Oral history interview with Jharna Gourlay

Gourlay, Jharna
Manjapra, Kris

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Jharna Gourlay, interviewee (female)
Kris K. Manjapra, interviewer (male)

Interviewed in Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Kris Manjapra

This object is in collection:
Bengali Oral Histories
Intellectual history
Personal narratives
Independence movements
Oral history
Bengali Intellectuals Oral History Project
South Asia
West Bengal (India)
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This is a Bengali intellectual history, oral history interview on January 8th 2010. I am sitting with Dr. Jharna Gouraly, in Kolkata and thank you very much for our time together for this oral history. Let’s begin as I began all the other interviews which is asking some basic information about where you were born and when you were born?
I was born in Calcutta 1933 but my official age is from 1934 because my father and one of my cousins decided when they were filing in the passport that they should - I don’t know why -
they should put one year less so officially I was born in 1934, but actually I was born in 1933 - 6th of March in Calcutta in Eden Hospital, which is very interesting because my mother had four other children, and they were all born in a small room hut rather made in the middle of the courtyard as that was the procedure, but as we were in Calcutta at that time there is an exception of that procedure and my mother actually went to a maternity hospital, and she always used to tell me that how clean was the hospital that if you put a drop of sindoor, which the Bengali women - married women - wear on their forehead, you could pick it up and she even mentioned that it was even clearer than her own little room where she used to keep all her items.
My father was a District subregistrar who when I was born, it was a government job and he used to travel around in various parts of undivided Bengal - places like Silchar, Dhaka, sometimes in west Bengal: Bishnupur, Krishna Nagar. So my early childhood, my recollection, was in Krishna Nagar when I remember when I was probably from 3 to 5...about 2 years, and there they had sent me to a little school next door, and where I had my first school experience and all that I can remember of that: there was a cousin brother who was of my age and went there and he was so disorganized that I not only have to collect my own books and my own bags, I have to pick up his satchel, his books, his shoes, and hold his hand and stand for the car to pick us up and that was my experience of Krishna Nagar .
That was between 1936 and 1938?
I think it would be between 1935 to 1939 or 1936 to 1939.
Sometimes as early as that, and there is a beautiful reminder called Kore Nodi we used to go and play there but as I was the last child and my father was I think 58 at that time, which was the official age for retirement,
he retired, and we went to - my mother, and my father, and me - we went to Hardwar in UP, in northern UP, and spent couple of months there with another cousin of ours and that was wonderful memories in my mind always going out with my parents for long walks and my father would pick me up and bring me back because I wouldn’t walk back home. He has to carry me, and I used to play in the night with my mother, and that was a beautiful time when I look back, I remember, and after that, we moved to Calcutta in 1939, and since then we were residents of Calcutta, and my childhood was 1939 when the war started and it was very much a British India so as soon as Singapore was bombed, Calcutta was completely abandoned and people left Calcutta and there was Military taking over a big area in South Calcutta were we used to live near the lake, and there were military trucks and soldiers everywhere. This was my childhood memories of Calcutta
Do you remember where by the lakes you lived?
Yes, we lived in a place called...just by the lake at the southernmost end...was a bridge and after the bridge there is a little road called Charu Avenue, and there we had a rented place on the top floor used to live the landlord who is a famous Bengali poet called Kalidas Rai, and we used to live in the ground floor, and my father and mother and me and my brother. Now incidentally my mother lost two sons at a very early age of theirs and he had two surviving children.
One is my brother and one was my sister, and my sister got married when I was just one because she was eighteen years older than I was, and my brother was twenty-three years older than me, so I was a very, very late child and my parents were very much like my grandparents, and they were retired so they had all time for me, which wasn't very comfortable for me because my father was very much a supporter of female education. So, he insisted that I should do my homework very well and always used to look after the thing that I am not playing all the time but reading and writing, and without his encouragement I don't think I would have have survived in life.
What was your father’s name?
Proffula Chandra Sen. Actually, we were Sengupta’s Vaidya community. My father used to write Praffula Chandra Sen.
And was it a Brahmo home or a religious home in any way, or...?
No. no, ours was a very...if I remember correctly...my mother was...my mother had a very interesting background. She was born in late 19th century. Both my parents were born late 19th century. I cannot give you the exact date but because it needs a bit of calculation, but she was born...I was born when she was 42, so if I was, you can calculate that when she was born because if I was born in 1933, how earlier she was born, and she...her father was a writer and a journalist - quite a famous writer and a journalist in those days: Baroda Kanto Sen, and he was also Brahmo.
I am not sure whether officially he had taken Brahmo religion, but he actually joined Keshab Chandra Sen and Bijoya Krishna Goswami and went around doing all sorts of social work and preaching Brahmo Dharmo, and he sent my mother and my mother’s sister to a xenana school in those days made saabs. British women used to come particularly the missionaries, and they wanted to teach middle class Bengali women, girl children and they had some Bazaar school as well as they had xenana schools and my mother actually went to a school, and that fact she remembered until she died that she was taught by the meem saabs and she used to say she couldn’t remember anything else but she said, “They gave us...they gave me a doll,” and she remembered that very well.
But that created such an interest in her mind that she never went to school after that. She got married at the age of twelve to my father who was twenty-four and my mother went to a family which was our family which wasn't as modern as her own family like her own father, so she was actually from a more progressive family, went to a less progressive family, and accommodated her with that family in a village, but my grandfather (my mother’s father) he later on gave up being a Brahmo, or following Brahmoism.
He went with his friend Bijoya Krishna Goswami, and became a follower of Bijoya Krishna if you remember Bijoya krishno became a religious preacher later on and he got in our country we call...he sort of initiated...my grandfather initiated himself and all the children...his...all his children took the vows from Bijoya Krishno Goswami to lead a certain type of religious life throughout their life, you know, they wouldn’t eat meat they wouldn’t egg or onions they wouldn’t say evil things about anybody they wouldn’t eat from somebody else’s plate.
