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At the Feet of The Mother

The House of the Lord

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We were thus installed in the House for an indefinite period. This was the house in which Sri Aurobindo and the Mother lived for about a decade before we broke into their seclusion. Sri Aurobindo had not gone one step out of this house, nor seen any visitors or inmates; only Champaklal, his personal attendant, had glimpses of him. He used to find his body shining like gold. Our work too was to serve the Lord as is done in the temple, — not as medical attendants, for henceforth he needed none — but to minister to his physical and other minor needs, to be near him, even to amuse him by our talk and presence. That was our Yoga. What better way could there be than to serve personally the Guru, the Divine? Sri Ramakrishna had said to his nephew Hriday, “Serve me and you will get all you want.” We had no particular want till then and all our heart was offered to him in utter dedication. It is gratifying for us to remember that Sri Aurobindo had said in the beginning that he was happy to have such a team to serve him. Service was our life, and the hours passed “with a moon-imprinted sail”. Sri Aurobindo did not require, in fact, so many hands, since he had almost recovered the use of his own limbs, but it was not Sri Aurobindo’s or the Mother’s way to dispense with someone, even something, as soon as their need of him was over. Their grace Would always be with him.

How did we serve him? The best way to give a clear idea about it would be to present a picture of Sri Aurobindo’s daily life, now that it had fallen into a definite pattern and woven our activities into it. However, I fear that in depicting his external life, some misconception may be created in the minds of the readers about his real Self. Since man is usually led by surface appearance and expressions, we are likely to be taken up by his outward gestures or words and have not the least idea of the vast consciousness from which these movements flowed. For instance, when he talked to us as a friend, could we ever have imagined that he was the Divine talking to us as divine beings? When he saw Dr. Manilal, could Manilal have perceived that “it was no longer Dr. Manilal but the Divine living in the Divine” that he saw? How could we guess that living confined within the body and the small room, he saw “Paris, Tokyo and New York”? He could say, “My soul unhorizoned widens to measureless sight.” Referring to a certain context I once told him, “I am satisfied with you as Sri Aurobindo pure and simple.” He replied, “No objection, I only suggested that I don’t know who this Sri Aurobindo pure and simple is. If you do, I congratulate you.”

Far be it from me to read his inner consciousness from his outer activities. Once I asked him to tell me the names of those who were enjoying the Brahmic consciousness so that I could have a practical knowledge of it! He replied, “How can you have a practical knowledge of it by knowing who has it? You might just as well expect to have a practical knowledge of high mathematics by knowing that Einstein is a great mathematician.” His written works leave us in no doubt about the heights of consciousness to which he soared, the depths he has explored and his constant status of consciousness. But how they would influence, affect his daily human activities is a question of perennial interest. Did not Arjuna pose that question to Sri Krishna? The activities themselves may not shed any light on his inner divinity, especially to a superficial gaze. Still, the truly great touch everything they do and say with a sense of greatness. Hence, my attempt to make a selective sketch of Sri Aurobindo’s outer life for the world-eye to have a glimpse of the riddle that he was throughout his earthly existence.

Many fantastic tales were abroad about his outer life, gaining ground and credit because of his living in seclusion. Some people believed that he neither ate nor slept, but remained absorbed in Samadhi. Others had heard that he could keep his body suspended in the air. Some there were who, like Arjuna, wanted genuinely to know how he spoke, how he sat and walked. The Mother had, at one time, discouraged us from dwelling upon these external aspects for fear that people’s minds would be deflected from the Reality. After all it is not what a man appears to be which is most important. And we can affirm that all Sri Aurobindo’s actions welled from the Divine Consciousness that he embodied: they were yukta karma. But how to demonstrate this? By having a practical knowledge of his day-to-day activity? Well, he who sees, sees!

