The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Faces appear on walls of old home
- Birthplace beckons and drowns writer in a sea of memories

Continuing her fortnightly series, the writer narrates how a visit to the house where she was born brought back memories of her favourite people

Cotton College is to me a storehouse of memories. I am not talking about myself alone; several incidents involving my family are linked to its history. Moreover, I have met quite a few of my favourite people there.

At one time, it seemed as if Cotton College was the heart of Guwahati. Without Cotton College, the city had no existence or identity.

For me, the most notable thing was that I was born on the college campus itself when my father, the late Umakanta Goswami, was head of the economics department. He was also the superintendent of one of its hostels at Dighalipukhuri, within what is now the campus of Handique College. I was born in that house.

A few years ago, I was there for the golden jubilee celebrations of Handique College. A senior lecturer of the institution — writer Manjumala Das — and young lecturers had organised a wonderful exhibition in the very house where I was born. As I was looking at the exhibits, I took the opportunity to feel the walls of the house with my fingers. The walls are crumbling now.

The thought that I was born in this ancient structure brought a flood of memories with it. Faces rose before my eyes. Ma, affectionate and smiling, stood there, near the door. Was it an embroidered reha and pat mekhela that she was wearing' Her fair, glowing skin seemed to light up the room. Was that my father standing next to her' In a dhoti kurta and a chadar embroidered with small flowers on his shoulders' Do they hide in my heart, these people who live and breathe, and walk up to me at a suitable moment'

People raved about my mother’s beauty. But I have never seen a woman so totally indifferent to her looks. She was not particularly interested in dressing up either. I recall that there was a huge tin of Cuticura talc on our old dressing table. Everybody in the house would use it — even our old cook Krishnakanta. He would, after a bath, stand in front of the mirror and apply powder liberally on himself.

While stepping into the geometry of my birthplace, I experienced a strange shudder. When I was studying at Cotton College, the panda (priest), the late Tarun Sharma, had once told me: “After you were born, there was a large bhoomi puja here.”

“What for'” I asked him.

“The time when you were born was not very favourable to you. There was the influence of inauspicious planets. In ancient times, babies born under such configurations would be cut and thrown into the river.”

I listened to him with surprise, since neither my parents nor my dear uncle, Chandrakanta Goswami, had ever mentioned the bhoomi puja.

My father never had the time to share such intimate details with his children. It was surprising that he never disclosed to us what a brilliant student he had been or the number of gold medals he had won.

For standing first in the state in his matriculation examinations, he had been awarded the Duttadev Goswami gold medal, the Khagendra Narayan gold medal and the Hemchandra Barua and Hamadhar Barua medals. For being first class first in economics at Calcutta University, he had won the King George and Queen Elizabeth medals, the British Queen’s medal and the King and Queen’s medal. But, like I said, he never talked about them while he was alive. It was only after his death that I got to see those glittering gold medals.

On page 317 of the commemorative volume on my father, the noted educationist Gopal Sarma Barua has written: “In August, I learnt that Brown sahib would retire the next month and return to England and that he would be replaced by the principal of Murarichand College in Sylhet, Umakanta Goswami from Assam. As far as we knew, there were only two other Assamese students who had studied in Calcutta University, the biggest and best university in the country — Banikanta Kakati and Radha Das. Goswami was the only student to have won a gold medal. When we learnt that we were to have such a man for a teacher, we were very excited.”

Years later, my brother handed me a pile of letters written by Sir Arthur Brown to my father. Brown was the head of the economics department at Cotton College and, subsequently, the principal. He had previously been the economic adviser to the British government in India. A noted economist, he was one of the first eminent European academicians to come to the Northeast. My father was his student. But as they had much in common, their association went beyond the relationship of a teacher and a student.

Between 1918 and 1938, Brown regularly wrote to my father. My father preserved his letters with great care, but I must confess that these are now in a bad shape.

Brown left Assam before I was born, so I never met him. But we often talked about him at home. It seems he was a tall man, well-built with thinning hair and a consistently cheerful look on his face.

Brown wrote his letters to my father when our family was passing through happy times as well as sad. The warmth of his affection for my father is evident in his letters. They also express a sense of goodwill for several distinguished sons of Assam — the historian Kanaklal Barua, Justice Parboti Kumar Goswami, the economist Mathura Mohan Goswami and the historian Surya Kanta Bhuyan.

The movement for Independence had just begun and it is obvious from his letters that he had no confidence in the struggle. “… And on January 2, the Simon Commission arrives at Pandu and takes the motor for Shillong. I hope none of our students will be foolish enough to be pushed forward to take part in one of those futile demonstrations we read about, with the result of getting themselves suspended and causing no manner of trouble. But if they are so foolish, then I trust that for the credit of the English department of the college, they will spell poor old Simon’s name properly and not (as a procession in Uttar Pradesh) appear with the inscription — GO BACK SYMEON. However, I shall not have sleepless nights whilst at Shillong, worrying over what the Cotton College student may do on January 2.”

On November 29, 1934, he wrote to my father during the time of his marriage to my mother Ambika Devi. “I hope you will have every happiness from your marriage. I think the age of your wife a very appropriate one for marriage… I have no sympathy whatever with the view that for the success of a marriage, the girl should rub shoulders with scores of other men before she knows her husband.”

To be continued

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