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At the Feet of The Mother

“Old Long Since” – Some Memories of Amrita


In this month falls the birth anniversary of our unforgettable and incomparable Amrita whose sudden passing away was felt as a sharp stab from the hand of the unseen forces. What we miss most in his absence is his Birbal-like wit and humour that used to ‘scatter like sparks from an unextinguished hearth’ at all moments and in any situation, either while plunged in his managerial work, talking business with people, going for a bath, on the way to the Bank, while waiting for the Mother, or even in Her presence. He was the one person we knew who could cut jokes with her while the rest of us were petrified into reverential silence. The Mother allowed him that liberty, and enjoyed his humour, sometimes with an appreciative smile, sometimes with an assumed gravity, and even provoked his playfulness.

We used to have much fun on the first day of every month on our way to “Prosperity” to receive our monthly supplies. The Mother used to distribute toffees in the long corridor leading to Pavitra’s room to all those who would accompany her. Some-times she would throw them to us. Most of us were good catchers, but Amrita had never been a sportsman and the Mother would purposely bring that out by either, throwing the toffee at great speed or tossing it up or hurling it beyond his reach. Poor Amrita would invariably miss it. Once she threw the sweet with some force and Amrita made a violent comic gesture with both arms as if he was trying to embrace someone. “Oh Amrita,” the Mother cried with a smile, “to catch a small thing you make such a violent movement?”. “Douce Mere,” he replied, “I was trying to catch what was behind it.” Everyone burst into laughter.

Again, after the business sittings which used to take place on the first floor where the Mother’s chair is at present near the staircase, people, on getting up, would now and then get a knock on their heads from the plank-ledge of the adjacent almirah. Udar, it seems, proposed to remove it, but the Mother protested, saying, “No, it will make them conscious.” One day Amrita received a good bump. The Mother enquired, “What’s the matter?” “Getting conscious, douce Mere,” was Amrita’s repartee. The next joke was in the presence of a big gathering. The Mother was taking her usual French translation class in the Playground. Amrita came late and was waiting to enter. The Mother asked him, “You can’t enter before answering a question. What is the relation between the Divine and Art?” Naturally the whole class was in a hushed suspense. Amrita kept silent for a while, replied gravely, “Good relation, Douce Mere”, and quietly walked in. A peal of laughter, and the Mother smiled. Such was Amrita and such was the sweet relation between the Divine and Amrita.

But at the same time the Mother didn’t spare him at all for any negligence, mistake, carelessness and other minor or major fault. He accepted all these knocks and shocks bravely, since he knew them to be expressions of her love.

As with the Mother so with all others, particularly when they too were witty persons like Amal or Wilfy. I used to wonder whence came such an endless stock of mirth, wit, such divine levity. Had he found the rasa from his contact with his Guru? With so heavy a burden of work upon him, how could he remain the Sadananda Purusha at all times? This was my inner query, specially when I was a chronic sufferer from the attacks of the opposite Purusha. His contact therefore was salutary, not for me alone but for all who approached him, for — to adapt the Poet of the Daffodils —

A sadhak cannot but be gay
In such a jocund company,

and one would look forward to the next meeting.

What was Amrita’s heavy burden? Whenever you entered his room, you saw him at his bureau, a small figure with somewhat stooping shoulders, smooth broad forehead, sharp slightly curved nose, black eyes twinkling with mischief — a typical Brahmin face of the South. You would observe on his table bunches of keys and handfuls of pens and pencils; almirahs and chests of drawers stood all around him along the walls, packed with files and files. Entering his small elongated bedroom, smaller than mine, you would notice how he had managed to put every necessary toilet thing, shoes, dhoties, etc., etc., in beautiful order. There was a small peg for the toothbrush, another for the shaving brush, a small bracket for toilet articles; a mirror, a washbasin, a clothes stand were placed with perfect precision, so that even a blind man could pick them out. The Mother has remarked that the state of the wardrobe of a person will give you the clue to his mind. Had Amrita’s wardrobe been examined, I am sure Amrita would have passed this test with Honours. Also, he himself made his own bed, smoothed out all the creases of the white bedsheet and lay on it with a clear conscience. I saw him doing all the operations with my own eyes, and felt like lying down on the cosy bed. He would take off the mosquito curtain himself and fold it carefully. When most of us used our servants for doing these jobs and washing our clothes, Amrita had washed his own clothes from the very beginning — and so have Nolini, Dyuman and Bula. In the days before illness overtook him, he would get up early in the morning, go to Padmasini’s place for a bath, wash his clothes, attend to the servant department and come back at 5.30 or so.

