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At the Feet of The Mother

With Sri Aurobindo in Baroda (4) by Dinendra Kumar Roy

This is the concluding chapter 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 4

Atmaram Radhabhai Segun and Thakkar & Co., two well-known booksellers of Bombay, used to supply books to Aurobindo. Every month, sometimes even every week, they sent him lists of new books. He selected titles he liked from these lists and sent his order. As soon as he got his salary he would send a money-order of fifty or sixty rupees or more to the booksellers. They supplied Aurobindo with books on a deposit account system. His books did not come by bookpost but in huge packing cases sent by rail parcel; such parcels came as often as two or three times a month.

Aurobindo would finish reading these books in eight or ten days and then place an order for new books. I have never seen such a voracious reader. Those who suspected Aurobindo of being a terrible revolutionary or a pioneer of the revolution and those who continue to hold such opinions even today, would be surprised to know that I never saw any revolutionary literature among the piles of books in his library! I never heard him express a word of contempt for the formidable British government. There are some people, perhaps, who believe that Aurobindo detested the British government because he was deprived of the right to enter the Indian Civil Service. To my mind this idea is utterly without value. Aurobindo accepted a very high post in the Maharaja Gaekwar’s state at the Maharaja’s request. It is true that he was serving as a professor in the college, but in the beginning the Maharaja assigned him to the Dewan’s office. He discharged that work with great competence. Aurobindo did not enjoy official work and so he quite willingly became a professor. The Maharaja fulfilled his desire. Career was of no importance to Aurobindo — he never made petitions for promotion. I find it hard to believe that someone so indifferent about his job could be angered by the government for not allowing him to enter the Civil Service. Even after staying with him in the same room day and night for over two years and listening to his conversation, I could never imagine, even for a moment, that he harboured sinister designs of throwing the English out of India. I thought it unbecoming to tarnish his love of freedom, which was his very soul, with the reproach of disloyalty. It is totally unthinkable that a man like him whose honesty was beyond dispute, whose nature was generous, devout, compassionate, considerate of others’ pain, lacking in violence or hatred, that such a man could plot with bombs and be involved in a plan to kill human beings. It seems there was some factionalism among the high-placed state employees of Baroda, but Aurobindo never took part in this or chose sides. And I certainly would have known about it if he did. I suppose that Aurobindo never had the time, nor much less the inclination, to meddle in all this factionalism. The service of Vagdevi, the Goddess of learning, was his only aspiration. He always remained rapt in the service of Bharati.

Before I went to Baroda, Aurobindo had contributed a number of articles to a Bombay periodical Induprakash criticizing some errors of the Congress. Unable to refute his conclusive arguments, the blind followers of the Congress were highly upset with him. When reason is vanquished, anger takes over — this has always been man’s primary weakness. I was told that after the publication of these articles, one of the judges of the Bombay High Court, the late Mr. Ranade, met Aurobindo. Aurobindo had a discussion with him about these articles. Even the vastly experienced, learned and magnanimous Ranade could not with all his great intelligence refute Aurobindo’s arguments! But he requested Aurobindo not to write such articles in the future. Such articles he feared, could damage the Congress. Aurobindo acceded to his request. After this he never criticized the Congress again in the Induprakash. I never asked Aurobindo about the substance of these articles.

Many addressed Aurobindo in their letters as A. A. Ghosh, Esquire. I never asked him why that extra “A” was appended to his name, thinking that such a question might be considered impolite. Thus this needless curiosity remained unanswered. I have heard however that in England he was known as Acroyd Aurobindo. He may have lived with a family of that name during his sojourn in England as a child. I am not at all intrigued by this unusual name. Many a person returning from Europe has appended a prefix to his name — Michael Madhusudan, Victor Nripendranarayan, Shelley Kamalkrishna, Albion Rajkumar. When he returned to India, Aurobindo dropped this unnecessary prefix.

