Those were spacious days when it was possible to spend evenings in somebody’s house, with a sumptuous fare of music and munchies, says Samir Mukerjeeit was the year 1958. Calcutta had not been got at by the hordes and a lot of things that we were used to during the Raj days hadn’t been totally erased. That was the year I met Major John Ramacker, who used to live in his farm called Daladili, in Ranchi, on the road to Itki. He stayed there with his Man Friday, Fazlu. He looked after the farm and ministered to Major Ramacker’s personal needs. The Major was an old-world character for whom witty conversation was one of the most important ingredients of life. He had a pointed beard and could easily have been mistaken for an explorer in the heart of Africa.
He had stayed on in India as the farm gave him both physical and mental sustenance. Ranchi was an absolute haven of peace in his days and the bracing climate suited him admirably. He told me he couldn’t face the bleak winters in England nor did the grey and inhospitable sky for the rest of the year appeal to him. England would have cramped his style and his solitary existence on a sprawling farm gave him the elbow room he needed. Major Ramacker once told me that he had always wanted to find a place where being what he was would matter. That place was home — Ranchi, with its gentle undulations, red earth and tribal drums pounding away on moonlit nights.
While he was in Calcutta he saw a dead body being carried by some people shouting, “Balo Hari, Hari Bol!” He asked me whether the chanted word was “Horrible! Horrible!” and why did this public shouting go on all along the way. I shall never forget Major Ramacker who seemed to have merged with the Ranchi landscape imperceptibly, always ready with ripostes and repartees. He died in the year 1960 in PG Hospital of dropsy but I couldn’t visit him as I was in bed myself with polio.
Another eccentric character came into our orbit in the 1970s. Here was another Englishman, Major John Baker, who had spent a considerable number of years in Ranchi with Oxfam. It’s amazing how Ranchi seems to nurture Englishmen who can’t get India out of their bloodstream and look for an excuse to return to this country.
Major Baker was terribly ‘koi hai’, with a handlebar moustache and military manners. Educated at Merton College, Oxford, he had an impeccable accent and often spoke as if he were addressing a meeting or exhorting his men to charge the enemy. He was quite in love with the leisurely lifestyle of India.
During his very last visit to Calcutta he brought along with him a pretty young French nurse, Laurette. Major Baker wanted to go on a visit to Darjeeling and Kurseong, and felt he needed someone to look after him in case he died in his sleep! He felt nervous about being entirely on his own as he was well over 80 and had occasional bouts of weakness. They had tea with us at the Calcutta Club where his resounding voice created quite a sensation. The French girl was taking everything in with a gleam in her eye and seemed quite amused by the red-faced Major — a dyed-in-the-wool Englishman of the old order. At that time Major Baker had made Portugal his permanent home. The loss of England’s power and glamour had made it an uninteresting country so he wasn’t going to spend the last days of his life in a constricted atmosphere.
He was hilarious when he described some habits of a particular business community in India. He could be anyone’s favourite Uncle John and the heart and soul of a roistering Christmas party. He used to write to us regularly from Portugal, ranting against the Communists, homosexuals, religious cranks and Green Peace environmentalists. My wife and I will remember him with deep affection. None of these Englishmen who stayed on in India or came back on some pretext or other, ever felt stranded.
Once again, 1958 was the year when a friend of mine, Aloka Chatterjee, started the Music Club — an informal arrangement which saw a collection of avid music lovers congregating in the houses of different people to listen to their favourite composers. It was an exhilarating idea to spend a pleasant evening imbibing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony or Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Aloka used to decide what kind of music was to be played and she always ended up producing a sumptuous fare. Thus, we heard a lot of compositions which wouldn’t have come our way in the normal course. In an informal setting we were introduced to Bruckner, Verdi, Schubert and Grieg.
It was really a gathering of the faithful where outsiders were not permitted to gatecrash. After the session, coffee, sandwiches and pastries were served to the people there. News of our musical evenings were passed on by word of mouth but Aloka never wanted the crowd to become unwieldy. One evening we all trooped to the Philips showroom on Park Street to listen to jazz music. Dave Brubeck held me in thrall with his rhythmic effervescence.
My connections with the music club were severed when I was struck down by polio in 1959. For a year and a half, the club gave us as much music as we could absorb. Those were spacious days when it was possible to spend an entire evening in somebody’s house, enjoying his hospitality and crowding into his drawing room to plunge into a rarefied world.
Just before concluding, I am suddenly reminded of another remarkable man, Anantalal Thakur, whom I met in the year 1946. He came to our house to perform Saraswati puja with a rare sense of piety. This gentle Sanskrit pundit took a fancy to me and used to drop in from time to time to talk to me about the Upanishads and the immortal epics. He felt there was enough fiction in the Mahabharat itself which could keep him rivetted indefinitely. He saw no need to read novels and short stories. One day he brought me Bhababhuti’s Uttar Ram Charit which he wanted me to dip into. Another day he let me have Nabin Sen’s Palashir Yuddha. The idea was to let me potter around in a wider world instead of confining myself to the school syllabus which deadened one’s sensibilities.
I was only 14 when he appeared on the scene with his exhortations but I felt gratified that he should spend so much time with me. He was one of the few people who made me feel that I could be the recipient of serious thoughts wherever they might spring from.