NETA JI SUBHAS CHANDRA BOSE- Looking back on his school days

Dr. V.K.Maheshwari, M.A(Socio, Phil) B.Sc. M. Ed, Ph.D

Former Principal, K.L.D.A.V.(P.G) College, Roorkee, India

I was nearing my fifth birthday (January, 1902) when I was told I would be sent to school. I do not know how other children have felt in similar circumstances, but I was delighted. To sec your elder brothers and sisters dress and go to school day after day and be left behind at home simply because you are not big enough-not old enough is a galling experience. At least, so I had felt, and that is why I was overjoyed.

It was to be a red-letter day for me. At long last I was going to join the grown up respectable folks who did not stay at home except on holidays. We had to start at about 10 a.m. because the classes commenced exactly at 10 a.m. Two uncles of about the same age as me were also to be admitted along with myself. When we were all ready, we began to run towards the carriage which was to take us to school. Just then, as ill-luck would have it, I slipped and fell. I was hurt and, with a bandage round my head, I was ordered to bed. The rumbling of the carriage wheels grew fainter in the distance. The lucky ones had gone, but there I lay with darkness staring me in the face and my fond hopes dashed to the ground.

Twenty four hours later I found solace. Ours was a missionary school ( Protestant European School (P. E. School) run by the Baptist Mission.) meant primarily for European and Anglo—Indian boys and girls with a limited number of seats (about 15 per cent) for Indians. All our brothers and sisters had joined this school, and so I did. I do not know why our parents had selected this school, but I presume it was because we would master the English language better and sooner there than elsewhere, and knowledge of English had a premium in those days. I still remember that when I went to school I had just learnt the English alphabet and no more. How I managed to get along without being able to speak a word of English beats me now. I have not yet forgotten one of my first attempts at English. We had been given slate pencils and told to sharpen them before trying to write. Mine was done better than that of my uncle; so I pointed that out to our teacher by saying, “Ranendra mot‘ ( Mota’ in Bengali means ‘thick’ and ‘mot’ was a distortion of it.) shor ( Shoroo` in Bengali means ‘thin’ and ‘shor’ was a distortion of it.)” and thought that I had talked in English. Our teachers were Anglo—Indians (and mostly ladies) with the exception of the headmaster and headmistress, Mr and Mrs Young, who had come out from England. Most of our teachers we did not fancy. Some like Mr Young we feared, though we respected, for he was too liberal with his cane. Some like Miss Cadogan we tolerated. Others like Miss S. we positively hated and would cry ‘Hurrah’ if she ever absented herself. Mrs Young we liked, but Miss Sarah Lawrence who was our first teacher in the Infant Class we loved. She had such a sympathetic understanding of the child’s mind that we were irresistibly drawn towards her. But for her, I doubt if I would have got on so easily at a time when I was unable to express my self in English.

Though the majority of the teachers and pupils were Anglo—Indians, the school was based on the English model and run on English lines, as far as Indian conditions would permit. There were certain things we did learn their which we would have missed in an Indian school. There was not that unhealthy emphasis on studies which obtains in Indian schools. Outside studies, more attention was given to deportment, neatness, and punctuality than is done in an Indian school. In the matter of studies, the students received more individual attention at the hands of their teachers and the daily work was done more regularly and systematically than is possible in an Indian school. The result was that practically no preparation was needed when an examination had to be faced. Moreover, the standard of English taught was much higher than that of Indian schools. But after giving due consideration and credit to all this, I doubt if I should today advise an Indian boy to go to such a school. Though there was order and system in the education that was imparted, the education itself was hardly adapted to the needs of Indian students. Too much importance was attached to the teaching of the Bible, and the method of teaching it was as unscientific as it was uninteresting. We had to learn our Bible lessons by heart whether we understood anything or not, as if we were so many priests memorizing the sacred texts. It would be no exaggeration for me to say that though we were taught the Bible day in, day out, for seven long years, I came to like the Bible for the first time several years later when I was in College.

There is no doubt that the curriculum was so framed as to make us as English in our mental make—up as possible. We learnt much about the geography and history of Great Britain but proportionally little about lndia and when we had to negotiate Indian names, we did so as if we were foreigners. We started our Latin declensions—‘bonus, bona, bonum’—rather early and did not have to be bothered about our Sanskrit declensions ‘Gajah, Gajow, Gajah’—till we had left the P. E. School. When it came to music, we had to train our ears to ‘Do, Ray, Me. Fah’ and not to ‘Sah, Ray, Gah, Mah’. The readers contained stories and anecdotes from English history or fairy tales which are current in Europe and there was not a word in them of Indian origin. Needless to add, no Indian language was taught and so we neglected our mother-tongue altogether until we joined an Indian School.

It would be wrong to conclude from the above that we were not happy at school. On the contrary. During the first few years we were not conscious at all that the education imparted was not suited to Indian conditions. We eagerly learnt whatever came our way and fell completely in line with the school-system, as the other pupils did. The school had a reputation for turning out well-behaved boys and girls, and we tried to live up to it. Our parents, I think, were on the whole satisfied with our progress. With the school-authorities our stock was high, because the members of our family were generally at the top in whichever class they happened to be.

Sports naturally came in for some amount of attention, but not as much as one would expect in a school run on English lines. That was probably due to the fact that our headmaster was not much of a sportsman himself. He was a unique personality in many ways and strong-willed and the stamp of his character was visible everywhere within the precincts of the school. He was a stern disciplinarian and a great stickler for good behaviour. In the Progress Report marks were given not only for the different subjects but also for

(1) Conduct,

(2) Deportment,

(3) Neatness,

(4) Punctuality.

No wonder therefore that the boys and girls turned out were well-mannered. For misbehaviour or indiscipline, boys were liable to be flogged ( Nobody seemed to mind the caning which Mrs Young administered, for the boys usually came smiling out of her room. But the headmaster’s flogging was a different story altogether and there was hardly any boy who would not turn pale as he growled, “Go into my room, Sir”.) with a cane, but only two of the teachers had this authority the head master and his worthy spouse.

