“Borda”—Reminiscences of Rathindranath Mukherjee by Prithwindra Mukherjee

Every generation has its Elder Brother, known as Borda.

Eldest among the male children of his joint family, my grandfather Jatindranath was the Borda of all; his associates in the Jugantar called him simply Dada, as we learn from the writings of revolutionaries like M.N. Roy, Bhupati Majumdar or Dr Jadugopal. My father Tejendranath enjoyed the same status : in 1915, when grandfather fought with a detachment of colonial police and laid down his life, Tejendranath was hardly six. Under the watchful eyes of Charles Tegart, he had to be removed from home to home, school to school, city to city, district to district, earning while learning the sweet and bitter lessons of the life of a rebel’s son, away from his loving mother and aunt and siblings. Tegart’s career as an apprentice police officer had begun in the perilous track of Jatindranath (“who always carried arms”), at times made to stoop even to serve Jatindranath as lackey. In 1930, “misguided” by his father’s followers, Tejendranath was arrested in connection with the Chittagong armory raid; out of an unknown compassion Tegart – promoted omnipotent Commissioner of Police – asked the elders of the family : “Get the boy married. He has to calm down.” Further, after his marriage, to prove his bonafides, Tejendranath comfortably joined Gandhi’s personnel for a while, before leaving that stale company and turning to more spirited Subhas Bose, up to his liking.

Borda of his generation, Rothin— Rathindranath — was born on 5 February 1934. He passed away on 7 February 2017 in a Paris hospital. The little crown prince of a Hero’s dynasty, he was looked up on with a special consideration not only by members of the family, also by surviving comrades in arm of our illustrious grandfather. One of them —Bhavabhushan Mitra — though turned into a monk and known as Swami Satyananda — was a familiar figure, our Swamiji Dadu. As a man equally close and devoted to Sri Aurobindo, Barindra and Sarojini, he maintained the contact between us and Pondicherry. While absconding, once he had turned up at Pondicherry introducing himself as a “Realised Saint from Himalaya”. On looking at the Saint, during darshan, Sri Aurobindo could not help check an amused smile, which he explained later : he recognized the Saint as “Bhavabhushan (who is) even younger than Barin!”

Inspired by the Bengali poem, “If I did not train a tiger’s cub into a tiger, what have I done ?” Swamiji was a stern task master and a loving soul. On observing Rothin, he found that the kind-hearted boy was all admiration for Birendranath, our kaku — father’s younger brother — who was an all-round sportsman, especially gifted as a footballer and a gymnast : during his exercise, Kaku looked like a flash of lightning on his parallel bars in a corner of our courtyard in Ballyganj Place. Voluntarily he had remained a bachelor till late, in order to look after his brother’s family. He did not fail to observe how, naturally, Rothin was drawn by a dream to be a sportsman.

Sitting on the lap of Indubala — our grandmother — while she read her daily Anandabazar, little Rothin was fast in learning to read Bengali all alone, but upside down. While moving about, he was seen writing in the void, God knows what. Of a Sattvik temperament, he disliked maisur dal cooked with fried onion; stealthily he would slide his portion of fish under the dish, feigning to have eaten it up. Fond of painting, Rothin’s creativity caught the attention of Swamiji. Swamiji was a man who was ever welcome to see anybody he chose to, be he a statesman, a poet or an artist. Acharya Nandalal Bose had been involved in the Jugantar movement and, as such, knew Swamiji. Impressed by specimens of the boy’s painting, on consulting Abanindranath Tagore, Nandalal wrote to Swamiji that Rothin was fit for admission at Santiniketan after his matriculation. Invited by Pratima Tagore, in January 1964, I went to Santiniketan, accompanied by the Jugantar leader Bhupendrakumar Datta. Informed that Nandalal was not keeping well, Datta took me, however, to have a glimpse of this great patriot. Stooping forward, seated on floor, Nandalal was meditating. As soon as his eyes fell on Datta, he stood up and saluted him with folded hands. On introducing me, Datta told Nandalal before parting, “I do not want to disturb you in your meditation. Wish you a quick recovery.”

