With Sri Aurobindo in Baroda (2) by Dinendra Kumar Roy

This is an English translation of a memoir by Dinendra Kumar Roy (1869-1943), who lived with Sri Aurobindo in Baroda from 1898 to 1900 or 1901. This text first appeared in the journal Sahitya in Bengali in 1911-1912.


Chapter 2

When we went to Baroda we stayed at first for a short time in Khaserao-saheb’s house. This was a large, red, single-storied mansion on the main road. It was quite beautiful. Rao-saheb’s family was not staying there at the time. He had been posted as the magistrate of Kadi or Amreli district of the Baroda state. His family lived there too. When he came back to Baroda as magistrate, we left that house and went to another locality where we stayed in a waada that belonged to a Muslim. So much time has passed that I can’t remember the strange name of this waada. The houses around us belonged to Maratha families. In the morning, the women used to get all dressed up and go to the temple or some other place. They came out at dawn with a plate to collect flowers from the nearby gardens. As I watched them I was reminded of Ravi Varma’s paintings. The women were not veiled nor did they show any shyness. Their steps did not falter when they walked past strange men. When I saw them walking boldly on the main road, draped in bright saris worn in the Maharashtrian style, with flowers adorning their hair, I felt that in many respects they were better and more independent than Bengali women.

One afternoon I was sitting on the first-floor verandah chatting with some friends. At one point in the conversation, talking about the characteristics of Maratha women as compared with Bengali — about the distinctive qualities that can be observed from outside, that is — I said that due to the absence of purdah, Maharashtrian women were far more self-reliant, courageous and free than their Bengali counter-parts. Our women could not walk in public so freely; and as for defending themselves against attack, it was out of the question!

After listening to me, one of our Maratha friends, Mr. Phadke, said, “A brute who would attack our girls on the road had better be prepared! A few days back, a Maharashtrian woman was travelling from Bombay to Surat. It was on a local train and there weren’t many passengers. At Kalyan junction all the passengers in her compartment got down and she was left all alone. Just before the train pulled away a gigantic Pathan entered the compartment. He was a well-built fellow with a flowing beard and moustache, eyes blackened with kaajal, and a huge turban wrapped all around his head. I suspect this young man was slightly capricious. Once the train started, our chap noticed a beautiful young damsel clad in a blue sari with its pleats tucked in front, sitting all alone. Divine Eros took aim at the poor chap’s breast and shot his unfailing flowery arrows. For a while the chap opened his large beautifully kaajal-lined eyes and gazed at the pretty lady. He gestured to her a few times; then when, despite his signals, she did not respond, he moved over to her seat and sat down next to her. The young woman rebuked him sharply, saying that he must have a mother or sister who travelled by train. What would she think if a hooligan came and sat right next to her? But as the saying goes, a rogue pays no heed to good counsel. The chap bared his teeth and stretched out his left hand to embrace her. Where could she go? There was no way out! The young woman leaped up like a tigress and gave the chap such a kick on his chest that the tall, hefty chap was knocked down on the bench. And that wasn’t the end of it. She thrust her two fingers into the chap’s eyes and blinded him for good. When the train stopped at the next station the chap’s cries attracted several people and he recovered his freedom; but he never recovered his eyesight. After this incident many a hooligan like him had his inner vision suddenly opened!”

Had this taken place in Bengal what would have happened? After violating the Bengali woman the rogue would have escaped or been nabbed by the police. And the woman’s righteous, religious husband or brother would have frowned and declared, “We cannot tarnish the purity of our blameless family by accepting this impure, unchaste woman back into our house.” And the society would have threatened, “Beware, if you take her in, you’ll be ostracized. Let the girl go and live in the marketplace.”

No one laughed at what I said; only a few nostrils quivered a bit in disgust. The Marathas present there, I imagine, had a rather high opinion of Bengali society!