Aurobindo was a firm believer in astrology. He believed that the planets had an influence on human life. He hadn’t the slightest doubt that one could tell good or ill in the life of a new-born by studying the horoscope. Once while talking to him about astrology I mentioned Srijut Kalipada Bhattacharya, who was from my village. Although Kalipada-babu was a graduate of the Calcutta University, he was a convinced tantrik and excelled in the science of astrology. At the time of which I speak, Mr. Bhattacharya was the assistant headmaster of the government school at Barasat. At Aurobindo’s request I got a horoscope made by Mr. Bhattacharya. I never asked Aurobindo whether the events in his past life agreed with his chart. We met on the winter holidays when Mr. Bhattacharya came home and I returned from Baroda. He told me that if he were given the right remuneration he could draw a chart that would tell us the events of each day. Aurobindo wanted such a detailed chart to be made but somehow that did not happen. It might have happened if I had stayed a little longer at Baroda. Mr. Bhattacharya prepared the horoscopes of several great men of our country. When I met him he told me, “Your pupil is an uncommon man. Even though he is especially loved by the Maharaja, he is destined to suffer much pain and sorrow; there isn’t much domestic happiness in his future.” Aurobindo was eager to get married at that time and did so soon afterwards. His job brought him a lot of money and his health was perfect. But there was no domestic happiness in his destiny! I could not quite accept this prediction of Mr. Bhattacharya, but today I realise that Mr. Bhattacharya was not wrong after all. Who else with such uncommon brilliance as Aurobindo has had to suffer so much pain and sorrow, to bear so much mental anguish? Aparam vaa kim bhavishyati! (What will happen after this?)

Many readers may not know the story connected with Aparam vaa kim bhavishyati. I cannot resist recounting it here.

A Goswami Prabhu (Vaishnava guru) lived in a village. He was also interested in the Tantrik path. He knew a lot of astrology and was also conversant with kakcharitra, the knowledge of auspicious and inauspicious things from the cry of the crow. It seems that the knowledge of kakcharitra enables one to read the apparently meaningless marks found on top of a human skull!

The Goswami Prabhu had many disciples and devotees. One day he was passing by a cemetery on the bank of a river bordering the village in order to go to a disciple’s house on the outskirts of town when he noticed a human skull at the foot of a tree. When he saw the haphazard marks on the skull he stood there and, using his knowledge of black magic, began deciphering what was written on it. He read:

Bhojanam yatra tatra, shayanam hattamandire. Maranam Gomati tire, aparam vaa kim bhavishyati?
(I ate wherever I could, I slept in the market-hut. I’ll die on the bank of the Gomati. But what will happen after this?)

The Goswami understood that when the man was alive he ate anywhere, slept under the roof of some shop, died on the bank of the Gomati, but he wondered what would happen after death. This greatly aroused his curiosity. He wrapped the skull in a cloth and brought it home. He put it inside a new pot, covered the pot with a cloth and hung it from the ceiling in a corner. Almost everyday he inspected the skull but he could see no changes in it.

Almost a week later he had to go to a different disciple’s house. While leaving he said to his wife, “Don’t get curious about what is inside this pot. Don’t open the pot or even go near it.”

Because of this prohibition, the curiosity of the Goswami’s wife became uncontrollable. There is no woman on this earth who can control her curiosity. So the Goswami’s wife disobeyed her husband’s order and uncovered the pot. The horrible sight chilled her. Why was a dead person’s skull in the pot? Why did her husband uncover the pot once almost daily and look into it? However much she racked her brains, she could not discover the reason. Finally it dawned on her that this was the skull of her husband’s secret mistress! The luckless woman had died but her husband had not been able to forget his love and so he consoled himself by looking at her skull every day. How could she fail to come to such a simple explanation! The woman’s heart burned with anger and jealousy. Taking the skull out of the pot she smashed it to pieces and threw them into a filthy gutter. Then removing the ornaments from both her arms, the offended wife lay herself on the floor and began to weep.