Let us then begin from the very break of day. The sun’s rays came in by the eastern window; he was awake and the exercises started in bed, prescribed by Manilal. By 6.30 a.m. he sat up to receive the Mother who on her way to the Balcony Darshan visited him to have his darshan. Sri Aurobindo gave us definite instructions to wake him up before the Mother’s arrival. On the other hand, the Mother wanted us not to disturb his sleep. So at times we found ourselves in a quandary. Champaklal’s devotional nature would not interrupt his sweet nap after the exercises, while I, when alone, would try by all sorts of devices to wake him up. Sometimes he himself would wake up only to learn that the Mother had come and gone! Then she would come back after the darshan and begin her day with his blessings, just as we did after her darshan. This was followed by his reading The Hindu. Between 9.00 a.m. and 10.00 a.m. the Mother came to comb his hair, apply a lotion and plait it. Most often she finished some business during this period. When a sadhak translated the Mother’s Prayers and Meditations into English and wanted her approval, she had it read out before Sri Aurobindo and both of them made the necessary changes. She sometimes talked of private matters, and when her voice sank low, we took the hint and withdrew discreetly. She believed more in subtle methods than in open expressions. The gesture, the look, the smile, the fugitive glance, the silence, a thousand are her ways of communication to the soul! After the Mother had left, there started the routine of washing the face and mouth. Here a small detail calls for mention by its unusualness. When he had finished using Neem paste for his teeth and the mouth-wash (Vademecum), he massaged his gums with a little bit of Oriental Balm.

After this, till 3 or 4 p.m. Sri Aurobindo was all alone. Then his first meal would come; in between he sometimes took a glass of plain water. Now, what could he be doing at this time wrapped in a most mysterious silence? None except the Mother could throw any precise light on it. We were only told that he had a special work to do and must be left alone unless, of course, some very urgent business needed his attention. All that was visible to our naked eye was that he sat silently in his bed, afterwards in the capacious armchair, with his eyes wide open just as any other person would. Only he passed hours and hours thus, changing his position at times and making himself comfortable; the yes moving a little, and though usually gazing at the wall in front, never fixed trāṭak-like at any particular point. Sometimes the face would beam with a bright mile without any apparent reason, much to our amusement, as a child smiles in sleep. Only it was a waking sleep, for as we passed across the room, there was a dim recognition of our shadow-like movements. Occasionally he would look towards the door. That was when he heard some sound which might indicate the Mother’s coming. But his external consciousness would certainly not be obliterated. When he wanted something, his voice seemed to come from a distant cave; rarely did we find him plunged within, with his eyes closed. If at that time, the Mother happened to come for some urgent work or with a glass of water, finding him thus indrawn, she would wait, usually by the bedside till he opened his eyes. Then seeing her waiting, he would exclaim “Oh!” and the Mother’s lips would part into an exquisite smile. He had told us that he was in the habit of meditating with open eyes. We kept ourselves ready for the call, sitting behind the bed at our assigned places or someone cleaning the furniture or doing other work in the room. One regular call was for a peppermint lozenge which he took some time before his meal. If the meal was late in coming he would ask for a second one. When our chatting became too animated and made us feel uneasy, one better informed would exclaim, “Do you think he is disturbed by such petty bubbles? He must be soaring in a consciousness where I wonder if even a bomb explosion would make any impression.” At other relaxed moments he would take cognizance of incidental noises.

What could he be doing then with so much God-like ease and natural mastery? He once wrote to me that when he had Some special work to do he had to concentrate. This, I think, gives the clue. For his cosmic work, this was the only time he had to himself. Whether to bring down the Supramental Light, or to dive deep into the nether Hell, to send his force for some world purpose, the war in Spain, World War II, helping the Allies or to solve some difficulties of the Ashram, even of individuals, must have been the nature of his special work. One day, after his concentration, I remember him saying, apropos of nothing, “I was seeing how Nishikanto was.” At that time Nishikanto was not keeping well. I shall not speculate further on this intricate problem, lest I hear his taunting voice, “Nirod is weaving his romantic fancy!” How he was performing all these operations is beyond my grey matter!

