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At the Feet of The Mother

The Grace – by Romen Palit (I)

(Some Reminiscences)

This is not a polemic or an abstraction on the reality of the Divine Grace which the materialist might frown upon or draw the devotee to wax into high-sounding eulogy. What I recount is factual without a grain of fiction. Yet these might seem impossibles. Why? Take for example the capacity for literary or musical creation I am supposed to possess. From where did I imbibe them — from my family? Good heavens! No. None in our past generations had either been a poet, a critic or a musician. They were hard-boiled materialists bent on the utilitarian pastime of earning and producing wealth. And yet I would be all these though I must confess if left to my own I could not turn out a single piece of music or a single line of poetry.

Perhaps I am putting the cart before the horse.

From the very early childhood I have a faint recollection of my parents meditating before some photographs all bedecked with flowers. I was strangely attracted by the perfume of flowers and incense. From that time I learned to associate incense, flowers and photographs with things sacred.

I came to the Ashram as a visitor in November 1929. But I was not allowed either to enter the Ashram or for pranam. But I had darshan of the Mother going out for drive everyday at 4 p.m. in the afternoons. Also she went every Thursday to Duraiswami’s place on foot, passing in front of our house, when once I offered a box of chocolates to her and rushed back into the house. I felt so shy. That was my first contact with the Mother. This shyness I have never been able to overcome.

My most significant darshan and the turning point of my life came on the 24th of November. I went with my father and bowed down to the Master and the Mother. I came home in a daze. Later, my father and Barinda asked me how I liked the darshan. It was a casual question, more to humour a child than anything else. How could a child of nine feel the greatness of this stupendous spiritual personality which even to the adults was an enigma? Yes, neither my mind nor my heart was awakened enough, ready to seize the import. But I felt a great vastness, a height in Sri Aurobindo which to my childish mind seemed as great as the Himalayas.

There and then I made up my mind that I must stay on. What exactly attracted me, I cannot say, for there were no children (incidentally I was the first child admitted), no school, no games; only about a hundred men and women with serious faces moved about, met at pranams, meditations and withdrew to their homes. They were distant and uncommunicative, except for Purani whom I nicknamed the policeman and Barinda.

My father was not prepared for this strange decision, for I was brought here more or less on an experimental basis; for my mother had died three years earlier and I had none to look after me, my father being a touring government official had no fixed establishment. My father had hesitatingly put everything before the Master who replied to say that though children were not admitted in the Ashram he could bring his son.

“Let us see what can be done,” he added.

Again my father wrote to the Master when I told him my resolve to stay on. Sri Aurobindo advised me to go back for a few months and return after learning some English “so that he could talk to the Mother”. Accordingly I left.

I returned in July 1930. My father stayed for a month and half. But he did nothing to arrange for my stay. And what could be done? There were no “homes”, no people eager to keep boys. But the Divine Grace intervened in a strange way.

The wife of one of the first disciples of Sri Aurobindo agreed to look after me, while I stayed in an adjoining room vacated by her husband Bijoy Nag. All this happened almost without the knowledge of my father.

And I stayed on, a favourite of all, almost a spoilt child. Then a change took place in the Ashram. The Mother retired for a while from us. The distribution of evening soup was stopped and so also the morning meditation and pranams.

About six months later the new year came and we had meditation and darshan of the Mother at midnight. It was a memorable experience. The Mother appeared to me like a Queen of Beauty in the semi-darkness of midnight.

Next day, the Mother led me to her little dining room and presented me with sweets and two large books in French, ‘Gedeon dans la foret’ and ‘Les animaux’. She talked to me in French whenever I met her.

At the beginning of 1932 I complained to the Mother about the lady who looked after me, over some trivial personal matter. Sri Aurobindo wrote to me that though I was growing and progressing, I could not judge people. However, he added, the Mother was making arrangements to change my room. It was a reprimand to a spoilt boy, undisciplined in habit, and erratic in temperament. Even this reprimand was a gesture of Grace, for the Mother or the Master scolded only those they loved and this was aimed to pinpoint the limitation and overcome it.

1st May I left Boulangerie house; I was given accommodation in a room where the Mother before 1932 used to sit for meditation and pranam.