When the Goswami returned home, he found his faithful wife in this dismal state. He enquired what had happened but did not get any answer. “O speechless maiden, why don’t you say something?” Finally he went towards the pot and discovered that both the pot and the skull were missing. He went back to his wife and asked about the skull. The woman’s hurt pride exploded. Springing from the ground, she yelled furiously, “So you rascal! You love someone else!” and things like that. Then at last the Goswami understood the fate of the skull — aparam vaa kim bhavishyati — and thus this unresolved problem of Providence was solved.

It seems that Aurobindo’s elder brother Benoy-babu was also quite a believer in astrology. Aurobindo once told me a very amusing story in this regard. An astrologer once prepared Benoy’s chart. When he handed it over, he flattered him with his reading of the chart. Benoy rewarded him by paying him a handsome sum of money. A few days later, Benoy-babu showed this chart to his uncle, Jogin-babu. Well-versed in Sanskrit, he looked through the chart and smiled a little. When Benoy-babu asked why he was smiling, he replied, “Look, everything that is written in your chart in fine, but there is one bad indication with regard to your character.” He then read the relevant Sanskrit shloka and explained it to him. When he heard the explanation, Benoy-babu turned red with anger: “That rascal-astrologer hoodwinked me and got ten rupees out of me. Had I known this before, I would have kicked the beggar!” Benoy-babu’s anger greatly amused Jogin-babu.

A Deccani Brahmin youth named Gopal Deshpande lived in another part of the house where we lived at the Baroda Camp. He had studied agriculture or something of the sort in England and then returned to Baroda to take up a government job. He worked in the revenue department and his post corresponded to that of a deputy collector. I think he earned 200 or 250 rupees a month. He was a serious sort of person and did not mix much with others. Sometimes he would sit and chat with Aurobindo. Many people came to the house and almost all of them came to chat with Aurobindo. Hardly anyone went to see Deshpande. Many business people respected Aurobindo highly. They were cordial with him not because of his genius, I think, but because he was especially loved and trusted by the Maharaja. And so they came to him with all sorts of business motives. Occasionally I saw Gujarati traders and Maratha sardaars come to Aurobindo asking for advice about sending their sons to Europe for education.

Once another Deccani Brahmin arrived, “Bakkeshwar” Mangesh — I don’t remember his surname. He introduced himself as a salesman of some insurance company and wished to make use of Aurobindo’s influence. He wanted Aurobindo to persuade the Maharaja to have himself insured for life through him for forty or fifty thousand rupees! But just before this the Maharaja had bought a life insurance policy for a huge sum. I was told that Mangesh was the late justice Ranade’s follower and protege. Aurobindo behaved quite cordially with him. After the first two meetings I understood that the fellow was a braggart and a rogue. When I told Aurobindo what I thought, he just laughed and said nothing.

The man’s garrulity in the house exasperated me! He imagined that since I was a Bengali I was familiar with Calcutta, so he asked me all sorts of questions about the city. Finally, he brought up the question of the Tagore family. The respected late Satyendranath Tagore was at that time a judge in the Bombay area. This salesman was therefore on familiar terms with him and his family! While we were talking about the Tagore family he made such impertinent remarks about this respected and dignified family that I decided to teach him a lesson by publishing a character sketch of him in Pradeep, a well-known, important Bengali monthly of the time. During our summer vacation when we went to Calcutta, this article appeared in Pradeep. The salesman did not know Bengali, but one of Aurobindo’s friends living in Baroda decided to have fun, so he read and explained the whole article to him, adding his own remarks as he went along. The fellow became mad with rage and howled and growled and did not hesitate to threaten me. There was quite an uproar among the Marathas of Baroda. Some Bengali “Novelist” had written an article in a monthly and exposed a distinguished Maratha like him. What impudence! How dare he ridicule a man who was the respected judge Ranade’s beloved protege! Even Aurobindo was slightly upset and wrote to me from Deoghar, “What have you done! You’ve stirred up a hornet’s nest! If you don’t go and apologize to Mangesh, I don’t know how it will be possible for me to stay with you when I return to Baroda.” I sought the counsel of the respected and affectionate Jaldhar-babu and wrote to Mangesh, “You are unjustly angry with me for my article. The person who explained to you the article explained it incorrectly in order to infuriate you. I wanted to make you known in Bengal. I haven’t exaggerated anything. However if it has hurt you, will you forgive me?” And so Mangesh’s anger subsided. After the winter holidays when I reached Baroda, Aurobindo’s friend and magistrate of the city, Mr. Khaserao Jadhav, told me one day, “Shame on you! What an unjust thing you’ve done! To humiliate a man by publishing his table-talk! That wasn’t decent at all.” I understood that the infuriated Mangesh had gone and complained about me to Khaserao as well. But Aurobindo did not admonish me. Had he said something unpleasant it would have been impossible for me to go to Baroda with him. I asked him if it was really a crime to draw a character-sketch of someone who had behaved with such extreme arrogance in the company of friends, making impertinent remarks about one of the most respectable families of the country, a family I dearly loved. Aurobindo laughed a lot when he read Mangesh’s character-sketch. From this may be gauged his own opinion of Mangesh.