Rothin’s happy empire had started knowing a series of unexpected odds. In October 1936 when he was two and half, I was born. In December 1937 Togo was born shortly before the passing of our grandmother. Kaku’s marriage was followed by my polio attack. On the national level innumerable calamities went on pushing us towards a breathless lassitude.

On reaching Pondicherry at last, in 1948, we found a comfort for our soul. After a few days spent at the Ashram, coached by Sudhir Dadu (Sarkar), Rothin served us as mouthpiece and informed the Mother that we, three brothers, would like to stay there “permanently”. Promising us to think it over, the Mother waited for my mother to come for blessings. Putting her right hand on my mother’s shoulder, She told her: “The boys want to stay here. But they are so young; they require someone to look after them. Will you do it on my behalf?” Tears of joy filled my mother’s eyes : she with my father had a dream of joining the Ashram once we were adults. The Mother was proposing to fulfill that dream earlier !

My mother discovered the importance the Mother attached to painting : a young Buddhist boy fleeing persecution in a remote village of Chittagong in the then East Pakistan, took to painting and received daily guidance from the Mother. My mother felt frustrated that Rothin should altogether give up painting, more concerned by sports. Both our parents had been rather our friends than censors in their ways of bringing us up. One day, however, exasperated, when my mother scolded Rothin for neglecting the chances of blossoming, he burst out in an accumulated pain : “Of course you have every reason to be angry with me, preferring to reserve patting for your own sons!” Dizzy with the tone, my mother came to discover that an inmate of the Ashram— let us call him Durjan-da — had convinced Rothin that our mother was but his step-mother; this was my father’s second marriage. Month after month Rothin had been bearing in silence the shock of this terrible revelation.

*

In 1948, all the three brothers, we were assembled in the transition “classe de dixième” (Class X) at the Ashram school where, with other new comers, we had lessons in French; most of the subjects were taught in French, according to the syllabus of schools in France, Pondicherry having been still the capital of French India. One of our teachers, Madame Gaebelé, a famous personality in French India, was renamed Suvrata by Sri Aurobindo. Generosity personified, whereas she always gave me 10.5 to 11 out of 10, Rothin had the privilege of scoring up to 14 out of 10. At the end of each class, Suvrata distributed stamps for collection and bonbons made in France. Hardly after two months of coaching in French, Rothin had a triple promotion to “classe de septième” (Class VII) in 1948-49 school year. Thanks to two consecutive double promotions, I caught him up at the “classe de sixième” (Class VI) in 1949-50.

After the passing of Sri Aurobindo, the Mother asked Nirodbaran to start teaching. Rothin and I had him for several years : whereas parched up by the Guru’s physical absence, a despondent Nirodbaran chose me to be his scapegoat, Lumière Ganguli and Rothin seemed to enjoy his affection as brilliant students. One day Nirodbaran brought us a poem by Alfred de Musset, as far as I remember, and particularly inspired, he explained the poem to the class. The next day, on my writing table, I found a beautiful Bengali version of that French poem by Rothin. Without his knowledge I sent it to the literary magazine of Calcutta, Pradeep, where I had been publishing since 1951 and having congratulations from eminent readers like Hemendraprasad Ghose and Kumudranjan Mallik. One day, when Nirodbaran came home to have a cup of tea with my father, I showed him the issue of Pradeep, just received. Much moved, he borrowed the copy for showing it to the Mother, with a comment on Rothin’s gift as a poet. I still remember the opening of the Bengali lines.

“Gobhir raate jyotsna-loker tole,
Nil akashe hajar tarar pradip jokhon jole,
Sada megher bhelaye chore sukhe
Ghum-porira neme ashe klanto dhorar buke.”