From early in the day his work would start, and continue till 9-10 p.m. with a short break at noon. The Bank business, money order accounts, house hiring, servant supervision, etc., etc. — multifarious activities were his daily chores. And a stream of people poured into his room and went out, with their complaints, demands, questions, answers to be carried to the Mother. To deal with them was his main occupation. If one just stood at his door, one would see the fun of it all! Some people were sitting, some standing in the small room crowded with chairs, tables, almirahs, some others waiting outside and himself sitting in his chair, talking with some clients, giving them the Mother’s answers or signing a cheque, while the typewriter went rattling away on the next table, money order accounts were being written on another one, he was busy as if with a hundred hands, a hundred mouths, and cracking jokes in between, receiving some people with a smile, sending away others all contented, half contented but rarely grumbling. ‘What? servant trouble? don’t like the room? not well? blessings?’ In all problems minor or major one answer was often repeated: ‘I will ask the Mother’. It sounded like Sri Ramakrishna. If you wanted to know what was Karmayoga, you had just to watch him. No fatigue, no leisure, no irritation, affable, amiable with all! it is because of this amiability and kind consideration that most people, Europeans and Indians alike, flocked to him. ‘Amrita-da, Amrita-da’ was the call you would constantly hear echoing all around. And when he came down from the Mother with the tray full of papers, letters, flowers, people lay in wait for him. ‘Oh, I have forgotten, tomorrow, tomorrow!

‘Here are your blessings!’ ‘No, Mother was too busy, no time. These were the usual answers. Sometimes the answers also were misplaced; after a hurried search, found or not found! Yet none complained, his sweetness acted like a balm. He was rightly called Ajatasatru, one with no enemies. As I was not familiar with him at the beginning I did not know that he was such a witty person. When I knew, I wondered how it was possible to be so jolly with so much botheration on one’s shoulders! I myself had to approach him often with what I used to term my Padmasini trouble, i.e., servant trouble. As soon as I entered, ‘What, some trouble again?’ he would ask, and would uphold my appeal. Somebody complained to the Mother that Amrita and some others were not very practical people. The Mother replied, ‘But they are very faithful.’ Faithfulness, love and devotion and entire dedication were the very essence of Amrita’s nature. Whatever the Mother said was law unto him. He would not do anything small or big without having first the Mother’s sanction. In his illnesses too he had relied entirely on the Mother, and in his last illness when he was advised to go to Madras for an operation, he refused because the Mother didn’t approve of it. In the early thirties we used to enjoy the sight of his pranam to the Mother; he and Chandulal, Vasudha’s brother and his brother by adoption, both would do pranam together, one at each foot. While Chandulal would almost hang down holding the Mother’s foot, Amrita would bow down, giving the impression of an obedient and devoted child.

