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At the Feet of The Mother

The Unexpected

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It was the hour before the Gods awake

The calendar stood at November 1938, the month of the Darshan. A few weeks more and we would meet the Master after a long wait of three months. After every Darshan we start counting the days for the next one, for each occasion brings the Eternal and his Shakti closer to us and is therefore a significant landmark in our lives. As the date comes nearer, our days too take on a brighter hue and the day before the Darshan, all faces glow with sweet smiles. Friends meeting on the road greet each other with one word, “Tomorrow!” or with a silent look of happy expectation. The Dining Room hums with the same theme. Wherever you go, whomsoever you meet, no other talk except the Guru’s Darshan for one or two minutes, — an eternal moment.

As for myself, my feelings are more complex. I have broken verbal lances with him, challenged his views, poked fun at his Yoga. I know all these will be forgotten at the moment when I shall meet his august Presence. He will be as affable as in his letters and bestow his gracious smile from his transcendental height while my heart will beat in joy and wonder. Still, the mind cannot be entirely free from a conventional fear.

In this mood of expectation we arrived at the eve of the Darshan, November 24th. The Mother gave her blessings to all in the morning. Embodiment of the Mahalakshmi Grace and Beauty, she poured her smile and filled our hearts with love and adoration, an ideal condition in which to present ourselves to the Lord. Each Darshan is an occasion for him to survey the progress we have made after the last one and to give us a fresh push towards a further advance.

Visitors had swollen the even flow of our life; among them, Miss Wilson, daughter of President Wilson, had come from far-off America for the Master’s Darshan. His book Essays on the Gita had cast an unearthly spell upon her. That there could be someone who could write such a wonderful book in this materialistic age was beyond her imagination. She could hear the Voice of the Lord saying to man, “Abandon all dharmas. Take refuge in me alone. I shall deliver thee from all Sin.” The book was her Bible. She decided she must have the Darshan of such a unique person.

The day passed in a happy rhythm. Most of the sadhaks had gone to bed early to prepare inwardly for the great event. Over the Ashram reigned an atmosphere of deep peace and silence. Only one light was burning in Sri Aurobindo’s corner room towards the street and keeping a vigil over the pervasive darkness. The Mother too had retired early, leaving Sri Aurobindo at his work. He was perhaps busy with Savitri now that the “avalanche of correspondence” had been arrested due to Darshan work. Thus the small hours were reached. Then in Purani’s room the light was switched on; it was 2 a.m. He had to prepare hot water for the Mother’s bath. At 7.30 a.m. the Darshan would start. But nobody suspected that

Across the path of the divine Event
The huge foreboding mind of Night, alone
In her unlit temple of eternity,
Lay stretched immobile upon Silence’ marge.

Breaking the profound silence the emergency bell rang from the Mother’s room. Purani rushed up and found the Mother at the top of the staircase. She said, “Sri Aurobindo has fallen down. Go and fetch Dr. Manilal.” Fortunately, he had come for the Darshan from Gujarat. Soon he arrived and saw that Sri Aurobindo was lying on the floor in his bedroom. On his way to the bathroom he had stumbled over a tiger skin. The doctor made a preliminary examination and suspected a fracture of the right thigh bone; he asked the Mother to send for assistants. It appears that Sri Aurobindo while passing from his sitting-room to the bathroom (probably revolving some lines of Savitri) fell with his right knee striking the head of a tiger. Perhaps there was jubilation among the adverse forces crying, “Our enemy has fallen!” Sri Aurobindo, however, remained unperturbed and tried to get up. Failing to do so he lay down quietly expecting that the Mother would come in soon. As was natural, the Mother in her turn received a strong vibration in her sleep which made her feel that something had gone wrong with Sri Aurobindo. She came in immediately and found him lying on the floor. Her intuition and good general knowledge of medical science made her suspect a fracture. She rang the emergency bell.