In 1952, the Mother welcomed a queer French lady called Suzanne Karpelès as our teacher. She was renamed Bharatidi. Her parents had been close friends of the Tagore family. Her elder sister Andrée was a disciple of Abanindranath and, as such, had been in charge of the women’s section at Santiniketan. Bharatidi had been Rabindranath’s secretary during his visits in Paris. As director of the Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient, she had spent long years in wild areas of Cambodia. One day, late in the morning, during our class she looked particularly tired. On noticing that I pitied her fatigue, she got furious : “Prithwin, if you are hungry, you may leave the class.” Though humiliating, it was quite a decent solution. While I was leaving, in a shrill voice she shouted, “And don’t you forget to shut the door !” Far from forgetting, I did shut the door by locking it from outside. When the period was over and everybody was hungry, Bharatidi discovered my prank, turned to Rothin and ordered him to get out through the bull’s-eye and unlock the door. Classmates helped Rothin perform his duty. He did it religiously. When I learnt it, I commented : “In your place, I would have left her in the lurch!” In no time the incident made me notorious all over the world. Very soon she realized the metal I was made of and we became fast friends. Informed about my interest in translation, Andrée sent me a beautiful edition of Khirer Putul by Abanindranath in French, with her original wood-engravings.

*

Durjan-da’s role as evil genius did not stop with that ignoble joke. One day, Rothin was entering the Play Ground hurriedly to attend, as usual, the Mother’s class. Leisurely sitting on the footpath outside, surrounded by a few of his fans, Durjan-da called Rothin and, apparently desiring to tell him something important, stopped him from going to the class. This became systematic till Rothin considered it to be worth enjoying Durjan-da’s gossips. One day, on learning about Rothin’s brilliant results in his studies, Durjan-Da pooh-poohed : “Mother does not need idle brains. She cares more for strong hands to work for the community.” The next day Rothin stopped going to school and joined the automobile garage of the Ashram, driving to Madras air-port to receive guests. Far from any awareness of the dignity of labour, our people are in the habit of describing Pavitra-da as the “Mother’s Driver”, ignoring that this French disciple of Sri Aurobindo had one of the highest academic qualifications that France can offer. One day my mother overheard two ladies discussing loud enough for her to hear : “Here comes the  Driver’s mother!”

Encouraging Rothin in his tennis, the Mother herself invited him to play a couple of matches now and then. As a group captain, Rothin was very cautious in his programme for physical education. When his duty at the garage called for a frequent absence, as a consolation, with the Mother’s approval, Rothin joined the Pondicherry State team for football and cricket matches. His reputation had reached the ears of the 1st Division organizers of Tamilnadu : they approached him often for important matches. Thanks to his immense popularity with the local people, on 11 February 1965 when the Ashram became a prey to hooliganism, Rothin concentrated on the Mother’s Grace and with a cool negotiation managed to dissuade an intoxicated mob from setting fire to the Automobile garage adjacent to the Ashram main building.

The next day when with our mother Rothin went see the Mother, extremely pleased with the report of this successful intervention, she held Rothin by the hands to thank him, before making him a gift of her own wrist watch in gold, as I was told by my mother.

*

I reached Paris in 1966. I got Togo to be appointed in 1967 by a team of researchers in Paris to determine the therapeutic values of Hatha Yoga. Rothin came to Paris in 1969 to assist Togo. In 1970, I arranged with Pankaj Kumar Gupta (the legendary manager of the Indian Olympic Committee and coach of Dhyan Chand), to send Rothin and Togo as delegates from India in an international seminar of the Olympic Committee at Athens. Their active presence was highly appreciated. At this juncture, the Mother united me with a French student in January 1970. My parents got Togo married in 1971. Rothin married Sonia in July 1972, just a week before my daughter Adya was born. Rothin and Sonia lost Maya — their only child — when she was two and half.