Though Amrita’s efficiency and industry in the various activities under his supervision were not in doubt, I did not fail to notice his ignorance or absence of body sense. In this respect, he was the complete antipodes of Nolini, though they were like counterparts, ancient friends living side by side — antipodes also in one being of divine levity, the other of divine gravity. Amrita did not seem to know what he was suffering from, what restrictions he should observe as regards diet, work, rest, etc. I was very much surprised to learn that just a few days after his first heart attack, he climbed a three-storey building staircase just to inaugurate its opening ceremony, a thing, I am sure, Nolini wouldn’t have done with his keen sense of body science. We were also amused to see him taking part in physical exercises in the playground. After Sri Aurobindo’s passing away, a great pressure was felt by all of us, calling for a change in our way of life. Among the older disciples, Nolini, Amrita, Dilip and others joined in the physical exercises as a part of the integral yoga. I have heard that when Amrita proposed it to the Mother, the Mother refused twice, replying, ‘Stupid idea!’ But when, encouraged by the example of the rest, he made his third appeal, it was conceded. His enthusiasm, however, did not last for long. That is why the Mother had been reluctant, for she knew his nature and habits very well. The spectacle of Amrita and Dilip doing collective exercises in the playground attracted crowds to enjoy the Harry Lauder fun. Both of them marching in blue shorts with others, hardly keeping time, or both falling behind and running to catch up, or right foot falling in place of the left, turning to the left instead of the right and, particularly when commanded to sit on the ground, their inability to rise up promptly — all these at once were an eloquent testimony to the fact of physical exercises being foreign to their nature. In this respect they resembled very much their Master. In his case too, when he was advised by Dr. Manilal to take some exercises in bed in order to tone up his muscles, one could see that he was practising a para dharma. Unlike Amrita, Nolini could apply himself most naturally to make his body a perfect instrument. When, in the latter phase of Amrita’s life, I drew his attention to his developing paunch, he asked me in Bengali, ‘Oh, is it so?’ It was very sweet to hear his hesitant, stumbling Bengali; so was his French speech, though he had a good command over the language and was once a teacher of French. Sri Aurobindo told us a humorous story about his teaching. A student complained once that what he was teaching was not according to the book and pointed out the apparent mistake. Quick came the retort: ‘That is old French!’ It was Sri Aurobindo, it seems, who induced him to learn Bengali in the early dawn of the Ashram — a training which became so useful for his work. And it was Sri Aurobindo, again, who was behind the loss of his stately shikha, his prized Brahmin tuft. The story is both amusing and revealing.

Sri Aurobindo is said to have put two or three young men to nipping off his shikha at any cost, and it was done by no one else than Nolini at 2 a.m. when Amrita was guarding his shikha in his sleep, at Sri Aurobindo’s place. “I had an apprehension,” he writes, that night that the shikha would be no more on my head and next morning having got up, as I felt for the shikha I found it non-existent.” Why did Sri Aurobindo play this prank? Can we imagine Sri Aurobindo doing it, even out of fun to strike at his orthodoxy? It was in accordance with Sri Aurobindo’s decision and order, Amrita writes, that the ‘shikha’ was cut off. Well, the sequel will explain the meaning of the irreligious practical joke. He went to Madras soon after offering the shikha ‘at the altar of the temple at sacred Pondicherry in which Sri Aurobindo is the deity’. One day his father came to his room. Astounded at Amrita’s appearance, bereft of the shikha and other traditional marks, he stood fixed like a statue. Tears then streamed down his cheeks. After about an hour he said: ‘A girl has been chosen for you. She belongs to a rich family…. They are likely to give, as dowry, fifty thousand rupees in cash. I have just seen the girl. Yes, she is quite dark in complexion with pock marks on the face. Her family is extremely orthodox…. But you have pulled down the whole edifice.’ Was it Sri Aurobindo’s prophetic vision that caused its downfall? Did he anticipate the catastrophe falling on Amrita’s head and intervene in time by getting the precious tuft sheared off?

