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At the Feet of The Mother

With Sri Aurobindo in Baroda (1) 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 1

I could never have imagined before the Bomb Case began that Srijut Aurobindo Ghose would become so famous, in such a short time; that throughout India the police force would keep him under constant watch; and that to prove the charge of sedition against him, the renowned barrister Mr. Norton would gulp down more easily than champagne thousands and thousands of rupees belonging to the poor of India and as dear to them as blood. I doubt whether anyone could have imagined such celebrity. Why, I doubt whether Aurobindo himself ever thought of the possibility of such a change in his destiny. But in a man’s life many things happen that once lay beyond his imagination. And so the bureaucracy’s attempt to prove Aurobindo a traitor did not astonish him.

After Aurobindo acquired this celebrity or notoriety, many things were said about him in various English and Bengali journals. Some time back I heard that a certain Mr. Palit had written his biography in order to spread his name in India and abroad. But Aurobindo hasn’t yet crossed the threshold of his youth and the time for writing the story of his life has not yet come. Besides, for various reasons, it is not quite proper to bring out the biography of a living person. But self-interest knows no rules. It is therefore difficult for some to resist the temptation of pushing someone prematurely into the public gaze and making him dance there, especially if the sale of that person’s life story can bring in a little money. I know that Aurobindo does not support such a public display. But there are many who are eager to know something about him. And I am sure that all those who are born as men in Bengal will be pleased and profoundly delighted to contemplate the story of Aurobindo’s life. This is the reason I have sat down after twelve long years to write about my personal contact with Aurobindo.

Aurobindo spent a few years of the earlier part of his active life at Baroda. It is doubtful whether any of his biographers knows anything worthy of mention about the period of his stay in Baroda. For during that time he had almost no contact either with Bengal or with Bengalis. Rather it is his Marathi friends who have some familiarity with the events of this part of his life. For myself, whatever little I know is the result of my personal contact with Aurobindo.

I left for Baroda in 1898 sometime around the beginning of winter, perhaps a few weeks after the Pujas. I had been given the charge of teaching Bengali to Aurobindo. This was twelve years ago. From his childhood Aurobindo had lived in England; he stayed there from the age of five or six till he was past his teens. For this reason he had not had the chance to learn his mother tongue well; but he was very eager to learn Bengali since from his childhood he felt strongly attracted to it. The master of so many European languages could not write a letter in his own mother tongue! What is more, he could not even speak the language like a Bengali! I believe he considered this an unpardonable defect. And that is why Aurobindo’s maternal uncle, the late Jogindranath Bose, eldest son of the late lamented Rishi Rajnarayan Bose, selected me as the right person to groom Aurobindo in the use of Bengali, and Rajnarayan-babu approved the proposal. And so accordingly I left Calcutta for Deoghar with Aurobindo himself. There I met Jogin-babu for the first time. Aurobindo was on leave at that time and spending his holidays in his maternal uncle’s house in Deoghar. Sri Krishnakumar Mitra, the respected editor of Sanjivani, was Aurobindo’s mesho-moshay (mother’s younger sister’s husband).

I will never forget the love and affection I received at the house of the late Rajnarayan Bose. Jogin-babu used to look on me with great affection. It must have been because we were both devoted to literature that I, an unknown youth, earned his genuine sympathy and deep affection at the very first meeting. A confirmed middle-aged bachelor with the heart of a child, he was simple, gentle and sweetly affectionate. As for the revered Rajnarayan-babu, what can I say that hasn’t been said before? At that time he was on his sickbed and suffering very much. His body was reduced to skin and bone, his hair, beard and moustache were as white as snow. I was enchanted to see in his almost lustreless eyes a celestial light and purity. I felt my life blessed. Even from his sickbed he talked of English and Bengali literature, of the old days and the new, and of so many other things! Whenever he spoke about Bengali literature the enthusiasm of his youth seemed to return and the agony of his illness was lessened. I recall now that on the day of my departure, he hugged me lovingly and, placing his hand on my head, blessed me: “May your sadhana in literature be fruitful.” I do not think I have ever received such a heartfelt blessing from anyone else. That was my first meeting with him; the first and the last. After that I always passed through Deoghar with Aurobindo on the way to Baroda, but I never experienced the same joy in Rajnarayan-babu’s house that I had when he was present. The deity had gone from the shrine leaving the temple forlorn. That vacant temple had no more attraction. But his unblemished memory still pervaded the sacred house like the fragrance of flowers. Once, while talking with Jogin-babu, I told him, “Your father could laugh heartily, I have never seen anyone laugh with a fuller heart. Despite the terrible pain he suffered, how he could laugh!” Jogin-babu replied, “What you saw was nothing. When father used to chat with Dwijendra-babu (Rajnarayan-babu’s best friend Dwijendranath Tagore) and both of them laughed it seemed as if the roof would come down with the force of their laughter!” Nowadays we become wise too soon and look down on whole-hearted laughter as a sign of childishness; precocity and seriousness seem to have infected us to the bones. This is why I mention it. Jogindra-babu was the worthy son of a worthy father. He and his younger brother Manindra-babu were as simple and unassuming as they were witty, well-read, generous and diligent. Jogin-babu contributed articles to a number of English journals. Literature was his livelihood.