There were occasions, though rare, when we had to intrude upon his strict privacy. An urgent call from the Ashram Press about some proof corrections of his book demanded his immediate attention. I cautiously approached from behind and stood near him. He asked without turning my way, in an impersonal tone, “What is it?” A moment’s ripple in the vast even ocean of silence. The Mother always felt that pervasive silence whenever she entered the room. I informed him of the queries from the Press. There were some proof-readers who had the Johnsonian mind; they could not accept Sri Aurobindo’s flexible use of prepositions or some new turns of phrases. Either they thought these were due to oversight or was it their grammarian pedantry that made them wiser than he? At last he had to remark, “Let them not interfere with my English!” His admonitions were always gentle. When the Mother heard about it, she observed, “How do they dare correct his English? Sri Aurobindo is a gentleman; he won’t say anything that might hurt — I am not a gentleman.” We understood very well what the Mother meant. A few anecdotes to illustrate the point. When Sri Aurobindo was living with his family in Calcutta, Sarojini, his younger sister, made frequent complaints about the rudeness and impertinence of their cook. Sri Aurobindo simply listened and forgot all about it. Sarojini at last lost her patience and urged upon him a drastic step. Sri Aurobindo called the cook in a grave voice and asked, “I hear you have behaved rudely. Don’t do it again!” Everybody was disappointed at this anticlimax and realised that no further strictness could be expected of him. So too when the Mother once brought a complaint to him against a sadhak who, in a fit of temper, had beaten somebody, “This is the third time! What should be done? I want your sanction, Lord,” she said. Sri Aurobindo calmly replied, “Let him be given a final warning.” We knew very well that this “final warning” could not be really final.

The long stretch of silence ceased only with the arrival of his first and principal meal of the day. Still we hardly ever heard him express that his “stomach was getting unsteady”. The day’s second meal, supper, had to be quite light. Let me stress one thing at the very outset: in his whole tenor of life, he followed the rule laid down by the Gita, moderation in everything. This was his teaching as well as his practice. To look at the outward commonplaceness of his life, eating, sleeping, joking, etc., and to make a leaping statement that here was another man like oneself, would be logical, but not true. Similarly in Sri Aurobindo’s Yoga, even a high experience must not disturb the normal rhythm of life. Naturally, I was extremely curious, and so were the others, I believe, to see what kind of food he took; had he any preference for a particular dish and how much had he in common with our taste? We had to wait a long time before he regained his health, and could sit up and “enjoy” a proper meal. As soon as people learnt about it, dishes from various sadhikas began to pour in as for the Deity in the temple. And just as the Deity does, so did he, or rather the Mother did on his behalf: only a little from a dish was offered to him and all the rest was sent back as prasād. For his regular meal, there were a few devotees like Amiya, Nolina and Mridu selected by the Mother for their good cooking, which Sri Aurobindo specially liked. Mridu was a simple Bengali village widow. She, like other ladies here, called Sri Aurobindo her father, and took great pride in cooking for him. Her “father” liked her luchis very much, she would boast, and these creations of hers have been immortalised by him in one of his letters to her. She was given to maniacal fits of threatening suicide, and Sri Aurobindo would console her with, “If you commit suicide, who will cook luchis for me?” Her cooking got such wide publicity that the house she lived in was named Prasād. Food from the devotees, though tasty, was sometimes too greasy or spicy, and once it did not agree with him. So a separate kitchen, known as the Mother’s Kitchen, was started for preparing only the Mother’s and Sri Aurobindo’s food. It was done under the most perfect hygienic conditions following the Mother’s own special instructions. Her insistence is always on cleanliness. (She said in a recent message: Cleanliness is the first indispensable step towards the supramental manifestation…) I questioned Sri Aurobindo about this: “I wonder why the Divine is so particular about contagion, infection, etc. Is he vulnerable to the virus and the microbe?” He replied, “And why on earth should you expect the Divine to feed himself on germs and bacilli and poisons of all kinds? Singular theology, yours!”