All the three brothers, we had a vast number of influential acquaintances. Son of the “Hindu American” Dhan Gopal Mukerji, author of best-sellers (like the biography of Ramakrishna, The Face of Silence), Dhan junior was the Director of the European sector of Pan-American airways and presided over the American Chamber of Commerce in Paris. He and his wife Claude encouraged us to amplify my activities as a cultural link between France and India, by founding the French Association for the Knowledge of India (AFCI), with the industrialist André Prosper as President : a former comrade in arms of General De Gaulle during the Occupation, staunch Communist, Prosper with a batch of friends loved India unconditionally. On leasing a spacious apartment by the Place de la Republique, we held regular classes on Yoga, lectures on Indian philosophy, music, dance, spirituality, the secret of Integral Yoga. We celebrated the centenary of Sri Aurobindo at the Musée Guimet: unfortunately, Jeanine Auboyer’s penetrating paper on “Sri Aurobindo on Indian Art” remains as yet unpublished. We invited teams of Indian musicians and dancers for lecture tours with demonstration all over Europe. I became Producer-cum-author of features for Radio-France, while teaching at two faculties under the University of Paris. Contributing in encyclopedias like the Universalis, the PUF etc.

One of the greatest events in 1975 was the response of Nirmalendu Chowdhury, coming for three months with fourteen artists — men and women — representing various trends of folk music and dance from various Indian States : three evenings at the American Church; three afternoons at the Festival at Chateau de Sceaux near Paris; three evenings at the International Festival at Kuopio (Finland); three weeks at a stretch at the famous Theatre des Mathurins : it all left a deep impact on the European lovers of popular traditions. Another landmark was my inviting a team of four Baul singers and musicians from West Bengal, on 18 June 1981, for a concert at the Grand Auditorium of Radio France with simultaneous broadcast on France-Musique; it was followed by a European tour and several LPs. Pierre Toureille, Director of the Ocora/ Radio France publications (by lending me his office, fully equipped) and Peter Brook by requesting Nina Soufy, his secretary (a model of kindness and efficiency) to assist me. All of them helped me making of this final venture of our AFCI a real success.

Four months later, in October I left for the United States with a Fulbright scholarship.

*

Even after retiring from active life, Borda had kept on playing tennis with a group of friends at Chelles, about twenty-five kilometers north-east of Paris, where he had settled with Sonia in 1972, and purchased their apartment. He was fond of narrating the special relationship he had with the Mother : making an exception to the discipline of the Institution, she had approved his passion to play matches with the local sporting associations.

Following serious cardiac problems, even when Borda had to stop playing, a local group of friends remained in contact with him, consulting him in their weal and woe. Hailing from different countries and different social levels, they all assembled with esteem and admiration on the day when Borda was cremated. They all offered him a red rose each. Like my father, Borda too loved roses.

Sonia had put on his chest blessings of the Mother with some incense sticks.

Prithwindra Mukherjee

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Togo, Prithwin and Rothin in 1948

“I Have a Dream”: Rothin in 1952

Rothin with his wife Sonia

Rothin in 2009

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About the Author: Born on 20 October 1936 to Tejendranath and Usha Rani, Dr. Prithwindra Mukherjee is the grandson of the famous revolutionary Jatindranath Mukherjee alias Bagha Jatin. He came to Sri Aurobindo Ashram in 1948, studied and taught at Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education. He was mentioned by the Sahitya Akademi manuals and anthologies as a poet before he attained the age of twenty. He has translated the works of French authors like Albert Camus, Saint-John Perse and René Char for Bengali readers, and eminent Bengali authors into French. He shifted to Paris with a French Government Scholarship in 1966. He defended a thesis on Sri Aurobindo at Sorbonne. He served as a lecturer in two Paris faculties, a producer on Indian culture and music for Radio France and was also a freelance journalist for the Indian and French press. His thesis for PhD which studied the pre-Gandhian phase of India’s struggle for freedom was supervised by Raymond Aron in Paris University. In 1977 he was invited by the National Archives of India as a guest of the Historical Records Commission. He presented a paper on ‘Jatindranath Mukherjee and the Indo-German Conspiracy’ and his contribution on this area has been recognized by eminent educationists. A number of his papers on this subject have been translated into major Indian languages. He went to the United States of America as a Fulbright scholar and discovered scores of files covering the Indian revolutionaries in the Wilson Papers. In 1981 he joined the French National Centre of Scientific Research. He was also a founder-member of the French Literary Translators’ Association. In 2003 he retired as a researcher in Human and Social Sciences Department of French National Centre of Scientific Research in Paris. A recipient of ‘Sri Aurobindo Puraskar’, in the same year he was invited by Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for the world premiere of Correspondances, opus for voice and orchestra where the veteran composer Henri Dutilleux had set to music Prithwindra’s French poem on Shiva Nataraja, followed by texts by Solzhenitsyn, Rilke and Van Gogh. In 2009 he was appointed to the rank of chevalier (Knight) of the Order of Arts and Letters by the Minister of Culture of France. He has penned books in English, Bengali and French and some of his published works include Samasamayiker Chokhe Sri Aurobindo, Pondicherryer Dinguli, Bagha Jatin, Sadhak-Biplobi Jatindranath, Undying Courage, Vishwer Chokhe Rabindranath, Thât/Mélakartâ : The Fundamental Scales in Indian Music of the North and the South (foreword by Pandit Ravi Shankar), Poèmes du Bangladesh, Serpent de flammes, Le sâmkhya, Les écrits bengalis de Sri Aurobindo, Chants bâuls, les Fous de l’Absolu, Anthologie de la poésie bengalie, In Quest of the Cosmic Soul and Les racines intellectuelles du movement d’independence de l’Inde (1893-1918) ending up with Sri Aurobindo, “the last of the Prophets”.

