When Rabindranath Tagore died in 1941, crowds gathered outside his ancestral mansion in Calcutta hoping to catch a last glimpse. As soon as the body was brought out of the house, everyone charged toward it at once. Hairs were plucked from his beard, wreaths tossed from buildings on the funeral route. In Satyajit Ray’s documentary of the poet, the corpse is seen floating above a sea of human heads. The roads were so crammed that Tagore’s son Rathindranath could not reach the cremation ghat near the Ganges to light his father’s pyre. The ghat had been cordoned off for a week in preparation for the funeral, but once the fire was lit, people broke in, looking for bones and other remains. The body wasn’t yet burnt, and mourners were scavenging through the ashes, screaming and cursing.
Mrinal Sen was in the crowd outside the funeral. He was new to the city, a student at the Scottish Church College, which had canceled classes after reports of Tagore’s demise. Sen had reached the ghat beforehand to get a good view, but the policemen near the entrance made him stand at a distance. He was waiting for the procession to arrive, he wrote later, when he spotted a young man dressed in white on the other side of the police cordon. “He was standing with a child in his arms, his own, so I thought, wrapped in a milk-white towel. Most probably, he came to cremate the child and was caught in a cruel situation. Why did he not go to another crematorium?”
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