You know, all these things - little things and my mother was...had that vow but we never knew she was such a wonderful person all her worshiping and everything was done early in the morning before we got up from bed, and she never ever insisted that we do what she has done. She never influenced us, and my father was religious in a very social sense. Religion to him meant eating, lot of people will come, lot of presents will be exchanged, and we were...my family was saktos, Saktos mean they worship Durga and in our village home there was a festival of Durga and there was...sacrificed some goats and everything, but my father also didn’t ever insisted that we grow up religious so, in a way, all of us - my brother, my sister and me - we became, first of all, nonreligious and then became, probably, one of this atheists as we grew up.
So we have no religion really in that sense, but I must mend it here one thing. That doesn’t mean we don’t take part in festivities, you know. Festivities we all take part – socialize, but I myself have [nothing] against religious festivity so long it is within, you know, certain perimeter, but I certainly am not religious.
And during your adolescence or your, as it was called where you were going into your adolescence, when the war was going on, what was the culture of education at your home leading up to your college entrance into college?
You obviously went to Presidency College which was the premiere college, so what was your trajectory, as a women also since there were not many women who were entering Presidency, how did you make that step?
In a way I was very fortunate because, as I said, my father was very interested in education. My cousin sisters, they always lived in our house and went to schools and colleges, so there was an atmosphere of women’s education in our family although I wouldn’t say that was among my friends' family. Many of my friends; family were against women’s education but not in our family.
My aunts could all read and write. My mother was a voracious reader. She always used to keep notes of Bengali magazines throughout her life to go through it, but as you said that I grew up. My early years were the war years, and all the schools in Calcutta were closed, so after that little infant education in Krishna Nagar, I came back to Calcutta. By the time we came back from the North and settled down in Calcutta, most of the adult schools, boys' schools, everything was closed because of the war, and people all left. Hardly there was any children in the area where I used to live, so my recollection was that in 1937...no 1939, we came back to Calcutta and in early 1940, 41 there was a tiny little school.
It is a makeshift school. Somebody took interest in that local children and opened up a school in a empty house, and where each bench is a class and 4 or 5 children who will sit on the bench and that belongs to one particular class. I went to that school for 3, 4 months probably
Was it also in South Calcutta?
Just next door to our house in South Calcutta, South Calcutta was a different thing at that time.
Lots of field, paddy field, little houses here and there, lovely open road with lots of playgrounds. I remember during the war year that some of these playgrounds were dug up to make trench in case Calcutta was bombed, and air piece war...battle war used to be in front of some houses, you know, because people feared that they will be bombing in Calcutta by the Japanese, which actually happened. I cannot recall exact time, but it must be 1943 probably, the last part of the war there was bombing 2 3 times Calcutta was bombed, but between '41 and '42 there was no schools, and I never went to school after that little makeshift school, and my next schooling was long after.
My formal schooling began from 1944 actually, when I went to a school when school started to open again, and I went to school. And so '44 and '45...no not '44...'45 and '46, from 45 I went to a regular school. I was in one school, and then my brother thought that school's standard is not very good so me moved put me to a better school.
Which school was it?
That was called Beltala Girls School.
which is in Bhabanipur, and some people from our area - some friends of ours - used to go there, and I went there. It was seen in those days it was quite a renowned middle class girls' school.
Was it Bengali medium?
It was a Bengali medium, and we had English only as our...as a language, and, you know, some literature we did, but everything was done in Bengali, and I qualified from that school in 1949, and after that I went to a what they called in England we would call it “A” level college but in those days we used to call it Intermediate College. You leave school at 16, and then you go to a college for two years or for four years as the case may be, and I went there for 2 years. It's Lady Bremen College in Park Circus, and I had my intermediate in I.A. in Arts, Intermediate Arts from there, and after that I went to Presidency College.
And what was the...how does one qualify for entrance into Presidency at this time?
Well Presidency was in those days it has that choice of taking the crème of the society because people would go to Presidency College if they were a good student, and I think there is a very strong...I wouldn't be able to say because I never knew what was there selection point, but being a women...girl I certainly was in a better position because...it became...it started to take girls a few years before me, and the number of the girls were always less, applicants were always less.
Not all parents would want their girls to go to Presidency College and mix with boys. My brother decidedly didn’t, and I had to put up a lot of fight to go to Presidency College. And so, as a girl, I think probably the selection procedure wasn’t as stringent as it was with the boys, but then I had a very good qualification as well. I had in our country, we called it...in those days we used to call it First Division higher my marks were quite high. I had a letter and a scholarship so all these in my matriculation, and my intermediate result was also good. I had First Division so I was more or less a good student, so...
I took Philosophy honors.
Why were you so insistent on going to Presidency?
That’s a long story. My brother went to Presidency college, himself but he wasn’t very keen to send me there. My brother was the main domineering force in our childhood - this Uttara’s father Uttara Chakraborty’s father.
He wasn’t very keen to send his sister to Presidency College. I was very, very interested in Presidency College from what I had heard about the college, and there was a girl who lived opposite to our house. All her brothers went to Presidency College and she always insisted - she was my playmate...
Do you remember her name?
Dipti Mukherjee. We used to call her Dipu.
She was my friend, a very good friend, and since we were young 12, 13, she used to feed me with the idea, “Jharna you must go to Presidency College,” but why she didn’t think that she should go to the Presidency College, I had no idea. I think probably, she saw in me something that I will go to Presidency College, and she actually continuously encouraged me, “Jharna when you grow up you go to Presidency College like my brothers wouldn’t you?” I said, “Oh yes, I will, I definitely, I will,” and so I had build up this expectation that I will go to Presidency College.