In the same year I started reading Shakespeare with Nolini and writing small letters to the Mother. These letters were letters of a boy attempting to imitate the older persons who sent letters or notebooks to the Mother every day. Hence most of the letters were sheer trash. Only the Divine could tolerate such foolishness. They contained my first attempts at writing Bengali verse, important and unimportant, and happenings of the day. Once it was about my bed infested with bugs. (I was yet to learn of hygiene.) Sri Aurobindo wrote back humorously that a deputation headed by Amrita was being sent to investigate the state of affairs and exterminate the bugs. The Mother wrote to me to say that running in the street in the sun was not the way to cure a cold.

Once I wrote to Sri Aurobindo that at times I had a strange feeling. I seemed to regard myself as an alien and I questioned: “Is this myself?” Sri Aurobindo wrote back: “This is viveka.”

The changing of one’s name had a special attraction to me — Jenny Dobson became Chidanandini, Chadwick became Arjava. There was an old French couple who taught me Mathematics and Geography (Oh, God! how I hated those subjects!) — I forget their French family names — Sri Aurobindo gave them Suchi and Sarala as their names of the spiritual life. Madame Gaebele, the mother of my French teacher, was renamed Suvrata.

Being childish and imitative by temperament, I asked for my name to be changed as well. The Master wrote that Rama — Indra — Ramendra was the name of Vishnu. It was a fine name.

Incidentally, it is the Mother who has changed my name from Ramen to Romen much before I even dreamt of asking for a name.

The Mother gave me a message:

“14.3.32

To Romen,

Always do with pleasure the work you have to do –

Le travail fait avec joie est un travail bien fait.

This was written on my exercise book where I had done a rough sketch of a sunrise on sea, which she had corrected with her own hand.

From time to time I sent to the Mother a picture which was, I must confess, abominable. On one picture she commented thus (this is one of the few letters she wrote to me in English):

“Do you know what you have represented? The Christian Calvary, that is to say, the mountain on the top of which the Christ was put on the cross with the thieves. Is it a copy or the reminiscence of a picture seen? Or is it from your imagination? I would be interested to know.”

Then in 1934, when I was fourteen, I had a definite and exceptional experience of the psychic being coming to forefront in spite of all my unsteady nature, my moods and my constant depressions. This experience became the basis of existence and has been the support and aid in all my trials and tribulations. This was the Mother’s extended arm in my consciousness to rouse what was the most true, the most permanent in me. This altered all my life, my vision, and my valuation of things, persons, actions in general and my relation with the Mother in particular.

The Mother wrote to me that she was my mother who gave birth (meaning my spiritual rebirth) to me. On another occasion she wrote:

“It is better that you do not speak to others what I speak or write to you; because they become jealous and their jealousy creates a bad atmosphere which falls on you and creates difficulties….”

On another occasion:

“… I am always with you, you are in my arms which are around you with love and protect you lovingly.”

Once she wrote:

“If, as you say, one part in you is happy and contented, stick to this happiness to drive out the ugly things. Do not allow these to take possession of you. For that, do exactly what I tell you to do and live a well ordered regular life. I am always with you to help you to carry out this good will and to help you — Love of your mother.”

It is apparent these letters were written to one vacillating between depression and happiness, between discipline and erratic tamas. This state of affairs continued up to 1946.

The Mother wrote:

“You are right to want a new life, and you can be sure I would help you the best I can for this. I am sure that perseverance in study and the acceptance of a discipline in work and in life would powerfully help you to change you.

“All my love is with you to help and guide you.”

She repeats:

“I always take you in my bosom but what can I do if you fly away from there?… You must remain quiet in my arms if you want me to help you.”

It was not that the Mother was lavish with her love and help only inwardly. She was most generous even in her external bounty, e.g.

“Whenever you want anything, you can always ask me and if it is possible for me to give, I would give it to you.”

“My force is always with you. But in order to receive and utilise it, one must open to it with tranquility and confidence.”

This is repeated in another letter:

“I want nothing more than you become my instrument, my true little child. But for that the first thing necessary is to be obedient. And so that you can become that, my help is always with you.”