A few days before this incident a tall, sturdy Bengali youth appeared in our house at the Baroda Camp carrying a metal pot and a long staff. His name was Jatindranath Bandyopadhyaya. He did not tell us where he was from, nor whether he had any family nor what was the purpose behind his wandering from place to place. At first he was suspected of being a spy. There had just been a great uproar in south India about the Rand and Ayest murders. A lot of spies were hunting for revolutionaries all over India. In the afternoon when three or four of us went out for a walk to the river near the railway station or to the race-course, one or two strange men always followed us. Or if I got up while we were chatting on the verandah in the evening, to see whether anyone was outside, I’d see someone disappear from behind the screen! This used to happen often, so you couldn’t say I was unjustified in suspecting this newly-arrived Bengali youth to be a spy. But my suspicion soon vanished. He told me that Bengalis were not allowed to enter the British army, so he set out to try to enlist himself in another army — say an army of a princely state or of a state allied to India. In spite of all his efforts in the various states of Rajputana and Central India he was not successful! No king or head of state in western or northern India dared enlist him because of the British government’s clear prohibition against Bengalis entering the army. If Bengalis were to learn the art of war, the British Empire in India would come to an end! Aurobindo was impressed by Jatindranath’s courage, ardour and ambition and he earnestly hoped that he would succeed in entering the army. To get around the fact that Bengalis could not enter the army, Jatindranath concealed his Bengaliness, dressed up like an eastern Brahmin, dropped the “Bandyo” from “Bandyopadhyaya,” making it “Upadhyaya”, and presented himself before Aurobindo’s friend, Lieutenant Madhavrao Jadhav. He asked Madhavrao to enlist him as an ordinary foot soldier. Aurobindo commented that in an independent country if Jatindranath had been given the chance to join the army he would have distinguished himself for his heroism in due time. But unfortunately, this son of Bengal, instead of dedicating his life to becoming a writer, wanders about the whole of India in the hope of becoming a fighter! I don’t know whether fortune finally smiled on him because I returned home soon after. But it was clear that the spies were watching his movements very closely. A few days prior to my departure from Baroda I suddenly received a return-requested telegram from somewhere. The telegram said: “Intimate ‘military’ Jatindranath’s whereabouts; and what he is up to.” I could not understand why the telegram was sent to me of all people? How did they find out my name and address? However I did not answer the telegram. I did not receive any more news of Jatindranath.