Mr Young had several idiosyncrasies, however, and many were the jokes we would have at his expense. He had an elder brother, a bachelor and a missionary with a venerable beard, who was exceedingly fond of children and would love to play with them. To distinguish our headmaster from his elder brother, we nicknamed him “Young Young”, the latter being called “Old Young”. Mr Young Young was very sensitive to cold and even on a warm day he would shut the windows lest the drought should come in. He would frequently warn us about the risk of catching cold and getting cholera there from. lf he ever felt out of sorts, he would take such a stiff dose of quinine as would make him almost deaf. After he had lived twenty years in the country, he could speak hardly a word in the local dialect and never eared to go in for sight-seeing or touring. If the caretaker forgot to put something on his table, Mr Young would ring for him, point to the thing wanted, but, unable to scold him in the local dialect, would content himself with glaring at him and then muttering, “All this ought to have been done before”. If a messenger brought in a letter and Mr• Young wanted to ask him to wait, he would run up to his wife, get the correct words from her, and go on repeating them till he was able to come out and throw them at the man.

With all this our headmaster was a man who bore himself with dignity and poise and commanded our respect, though it was tinged with fear. Our headmistress was a motherly lady who was universally liked. And I must say that there was never any attempt to influence unduly our social and religious ideas. Things went on smoothly for some years and we seemed to have fitted into our milieu splendidly, but gradually there appeared a rift within the lute. Something happened which tended to differentiate us from our environment. Was it the effect of local causes or was it the echo of larger socio-political disturbances; that is a poser I shall not answer for the present.

To some extent this differentiation was inevitable, but what was not inevitable was the conflict that arose out of it. We had been living in two distinct worlds and as our Young was very sensitive to cold and even on a warm day he would shut the windows lest the draught should come in. He would frequently warn us about the risk of catching cold and getting cholera there from. lf he ever felt out of sorts, he would take such a stiff dose of quinine as would make him almost deaf. After he had lived twenty years in the country, he could speak hardly a word in the local dialect and never eared to go in for sight-seeing or touring. If the caretaker forgot to put something on his table, Mr Young would ring for him, point to the thing wanted, but, unable to scold him in the local dialect, would content himself with glaring at him and then muttering, “All this ought to have been done before”. If a messenger brought in a letter and Mr Young wanted to ask him to wait, he would run up to his wife, get the correct words from her, and go on repeating them till he was able to come out and throw them at the man. With all this our headmaster was a man who bore himself with dignity and poise and commanded our respect, though it was tinged with fear. Our headmistress was a motherly lady who was universally liked. And I must say that there was never any attempt to influence unduly our social and religious ideas. Things went on smoothly for some years and we seemed to have fitted into our milieu splendidly, but gradually there appeared a rift within the lute. Something happened which tended to differentiate us from our environment. Was it the effect of local causes or was it the echo of larger socio-political disturbances; that is a poser I shall not answer for the present.

To some extent this differentiation was inevitable, but what was not inevitable was the conflict that arose out of it. We had been living in two distinct worlds and as our consciousness developed we began to realise slowly that these two worlds did not always match. There was, on the one hand, the influence of family and society which was India. There was, on the other, another world, another atmosphere, where we spent most of our working days, which was not England, of course, but a near approach to it. We were told that, because we were Indians, we could not sit for scholarship examinations, like Primary School and Middle School Examinations ( This was because Indian boys would carry away the scholarships,) though in our annual examinations many of us were topping the class. Anglo- Indian boys could join the Volunteer Corps and shoulder a rifle, but we could not. Small incidents like these began to open our eyes to the fact that as Indians we were a class apart, though we belonged to the same institution. Then there would be occasional quarrels between English (or Anglo-Indian) and Indian boys which would finish up with a boxing bout,( In these bouts my uncles and some of my brothers always gave a good account of themselves) in which sympathies would be mobilized along racial lines. The son of a very high Indian official who was a fellow student would organise matches between Indians and Europeans at his place, and those of us who could play well would join either side. I can also remember that we Indian boys talking among ourselves would sometimes say that we were fed up with the Bible and that for nothing in the world would we ever change our religion. Then there came the new regulations of the Calcutta University making Bengali a compulsory subject for the Matriculation, Intermediate and Degree Examinations and introducing other changes in the Matriculation curriculum. We were soon made to rea lise that the curriculum of the P. E. School did not suit us and that, unlike the other boys, we would have to begin anew the study of Bengali and Sanskrit when we joined an Indian school in order to prepare for the Matriculation Examination. Last but not least, there was the influence of my elder brothers who had already left our school and were preparing for the Matriculation, Intermediate and Degree Examinations and who spoke to us at home of a different world in which they moved about.

It would be wrong to infer from the above that I was in revolt against my school environment after I had been there some years. I was there for seven years, from 1902 to 1908, and was to all intents and purposes satisfied with my surroundings. The disturbing factors referred to above were passing incidents which did not affect the even tenor of our life. Only towards the end did I have a vague feeling unhappiness, of maladaptation( It is possible that this feeling grew within me because I was too much of an introvert, as I have remarked at the end of the first chapter.) to my environment and a strong desire to join an Indian school where, so I thought, I would feel more at home. And strangely enough, when in January, 1909, I shook hands with our headmaster and said good—bye to the school, the teachers and the students, I did so without any regret, without a momentary pang. At the time, it was quite impossible for me to understand what had gone wrong with me. Only from this distance of time and with the help of an adult mind can I now analyse some of the factors that had been at work.

So far as studies were concerned my record during this period was satisfactory, because I was usually at the top. But as I did badly in sports and did not play any part in the bouts that took place, and as studies did not have the importance which they have usually in an Indian school, I came to cherish a poor opinion of myself( Perhaps this was responsible to some extent for the feeling of unhappiness to which I have referred in the preceding paragraph.) The feeling of insignificance of diffidence to which I have referred before, continued to haunt me. Having joined the lowest standard I had probably got into the habit of looking up to others and of looking down upon myself.

