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Fireflies before the fadeout

One was electrifying, with a streak of subterranean restlessness; the other a pillar of stability and affection. Samir Mukerjee recalls two people who made a difference

Ranjabati Sarkar was an extraordinarily gifted, attractive and intelligent young girl. Her imposing height, exquisitely shaped hands and joie de vivre enhanced her appeal. Creative dancing was her forte, which lent itself to various types of experiments. As a member of the Dancers’ Guild, founded by her mother Manjushri and herself, they gave their own unique interpretation of some of Tagore’s dance dramas, like Chandalika, which they called Tomari Matir Kanya.

Ronja’s stage presence was electrifying. There were other productions as well, whose social relevance was not lost on the viewers. They went abroad quite often to perform and Latin America was one of their principal halting places. Apart from her love for dancing and training a host of young boys and girls in their form of artistic endeavour, Ronja’s intellectual acumen and voracious reading habits made her a stimulating companion. She fell in love with the Latin American people and their gregariousness.

Ronja told me once that there was a surface world of rivalries, competing growth rates and vital statistics, but there was a hidden world of Catholic-Iberian folklore and ritual, a social, linguistic and religious sub-soil common to the whole of Latin America. She introduced me to Isabel Allende. Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa.

She often used to invite us for tea at her Salt Lake house, where one of the delicacies on offer was apple crumble. She had a bohemian streak also, which became apparent one morning when she came to visit us. It was a raw and windy day in the month of January and she wore the most awful-looking black sneakers with purple socks! She also had on her father’s dinner jacket, with sleeves rolled up, and a multi-coloured sweater under it. Although her apparel was bizarre, she didn’t seem concerned at all about the reaction of the beholders.

Ronja often referred to Tibetan Buddhism, giving the impression that some kind of search was afoot. Her visit to Senegal affected her in a strange sort of way. This was the time when she talked of taking a rest cure in one of Kerala’s health spas. One also remembers her interest in Sikkimese monasteries. There was a kind of subterranean restlessness that kept propelling her in different directions. She was in some ways an enigmatic personality and what she was really looking for was never obvious to an outsider. She had a soft spot for my wife and myself, and loved coming over with home-made cakes for a rip-roaring adda.

Ronja reminded me of an Italian writer’s description of Eleonara Gonzaga, the wife of the Duke of Urbino in 16th Century Italy: “If ever knowledge, grace, beauty, intellect, wit, humanity and every other virtue were joined in one body, then in this.” Her suicide caught us all unawares, as we had no inkling of any depression or profound sadness that she could have been afflicted with. We lost a promising young girl who read and wrote copiously and was not afraid to look at life with the eyes of an adventurer. The Calcutta dance scene is vastly the poorer without her, and we feel her loss desperately.

Children who receive an abundance of love from their grandparents are, indeed, a blessed lot. The grandparents can afford to be indulgent and lenient, always armed with stories and anecdotes of “them days” and games like “I spy with my little eye”. My maternal grandfather, Probhat Nath Banerjee, was almost an archetypal one, who knew how to keep a child’s world secure and offer a sense of reassurance.

The house that he built at No. 6, Lower Circular Road, boasted a spacious and lush lawn, with neatly arranged flowerbeds on the sides. There was a greenhouse at one end of the garden that housed special plants which did not need the direct rays of the scorching Indian sun. It was a cool, damp and shady hide-out for impressionable children, with its own special aromas. Dadu made it a point to take me round the garden every evening, testing my knowledge of the flowers. There was always a gay profusion of seasonal flowers — cosmos, marigolds, phlox, antirrhinums, gardenias, jasmine, dahlias, sunflowers, zinnias and asters. Dadu had appointed an intelligent gardener by the name of Raghu, who was as excited about the garden as his master.

After office, Dadu always pottered about in the garden, looking at the floral display with a gleam of pride in his eyes. When dusk descended, he would point out the fireflies glowing behind the bushes. There was a cowshed and a hen-run just behind the garden, where we delighted in feeding the poultry and the cows.

Dadu was basically a very quiet and reserved person, who didn’t enjoy gregarious company in large doses. He never put on an ounce of weight ever since I knew him and his sartorial elegance was a feast for the eyes. The pipe was his constant companion and the sweet smell of tobacco permeated the entire house. It meant normality, stability and a quiet euphoria. He loved standing me against the wall to measure my height.

On some evenings, he and I would sit opposite each other in his dressing room, busy with our books. In his air-conditioned room on the first floor, he often invited me to spend the afternoons there with him, along with my brother. I have never felt so cocooned and delighted inwardly, lying on a divan in that darkened room, soothed by the gentle hum of the radiogram-like air-conditioning machine. The outside world could suppurate in its own juice but I was miles away from its convulsions. I revelled in those moments of tranquillity.

Dadu went to Trinity College, Cambridge, in the year 1905 and read mechanical sciences. He was one of the pillars of the building department of Martin and Company (he was one of the principal partners of the company along with Leslie Martin) and wherever a large building came up, like the Victoria Memorial, Dadu was on his supervisory rounds. He used to visit the Victoria Memorial building site in a horse-drawn tom-tom, accompanied by his young daughter. The house he built on Lower Circular Road was a perfect example of his engineering skills and flights of imagination. For sheer solidity and grandeur, this house had few rivals.

When he died in December 1966, he felt over-burdened by penal taxes, always complaining about the direction the country was moving in. He was born in 1884 in Uttarpara, and once in a while, would refer to his adolescence in a semi-bucolic and semi-urban ambience. I wonder how he felt watching the 19th Century fade away after ushering in momentous changes.

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