At first the thought of teaching Bengali to Aurobindo made me very nervous. Aurobindo was himself a great scholar. In the Latin and Greek papers of the Civil Service Examination he had stood first, with marks that no previous candidate, English or foreign, had received before in those two languages. After passing the Cambridge University examinations, Aurobindo received many books as prizes; among them I saw in his library a beautiful edition of the Arabian Nights published by the Kama Shastra Society of England; the 18-chapter Mahabharata or the Shabda-kalpadruma were nothing next to it! I had never seen such a voluminous edition of the Arabian Nights — like the sixteen volumes of Webster’s dictionary! It contained innumerable illustrations too.

Before I met Aurobindo I had pictured him as a stout young man, like my writer friend Sureshchandra Samajpati, bespectacled and dressed from head to toe in European clothes; rude in speech, arrogant of eye and terribly haughty in temper. I imagined that the slightest slip would enrage him. Forget about going to Europe! If people with their love of imitation can attain “Europeanness” just by going to Bombay — cockroaches changing into beetles — I shuddered to think of the terrible haughtiness Aurobindo must have attained after almost a score of years in England!

It goes without saying that I was very disappointed with my first meeting with Aurobindo. Old-fashioned slippers with ends turned up on his feet; his clothes of coarse, flounced Ahmedabad-mill khadi, the end of his dhoti hanging loose; a tight-fitting waistcoat on his back; on his head, a mane of long, thin hair parted in the middle and hanging down over the neck; tiny pockmarks on his face; his eyes with a gentle, dreamy look — who would have thought that this thin, dark-skinned young man was Sriman Aurobindo Ghose, a living fountain of English, French, Latin, Hebrew, Greek! Had someone pointed out the hills of Deoghar and told me, “These are the Himalayas”, I would have been less surprised and confounded. In any case, after a short acquaintance, I realised that there was nothing of the meanness and dross of earth in his heart. His laughter was like a child’s, simple, liquid and soft. An inflexible will was visible in the set of his lips, but there was not the least force of worldly ambition or ordinary human selfishness in his heart; there was only a longing, rare even among the gods, to give himself in order to relieve others’ suffering.

Aurobindo could not speak Bengali then but how eager he was to talk in his mother-tongue. As I became acquainted with his nature, living together with him day and night, I realised that Aurobindo was not of this world. He was a god fallen from heaven by some curse. What God was thinking when He created Aurobindo a Bengali and then doomed him to exile in India — only He could say. Aurobindo went to England in his childhood, as a babe in his mother’s arms, and returned to India long after the end of his youth: but astonishingly the dissipations and pleasures of British society, its glamour, its diverse habits, its attractions, could not touch the nobility and human kindness of his heart. While we were staying in a single-storied bungalow at the Baroda Camp, a young Bengali (also named Ghose) came to Baroda after his return to India from England. His aim was to procure a job with the government of Baroda. He put up first at the Dak Bungalow in the Baroda Camp but then came to our house to win the patronage of Aurobindo. Two or three years in England had made him an absolute saheb. Seeing the vast difference between the behaviour of Aurobindo and of this man, I once spoke to Aurobindo about the strange westernization among the class of foreign-returned imitation Europeans. I said, “The wonderful ‘westernization’ of those who set out for Europe but came back after seeing the waves of Bombay — this is irritating enough. Let’s not even talk about those who return after staying in England for a year or two. But how is it that you who spent so much time in England from your very childhood seem like such a thorough Bengali?”

Laughing, Aurobindo replied that when one goes to England one certainly is blinded at first by the country’s outward glamour. But if one stays longer then that blindness goes away. One develops the ability to distinguish the good from the bad. There are many who go to Europe and after just two or three years come back as fully fledged sahebs, calling a banana peel kela ka phool (the “flower of a banana”), practically forget their mother-tongue; they go back to their village and, finding no table, turn over a cane basket, put a metal dish on top of it, pick up a fork in one hand and a spoon in the other, and find nothing to their liking but ox-tongue and ham (or in their absence, even cow dung!). How could such people believe without seeing it that even after eighteen or twenty years’ stay in England one could return, not a grotesque firinghee, but a son of the Motherland who offered her the devotion and respect due “to the mistress of the heart of the world, the Mother, clad resplendently in sun-beams, Bharat-lakshmi”?