I won't go to a women’s College. No, no, I will go to a co-educational college and study with the boys. I think there is a element of boyishness in me always so I did go to Presidency College, and that was very, very good in the sense that studying with women is one thing, and studying with boys as a woman is another thing completely, particularly in those days, because although our family had educational background and were, in some way, not very backward, but when I went to Breborn College, I found everything is very limited. You know, it was like a finishing school
Mmhmm, yes.
Beautiful girls from good families sometimes with good school qualification went to Breborn College, but they, I cannot explain it, many of my friends also went there and became qualified and became doctors and other things, but what the teachers used to give us didn’t satisfy me. The input was limited. I mean, I wouldn’t like to minimize my women professors and teachers, but they were nothing like the men teachers whom I met in Presidency College, you know.
They are...but it wasn’t so much the men teachers. We had fantastic teachers like Gopinath Bhattacharya. I told you Kalidas Babu’s brother. Then in Bengali, in English, Tarak Sen in English, Bahabotosh Dutta in Economics, there was a Sushobhan Sarkar in History and the funny thing is in Presidency College that even though we were doing philosophy honors, we quite often went and sat at Sushobhan Sarkar’s class just to listen to him, and there was no, you know, in the sense no stopping. There are no bar that we cannot go there. We used to go there, but that wasn’t all. Fortunately, in our year, 1951, I went there. There were such a brilliant group of boys, and I think I was so lucky to have that year and being in that year.
We had Amartya Sen, Sukhomoy Chakraborty, the economist, Partha Sarathy Gupto, Binay Choudhury, Alok Ranjan Dasgupta the poet. A number of boys were very good poets, then very flamboyant friend of mine Jyotirmoy Dutta, who is a journalist and lives in New York now and at the moment in Calcutta, and Subir Raichoudhury - a very wonderful person. I mean, I cannot list, and I immediately became one of them, you know, and those friendships are still there, and I haven't lost touch with them unless some of them died, you know, like Sukhomoy and Partho both died. So, and I think they enriched my mind immensely.
How would that come about - your friendship with them, your interactions with them? Where did you interact? How did you interact? When did you discuss?
We always used to, I mean, we used to have off periods that meant between two classes, sometimes we had a free period, and during off period or free period, we will go to the coffee house, and there, probably some of them were there, we will go, and we will...there is nothing under the sky...we will discuss everything and, you know, it was great.
And you felt fully a part of this boys' group?
I felt fully a part of that group, you know, that sort of group.
There were other women as well who were part of this?
They hardly went to coffee house as I did, and there are...some of them did..., but there is a limitation in their going, you know.
They were more spent their time in the girls' common room, but I was one of the regular visitors, and...it was also because we were all 18, so people were falling in love with each other, and there were lot of love affairs in those days, but because I think boys always thought that I was a part of them, nobody fell in love with me.
They thought of you as an equal and a friend?
I sometimes question they now. Why, I wasn’t bad looking. I was quite good looking. I was quite bright. Why nobody fell in love with me?
That's very funny. Where was the girls' common room that...?
There was a girls' common room. There were a couple of things in Presidency College in 1951, '53. I still remember and I resented very much in those days, one professor, Bengali professor, used to come and wouldn’t call girls' names. He would give us a little piece of paper, and we had to write down our names. Why he wouldn’t call our names I have no idea, absolutely. Either he found it too difficult to pronounce women’s names against his male feeling, or he didn’t want to, you know, protect us or he wanted to protect us so that we don’t say our names, and the boys don’t know who is who. I mean I don’t know what went through his mind.
Do you feel comfortable saying his name?
Do you feel comfortable mentioning his name? You mentioned a Bengali professor - the professor’s name for this role.
No, I think I retain that.
Alright, that's okay.
Professor in Bengali, you know.
Bengali, yes.
A Professor in Bengali. I think I will spare him from that. This is one, another one we had our separate girls' classroom, common room. We never went to the boys' common room in those days.
Another one is this: in the Library we couldn’t sit with the boys. We have to go in a small cubicle, very dark, full of mosquitoes, and absolutely damp, smelly, and we used to go there. We couldn't sit in there the general library reading area. We couldn’t go there. We had to take our book and go there. So that’s another thing I resented, and another thing which I disliked was girls' common room and the library and the men's...Oh! We couldn’t sit together on the...There will be the teacher’s table and dias and teacher’s table chair on the side. There will be a couple of benches both sides.
So we will be always sitting on the side, and we cannot...we did not...I don’t know whether we can and cannot, but we did not enter the classroom until the professor went in, and we followed him, whereas the boys will be in and out of the classroom all the time. So these are little codes of behavior still maintained for some strange reason, and I don’t know when that did disappear there, but we, at least I, did call my friends who happened to be boys as “tumi” Tumi is more nearer, endearing address than “aapni” which is a distant one. So they called me tumi and I called them tumi as I said they took me as a comrade and as a girl.
And otherwise it would generally be aapni?
between boys and girls.
...boys and girls...
I see. Was there an awareness that you have when you were in college that you were part of a special cohort? That this entering group with all the group at the Presidency...the coffee house was special?
I don’t think we were aware of that, because nobody knew that this group will shine so much, you know. This group, they were very bright. There is no doubt about it, but they were still 18, 19, and we were all very, very young. Our futures, you know, we couldn’t see the Nobel Prize winner at that time, but we are just ordinary boys and girls and quite bright, that said.
And what was the...some different levels – the kind of content of the conversation in terms of Marxism or politics or...?
Marxism? Marxism wasn't...
or the British and colonialism and what were you discussing?
In 19, you have to understand, the politics of Bengal at that time was very left wing. Not in general, because it was the Congress controlled provincial government, but there is a very strong left wing atmosphere in my young days. We were all left wing and we were...many of us, but not me...but many of us were actually member of the Student Federation, which was Communist Party organized Student Union, and Presidency College was extremely communist.