Considering everything, I should not send an Indian boy or girl to such a school now. The child will certainly suffer from a sense of maladaptation and from consequent unhappiness, especially if he or she is of a sensitive nature. I should say the same of the practice of sending Indian boys to public schools in England which prevailed and still prevails( I am fortified in this view by what I saw of the Indian products of English public schools when I was a student at Cambridge ) in certain aristocratic circles in India. For the same reason, I strongly condemn the move taken by certain Indians to start Indian schools run by English teachers on the lines of English public schools. It is possible that some boys, for example those who are mentally extrovert, may not suffer from a feeling of maladaptation and may feel quite happy in such an environment. But introvert children are bound to suffer, and in that event the reaction against the system and all that it stands for is bound to be hostile. Apart from this psychological consideration, a system of education which ignores Indian conditions, Indian requirements, and Indian history and sociology is too unscientific to commend itself to any rational support. The proper psychological approach for a cultural rapprochement between the East and the West is not to force ‘English’ education on Indian boys when they are young, but to bring them into close personal contact with the West when they are developed, so that they can judge for themselves what is good and what is bad in the East and in the West.

It is strange how your opinion of yourself can be influenced by what others think of you. In January, 1909, when I joined the Ravenshaw Collegiate School, Cuttack, a sudden change came over me. Among European and Anglo-Indian boys my parentage had counted for nothing, but among our own people it was different. Further, my knowledge of English was above the ordinary level and that gave me an added estimation in the eyes of my new class-mates. Even the teachers treated me with undue consideration, because they expected me to stand first, and in an Indian school studies, and not sports, brought credit and reward. At the first quarterly examination I did justify the hopes placed in me. The new atmosphere in which I lived and moved forced me to think better of myself that I was worth something and was not an insignificant creature. It was not a feeling of pride that crept into me but of self confidence, which till then had been lacking and which is the sine qua non of all success in life.

This time it was not the infant class which I joined but the fourth( ln our time the numbering was different from what obtains now. For instance, formerly the first class was the top class in a High School.) class so I did not have to look up all the time. Boys of the fourth class considered themselves as belonging to one of the higher classes and moved about with an air of importance. So did I. But in one respect I was seriously handicapped in spite of all the other advantages I enjoyed. I had read hardly a word of Bengali my mother tongue before I joined ’this school, while the other boys had already reached a high standard. I remember that the first day I had to write an essay on ‘Cow’ (or was it ‘Horse’?), I was made the laughing-stock of all my class—mates. I knew nothing of grammar and precious little of spelling and when the teacher read out my composition to the whole class with running comments, punctuated with laughter, flowing in from all sides, I felt humbled to the dust. I had never had this experience before—to be laughed at for deficiency in studies—and on top of it, I had lately developed a species of self-consciousness which had made me ultrasensitive. For weeks and months the Bengali lessons would give me the creeps. But for the time being, however acute the mental torture, there was nothing I could do but put up with the humiliation and secretly resolve to make good. Slowly and steadily I began to gain ground and at the annual examination I had the satisfaction of getting the highest marks in that subject.

I enjoyed my new surroundings, the more so as I had longed for the change. At the other school, though I had been there for seven years, I had not left behind any friends. Here it looked as if I would enter into lasting friendship with at least some of my classmates. My friends were not of the sporting type because I did not take kindly to sports and only the drill lessons interested mc. Apart from my own lukewarmness, there was another obstacle to my taking to sports enthusiastically. It was customary for the boys to return home after school hours, have a light Tiffin, and then go out for games. My parents did not like us to do that. Either they thought that sports would interfere with our studies or they did not regard the atmosphere of the playground as congenial to our mental health. Possibly the latter consideration weighed more with them. Be that as it may, the domestic situation was such that if we wanted to go out for games, we had to do it on the sly. Some of my brothers and uncles did do so and occasionally, when they were caught, were given a talking-to. But, knowing my parents’ habits, it was generally possible to dodge them, especially as they were in the habit of going out for a drive and walk. If I had had a strong desire like the others, I could easily have joined them at the games. But I did not. Moreover, I was then of a goody-goody nature and was busy devouring ethical verses in Sanskrit. Some of these verses taught that the highest virtue consisted in obeying one’s father -that when one’s father was satisfied all the gods were satisfied ( Pitah Swargah, Pitah Dharmah, Pitahi Paramamtapah etc )-—that one’s mother was even greater than one’s father etc., etc. I therefore thought it better not to do what would displease my parents. So I would take to gardening along with those who did not go out for games. We had a fairly big kitchen and flower garden adjoining our house and in company with the gardener we would water and tend the plants or do some digging or help lay out the beds. Gardening I found absorbingly interesting. It served, among other things, to open my eyes to the beauties of nature, about which I shall have something to say later on. Besides gardening, we would also go in for physical exercise and gymnastics for which there were arrangements at home.

Looking back on my past life I feel inclined to think that I should not have neglected sports. By doing so, I probably developed precocity and accentuated my introvert tendencies. To ripen too early is not good, either for a tree or for a human being and one has to pay for it in the long run. There is nothing to beat nature’s law of gradual development, and however much prodigies may interest us at first they generally fail to fulfil their early promise.

For two years life rolled on in much the same way. Among the teachers and students there were both Bengalees and Oriyas and the relations between them were quite cordial. One did not hear in those days–at least we students did not hear of any ill-feeling or misunderstanding between the people of the two sister provinces. So far as the members of our family were concerned, we could never think or feel in terms of narrow parochialism or provincialism. For that we have to thank our parents. My father had extensive contacts with the people of Orissa, and intimate personal relations with many distinguished Oriya families. His outlook was consequently broad and his sympathies wide and they unconsciously influenced the rest of his family. I cannot remember ever to have heard from his lips one single disparaging remark about the people of Orissa—or for the matter of that about the people of any other province. Though he was never effusive in his emotions and was inclined to be reserved, he could endear himself to all those who came into contact with him wherever he happened to be at the time. Such parental influences work unobtrusively and only in later life can the children discover by a process of analysis what helped to mould their character or give their life a definite direction.