The incident shows at any rate the intimacy that had developed between the guru and the young shishya. His reminiscences further disclose that this closeness was not of our earthly making. Discarding the three big leaders of the Swadeshi days, Lai, Bal and Pal, a boy in his teens to fall in love with simply the name “Aravinda Ghosh” sounds almost like the spell cast by Krishna’s flute in the gopis. Afterwards his meeting with his beloved Krishna, the tears, the palpitation, the embrace, the adoration — all these love symptoms attest to his heart’s allegiance borne through many lives. Then, his strange vision while standing by a village pond at eventide is a corroboration of my bright surmise, and sends our memory back to the vision of the Magi in the Bible. In later life I had occasion to see him in Sri Aurobindo’s presence. Once he had come with papers and documents to be signed by Sri Aurobindo. He was waiting at the door for permission to enter. Sri Aurobindo sat up on the bed, Amrita sat on the floor by the side, put the paper before Sri Aurobindo showing him the place where to sign. ‘What shall I write?’ asked the Master. ‘Your full name.’ Then on two or three pages he indicated with his fingers the places, and said, ‘Now only the initials.’ ‘Any more?’ Sri Aurobindo asked with a smile. ‘No,’ he replied in a grave tone, disappointing my expectation of a witty reply. But I felt that each time he was putting his fingers on the papers, they were eager to have a touch, but the Master did not give the poor fellow any chance. His supramental nature fought shy of any demonstration. Even with regard to the Mother, Sri Aurobindo was very restrained in any external physical exhibition of his feelings. The Mother would come, and do pranam on darshan days, take his hand and kiss it, but he would just lightly place his hand on her head, though his heart was “full of the warm South”. In Champaklal’s case, at the end of his term, it was astonishingly different; for, as we have mentioned elsewhere, he heaped embraces upon him as if the last seal and sanction of his eternal love for his devoted servant. We did not realise till then that Sri Aurobindo was capable of so much emotion. I was wondering, ‘Do I wake or sleep?’ The Divine is not limited by any human notions or rules or canons. The word ‘embrace’, like Keats’s unusual word ‘forlorn,’ brings back the happy vision I had of Amrita some months back. He entered Sri Aurobindo’s room, taller than his normal stature, more robust, quite muscular, clad in his usual white dhoti and Punjabi. Sri Aurobindo was sitting on the bed. Amrita said in a deliberate tone, ‘I will do pranam.’ Sri Aurobindo answered quietly, ‘Very well.’ ‘No, not only pranam, I will embrace you.’ Then Sri Aurobindo stood up and clasped him with such Bhima-like vigorous affection that he appeared to be simply crushed and absorbed into Sri Aurobindo’s bosom. This was Amrita, the hungry heart! Here again I was wondering at the unusual manifestation, and thinking: ‘Is it a vision or a waking dream?’

This hungry heart had some spiritual vital sustenance with the arrival of his nieces. But let that come at its right place. I was told that in the early period Amrita was given the exceptional privilege of washing Sri Aurobindo’s hand by pouring water on it after he had finished his meal. Once when he was late, Sri Aurobindo kept on waiting. Another anecdote of the early days, recounted by Sri Aurobindo which I have recorded elsewhere, runs like this. Amrita was suffering from an incessant hiccough, became panicky and said to Sri Aurobindo, ‘Sir, I am going to die?’ ‘What does it matter if you die?’ was the brutal reply and at once the hiccough stopped!

