With Sri Aurobindo in Baroda (3) 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 3

When plague broke out, we moved out of our large old single-storied house in the dusty, crowded locality in the centre of Baroda and went to Killedar’s Bungalow on the outskirts of town. I don’t remember now the killedar’s name or whether he was still alive. His widow was the sister of the Gaekwar’s first queen. She did not appear before us, but she lived secluded in the zenana upstairs. I noticed that the Maratha women who belonged to the high Brahmin castes did not usually come out of the zenana. The killedar’s wife lived with her little son and young daughter in an exceedingly large single-storied mansion. The boundaries of this building plot were very large. There was a lawn on one side of the mansion and a flower garden on the other. Adjacent to this garden was a big tiled bungalow. We were supposed to stay in this bungalow, which was a tiled eight-gabled dwelling. We were quite stunned on seeing this place!

Besides the servants and attendants of the killedar’s wife, an old Maratha lived there too. I never found out whether he was related to the woman. But there was no doubt that he was the widow’s guardian and a friend, philosopher and guide to the two children. He taught them to read and write and spent his days in prayer and meditation. He was a very sober sort of man. His bathroom was in the tiled house where we stayed. I passed him two or three times in a day, but strangely enough he never spoke to me. I think that either he scorned me or else he never forgave the unrightful entry of two strange Bengali young men into their empty mansion. Whatever the reason, on account of his indifference I never spoke to him either. But occasionally I saw him say a few words to Aurobindo.

This family had good relations with Aurobindo’s friend Lieutenant Madhavrao Jadhav. I think it was thanks to him that we had got this tiled house. We did not have to pay rent for it. Lieutenant Madhavrao came to our dwelling at least once a day. As soon as he arrived, the killedar’s children came along with him to visit us. The girl was tall, dark-complexioned, beautiful, liquid-eyed, well-built and slightly serious in temperament; she must have been about nine or ten. The boy was six or seven, extremely vivacious, slim, fair, intelligent and fun-loving. They did not resemble each other at all, either physically or temperamentally. Who knows how they have grown or whether they are still alive? I don’t know why, but after all these years I still remember these children sometimes. Living in that forlorn house, far from home, deprived of all social contacts, I remembered my own children when I saw this girl and boy. I was always eager to fondle them and talk to them, but I did not understand their language nor they mine. They kept staring wide-eyed at this unknown foreigner. Occasionally they offered me some flowers plucked from their garden. Perhaps they had heard about us from their old “masterji” or the lieutenant-saheb had told them who we were, where we came from and why. They knew nothing more. Since I did not know the language I was unable to satisfy my curiosity. I wanted to learn Marathi in order to converse with them.

There was a devout, young Maratha named Srijut Phadke. A Deccani Brahmin, he was especially close to Aurobindo. He came from somewhere near Poona and had been settled for a long time with his family in Baroda to earn his livelihood. His younger brother was a painter. I never asked him where he had been initiated into painting, at the Baroda Kala Bhavan or somewhere else. Sometimes Phadke the painter came with his elder brother to visit us. He once took a photo of Aurobindo and myself while we were living in Khaserao-saheb’s house.

Sometimes Aurobindo studied Marathi with the elder Phadke, whose full name I can’t recollect. Another pundit came to teach him the Modi language. Modi was a colloquial form of Marathi, a little like Prakrit to Sanskrit, and very difficult to understand. Its alphabet was not Devanagari but Aurobindo was eager to learn it anyway! Phadke was a clerk in the Dewan’s office but whenever he found time he came to our house. He was a cheerful person and laughed all the time. He talked very fast and was fond of mystery. He was rather good at homoeopathy. One day I told him, “I want to learn your language.” It was difficult to believe how thrilled and happy he felt. Lieutenant Madhavrao had nicknamed me “Novelist” and Phadke called me by that nickname. He brought a primer for the Novelist. The letters were Devanagari so it did not take me long to pick them up. Marathi, like Bengali, descends from Sanskrit, and there is a lot of similarity in the vocabulary of the two languages. Our gaachh (tree) is jhaad in their language; our biraal (cat) is their maajdru (maarjar?); our chaaturi (clever) is their shahaanpan — it means the same as our seyaanaa!