Of the teachers there was one who left a permanent impression on my youthful mind. That was our headmaster, Babu Beni Madhav Das. The very first day I saw him taking his rounds and I was then just over twelve I felt what I should now call an irresistible moral appeal in his personality. Up till then I had never experienced what it was to respect a man. But for me, to see Beni Madhav Das was to adore him. I was not old enough then to realise what it was that I adored. I could only feel that here was a man who was not an ordinary teacher, who stood apart from, and above, the rest of his tribe. And I secretly said to myself that I wanted an ideal for my life, it should be to emulate him.

Talking of an ideal, I am reminded of an experience I had when I was at the P.E. School. I was then about ten. Our teacher asked us to write an essay on what we would like to be when we would like to be when we were grown-up. My eldest brother was in the habit of giving us talks on the respective virtues of a judge, magistrate, commissioner, barrister, doctor, engineer, and so forth, and I had picked up odd things from what I had heard him say. I jumbled up as many of these as I still remembered and wound up by saying that I would be a magistrate. The teacher remarked that to be a magistrate after being a commissioner would be an anti-climax, but I was too young to understand the status of the different professions and designations. After that I had no occasion to be worried by the thought of what I should aspire to be in later life. I only remember hearing in talks within the family circle that the highest position one could get to was the Indian Civil Service( I was then fourteen) The headmaster did not usually give any regular lessons till the boys reached the second class. So I began to long for the day when I would reach the second class and be entitled to listen to his lectures. That day did arrive( In those days it was nicknamed the heaven—born service.), but my good fortune did not last long. After a few months orders for his transfer came. However, before he left us he had succeeded in rousing in me a vague perception of moral values—an inchoate feeling that in human life moral values should count more than anything else. In other words he had made me feel the truth of what we had read in our Poetry Book-—

“The rank is but the guinea’s stamp

The man is the gold for all that.”

And it was well that he had, for about this time the usual mental Changes—best described in scientific terminology as sex-consciousness which are incidental to approaching puberty, began to overtake me.

I remember vividly the parting scene when headmaster Beni Madhav took leave of his devoted and admiring pupils. He entered the class-room visibly moved and, in a voice ringing with emotion, said, “I have nothing more to say but invoke the blessings of God on you …. “ I could not listen any more. Tears rushed to my eyes and I cried out within myself. But a hundred eyes were on the alert and I managed to restrain myself. The classes were then dismissed and the boys began to file off. Passing near his room I suddenly saw him standing in the verandah watching the boys depart. Our eyes met. The tears which I had managed to restrain within the class-room now began to flow. He saw them and was also moved. I stood paralyzed for a moment and he came up to say that we would meet again. This was, I believe, the first time in my life that I had to weep at the time of parting and the first time I realized that only when we are forced to part do we discover how much we love.( I have had repeated demonstrations of this principle in later) The next day there was a public meeting organized by the staff and students to accord him a farewell. I was one of those who had to speak. How I got through my part I do not know, for internally I was all in tears. I was, however, pain¬fully surprised to find that there were many among the staff and the students who did not realise at all what a sorrowful event it was. When the headmaster spoke in reply, his words seemed to pierce through my soul. I could hear only his opening words saying that he had never expected, when he first came to Cuttack, that there would be so much affection in store for him. Then I ceased to listen but continued to gaze at his impassioned countenance, which spoke volumes to me. There was an expression, a glow, therein-which I had seen in the portraits of Keshav Chandra Sen. And no wonder, since he was Keshav Chandra’s ardent disciple and devotee.( There is a saying in Sanskrit–”As you think, so you become”)

It was now a different school altogether so dull, uninteresting, and uninspiring for a light that had hitherto shone there had vanished. But there was no help, the classes had to be attended, the lessons learnt, and the examinations taken. The wheel of life grinds on regardless of our joys and sorrows. It is interesting how you can sometimes come nearer to a person when you have parted from him. This happened in the present ease. I started a correspondence with Headmaster Beni Madhav which went on for some years. One thing I now learnt from him-how to love nature and be inspired by her, not merely aesthetically, but ethically as well. Following his instructions, I took to what, in the absence of anything better, might be described as a species of nature-worship. I would choose a beauty-spot on the river-bank or on a hill or in a lonely meadow in the, life midst of an enchanting sunset-glow, and practice contemplation. ‘Surrender yourself completely to nature’, he would write, ‘and let nature speak to you through her protean mask’. This sort of contemplation had given him peace of mind, joy, and strength of will.

How far I profited ethically from this effort I cannot say. But it certainly opened my eyes to the hidden and neglected beauties of nature and also helped me to concentrate my mind. In the garden, among flowers, sprouting leaves and growing plants, I would find an indescribable joy and I would love to ramble. alone or in the company of friends, amid the wild beauties of nature with which the countryside was so plentifully supplied. I could realise the truth of what the poet had said——

“A primrose by the river’s brim,

A yellow primrose is to him.

And it is something more.”

Wordsworth’s poems now had an added significance for me and I would simply revel in the descriptions of natural scenery in Kalidas’s ( The greatest poet and dramatist of ancient India who wrote in Sanskrit.) poetry and in the Mahabharata( The Mahabharata and Ramaymm are the two greatest epics of ancient) which, thanks to my Pundit, I could enjoy in the original Sanskrit.

I was at this time entering on one of the stormiest periods in my psychical life which was to last for five or six years. It was a period of acute mental conflict causing untold suffering and agony, which could not be shared by any friends and was not visible to any outsider. I doubt if a growing boy normally goes through this experience at least I hope he does not. But I had in some respects a touch of the abnormal in my mental makeup. Not only was I too much of an introvert, but I was in some respects precocious. The result was that at an age when I should have been tiring myself out on the football field, I was brooding over problems which should rather have been left to a more mature age. The mental conflict, as I view it from this distance, was a two-fold one. Firstly, there was the natural attraction of a worldly life and of worldly pursuits in general, against which my higher self was beginning to revolt. Secondly, there was the growth of sex-consciousness, quite natural at that age, but which I considered unnatural and immoral and which I was struggling to suppress or transcend.