Aurobindo never cared about dressing up: he had nothing to do with stylishness. Even when he went to the royal court, he went in his ordinary clothes. He did not own any expensive shoes, shirts, ties, collars, flannels, linen or any of the innumerable sorts of coats, hats and caps that people wear. I never saw him wear a European hat. He used the sort of hat that is generally known in this area as the Piraali topi.

His bed was as simple and ordinary as his clothes. Even a clerk would have thought it below his dignity to lie on the cast-iron bedstead he slept on, which cost him all of thirty rupees! He wasn’t accustomed to sleeping on a soft, thick mattress. On account of its proximity to the desert, Baroda has severe summers as well as winters. But I never saw Aurobindo use a quilt even in the cold of January. Instead of a quilt he used an ordinary blanket. During the winter he wore a blue shawl worth half a dozen rupees. As long as I lived with him and observed him he was absorbed in his studies, sensitive to the suffering of others, and always self-sacrificing like a sannyasin. It seemed that he had made a vow to devote his life to the acquisition of knowledge. Even in the midst of the hustle-bustle of this world he was immersed in intense tapasya in order to fulfil this vow.

I have never seen such an incredible reader. Since he wrote poetry late into the night, he rose rather late. He always kept a cheap, open-faced watch with him. A small clock stood on his reading table. After a morning cup of tea he sat down and opened his poetry notebook. At that time he was translating the Mahabharata. He couldn’t understand Bengali well, but the Sanskrit Ramayana and Mahabharata he understood quite well indeed. He did not translate the whole text in order but parts of it. He wrote poems based on some episode of the Mahabharata. He also wrote English poems in various metres. He had an exceptional mastery of English. His English poems were simple and sweet. The descriptions were clearly expressed and free from exaggeration. His vocabulary was extraordinary — he never misused a word. He wrote poems first on small “Grey Granite” coloured letter pads. He hardly ever made corrections. Before writing, he smoked a cigarette and thought for a while; afterwards the thought-stream flowed through his pen. It is true that he could not write fast, but once he started his pencil did not stop. If anyone asked him something at such times he felt disturbed, but the other person would not guess his irritation. I never saw Aurobindo get angry. In fact none of the human vices had any hold on him. One cannot gain such mastery over oneself and one’s senses without first doing a lot of sadhana. I found him especially cheerful on days when he was satisfied with what he wrote. Occasionally he used to read out the poems to me. He would open the Ramayana and Mahabharata and read out the original words to verify whether his rendering had been faithful. He preferred the great Valmiki to Vyasa; he believed that Valmiki had no peer in the world. He once wrote an English article to demonstrate Valmiki’s prominence as a poet. I don’t know if this article was ever published in an English monthly either here or in England. He said that Dante fascinated him and he found Homer’s Illiad highly satisfying. In European literature these two were incomparable. But as a poet, Valmiki was the most outstanding. No epic on earth could equal Valmiki’s Ramayana.

He read and wrote until about ten and then went for his bath. After that he sat down again with his notebook and revised what he had written earlier in the morning. After reading over the lines two or three times, he would change a word or two if necessary. Lunch was served before eleven. He used to read the newspaper as he ate. Baroda food did not suit me but he was used to it. The food was sometimes so bad that it was difficult to put it in one’s mouth! But he just swallowed it without ever complaining to the cook. He preferred Bengali cuisine and often praised it. We normally had a vegetable dish, a fried dish, daal, meat or fish, and bread and rice. He ate more bread than rice. The rice he ate was so little that he did not mind its absence I guess! He found it difficult to eat meat twice a day, so he took meat at one meal and fish at the next. The cook sometimes prepared chutney too. But it was inedible because what he made was either too hot or too salty. The way he cooked meat was neither curry nor kalliya — neither liquid nor dry. Too much spice often made it inedible. Dry grated coconut is one of the principal ingredients in Maharashtra — no vegetable could escape it! In Baroda we got large quantities of maurulla fish and lobsters — the prices were good too! We also got rui, mrigel and other fish sometimes. But none of this ever tasted as good as our Bengali fish. Occasionally sea-fish was served, but the stink was nauseating.

