Oral history interview with Krishna Bose

Bose, Krishna

Manjapra, Kris


  • Interviewed in Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Kris Manjapra
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Test, Test, Test.... Test, Test, Test... just say some things.
Is this all right in this volume if I speak?
Today is August 9th 2009 and I am here with Mrs. Krishna Bose and it is an honour to interview for this oral history. The day before yesterday was Rabindranath Tagore’s …… the celebration of his death anniversary and we thought it would be good to begin with your recollections of Tagore. So, first of all could you just say when were you born and where you born and also what your full maiden name was?
Well, by chance, I was born in Dhaka, East Bengal which was Bangladesh later. It was accidental because actually my parents were settled in Calcutta. In those days it was the custom for the girl to go her father’s house to have the baby, particularly the first child or some such thing. So my mother went to her parents in Dhaka and I happened to be born there. But I came back and I am totally a Calcutta person because I was brought up in Calcutta, my education and everything is in Calcutta, but accidently my birth is in Dhaka.
My father’s name was Charu Chandra Chowdhary, so I was Krishna Chowdhary and our family, basically they came from East Bengal, East Bengal family, and our family was a quite educated and culturally minded family, I sometimes wonder how because my father, and the brothers and the family were growing out in a small town in East Bengal called Kishoreganj, but how growing up there, they knew and wrote beautiful English and I find when they used to talk to us of their childhood, their performing Tagore’s dramas, their home, their brothers, sisters, cousins like that and even staging Shakespeare where my father is Brutus and my uncle is Antony, and that sort of thing, that surprises me somewhat but it happened even in that.
My grandmother used to sing very well and for a woman, a hasif, to sing even to play the harmonium and to sing was thought to be...looked down upon very much and she was criticized for doing that. Then of course my parents….I grew up in Calcutta and I learnt about what they did from what they told me and my second uncle was Nirod C Chaudhari, who had written about it in his autobiography. So that was it.
The year again of your birth, the year in which you were born?
I was born in 1930, December so…
So what were some of your early memories of Tagore and your meetings with him?
Well I never saw him, although that is also something which surprises me, I could have gone to Shantiniketan as a child with my father or my uncle, Nirod, but I never did and you were just talking about the day he died and that was 1941…so I was 10 year old. What I remember of that day is….an evening when it was raining, it was cloudy…although the…sometimes the moon was coming out. I was in a house in Jadavpur. In those days Jadavpur was quite a desolate area with a few houses there and there was a wedding in the family in that house. My cousin was getting married so the shehnai was being played but I remember that I stood with tears in my eyes because Tagore had passed away on that day.
And now looking back I don’t know why I was so sad, what did I know of Tagore at the age of 10 - nothing much - but I was very sad that he had passed away. So in some way, of course, he was a household name, and we were brought up, you know, singing his songs. The first song that I recollect my father teaching me, he was playing an organ which we had at home, he was playing that organ and was teaching me a Tagore song, tomari gehe palicho snehe, tumi dhonnyo dhonnyo he. So that is how we were brought up and I….on his 75th birthday, Tagore’s 75th birthday I first came to learn a new word in Bengali, janmya jayanti and it was his 75th janmya jayanti and it was celebrated with great pomp.
I don’t know I must have been 5, so I don’t remember that very much but I remember that I was taken to a big hall, must be a university or institute or something and I sang. I sat on the stage and I sang. I don’t remember what. And I vaguely remember that next day there was a photograph in the newspaper of it and my parents seemed to be quite proud of it. Not I alone but the whole of the stage and later on I was told that the people present on the stage were Indira Devi…Indira Devi Choudhurani and Pramoth Chaudhari, her husband, maybe other distinguished persons. So in some way, Tagore was very much, you know, almost in our blood so to say as we grew up so that perhaps explain why as a ten year old I felt sad that the poet had passed away.
People have spoken of Calcutta as a city that was the world capital of education, certainly east of the Suez, perhaps the greatest centre for education east of the Suez, and you also just mentioned…even before coming to Kolkata your family in its background, in its roots was extremely cultured, so it is very interesting to hear more about what it was like to grow up in this world capital of culture and maybe we could begin, actually, by speaking about where you actually grew up, what part of Calcutta, if you remember the address that you lived at, and what your family context was like in terms of the intellectual and the cultural world of your youth in Calcutta?
Well, to begin with my childhood, you’re asking me where I lived. The house that I remember first is the house in Chowringhee. Chowringhee...why Chowringhee, I wondered, because Chowringhee would be very much British in those days. But there was a small little house and I remember going for morning walks to the Victoria memorial with my parents and that was also something rather unusual for those days and this I’ve heard, it's not in my memory, I’ve heard later that that was also a point of criticism for my mother going for a walk in Victoria memorial with her husband and her child…was not done perhaps in those days. So that is the house first I remember, not very much and then I…we came to Ballygunj.
In those days Ballyganj was just a developing place and the north Calcutta would be more, you know, aristocratic, supposed to be. And my uncle Nirod, who lived in Shyambazar, always looked up on us and told father that Ballyganj was not at all that, but Ballyganj was coming up at that time. We were in Dover Lane and as a child I remember that as I was just now telling you, there was a para culture, a neighbourhood culture in those days. Educated Bengali families living in the same neighbourhood and we called our neighbours aunts and uncles and they seemed to be quite part of the family.
And also…
Because of the neighbourhood, small clubs or groups of people coming together had happened at that time and that also had to do something with our anti-British attitude I believe, in those days, because the club, I remember, was named Hindustan Xlub and even I vaguely remember the inauguration because I was supposed to…I danced on the inauguration ceremony. I was given a lamp in my hand so I was a bit nervous with the lamp burning and dancing on the stage as a child and then we had the commemorative days like Tagore’s birthday or some other day, the first day Nava varsha, the Bengali new year day…it became…that’s why I said it had something to do with our anti British thing, we were consciously playing up particular days
and we sang or we, in some ways, celebrated those days together. That was the Dover Lane days that I remember.
So these clubs, for example the Hindustan club, there would be celebrations of special anniversary days. What other activities would bring members of the para together?I mean what else did they do in these clubs?
Now….Nowadays we go in for social work etc. but I do not recollect that these clubs were doing that, it was more cultural sight and something to do with national days and things…
Voice 2: Did you observe 26th January as Independence Day?
Yes, 26th January yes….nava varsha I remember, yes…songs were even written for those days, yes…26th January, we marched even on the streets. And so, somehow I can’t recollect even if they did that they were consciously doing the social work in the other thing, they came together for cultural things as I said dancing, and music, and I even remember reciting Tagore’s poems on particular days, we had to memorize and recite the poems So that was it, I don’t think they came there for any other thing at that point - culture and something to do with the nationalist bent of mind.
Just one more thing, you mentioned Nirod C Chaudhari lived in Shyam Bazaar, do you remember the street on which he lived on or….
It was very near to five point crossing of Shyam Bazar, most probably it was called Grey Street. I remember the house very well, the apartment, they had an apartment and I remember that very well because we used to visit so many times. It was still there sometime back, I don't know if it is now there. So we used to go visit them and I remember I used to feel suffocated whenever I went there.
Why is that?
It was, you know in those days we had those coal and wooden fires on which cooking was done and these apartments in North Calcutta was very…these houses were very close togoether and being brought up in Ballyganj which was more in open in those days, a few houses and all that. I always felt somewhat suffocated when I went there. I would prefer being on the other side. But I remember the house.
So how was it that…it's interesting in Calcutta that it seems, as you said, the north was considered, supposed to be aristocratic..the real Calcutta.
Supposed to be the aristocratic part, the real Calcutta and the new Calcutta, the South Calcutta, which was coming up and which soon became, actually, the hub of the cultural and educational life of Calcutta.