I mean, the friends I just mentioned - most of them were members of Student Federation and they were proclaimed Communist. I mean Amartya still maintains some of his left wing ideas in his books and other things. Sukhomoy was very communist Partho was openly communist...most of them. Subir was a communist. Jyoti was never. Jyotirmoy Dutta..he wasn’t very political. Binoy was.
Subir and Binoy - what were there full names again?
Binay Choudhury, historian.
And Subir rai Choudhary. He died. He was in Jadavpur - Comparative Literature. He died. They were all communists in those days, and we used to discuss politics, left wing books. I mean we discussed everything, I mean, literature, particularly. I mean, we knew the name of Baudelaire, Malame, and, you know, all the French novelist, in everything. In Philosophy, we discussed existentialism and more in the coffee house than in the classroom.
You know, it was a very beautiful time for Bengal, at that time...at least for Presidency College, because the College was always vibrant, and we had debates. Other colleges took part in the debate. People who were older than us like Amlan Dutta, they used to come take part. Then we had Kabi Sammelan. That means all the young poets come and read, and left wing poet like Subhas Mukherjee Mukhopadhyay, he used to come recite poems, and it was very, very intellectually very fulfilling, now looking back, but at that time when you are going through the process, you are just a part of a flow, and you don’t always know where you are going or what you are doing, you know. That’s it.
In terms of the other context of the time: the coming of the refugees, the partition, and what happened after it - the dislocation within Calcutta in West Bengal, coming of...Ray, B.C. Ray as the premiere. What was the way that these realities filtered into your experience, your life, your discussions?
I think this is our 19. This will take us back, because, for me it happened in 1943 when we were pretty young, and my recollection of famine - first recollection was - I told you that my brother, when the Calcutta was in anticipation that Calcutta would will be bombed, people left Calcutta, and we also went to our village in Somaram, which is in East Bengal, which is quite a remote village inside...Dhaka District, and we had a great time.
The children had a great time, but I remember at the end of it, we stayed almost nine to ten months there. We were coming back to Calcutta, and I went to a village school, as well, for a few months, and I remember, at the end of first day, I saw tension in my father’s voice discussing with mother that...it’s not a very good time anymore, and because we were from Calcutta, and my father was in Government service, my uncle’s - they were doctors. There was an anticipation that we were well off, and there were quite a lot of robberies taking place in the villages organized by a group or a gang of youths with machetes and knives and other things will come and rob a house and my father was getting anxious, because he was the only man in the house, and all were females, and he would say...he kept on saying to my mother, It’s about time.
We should go back to Calcutta,” and then, there was real threat that people used to see foreign group of people – foreigners - not villagers outside. Outsiders in the bazaar, and they will inform my father, and then, next morning, we will hear some other house was robbed outside in the outskirts, and then we noticed, I mean these are the my recollections, then I noticed that women with babies in their arm, swam the...because East Bengal is full of rivers, and canals, and...they swam the river or the canal, came to our house, and asking for food, and she would be completely drenched in water because she swam with the baby, and my mother would give them food, and then also I overheard grown-up saying that they are so desperate now, they are swimming to collect from a village where they know that people will give them, and this is my very early recollection of famine starting in Bengal, and because of some other...I mean obviously my father could foresaw what is happening...and we came back to Calcutta, and then my recollection of famine was that Calcutta streets were always this cry: “Give me a little bit of fan.”
Now fan is the water which you throw away after you cook the rice, and nobody is asking...Calcutta is full of beggars...and nobody was asking for rice. They are asking for just the water, and everywhere there is this. I mean, I, 1943, I would be just 10 years old....bodies lying on the side of the streets, and we never went out, practically not went out, and all the windows will be closed because nobody could bear those melancholy tones, and people could see someday, that somebody will come and tell you that somebody is dead on the side of the line. The dead body is lying because until the people remove them. So there was this scene in Calcutta, at that time, quite a lot, and we hardly went out because Calcutta was very military at that time, so very little. We played just in the courtyard or nearby, but never hardly went out, and so this was my recollection. Then, we used to travel a lot.
I remember that because my father went to Allahabad to live with...stay with my sister, who was there at that time. Then we went to Darjeeling for a while, and this is how the famine in my ten years' mind...this was how it was. But famine didn’t bring the immigration. It was the partition which did, so I...by the time the riot - Hindu Muslim riot – happened, I was very much aware of the whole thing, because I was quite grown up because it was 1946...'46, August. I remember the days and I was in...'46 which class?...I was in...I don’t remember. Probably, I was in class 8 about 13 years...and everything, everybody knew that something is going to happen to Calcutta. Everybody was tense because the grown-ups were talking, and we were reading all these jargons.
At that time, there was a Muslim League government in Calcutta, but I wasn’t all that politically conscious of that at that time, and then there was this people coming to the house and saying gossips, bits of gossips, that the Muslims attacked that, the Muslims attacked that, they raped the women, they cut the breasts, and they killed the men, and funnily enough so many years after when I was at the BBC, my colleague Tanya Rahman, she...they used to live in Park Circus. They said they heard exactly the same gossip. You know, “the Hindus had come to kill them.” It was such a sad time, and we had a Muslim community nearby our house, “Dia gon Cheria” called “Ghuri Ghar area” which was a very famous because I think Tipu Sultan came and stayed there once, and many other Muslim communities there were, but they were poor communities.
They used to bring vegetables and sell them in the market, and we heard that that’s been attacked by the Hindus August night, and although I personally didn’t observe anything with my eyes, never went out during those days, terrible 3, 4 days killing in Calcutta, but it was such a horrific experience and newspaper and everything. It still frightens me, and then the saddest part I heard that for 3 days the killing was going on, but the government, although it was a Muslim League’s Ministry in India...in Bengal at that time, actual power was in the hands of the British and they didn’t put the military in the street to control it. They just let it happen, and that was the saddest part of that, and this is...I also as a historian, I shouldn’t make this comment, because I don’t know exactly what happened.