Since Aurobindo was very partial to Bengali cuisine we recruited a cook from Bengal — a young man from the Bankura district. We thought that he had consented to come as far as Baroda out of an adventurous spirit, but when we tasted his cooking we realised that it would not stand a chance in Bengal. But Aurobindo ate whatever he cooked. This made the cook even more wayward. Around that time Mr. Shashikumar Hesh, the famous painter, came to Baroda from England. I’ll speak about him later. Aurobindo invited him and some other friends for dinner. The cook did not understand English and at that time Aurobindo could hardly speak Bengali. I explained to the cook what Aurobindo wanted — Bengali cuisine, things like pilao, meat curry, grilled fish curry, gravy and chutney. When he was asked if he could prepare these things, he replied, “If I get the ingredients, I can cook anything!” Aurobindo’s Gujarati servant, Keshtha, went and got the ingredients in large quantities. In order to show his culinary skill the cook fried everything — fish, lobsters and all — in ghee. During dinner, you can’t imagine the stink of the fish! We had to abandon it half way. Had he been employed by someone else, the cook would have got a couple of slaps. But Aurobindo just burst out laughing at this exhibition of his culinary skill!

This cook could not stay long with us at Baroda. He did not understand the language of the place and so was unable to speak with anyone. Soon he was as desperate as a fish out of water. Sometimes in the afternoon he would sit in the shade of the nearby sandal-grove and cry out aloud:

Jaa re kokilaa aamar praan-bandhu jekhaane!

(Fly, О cuckoo, to where my soul mate lies!)

Aurobindo was quite amused when he heard the cook — overcome with sorrow, far from his beloved — mournfully bellowing out his song. But Aurobindo’s gentle heart was also filled with sympathy for him and he remarked, “Poor fellow, he’s awfully sad here.” A few months later, when we returned to Bengal, we took the cook along. He did not come back to Baroda. In the absence of a male cook we hired a woman. She was an old Gujarati woman who looked rather like a child’s nurse.

From the beginning Aurobindo had a young domestic servant named Keshtha or in proper language Krishna. I think his parents must have given him this name on account of his complexion. One does not generally come across such a dark-skinned fellow. He wore silver bracelets on his forearms and rings in his ears; his teeth were so big that he could not close his lips. Rabi-babu, in his play Raja о Rani, describing the qualities of the old Trivedi Thakur, wrote: “His simple-mindedness was just a mask for his crookedness.” This was more than apt for Keshtha. I doubt if he would have lasted for more than three days with anyone else but Aurobindo. I cannot close this chapter without mentioning some of his antics.

Krishna used to buy the provisions for the house from the market. One day he brought one paisa worth of lemons. (The Baroda mint issued babasayi paise, which were accepted in the Baroda markets; three Indian paise were worth four babasayi paise.) The lemons were only a little bigger than our wild jujubes. We understood that he had saved half a paisa. A few days later as I was taking an afternoon stroll I noticed some large lemons in a shop and bought a paisa’s worth. Later in my own mixture of Marathi, Gujarati, Hindi and Bengali, I told Keshtha, “Hey, Keshtha! I got three big lemons for a paisa and what did you get the other day?” Without the slightest embarrassment, he said, “But how small my lemons were! How can you ever get more than two of those for a paisa?” Aurobindo laughed heartily at his logic.