Which is very interesting because the educational institutions were in the North, the classic ones - Presidency College, Vidyasagar College, City College, Bethune College, Scottish Church College. They were all in the north. Meanwhile I believe that around where you grew up in Dover Lane there soon developed…
A number of very important and renowned intellectuals lived.
When...well, who are these that you recollect as being as the most significant artists, writers, who were living in your para and do you remember when they may have moved there or how it came that the south became the, as you're saying, the cultural hub when traditionally or classically it should be the north, or it was the North?
I cannot consciously recollect the transition at all and we moved from Dover Lane to an apartment. Dover Lane was a house, a bungalow. We moved to an apartment on Rashbehari Avenue. War was going on all this time and there was a time when Calcutta had suddenly become, you know, everybody left Calcutta when the theatre of war came to this sight and there was.. it was supposed to be, you know Calcutta would be, bombed and so people left and we even left for a few months, I remember.
Where did you go?
My father had a house... in...country house sort of thing...in what was known as Saotal Parganas, the border of Bengal and Bihar, and so we moved there for three months or so. The men folks remained. I mean my mother and I, even our aunt and others went and stayed there for some time.
So this was Mihijam?
Mihijam. It was called Mihijam. A very nice picturesque place at that time with hillocks, hills around and the Saotals stayed all around, they were friendly and all that.
Voice 2: When did you move to Rashbehari Avenue from Dover Lane?
After, no, at that time we had gone from Dover Lane to Mihijam and then we came back to Dover Lane also, and we were very disappointed that the Japanese did not bomb, and we all came back. And after we had come back that December, was it ’42 December? That first the Japanese bombed Calcutta really and those days our elders used to talk and they would have conversations among themselves and we overheard that that Japanese people won’t bomb Calcutta because of Subhas Bose, so it will be spared.
But they did bomb and that came later and actually it was after that, 43 I think, early, we moved to that apartment on Rashbehari Avenue because Father thought that the bungalow in case of bombing and all that, it was an old sort of bungalow.... and so whatever was the reason, it had something to do with the war and to that apartment there. And there, of course, 43, my father for some reasons had many friends among the painters and artists. Why, I don't know. They used to call hinm Charu-da. Charu-da was very favourite among them. So I remember these painters coming to our place or we visiting them.
I had visited Jamini Roy with my father which I do not remember very well in his Shyam bazaar studio which was much, much earlier. He came to south Calcutta also. He moved to South Calcutta later, and Father buying a picture of his pre-pot days. He had not moved to the pot at that time. but then he came here and we used to visit him quite often. And Gopal Ghosh was another great painter I think, who used to come very often. He used to drink a lot and also ask for money from my father. And my father would indulge them, indulge him. He would give him, Charu-da kuri ta taka din - twenty rupees, please - and he would go and drink and he drank himself to death. But he was a genius; he was a very great painter.
Then Atul Bose - a painter who was very well known for his portrait painting - he was a very good friend of the family, we would go to his studio, he would come. So, at that time it seemed quite natural to me. I didn’t think it was a very extra ordinary thing was happening and then of course Pratush Dasgupta, a sculptor, he had his studio in the first floor of the house where we had
Our apartment for some time. I remember huge sculptures, pieces of sculpture there. Much, much later he moved to Delhi after independence and he used to write letters to me saying that he would prefer to come back to the old studio any day because Delhi did not give him the ijjat - the honour - maybe that he felt he got here in Calcutta.
And there was the group of painters known as Calcutta Group. They had come together and they used to exhibit and with my faTther I used to go to these exhibitions many of which used to be held at No. 10 Chowringhee errace ground floor. So that was that and in Rashbehari Avenue, of course, just at the back of our house, so to say, in Hindustan Park, there lived Narendra Deb and Radha Rani Devi, a poet couple. In those days they were called the Browning Couple of Bengali literature. They were poet and they were old family friends again. I used to visit them and they used to come. Their daughter is Nabanita Deb Sen, who is an author now, she was a child. So there they lived and a little on the block...not even one block away...ours was 190C Rashbehari Avenue and two hundred and two was Kabita Bhavan, Buddhadeb Bose’s place.
Kabita Bhavan was where he lived or where he worked?
He lived and he worked and the books were also published from there. He and his wife Protibha who was also a writer, well known writer, they were there. And I again vaguely remember that across the street, in the lane there, lived the Sachin Dev Burman, SD Barman, who became very famous musician later in Bombay. When they moved to Bombay I don’t know... I don’t remember just now, but as a child I remember they used to live there and my mother was quite friendly with his Mira Dev Barman. So that locality was you know, literature, music, art, sculpture quite a ...
How about Sudhindranath Dutta or Jibanananda..were either of them, did you ever cross path with either of these poets?
Somehow I didn’t. Although Jibanananda also later came and lived in one of the houses on Rashbehari Avenue which later became... that was much, much later... Sandesh, the magazine, used to come out from there. But I don’t remember meeting them in any way. Sandesh was a children’s magazine so very well known but somehow in my childhood Mouchak was more better known.
My father used to subscribe Mouchak for me and my eye with literature must have began with Mouchak and I must say all the famous writers of those days who were great novelists, poets, they wrote for children and children’s literature was very flourishing. Premendra Mitra, Achinta Sengupta they would all write for the children's magazine. I came to know many of these literary figures much later, that was much, much later, when I myself became the member of the P.E.N., the PEN, and many of them used to come, we used to have meetings. First at Narendra Deb’s house and later on even in our later group in Park House, we had many meetings with them ...
but in those days we knew them only through Mouchak and what I read and there was Hemendra Kumar Roy who wrote beautiful thrillers for adventure stories for children and we were enamoured of those in those days. So I must say we were very lucky to have some great Bengali writers writing for us children and we grew up reading those. That must have had something to do with our education, you know.
Sumantro did you have a question?
Did Suniti Chattopadhyay also live in your neighbourhood?
Yes, Suniti Chattopadhyay was also very much in..
our para, and Suniti Chattopadhyay happened to be very good friend of my uncle Nirod and also my father Charu Chandra Choudhury, so he was a very close friend and we had been to his house, and he remained a good friend till late and came to my wedding also, later on, I remember.
So tell me a little bit more about your father. He seems a very interesting man, and he had all of these friend who were artists....what did he do as a profession?
He was actually a lawyer, but I believe he should not have become a lawyer. I don't think he was much interested in law although he became very well known as a constitution specialist later on. He had interpreted our constitution many a time, later. But he was a man of ...as Sugata once put it...anything from philosophy to mathematics to whatever you ask him he would....he was an experienced encyclopaedic. And even when they were growing up, my children, if they asked me something .... who wrote this or when, I would ask my father ..and he would say...oh, that book, that chapter, that page even, you might get something on that....he was that type of a man.
Now my uncle Nirod was also very encyclopaedic but he was...I shouldn’t say aggressive but he was much more assertive. He did become aggressive later but in those days much more assertive and he wrote and he was much better known but my uncle always lamented that dada did not do much but he was a quieter sorts. But he was a very learned man.
So your father was the older brother.
Yes. He was the eldest of the lot and the second brother was Nirod. Third brother was a doctor also, well known doctor of Calcutta. In a way the first paediatrician almost of India.
And his name?
K C Choudhury. Nirod Chandra , he was Kirod Chandra.
Voice 2: Now what did you read in your father’s library? You know, once you went beyond the children’s literature that you have just described, you know, in terms of both Bengali literature and European literature, what do you remember having read...
My father had a very good library, he was buying books all the time and I didn’t go to a proper school for quite some time because my father and also my uncle thought that there were no schools good enough for us to go.
