|Amitendranath Tagore at his table. (below) Accepting his PhD degree from Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, chancellor of Visva-Bharati. Picture by Sudeshna Banerjee
The brick red building at a corner of DL Park is Salt Lake’s Tagore citadel. Here resides Abanindranath Tagore’s grandson Amitendranath, counted among the finest Sinologists in the country.
It is Rabindra Jayanti and he has had a busy morning, having inaugurated a celebration at Central Park. Yet by 4pm, the 90-year-old is back at his ground floor chair, refreshed, amid a pile of books.
“The Japanese bombs made me learn Chinese,” he smiles at the recollection, his memory still razor sharp. When Calcutta was bombed in 1942-43, his family was staying at Gupta Nibas, Belghoria. He had just completed B.Com. “My grandfather Abanindranath was already in Santiniketan as the Visva-Bharati chancellor. My mother and I now went over. I had nothing to do. So I joined Cheena Bhavan.” He was among the department’s earliest students.
Thus was forged a life-long link with Chinese. “All five in our class were offered scholarships of Rs 30 each.” It was a gift from Mrs Chiang Kai-Shek to our Professor Tan Yun Tsan, who visited China to raise funds. Chiang Kai-Shek was then heading the Kuomintang, the party in power. “But a rupee or two was deducted as sports fee. Even the Ceylonese monk who studied with us had to pay it.”
A second incentive was a Chinese repast offered by Mrs Tan every Wednesday. “Professor Tan stayed mauna (silent) that day. In the evening, when he spoke, we would gather around. The ingredients of the meal came from her vegetable garden.”
That is where he learnt the use of chopsticks. It would come handy when he would get selected by the government for a study trip to China in 1947. “Nehru wanted students to learn Chinese.”
Before him, Debendranath had been to China. “He had got my great-grandmother an ivory ship. Little Abanindranath fiddled with it and damaged its windows.”
On Independence day, Tagore was already a student at National Peking University. “We invited all the Chinese students and hoisted the Tricolour at the hostel.”
When the Communist Party of China came to power in 1949, he was the only one to have stayed back for his MA exams. Mao Tse-Tung’s police interrogated him but let him go. He returned to India and started teaching at Cheena Bhavan, where he also completed his PhD.
“I have two Prime Ministers on my wall,” says Tagore pointing to two framed pictures. One is Jawaharlal Nehru, who conferred his PhD on him, and the other is Chou en Lai. He met China’s first Premier during his five-year stint at National Defence Academy in the 1950s. “He came for dinner to our cottage.”
General Shankar Roy Chowdhury, who stays in the neighbourhood, was his student then. “We played table tennis.”
Soon after, China attacked India. “I too was shocked. It was the height of Hindi-Chini bhai bhai camaraderie and we had no idea that they could cross the mountains and invade through Arunachal Pradesh. Many of my students went to war. Our army just wasn’t prepared. When I met some of them later, I asked: ‘Ki korley tomra! Herey geley?’”
After five years in Cheena Bhavan, he accepted a Fulbright scholarship and left for the US. “I completed a year and came back to Cheena Bhavan.” Soon an offer came his way. Oakland University was opening in Michigan and it needed a China area studies teacher. Tagore joined.
“An American student once asked me in class: ‘Why are you Tagore and not Chang or Wang?’ I replied: “A Tagore speaks Chinese just as an American goes to England and speaks English,” he smiles.
Oakland took the next 23 years of his life. On his return, the couple has settled in Salt Lake.
He has no link with the Chinese consulate housed in Salt Lake. “Unless students can earn by learning Chinese or find jobs in China, why will they bother?”
He loves his afternoon stroll in the park with wife Arundhuti. “The city is too crowded. But security here is becoming a worry.” His son works in the US and comes every December.
There aren’t many of Abanindranath’s paintings left with him. “I gave them to a Baroda institute. No one showed interest in Calcutta.” Ask him for souvenirs of his grandfather and he brings out letters written by the hand that penned Kshirer Putul, addressed to Biru. “That’s my nickname,” he smiles.