The author continues with her story of Arthur Brown
As I said in my previous column, any mention of Cotton College brings with it a flood of memories, especially of Sir Arthur Brown.
In my childhood, Brown was a part of my imagined world of people and places. His name used to come up in the many discussions that took place at home. He became a loving memory that remained with us all through.
Later, when I visited Brooklyn (in England), I had a great desire to visit his grave. But I couldn’t for some reason. Brown had written letters to my father even from Brooklyn, where he breathed his last. My father used to talk about Brown’s great love for his mother. His mother had visited Guwahati as well. My father told me how much he was impressed by Brown’s mother. She was a sophisticated English lady, very proper in her manners and sartorial style.
In my novel Chinnamaster Manuhtu (The Man from Chinnamasta), the character of Dorothy Brown was imagined as an extension of Brown’s wife. I had known about Brown’s Khasi wife, who lived in Shillong, and had heard that she was a very beautiful woman. But I imagined the psychology of a lawful wife by basing it on what I knew about Brown and the Khasi lady whom he loved and respected so much. In the novel, Dorothy Brown’s husband cohabits with another woman. Dorothy Brown later starts living with the tantrik. But that wasn’t as much about infidelity as it was about protecting her psychology, the fact that she still deeply loved her husband.
Creating or imagining the character of Dorothy Brown wasn’t too difficult for me. The basics of the character were created out of the lives of the Browns. I never met Brown. But like the other members of the family who had passed away, it seemed he, too, was a part of our family. As principal of Cotton College, Brown was probably one of the significant British officials posted in Assam.
A walking stick and a greatcoat belonging to Brown remained in our house for many years.
During my childhood, whenever I came across a walking stick, I would ask father if it belonged to Brown. “No, it’s not,” my father would smile and answer.
In a corner of our storeroom, my father kept a petromax lamp, and it remained there for years. Mother used to tell me that it was the same lamp that Brown carried when he went on his rounds of the hostels at night atop a horse to check if the Cotton College boarders were studying or not. The sight of the lamp made me feel special and I used to touch it to know how special it really felt, with a child’s curiosity. However, I couldn’t find these articles when I was renovating my house and transforming it into a museum. They were lost by then.
One day, my brother Satyabrata Goswami gave me a bunch of letters that Brown had written to my father between 1918 and 1938. These letters showed the life and role of the British in a place like Assam. These historical documents are now my prized possessions.
(Satyabrata is far more brilliant a person than the other children in our family. His knowledge of literature and general science is truly amazing. I learnt a great deal about literature, elephants, weapons and the various mutinies in the world from him. But it was very strange that it was my younger sister and I who were admitted to the prestigious Pine Mount School in Shillong and not him. He studied in an Assamese-medium school. My father took a special interest in my education. Some of my relatives say that the prediction of our astrologer that I had a grim future ahead had made my father over-cautious about my education.)
Brown liked my father in the way an elder brother does. In one of his letters, he wrote, “I have your photograph hanging in my study… and I point you out to my friends as my successor at Cotton College…”
But when father actually became the principal, Brown was not alive to congratulate him.
In another letter, he wrote, “Although you and I belong to different civilisations, yet in the vital and elementary things in life, human nature everywhere is much the same…”
Brown always expressed happiness over my father’s progress in his career. In a letter dated December 17, 1932, he expressed delight over my father’s transfer from Murarichand College in Sylhet to Cotton College.
Brown wrote these letters from different places. Some of the letters were written from Eden Dell, his residence in Shillong, from Delhi’s King George Avenue, from his London house at 39, Waverly, Sidney Avenue, from his Brooklyn house in Cambridge and Woodcock, his house in Sussex. He even wrote from a passenger steamer of the British India Steam Navigation Co. Ltd, S.S. Mashobra.
Most Britons liked living in Shillong because of the salubrious climate of this beautiful hill station. He was very fond of cycling. Early in the mornings, he would bicycle along the bank of the Brahmaputra and enjoy the beauty of the great river. He would even go to Shillong on a bicycle to meet his wife!
He frankly wrote about the happiness the lady brought to his life — “…but for whom I could not have possibly remained in Gauhati for all those years without the grave risk of finding myself in the padded room of a madhouse.”
Brown was a voracious reader. He was very fond of Shakespeare and would act in Shakespearean plays in the college.
Even while teaching, he was very dramatic, with objects flying out of his hands and giving a dramatic effect to the teaching of Shakespeare. Father used to tell us that when teaching, he would come down from the pedestal in the room and remove the chair and table to make room for himself to teach drama.
It is rightly written about him: “He taught the plays with great enthusiasm, and a sense of national pride, and took great pains to explain the involved and intricate lines of Shakespeare’s plays with suitable gestures and modulation of voice and tone. His critical comments on the characters of Shakespeare’s plays and the dramatic art of Shakespeare were marked by massiveness and eloquence of expressions and showed a deep critical study of Shakespeare’s drama.”