Nature-worship, as described above, was elevating and therefore helpful to a certain point, but it was not enough. What I required and what I was unconsciously groping after–was a central principle, which I could use as a peg to hang my whole life on, and a firm resolve to have no other distractions in life. It was no easy job to discover this principle or idea and then consecrate my life to it. My agony could have been terminated, or at least considerably mitigated, if I had either given in at the outset as so many have done, or had with one bold effort of the will fixed on an idea and heroically brushed aside all other allurements. But I would not give in there was something within which would not let me do so. I had therefore to fight on. And a stiff fight it was, because I was weak. For me the difficulty was not about the determination of life`s goal so much as about concentrating my entire will to that single goal. Even after I had decided what was the most desirable object in life, it took me a long time to establish peace and harmony within myself by bringing under control contrary or rebellious tendencies, for though the spirit was willing the flesh was weak. A stronger will than mine would undoubtedly have managed things more easily.

One day by sheer accident I stumbled upon what turned out to be my greatest help in this crisis. A relative of mine, who was a new-comer to the town, was living next door and I had to visit him. Glancing over his books, I came across the works of Swami Vivekananda. I had hardly turned over a few pages when I realised that here was something which I had been longing for. I borrowed the books from him, brought them home, and devoured them. I was thrilled to the marrow of my bones. My headmaster had roused my aesthetic and moral sense had given a new impetus to my life–but he had not given me an ideal to which I could give my whole being. That Vivekananda gave me.

For days, weeks, months I pored over his works. His letters as well as his speeches from Colombo to Almora, replete as they were with practical advice to his countrymen, inspired me most. From this study I emerged with a vivid idea of the essence of his teachings. “Atmano Mokshartham Jagaddhitaya”—for your own salvation and for the service of humanity that was to be life’s goal. Neither the selfish monasticism of the middle ages, nor the modern utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill, could be a perfect ideal. And the service of Humanity included, of course, the service of one’s country-—for, as his biographer and his chief disciple, Sister Nivedita, pointed out, “The queen of his adoration was his motherland . . There was not a cry within her shores that did not find in him a responsive echo.” The Swami himself in one of his passionate utterances had said, “Say brothers at the top of your voice—the naked Indian, the illiterate Indian, the Brahman Indian, the Pariah Indian is my brother.” Talking of the future, he had remarked that the Brahman (religious caste), the Kshatriya (warrior caste) and the Vaisya (trader caste) each had had their day and now came the turn of the Sudras, the down-trodden masses. To the ancient scriptures he had given a modern interpretation. Strength, strength, is what the Upanishads‘( The Upanishads are the philosophical portion of the ancient scriptures, the Vedas.) say, he had often declared; have faith (shraddha) in yourselves as Nachiketa’( The son of one of the ancient sages of India.) of old had. To some idle monks he had turned round and said, “Salvation will come through football and not through the Gita.’’’( The Gita or Bhagavad Gita contains the essence of Hindu philosophy and may be regarded as the Bible of the Hindus.)

I was barely fifteen when Vivekananda entered my life. Then there followed a revolution within and everything was turned upside down. It was, of course, a long time before I could appreciate the full significance of his teachings or the greatness of his personality, but certain impressions were stamped indelibly on my mind from the outset. Both from his portraits as well as from his teachings, Vivekananda appeared before me as a full blown personality. Many of the questions which vaguely stirred my mind, and of which I was to become conscious later on, found in him a satisfactory solution. My headmaster’s personality ceased to be big enough to serve as my ideal. I had previously thought of studying philosophy as he had done and of emulating him. Now I thought of the path which Vivekananda had indicated.

From Vivekananda I turned gradually to his master, Ramakrishna Paramahansa. Vivekananda had made speeches, written letters, and published books which were available to the layman. But Ramakrishna, who was almost an illiterate man, had done nothing of the kind. He had lived his life and had left it to others to explain it. Nevertheless, there were books or diaries published by his disciples which gave the essence of his teachings as learnt from conversations with him. The most valuable element in these books was his practical direction regarding character-building in general and spiritual uplift in particular. He would repeat unceasingly that only through renunciation was realisation possible—that without complete self abnegation spiritual development was impossible to acquire. There was nothing new in his teaching, which is as old as Indian civilization itself, the Upanishads having taught thousands of years ago that through abandonment of worldly desires alone can immortal life be attained. The effectiveness of Ramakrishna’s appeal lay, however, in the fact that he had practiced what he preached and that, according to his disciples, he had reached the acme of spiritual progress.

The burden of Ramakrishna’s precepts was– renounce lust and gold. This two-fold renunciation was for him the test of a man’s fitness for spiritual life. The complete conquest of lust involved the sublimation of the sex-instinct, whereby to a man every woman would appear as mother.

I was soon able to get together a group of friends (besides my relative S.C.M.) who became interested in Ramakrishna and Vivekananda. At school and outside, whenever we had a chance, we would talk of nothing else but this topic. Gradually we took too long walks and excursions which would give us greater opportunities for meeting and discussion. Our numbers began to swell and we had a  welcome acquisition in a young student with a spiritual bent of mind who could sing devotional songs with deep fervour.

At home and abroad we began to attract attention. That was inevitable because of our eccentricities. Students did not, however, venture to ridicule us, because our prestige was high, as some of us occupied the top places at school. But such was not the case at home. My parents noticed before long that I was going out frequently in the company of other boys. I was questioned, warned in a friendly manner, and ultimately rebuked. But all to no purpose. I was rapidly changing and was no longer the goody-goody boy afraid of displeasing his parents. I had a new ideal before me now which had inflamed my soul to affect my own salvation and to serve humanity by abandoning all worldly desires and breaking away from all undue restraints. I no longer recited Sanskrit verses inculcating obedience to one’s parents; on the contrary, I took to verses which preached defiance( You, Divine Mother, are my only refuge–neither father nor mother neither friend nor brother, etc.” ) I doubt if I have passed through a more trying period in my life than now. Ramakrishna’s example of renunciation and purity entailed a battle royal with all the forces of the lower self. And Vivekananda’s ideal brought me into conflict with the existing family and social order. I was weak, the fight was a long drawn one in which success was not easy to obtain, hence tension and unhappiness with occasional fits of depression.