My mother would have loved me to go to the Loreto Convent where her sister’s daughters went and they spoke fluent English and all that but in some way my father and they thought it was...again the nationalists they came in there and know not to go to that sort of school. But the local schools were not up to the mark which they wanted, whatever. So I was at home most of the time. So, naturally I grew up with books. Not many - I was a only child - so not many playmates. There were, of course, some. So I was reading whatever I got. And I remember If I am reading a book, my father came in and asked me, 'what are you reading?' So once I remember I was reading a novel...what was it?.... “How Green Was My Valley?”
so seeing it was a novel, “How Green Was My Valley?” and father said “eta boroder boi ekhun bujhbeh na”....”its an adult book, you won't understand it now. You should not read it now” so I promptly closed the book but of course next day I read the whole of it. But, it is true that I did not understand most of it, but without understanding I was reading a lot. Rabindranath Tagore, of course was there, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay was there, even Bankim I read whether I understood or not. So the three giants: Bankim Chandra, Sarat Chattopadhyay and Rabindranath, I read in a very haphazard way.. understanding
as someone may be not understanding all of them and of course English literature was very much there. And that also I read.
And you know, with my father if I was going to read one poem of Wordsworth, Lucy poem, he would at once bring out the whole Wordsworth’s collected poems, or things like that. That was his. So I was reading those also.
And can you give us a sense what your, say, daily life, the daily schedule in your home looked like. Was there...would you sit in the evening and read with your parents or would you go into a separate room and read on your own or did you read in the morning, or what did the day look like, if was there a schedule that developed?
Before I went to school, as I said I went to school very, very late - I was sort of educated at home. There of course, most of the whole of the day I would be reading that in Father’s library and the afternoons were made for play time, we could go and play. Evenings we were supposed to come back properly before dusk...and ...so...
Voice 2: And what about music?
Music was very much there. Yes, evening. After coming back it could be music. My father would sit down and we would sing.
What kind of music would you sing? Or listen to?
Our home was mainly Tagore’s music but later on, classical music came into our family very much. That was a, you know, how should I explain it I don’t know....
Sorry, what kind of classical Hindustani...western...no?
No. We were merged in Tagore’s songs as we grew up...even as a child, as I said my first song. But later an aunt who came from Allahabad, which was a very musical place, told my father that I sang very well. My father didn't think that I sang very well, I was so-so. But when she said that she sings very well and if a song is played to me or I hear it, I at once can produce it. So, as soon as my father heard it or he got into his head. He was always a stickler for.... he was a perfectionist in many ways.
So he at once said, “so she needs classical base. Without classical base, Tagore’s songs ...well that will come on that.” So the best classical teacher of that time. Girija Shankar Chakravarty, was asked to come and teach me. He was very old man at that time, he taught me. I still remember some Khayals and thumris, and...”mujhe batiya na banao baar, baar” First raag, raginis I learnt kafir, brindavan, behag ... but he could not teach me, he became very old so he left. And much later his pupil who was also very famous, Tarapada Chakravarty, he came. So I had a classical base in my music, so classical music was very much in the household. Then my father was not pleased only with vocal so I was given a sitar so I started to learn the sitar.
And I did quite well, I think, in that also. So it was classical also. But in the evening when my father was playing the harmonium and I am sitting or if some cousins have come, it would always be Tagore. We could...I could still sing all of the Gitabitans. It may not be correctly because from childhood we were doing this all the time. So music was very much there in the family, both Tagore and later classical.
And you began your music lessons... formal music lessons at what age?
12-13 when Girija-babu came. That would be thirteen or so....and sitar I started a little later. - fifteen. I must have been fifteen when sitar was started.
And when your family went out for concerts or when they went out for cultural performances, generally what kind of performances would they go more often than not to listen to classical music performances or would they go, for example, to see theatre performances or readings, poetry readings...or what was the most standard?
Or perhaps, did you not go?
Now that you ask me this, I seem to remember more going to theatres...Bengali theatres with my father. And Bohurupi at that time was coming up and I must have seen all the Bohurupi plays and Sombhu Mitra and Tripti Mitra doing Rokto Korobi or other plays, and I remember these very well.
This was...It's impressed in my mind...the acting of Tripti Mitra or the voice of Shambhu Mitra.... so it was again, I think more... I don’t know why but Father and I had been going to theatres more. And music, not so much of classical music used to be whole night - it had already started, but that I went much later with my friends, yes, with parents also sometimes. You know, whole night things would go on. Early in the morning it would end,
Until when would these go on to?
And again it in Dover Lane which perhaps later became very famous as Dover Lane conferences. Those days it was not that famous, there would be a sort of a samiyanas as we say. It will be winters so we would be cold, I remember. I would be falling asleep almost but later...early morning it is ending with maybe a senai playing somebody...Bhairabi...so yes, we did go but I remember more somehow the theatres. Maybe because of Sombhu Mitra and Tripti Mitra..they were such great actors and actresses.
Voice 2: How about films?
Oh, yes! My father also was a film fan. You see my being an only child, he wanted me to be accomplished. And as I have written in my memoirs somewhere that if you want me to be accomplished in so many things, I can't get ten upon ten on everything but I had a touch of everything. Father used to be a member of film societies at that time and yes, I went with my father to see films which came from say European films which used to come. And I still remember, Father and I went to see “Murder in the Cathedral” and there was quite a crowd because the crowd had thought Murder in the Cathedral meant some kind of murder, thriller or something and they were quite upset when it turned out to be something very boring for many of them and I still remember people threw tomatoes and things at the screen. They were so upset about it. So we did go to films...
Voice 2: The singing that you mentioned ....
You see, just as father said you must not read this....”This is boroder boi” so I was not allowed to go to the cinemas for a long time “boroder chobi, boroder cinema . .. adult cinemas” but this aunt of mine who came from Allahabad
What was her name?
Kuntala.... I forget the last name... she used to sing. In Allahabad everybody sang, I think, at that time. She came and she took my mother to a...wanted to take my mother to a Bengali film and asked my father if she could take me but my baba said no, it's an adult film.
I still remember the film because it was my first Bengali film , “Sesh Uttor”... it had Kanan Debi in it and Promotesh Barua, the two great actors and actresses again. And Kanan Debi was a beautiful singer, in those days, no playback. She herself sang. So Sesh Uttor was an experience for me. I went there and they used to give small little booklets with the songs in it. So I think somebody bought that booklet for me and so I came home with that and it was then that I sang all those songs which are still hot favourites even today. I sang all those songs according to my aunt perfectly and that had impressed her and that started my Indian classical music. So, yes, Bengali...
Voice 2: What were Sesh Uttor songs?
Sesh Uttor song were . ...one was ”Laguk Dola”, “aapnar moneh madhuri mishaye eke thako Jodi karo chobi” and is “aami bonoful go”? Yes, “aami bonoful go” is there also. So some of them are still very, very favourite songs that Kanan Debi had sang. So that was the first experience of a Bengali film and then yes, if good films were there later we were allowed to go and we saw.
When you said European films do you remember if they tended to be mostly French or British or was there a overarching general source for these European films in terms of a national film culture from Europe?
I really do not recollect a focus on any particular area. Whatever came in those days, I think, we saw and we saw European films also because I remember going with my father to see a Czech film or something which I did not understand at all. It was something about a dog barking most of the time for unknown reasons and I remember I was pretty bored with it because it would be difficult for me, as I went with my father but I was a young girl. So some of the European films also I must have seen in those days.
So the European films Tollywood...the Bengali films were coming out of Tolloywood?
Now how about Hindi films? Were Hindi films being shown regularly...and was your family going...would your father go watch these?
My father was choosy and even Hindi films he would go. I still remember now that you are telling me, many things are coming to my mind...going to see Hindi film and Khurshid was singing. Again she was a beautiful actress who sang also and I used to come and sing those songs as well.
Voice 2: Is this Balasore e... is this Saigal and Khurshid?