While we were still living at the Baroda Camp, the famous painter Srijut Shashikumar Hesh returned to India after studying art in Europe. I had been told that his actual paternal name was “Ash” but since the English pronunciation and meaning of the word were not very dignified he used “He” in place of “A” in his name. But his father did not give up his ancestral surname. It was through the late Maharaja Suryakant Acharya Bahadur’s generosity that he had been able to go to Europe to learn painting. Shashikumar-babu was a teacher in a Bengali school in a village in Mymensingh district. Isn’t it astonishing that this ordinary village schoolteacher went to Europe merely on the strength of his courage, perseverance and fortitude and came back after learning the art of painting? Shashikumar-babu was no more than thirty when he returned to India. He had come to meet the Maharaja Gaekwar with letters of recommendation from Sir George Bardwood and Dadabhai Naoroji.

When he came to Baroda from Bombay Shashikumar-babu was not Aurobindo’s guest but the Maharaja’s. The Maharaja’s guest-house in Baroda was built in the European style — a large, elegant mansion in the middle of a lovely garden. The honoured guests of the king were put up in this building. Shashikumar-babu stayed here while he was in Baroda. Cars had not yet come to this part of the country. An excellent horse-carriage was given to Shashikumar-babu for his use. In this carriage he came daily from the guesthouse to visit us in the Baroda Camp. At our first meeting we were enchanted with him. He made us feel close to him right from the start. Although he did not know Aurobindo, he was on close terms with his uncle, Srijut Krishnakumar Mitra, who was the editor of Sanjivani. When Shashikumar was in Europe, the Sanjivani used to print a letter from him almost every week. Shashikumar-babu also spent some time in Florence and Munich studying painting. He stayed for a long time in Paris. While there he fell in love with a French woman. He married her and returned to Calcutta. Shashikumar-babu was an ordinary, traditional Brahmo, so he was married to this foreigner according to the Brahmo rites. The ordinary people of the Samaj objected to this. They were neither kind nor generous in judging their love. Shashikumar-babu often used to lament about this. Aurobindo told me, however, that one could not blame these ordinary Brahmos for objecting to such a marriage. In any case thanks to the noble Acharya Jagdishchandra’s help and graciousness, Miss Flamard, who had come to Calcutta without a friend, was made to feel at home and their marriage was solemnised without any difficulty. Shashikumar-babu wrote to his beloved in French because she did not know Bengali or English. Although he was familiar with French and Italian literatures he did not know English well. While talking to us, he was not able to speak English fluently. Aurobindo mentioned to me that even if one was not told of Shashikumar-babu’s profession it was easy to guess that the young man was a painter just by his appearance! His face was quite uncommon. When I first met Shashikumar-babu in European clothes I did not guess that he was Bengali. Few Bengalis are so fair-complexioned. Aurobindo said that he could have passed for an Italian. His beard and moustache were light.

I used to go almost every afternoon to the guesthouse for a ride with Shashikumar-babu. On some days we talked till very late at night. Occasionally Aurobindo came along. Although he openly praised Shashikumar-babu’s patriotism, love of literature and artistic genius, he did not quite support his love of luxury. I was surprised to see one who had spent his early youth as a teacher in a village school take to luxury. But Aurobindo told me that such an inclination towards luxury was a natural quality of great artists. Shashikumar-babu had been impressed by Aurobindo’s erudition and was full of praise for him. He had Aurobindo sit for two to three days at the Baroda guest-house in order to make an oil-painting of him. With just two or three strokes of his brush the portrait seemed to come alive. Unfortunately the Bengalis never got to know about his artistic genius. Only once a single-colour drawing by him appeared in the Bengali monthly Pradeep — a drawing of Kunti and Kama which did not quite reflect his artistic genius.

At Baroda he did oil portraits of several members of the royal family. But he was unable to paint the Maharani’s portrait, as she refused to sit for him. While he was working on these paintings, an English painter came to stay at the guest-house in Baroda. He had an introductory letter from the Governor-General. He had been given his job of varnishing some of the priceless old deteriorating paintings in the Maharaja’s palace. Shashikumar remarked that no great self-respecting artist would have agreed to varnish the paintings of another painter.

