Meeting familiar faces and recounting fond associations, Samir Mukerjee takes a trip down memory lane into a world less frenetic than ours
in the course of my rumination, some people, whom I knew and were close to me once, keep appearing. My paternal grandfather, Suren Mukherjee, comes into my thoughts quite often these days. Thakurdada had a gravity in his voice and speech which made him intimidating to outsiders.
He was well-versed in Sanskrit and had studied The Gita and the Upanishads meticulously. From time to time he would ask penetrating questions which in a way were quite stimulating and bracing. When I had my sacred thread ceremony at the age of 13, he became my Acharya and led the prayers with the commitment of a priest. He was always interested in the problems of ethics and morality and the attainment of mental peace and happiness. He brought out two books which I remember seeing. One was called Sukher Pathey in Bengali and the other one, Thoughts in Solitude. He felt a man’s life, however transient, must have some kind of meaning and purity. Getting caught up in worldly problems and losing one’s sense of balance was not becoming of human beings who were born with a higher purpose. When I left for Cambridge in 1951 he gave me a pocket Gita which he wanted me to dip into during moments of anxiety and stress.
There were times when Thakurdada felt the need to withdraw from the hurly burly of daily life. He used to go to Kasba to some kind of retreat where he lived in seclusion. He also went to Benares with a similar objective and used to return to the family fold refreshed. He came to our house once, invited by my maternal grandmother, to give a dissertation on Indian philosophy, and would often recite some Sanskrit slokas.
A true product of East Bengal, he had a tremendous fondness for certain types of cuisine. If there was any carelessness in the preparation, he would look genuinely indignant. He belonged to a leisurely age which enabled him to shape his life in accordance with his inner aspirations. Whenever we went to him, he was always ready for us, sitting on a taktaposh. I wasn’t in India when he died in 1953 but I was told he was very keen to meet me and kept asking my mother about the exact date of my return. One of his regrets was that he would pass away without any valedictory remarks.
I met Abdul Ali Fughan in the year 1950 when I was doing my graduation at St Xavier’s College. He was the Urdu lecturer with a streak of eccentricity that endeared him to all his students. I used to attend his classes once in a while just to hear what Urdu sounded like and the cadences produced by his stirring lectures and recitals of poems. Fughan Saab’s language was a mixture of ornate and tight- muscled simple words which left a strange resonance behind. He dressed shabbily, had long hair and rolling eyes. Some of his magnetism lay in those eyes which could summon up students from their indolence.
He organised quite a few mushairas in our college where a number of celebrities were present. Once he had a small gathering of students where each one had to speak, impromptu, on a subject of his choice. The evening I went to hear them the subject was Haqiqi Taleem. He often spoke about Braj Bhasha as having influenced Urdu which was a language ready to absorb words from diverse sources.
Much later, he joined the Jan Sangh out of sheer necessity and retained his connections with his party right till the end. He owned agricultural land in Bashirhat, where he hailed from and in the 60s, it became a hotbed of Hindu communal elements, being a border area. To cover his flanks and ensure his own security he courted strange company but he knew how pernicious communal propaganda would pollute the air of this country in the distant future. He had no illusions about the disaster that these rabid organisations would bring about. If he had been alive today he would have found his predictions justified. Before ending my homage to this colourful teacher and humanist, I will quote a couplet from the Urdu poet Momin which he would have greatly fancied.
Kabhi hum mein tum mein bhi chah thi, kabhi hum mein tum mein bhi rah thi. Kabhi hum bhi tum bhi they aashna, tumhe yaad ho ke na yaad ho. (There was a time when we loved each other and we found our way to each other. There was a time when we were intimate with each other but today you may or may not be able to recall those feelings.)
If Urdu literature ever gets suppressed at the behest of diehard fanatics, it will be one of the greatest tragedies for this country which had room for every school of thought.
At the end of the day when the battle noises have died down and the desire for thrust and parry has weakened, we return to Indira Dey, our loving Chhotodidi. She lived in Santiniketan in a splendid Spanish-style villa which merged beautifully and easily with the surrounding landscape. She had spent many years abroad in Rome and Tehran when her husband, Sushil Dey, ICS, was associated with the FAO. Her father, Dr Dwijen Moitra, epitomised cosmopolitan culture at its best and she grew up in a very refined atmosphere. She was famous for her hospitality, generosity, mental expansiveness and an acute absorption with life.
We met her in Calcutta a number of times and were struck by her geniality. She was not only a gourmet but a consummate cook as well. When she produced fruit salad as a dessert for dinner, she put her heart and soul into it and the mixture was something out of this world. We were also treated to exotic dishes like Strachatella, the French Ratatouis and mutton Mahashas, which was presumably a Jewish dish.
In one of her reflective moods she talked about her encounters with Dinendra Nath Tagore in Santiniketan and how she studied music under him. She sang Hridayer katha bolite byakul as if she was intoning a prayer. She spoke lovingly about her vegetable patches and rose garden in Santiniketan. The soil and all that grew on it meant a lot to her. As an amateur photographer she looked at the world around her and tried to capture some of its beauty. We remember an entrancing picture of cobwebs drenched in dew caught early in the morning.
She knew a colourful assortment of intellectuals amongst whom I met Shyamal Krishna Ghosh of the Parichay group. There was a twinkle in Chhotodidi’s eyes when she talked about the devastatingly handsome poet, Sudhin Dutta. Ashin Das Gupta often figured in her conversation. Sibnarayan Ray was also one of her regular visitors and she had a whole series of magazines which he edited.
She was one of the finest products of a stable and spacious age and having seen both the East and the West in different guises she was in a position to give us the benefit of her vast experiences. Nobody did more to understand my wife and myself than this charming and elegant old lady, living in a self-sufficient world of her own making.