I started studying the first part of the primer in great earnest but by the time I came to the story of the maajarur shahaanpan my enthusiasm waned. Aurobindo told me one day that to be able to write good novels it was important to know French. When I heard that, I got a French vocabulary and applied myself to studying it. Aurobindo became my master. But a month or so later, the rigors of French pronunciation began to make me lose my enthusiasm. Seeing me discouraged, Aurobindo’s enthusiasm redoubled and he began to teach me German! It was difficult to count all the books he had, all kinds of books in so many different languages!

Phadke was a patron of literature. Before meeting me, he had published a Marathi translation of Bankimchandra’s Durgesh Nandini. After meeting me, he began translating Ramesh-babu’s Jivan-prabhat. He said that he had never read a novel like Jivan-prabhat. He felt proud of the greatness of the independent Maratha race and thought that the account Ramesh-babu had given of Chhatrapati Shivaji’s love for his country and race was incomparable. He wrote this novel filled with the spirit of Shivaji Maharaj. While he was translating Jivan-prabhat, Phadke used to ask me to explain portions that he had not understood fully. I explained them to him in English. He could not read Bengali well, but when there were many Sanskrit words, he was able to grasp the sense quite easily. He did not understand at all the way Aduri or Toraap spoke in Nildarpan. I don’t know if his translation of Jivan-prabhat was ever published because after I returned home we stopped corresponding. Phadke was an orthodox Hindu, no doubt, but I have not seen among our bigoted Bengali Brahmins today the sort of tolerance he had.

Our new house was very isolated. When Aurobindo left for college after lunch, I found it difficult to remain alone in that secluded house. But after a few days I got used to it. On all four sides of the house were huge trees, even some sandalwood trees. These trees were all inhabited by monkeys and squirrels. Beyond the confines of the house was a large stretch of wilderness. On the north was the wide Raj path. It was hard to live in this tiled house in summer as well as winter! During summer, the unbearable heat made the tiles fiery-hot. Unable to bear that heat I used to stay wrapped all the time in a wet towel! Then in winter the cold was so biting that the blood seemed to freeze in my chest. But neither the heat nor the cold troubled Aurobindo. I never saw him suffer from either of them. I was terribly harassed in this bungalow by flies in the morning and mosquitoes at night. At night, while lying in bed, I would feel as though the mosquitoes might drag me out into the field and eat me. The tiles in the house were old; the house had been uninhabited for a long time. During the rains water poured through the tiles over the table. Many a Bengali aristocrat’s cowshed was better than that dwelling! But Aurobindo never complained or showed unwillingness to live in such a terrible place. He lived undisturbed in that dilapidated house for a long time. Aurobindo would sit on a chair beside a table under the light of a “jewel lamp” and, untroubled by the awful mosquito-bites, would read on till one o’clock. I would see him with his eyes fixed on a book, sitting in the same spot with the same concentration for hours on end, oblivious of the outer world, like an ascetic rapt in yoga! He wouldn’t have noticed if the house caught fire! In this way, staying up at night, he read countless books in many European languages: poetry, novels, history and philosophy. In Aurobindo’s library there were piles of books in various European languages, all sorts of books in French, German, Russian, English, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, about which I knew nothing. His collection contained works by all the English poets from Chaucer to Swinburne. Numerous English novels were stacked up in cupboards, piled up in corners of the room, and locked away in steel trunks. Homer’s Illiad, Dante’s great epic, our Ramayana and Mahabharata, books by Kalidasa and other such poets were all there in his library. He was extremely fond of Russian. He said that Russia would one day lead Europe in art as well as in literature. This sounded very new to me. Sometimes he read Bengali once or twice a week; at other times he did not open a Bengali book for a fortnight.

I would spend my time in my own work. In the afternoons I went alone to town for a walk. I went down the long road as far as the Baroda Railway Station. I loved wandering in the station. To me it was like my own country and the meeting-point of all my travels. How many trains went from Bombay to Ahmedabad! I could see people from so many different regions in the passenger trains but I never saw a Bengali among them! At that time Bengalis didn’t travel much. Many Bengalis undoubtedly lived in Bombay but they almost never came this side. I saw mostly Marathis, Gujaratis and Parsis. Many Parsis lived in these parts. One could see Parsis of all classes — from the very fair, well-dressed, respectable Parsi businessmen to the mud-coloured, unkempt, ill-dressed poor Parsi labourers. The Parsis did not mix with us. But in the Baroda State Service there was no dearth of pot-bellied, well-paid, Parsi employees. A couple of Parsi friends used to come occasionally to meet Aurobindo. But Aurobindo did not think much of the ethical behaviour of the average Parsi.