I think so Saigal and Khurshid. These two. Saigal, of course, we saw in Bengali films also... something...what was the name.... Basant Bahaar or something...i forget the name. But yes, he was choosy. He would choose the Hindi film, not the ordinary things, but because of Khurshid, this was a wonderful film.
I just want to back track a little and ask you a couple of questions. The first is: when you went to the theatre, do you remember generally where you would go, what the name of the theatre hall was or where in Kolkata it was about, even approximately?
New Empire.New Empire would be one that I remember.
and this is where the..many of the...?
Many of the films would be there...
The films or the...?
....and theatres too. New Empire.
Okay, New Empire.
That’s one I remember in those days. Much later some small halls came up here also in South Calcutta.
And I remember in the INA days, when the INA movement was very popular, Father taking me to Kalika, a theatre hall here where something on the INA movement theater was played...on the Bal Senas. And I remember Dilip Kumar, the famous Dilip Kumar was sitting in the audience and Sarat Chandra Bose sitting in the audience seeing that. But it would be mostly New Empire.
...and when you went to the Odeon or the cinema where would ...where was that? Was there a particular place that you would often go?
The Hindi cinema, I still remember Roxy. Is it still there, I think?
Voice 2: Roxy is still there.
The name may have changed. Roxy.
Voice 2: Near the Grand Hotel.
Near the Grand Hotel. Roxy. And the Bengali cinemas would be in South Calcutta. Could be Purna Cinema here, Bijoli I think, Aaaleya was another one near our house in Bullygunj where I saw Frankenstein and I was very much afraid I remember.
And then in terms of the musical programs that went late into the night. It sounds like many of these happened outdoors, is that right?
Yes, outdoors.
And they would be even on Dover Lane, they would setup a stage...
Yes, setup a stage on road perhaps. These all became much more sophisticated later and sometimes it would be in a hall later also when we were University students, for example. I would go with my friends who were great classical music fans and then...but in those days it was a little make shift stage and cover on the...for the winter time and we are sitting on the floor with something spread over the carpet. Something like that.
So when ...at what age did you first go to school then?
Uh, when it uh, you know...one should be...
to sit for what we called our school leaving and that should be class 10. So father thought that I should have some experience before that. For example, I had never...for writing examinations. I never knew what that meant. So at class 8, I was put into a local school there and I still remember that I took some time to adjust. The first time we had some quarterly examination or something or half yearly or something like that when the history questions – there were five.
I wrote 4 and then my eye felt a bit tired and I thought why should I write the 5th one and so I did not write the fifth one. At home I would not but I did not know that was not the way it would be, it was a proper examination. But I still remember that first examination, the results came and the mistress was writing down the results and she wrote beside my name 3 and R-D. That meant 3rd. So I had come 3rd in the class... and I still remember I was a bit surprised because I remember1st, 2nd, 3rd means doing well in school and I did not expect to do that well as I didn’t know anything about examinations but later on I was good at studies and I used to come first in most of the examination later.
So maybe we can go into the pre-college years when you were in school, and what was that milieu like? It was a all-girl’s school. What school was it, first of all and then some recollections. Were there important teachers? Did you find that the curriculum was...did you learn a lot from the curriculum or did you find it somewhat uninteresting? What was your impression?
No, it was called Bullygunge Girls' School. Because...it has changed its name, but it is still there, I believe. It was uhh...I liked the school, I think.
I should have been put in school much earlier because being an only child, I was growing up, you know, alone which was not a good thing and which I realised much later. So going to school and meeting with other girls in the school. It was quite an experience for me. And also I did well in school. So, uh and times you were asking me, it was very interesting time, I mean in the history of our country as well, 1945-46. These were very interesting times. First of all there would be many school celebrations, prize distributions, where I would, I might sing, or I might recite.
Once I remember reciting “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears...” and the school headmistress called me and asked me ad asked, “who taught you this?” and I said, “Father.” Where she asked me was “Bilet pherot?” meaning England returned or which they were not so she seemed to have been very much surprised that I could recite so well. Anyway, these things I... took part in these which was very interesting, examinations I did well and there were also...nationalistic things were happening. So I remember, my father would not allow me to go out and take part in the political things that were happening around.
Although school days we were not that conscious but I still remember I think for the INA 45 in 45 there was, you know, always processions on the road and once my school, for some reason, even my class they were singing songs maybe “Kadam kadam baraye jaa” or something and going in a procession to the school. They were passing my house. So I said, “Father can I go?” and I think he was taking a little time, he had not said “yes” or “no.” I just put my slippers on and ran and went and joined them and went to the school. And then one of my cousin brothers came and called me back home. But I told Father, “you...I asked you!”
Then father said, “but I hadn’t said yes and youleft before that, you know.” So those things were happening also and we were becoming very conscious. And one thing again now surprises me: I started keeping diaries, ‘45, ‘46. And now when I read those dairies, fifteen, 14-15 year old girl, I am writing all about the national politics. “Today, Gandhi-ji came here” or “today Jawaharlal Nehru did this” or “the INA” or these things. Not about mundane things or day-to-day things.
Take one…
Voice 2: Your matriculation exam, what books you bought etcetera would be interesting to get on the record. I suppose you had written it in the….
aami likhechi...bhule gechi... Well, being an only child, I always had my, you know, birthday celebrated and it used to be – 26th December is my birthday, around Christmas. Actually, I had an American aunt whose birthday was 25th, so very often we – even from my childhood I remember celebrating it together and the room being decorated.
This American aunt lived here in Kolkata?
She was married to whom?
My maternal uncle. That was how I tell everybody that I learned to say “welcome” if somebody said thank you. “You’re welcome” instead of the usual English phrase in those days would be “don’t mention” some such thing. So some English things came – American things got into my life as well. And this aunt belonged to Boston, so I came to know there is a place in this world called New England, and from where she came. And…
So just back to the high school, you said, life felt very serious where you as a young girl were writing about major events in history.
Yes somehow I was writing about serious things, I could have – yeah.
Did that filter its way into the curriculum at all? What were you studying in school? What were they giving you to read to? How was the curriculum organized, do you remember at all?
I don’t think that in school days this nationalistic thing - these were in the curriculum, although I remember my history book during my matriculation days which was written by Kalidas Nag.
Kalidas Nag, and we had to memorize it and the history teacher was very strict. And then, what happened, so I stand up and I go on reciting one whole page maybe from that book. But at that time it looked rather cruel, but I still remember that book. And so that was a good book. And we had a background of the...say from old days even to the British days, all the viceroys and things, the background was all there. So that book I remember which relates to this. Otherwise, we had selected poems, English, Bengali. I was not good at mathematics. I shouldn’t say I was not good at mathematics, I was very good at mathematics, but by nature I was very nervous.
So sometimes I would end up with getting 90 and sometimes I may get 30 or 40. That always kept me in a tension. So – but that was by my temperament.
And it was an all girls’ school, so I also wonder about particularly the theme of education of women. And was there, let’s say an ideal of what the modern woman should be? Was – did you feel that the school was trying to encourage you into be in certain way, to be modern in a particular way or not, or to be more traditional? Or what was the…
I don’t think the school had much to do with this, but my family had because my father, you know, in those days, when I am in Class 10, I could have been married off or at least passing the matriculation. That was enough. I remember many of my classmates got married after matriculation, but my father had put down his feet. He had said that before graduation, of course, no talk about marriage, which in those days, I think, was quite a big…
A batch of friends got married when after class 10th matriculation. Another batch got married what we used to call intermediate I.A.
Finished, but I went to graduation and after graduation, of course, I went for Post Graduation, but at least it was my father’s view, I said, that I must be educated and he had this feeling that about women having another role and for me personally, I was not conscious about that but I was very fond of reading biographies and autobiographies. And my most favorite book as a fourteen year old girl, maybe, was Madam Quri's biography written by her daughter, Eve Query, and it was almost like a bible to me.