All four Ghose brothers had been to Europe and so had their mother. Aurobindo’s younger brother, Barin, who was the principal accused in the Alipore Bomb Case, was delivered on the ship while it was at sea, near the English coast and for that reason he was named “Barindrakumar”. Their father, the late Krishnadhan Ghose (Dr. K. D. Ghose, I.M.S.), was an absolute saheb in his habits. He had both the virtues and vices of the English. For many years he held the position of Civil Surgeon in Rangpur and later in Khulna. In both places, he became well-known for his extraordinary reputation and influence. Everyone loved and respected him highly. He earned vast sums of money and spent it freely. When he died he was hardly able to leave anything to his children. After his death, Aurobindo and his elder brother, the poet Manmohan, were in great financial difficulty in England. Aurobindo told me that sometimes it was difficult for them even to leave the house because their creditors were always after them. Aided by nothing but their intelligence and fortitude, the two brothers made it through these trials and were able to return to their country without losing their respect. After coming back to India, Manmohan entered the government’s educational service. During his stay in England, he had distinguished himself in English society by his creative genius as a poet. In India too, many know him as a fine poet. But he never abused his genius by writing poems in Bengali! Aurobindo’s eldest brother, Binoykumar, settled in Coochbehar State and holds a respectable position in the service of the raja. Had Aurobindo been permitted to enter the Indian Civil Service he would have been the judge or magistrate of a district by now. Even if he had continued to work in the Baroda State service, his monthly salary would have been two or three thousand rupees. But Aurobindo never cared much for money. When I was in Baroda, Aurobindo was earning a decent salary. He lived alone and was not addicted to luxury. Not a paisa was ill spent. In spite of this there was nothing left at the end of the month. I often saw him borrowing money from his friends! The first thing he did on receiving his salary was to send an allowance to his mother and sister. His sister was at that time studying and staying with the “Aghor-family” at Bankipur. I saw him sending them money-orders at other times too.

One day while chatting with Aurobindo I told him, “I notice that you are the only one who sends money to your mother and sister every month. Your two elder brothers earn a lot of money too. Don’t they send them any allowance?” Aurobindo replied that his elder brother was capricious and money slipped through his hands; he lived alone and yet could barely meet all his expenses. As for Mejda (Manmohan), he had just got married and Aurobindo felt that marriage was an expensive luxury — these were the very words he used. His mother was insane and at times had to be confined to the house, but I was moved by Aurobindo’s uncommon devotion to her. Sometimes he would say with a laugh, “I’m the mad son of a mad mother!” He had a great deal of affection for his brothers and cousins, writing them letters, sending them money.

This reminds me of an incident. One day Aurobindo was filling out a money-order form to send money to his mother or sister — I can’t remember which. For some time I had been thinking about sending some money home but I was hesitant about asking Aurobindo as I was not sure whether he had enough. Seeing him writing the money-order, I thought this might be a good opportunity to ask him. I asked for the money. Aurobindo smiled and took a small bag out of a box. He emptied the bag of the little money that was in it, and giving it to me said, “This is all I have. You send it.” I replied, “What do you mean? You were just filling out a money-order form so that you could send money. You send the money. Do it. I’ll send some later.” Aurobindo shook his head and said, “That isn’t right. Your need is greater than mine. It won’t matter if I send it later.” He left his money-order form half-filled and placed it on one side of the table; then he opened the Mahabharata, and started working on a poem based on the episode of Savitri and Satyavan.

We read in history or in novels about great-souled, magnanimous people who place the need of another above their own. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen an actual example of it in this day and age.

One of Aurobindo’s paternal uncles was at this time head-clerk in the Bhagalpur Commissioner’s office. Once Aurobindo went there to meet him. I remember he was invited to dine at his uncle’s house. In fact, it doesn’t seem that Aurobindo was very close to his father’s family. He rather preferred his maternal uncle and grandfather and was close to his mother’s family. Such is the case with most families where the father is no more. The mother’s side of the family is more affectionate and loving than the father’s. A brother-in-law might prove unwilling to accept the burden of his brother’s widow but a father or brother would not abandon a daughter or a sister. From time to time Aurobindo wrote to his maternal uncle, his brothers, his sister, his cousins and his aunt (the wife of Srijut Krishnakumar Mitra, editor of Sanjivani), among others; but he almost never wrote to his paternal relatives. He rarely wrote to his brothers either. He was not in the habit of writing a lot of letters, and rarely finished a letter in a single day. On small sheets of “Grey Granite” stationery he would write ten lines of one letter, twenty of another and then abandon both. He would finish them later when he had the time or the inclination, and send them off. Some letters never ever reached the post office — they were buried alive in the pad! Aurobindo felt that the less one said about oneself the better. Perhaps that is why he spoke so little.

Aurobindo was not very popular in Baroda. There is a saying in English that genius and popularity don’t go together. This applies very well to Aurobindo. But the few friendships he had in Baroda had a sincerity that is rarely found in the world. He had become very close to the Jadhav family of Baroda. Srijut Khaserao Jadhav, graduate of an Agricultural College in England, a close friend of the Maharaja and Suba or Magistrate of Baroda, looked on Aurobindo as a brother. Khaserao’s younger brother Lieutenant Madhavrao Jadhav was Aurobindo’s most intimate friend. Generally they spoke to one another in English; sometimes they also used Marathi. Aurobindo could understand Marathi quite well, though he could not speak it well. But he could speak it better than Bengali. Aurobindo used to laugh a lot while talking.

(to be continued)


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