On another occasion Keshtha bought some mangoes. The mangoes of Gujarat are usually sweet, but the ones he bought were so sour that he must have really scoured the place to find them. No sooner had I taken a bite that I spat it out! Later I bought some extremely sweet mangoes for much less than what he had paid. Giving him one to eat I said, “See how sweet these mangoes are! You rogue! The other day you bought those horrible mangoes for three times the price!” After tasting the mango I had offered him, he shook his head and said with a straight face: “Iya amba phaar gor ahe!” — “This mango is much too sweet!” His point was that such sweet mangoes would obviously be cheap; where would you get sour mangoes at such a low price! I think that Keshtha thought we weren’t residents of India but old-fashioned Highlanders! I cannot resist the temptation of recounting a story here. In the early days of the British Raj, some platoons of Highlanders were posted at the Fort in Calcutta. Back home they had never seen a mosquito or a firefly. In Calcutta they were so harassed by mosquitoes that they covered themselves from head to toe with a blanket and just lay there on their bunks. They were unable to breathe, but they dared not uncover their faces for fear of mosquitoes. But how long can a man lie with his nose and mouth covered? Finally one of them pulled the blanket down from his face a little and noticed a firefly in a corner of the room. He screamed out, “Good Lord! We’re done for! The beasts have returned with lanterns to search us out!”

These foreigners had heard praises of the coconut abroad, but they had never had the good fortune of tasting one. One day they decided to try a coconut. They went to a grocer’s shop, bought several coconuts and took them to their barracks. Gutting one open they found a lot of husk and a big round stone! They threw the stone aside and started chewing the husk. They found it had no taste at all, but discovered that it caused the tongue to suffer greatly! They concluded that the grocer had fooled them by giving them some inedible fruit instead of coconut; so furious, they marched down to the grocer’s shop. They were at the point of beating him when the grocer found out the reason for their anger. He calmed them down and opened a coconut. Throwing the husk aside he broke the nut open, removed the flesh and gave it to them to eat. Afterwards they returned to their barracks, picked up all the coconuts they had angrily thrown into the drain, cracked them open and ate them. Fortunately Keshtha could not fool us to that extent!

Aurobindo ate very little. Because he ate little and led a well-regulated life, he was able to maintain his health even though he did heavy intellectual work. He was very health-conscious. Every morning he had a glass of Isabgol (a natural laxative) mixed in water. He could not do without it. If it was not available in the Baroda bazaar he would get it from elsewhere. Though not fond of physical exercise, every day before nightfall he used to walk briskly up and down the verandah for an hour. He loved music but could not sing or play anything himself.

Aurobindo had a Victoria coach. The horse was very big but it moved like an ass. Even the whip did not affect its speed! No one could say how old the carriage was. Everything about Aurobindo was peculiar — his clothes no less than his carriage and his house. For the money he paid he could have got a nice house in Calcutta. He was so simple in worldly matters that everyone cheated him. But since he had no attachment to money the cheating did not affect him. People in Baroda — from the higher as well as the lower classes — had heard of Mr. Ghose. Everyone who knew him respected him. The educated people of Baroda had a high regard for his uncommon genius. He kept the glory of the Bengali undimmed in Maratha society. The students of Baroda looked upon Aurobindo as a god. No one except the English principal of the College received more of their respect and trust than this professor from Bengal. They were really impressed by the way he taught. Some of the professors of Baroda College were selected as Examiners for the Bombay University, but I never saw the name of the brilliant Aurobindo on the list of Examiners! Perhaps he never asked for this honour. Besides, Aurobindo did not have time to examine the university students’ test-papers. I wonder if anyone other than Derozio, the professor at Calcutta’s Hindu College, has ever received as much respect, love, devotion and trust from his students as Aurobindo did.

Often, in the morning or the evening, I used to see an armed Turkish rider come with a letter from Lakshmivilas Palace, sent by the Maharaja’s private secretary. Sometimes the private secretary wrote, “If you would be so kind as to join the Maharaja for dinner, he would be very pleased” or “Would you be free to meet the Maharaja at such and such a time?” Sometimes I saw Aurobindo refuse the Maharaja’s invitation for want of time! How many noblemen yearned vainly for months, hoping to be called for a single meeting with the Maharaja! And here was Aurobindo, an ordinary school-teacher, who regarded his duty more important than a visit to the Maharaja’s palace!