It is difficult to say which aspect of the conflict was more painful the external or the internal. A stronger or less sensitive mind than mine would have come out successful more quickly or suffered much less acutely than I did. But there was no help, I had to go through what was in store for me. The more my parents endeavored to restrain me, the more rebellious I became. When all other attempts failed, my mother took to tears. But even that had no effect on me. I was becoming callous, perhaps eccentric, and more determined to go my own way, though all the time I was feeling inwardly unhappy. To defy my parents in this way was contrary to my nature and to cause them pain was disagreeable, but I was swept onward as by an irresistible current. There was very little appreciation or understanding at home of what I was dreaming at the time, and that added to my misery. The only solace was to be found in the company of friends and I began to feel more at home when away from home.

Studies began to lose their importance for me and, but for the fact that for years I had studied hard, I would have gone under. The only thing that now mattered to me was mental or spiritual exercise. I had no proper guide at the time and turned to books for such help as they could afford me. Only later did I realize that not all of these were written by reliable or experienced men. There were books on Brahmacharya or sex-control, which were readily made use of. Then there were books on meditation which were greedily devoured. Books on Yoga and especially Hatha-Yoga( Yoga means literally “Union” (with Godhead). The word “Yoga” is used, however, to indicate not merely the goal but also the means. Yogic practice has two branches—”Raja-Yoga” and “Hatha-Yoga”. “Raja-Yoga” is concerned with the control of the mind and “Hatha-Yoga” with that of the body.) were eagerly hunted after and utilised. And, over and above this, all kinds of experiments were made. A faithful narration of all that I went through would suffice to make a first-class entertainment. Small wonder that some thought that I was on the verge of lunacy.

The first time I resolved to sit down in the Yogic fashion, the problem was how to do it without being seen and how to face ridicule should I be discovered during the act. The best thing was to attempt it in the dark after sunset, and so I did. But I was ultimately seen one day and there was a titter. One night while I was meditating in secret, the maid happened to come in to make the bed and bumped against me in the dark. Imagine her surprise when she found that she had knocked against a lump of flesh.

Concentration was practised in many ways. A black circle was made in the centre of a white background and the eyes were brought to stare fixedly at it till the mind became a perfect blank. Gazing at the blue sky was occasionally practised, and what beat everything was staring at the scorching mid-day sun with eyes wide open. Self mortification of various kinds was also resorted to for instance, eating simple vegetarian food, getting up in the early hours of the morning, hardening the body to heat and cold, etc.

Much of this had to be done with as little publicity as possible, whether at home or outside. One of Ramakrishna’s favourite maxims was practise contemplation in a forest or in a quiet corner, in your house or in your own mind, so that none may observe you. The only people who may know of it are fellow-devotees or fellow-Yogis. After we had practised for some time what we considered to be Yoga, we began to compare notes. Ramakrishna had often referred to the inner psychic experiences, including extraordinary powers, which would come one’s way as he progressed along the spiritual path and had warned his disciples against feeling elated over them or indulging in self-advertisement or self-enjoyment of any sort. These psychic experiences and powers had to be transcended if one wanted to reach the higher regions of spiritual consciousness. Even after some months’ effort I found that I could not lay claim to any such experience. I had a feeling of confidence, and more peace of mind and self-control than before, but that was about all. Perhaps this is due to the want of a Guru (preceptor), thought I, since people say that Yoga cannot be practised without a Guru. So began my search for a Guru.

In India those who have given up the world and consecrated their whole life to spiritual effort sometimes adopt the life of a traveller (Paribrajak) or undertake an all-India pilgrimage. It is therefore not difficult to find them in the vicinity of holy places like Hardwar, Benares, Puri (or J agannath) or Rameswaram. Owing to its proximity to Puri, Cuttack also attracted a large number of them. These monks ( Also called Sannynsis, Sadhus or fakirs, though fakirs are generally Mohammedans by religion. These must be distinguished from priests. Among the Hindus, priests are an integral part of society. They are Brahmanss and are generally married. They perform religious and social ceremonies for the ordinary householder. Sadhus, on the other hand, renounce caste and all their family relationship when they take holy orders. They do not as a rule perform religious or social ceremonies for householders. Their sole function is to show to others the path of spiritual progress. They may be regarded as outside the pale of social contentions. ) are of two classes– those who belong to sonic organisation, ‘Ashrama’ or ‘Muth’, and those who are entirely free, have no organisation behind them, and hate to get entangled in any way. Our group for by now we had a definite group became interested in all the Sadhus who happened to visit the town, and if any member got information about any such visitor, he would pass it on to the rest.

Various were the types whom we visited, but I must say that those of the hermit type were more likable. They would not care to have any disciples and would spurn money in any form. If they wanted to instruct anybody in Yoga, they would prefer those who like themselves had no worldly attachment at all. The Sadhus who belonged to an organisation or were themselves married men did not appeal to me. They would generally search for disciples among men of wealth and position who, when recruited, would be an acquisition to their organisation.