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6 Comments

  1. beni said,

    March 31, 2017 at 1:02 pm

    Prithwinda , thanks for this writeup on my most beloved brother of yours, got to know from Konkona whom you had let know of Rothinda’s passing, posted on FB , and I let all out elders in the ashram know of his passing , many his classmates, many his colleagues among those living, all were touched deeply, by his leaving..my last contact with him was a very sad one when he was here last for his treatment, could hardly walk, but had the most pleasant, contact with him when he had come down from france 30yrs ago for mashima’s operation in JIPMER, had gone with Saket to fetch him from the airport, and was myself admitted there for a minor surgery, and followed the miracle first hand after the doctors stitched her up after opening her for colon blockage, found it blue and she lived a full 18 yrs after that….very illuminating about his life..may he rest in the Mother …

  2. March 31, 2017 at 2:27 pm

    Dear Beni,
    I suppose you remember how close your father and I had been. The entire picture of my life at the Ashram remains fresh and intact. Konkona informed me about your attachment to Rothinda’s memory. Thanks to the zeal of Anurâg we meet here at the Overman forum.
    By Mother’s grace!
    Prithwinda

    • beni said,

      April 1, 2017 at 2:15 am

      merci prithwinda, for remembering baba , and your relation with him was so intimate, one word from a friend of Rothinda’s touched me to the core. Ramrajda when I told him stopped dead on his tracks , as we were walking, then said he was my classmate , and we were the second generation in the ashram….and all are going away one by one…

  3. surendra chouhan said,

    April 2, 2017 at 3:15 am

    Very moving tribute of ” Borda ” by you – Prithwinda – the beloved brother and ” Benny” has added further lustre to it by his further affectionate recollections ..
    Surendra – saice ’69

  4. Bhaskar Ray Chaudhuri said,

    April 2, 2017 at 4:49 am

    Prithwin kaku
    Tomar Mail peyechi.Onek ojana khobor janlam.Bisesh kore Pondicherry r prothom ta aamar ojana chilo. Bohudin Tomar Sathe samparko rahit hoe aachi.Rothin kaku r chole jaws r Sambad Bhai didi r ,Rubi,theke peyechilam kintu tomader Sathe jogajog kora hoini. Bhalo theko, pronam neo Suman.