At the beginning all of us would make it a point to be present during his meal and watch the function as well as the Mother’s part in it. When the time was announced, water was brought for Sri Aurobindo to wash his hands, then he started eating with a spoon and rarely with knife and fork. He would take off his ring, place it in Champaklal’s hand and wash. Champakal would put it back on his finger afterwards. Sometimes when he forgot to take off the ring, Champaklal caught hold of the hand before it was dipped in the water. Then the Mother would come, prepare and lay the table, push it herself up to Sri Aurobindo and arrange the various foods in bowls or glass tumblers, — in the order of savouries, sweets and fruit juices — everything having an atmosphere of cleanliness, purity and beauty. Then she would offer, one by one, the dishes to the silent Deity who would take them slowly and silently as if the eating was not for the satisfaction of the palate but an act of self-offering. Steadiness and silence were the characteristic stamps of Sri Aurobindo. Dhīra, according to him, was the ideal of Aryan culture. Hurry and hustle were words not found in his dictionary. Be it eating, drinking, walking or talking — he did it always in a slow and measured rhythm, giving the impression that every movement was conscious and consecrated. The Mother would punctuate the silence with queries like, “How do you like that dish?” or such remarks as, “This mushroom is grown here, this is special brinjal sent from Benares, this is butterfruit.” To all, Sri Aurobindo’s reply would be, “Oh, I see! Quite good!” Typically English in manner and tone! His silence or laconic praise made us wonder if he had not lost all distinction in taste! Did rasagolla, bread and brinjal have the same taste in the Divine sense-experience? Making this vital point clear, he wrote in a letter: “Distinction is never lost, bread cannot be as tasty as a luchi, but a yogi can enjoy bread with as much rasa as a luchi — which is quite a different thing.” He had a liking for sweets, particularly for rasagolla, sandesh and pantua. We could see that clearly: after the Mother had banned all sweets from his menu for medical reasons, one day some pantuas found their way in by chance. The Mother could not send them back from the table. She asked him if he would take some. He replied, “If it is pantua, I can try.” Since then this became a spicy joke with all of us. He enjoyed, as a matter of fact, all kinds of good dishes, European or Indian. But whatever was not to his taste, he would just touch and put away. The pungent preparations of the South could not, however, receive his blessings, except the rasam((( A kind of pepper water with tamarind juice.))). When on his arrival in Pondicherry he was given rasam, he enjoyed it very much and said in our talks, “It has a celestial taste!” He was neither a puritan god nor an epicure; only, he had no hankering or attachment for anything. His meal ended with a big tumbler of orange juice which he sipped slowly, looking after each sip to see how much was left, and keeping a small quantity as prasād. Once the entire juice had slightly fermented and after one or two sips he left it at the Mother’s prompting. We conspired to make good use of it as prasād, but Sri Aurobindo got the scent of our secret design and forewarned us! We had to check our temptation.

One thing that we noticed was that unless the Mother served him in this way, he would lose all distinction between different preparations and would not know which to take first and in which order. Very probably he would have gone half-fed. On one occasion we saw him eating a whole cooked green chilly before we could cry halt! Of course, what was one chilly for him who is said in the old days to have taken a lump of opium with impunity! We have also seen him finishing his meal somehow, if for some reason the Mother could not be present and Champaklal had to serve instead. The story goes that once Mridu’s dish went back without being touched by Sri Aurobindo, and she raised a storm. Sri Aurobindo had to quiet her with the plea that the Mother being absent he did not know what he had taken or what he had not. On another occasion Sri Aurobindo’s meal being over earlier than usual, Mridu’s dish arrived late and was left untouched. As soon as she heard about it she began to wail “like a new-born babe” as if she would bring down the whole Ashram by her lamentations. Dr. Manilal reported the fact to Sri Aurobindo and he asked, “How did she know about it?” I replied apologetically, “I told her.” He said softly, “These things should not be said;” then he added with a smile, “but it is I who ought to lament for having missed her fine dish.” We all had a good laugh.

One regular interlude during his meal was the arrival of our rampageous luchi-maker, Mridu. I do not know how she obtained this exceptional privilege. She would come like an innocent lamb with incense and flowers, kneel down in front of the door and wait with folded hands for her “father’s blessings”. On our drawing Sri Aurobindo’s attention to her presence, he would stop eating and cast a quiet glance at her. Her boisterous, unruly nature, would become humble for a while before Sri Aurobindo! Whenever it was reported that she had manifested her violent temper, which was not infrequent, she was threatened with the loss of this darshan! (I may add here the name of another recipient of Sri Aurobindo’s special favour — Bansidhar, Champaklal’s brother. He used to bring, for Sri Aurobindo’s sponge-bath, two buckets of hot water at a fixed time. While going, he would do pranam to him from a distance and Sri Aurobindo would stop whatever work he was doing and bless him with a glance.)