Once there came an old Sannyasi, more than ninety years old, the head of a well-known Ashrama of all-India repute, one of whose disciples was a leading medical practitioner of the town. It soon became the rage to visit him and we too joined the crowd. After doing obeisance to him we took our seats. He was very kind to us in fact, affectionate and we were drawn towards him. Some hymns were recited by his disciples to which we respectfully listened. At the end we were given printed copies of his teachings and were advised to follow them. We inwardly resolved to do so at least I did. The first item was eat neither fish nor flesh nor eggs. Our family diet was non-vegetarian, and it was not possible to adhere to vegetarian food without coming in for criticism and perhaps opposition. Nevertheless, I obeyed the mandate despite all obstruction. The second item was daily recitation of certain hymns. That was easy. But the next item was formidable the practice of submissiveness to one’s parents. We had to begin the day by doing obeisance (pranam) to our parents. The difficulty about doing this was a two-fold one. Firstly, there was never any practice to do daily obeisance to our parents. Secondly, I had passed the stage when I believed that obedience to one’s parents was in itself a virtue. I was rather in a mood to defy every obstacle to my goal, no matter from what source it came. However, with a supreme effort of the will, I mastered myself and marching straight to my father in the morning, I made obeisance as instructed by my preceptor I can still recall the scene—how my father was taken aback at this unexpected sight. He asked me what was the matter, but without uttering a word I marched back after doing my duty. Up till now I have not the faintest notion of what he or my mother (who also had to undergo the same experience) thought of me at the time. It was nothing less than a torture every morning to muster sufficient strength of mind to go up to my parents and do obeisance to them. Members of the family or even servants must have wondered what had made the rebellious boy suddenly so submissive. Little did they know perhaps that behind this phenomenon was the hand of a Sadhu. After some weeks, perhaps months, I began to question myself as to what I had gained from the above practice and, not being satisfied with the reply, I gave it up. I went back to the teachings of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda. No realisation without renunciation I told myself again.

It would be a mistake to conclude that my conception of a religious life was restricted to the practice of individualistic Yoga. Though for some time I went crazy over Yogic exercise, it slowly dawned on me that for spiritual development social service was necessary. The idea came probably from Vivekananda for, as I have indicated above, he had preached the ideal of the service of humanity which included the service of one’s country. But he had further enjoined on everyone to serve the poor, for according to him God often comes to us in the form of the poor and to serve the poor is to worship God. I remember that I became very liberal with beggars, fakirs, and Sadhus, and whenever any of them appeared before our house, I helped them with whatever came within my reach. I derived a peculiar satisfaction from the act of giving.

Before I was sixteen I had my first experience of what may be glorified with the appellation of village reconstruction work. We went to a village in the outskirts of the town with the object of attempting some service. We entered the village primary school and did some teaching. By the teachers and the villagers in general we were warmly welcomed and we felt greatly encouraged. We then proceeded to another village but met with a sad experience there. When we entered the village, the villagers who had seen us from a distance collected in a body and as we advanced, they began to retreat. It was difficult to get at them or to talk to them as friends. We were shocked to find that we were regarded not only as strangers but as suspicious characters or enemies, and it did not take us long to understand that whenever well-dressed men had come into the village they must have done so as tax-collectors or in some similar capacity, and had behaved in such manner as to create this gulf between the villagers and ourselves. A few years later, I was to have a similar experience in some other villages in Orissa.

It would be correct to say that, as long as I was at school, I did not mature politically, though in other matters I was inclined to be precocious. This was due partly to my innate proclivity which pointed in a different direction, partly to the fact that Orissa was a political backwater, and partly to lack of inspiration within the family circle. Occasionally I did hear about the affairs of the Congress from my elder brothers, but that did not make any impression on me. The first bomb thrown in 1908 created a stir everywhere and we too were momentarily interested. At the P. E. School where I then was, our headmistress condemned the throwing of bombs. The matter was soon forgotten however. About the same time processions used to be brought out in the town to condemn the partition of Bengal and to propagate the cause of Swadeshi (Home industry). They occasioned a mild interest, but politics was tabooed in our house—so we could not take part in any political activity. Our interest sometimes found expression in peculiar ways such as cutting out pictures of revolutionaries from the papers and hanging them up in our study. One day we had a visitor, a relative of ours and a police officer, who saw these pictures and complained to my father, with the result that before we returned from school tl1e pictures were all removed, much to our chagrin. Up till December 1911 I was politically so undeveloped that I sat for an essay competition on the King’s (George V) Coronation. Though I generally stood first in English composition, I did not get the prize on this occasion. During the Christmas Vacation I went to Calcutta with the rest of the family when King George V visited that city, and I returned in an enthusiastic frame of mind. The first political impetus I received was in 1912 from a student about the same age as myself. He came to Cuttack and Puri on a tour and was introduce to us by Headmaster Beni Madhav Das. Before he came, he was connected with a certain group( The head of this group was one S.C.B. who was studying medicine.) in Calcutta which had as its ideal—spiritual uplift and national service along constructive lines. His visit to Cuttack came off at a time when my mind was beginning to turn towards social and national problems. In our group there was a friend who was more interested in national service than in Yoga. Another friend was always dreaming of the Bengali soldier, Suresh Biswas, who had migrated to South America (I think it was Brazil) and had made a name for himself there. And as a stepping stone to such a career, this friend was practicing wrestling while some of us were busy with Yoga. At a psychologically opportune moment, the visitor talked to us passionately about our duty to our country and about his group in Calcutta, and I was greatly impressed. It was good to be linked up with an organisation in the metropolis and we heartily welcomed his visit. On his return to Calcutta he made a report about us and not long after we received a communication from the head of the group. Thus began a connection which was to last several years.

As I approached the end of my school career, my religious impulse began to grow in intensity. Studies were no longer of primary importance. The members of our group would meet as frequently as possible and go out on excursions. We could thereby keep away from home and enjoy one another’s company longer. As a rule, the teachers failed to inspire us with the exception of one or two who were followers of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda. My parents’ Guru( This was their first Guru. After his death they received initiation from another Guru. ) visited Cuttack about this time and, while he was there, was able to rouse my religious interest still further. But his inspiration did not go very far because he was not a ‘Sannyasi’. Among the teachers there was only one who was politically minded and, when we were about to leave school, he congratulated me on deciding to go to Calcutta where I would meet people who could inspire me politically.

