The evening shadows were falling and the blood-red earth turned dark as we neared Gurudev’s chair. Dressed in a long black gown, the black cap he wore on his head highlighted his broad forehead and glowing face, and his eyes seemed lit up with an inner light. No wonder the Ashramites considered him the Guru of gurus. And yet, this towering figure was also among the gentlest and kindest of men. His serene and compassionate gaze included everyone in a warm embrace— rich or poor, big or small. All of us, whether we came from India or Japan, China or Sri Lanka or wherever, stood before him every morning as children who had come to an enchanted garden.
At the morning prayer assembly held every day in front of the Ashram library, we met the Buddhist scholar Fan-chu, who had come all the way from China, as well as Khairuddin, a Muslim student from Sumatra, Susheela from Gujarat, and Kumudini from—what then seemed to us a foreign land—Kerala. All of us stood, with folded hands and closed eyes, as we sang the hymns he had composed. Never once do I remember anyone trying to jostle someone or giggle or push. Such was the respect Gurudev evoked in all of us that whenever we were in his presence, we became better human beings. He looked up as we came near, and never, for as long as I live, will I forget that moment. Framed against the glow of the setting sun, he looked unlike any human being I had ever seen, and to my child’s eyes, he seemed to be what I imagined God would look like. Of their own volition, our hands came together and Jayanti and I bowed at his feet. His hand passed lovingly over our heads and he smiled as he asked gently, ‘Are you very homesick?’ How did he know, I wondered. ‘Learn to speak Bangla then,’ his soft voice urged us, ‘and you will never be homesick. Wait, I’ll introduce you to Pupe.’ ‘Banmali,’ he called out and his favourite companion ran out. ‘Go and call Didi, will you?’ We were then introduced to both his granddaughters and invited to share a meal with them that evening.
Gurudev’s daughter-in-law, Amita di, otherwise known as ‘Bouthan’ in the Ashram, presided over the table. ‘These two girls have come from very far. They can’t speak Bengali and look a little scared to me,’ he said to her. ‘After dinner will you take them to the rehearsal? That might cheer them up.’ So after dinner, his granddaughter Nandita (whose nickname was Burhi), took us on a guided tour of Uttarayan before she led us to the room where the rehearsal for a new dance drama, Varshamangal, was taking place. A large, airy space framed with open windows on all sides, the rehearsal room was placed like a jewel in the centre of Gurudev’s garden. In one corner was a collection of brightly polished copper and brass pots from Kumaon, while a huge wooden divan from Jamnagar was set against a wall. Gurudev himself sat on this, leaning against the bright Santhali and Burmese cushions as he directed the performers. Near him, on the floor, sat the musicians—Shailajaranjan Majumdar, Shantimoy Ghosh, Shishir da, Santosh da—as well as the students taking part in the drama. My eyes had scarcely taken all this in when, with a dramatic burst of bells, a tall dancer, Nivedita di, glided across the polished floor. Our jaws hung open with wonder and we forgot all our homesickness as the dancer and the song, with its mesmeric rhythm, cast a spell:
Hridoy amar naache re aajike Mayurero moto naache re . . .
[My heart dances today Like a peacock it dances . . .]
Our heads swung entranced from the dancer to the singers: the deep bass of Shanti da mingled with the sweet soprano voices of Kanika and Amita di; all of them blended with a melody on the sitar so beautifully that I felt even the stars outside were dancing. Everyone seemed totally immersed in the mood of that dance, especially the sitar player who was bent in ecstasy, his eyes closed in rapture as he played along. His long fingers slid over the strings of the sitar and cast a spell that was difficult to break. Gradually, over the next few months, I learnt Bangla, and the joy that I derived from this knowledge has stayed with me to this day. I am proud to tell you that it was Gurudev himself who taught me the alphabet, lovingly guiding me through the basic primer, Sahaj Path. Of course there were some hilarious moments. ‘Bone thake bagh, gachhe thake pakhi [The tiger lives in the forest, the bird in the tree]’ was one of the opening lessons. In my excitement at having mastered this difficult line, I read it out to Gurudev as: ‘Gachhe thake bagh, bone thake pakhi [The tiger lives on the tree, the bird in the forest].’
Gurudev sat patiently, waiting for me to finish, but the famous Bengali novelist Charubabu, who was sitting by his side, shook with silent mirth, his vast body rippling as he tried to contain his laughter. Oblivious to my mistake, I went through the entire lesson and turned eagerly to Gurudev for praise. He looked gravely at me and asked: ‘So, child! Do tigers live in trees in your part of the world?’ I remember another delightful instance. Until a brilliant Tamil student, Shivshankar Mundukur, joined the Ashram, I was the star of my class. I was Dr Alex Aronson’s favourite student and basked in this fact. However, under the brilliance of this new entrant, my reputation stood threatened. One day, Dr Aronson asked us to write a critical appraisal of a Keats poem and bring it the next day. I ran straight to Gurudev. ‘Please write it for me,’ I begged him. ‘I don’t want that Tamil boy to do better. Please, please, please, Gurudev.’ He almost threw me out but when I refused to budge, he dictated a brilliant piece that more than matched the Keats poem. The next day, I confidently submitted my assignment, secure in the knowledge that a Nobel laureate in literature had written it. So imagine my horror when we got our papers back—that wretched Tamilian genius had been awarded a 6 while I had a measly 4 out of 10! Even more insulting was what Dr Aronson had scrawled at the end of my paper: ‘Too elusive.’ I ran straight to Gurudev. ‘You always tell us to honour our foreign teachers and look what they do! He’s given you just 4 out of 10!’ Gurudev threw back his head as he laughed. ‘Don’t tell anyone I wrote it,’ he told me in confidence.
The other incident was a childish attempt at poetry writing. Every month, a literary soiree was organized. Sometimes it was for the little ones in Shishu Bhavan, sometimes for the middle-school scholars of Path Bhavan and sometimes for the college students of Shiksha Bhavan. Gurudev would give us the first line of a poem and each contestant got five minutes in which to compose the next. I normally didn’t dare enter the contest because the others were all outstanding students, among them my own brother Tribhuvan, who was a formidable rival. He was among Gurudev’s favourite students and had become a handsome, confident young man by then. Above all, he was so quick-witted that he had virtually no rival in the department of repartee. Anyway, I put up my hand for the contest.
That day, Gurudev had chosen the first line as ‘If I were a boy’ for the girls and ‘If I were a girl’ for the boys to complete. I brought the house down with my entry: ‘If I were a boy, what would become of the boy I love?’ I thumbed my nose at my brother as I proudly went to receive my prize from Gurudev. For the rest of the week, however, I had to put up with cheeky remarks like, ‘So who’s the lucky one, eh?’
This excerpt from Amader Shantiniketan by Shivani (translated into English by Ira Pande)has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India.
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