We were rather surprised to notice that milk was excluded from his menu; so was it, we gathered, from the Mother’s — à la Japonaise! There was before the accident, however, a cow popularly called “Sri Aurobindo’s cow”. It was specially taken care of and brought with its calf during the Balcony Darshan for the Mother’s blessings. While Sri Aurobindo was eating in silence the Mother would speak with him about some general matters or give him reports about people’s illnesses, visitors for Darshan or even minor problems regarding the Ashram life. Sometimes he would also ask the Mother’s opinion concerning medical or other points. If at any time we pressed our own opinion against the Mother’s, Sri Aurobindo would pull us up saying, “You think Mother does not know?” or “You know more than the Mother?” Similarly, if Sri Aurobindo passed some remark, the Mother would accept it as the last Word. Very often sadhaks used to hear her remark, “Sri Aurobindo said so.” And Sri Aurobindo would quote the Mother’s authority. Once a sadhak wanted to do something in a particular way; the Mother almost consented, but on hearing Sri Aurobindo’s objection, she said, “Oh, you think so? Then it can’t be done!” To both of them, the other’s word was the law. One of us observed that only two persons have realised and put into practice Sri Aurobindo’s Yoga of surrender: the Mother surrendering to Sri Aurobindo and Sri Aurobindo to the Mother.

About an hour after food, came the bath. I have described the sponge-bath. Now I shall speak of the shower-bath, given with a spraying arrangement. For this kind of bath to be possible we had to wait for over two years. He would take some rest after his meal, then get up and sit on the edge of the bed waiting for the Mother’s arrival. In the interval he would do the leg exercises prescribed by Dr. Manilal. Sometimes if she was late in coming, we used to fidget but Sri Aurobindo was an image of patience. Now and then if he felt drowsy, Champaklal would put a few pillows as back-rest and support them from behind till the Mother came. Then he would start walking in her presence for about half an hour. One may be tempted to ask, “Why should he walk in her presence?” It was certainly not for any physical reason. As Sri Aurobindo’s walking had not yet become steady, the Mother’s presence was necessary to protect him from any harm that could be caused by occult forces — that is how I understand it. Just as Sri Aurobindo used to protect the Mother, she protected him, when needed: it was the role of the Lord and the Shakti. These are occult phenomena beyond our human intelligence. After her departure, he would go to the adjacent room which had been turned into a small bathroom, with walls of glazed tiles, the floor of mosaic and there was constant supply of hot and cold water. After long years of austerity, affluence and luxury indeed! The Divine also passes through hardships, though with a smile! The bath itself was simple enough, not taking more than half an hour. This again was like the bath of the temple Deity in a shrine, except that here the Deity was in a human body — one of the most sensitive. The Deity, entirely passive, submitted himself to the care of the attendants, the sevaks who did what they thought best. In this priestly act of ablution, we felt a thrill as we touched and cleansed his body, part by part. As the face was rubbed, he closed his eyes, leaned in front or back when these parts were done respectively, and when one arm was lifted for cleaning, his hand gently pressed the fingers of the operator. Finally came the turn of the two small and dainty feet — all the activities going on silently and in mutual understanding, while the conversation proceeded simultaneously. Another operation that we, following the ancient traditional practice, undertook during the bath for a short time, at the earnest request of some devotees, was what we call “sipping of water touched by the feet of the Deity”. Sri Aurobindo granted the boon and even put forward his feet so that we could wash them and collect the water in a bowl.

After the bath when the word “finished” was uttered, he would rise and walk to his bed for rest. We would Put a sprinkling of talcum powder on his body. Then relaxing himself, he would enjoy a calm repose.