I believe that impressions received in early life linger long and, for good or for ill, have a potent influence on the mind of the growing child. I remember that in infancy I often used to hear stories of ghosts, either from servants or from older members of the family. One particular tree was pointed out as being the favourite abode of ghosts. These stories when narrated at night had a most chilling effect. On a moonlit night after hearing such a story it was easy to conjure up a ghost on a tree out of the play of light and shade. One of our servants a Mohammedan cook must have done as much, for one night he declared that he was possessed by some spirit. A sorcerer had to be called and the spirit exercised. Such experiences were reinforced from other quarters. For instance, we had a Mohammedan coachman who would tell us how skilled he was in the art of exorcising spirits and how often his services were requisitioned for that purpose. According to him, he had to slit his forearm near the wrist and offer the spirit some blood as a parting drink. One could question his veracity, but the fact remains that we did see sometimes fresh incisions on his wrist as well as marks of old ones. He was also a bit of a Hakim( There are two indigenous systems of medicine in India which are still in vogue – Ayurveda and Unani. Those who practice the former are called Kavirujes or Vaids, while those who practice the latter are called Hakim) and would prepare quack remedies for various ailments like indigestion, diarrhea, etc. I must say that such experience in infancy did not have a particular wholesome effect on my mind and it required an effort to overthrow such influences when I grew into boyhood. The Ayurvedic system comes down from the very ancient times, while the Unani system came into vogue at the time of the Moghul Emperors. Though there are many quacks practising these systems, there is no doubt that Kavirajes and Hakims sometimes effect wonderful cures where Western doctors fail. .

In this task of freeing my mind of superstitions, Vivekananda was of great help to me. The religion that he preached including his conception of Yoga was based on a rational philosophy, on the Vedanta,( Vedanta is a general term for the philosophical portion of the Hindu Scriptures.,) and his conception of Vedanta was not antagonistic to, but was based on, scientific principles.( It should be remembered that Vivekananda was trained in Western logic and philosophy and was inclined to be a sceptic and agnostic before he came under the influence of Ramakrishna. Since he had an emancipated mind, he could extract the essence of religion out of a. mass of superstitious and mystical accretions in which it is sometimes found embedded in India.) One of his missions in life was to bring about reconciliation between science and religion, and this, he held, was possible through the Vedanta.

Those who tackle the problem of child education in India will have to consider the uncongenial influences which mould the child’s mind at the present day. Of allied interest is the question of the lullaby songs which are sung by the mother, the aunt, or the nurse to rock the child to sleep or of the means adopted to induce an unwilling child to take its food. Too often the child is frightened into doing both. In Bengal one of the most popular lullaby songs describes the “Bargis’ (or the Pindari hordes) raiding the countryside.

One will also have to consider the dreams which sometimes disturb the child’s sleep and leave an effect on its waking life as well. A knowledge of the psychology and mechanism of dreams will enable the guardian or the tutor to understand the child’s mind and thereby help it to overcome unwholesome influences preying on its mind. I say this because I myself was troubled greatly by frightful dreams about snakes, tigers, monkeys, and the like in my early years. Only when I began experimenting with Yoga in an empirical fashion later on, did I hit upon a mental exercise which relieved me of such unpleasant dreams once for all. The quarter which disturbed me from time to time, e.g., sex-dreams, dreams of university examination, dreams of arrest and imprisonment, etc.

It is possible in a country like India and especially in families where conservative, parochial, sectarian, or caste influences reign supreme, to grow into maturity and even obtain high University degrees without being really emancipated. It often happens, therefore, that at some stage or other one has to revolt against social or family conventions. I was lucky, however, that the environment in which I grew up was on the whole conducive to the broadening of my mind. In my infancy I was brought into touch with English people, English education, and English culture. After that I went back to our culture—both classical and modern and even while I was at school had interprovincial contacts and friendship which I would have been deprived of, if I had been lacking in Bengal. Lastly, my mental attitude towards Muslims in general was largely, though unconsciously, influenced by  early contacts. The place in which we lived was a predominantly Muslim one and our neighbours were mostly Muslims. They all looked up to father as ordinary villagers do to a patriarch. We took part in their festivals, like the Moharrum, for instance, and enjoyed their akhara. ( Physical sports which Muslims indulge in on the occasion of the Moharrum festival.)

Among our servants were Muslims who were as devoted to us as the others. At school I had Muslim teachers and Muslim classmates with whom my relations as also the relations of other students were perfectly cordial. In fact, I cannot remember ever to have looked upon Muslims as different from ourselves in any way, except that they go to pray in a mosque. And friction or conflict between Hindus and Muslims was unknown in my early days.

Though the atmosphere in which I grew up was on tl1e whole liberalizing, there were occasions when I was forced into a clash with social or family conventions. I remember one incident when I was about fourteen or fifteen. A class friend of mine who was also a neighbour of ours invited some of us to dinner. My mother came to know of it and gave instructions that no one was to go. It might have been because his social status was lower than ours, or because he belonged to a lower caste, or simply because on medical grounds it was considered inadvisable to dine out. And it is true that very rarely did we go anywhere for dinner. However, I regarded my mother’s orders as unjustified and felt a peculiar pleasure in defying them. When I took to religion and Yoga seriously and wanted freedom to go where I liked and meet whomsoever I wished, I frequently came up against parental instructions. But I had no hesitation in disobeying them because by that time I believed, under the inspiration of Vivekananda, that revolt is necessary for self-fulfillment—that when a child is born, its very cry is a revolt against the bondage in which it finds itself.

Looking back on my school days I have no doubt that I must have appeared to others as wayward, eccentric, and obstinate. I was expected to do well at the Matriculation Examination and raise the prestige of the school and great must have been the disappointment of my teachers when they found me neglecting my studies and running after ash-laden Sadhus. What my parents must have thought and felt over a promising boy going off his head can best be imagined. But nothing mattered to me except my inner dreams, and the more resistance I met, the more obstinate I became. My parents then thought that a change of environment would perhaps do me good and that in the realistic atmosphere of Calcutta I would shed my eccentricities and take to a normal life like the rest of my tribe.

I sat for the Matriculation Examination in March, 1913 and came out second in the whole University. My parents were delighted and I was packed off to Calcutta.




Calcutta 23rd January 1948



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