And some how I related to it. Poland was under Russian rule and we were under British rule at that time and of course her life, they were very poor and how she struggled and came to Paris and got her herself an education that sort of inspired me very much. My second most favorite was of course Nehru’s autobiography which I read as a 14 year old girl and was quite charmed by that.
By that...by the language of it, by the style, or by the history...?
By the language. Also by the..even the family going to prison coming out that sort of thing, and I was quite charmed by it.
And I have described how when I first saw him, '46? Jadavpur University...not university that time...Jadavpur College was having its convocation, and I had an invitation card, and I was very thrilled, and he giving the convocation address, Nehru. It was a nationalistic thing, Jadavpur always was, and I still remember my maternal uncle. Professor SK Roy, had a lot to do with college. He was a Harvard graduate in those days. My Grandfather, my mother’s father sent his sons to...not to Oxford and Cambridge, that was his way of protesting against the British rule. He sent them to, well to America. One to MIT and one to Harvard, and another was sent to Germany.
To where in Germany?
Germany...I don’t remember where because he became an engineer later.
Do you remember the names of these uncles?
Of course.
What were they, the two who went to Harvard, the one at MIT and one at Harvard?
Harvard one is Surendro Kumar Roy, SK Roy, and the MIT one is Kiron Roy who married the American Aunt, and the third one is Hemendro Kumar Roy who went to Germany.
And so...
So I went to this convocation and first saw Jawaharlal Nehru there and my uncle, SK Roy, why I mentioned him was that he introduced some of the things that you would have in your American universities or from Harvard days.
The rituals, and...
The rituals and you know class of 1912 coming.
Yes, convocation, yeah.
That was something new for us, but he had arranged those, I remember, and I was sitting in a big pandal and there was quite a crowd and I sitting in an aisle seat, and we were given flowers to throw when the procession will enter, and I was very exited, and I was standing, and the procession was coming in gowns and all that. I spotted a Gandhi cap and that must be Nehru so I threw it and plop it felt on them, but as they came near me I found that Nehru was shorter and beside him was walking Sarat Chandro Bose, who was taller, and my flowers had fallen on his cap not on Nehru. So I don’t know destiny may have some hand in that. But I was very thrilled but from my reading I knew him only.
What year was that?
'46 I think
Just before Independence.
And SK Roy played what role at Jadavpur University?
They were all a part of the governing body who was the amader Principal chilen tini
Tribhuna Sen, Tribhuna Sen was the principal. Somehow both my uncles had to do...three of them, I think had to do a lot with Jadavpur even. Even the development...
of Jadavpur and things like that, they had their house...
The 2 who went to United States...
...To United States...
Plus the third, which is the third one?
He went to Germany
Yes the third one, he came back and...
more than these two were interested. They were part of the National Council of Jadavpur.
Yes, okay, and what did they teach? What did they...
No they were not teaching, they were in the Governing Body
See, okay...and the university
Dr. Roy, Bidhan Roy was also in it I think so but one thing I can tell you, '46 when we did give my matriculation? '47! Youu know usually the examination would be in March but that was the time when India became and all sorts of disturbances started to happen and our examination start was postponed. So I claimed that we were pioneers in postponing of examinations
This was in '46 or '47?
'47 early '47.
Early 47.
So maybe end of '46 or so, Ram Mahonhar Lohia came to dinner in our house and we were having dinner and he was asking me this and that and then he asked me quite aggressively, “Are you a communist?!” So I remember I was a bit taken aback by that and my father said, “She has not made up her mind yet to which part he is going.”
Ah, very good.
And as a matter of fact my father at that time subscribed for me Harijan also MN Roy’s what was it?
Independent India.
MN Roy’s paper and many other papers because he was a believer in what we used to Liberal education. So you read everything and then you choose whatever you want to become. For sometime I became a Gandhite and as I said my birthdays were celebrated very well so in one of the Birthdays could be '45, 1945 my father asked me what did I want and I said I wanted a Charkha and my father did give me a Charkha. My mother disliked the idea thoroughly not a sari or a dress or anything but a Charkha and '46 of course I said I will have books. And he used to take me to the Oxford Book Shop where I could pick up books whatever I felt like...
...which was still back there on Park Street.
...on Park Street, father was a regular visitor there so I used to go with him and that time I picked up, I think, Sisil Bitten’s album of photographs and some other books: Prem Chand, Munshi Prem Chand’s stories in English and things. So that was a habit that because of father I had.
Were you reading people like Bertrand Russell? I mean, who were the major philosophers and thinkers of that period that everybody was reading, that you were reading and finding to be most important?
Yes Bertrand Russell was very much in fashion in those days I remember and we did read, and as I said my reading was a bit haphazard because whatever I got, I read. I remember I became very fond of the German writer Thomas Mark?
Voice 2: Thomas Mark.
I became very fond of all his novels and I read all of them most and then you'll see on Sundays other uncles, cousins would come in the morning and we would sit down. There would be music and what we call adda in our home.
At Rash Behari Avenue?
At Rash Behari Avenue. And then I remember, I read 1984 because of my...all of my uncles came and we would discuss books and he said, “Have you read 1984?” and I said, “No I have not.” “Oh then how can we talk to...we can’t talk to you as you have not read that.” So I remember I read it thoroughly next day.
In order to be able to talk about it next time...
Next Sunday at least. So I was very much impressed by George Orwell at that time.
Would Nirodh Choudhury come to the adda on the Sundays, or he had his own adda?
No, Uncle had left for Delhi by that time.
Had already left for Delhi, yeah..
So Uncle was in Delhi. I used to...I...after my matriculation I went and spent my two months, the holiday with Uncle, and, uh...
And what were those conversations like that you would have with him?
He was writing his autobiography at that time and he would write in his typewriter straight. Early morning he used type and I still remember I used to wake up by the starting of the typewriter, and
as soon as I moved in the bed, he would come and say, “Are you up?” I said, “Yes.”
So early morning, you'd stand in the Gollsu Road Apartment, you would look at the sky, and I had my first lessons in astronomy. But it began from astronomy, he went to philosophy, he went to Literature, he went to this and that until my head reeled, and I was only a 16 year old girl.
He would recount to you, he would tell you...
He loved talking and teaching and then we sat down for breakfast, he was still talking and we had changed the subject to western music about which I knew nothing because I was brought up in Indian Classical music
but he was very fond of Western music or even wine tasting - which wine should go with what so it was quite a...but what I remember is that he used to read to me excerpts from the autobiography that he was writing particularly the early chapters of East Bengal days. I knew in my mind that he was reading it not to me, but to my father, actually, but he would read a chapter or few pages. I wonder now, I was very young but he did that and he said, “Tell Dada that I have written this, that you know about this,” and then he also told me very in whispers that I am going to call this Autobiography of an Unknown Indian. But nobody should know it, but you can tell Dada
So when he...?
So he did not come to these adda’s, he was not here
He was in Delhi. And, between what times of the days he would write? Do you remember his writing culture?
Early morning, very early morning almost. It would to be dark when he would be writing. I even have a photograph of him typing somewhere, and he used to be bare bodied with a dhoti on because it was summer in Delhi. He had bought it and was writing in it.
So how do you explain this culture of writing, of fine writing, you know the ability to turn phrases to have a wit to write with a plum? How do you explain how this developed. Let's say in Nirodh Chowdhury’s writing, but you mentioned your father also had a way with the language?
Yes, they were all very good at writing.
You are also a great writer. How does this develop? Was it just because you read so much and your family read so much or was there…?
For me I think because I read so much, both in English and in Bengali. Even I went in for French later but I have always wondered what influenced them who lived in, as I said, in a small town in East Bengal, but Ishwar Gandhi manmohan singh that part of Manmohan Singh had produced great men: Satayjit Ray, all from that area so to say. So there must have been something in it. And my Grandfather, not that educated person, but how come in the household they were always having this? There was a little bit of Brahmo influence on them, although they did not convert to Brahmoism, and uh..