When we other doctors came up, we saw Dr. Manilal examining Sri Aurobindo’s injured leg. The Mother was sitting by Sri Aurobindo’s side, fanning him gently. I could not believe what I saw: on the one hand Sri Aurobindo lying helplessly, on the other, a deep divine sorrow on the Mother’s face. But I soon regained my composure and helped the doctor in the examination. My medical eye could not help taking in at a glance Sri Aurobindo’s entire body and appreciating the robust manly frame. His right knee was flexed, his face bore a perplexed smile as if he did not know what was wrong with him; the chest was bare, well-developed and the finely pressed snow-white dhoti drawn up contrasted with the shining golden thighs, round and marble-smooth, reminiscent of Yeats’s line, “World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras”. A sudden fugitive vision of the Golden Purusha of the Vedas!

Each gentle movement of the leg by the doctor made Sri Aurobindo let out a short “Ah!” which prompted the Mother to ask, “Is it hurting you?” Throughout the investigation he uttered very few words, only to answer the doctor’s questions. Finally the doctor pronounced that there was a fracture of the thigh bone. Sri Aurobindo simply heard the verdict and made no comment.

A team of attendants was formed consisting of Dr. Manilal, three other medical men, Champaklal (Sri Aurobindo’s personal attendant) and Purani, who had acquired the right by his past association with Sri Aurobindo to be included. One more hand was still needed. The Mother simply looked through the window shutters of Sri Aurobindo’s room and seeing Dr. Satyendra below chatting in front of his Dental Clinic said, “Take Satyendra.” A happy choice! A strong man with a genial bearing.

The next step was to plaster the leg. Dr. Rao, a friend of the sadhak Duraiswamy and Superintendant of Cuddalore hospital, was sent for, since the local hospital might not have been able to give us the necessary equipment. Purani brought the plaster of Paris from the Government Pharmacy. At last the injured leg was put in a cast as a first aid. The next move was to take the Lord to his bed. We found it quite a job to carry him in spite of our having three muscular figures amongst us, Purani, Champaklal and Satyendra. His physical frame had considerable weight like the spiritual substance it enshrined.

Already two hours had passed and the news had flown all over the Ashram — a real bolt from the blue. All hopes and aspirations of hundreds of people were set at naught by this single blow. They gathered in the courtyard of the Ashram to know the truth and went back sullen-hearted with a fervent prayer addressed to the Mother and the Lord for his speedy recovery. Miss Wilson accepted Fate’s decree with a calm submission. The Mother, out of compassion for the disappointed devotees, gave darshan to all in the evening. Thus she wiped away their gloom with the sunshine of her smile and the power of her touch.

As we had no work now except to keep a watch, I could not but contemplate upon what had happened. I remembered Sri Aurobindo writing to me that though he had acquired sufficient control over disease and death, accidents were possible. Still, living in entire seclusion, secure from all outward contingencies, and inwardly master of cosmic forces, and yet to meet with such an accident in so unexpected a way, was inconceivable. {Sri Aurobindo explained to us later on in the “Talks” the why and wherefore of the catastrophe.) The forces must have been very sly — clever indeed to have chosen the time when the Mother had retired, the Gods were asleep. But the Powers of the Inconscience were awake to strike their infernal blow. It was really the hour of the unexpected!

In the clear morning light I could have a good view of Sri Aurobindo as he was lying on his bed, almost motionless and straight. I asked myself; “Is he enjoying a bit of sweet sleep since he had none the whole night? Or is he simply keeping quiet and bearing the severe pain with equanimity?” It was the latter, as he told us afterwards. Only the Mother’s visit, to make some enquiries or to offer some drink, showed flickers of life in his otherwise trance-like mood. I could now observe him from close at hand and the room he had been living in for the last twelve years! Since then, it has undergone such a tremendous change that just a faint memory of its original state is all that remains today. The wooden bed (on which Sri Aurobindo was lying) was rather large, the upper part being slightly raised, and he filled almost the entire breadth — the broad chest and the head large and round, the fine silken hair parted in the middle. As for the rest of the room, it was very plain, almost austerely furnished, except for the carpet, one small box-wood table at either end of the room, a semicircular table in the middle; notebooks, and odds and ends of papers lying scattered on one of the tables; a big almirah containing a small number of books: on the top shelf, the bound volumes of the Arya. On the next one, the Collected Works of Shakespeare and Shelley and books presented by writers such as Radhakrishnan, James Cousins, etc. There were two paintings, one Chinese and the other of Amitabha Buddha with the lotus in his hand; a few wood carvings; a couch for the Mother opposite Sri Aurobindo’s bed. The only furniture of luxury was a long cane chair in the adjacent room, in which he could recline and have some repose,

When Dr. Manilal arrived after his breakfast, he asked Sri Aurobindo how he felt. There was no complaint and the answer was brief. Soon after, Dr. Rao arrived. On hearing the story of the fall he proposed that an orthopaedic surgeon from Madras be called for consultation. He had a friend Dr. Narasimha Ayer, well known for his efficiency. The Mother approved and he left for Madras.