On a few occasions, we crowded round him like children, as he lay there, and began to show him two big volumes of Ajanta paintings, presented to him by Sir Akbar Hydari. The works of modern painters like Abanindranath, Nandalal and others, were also shown. Purani, Champaklal and Satyendra took interest in them and Sri Aurobindo freely gave his opinion but as I was not art-sensitive, I made no record of them hoping that Purani would do so.

One part of the divine body that could not be entrusted to our rough hands was the head — the majestic crown. Washing it fell within the Mother’s domain. Our part was only to help her. We could easily understand why all the complicated operation connected with it could not be safely left in our clumsy, coarse and unpractised hands. If we had set about doing it, I fear Sri Aurobindo would have asked us, “Have you left any hair on my head?” Now the Mother’s deft hands and delicate touch made the hair shine with a silken gloss; all the hair that came off in the combing passed into Champaklal’s treasury.

Sri Aurobindo, we were told, used to take his bath about midnight with very hot water, all the year round — mixing very little cold water, even for the head. The story is quite believable, for we were asked to pour extremely hot water on the fractured leg to cure the occasional itching he had. “A very drastic, but effective method,” he pronounced with a smile, “but not many could bear such heat.” Sometimes while returning from the bath, he was seen moving his lips as though murmuring something. It prompted Champaklal to suggest to him that if he wanted to dictate some lines of poetry, I would be willing to take them down. His intuition was correct. For a few days Sri Aurobindo did dictate verses and then stopped. Perhaps he felt that I must be given rest before I resumed my next round of duty.

There was another tiny operation he allowed us to do, the cutting of his nails. Satyendra used to clean them daily, but we cut them only every month or two after they had grown sufficiently long and could be preserved intact. It was a very delicate operation, for the knife or scissors would sometimes graze the skin, specially when the operator’s eyesight was affected. When this did happen — which was fortunately very rare — he would give a quick shake to the leg! When a small bit of nail fell on the carpet and got lost, a search would start for the quarry in which Sri Aurobindo himself smilingly participated, asking, “Have you got it?” All these nails, like the hair, were the legitimate property of our custodian Champaklal.

The Mother would come to Sri Aurobindo’s room an hour after his bath for their usual work. Then we left the room, wondering what they were talking about. Probably Ashram affairs, world problems and all that the Mother “considered necessary for him to know”. Once I was sitting absorbed in meditation in front of Sri Aurobindo when the Mother entered. Perhaps she waited for a while, then he called, “Nirod, Mother has come.” I opened my eyes and saw that she was waiting with a gracious smile. I simply rushed out abashed! The Meetings lasted from 15 minutes to an hour, at the most; and when the Mother opened the door we were there waiting outside. Greeting us with an enchanting smile, she would go back to her work and we entered the Presence.

Sometime in 1945 his eyesight got affected; and the Mother suggested that I should now take up all the reading and writing work and this continued till the end. In the evening we revised the old versions of Savitri, read letters, poems, literary articles by disciples or devotees outside, and other miscellaneous matters. In course of time these incidental readings increased to such an extent that he remarked that all his time was being spent on these, while his own work was left undone. He only made the remark and continued with them, until in 1949, practically all the correspondence came to an abrupt halt, and only the work on Savitri proceeded steadily. I wonder if he had taken the decision to leave the body and was therefore in a hurry to finish his epic in time. Correspondence with Dilip and Amal Kiran was the only exception.