Once Aurobindo had learnt Bengali reasonably well, he applied himself to reading books like Swamalata, Bharatchandra’s Annadamangal, Dinabandhu’s Sadhabar Ekadashi. Since he did not understand the colloquial language well, I had to explain several portions to him in English. I too benefitted from this and whatever skill in translation I may have developed was due to this. But I was not so intelligent that I could fully answer all his questions and satisfy him. Where my own intelligence was insufficient, I tried to explain in all sorts of ways. With his brilliance, Aurobindo would somehow get the hang of it, then he would explain it elaborately in English and ask me if his explanation was correct. From his explanation I could see that he had understood quite well. I remember once, while reading Dinabandhu’s Lilavati, that I started sweating as I tried to explain a nursery rhyme:

Mader majaati gaanja kaati kach-kach,
Maamir pirite maama hyaankach-pyaankach.

It would be impossible for me — why, even for many a university scholar — to render this correctly. Despite all my efforts I was unable to explain to Aurobindo the meaning of hyaankach-pyaankach! Aurobindo may never be able to understand pirite hyaankach-pyaankach in his life. Had he understood he would not have been in such a sorry mess!

Aurobindo read Bankimchandra’s novels himself and he followed them quite well. He had extraordinary respect for Bankim. He said that Bankim was a golden bridge between our past and present. He wrote a beautiful sonnet in English in his honour in order to express his regard for him. He derived great joy from Swami Vivekananda’s Bengali essays. He would tell me that in Swamiji’s language the breath of the Spirit can be felt and that such force, music and flow in the language are very hard to find. Aurobindo also bought and studied Rabindranath’s poetical works. He was quite respectful towards our singer-poet, although he did not think that all his poetry was worth publishing. I used to correspond with the venerable poet even before leaving for Baroda. Occasionally I wrote to him from Baroda and he answered regularly. Aurobindo was sometimes mentioned in these letters, though Rabindranath Tagore had not yet found an opportunity to meet him. And he felt bad about it. I remember once on Aurobindo’s return to Calcutta I took him to Samajpati’s house. Samajpati met Aurobindo here for the first time. At that time Samajpati lived in Harighosh Street. The Sahitya office was in the same house. Samajpati was impressed by that very first meeting, by the few words spoken by Aurobindo who was taciturn by nature. He realised what stuff Aurobindo’s being was made of. During the first national movement when Aurobindo quit his Baroda job and came away to Calcutta, he became quite close to Samajpati.

Although formally the son of a Brahmo, Aurobindo was not against going to the theatre. Besides, many Brahmos go to the theatre secretly. After coming to Calcutta he went to the Star Theatre a couple of times to see plays. I think he once saw Chandrashekhar. He did not like any monkeying around on stage. Nor did he like the staging of pointlessly vulgar and flimsy plays. I think no educated man of taste can really enjoy that. Once in Baroda I went to see a play with Aurobindo at the local theatre, the Sayaji Vijay. The play was Tarabai, adapted from Shakespeare. The female roles in this performance were played by clean-shaven men. I could not follow the speeches and songs well, but I was happy with the costumes and the sets. I found that from the point of view of acting and dance, the Bengali stage was more advanced than the Marathi one.

Aurobindo was very impressed by Swarnalata. It is not surprising that the son of an itinerant Bengali would be touched or satisfied by a picture of Bengali domesticity. But I found him a little confused while reading the concluding part of the novel. When he came to the point in Swarnalata where Shashankshekhar’s house catches fire, he shut the book. He said the novelist had spoilt the artistry of the story at that point. It is for readers interested in literature to judge the truth of this statement.

I used to get many books for Aurobindo from Gurudas Babu’s Library in Calcutta. He took practically everything from the catalogue of the Basumati office. The Basumati was still in its infancy then, but he preferred it to all the other weeklies. He liked its language and style. Panchkadi Bannerjee was the editor of Basumati; the respected Jaldhar-babu was his collaborator. Aurobindo enjoyed reading Panchkadi-babu’s simple criticism. I never imagined that very soon Panchkadi-babu would quit the Basumati, that I would be closely associated with it, and that eventually the whole editorial responsibility would fall on my weak shoulders! In the turn of destiny’s wheel, I had to assume the editorship of Basumati prior to Aurobindo’s coming to Calcutta to launch Bande Mataram.



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