So when you say little bit of Brahmo influence how did that, how did you mean?
I think my Grandmother’s side had some...some of her brothers or somebody had turned Brahmo which meant in those days Brahmos were this pioneering things that happened looking forward, women’s education may have been influenced by that a little. But, how they came to learn the languages so wel,l that time, much better than we do even now? And they went to Bengali schools there!
Did you ever ask your father or your uncle how is it that you either love language so much or you have chosen to be a writer. Did you ever have these conversations, particularly with Nirodh Chowdhury?
I did not because it was taken for granted that the family was like that so there was no question about it. So, I never asked Nirodh Babu about that. Of course I asked him other things. As you know he was a great...he was devoted to the British Empire, but the rest of the family were not at all of his view. My younger uncles were in prison. As a matter of fact when Nirodh Babu got married the two of my younger uncles were in prison and from prison they wrote to the bride...
write a letter which is still with us somewhere so when he was reading these things to me - '46.. '47 early '47. “It is coming in July.
August we are going to be independent,” and I did not agree with many things that he said. He said nothing will ever happen to India now that the British are leaving we are all going to I don’t know what, and I wonder now how I dared but I questioned him and I said, “Why are you saying just it's possible that India may become great one day how do you say that?” He told me definitely it was his view that India will never be great but it will produce individuals who will be great in many fields, but as a country it will go down that was his definite view that he told me.
Meanwhile at this time you were a Gandhite, already or were you too young to have chosen your politics at this point?
No I was more a Gandhite because I remember in '42 when Gandhiji was on fast. I said I will fast for a day at least, total. My mother was very angry with me, but my father at once said, “Yes, yes of course, I will also fast with you.” So we fasted for the day but my father said, “You can have a glass of orange juice you know at lunch time.” So I had a glass of orange juice at lunch time and something at dusk also. But Father encouraged this, but my uncle was all the time after me, “Oh you fasted!” and then also, “You have read all the Nehru literature.” That was another crime I had done. And I had fasted for Gandhi, another crime. So, I didn’t agree at all with him, but we were good friends.
And one thing I liked about him, he never told me, like my father, “eta boroder, korbe na, porbe na”. He was in a way... he didn't mind...he asked me, “what have you read?” I had read all the Bronte sisters: Jane Austen I had read everything and, well, my first introduction to Plato was with Uncle Nirod. It was a big thing he gave and said I must read Plato and he said, “when people come to visit me I start with Plato as if Plato is my neighbour. And if he's suffering that he still remains then he becomes a good friend.” So, you see, that was that. So I never asked him, “Why should I be interested in Plato and Aristotle coming from a village in East Bengal?” but it was taken for granted. It was like that.
You mentioned that Ram Manohar Lohia came to dinner so how's that your father was so involved with all the leading...Indian political leaders?
Father was never actively involved in politics, I think as a child, now looking back, I think I was always interested in politics. And that’s why my diaries are like that. And, I remember Uncle Kiran, the one in MIT. He was somewhat involved and he came once and told Father, “Aruna Asaf Ali,” once “is underground.” At that time - '42 movement - and everybody was underground. And she is in need, she has to change that way, and she is in need of a shelter and he wanted to bring Aruna Asaf Ali to our house for shelter.
I was so excited. I would've loved to have her in our house, Asaf Ali. But my father said no. He had a reason. He said, you know, “We had a minister of the West Bengal government, a Bengali minister, Shu Barzu as a neighbour at that time.” And he said because the minister is there, the police and others were coming and going and he said that it was not a safe place. So he said no. So Father was never involved in that way in politics. Ram Mohan Lohia came in another way. One of my cousins married a Kerala congress socialist...congress socialist from Kerala. That was also something new in those days, inter-province marriage, Bengali girl marrying a Kerala person.
And, her father was very much against the marriage so they could not meet, they used to meet at our house before their marriage. So they used to come and Keshab Menon, he became a good friend of mine and others and it is because of him that I think that
Ram Manohar Lohiya came to our house.
I see.
And we had it out with us. Baba always, my father always remained a little aloof from active politics.
Voice 2: How did you remember Subhas Chandra always...image?
No, I am a bit surprised that, like Rabindra Nath, I have not said Subhas Chandra. Whom I should have been could have seen easily because my uncle was at woodbon park working
Voice 2: In the late thirties?
That time '38
Voice 2: Yeah.
Voice 2: Yeah.
And I use to go to Woodborn Park very much.
Could you...?
I mean Sarat Chandra Bose’s house very much.
So Woodborn Park
I said it is.
Woodbon park is Sarat Chandra Bose’s at that’s where Sarat Chandra Bose’s house was and that is were your father also worked is that right is at
No, my uncle worked
Your uncle
He was the private secretary
Yes, of course yes…. Right
My father as a lawyer often visited him
He was a lawyer for consultation and things all I just….. just visiting my uncle. I would go with my father.
I remember Subhas Chandra Bose coming out, getting into the car or getting down from the car, but if I had seen Subhas Chandra Bose I think must have left in me. Most of the time he was in prison and in '39...'38...'39 he was living more in the Elgin Road house which is now Netaji Bhawan. So, I did not see him there and I remember as a child, I am playing and people us talking that Britain has declared war. When was that?
So, war I didn’t care very much, this war. What can we do? But, what I remember is that during the war my parents and other friends closing all doors and windows and listening to the radio.
It had a broadcast of Subhas Chandra Bose from abroad and that was supposed to be very dangerous treason so that had to be very careful. So that time all was I remember him as a great hero and of course the Japanese invasion, when we were told nothing would happen to us because Subhas Chandra Bose is there. Things like that. And, of course forty...end of forty-five day INA trial. That was time well the Saga of Subhas Chandra Bose burst in to our life. And we were very much immersed in that….. that point of time.
Voice 2: Was his birthday celebrated for the first time in '46 or um...?
Yes, very huge birth day procession from south Calcutta to north Calcutta. One of the parks, Deshopriyo Park to Deshobondhu Park went. Your father took part on it on a horse back he told me later, but I wanted to go very much, but my father did not allow, and I was very sad because other cousin brothers and...went. Few days later, there was a smaller gathering at the south Calcutta park where my father allowed me to go, I remember. So mother and I came there some of these INA officers had come, and they addressed the gathering. Shanawaz Khan then a great name from the INA days. He came and I also saw some of the others about whom I read much later and came to know about them much later even met some of them much later.
But that was a time when we were very much thrilled it was electrifying experience almost when the saga of Subhas Chandra Bose burst onto India as a whole
How about earlier, in say 1940, after Subhas Chandra Bose resigned as the president of the Congress and tried to establish the left coalition when at that point there were lot of different impulses in Bengal politics including, on the other hand groups like the Onusilon oh.. sorry the Jugantar and the kind of older, say, revolutionaries, who many of the leaders where then rising again.
Do you remember that moment let’s say in 19..after the beginning of the Second World War, and was there lot of political confusion in Calcutta that struck you, people who were
Trying to figure out which direction to go in
Yes, of course
Was it the Gandhian direction was it the left coalition direction was it, Shudu? Bidia, no Jugantar and the underground movement, or how did that...?
I, well I was say, '40, I would be nine year old
So you very young
Yeah…… yeah
to consciously think a things like that but I...my parents, my family, my father they would be all very much for the Bose’s and the rift that took place...they were all for the Bose’s and at that moment very much anti-Gandhi. My father was never a very great follower of Gandhiji. I think he was prejudiced from that time onwards or whatever. They were all Bose minded and '42 movement I do remember because I, you know, again newspaper in '42...it was '41
This is the much quit India movement of '42.