And after three days killing, Calcutta was a different place altogether, completely, but I, myself, haven't seen. I heard shouts and screams and people rushing in and out, but I haven’t seen any actual atrocities myself. By the time we went to Presidency College in 1951, this was past. The next year, '46. Then '47 we had our independence, and when the independence happened I was still in school, and there was such euphoria about independence. “The British have finally gone!” You know, everybody forgot about Hindu Partition of the country or everything that Britisher has left, you know. That's something fantastic, you know...
Did your family experience any coming of relatives because of the...?
We lost all of our country house, village house, and everything. Those were dead and gone in East Bengal. After 1946 we never went back, and the relatives, not in any way to us, but Calcutta was full of refugees after the partition. You know, Sealdah, there were big refugee camps near our house near on lake which were originally the military camps. They were all refugee camps. Refugees were coming, pouring in Calcutta. That we witnessed, but I cannot recall anybody from our family, because, as I said, being from a middle class family, in some way we have already left East Bengal, because my uncles, my father, we were all dispersed in various parts of Bengal, and we were already in Calcutta.
One of my uncle was in Midnapur which fell within West Bengal. Only one uncle, the uncle who is a doctor, he was in Khulna, and Khulna became first a part of India, and he was posted there. He moved there from somewhere else to Khulna. Overnight they changed and Khulna became a part of east Bengal, so he has to unpack...repack everything and come back to Calcutta, but I don’t think, except losing our village home, our properties, our...I mean we were Hindus so we had landed properties, and our peasants who were...our riots or worked for us, they were all Muslims. Although when we went to village, we never felt that they used to come to us. We played with their children, you know. It was a lovely time, and those are all gone.
Many years later when I was with the BBC, I went for a went for a duty tour to write some features. I went to our village, you know to see where the house was. Absolutely demolished! There was banana trees growing. It was all the people...nearby people took over the place, and there is...it was a middle class Hindu village. There was a school...girls' school, a boys' school, a hospital, a library in the village, and now there’s only one thing that survived. That’s the boys school. Nothing else survived.
Interesting. What is the name of that village again?
Yes. You can see it in the Google. “Sonarong” has got a follower, you know, who are all over the world.
So ddid Presidency College feel like an oasis in this period of...1950’s Calcutta? You didn’t have any refugee camps anywhere close by and you didn’t have beggars or you didn't have poverty?
No, not near Presidency College. Refugee colonies were near Sealdah. That was in the South, mostly in the South.
Do you think...oh! Let’s move to just discussing a little bit about your actual education, because you studied with Gopi Nath Bhattacharya and others in the philosophy department. Let's just discuss that and then from there maybe we can discuss the transition out of Presidency into your post graduate studies, then see...I don’t want to take up so much of your time so...but beginning with the philosophy department, what kind of material, what kind of focus did they have at this time in the discipline?
It was a degree class, so it was very much a...what I would say in, particularly in the Philosophy class...I would say it is very much a syllabus oriented lectures. You know, we had metaphysics, ethics, Indian Philosophy, History of Philosophy, various, and if we had honors we had several other papers. So it was very much B.A. Honors syllabus-oriented lectures, but some lecturers were extremely good like Gopi Nath Bhattacharya, and he would...he used to take Indian Philosophy with us. I think...and then I...at another stage, and he...it was extremely, you know, very...I don’t know whether you have studied Nye.
It's logic, Indian logic, and so there was a lot of discussion among the students and Gopi Nath Bhattachajee counterargument and counterargument, which was very enjoyable and we had a very brilliant boy called Luka Das Banerjee, and he was very good at it, and I sometimes joined, and Gopi Nath Bhattacharjee was very...that I remember very clearly. Another one was Amiyo Kumar Majumdar. He used to teach us History of Philosophy, and there we also had a lot of discussions about existentialism, and positivism, and utilitarianism, and all sorts of things in the class. It was very discuss-oriented, but it wasn’t a research-oriented syllabus. That research-oriented syllabus, I think, probably came later, but in our days it wasn’t like that.
We used to write papers, but we never read the paper in the class. Even when I went to post-graduate class in Calcutta University, it was still a syllabus-oriented lectures and things, but not research-oriented. You do research after you get your M.A., then you go to research. So I did, after B.A., I did M.A., and then I looked for a job. I didn’t go to research at that stage.
Did you feel that the focus of the studies was, let's say, more British-oriented in terms of British philosophy?
Extremely, extremely.
And that in terms of the philosophers you studied, but also the textbooks you read?
Yeah, extremely. Extremely because all our syllabus and everything. I am writing this in my new project, what I'm researching on at the moment, I look through all the documents – educational documents - and I thought, “my goodness what the British introduced in 19th century didn’t change even in 20th century when I was in the college.” Ethics, moral philosophy, you know, see to it.
So there weren’t any young professors of Philosophy who were trying to get out of the box, not really? Or maybe they were getting out of the box in a different way? There was no scope..
There was no scope. No, there is hardly any scope, you know, because it was very overloaded syllabus and they would just stick to the syllabus, and I don’t think we did...I think that history class was...Sushobhan Sarkar...it was different. Economics class with Bhabotosh Dutta was different. Political classes were different, but not in philosophy. Philosophy was very much syllabus-oriented, and it’s mainly British philosophy. American philosophers Dewey and others came at the University stage but not in the honors class, and what else? No, I..
Continent, no continental philosophy? French Philosophy?
Sartre Philosophy
Sartre, positivism was there and continental philosophers like when we did Rationalism, then we did and when we did...we also did Kant, Hegel, and Schoppenhauer, Nietzche, all those things. I mean, we covered everything. We covered Kant, Hegel, Schoppenhauer, and Nietzche, Hidelbag.