Bapubhai Majmumdar, a Gujarati Brahmin barrister, came to Baroda and stayed for some time in our house as Aurobindo’s guest. He lived with us but had his meals elsewhere. Handsome, witty and a good conversationalist, the man recounted to us many amusing stories. Even the serious-natured Aurobindo used to laugh loudly when he listened to Bapubhai’s stories! He prayed regularly and meditated. I became quite close to him. He had learnt a few Bengali words and would repeat them at odd times. He would ask me, “Babuy aapni keeman acchau?” (“Babu, how are you?”) or “Tu Culcuttay jabe?” (“Will you go to Calcutta?”) He was full of praise for Calcutta. His son was studying law in England. The father had come to Baroda to look into the possibility of a job in the Baroda State Service for his son when he returned from England. He wanted Aurobindo to pull strings for him. He also tried to get a position for himself. When he found nothing in Baroda he managed to become a judge in another district of Gujarat. Today he is the chief justice of a state. Aurobindo did not wish to influence the Maharaja in order to get someone a job. The Maharaja too was well acquainted with Aurobindo and respected his dignity. He knew that in his very large office there were many pot-bellied officers earning two to three thousand rupees a month, but there was only one Aurobindo. There were very few princes in India capable of appreciating the good qualities of a man like him. Aurobindo’s opinion of the Maharaja was very high. He told me that the Maharaja was worthy of governing a far greater empire and that it was hard to find in India a politician like him. I thought that the Maharaja would have refused Aurobindo nothing but Aurobindo never asked him for anything!

I once told Aurobindo during a conversation: “I see that there are many high-placed officials here who command extraordinary respect. You too could have similar respect if only you wanted it. So many people would only be too glad to wait on you! But you pay no heed and their indifference increases, leaving you forgotten in a corner.” Aurobindo laughed and replied, “One does not acquire happiness simply by respect, honour, skill and influence. Is there any joy to be derived from the flattery of selfish fools?” Not merely the flattery of fools, even the praise of the wise and the intelligent failed to enthuse him. The late Romesh Chandra Dutt had come to Baroda, invited by the Maharaja sometime towards the end of 1899, I think — I don’t quite remember whether it was before or after he had left the post of Chief Commissioner of Orissa. I don’t think Mr. Dutt knew Aurobindo from earlier times, but he had heard of his poetic genius, and perhaps he had even read some of his poems. Mr. Dutt had just published in England a poetic translation of parts of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. When he heard that Aurobindo had translated certain parts of Ramayana and Mahabharata, he expressed an eagerness to see the translations. Needless to say Mr. Dutt was a distinguished writer in English literature. Many of his English writings are better than those of famous English writers. He was equally fluent in prose and verse, in novels and poetry. So when Mr. Dutt asked quite spontaneously to see Aurobindo’s poems, Aurobindo showed them to him, even if a little reluctantly. Mr. Dutt, discerning as he was in literary matters, was so impressed with Aurobindo’s poems that he later said: “Seeing your poems, I regret all the trouble I went to trying to translate the Ramayana and the Mahabharata! Had I seen your poems earlier, I would never have published my own writings. It all seems like child’s play now.” Yet Mr. Dutt’s Ramayana and Mahabharata had received many appreciative reviews in English weeklies and magazines. But I did not see Aurobindo pleased even after such praise from Mr. Dutt. Aurobindo was always equal in happiness or sorrow, comfort or hardship, praise or criticism. Later when the destructive clouds of terrible calamity thundered over his head and exploded like lightning on all sides, everyone must have thought that unending restlessness and agitation had overcome his sleep and dreams. The poor people of India consoled themselves, thinking their lot to be more fortunate than his. But Aurobindo remembered these great inspiring words of the Prapanna Gita: “Tvayaa hrishikesha hridhisthitena, yathaa niyukto’smi tathaa karomi” (“Thou, О Lord of the senses, dwellest in my heart and I do as thou impellest me to do.”) and remained rapt in the contemplation of his adorable divinity facing all vicissitudes with an equal, unflinching heart. The fire that would have reduced any other man to ashes kindled Aurobindo, removed all impurity and made him even more radiant.

 

 

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