I am as child I am reading when the .. the political news in the paper even my…. my son they were going up they would go for the sports page first. But for us it was not that we were all interested in the politically first. So we were reading it. So I remember my father is getting ready to go out. He would go to his office or High Court or whatever and he was suggesting putting on his tie. I was reading the newspaper so I said, “Do you know they are stashing away the ties. There are, you know, disturbances on the road and all that.” So Baba turned to me and said, “My tie is pure khadi.”
I still remember the tie with dots, blue dots, and white khadi. So he went out after about 15 minutes he came back tie less so you know, he lost his tie and so there was very much there was trouble on the streets of Calcutta. Then I went to...for a holiday in Mikicham,that country house of ours, where, you know, they had uprooted the train lines and things. It was violent. '42 movement was no nonviolent movement at all. And some of the revolutionary young people of that area - Bengali boys they had come, they had come and taken shelter in even our house being chased by the British police and all that. So '42 movement I remember, and...
So what was your year matriculation again in
And so when we say matriculation this is when you entered which university or college?
Well, we were all under Calcutta University and I went to college here - one of the Calcutta colleges for intermediate. First we have to go to intermediate I.A. as we called. So I went to Ashutosh College for that. And, that was a big college many, many people there and...
So the intermediate are the first 2 years. Right
First 2 years
And after that is for
And after that 2 years of graduation
The graduation, to make it 4 years
And then 2 years of post graduation
and then 2 years in post graduation
For that you have to go to the Calcutta university itself. And for graduation I remember I got admitted to Presidency College, and the letter came the common with your a, and I also got admission in Loreto which we didn’t consider seriously and I feel very sorry that I did not go to Presidency College. They… there was a lot of discussion at home. How I can go alone from Baligung to Presidency College in a bus. We didn’t have a car or a driver, so I had to go in a bus to Presidency College and come. That is not possible for me. That was the ultimatum, so did not go but when post-graduation came, I had to go to Calcutta University so I had to go from...
Which was in same area?
...Baligung to College Street.
To College Street
So, I got admitted to Presidency College, again. So, at that time - those 2 years of my life - I think meant a lot to me so far as my education is concerned.
These were the two post-graduate years?
Presidency college this...I was there.
When you were at Presidency College
Because I got they last of the, you know, the very good professors. After which Professor Tarak Nath Sen for example, a wonderful professor.
He was a Professor of Sanskrit?
No, no, of English.
No, of English literature.
My…my…my subject was English literature
English literature, yeah.
He would ask us to come to Presidency College. He was not very well all the time. He used to sit in a cubical near the library of Presidency College. So somehow we march four or five of us together...four or five of us together from the university to it. And one o'clock, come one o'clock, he said, “I will go at one o'clock.” He teaches Shakespeare. He taught us some sonagonist Milton, Oscar Wilde and that was a real experience. One o'clock we are sitting there. It's 2 o'clock, then 3 o'clock. 3:30. Then he would say, “All right break up. Half an hour, go and have a cup of coffee.” So we would rush to the coffee house and have a cup of coffee and come back again.
And then we would again go on 'till seven in the evening sometimes. I still remember finishing some agonistis at 7 o’ clock one evening when we came out of the cubical, the whole college building was dark except in the library and the cubicles and we were all standing there a little you know overcome by Somesonistics, I asked one of my fellow students, “how do you...” He asked me, “How do you feel?” and I said “Calm of mind, all passions spent.” So...
The perfect answer.
So yeah, then we also had Subodh Chandra Sengupto. Another very good professor who taught us Bernard Shaw. He was very...he scolded us once for talking in his class. We were having a conversation in his class, Kajol and I.
Voice 2: Who were the classmates in...what was the Presidency College group, the cohorts of yours that used to take classes with Tarak Sen?
One was Arun Kumar Dasgupto, who later became quite a famous professor himself, as AKDG.
When my son went to college, he was a Professor there at AKDG. Kajol, another girl who was with us, she came from Loreto she was not of the Presidency College background and didn’t go to Presidency College but she had later joined Presidency College as I think one of the first women professors.
What is her full name, again?
Kajol Sengupto.
She died recently, AKDG also, I have lost touch. I was in touch with him for long and there were a Dhriti Kanto Lahiri Chowdhury who is still there and a good friend. He is a specialist on elephants. He writes books on elephants.
Then Binod Kishore Chowdhury, he died recently. They all came from East Bengal backgrounds, all Zamindar families and in the Zamindar families they were the sons of the Zamindar families. They all became leftists. That was another thing, either you become a communist or leftist or what we used to call fellow travelers.
You mean, not officially...
You know, I think partition gave Bengalis the feeling that Congress had let then down and they were all anti-Congress people. All my fellow...they came from East Bengal background, so they were all leftist. With them I went to Professor Sushobhan Sarkar was a great historian. In his house at Elgin Road there used to be what we used to call “study circle.” We used to go there. There was a lot of leftist discussions there.
Do you remember which house, do you remember the address was in Elgin Road of Sushobhan Sarkar’s study circle?
I don’t remember the address, but is the house still there? I don’t think so. Elgin Road has changed so much.
Voice 2: Where in relation to Netaji Bhawan?
On the foot path, same foot path as Netaji Bhawan nearer the tam tracks here
Voice 2: OK
Because I still remember it it because when I used to come home, I had to take a tram home and I could never cross the road and get into the tram because there is no place. Cars are coming all the time. That house I don’t think it is anymore there, some new houses have come up. We used to live in an apartment there. We moved later.
Who, he moved later, yes?
Yes, to the Nagtola House where his daughter was there.
And how often would you go to Sushobhan Sarkar’s study circle? Was it once in a while…?
People went very regularly. I was not a regular one because I was not really one of those very, very leftist ones, but because my friends were there I used to go some...quite often I have been there
And what would happen in these circles?
As I said Sukhomoy Chakraborty used to be the economist who later became well known. They all talked. I must admit that some things went over my head because all these Marxists...it was a little too much for me. But, Bbecause I was not inclined that way maybe, very much. But it was interesting, and there would be elections of...University elections. The leftists would be there and the others - the Congress-minded ones. This would be there. I still remember one election when Dhriti Kanto, he was contesting the election, and another classmate on the other side, he was a good poet. His name was Purnendu. He used to write good poetry. So he wrote to me a note which said that remember the day that is the Election Day you know nothing else. He did not want anything and the Bengali was rather nice. He addressed me as Pritish Mitash Priti . Pritish Mitash, “Do you remember that date of the Election?” and then Pritorthi somebody who wants Priti, Pritorthi Purnendu.
Now, Priti...Presidency College lot we were very close together. So I told Seti that I have just received a note from him and he was very angry, “What does he want?” he says, and I said, “He doesn’t want anything Protorthi, he wants Priti.” So he said, “Give him that and give me the vote!” So I said, “alright.” So there was this leftist and they have that
But I don’t quite understand...
But it was not violent what became later.
When you say they had elections, I don’t quite understand.
Because they had Unions election, students election...
Within that...
Within the University
I See
University elections. Nowadays these are terrible. It was not that terrible in those days.
Did you...you mention that many of the students on the left, and of course there was the underground student movement as well happening at Presidency College.
That was communists were then I think illegal...
...and all that.
But in any case you mentioned that the students on the left often came from East Bengal, from Zamindar families. Did you…
Not all my friends at least who came...
I am sure many were from the Calcutta side also. But they being, you know, coming from rich Zamindar families they became communists because of the partition, I believe. They held the Congress responsible for this, for letting them down. And although I have never understood this very well, because it was the communists who had also said they were for partition but somehow they benefited very much because there was an anti-Congress feeling.