We now had nothing else to do except wait. The day rolled on. We were counting hours and minutes for Dr. Rao’s return. Any sound of a car horn would make us run to the window. Pondicherry in 1938 was, by the way, far from what it is today. The number of cars could almost be counted and they drove by at long intervals, So we could easily be deceived by the sound of a horn, particularly in our anxious anticipation. Dr. Manilal would give us fatherly admonition not to be so restless, both his age and experience must have taught him some samatā and an objective outlook on things. Meanwhile, Sri Aurobindo, the divine patient, was lying quietly in his spacious bed, apparently quite at ease. To Dr. Manilal’s occasional enquiries he gave monosyllabic answers, and the rest of us were perhaps nothing more than shadowy forms moving about, having no names and awaking no interest. Only when the Mother came from time to time and asked with a sweet smile, “Is it paining you?” we saw some difference on an otherwise impassive face! At last after many deceptions, we were informed that the doctors had arrived. It was evening. They explained that they were delayed because they wanted an expert radiologist friend to accompany them, and when he was hunted down in the labyrinthine Madras metropolis, the radiologist agreed to follow soon.

The room was now astir. The plaster cast was removed and the specialist examined the limb. He confirmed the diagnosis of fracture but would wait for X-ray pictures before he started any manipulation. The Mother put many intricate questions to him on various possibilities, the prognosis, lines of treatment, etc., etc., and the specialist wondered with admiration at her possession of so much technical knowledge. Sri Aurobindo, on the other hand, sitting up in bed, listened witness-like, yet intently, to all the talk, looking from one face to another, but uttered not a single word! The Mother was explaining to him the surgeon’s opinion as if he could not grasp all that was happening. He left the bargaining to the Mother, and accepted whatever she decided for him. She was certainly the better judge. I was very much intrigued by this passive role. One who had been sending me sound medical advice about patients had not a word to say about himself on such a crucial matter. Spectator-like and amused, he simply sat, a big child, his face and eyes beaming with a smile, and the body glowing with an angelic radiance.

The radiologist arrived with his X-ray machine at about 11 p.m. and stirred us into action. He was quite a smart young man carrying a confident air and went about his business in a formal manner. He took a few films and developed them at once which was a great relief to us. But the diagnosis came like a stunning blow. The Mother was shown the pictures revealing an impacted fracture of the right femur above the knee, two fragments firmly locked together. Both the specialist and the radiologist took a serious view of it, and remarked that if the fragments had projected backwards, the main blood vessels and nerves running behind the bone would have ruptured and caused a big disaster! It would have been most unwise in this situation to reduce the fracture by any forceful traction or other drastic mechanical contrivance. “I would leave it alone, put the limb in plaster, and by means of the splints exert a steady traction,” was the final verdict of the specialist. The advice was accepted and the limb put into traction from the end of the bed. Particular attention was to be paid to the daily passive movements of the patella in order to avoid adhesion. The patient was to stay in bed for a number of weeks and the specialist would pay a second visit later on to consider the future course.

The other doctors now took their leave and Dr. Manilal resumed the charge of the patient.

The X-ray plates were kept in Sri Aurobindo’s room for a number of years. One day the Mother said, “Remove them from here.” I kept them in my personal custody, but could not trace them afterwards.

One thing I could not fail to notice was that from the moment of the fall to the doctor’s departure, Sri Aurobindo remained most unusually calm and unperturbed as if nothing had happened to him. No questions about his condition, no anxiety, no complaint of any sort, quiet acceptance of the doctor’s direction. It is this submission that made Dr. Rao remark afterwards that Sri Aurobindo was an ideal patient. With the same submission he had accepted Lele’s instruction to reject all thoughts. We know however that he was not always submissive in other fields of life.