Between all these movements of divine aid and human retarding depression which was a recoil to the lower nature, my creative effort continued. The Mother graciously listened to my music once a fortnight or three weeks. She saw my crude paintings, commented and corrected them.

On one occasion she saw a vision while I was playing to her. As a rule, Mother opened her eyes after I had finished playing and smiled, giving her encouraging comment. This time she remained with eyes closed, a gentle smile outlining her lips. After a while she opened her eyes, smiled and said:

“Do you know, child, what I saw? On the bank of a river, there was a platform and seated there, you were playing some instrument. So you see you are not a musician in this birth alone.” I had a feeling that perhaps it was in ancient Egypt, who knows?

Once she saw a huge bird which, I reckon, must have been Garuda who stood behind me with outstretched wings in a gesture of protection. This was divine protection which had been with me unfailingly in the worst of trials or disasters all through.

I played different ragas both on the Sitar and Surbahar. I played along with Sahana, Ardhendu and Lalita (now Mrs. Daulat Panday). Mother presented me to notable persons who came to see her and asked me to play before them. Once a few Europeans had come, before whom the Mother asked me to play in Pavitra’s room. The Mother herself was not present. But later on I learnt she stood behind the door and listened to my playing, a typical gesture of a mother.

She liked my music, especially my extempore compositions which were strictly neither Western nor Indian.

I had a flair for drawing which she encouraged, so much so that she saw my pitiful attempts and lavished her praise. Even she arranged for a small exhibition of the works of Ashram articles and I had a place there. It was in 1937. A small house was there on the north-east corner of Golconde (Golconde was yet to be built; this small building and other huts were later demolished to become the site for Golconde). Here the paintings of Krishnalal, Anil Kumar, Sanjiban, Nishikanto and mine were exhibited. Some of my snow-pictures evoked good appreciation due to my young age and the unusualness of the motif.

Sri Aurobindo encouraged my writings of poetry from the very beginning. My first poems worth the name were written in 1935. There was a period when I sent up one poem everyday to the Master. I was not sure of the quality for by then I was developing a little sense of self-examination. So I asked A. to correct and send up these juvenile attempts. That was in 1937. There was a poem which was entitled by Sri Aurobindo ‘O Night, great Night’. A. had sent two versions to the Master; one, as I had written it; two, as he had corrected it. The Master in his own hand wrote out the whole poem making only slight changes for the sake of metre. This is what he wrote as comment:

“It seems to me that with less alteration a few slight touches almost, it could be made into a very fine poem”,

and at the end of the poem he wrote again:

“The repetition of song and beauty is here intentional. The whole may be regarded as an invocation of the Night with all that is in it and behind it, the Mystic Fire, the invisible Beauty above which the stars flame, the ‘earthward Peace’ — I find the phrase very good… I find the last four lines remarkably fine even as they stand. I have altered only slightly for the sake of metre.”

On another poem he commented:

“As usual the last lines are very fine. The whole has the substance of poetry, and once put into metrical form, succeeds by a very telling suggestion of atmosphere.”

A few days later this was his comment on another of my poems:

“A larger vocabulary, a freer choice of words will bring the necessary change, but even as it is, it is remarkable. The lines marked are superb — others are fine, but these would do credit to any poet.”

Like this I continued to write, the Master correcting my lines, even scanning them, showering his benedictions on me incessantly just as the Mother had done.

One day I had gone up to the Mother and was talking to her at random. The Mother was busy writing something and from moment to moment she looked up at me. I felt curious. After a few minutes she showed me the sketch she had made of me. It was done to show me the technique of light and shadow on a human face; she told me there was no line in nature — all lines were the result of light and shadow — this was of course the traditional European concept as opposed to the linear treatment by the Indian and the Japanese.

The Mother loved Japanese painting and the love of the Japanese for things beautiful. She told me how the Japanese built their homes which became harmonious parts of the surrounding landscape. Once she addressed others along with me about creating a tradition (in painting). To follow a tradition was easy but something was lost. But if, on the other hand, one needed to create a line of one’s own, it meant great work and patience. It was not easy.

to be continued…

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