Chapter 5. The House on François Martin Street

Sri Aurobindo’s household moved from Mission Street to Francois Martin Street. There arose a difference of opinion among those called “swadeshis” as to the necessity of this change of residence. A strong dispute started in their midst on this account. The disputation, I was told, reached Sri Aurobindo’s ears.

Why this controversy over Sri Aurobindo’s change of residence? The city of Pondicherry was divided into two by a canal running north-south. The eastern side of the city was called by the people “European Quarter” whereas the western side, comprising more than three-fourths of the population, was known as “Indian Quarter”. The “European Quarter” was mostly, we may even say totally, inhabited by the white or mixed white people. As a rule, the houses in this part of the city had in front a footpath for pedestrians and, further away, the road for vehicles. Standing on the footpath one would open the gate of a house and then get in. The houses in the “Indian Quarter” had commonly covered platforms in front to sit upon, but no footpath. In the “white town”, pedestrians would find no shelter from rain and storm. The gates remained always closed. The streets were nearly always silent. People were hardly seen walking there. Sometimes with the arrival of French steamers the shores of Pondicherry were a little busy and, in the interior either the next day or the day after, one might come across one or two pedlars carrying, on the head in baskets or big wooden boxes, perfumes, special biscuits, children’s playthings, stitching threads of many kinds and colours, and other French products. These pedlars would cry out in French, “Marchandises, marchandises” (i.e., “Goods for sale”), with a view to attract the attention of customers. This business was run by one or two of the French families which had settled down at Pondicherry for supplying the needs of the local French people.

Every house had two gates — one for the inmates and the other for the pousse-pousse (push-push) carriages. The latter had a wide opening, a big one-leaf door or, in some places, folding doors.

Sri Aurobindo’s house in Mission Street was rented at Rs. 15/- per month whereas the rent of the house now taken was settled at Rs. 35/-. Now the great question arose: Why did Sri Aurobindo change his residence when the rent was so high? A perplexing question! Why this extravagance? The difference in rent would be sufficient to meet the needs of a whole family. All this was brought to Bharati’s notice. But he did not utter a word about it to Sri Aurobindo, because there was no point in discussing about it when Sri Aurobindo had already taken the decision. It was Bharati’s firm belief that Sri Aurobindo would not do anything without a definite purpose behind it.

A description of the new house: it was a big self-sufficient house in-François Martin St., No. 37. It had two entrances — one on the north and the other on the west. This well-built structure stood at the’ junction of two streets. Rue Francois Martin ran from north to south whereas Rue Law de Lauriston from east to west. The western gate faced Rue François Martin. This was evidently the postern gate, the northern indeed was the main entrance; but as it remained always locked, the western became the main gate. Entering by this gate one would come across an open space which could be termed a courtyard. The northern gate led straight to the staircase; it was later on closed up and the entrance converted into a room, as you see at present. The house being tenantless so long, grass had grown thick at certain places along its walls. There was only one tap for the whole house and that too in the open courtyard, against a wall near the back staircase. The tap still exists and is used by our Green Group boys. Under this water tap — it was fitted up almost to a man’s height — lay a big round stone resembling the lower part of a grind-stone.

In the interior of the house, at one end of the verandah there was a wide staircase leading to the first floor. Each of the steps had its rim strengthened, almost decorated, by a wooden plank. The back staircase had no protection from sun and rain. It was constructed for the passage of cooks, servants, the menials. I have said before that the house was big but it looked desolate.

The upper storey held spacious rooms and a spacious verandah. The east and the west ends had both an open terrace facing south. On the west, at the corner there was a wide room, adjoining which was another room and then the open terrace. Both the terraces had seats under the parapets. I mention this because we used to sit there, including Sri Aurobindo, and chat for long hours at night. The big room, the front room and the terrace — the three together being con­sidered the best part of the house — were set apart for Sri Aurobindo. Such a big house but without electric lights!

The events that took place since Sri Aurobindo’s birth anniversary in August 1913 to his shifting to François Martin Street, i.e., from August 1913 to December 1913, left no clear impression upon my mind. My memory is dim now about this period.

To go a little back in our story, Sri Aurobindo reached the shores of Pondicherry on board the Dupleix at 4 p.m. on April 4, 1910, got down with Bejoykanta and made straight for Shankar Chetty’s house in Comoutty Street.

The persons who escorted Sri Aurobindo to Shankar Chetty’s house were Srinivasachari, C. Subramania Bharati, Suresh Chandra Chakravarti and Shankar Chetty. Of them only Srinivasachari is still alive (1962).

Sri Aurobindo lived incognito for six months in Shankar Chetty’s house. Later on, his stay in Pondicherry came to be known more and more by others. It was during his stay at Shankar Chetty’s that he observed a fast for 21 days. Though he lost weight, as he said, due to this fast, his energy increased many times.