The following day, Dr. Manilal had to face from the Mother such an unexpected thundering assault that we felt our hearts would stop with fear and consternation. It was Mahakali’s wrath. I have never since seen her in such a fiery mood. Sri Aurobindo was lying quietly; the Mother came into the room and, standing by his bed, asked Dr. Manilal what he thought of the fracture. The doctor either purposely gave an evasive reply with some hesitation or did not consider the case serious. The Mother exploded, “Don’t hide it! we know the truth,” Then I saw something rare that I shall never forget. The Mother prostrated herself on the floor before Sri Aurobindo and, I believe, began to pray to him. From this supplication I could realise the gravity of the situation. Yet, she had shown no trace of it until then. Calm and solemn, Sri Aurobindo heard the silent prayer.

Our working hours as attendants were divided according to individual preference. Purani chose the oddest hour of 12 midnight, but most convenient for the rest of us. As for the work, there was, to begin with, very little to do since Sri Aurobindo was to remain flat on his back in bed, without making any movement. Only someone had always to be near at hand in case he needed anything. The attendance by the entire team was required only at particular times, if, for instance, the body needed some adjustment after a long stay in one position. He who had had the Mother as the sole companion, and Champaklal as the only attendant, now had to admit others into his sanctum. Circumstances broke down the barriers of solitude and forced upon him a new pattern of life.

Little by little the air of unfamiliarity gave way as Sri Aurobindo began to take cognizance of the new situation and the new conditions that were around him. Our awe also diminished gradually; Dr. Manilal was helpful in this matter because he had attended the Maharaja and knew the ways of great men. Here too he combined very well his unobtrusive medical personality and simple devotional fervour. None felt like leaving the Presence even for meals, though there was hardly anything to do. There must have been pain and discomfort owing to the unaccustomed posture but Sri Aurobindo would scarcely disturb anybody and would not call for any assistance. Only once I remember the doctor had to be called at night for some gnawing pain. The days began to take on a more and more rosy tint as the Master became more and more communicative.

The Mother had a wheeled dinner table made for Sri Aurobindo, so he could take his meals sitting up in bed. She would lay the table herself, push it to the bed and serve the meals with her own hands. One day, not knowing the Mother’s ways, we rushed forward to help her push the table. With a sweet smile she complained to Sri Aurobindo, “Oh, they are taking away my work!” Much abashed, quickly we drew back and learnt the lesson that one must not be too forward! At first Sri Aurobindo took three meals a day, the morning one being quite light. Champaklal and I used to be present at this time. One day wishing to give me something, the Mother asked me, “Do you like bananas?” I answered promptly, “I don’t dislike them, Mother.” The Mother and Sri Aurobindo smiled but she refrained from giving them to me. That was my first joke with the Mother!

The morning meal however was stopped very soon, since it was too early for his appetite. Here I must mention a minor but interesting episode about tea. It was a well-known fact that Sri Aurobindo was fond of a daily cup of tea. The accident had upset that long standing habit. Now the question was taken up. Dr. Manilal proposed that Sri Aurobindo should take a cup of marmite during the day as well as tea. Sri Aurobindo would not take both. I do not remember whether he took marmite at all, but I distinctly remember that he was taking tea. I also had a personal reason for this recollection, for I was, and even now am, a lover of tea, if not a mild addict. But Sri Aurobindo’s way of drinking tea was rather odd; he had to drink it from a feeding cup! Could anyone relish a fine beverage taken out of a feeding cup, I wondered! Before the accident whenever we heard the tinkling sound of his spoon at midnight from his corner room, we used to say, “Sri Aurobindo is having tea!” One day he suddenly declared, “I won’t take tea any more!” Thus a life-long habit was given up in an instant! This incident recalls another which took place many years earlier. It concerns his early habit of smoking cigars. A cigar was almost always between his lips. Once Devdas Gandhi, son of Mahatma Gandhi, visited him and saw the inevitable cigar. He shot the question, “Why are you attached to smoking?” At once came the retort, “Why are you so attached to nonsmoking?” This gives us a hint that Sri Aurobindo smoked, but without any real attachment and the proof came a few years later when the Mother began to take charge of household affairs and smoking was indulged in by all the inmates. She favoured non-smoking. Without the slightest hesitation Sri Aurobindo put aside his cigar. There was an end to an inveterate habit without the least fuss.

