Ilya Repin. Portrait of the writer Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy (1896). Source: wikipedia.org
In Indian literary circles, Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy is much less-known than his second cousin Lev Tolstoy, one of the world’s greatest writers. But perhaps, the greater tragedy is that a poem of his has been wrongly and repeatedly attributed to Russia’s iconic poet Alexander Pushkin.
Aleksey Tolstoy is believed to have led a busy high-society life, full of pleasure trips, parties and balls, hunting sprees and fleeting romances. Although he lived in St Petersburg of the 1800s, it is still easy for someone living in Mumbai in this day and age to relate to him.
How does a man who wrote such beautiful poetry so long ago still matter today? As I asked myself these questions I remembered a poem of his titled: “Amidst the noisy ball” ... I looked into my life in Mumbai and it was the perfect fit.
Mumbai is a city of opportunities, desires and dreams. People come here from all over India in order to fulfil their goals. It is a ‘noisy ball’ to say the least but there are so many more layers which I feel this poem describes perfectly. Our lives in this megapolis are hectic and pressed. For most of us it involves working and just working. Time is always short and people are always hurried. Given that many barely get time to sleep, let alone meet other people, relationships are difficult to form and if you do have them they are difficult to keep. However, this does not mean that people do not have feelings and emotions; even if there are fleeting moments. So how does this poem describe contemporary Mumbai life?
Tolstoy says, “I’ve seen you, but the secret’s veil.” People in Mumbai, like in many big cities, are closely guarded on most occasions; we don’t open up to people the first time we meet them. Was life like this in the St Petersburg of Tolstoy? In 2013, we meet people, socialise for that time and not very often do we actually meet those people beyond the space of a bar or a nightclub.
“I’ve seen you, but the secret’s veil was covering your face.” When Tolstoy describes this moment it is a moment that many of us might have experienced. You see that person across the room, your eyes meet and you may talk but there is always that aura of mystery. Who is that person, what are his dreams... You want to know more but there is only so much you can get to know.
Living in a big city is not easy for most people around the world. It comes with its fair share of trials and tribulations and most of us do not share our problems with others. Mumbai has a way in which no matter what you go through you will still go out and be laughing and dancing as if nothing ever happened. The pain does however reveal itself sometimes and when Tolstoy says “Your fair eyes were sad and bright,” it is true. The recent suicide of a young Bollywood actress shows us this despair: a beautiful girl who was the life of party only to have so much darkness in her. Nobody she met knew about it or could tell that she was suffering.
However, this is a poem about love and longing and we all long for that someone special. Mumbai can be a lonely city but every now and then you do get a moment where you meet that person you want to be with. And as Tolstoy says “to pause --
And see your beautiful sad eyes”…we all do stop what we’re doing irrespective of how busy we are. And just for that time the rest of the world ceases to exist and that the only thing that matters is that one person. Even if it just to think about them.
The wonder of this poem is that even though it was written so long ago, the verses remain still relevant to this era. Everything that was described in this poem holds true to this very day. Yes, Mumbai is a noisy ball. But amidst that noise you do find glimpses of emotions and feelings. You do find moments of love. And as much as life is uncertain I would say in his words “I’m sure not whether I love thee --
But, maybe, I’m in love.”
The poem subsequently inspired a Tchaikovsky composition that became a romantic classic that remained popular as a repertoire on Russian radio and television for decades.
The writer is a Mumbai-based independent film-maker and a sworn Russophile
Amidst the Noisy Ball
Amidst the noisy ball, in Hell
Of everyday distress,
I’ve seen you, but the secret’s veil
Was covering your face.
Your fair eyes were sad and bright,
And voice was so sweet,
As sound of a pipe apart
Or murmur of the sea.
I’ve liked your fine and slender waist,
And thoughtful image, whole,
And sound of your voice -- it nests
Forever in my soul...
When tired, in my lone nights,
I lie down to pause --
And see your beautiful sad eyes,
And hear your merry voice.
And, sad, I fall asleep to see
My dreams that run above...
I’m sure not whether I love thee --
But, maybe, I’m in love.
Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Amidst the noisy ball. Source: smorodina19
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