  5. Prasenjit Sen said,

    April 4, 2017 at 8:35 am

    Anything I reminisce about Rothin-da have to start from Pondicherry—yes to that Pondicherry more than half a century back. Today I think it was Mother’s Will that I arrived at Pondicherry with my father Promode Kumar Sen (author of “Sri Aurobindo : Jeebon O Jog”) at that tender age. After 2 nights train journey getting down at Pondicherry railway station early in the morning was a relief. Then Pondicherry was a quite small town still under the French rule. My father was a regular visitor of Pondicherry. Our stay was initially at Red House facing the sea. The next day was Sunday, schools were off. After the morning blessings from the Mother, as we were about to leave Rothin-da ‘caught’ me outside the Ashram gate and asked, “You are Prasenjit? What games do you play?” Learning that I play cricket he took me along to the Tennis ground adjacent where a friendly cricket match was being played by the younger group of Ashram. Rothin-da asked me to be the scorer and I remember the first to bat were Ranju-da and Kittu.

    Such sweet memories of Rothin-da are many during that stay in early ’50s. Him marching in the play ground in the evenings with C group image is still alive in my memory. Good memories do stay on particularly of the events around the Divine. Then there was a long gap of my coming to the Ashram. However, again the Call reached me in Delhi. That was February Darshan 1968. I was among the streams of visitors entering the Ashram gate. Seated at the entrance was every one’s “Borda” (Tejen-da , Rothin-da’s father ). A few persons ahead of me mumbled something to him to which he perhaps directed them. I simply said to him “I am Prasenjit.” He literally jumped up and embraced me. Time does not erase the etching on the consciousness, I realized an eternal connection and a divine bond .

    This message reached Rothin-da also and he took me literally in his affectionate fold. The stay was short. But Rothin-da is different. He arranged cycles and I along with a couple of his Ashram friends paddled one evening to a farmhouse ( I guess that was managed by one of his friend Manindra).That outing and adventure inspire me even today when I visit that area of Pondicherry.

    Changes came in our lives. Rothin-da went to Paris and after a year I too got a German Government Scholarship to study in Mainz, which is located towards the French border. Thus, it was possible to meet Rothin-da again . Luckily there was a French Consulate in Mainz. So my travel to Paris on cheap student excursion trip was easier. In those days an Indian student required visa to enter France from Germany , today it is not. In Paris Rothin-da was a delightful company. He knew Paris like back of his hand. Paris of early 70s was a romantic city. He introduced me to the delicious Crepe of Paris. Since Sonia had not come in his life then, so his spare time was all for me. He had on occasions prepared in his tiny apartment most authentic French cuisines. This affectionate friendship is rare, one may be able trace such stories in the Bengali novels of the last millennium.

    In course of time life flowed in different courses but our contact was unchanged. I moved in to Bombay. Then one day Rothin-da came with Sonia on their way to Pondicherry. The gateway city Bombay was on their way. We got again together. Sonia and my wife Paula who spoke no French and Sonia hardly spoke English but they talked and talked all through ! I had no car then but Rothin-da and Sonia sportingly enjoyed the bus ride to savour Bombay duck with soul curry! On their way back we took a domestic midnight flight on Air India to Delhi and they on the same flight further to Paris. Idea was to be together for two hours on the aircraft !

    Our visit to Paris was memorable. We landed at Prithwin-da’s place near Orly. Having stayed some time Rothin-da took us, my wife and my son Ruru to Chelles—a quite small town near Paris. He had a magical quality to make friend with the children. My son was averse to the peas in the vegetable. Rothin-da showed him the local peas and told these are petits pois. Ruru agreed and enjoyed a meal of meat balls with petits pois. Incidentally he was a great cook too. He took us for a day trip to the valley of Marne river. He was a wonderful driver too. As one knows the French are vigorous drivers. But Rothin-da, the Ashram trained Driver, was agile and unperturbed amidst the ocean of cars in Paris. A sportsman Rothin-da was also a sportsman in Chelles. He was almost the champion amongst the senior citizens of Chelles in Tennis.

    My story comes to a sudden end. I was in touch with Rothin-da. But neither there were any more of his home coming nor our trip to Paris. Last time I had been to Paris ,may be in 1998, when I had dropped in to meet Prithwin-da briefly. I regret I could not miss some important meetings and to travel to Chelles to see Rothin-da personally. But no regret, today I find him ever present on my memory tablet which is bright and shining with the Grace of The Mother.


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