To resume our story. When everything had settled down and our work had fallen into a regular pattern, the “famous” talks started, in the evening. At the beginning Sri Aurobindo, lying on his back, used to speak in a low voice to the group crowded near the bed. Naturally on that occasion all of us, except Purani who stood at a distance, would rally round to listen to his finely cadenced voice and his utterances on various topics made in an intimate tone. He would rarely look at anybody while talking.

The food question easily solved, next came the problem of the bath. We were left no other choice but to give a daily sponge bath so long as Sri Aurobindo was confined to bed. But even long afterwards, it continued for lack of a proper bathroom. Whatever the arrangement was, Sri Aurobindo was not affected in the least. It was Dr. Manilal’s unique privilege to touch the divine body and give it a human cleansing with soap, powder, etc.

Another thing that required medical attention was the proper functioning of the bowels. Their habit was deranged, and a constant flat position added to the difficulty. Various medical remedies were proposed, all of which were vetoed. Here Sri Aurobindo was more positive. He explained that he had not been accustomed to taking any medical accessories for years and years, all his ailments he had cured by the application of spiritual Force. We argued that trifalā, for instance, could hardly be called a medicine, it was a compound made of three fruits. Since the argument did not work, we asked, “Why not apply the Force then?” “Well,” he replied, “not that I am not doing it, but the body is not accustomed to receive the Force in this position.” He added with a smile, “It is a tamasic position, and I feel too lazy to apply the Force.” We all laughed to hear this candid admission. Soon however the body did learn to respond, and there was no further trouble on that score. Of course, there were fluctuations and he used to remark, “It is like the story of helping too much or too little.” When we failed to grasp the allusion, he explained it at length. The story goes like this: During the Boer War two soldiers were running away on horseback. One of them was somewhat short and plump. He fell down from the horse. Finding it difficult to mount up, and the enemies hotly pursuing, he made a prayer: “Oh God, help me to my saddle!” and gave a big jump. He fell not on the saddle, but on the other side, and was caught. He exclaimed: “Thou hast helped me too much!” Since then the joke has become proverbial among us.

One minor trouble that worried us was the early appearance of bedsores. They took some time to heal and it needed rubber cushions to protect the back from further damage. Sri Aurobindo enquired daily about the condition. From then on, he started taking an active interest in his health in every detail.

It will be seen from the above account that a personal relation had now grown between the Guru and the disciples; the sense of awe and distance had vanished. In this respect, Dr. Manilal must be considered our vanguard. His age, profession, charming childlike nature melted the apparently frosty reserve of the Master. The Divine has a soft corner for the healers of the body. The much abused human representative of the Divine Healer has still a place in the economy of things! Nevertheless, even in his personal relations, Sri Aurobindo never lost his impersonality.

Now, as far as I was concerned, I was face to face with a disquieting situation. Dr. Manilal was to depart. He had come on a short leave for the Darshan and had made quite a long stay. He could not further extend his holidays, nor was it necessary, he said. For everything was running well, “according to schedule”; the critical period had been tided over. We had only to follow the present regime almost blindfold, and there would be no trouble that he could foresee. Besides, Sri Aurobindo’s force was there constantly at our call. The doctor assured us that he would come again when the limb was released from the plaster. But I could not be so easily persuaded. I was most reluctant to take the divine burden on my shoulders, frail as they were, and poor as I was in knowledge, strength and experience. True, things appear simple enough in the presence of a superior authority, but troubles gather as soon as he turns his back, for the adverse forces try to test, as it were, the novice, the uninitiated. So I clung to him like a child and entreated him not to leave me in mid-stream. The Mother also pleaded on my behalf with the result that he stayed for a few days more. Sri Aurobindo was witnessing the scene silently. Then, after cheering me up, Dr. Manilal left to resume his post and to look after his family who felt helpless without him and were pressing him to come back. My dark forebodings were however set at rest by the Grace that always helps one who relies upon its power, and there was no cause for anxiety. The Divine took good care of himself. Only once as I was taking an afternoon nap did a call come down. When I ran up, Sri Aurobindo said with an almost apologetic smile, “Oh, it is nothing much! the knee has been paining for some time, perhaps the position has got disturbed.” I tried to set it right, it wouldn’t work. But fortunately some readjustment of the slings put the matter right and I heaved a sigh of relief when he said, “It is all right now.” But the pain could not have been “nothing much”, for he would not have “troubled” me for a trivial discomfort.