Now, the part of the time that remains unaccounted for was the night. For a number of years, especially during the last ones, it was the most interesting period. For gradually, attending to Sri Aurobindo’s meal, his walking and his sleep became very complicated since these activities had to depend on the Mother’s round of work. I have said before that, like life, our daily routine was continually changing. The midday meal shifted from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. We had to be guided by her clock. She had thousands of things to attend to in addition to the organisational work of the Ashram. Now she had also to bear additional responsibility for Sri Aurobindo. No wonder her time had to be very flexible. And too subtle, elusive and quick are her movements for our human calculation! Can we imagine her holding collective meditation at 11 p.m., sometimes even at 1 a.m.? Consequently Sri Aurobindo’s supper began to shift from normal hours to as late as 11 p.m. after which she would go down for meditation. But if she was late, then the meal had to be served after the meditation. Later on the meditation was followed by a regular Pranam attended by more than three hundred individuals. Then the Mother would come to Sri Aurobindo’s room to attend to his walking, normally at 11 p.m., but there were occasions when she came even at 1 a.m.! Then she would come half an hour or one hour later to give him an eye-wash with a blue liquid called “blue water”, and to rub lightly his upper body with a perfumed white cream. That was her last service of the day. We naturally had to keep awake till then, awaiting the soft tread of her feet in the corridor, for there was no knowing when she would turn up. Of course whenever possible, we did snatch a cat-nap in between, but it had to be “conscious sleep”! Purani, whose duty began at 2.30 a.m., sometimes found us awake! I am sure that it was Sri Aurobindo’s radiant Presence which was the source of all our energy and kept us fit as a fiddle, in spite of many days of scanty sleep. I have read in Kalidasa that during Shiva’s deep meditation, a constant stream of energy — Tapas — went out to fill his two attendants to enable them to keep vigil over the world of Nature. Even after the Mother’s departure, Sri Aurobindo kept awake and only when he had learnt that she had retired, did our lights go out; that was at about 2 a.m. It was my duty to switch off the last light. The switch was above the foot, of his bed. Putting my hand on it I would look at him: he gave his impersonal sweet smile in return and the light went off. A night lamp was kept burning. Then we too would retire, sleeping in the same room. Once I had a frightful nightmare and screamed. Sri Aurobindo called me, “Nirod! Nirod!” and I woke up. Very often, Purani said, when he came he found me snoring. Champaklal amended, saying, “No, he snores even long before!” “That is perhaps in anticipation of Purani’s arrival!” added Sri Aurobindo.

In spite of there being a swarm of mosquitoes, Sri Aurobindo was not in the habit of using a mosquito net. Instead, mosquito-coils imported from China were lighted and placed around the bed. These coils burn slowly, emitting a thin white trail of smoke with a smell of burnt hay or dry leaves. Its somewhat sharp odour is supposed to stave off the invasion of the invincible army of tiny pests. Chinese discovery indeed! But the smoke-line, I fear, was not impregnable and some of the wily pests would, under the cover of night, plunge their keen short proboscis into Sri Aurobindo’s bare tender skin producing angry weals or scarlet buttons. Some Insectol had to be applied to prevent sepsis. During the breeding season when the army division was at its height, the Mother would bring a globe-like thing and burst, as it were, a ‘gas bomb’ from it, just before she took her leave at night. A huge volley of white smoke with a strong smell would fill the whole room and clear up soon after. With the installation of the ceiling-fan, these crude devices were of course dispensed with. In the daytime, when the mosquitoes were flying and humming around him, or about to sit on his legs, we would rush to kill them with a clap of our hands. Sometimes he would ask, “Got it?” and on our answering “Yes”, an approving smile would be our reward.

There was an inroad of another kind of pest that we had to deal with. Throughout the Ashram, in the Dining Room, the Bakery, and the residential houses a large throng of flies, pale white, grey and black, appeared all of a sudden and started licking, defiling, contaminating indiscriminately, everything that came in their way. If not on food-stuff, they would sit on human beings, whoever they might be. Sri Aurobindo and his room were no exception. Flies, silver-fish, cockroaches, were simply taboo and were not to be tolerated. Out of all these, everyone knows, flies are the worst enemies. They don’t bite, it is true, like their cousins, the mosquitoes, but they are carriers of all kinds of infection! When they don’t bite, they stick like the habits of our physical mind. So a vigorous crusade had to be taken up. ‘Fly leaves’ began to hang in all houses. Another effective contrivance trapped swarms in its box with continuous rolling wheels. The queen of the flies, it seems, had to beat a retreat. There is an interesting occult sequel to all this. There are subtle beings presiding over animal or insect communities. The being which was the queen of the fly-kingdom came to the Mother and pleaded for mercy. When they perpetrated the sacrilege in Sri Aurobindo’s room, however, we had no mercy. Our fly-flaps became busy. Sri Aurobindo, as we know, was not a votary of Ahimsa in all circumstances. We were in no mood to dally with their whirling dance, particularly around Sri Aurobindo whose body was as sensitive as a child’s to their pestering hum. However, our constant clapping sounds like the bursting of crackers made no dents in his massive silence. Once, a bumble bee came droning into the room and took a fancy to swirl round Sri Aurobindo as he sat on the bed. We had to rush to his rescue!

