without you/ Each song in my breast dies a-bornin’/ Without you, without you. Western music mentions transient romantic relationships. Years back, I was in France, where I had an appointment with a composer. I went to his house, knocked on the door only to see a woman walking out bag and baggage. Then, the face of the man appeared. I said, bonjour. He said, bonjour. He told me that the woman who had lived with him for 15 years had left just then. I said I was sorry. He said, ‘Yes, but what the hell, let’s make music.’
Have you ever done anything crazy in love?
Preme poratai toh ekta paglamo. Particularly when you know there’s no destination. You get into it knowing there will be nothing in return. Dhorun amake amar stree jiggasha korchhen tumi ki omuk ke bhalobasho. Amar choice ki sotti katha bolbo na mithye katha bolbo. Ami kintu bolechhi ‘haan bhalobashi’. Etai toh paglamo. To face the gallows, you need courage.
But there’s censorship in love…
Sudhindranath Dutta was married when he fell in love with Rajeshwari Vasudev and was with her. Today, there’s a lot more exposure, but just because you feel love through your body doesn’t mean you copulate all the time. It’s not just about the physical union. At my age, physical union is not possible to that extent, but that doesn’t deter young women from getting attracted. There is something called affection, indulgence, maturity… At 80, nothing stopped Antonioni’s young girlfriend from wrapping a blanket around him. Isn’t that love?
When did you first learn about Valentine’s Day?
I was 33. A girl worked in our office canteen â€” a beautiful African-American. She said, ‘You are my Valentine’, and kissed me. We had an affair and I remember her with great gratitude. Of course, the woman I was having an affair with at that time had no clue about this and that made it even more beautiful. What I found great was the subversion of the courtship pattern â€” not the man wooing the woman. I again experienced it in my own house recently, where a woman claimed me, saying, ‘You are mine’. Teeni poripurno bhabe bolchhen ami tomar, kintu tar cheyeo beshi, tumi amar. Otai bibaho… amra bibahito, ki ashe jaye samaj ki bole?
Do you believe in unhindered sex?
Of course, if there’s mutual respect. Bhalobasha oti thunko katha.. oshob onek dekhechhi… samman khub kom dekhechhi. I remember my jyathamashai was sitting for dinner. His sisters-in-law were serving him food, while his wife was sitting at a distance. He asked, ‘Tomader didi aj ki rendhechhen?’. If she had made chutney that day, he would start his meal with that. That’s love and respect. Family is a lovely thing, only if you are not held answerable for everything. Love has to liberate, otherwise, Valentine’s Day should be banned.
Isn’t commitment important?
What commitment? Is it possible to live with one person all your life? By the end of a year, people start getting bored in bed. Marriage has already become redundant. Why did I marry? Because I was a fool. The moment you confess love, there’s a sense of possession. Most think love songs revolve around a man or a woman. No, it revolves around love. My wives have often asked me who I have written a song on! In The Magic Lantern: An Autobiography, Bergman said bowels and obsessive sexuality had taken a toll on him. The same holds true for me.
Is there something called ultimate love?
If you are alive, you will look for love. But I’m not searching… love has willy-nilly offered itself to me. But today, it smacks of class privilege. Here’s a story: A young woman would come to a government hospital to collect free cough syrup regularly. It made the assistant super curious. One day, he went to her Sonarpur shanty only to realise that the sweet syrup was all she could feed her three children along with rice. She was abandoned by her husband. If this is the reality, why talk about love?
You’ve been with more than one woman at the same time. Hasn’t that been a problem?
If you can read more than one book at the same time, why can’t you love two women? I have a lot of respect for women who have enriched me with their minds and bodies.
How many relationships have you had?
Many. Every time I am in love, I feel like hiring a jet plane only to write my lover’s name across the sky. But with time, people mature. At this age, I have become more quiet. To me, a woman neck-down doesn’t matter anymore. Love is like music, it comes in the form of different ragas. I can die just by hearing my beloved call my name â€” Suman, Suman…. At a young age, you look for a destination in love, now I know only death can bring you that.
Doesn’t love call for recognition?
Women fascinate me all the time, not only for sexual reasons. I will never know what it feels to be a mother… It’s not recognition, but secrecy that women want. We are there at a party, though not together. There’s no exchange of words, but the tension of me wanting her, feeling the urge to kiss her is palpable. Therein lies the joy of love. Particularly if you are in love with a married woman, you need to keep some amount of secrecy. She can’t break her home to be with you. I recently felt like kissing my beloved on the busy SN Banerjee Road, but couldn’t. My happiness lies in her’s. I need to protect her. This feeling comes with age.
Won’t you marry again?
The moment she closes her eyes, lifts her face and comes closer for a kiss, that moment we are married…. Jodidong hridoyong momo… it’s not important to be Mr and Mrs Suman. It’s not important if she cooks for me, makes my bed. I can sit at her feet, kiss her toes… that minute we are man and wife. Al Mahmud had written Ganger dheu er moto bolo kanya kabul kabul. This acceptance is marriage. Before I was born, there was a film â€” The Blue Angel â€” where Marlene Dietrich sang Falling in love again, never wanted to/What am I to do? At this age, I feel no different.