One night at about nine o’clock Shashikumar turned up all excited at our house. He said he had had a bad argument with the English “varnisher”. The fellow was mad, he told us, and had behaved very improperly with him. If he misbehaved again he would thrash him and teach him a lesson or two. Shashikumar could not live in the same house as this Englishman, so he asked Aurobindo what he should do. Aurobindo calmed him down with sweet words and sent him away. He explained to him that he should not do anything in a fit of temper — that would merely fill him with regret and was unlikely to solve anything. Shashikumar undoubtedly calmed down with Aurobindo’s advice but his hurt ego continued to sulk. He was especially pained by the fact that although the Englishman went off with a few thousand rupees merely for brushing over some old paintings, he had not received even half his payment after having done several excellent oil paintings. He left Baroda quite disillusioned.

I met people from different classes during my sojourn in Baroda. I especially remember one I cannot forget: I can still picture this valiant old man’s clean-shaven face. In Baroda a procession called the Ekadeshi Savari was taken out on the day after Vijaya Dashami. I described this in Bharati quite some time back. Groups of cavalry and infantry-men, along with horse-carriages and gold and silver gun-carriages, paraded through the city on this occasion. So many people came out to witness this procession that there was no place left on the main road and its surrounding houses! In order to witness it I went out with Aurobindo and we positioned ourselves on the verandah of the city’s public library. The procession was led by a tall clean-shaven man in military dress but bearing no arms and seated on a big horse. I remember Aurobindo asking me, “Tell me, if you can, if that old man is Hindu or Muslim.” I told him, “A beardless Muslim is indeed rare! He must be a Hindu.”

I found out that he was a Muslim. The story of how he lost his beard and moustache is as amazing as fiction. I have forgotten this old man’s name — he was Malharrao Gaekwar’s general. Malharrao Gaekwar was removed from the throne on the charge of having poisoned the then Resident of Baroda. When the Maharaja was about to be dethroned, this general told him that he and the army would make sure that he did not lose his throne. He would repulse any intervention by the British army. As long as he lived, he would not allow his lord and king to be dethroned and humiliated.

But the general’s proposal only reflected his madness. Malharrao Gaekwar did not approve of it, for he knew that it would bring about the fall of the kingdom and the ruin of all his subjects. So then the general surrendered his sword at the feet of the Maharaja and returned home. The general’s aged mother was still living at that time. She had already heard of the king’s reversal of fortune. On seeing her crestfallen son when he returned home, the mighty woman thundered, “Your king is in such peril and you’ve sneaked back home like a thief! What sort of intelligence is this? Is that how you show your gratitude? You could not fight and repulse the firinghee and protect the King! Why then have you become a general?” The general replied, “What could I do, mother? The King did not agree to fight. He told me, ‘These English have conquered India by physical force. They have countless weapons and soldiers who are well-trained. I can’t fight them with a handful of soldiers — it would be suicidal. I won’t try to protect myself, general.’ Mother, when I heard this from Maharaja Bahadur Khaskel Samser, I left his sword at his feet and came away! I could not but obey the King’s orders.” The general’s mother retorted, “Is the king in his right mind now? You are his general, you’ve eaten his salt and yet you didn’t try to protect him with all your strength! You shirked the duty of a general and ran away leaving him in danger! If you couldn’t do anything else, you could at least have sacrificed your life on the battlefield. Now that you’ve surrendered your arms and run away, your beard and moustache no longer look good on you. Shave them off as a reminder that you are not a man.”

On that very day, the general shaved off his beard and moustache and never took up arms again. That is why he was clean-shaven and unarmed in the procession.

I am sure that this last example of free India’s heroism and pride is no more alive. His mortal body has been laid to rest. But after all this time, whenever I think of Gujarat in the west of India where I worked during my early youth, along with the quiet, dignified image of Aurobindo, this old man’s face also appears in my memory’s mirror. He who has spent even a few days with Aurobindo can never forget him for the rest of his life. It was my supreme good fortune that I was given the opportunity to live with him for over two years.


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It is not the personality, the character that is of the first importance in rebirth — it is the psychic being who stands behind the evolution of the nature and evolves with it.