As I have just hinted, Amrita’s loving heart was pining for some channel to express itself, and that was fulfilled when in later days his two young nieces came to seek shelter under his old wings. Those who have witnessed his ‘weakness of heart’ — not in the Gita’s sense — have realised what a warm spring of love lay hidden in the deep cave of the heart of a yogi! One day most unexpectedly I entered his room to see him holding the hand of one of his nieces who seemed to be in a mood of abhiman. He at once dropped the hand and I came out with a delighted smile! It looks as if all old sadhaks have to pass through such emotional experiences in order to give a completeness to their integral yoga (as did Shankara), through a renewed contact with either their daughters, sisters, adopted or real, nieces or various other relations. This niece took some lessons in English from me. Amrita used to inquire about her progress, but what he stressed most was that I should try to make her write correctly so that she might be of use in her work. I don’t know how far she fulfilled that role, but during his illness, she poured out all her tender heart in his service. Her sister also helped. Speaking of his illness, I was a bit concerned when I first heard about its being an affection of the heart. I knew that he had prostate trouble, perhaps high blood pressure too, but both were kept in check. During the last days his growing pale complexion was a topic of frequent discussion. When he had the second attack, I felt very uneasy, but the crisis passed and he was slowly recovering. He used to be seen sitting up in his chair in the early morning in front of his central door. One day I enquired, ‘How are you?’ ‘Fairly well; but my sweet heart gives me trouble now and then.’ I smiled. That was his last joke. But I came away with a very bad prognostic impression. He looked ash pale, extremely weak, even though cheerful. Two or three days later I was as usual at my evening desk when Bula ran up and cried, ‘Doctor, quick, quick! Amrita has fainted.’ I ran down to find everything over. The bird had flown away! Soon Dr. Sanyal arrived and gave the same verdict.

The news outwinged the wind, and the rush of visitors followed in a calm mourning procession. One was compelled to close the door with a promise to open it the next morning. From morning till about 4 p.m. the stream of people, the Ashram members, all Ashram servants, officials and respectable men from outside, heaps of garlands, flowers, made a sight bearing witness to his immense popularity and lovableness. Most of the people were in tears. They had lost a true brother. Revealing had been also the occasions of his birthdays — memorable fetes. Flowers and fruits, garlands and presents filled the whole room and in the midst of them all was seated the King of Spring, face beaming, lips cracking jokes, hands distributing sweets, a veritable Anandamaya Purusha. Like Lamb among the essayists, Amrita undoubtedly was the most lovable of our old sadhaks.

Questions may rise in our minds: ‘Why, if Amrita had made a complete surrender to the Divine, did he leave his body? Could not the Mother prolong his life?’ If the old sadhaks who have advanced far on the path and on whom we have built our hopes, leave us in the lurch, we cannot but presume a power of darkness still dogging our steps and trying to annul our long sustained efforts; we have no certitude! The answer is that there is no certitude below the Supermind; until it has completely established its victory over the forces of darkness and death, such casualties cannot be ruled out. In Amrita’s case, however, the Mother seems to have said that even at the age of fifty his soul wanted to leave the body and it was kept earth-bound by the Mother for fifteen years to do work for the Divine. Had that work come to a ripe end or was his body so worn out by disease that the soul decided to discard the tattered rags? Whatever it may be, we learn from the Mother that he is always with her, moving about and freely just like a child. He must also be contented to see his two nieces partly filling his place and called to the Mother’s presence.

I have said nothing about his spiritual attainment, firstly for want of any personal knowledge, secondly because it is ‘as plain as a pikestaff’. A man who had clung to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother since his first young promptings, following their footsteps wherever they led him, to whom the only rasa in life was entire dedication of self to them with joy and making everyone else who came in contact with him happy, hasn’t he found atma-rati, a supreme status? And his ‘Reminiscences’, aren’t they vibrant with his yearning for the Unknown to be known, the Unclutchable to be clutched? His wonderful early vision, does it not speak of his age-old tie with Sri Aurobindo? What more do we want? Ripeness is all, and that ripeness he attained, whatever technical terms you may apply to his inner status.

I must, however, end on a note of melancholy, from my Man of Doubt. The Ashram rings no longer with ‘Douce Mere’ from Amrita’s lips. The courtyard doesn’t shine with his figure, clad in white, no ‘Bonjour’ from him is echoed by the trees and pillars, walls and pavements. His office is there working efficiently, though perhaps a bit lacklustre, but, the constant humming, the ananda-mela has come to a close. There has passed away from us a presence which will be difficult to replace. Still, as a consolation for what we have lost, we have among us our staunch elders, Nolini, Champaklal, Dyuman, pillars planted by the Mother herself.

(Mother India, Sept. 1970)

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