Heideggar, Hm.
and then we did existentialism, Sarte and others and then we did British Utilitarianism and empirical thoughts, British Empirical thoughts, but even at that stage, some other modern developments in Britain like Russel and Russel’s followers - logical positivism and later on linguistic philosophy - in my time in Presidency College and Calcutta University, those were not there. Those I read later on, particularly when I went to England.
And so what was your trajectory after you finished your Masters? You mentioned you did the...
Because I wanted to...I wanted to have a profession, not so consciously, but in my mind was, “I have to have a job,” and women were supposed to either became a teacher, or a lecturer, or a doctor, and nursing was even in my days looked down, so you cannot be a nurse. Other jobs are office jobs, which are also, you know, you a bit frowned on. You become a clerk after all these, you know, so clerical jobs were a bit looked down on. I did clerical jobs.
I wouldn’t say I hadn’t done. I did school teaching, a little done. So, you have to have a good profession, but that was the main thing that worked there. The main thing that worked in my...I had to get out of the house, from the control of my brother, and I had to be independent, and that goaded me most, because my brother was a bit old fashioned, not my parents, though. His idea of women was very much like Tagore. Women should be viewed, and not argumentative, quiet, and stay in the house, and, you know, do as they are told. Although, I think many people will object to that now, but that was his idea towards me - that I should stay at home and be most submissive, and do as I was told, but I was mixing with boys going out, giving udhas I wasn’t really..
Where would you go for udhas? I mean...the College Street, but would you also go to homes of...?
They used to come to our house. That wasn’t, you know, objective. All the boys used to come to our house.
And you lived at home when you went to Presidency College. You would come home everyday?
After dark you shouldn't stay out. You must explain where you have been, you know. 7’o clock okay, fine, that’s it,
Yes, right. Right, right.
and I put the lights,
So that's it.
So you finished the M.A. in what year?
1953, I did Graduation...'55. 2 years' course.
Two years' course.
How did you end up in England? How did you end up moving to England?
My friend Dipu comes in
who you heard about earlier, right?
Who says he went to Presidency College.
Dipu’s brother, Subhimon, he was a student of Presidency College, and he was much older than we were, almost 5, 6 years, and he was a student of Sushobhan Sarkar, and my idea of Presidency College formed from what I heard from Dipu, you know. Dipu is the youngest brother who was just 1 year younger we are - also went to Presidency College. Then, Subhimon went to England. His family sent him, although he was a brilliant student in history, but because of the demand of profession, they put him in Navy, and he went to Dartmoor to qualify as a Naval, you know, whatever in his training, and later he became very high up in Indian Navy. I think, what they call? What is a Navy thing called? I have no idea, Brigadier, or something. Probably not.
He became very high up. He used to write to me from Dartmoor, a little snippet of letters that foiled the whole thing, and, in a way, I always dreamt of going to England. All middle class children in India, at that time, dreamt of going to Bilinth. You know, this was a dream. You know, everybody had that dream, but unfortunately, I was a girl, you know. People don’t usually, unless you are very rich and send your girls. You know, it wasn’t, but I dreamt it. I definitely dreamt it.
Because it was a cosmopolitan centre. It was where the great education institutions and libraries...
You read so much about England: your books, your literature, your language, your, you know, everything is British. Everything, English. I mean, once you left school, everything is in English, and then you study English literature. You know the names of the roads, universities, everything more than...I mean, I discovered more...I knew more about England than my husband knows, you know, who is English, or my friends, and there is a game called...in England, they play during the Christmas. I can’t remember the name. Anyway, it will come to me, and you have to have a general knowledge. There are lot of questions you have to answer.
Trivial Pursuit?
Trivial pursuit, and they all choose me: “Jharna you come. You would be able to tell. We don’t know.” So, we studied so much in those days. We studied so much about England. Geography we read in our intermediate class, was absolutely...or in school was about England, you know. We read very little about India, India’s history, or in the other parts of India. I never knew anybody outside Bengal except one girl who used to be in my class. She is a Marwari, but I never knew she was a Marwari, she was a Bengali.
But I never knew anything about other states, except passing through them by train or staying there for a while, you know, but who are the Rajasthanis? Who are the Punjabis? Who are the...except the bookish ideas about them or Sikh drivers in Calcutta. That’s my impression – Punjab. Very limited, you know, and when I went to England, I stayed in a hostel called Indian YMCA.
Where is that?
It’s in Fidra’s Square in central London, and there, for the very first time, I realized what India is, because there we had students from all parts of India, you know, and that’s my first impression of the multifarious, you know, character of India - that people could be any...they can look anything. They can dress differently. They could have different religion. They're all together under the same roof.
What year was that that you arrived in?
I - in 1962.. after doing my M.A, I looked for a job, and I did in an infant school. I taught for 8 months. Then for 8 months I did a clerical job in...Bengal: Accountant General’s Office, and then I got this lecturer-ship in Asansol, in a girls’ college. So, I moved there and that’s my great moment of emancipation because I am leaving home, you know.
Where did you move to again? You moved to?
Asansol, which is in Bardhaman.
I see.
which is about 200 kilometers from Calcutta. You have to...3 hours train journey in those days, and that was fantastic because my taste of freedom, and I don’t have to explain when I come back home, you know. That’s...although I never went out in the night, you know, but the feeling that I can do that is...
You lived on your own, then.
No. I first...they accommodated me in a girls' hostel. Then, promptly 3 of us, we left the hostel and rented a small place, and we lived there, and since that day I never went back, you know, and there I met a fantastic women like me. It’s a pity you didn't meet...because she died quite a number of years now. She was in my class in the university - in my class...in the same year she was in Political Science, and she did her graduation from Midnapur, and her school – intermediate - was from Shantiniketan, and her name is Shipra Roy. And, we knew each other through our Students' Union work and also through debates and others, but we are not...we are just acquaintances.