I have mentioned that Sri Aurobindo used to keep his upper body always bare. In this, as in many other habits, he was very much an Indian, though he was brought up in English ways. For instance, he was not accustomed to use slippers in the room. He always went about barefoot. When a pair of slippers was offered to him, he said, “I don’t use them. Let them be given to Nolini who likes shoes.” During severe cold weather we have seen him use only a chaddar. But it intrigued me very much to see that he kept his feet always exposed, projecting out of the wrap. It seems odd, for our feet feel the cold more than other parts. Did it imply that at all moments, even at night, the feet of the Divine must be available as the haven of refuge to the needy and the devoted? It may not be too fantastic to suppose that many beings came in their subtle bodies to offer their pranams at his feet. My hypothesis is not altogether a fiction, for we have now learnt from the Mother that Sri Aurobindo has built a home in the subtle-physical plane and many of us visit him at night in our subtle bodies. She has also told us that we visit her or she visits us during our sleep. In the morning she has often asked, “Do you know anything about it?” Well, as all this is true, surely beings could also come in their subtle forms to do pranam to Sri Aurobindo. “But why bare feet?” one may ask. “That is the Indian custom”, would be my, answer.

“Did he sleep at night?” was the question very often asked. To all appearance he did sleep and quite sufficiently. The Mother and he always insist on observing normal rules of health. We must eat well and sleep well, So, if there was a physical need for food, there could be a need for sleep as with us, but with a difference. For our sleep is a heavy plunge into inconscience where we forget everything, whereas a Yogi sleeps awake. There is also a state in which the physical body is apparently asleep, while the subtle body goes out visiting various persons in their sleep. The Mother has said that she does most of the subtle work in this way at night. Sri Aurobindo wrote to me, “In former days when she was spending the night in a trance and out working in the Ashram, she brought back with her the knowledge of all that was happening to everybody… I often know from her what has happened before it is reported by anyone.”

This is the overall picture of Sri Aurobindo’s outer life as we saw it and lived it together through his last twelve years. The programme remained, on the whole, constant till the end except for some minor variations due to exigencies of circumstances. I have said nothing about his inner life, for I was not given a vision or perception of that vast secret field; nor had I Arjuna’s unique privilege of seeing his Viśvarūpa, except some glimpses of his God-like stature. Sri Aurobindo had reminded me again and again in his letters that my physical crust was too thick. All the same, the joy, peace, light and energy that constantly sustained us could come from his silent Presence alone. People used to remark that we seemed to be beings of another world. Unfortunately, that brightness and felicity gave place to a grave seriousness with the rolling of years and a shadow of gloom was over us all, though we could not account for it at the time. Besides, the dark underside of our human nature, — I am talking particularly of myself — also began to show its grisly face. “Mortality bears ill the Eternal’s touch.” Of course, Sri Aurobindo remained samam brahman. Our frailties and shortcomings he had already seen from above, and was prepared for them when he accepted us for his service; he had never shown any annoyance. On the contrary, he forgave us all. Though he was impersonal by nature, hardly looked at us while talking, rarely spoke our name while asking for something, there was an ineffable sweetness in his Presence. And during our pranam on our birthdays or Darshan days, he used to make up for all his want of expression by melting into fatherly or friendly love and affection. He would pat us on the head, press it long with his warm velvety hands and look into our eyes with the tenderness of his sweet personality. Satyendra told me that when on his birthday he used to rub some attar on Sri Aurobindo’s hand, he would then put forward the other one. His constant silent love and compassion shine ever bright in the depths of our hearts.