Did you feel...it just leads me to ask about the different socioeconomic classes of students who were studying in Presidency. Did you at all feel there was a kind of elite, and then there was a kind of middle class and the elite stayed away from the middle class or not? Or were...was the manifest wealth of some students' families ever...obvious?
There were many...all classes there. For example my friend, say Benu, he came in car, a chauffeured car, but...and there were people who would come with scholarships from a....I came from a middle class family Bengali family, and...but I don’t think it meant anything for us at that time. There was no conscious that there...I am not bad. At least I do not recollect if any of it was there. We were quite happy.
Hmm, was the emphasis in this community placed on being quick on your feet, being a good argumentator or debator, or was it being a great writer? I mean which of the two: being a great analytical writer a great stylist or being witty having a witty tongue. What did students and professors value most? ...Or both perhaps?
I think both, and I think both, and another thing that became fashionable at that time was poetry reading. Poets, well known poets started to give, we didn’t have that before. They would come, there would be meeting where a well known poet would read his poems and we all used to flock there.
We were all, you know, very eager to see these poets and hear them and I still remember Bishnu Dey, was a well known poet who refused to come. Because he said, “I don’t go to Kabi Prodorshini exhibition of poets, I don’t go to exhibition of poets.”
Would this be in a particular professors’ class? Or after class? Or where would these...?
Often in the what we used to call the hall which was broken down, not down hall, the...
Voice 2: The Senate House
The Senate House, The Senate Hall
Of the Presidency College
We had a hall at that with the University itself...Senate Hall,
...of Calcutta...
where very often it would happen. It was a beautiful hall with Greek columns which Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy, our Chef Minister broke down, and he demolished it and a very ugly building is now there in its place, a university building...extremely ugly and this was a beautiful building; even we had our examinations there with parrots you know birds flying around over our head, high ceilinged hall. It used to be there, that was a new thing and as you say, I think written work also. We had to give written work to Professor Tarak Nath Sen and we always have, you know, very apprehensive when the day came that he would give us back. And one day I think he wrote in my A, that it is strange criticizing Shelly after making him say what he never said. But, he had given me S. S means satisfactory and Tarak Babu’s S would be very, very great and we were all very pleased.
So what was his marking scheme? S would be satisfactory, then what could you get as better marks?
I don’t know because I always got S, I didn’t get anything over that. S seemed to be the highest.
...that he would...
Many wouldn't get S even. And he used to teach us criticism.
What did that entail? Criticism?
Criticism, how do you criticize literature or things? So he showed us paintings of Taronar. I remember a few paintings and said, “You tell me which painting you like and what, how.” And so others chose one, but I chose another one and I argued with him. I think he agreed with others but I stuck to my point and then also we had to write on that I believe, and I was again afraid that I will...I don't know...because I did not agree with him, but I think I ended up with an S alright.
And when you were criticizing, say, Taronar painting, on what terms would you criticize it? Like, would he expect you to speak about the colours, or the composition, or the symmetry, or the, I mean...?
Everything colour. I think the one I chose was..., I chose for colour. It was not...it was a bit abstract size...abstract side. Not a very beautiful thing that you would recognize at once and he in those days, I remember him very well as a professor. I must say he was a great professor. After teaching us for some time, he would say, “Alright tomorrow, I will take an exam.
Come ready with that,” and throughout the night we read all King Lear and everything we didn't know what he will ask us. And then as we walked up to the cubical, Vinod said, “I am thirsty,” somebody had a tummy ache, we were all so nervous and we went. And then he made us sit in the library and he said, “This shelf of books you can...you can just consult the books, like look at the books and write. We had separate set of questions for each of us, and I found I had a big passage in French, which he wanted me to...be translated. I wondered that I was learning French, I didn’t know that he knew it and I was going to Allianze per se...AKDG.
Arun also had a French passage and he also asked me art. I think he had asked me...impressionism to write a note on that. Arun had something on Dadaism, and then we were all consulting the books, and Rahman Saheb, who was the Librarian said, “What kind of examination is this, looking at books and discussing among ourselves?” Arun said, “Will you take care of my Dadaism because I don’t understand what that is. I will take care of your French,” because I was not that good at French as yet but he knew individually and that sort of teaching I would, I really would cherish.
Because Tarak Nath Sen is such an interesting figure, I wanted to ask more questions and then see how you are feeling. We could end after that. You mentioned some of the books that you read with him, but could you even more could go into the syllabus that he taught? I mean, because it will be very interesting to see what he valued, what he wanted the students to take away from the great literature or the great art. You mentioned Turner, you mentioned Milton, Shakespeare obviously. What other things did he...?
I think, you know, there were two years time and not that text. Textually, going through all texts there was not, he did teach us some sonagonistis in great detail.
Also King Lear, and when he took that examination we read King Lear whole night before that and the question was, “Do you know what abuses Shakespeare had used?” or some such thing which we didn’t expect at all. Anyway, I think King Lear he taught and Oscar Wilde. Some of the Oscar Widle because we went into a great discussion on what is obscene and Ashleel. What is obscene and what is not obscene in literature. We went into a great discussion on that and so these I remember...
How about his tastes?
But he told me, I remember on the first day he asked us, “Tell me what the books that you have read, the novels.” So I was surprised that of all of them I had read most and he listened to everything I said chronologically, so I don’t know what I said chronologically as much as I can down, and he seemed to be pleased, but he said, “You have neglected Walter Scott.” I said, “I do not like historical novels very much. I have read Ivan Hoi,” then he said “No. Another couple of books I have, you should read.” So he had noticed where the gap was even, so he was very about that.
Did he ever had any students come to his home like Sushobhan Sarkar? He did not have that kind of...
No, he was a very reserved sort of a person and all his students were in great awe of him. They seemed to be afraid of him which I was not somehow. And so if anything happened, they would push me inside. Once one of our students, he left her keys and went and had gone away and maybe she had left, she didn’t remember so we were just...I said I will go in and ask him, “Did you find the key?” What is wrong in that? And they would all say, “No you can’t ask, how could you say that? Then alright you go.
They were pushing me so then I went and said, “Yesterday she had left her key here,” and he was very concerned. He at once got up and with me went down looking under the table and Arun was so angry with me. “You made him get up?! You made him look after the table!” and I said, “I didn’t ask him, he was doing it, what can I do?” But they were all in great awe of him so I don’t think he would go, but although he was always very affectionate, I think in a way, but he was very reserved, and so...
Was there...when you left after the two years studying with him, would you say there is an overall message or an overall aim that he had in his teachings? Something he was trying to get across to students?
For example, the discussion about the obscene and the mundane or non obscene art. Did he want to broaden the minds of the students so that they could look at something that they might have considered obscene and thought about it more critically? Was it this notion of criticism that one should approach literature always critically? Was it that want he was trying to say something about English Literature and the best of English Literature as he saw it. What was his message?
What he wanted, I think, he taught us English Literature, of course.
What he wanted us was that we should think for ourselves and not just read the book and get the answers ready...what to write because most of the questions that would come for exams would be stereotyped questions, and...but what he taught us was much broader than that, to create a interest in these things and make us think. That is why he did not mind when I disagreed with him about Turner or Dhriti would go on and on on this obscenity and non obscenity. I had a meeting or something...I, one day and I told Dhriti, “Please don’t go on, you will make us late 'till 7.” If you go on asking he would also respond
How could the classes go on until seven? I don't understand. They would just, he would keep talking or there would be a discussion, and it would keep rolling on, or...?
Mostly, he would teach us...as sam sonite as we were reading and teaching. Sometimes discussions. Not much discussion. Mainly he himself spoke, because as I said everybody was in awe, but if you ask something we had to say. I was the only person who was not in much awe. I don’t know why, but I wasn’t.
Did you had to write a final paper or a thesis for the post-graduate?
Not for the post-graduate. It usually comes after M.A. and when I was already in College, I had started writing in obscure journals and papers.