It was again in Shankar Chetty’s house that a distinguished scholar and savant from France met Sri Aurobindo in secret. His name was Paul Richard. He was sent from France by Mira — she whom we now know as the Mother. She handed over to him the sketch of a yogachakra, saying that its interpreter was to be found in India; and he who could interpret it would alone be her helper and master on the path of yoga. Paul Richard received the meaning of the symbol from Sri Aurobindo, and then left for his country with the message. While returning to France he said to Sri Aurobindo that Mira and he could come in the year 1914. Accordingly, they sailed from France, disembarked at Dhanushkoti, took the train and reached Pondicherry on March 29, 1914 without a halt on the way.

Now, what accounted for that change of residence to No. 37, in the Francois Martin Street, many thought, was the impending arrival of these two persons from France. So far as I remember it was the middle of December 1913 that the new house was first occupied.

The “revolutionaries” who had settled at Pondicherry whispered to one another that two Europeans had accepted Sri Aurobindo as Guru and would stay here. This news spread abroad and reached my ears also. One day in December 1913, as was my habit, I went to see Ramaswami Iyengar in the evening. He was downstairs on the veran­dah in front of his room and said that two persons from the top-most cultural circle of France were coming to Sri Aurobindo for practising yoga. They would be coming very soon. “It was a secret till now; I have disclosed it to you today,” he concluded.

I felt very happy: European savants! they have approached a countryman of ours with reverence. My heart rejoiced to hear of it.

The upper storey — its verandah, to be exact — was somewhat beautified. One old cracked table, two arm-chairs, four or five folding armless chairs with back-rest — these were borrowed and arranged there, luckily with no binding to return them.

Moreover, four electric lights were put up, one in Sri Aurobindo’s room, another in the centre of the upper verandah, the third in the verandah downstairs, the fourth I do not remember where. There was no electric meter in the house. For each point the charge was one rupee and four annas per month. Whether the lights were kept burning or not, five rupees had to be paid and the charge would be the same even if they were kept on through all the twenty-four hours. Less than four points were not given as a rule.

The weeds in the courtyard were pulled out. Daily sweeping of the house was now attended to. The house put on almost a gay appearance because of these much-needed changes.

I do not distinctly recollect what took place after Ramaswami Iyengar had shifted from Mission Street and before he finally left Pondicherry. The succession of events and their chronology have become hazy in my remembrance. Naturally I could not know every­thing, since I was not an inmate of Sri Aurobindo’s house.

After Sri Aurobindo had moved to the new house, not a day passed without my paying a visit to the place. Ramaswami was put up in a room downstairs adjacent to the staircase. I used to call on him every evening without fail and accompany him to the beach. As I said, I was much attached to Ramaswami and identified myself with him without being quite conscious of it. In the Mission Street house I used to have Sri Aurobindo’s Darshan once a day. Here it was not so. I had no occasion to go upstairs. Sometimes he would come down and if I happened to be there — well, my good luck!

One event. The year 1914 was born. It was towards the end of March. Time: evening, about 6 p.m. Ramaswami Iyengar was sitting all alone in the open court. There was no other soul. The sense of solitariness was somewhat awesome. Not a fly, not a crow near about. I entered the house. He made a sign and calling me near said: “The two persons from France have arrived. They will just now come and see Sri Aurobindo. The order is that none other than the inmates should remain in the house. You go alone to the sea-side.”

There was a reaction of sorrow and confusion in my heart. I not an inmate! a stranger! Yes, that must be the cause. I said once that there was a kind of screen in my consciousness. The “I” behind that screen was not a stranger; the “I” outside the screen was one.

Iyengar did not stay long in this new house. So far as I remember, he left for his village in May 1914. Whenever I called at the new house I found Ramaswami with a big copy of the Ramayana printed in Devanagari script. He had started reading Sanskrit. Nolini Kanta Gupta was his tutor. Whenever Ramaswami spoke about his tutor, he spoke with love and respect.

Nolini Kanta Gupta gave him lessons in the Bengali language also. In the new house Ramaswami rendered into Tamil Bankim Chandra Chatterji’s short story “Jugal Anguria” and got it published in some periodical — I have forgotten the name, it might be Swadeshimitran. Iyengar’s handwriting looked like a string of tiny pearls. Bharati used to write each letter separately, juxtapose one letter to another and so his handwriting would look like an arrangement of jewels. Iyengar would send his translations to the press only when they had been shown to Bharati.

Ramaswami cherished an immeasurable affection for his mother. A year had passed since he had left his mother’s house. He must see his mother now, he decided. He spoke about this to Sri Aurobindo. Sri Aurobindo was reluctant to permit him. He tried to dissuade him from going back to his place and the old life. But Ramaswami stuck to his decision stubbornly and set out for home. It was some time in May 1914. When I went to the house the day after Ramaswami had left Sri Aurobindo and gone home, I found the downstairs as if all-forsaken. Sorrow invaded my heart. My eyes swam in tears. I felt as if I had been deprived of help or support. With what affection and what love Iyengar talked with me even on the day previous to his departure! Did all that now become an illusion! Seeing me thus, and realising my piteous condition, Bejoykanta, who was on the spot, approached and comforted me with words of kindness.

Iyengar’s departure was but an excuse for me to be in that condition. There was created a vacuum in me. The parental affection could not fill it. The one chosen by my inner being only could make this emptiness disappear. Bejoykanta was a help in reaching the Guru’s Feet.

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