Nalak, a book by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s nephew Abanindranath, is a study of the journey of the Buddha through various stages of his life in parallel with that of a village lad. Nalak, in its English translation, is devoid of any chapters. What makes this book markedly different from other translation works and refreshing is its illustrations in the pen-and-ink style. The illustrations draw heavily from the style of Buddhist tankha painting with minute detailing. The illustrations, accentuating the lyrical narrative, delineate the restless spirit of Nalak, ever inattentive towards school work. His home is anything but a home. Through simple but engaging visuals, Abanindranath takes readers through the story of Nalak's coming-of-age, and his quest and meditation for finding Buddha. Born with special powers of a divine vision, Nalak is able to perceive the birth of Buddha and the stages of the Jataka story.
One of the most striking illustrations is Siddharth leaving the royal palace in the dead of night, while his wife Yashodhara and son Rahula sleep. A bit of context for those who need to refresh their memory - the daughter of King Suppabuddha and Queen Pamita, Yashodhara was married to her cousin Prince Siddharth when both of them were 16 years old. Yashodhara was perceived to be an epitome of beauty and compassion, standing true to the meaning of her name 'the bearer of the glory'. After the birth of their son, Rahula, Buddha left his kingdom to become an ascetic.
While many of us are aware of what happens afterward, very few of us have been keen to know what happened to Yashodhara after Buddha left her. Tagore could have made the story even more well-rounded by highlighting Yashodhara's story as well. She received several marriage proposals but turned a blind eye to all of them. In fact, many of her relatives sent her assurances to maintain her and Rahula. But Yashodhara was a true virangna, who knew how to lead her life with valour and courage.
Another alluring feature of the book is the trope of complete merger of timelines, when Nalak's childhood and years of youth capture prince Siddharth's transition - from a newborn to a full-grown man, a husband and a father - in a time capsule. The book, with its subtle realism, successfully encompasses Nalak's yearning to meet and forever remain with Buddha.