Things were moving quite well. No more shadows to overcast our days. We were as merry and buoyant as the spring, our faces shining and hearts singing in the bliss of the divine company and laughing with the delightful humour of the evening talks. We were now looking forward to the day when the splints would be removed. People started asking if there was any chance of a Darshan in February. They would sorely miss it. The specialist had advised, because of the seriousness of the case and the advanced age of the patient, to keep the plaster on for ten weeks. Dr. Rao, on the other hand wanted for the same reasons, to cut the period to six weeks, for, he said, firm bony union must have already taken place and the very age of the patient should militate against a long static condition in bed, as bed-sores and congestion of the lungs might set in. In fact, these had appeared and cleared up. So a comedy ensued on the proverbial difference between doctors. Dr. Rao visited us frequently and insisted every time that these splints be removed. It pained him, he said, to see the Master being confined unnecessarily for such a long wearisome period, and he said he had raised the matter with the specialist but they agreed to differ! He quoted his own hospital experiences in his favour. Though ten weeks was too long a period, none of us were willing to take the risk. “What risk is there?” he argued. “Besides, Sri Aurobindo is an extraordinary patient; we can expect him to take good care of himself.” As a result of his repeated insistence, the Mother at last asked Sri Aurobindo to adjudicate. He replied, “If I am an extraordinary patient, I must take extraordinary precaution too. The forces are quite active. I can’t trust that I won’t make some awkward movement in sleep. Between ten weeks and six, let us come to a compromise and put it to eight weeks.” Dr. Rao was apparently satisfied. “Doctors differ” became henceforth a savoury gibe! In view of the complications that followed later on I am inclined to believe that Dr. Rao, was right in his opinion, but his rather ebullient personality failed to carry weight.

There was another unexpected visitor. Dr. Savoor, Principal of a College in the South, and an amateur homeopath. I do not know how he gained entry into the sanctuary. Since homeopathy claimed to have some good remedies for hastening bony union, he was perhaps given a chance with the Mother’s consent. But there was no way of ascertaining the effect of the treatment. It did no harm, I suppose. Satyendra reminded me that at Dr. Savoor’s suggestion, a homeopathic drug Nux Vomica X had been tried for Sri Aurobindo’s constipation at the beginning. That having failed a higher potency 200 of the same drug was given and it produced a good effect.

Dr. Manilal wanted me to keep him informed of Sri Aurobindo’s condition and, as if to be quite assured, got even the Mother’s seal upon it. The seal however could not affect my habitual indolence, and this was further encouraged, because everything was proceeding in a I smooth manner. The Mother inquired once, perhaps on Dr. Manilal’s complaint about my silence, then she referred my dilatoriness to Sri Aurobindo and I had to write without delay.

In addition to my medical work, I had to do some intellectual work as well. Reading aloud the daily newspapers to Sri Aurobindo was one. The Hindu naturally was the paper of choice. His way of reading which I had to follow at first amused me, but I realised that most of us also read in a similar way. His remarks were quite enjoyable. He would say, “Read out the prominent headlines.” As I read them aloud successively, he would ask, “Yes, what does it say? Let us hear.” Or, “That doesn’t matter. Anything else?” Thus in 10 or 15 minutes all the news was served out. The Editorial had an occasional interest. One other paper that caught his fancy was The Daily Mail for its Curly Wee cartoon. He kept his interest in it till the end though he found it getting stale and dry. In the evening, the Weekly New Statesman and Nation, sometimes the Manchester Guardian, used to be read by Purani; later on it came to be my job, but it stopped after a while. It was probably through these media that he maintained his contact with the details of the fast-changing movements in the political and cultural world, whose general aspects he could be inwardly aware of by his universalised yogic consciousness.