We are not very good friends at that time, but we both got job in this College, which was expanding at that time. She in Political Science, and I in philosophy, and we became great friend, and we both fought in exactly in the same way, although she was politically more rightist. Political, I am more lefty, so there is a...that difference, but we planned. After 2 years in Asansol we started to feel bored, and we planned that we will go abroad, and we worked towards that slowly, and in 1960, I went first, and she came in 1963. Then, she did her M.Sc from London School of Economics, and then she took some Television Production Training in Glasgow. Then she went to Michigan to have some more.
Came back to India, and became first to became a director of...India was opening television at that time. 1970 I am talking about, and she became first the Director of first the producer, then a Director of Production, then she became head of Calcutta Television the second time, but unfortunately when she was in the prime, she had cancer, and she died. She lived about 13 years after that, then she died. She was a great friend of mine, and so we both worked together with our ambition and things.
So how did the ambition translate into the ticket to actually get to England in 1962? When you went. 1960 I should say.
No, I went to England in 1962.
'62, and you mean how we tried?
Yes, and how did you actually succeed in getting to England?
Well, what we started to write to various universities, and so as I'm concerned, I can tell my story. I got accepted in Oxford as well as in London University, but in those days we had a...I mean sometimes it is wrong information, because nobody from my family went to England. I was the first one and I did everything on my own with very limited knowledge coming from Asansol, spending couple of hours in Calcutta to find out where things are, what British Counsellor. I worked on very limited knowledge. That was a handicap, but when I applied, I got places in Oxford as well as in London
In what programs?
In Philosophy, in doing philosophy, but they couldn’t take you straight to PhD which was my aim, they would ask you to do M.A or a M. Phil first. So, I got admission, but then I was under the impression that Oxford will be expensive, because I have to stay in a hostel, and I wouldn’t be allowed to work, whereas if I am in London, I would be able to earn some money doing part time job, so I choose London. I should have chosen Oxford and, you know, because at that time I didn’t have any money except my own ,which is very little. We had hardly paid for the passage. Then I got this place in Bedford College, and they had a Suzan Steppings’s scholarship which is also London University’s scholarship, so I wrote to them asking that would I be eligible to apply for that. They said, “Yes everybody is eligible.
You can apply for that, but we cannot guarantee that you will get it. When you come over here we organize a sort of examination - not written examination, but it’s just give a paper actually, and on that we judge the merit.” So I said, “Oh, no. I wouldn’t get it, because there are so many. Anyway, I counted on that, and I counted on a bit of help from my brother, and I counted on whatever I have saved - very little. And counting on this 3, I took the leap. So, I went there, and then we, after 2, 3 months, they arranged, and when I went there I realized that I'm not alone, you know. Many Americans, rich family Americans, mainly British were there as well but they weren’t girls. And I knew that I am not English speaking, and these are.
I had to compete with them, and I would be nowhere. So, I was quite depressed, I must say looking back, and so I sat, but the things they asked, you know, this is where Presidency College comes in, and things...the way they set up the whole thing and the things that came. It wasn’t difficult for me to handle, and I came back. Then, about a week later, I had this call from my supervisor. “Ms. Sen?” and I said, “Yes.” “Congratulations! You won Suzan Stepping!” and “Oh. Great!”
That was very good. That made me so affluent, you know, I could go abroad - go to France, go to Germany, travel around Italy, and I was really pleased.
So, was it transformative? It made...
Transformed my life from. It made...
Wow and who was your...do you remember who your advisor was?
Yes, my first supervisor was H. B. Acton, Professor H. B. Acton. He was an older man, but he was very good, extremely good, and when he died...no I did M.A. And as I said they wouldn’t take you in straight on. So, I did M.A., and that’s the first time I did any research. I did my first research for M.A. paper, M.A. Degree.
On what theme?
It was on...I did on Hume...Descartes...no. You ask me for so many years ago.
I think it was on the freedom of will, as handled by Hume, Kant and Descartes - 3 of them. And it’s not as big as PhD, but you have to do it in 2 years. I did that, and I successfully got it and then, after that, I had another supervisor who was very flamboyant called Barnard Williams. He married Charlie Williams, who is a MP. He was one of the up and coming philosophers, and very, very bright. I say 2 people I have met in my life - one is Gopi Nath Bhattacharya and one is Barnard Williams - who win this feat: you don’t have to take notes because you will remember everything he say, it’s so clear, you know. So he was a very good teacher, but he was very flamboyant. He hasn’t got much time for the helping the research students.
His idea of researching is you have to steer your own canon,you know, and literary meant that. He was most unavailable supervisor I have ever seen. So his...then he moved to Cambridge, so I had to have somebody else who he was good, but very nitpicking supervisor. You know, he will correct my English like that. But finally, it’s over. I'm glad that I wrote that. The most difficult thing that I have ever did is my PhD.
Now, who did you study your PhD with?
This last man was AR Lacy.
AR Lacy. He was your final advisor?
Final advisor.
Although it began under Williams.
I began under Williams, and I gave up for a while because I got...I had another scholarship - Taylor’s Scholarship, but that wasn’t enough for me to maintain myself, so I had to do some work. I did some teaching at that time, and then I was off my PhD for a while.
Hmm, how long did the first scholarship last for?
The first scholarship that you received when you went?
2 years.
2 years. That covered the masters program, then there was the PhD which had another?
...had another...
...another need for funding.
Yes, yeah.
When did you finally receive the PhD?
I submitted, I think, at the end of '71...at the beginning of '71 and...or middle of '71, and I received it. Then I went to Laos and Thailand, and came back, and then had my viva. So there is...although I could have my viva earlier, I postponed it to have it later.
What was the theme of your PhD?
It’s called Action, Volition, and Cause, probably, on human action. Whether human actions are predictable.
Hmm, who did you...which philosophers or which trajectory did you...?
It’s mainly focused from Linguistic Philosophy. You've heard of Austin and Ryle?
It’s mainly...they are analysis, I mean, countering their analysis, action, volition, and cause, and supporting the idea that, yes, human action is predictable, you know. I took that stance that if you have all the variables, then you could predict human behavior but our problem is we do not always have all the variables, and that gives us the illusion of freedom.
Hmm, interesting. Couple more questions before we complete. I won’t go much longer. Did you, when you, were in England, get involved with any women’s causes or with any...? Was the notion of feminist...?
I was very much with the Vietnam War
I see.
That was your...Were you very committed?
Very, very.
I see. Okay.
Very much. Not so much with women’s causes, because, I myself, never felt feminist in that way. I am rather...I am more feminist now than I was before. I was very much with colonialism, you know, that sort of focus was in my mind more.
And the racism that you experienced in England? Any of it or not, or...?
Racism...Well, if you are in a - you know - country like Britain, you will face some experience of racism here and there. Then I must say that Britain is a very tolerant country, extremely tolerant country. There is racism. Racism is more in not doing things - not committing something, but omitting something. That means if you are in the job, probably you wouldn’t get the promotion. Somebody else will get the promotion, you know, but at that stage I wasn’t in a job I was just a student, so I didn’t experience that.
When I first reached Britain, there was lots of advertisements. We used to look for dates and advertisements like, “sorry no colored...sorry no Irish, colored, or dogs.” Now, I...first couple of times, I thought, “Why Irish? I understand coloreds. Why Irish? Irish...and why dogs Do everybody comes with dogs?” but then I soon realized the English hate Irish more than they do the black people, you know.
Right, yeah, and now, last question. You married when you were in England?
I didn’t marry in England; I married in India.
Oh, you married in India! I...oh...So how did you meet?
How did I meet? This is I call fate, like typical Indian utterance. I met my husband in a students' hostel. I used to...my last few days were in this hostel called International Students' Housing London, and my husband, who is now my husband, he used to live there as well. And he is very interested in politics, and Indian culture, and music, and I met him there, and...
In...Where was this?
In London.
In London. Okay.
In a hostel, in a residence...hall of residence. I...
Where is that hostel in London, what part?
Portland Place.
Portland Place.
Great Portland Street and Station. Just opposite to that, and we developed friendship, and then I left England. I came over to India. I got a job in Lucknow, and he started to write, and it developed from there, and then he arrived in Lucknow. We got married in Lucknow, and then we left.
I see.
So it’s a short story.
So the final, final question is: How did you maintain your ties to India on one side and England on the other? What is the overview of that negotiation for you? What has it been? Did you feel that you left India? Did you feel that you left and returned and rediscovered it, or has it been a continual feeling of being present in both places?
When I was in a student, and I finished my PhD, which is a long gap, in between, my parents died. They were pretty old. As soon as I reached there my father died, and within a year my mother died.
And what year was that you returned?
My father died when I reached there: 1962
And my mother died in 1964, but the gap is only a year. When your parents die, things change completely, and then those years I was in Britain studying, I came back, and I came back in 1972. I think that I found very difficult. Not difficult, I found a bit alienated because the house is not the same house. My parents are not there, and the room my parents were there, my brother and sister-in-law stays, and I was delegated their room. My little nieces and nephews, they are all grown up. One is in Darjeeling, one is in Malda, another was in a college. They are not little anymore. My friends are all married, children. I can’t find them, even I find then I had nothing in common with them. Only friend Shipra, she was in Delhi at that time.
That time certainly I felt a bit alienated and Calcutta was going through that terrible Naxal period '71, '72, '70. Everything was terrible, and a lot of beggars on the street. I felt I left a beautiful Calcutta with lots of trees and nothing. I came back and I saw a very, you know, problem of staying in England...in my eyes, very run down Calcutta, and...but promptly I got a job. Within 15 days I got the job in Lucknow, and that saved a lot because Lucknow is a completely different place, and I went there, and again I was staying in YWCA. I met new people, and so I didn’t feel that about Lucknow, because it was a new experience, but I certainly felt it among them...and mostly my old life of friends and everything has changed.
I feel alienated, but not that I am a memsahib. I have never become a memsahib. I never cut my hair, and...but after that, I married Steve, who is my husband. That’s my husband, and after that, every time I come back, I find I am very much the same person, you know, and since then I don’t find any difference. I just come back...simply this, I come back every year. Within 10 months, I go and I come back again within 10 months. I don’t think there is any gap. In my mind, there is no gap, and I don’t find alienated anymore. I find quite close to people, and I am very happy that I have got a home here where I can come back. And, I lived long, my parents my mother died at 73. My sister-in-law, sister all died at 73, and I am 76 plus now, and I think being born in a country which was at a transitional moment, I was very lucky to have all the experiences.
Not all of them were pleasant, but both through the turmoil of, you know, the country being divided, nationalist movement, and then famine, war, all these transitional change. I still feel the people of our generation had lot of idealism within themselves. They still dream of changing the world, you know, and the country. That may have never happen. It will change in its own time. We all will...but that idealism - we were never, ever money-oriented, you know, never wanted to have a big job and make a lot of money. In that sense we are not ever money-oriented. I don’t think...all these friends of mine - Amartya, Sukhomoy, Partha, Binoy - none of them are like that. They wanted to achieve something in their life and do something and that’s – they did. They were not that I will make 40000 rupees a week, nothing like that, and that idealism, I think sometimes I don’t find among younger people.
They were probably some of them are still idealists, but we used to think about the country, you know, we will do this, we will do that, whatever we were able to do that I don’t know, but when I read some of the books, I see some of my old acquaintances. They have done a lot. You know, they stood up against the like Jyotirmoy Dutta, stood up against Mrs. Gandhi’s emergency act, and suffered a lot, went to jail. Some of them did, and I probably did in a limited way, that I...but that's it.
Thank you so much.
It’s a long life.
Fascinating, fascinating life. Thanks so much for this time.