Remembrances from a life well lived
My Life Story.From childhood stay of East Bengal journey to Calcutta is like journey of a small fish into an ocean. A fifteen year old girl travelling from a quiet, protected small town called Comilla to a flashy urban metropolitan Calcutta was just like that. The year was 194, Bengal had just been partitioned. My family were afraid for my safety, so this shift. It was a heady experience for me. Of course Calcutta of the forties was not as glamorous or modern as Calcutta of 21st century. It still had sprawling bungalows with big compounds. My grandfather’s house had 24 bedrooms, two garages, bought for 16 thousand rupees (I was the first baby born there, I believe). But jackals used to howl from the nearby Dhakuria Lake. It had large trees in front which used to shed lovely yellow flowers on the pavement. Hydrants would sprinkle gangajal early in the morning to clean the streets. On the other hand very near our house was the fashionable Southern avenue sporting a beautiful velvety lawn as its maidan stretching from Russa Rd to Gariahat junction. The wonderful journey to our schools and colleges by electric trams was another miracle to a small town girl like me. To the university I had to travel by 2B bus. There were some double decker buses too. From our more modest localities such as Ballygunge and Tollygunge they would pass through the more stylish areas, Chowrangi, Garer Math, Red Rd etc. which at one point were barred to the ‘natives’ of Calcutta. We passed the gorgeous New Market, also known as Hogg Market, to enter the crowded and ugly Dharamtala and reached Calcutta University facing the lake at College Square
I must mention the lure of food of Calcutta which were unavailable in East Bengal. In the midday, vendors would call out in their sing song voices ‘Happy Boy’ ice cream. There was also another variety of ice cream called Magnolia. Don’t know when those brands had vanished from the market. Then there were chocolates by the Nestle company. One big slab was 2 annas(64 paise =1 rupee, 2 annas=8 paise.)Those according to a village girl like me were delicacies fit for gods. Then coffee houses were sprouting everywhere. We used to go to Bijoli Coffee house near our Ashutosh College on Hazra Rd. But there was one famous coffee house opposite to the University from where I acquired my Master’s degree in philosophy. This College St coffee house was made famous by one Manna Dey ‘s song (coffee houser sei addat a aj ar nei)) it refers to the intellectuals, poets and writer’s meet in that coffee house. Yet though we used to frequent that coffee house often and popular writer Sunil Ganguli was about my age, we never found the poets there. Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen was one year my junior. But though we used to hear about his brilliance we never saw him in that coffee house. We heard that he was offered the post of Head of Jadavpore University ‘s Economics Department Later he was denied the offer as he was so young(24).
One feature of Calcutta of mid twentieth century was that women were gradually coming to the colleges and universities for higher studies. I, for instance, was the first girl of the family to go for higher studies. None of my paternal aunts were allowed to study beyond primary school level even though their father (my granddad) was a district judge and highly educated. All were married off by 9 to 15 years of age. But I was married off at 23 years. Some of my batch mates made their marks in different fields of life. Padma Khastogir was the first lady chief justice of Calcutta high court. Kobita Sinha, my classmate earned fame as a poet.
I myself started to write and publish in then renowned papers such as Bharatbarsha, Desh, Achal patra. Besides we started a woman’s literary magazine called Angana
About which I shall write some more later. My first story was published in Sunday Jugantar(Rabibasariya Jugantar) when I was just 14 years of age.
In Calcutta I met some famed writers, poets and editors too. Such as Parimal Goswami, Sagarmoy Ghosh, Dipten Sanyal etc. There is one funny episode about meeting a celebrity. I with my friend Ratna visited Sri Parimal Goswami.He was chatting with an exceedingly fair, old gentleman. Maybe he was very handsome in his younger days but now he looked just a 70 year old, fat man. Parimal kaku welcomed us and asked,”Do you know him?” We shook our heads in unison. We had never seen him. Both the gentle men were taken aback. Parimal kaku proffered some clue,” A renowned prof of English.” but seeing our blank reaction he shook his head with regret “How come you young college girls do not recognize Sishir Bhaduri, the all-time great of Bengali theatre?” We were thunderstruck! Who had not heard of Sishir Bhaduri, the living legend of Bengal drama world His brilliant performance and princely looks were forever being talked about since I grew up. But we never used to visit city’s proscenium theatres, because of its prohibitive cost of entry tickets, and also not a right place to go for youngsters like us. How could we imagine that the Prince of drama world could become so grotesque with age and alcoholic fat?
When I read my chronicle to a young friend[Sahityam 21] who used to visit me as her social service duty(she was studying M.A in psychology at Tata School of Social Sciences Research),she asked me, ”ma’am, what about your dramatic activities in Calcutta. You must have done a lot of them in Calcutta. Also, you must write more about Angana, because such an attempt by girls alone at that time is very significant.” So I would explain to her the reason for my minimum activity on drama front.
The reason of this is, though drama was my hobby and passion in school life, in Calcutta there was not much possibility to be included in college dramas. College was a huge place. To be selected for the college drama you have to be selected through a public interview board of professors and students. I never attempted that. The one play I acted in the University was for the farewell party we organized for the 6th year students. Incidentally one of them were Sumitra Sen, once famous singer. The play I acted in was ‘chikitsa Sankat’.I was chosen for the prime role of Kabiraj sitting huddled with a hookka and delivering such prize dialogue such as,”Pratokkale bomi hoy? (Do vomit in the morning?)And hearing a negative reaction saying, yes, you vomit but you do not know it. (hoi, zanti paro na.)’ Prof Saroj Das, of our department praised me profusely. But even in the university mixed dramas were prohibited.
Later with a drama troupe, I was given the lead role in Bansari(a Tagore written play) sponsored by Angana, our magazine in an effort of fund raising. That was staged in a public stage in Maharashtra Sadan in Calcutta. Again it was girls only affair. The thing was that there were not so many drama groups as we saw later in 60’s decade. The commercial shows were meant for the rich Calcutta babus to enjoy. It was not for girls from conservative, middle class families. As I mentioned earlier I belonged to a time when girls are just coming out to study in institutions of higher studies. But there were lot of prohibitions and fetters around us. Girls are to study only up to a level and then get married. The jobs where they may be employed in were limited too. Mostly they would take up teaching in schools. They left their jobs when they are married off. I am talking about girls of Calcutta, the rural scene must be very much backward.
Yet there were quite a few enlightened women in those times. For instance, Mrs Thatini Das was heading Bethune College, Nalini Das was the principal of Hastings House College of education. Roma Chowdhury was the principal of Brabourne College. Even my maternal aunt Santi Dutt, not only was teaching in a college, she went to London University on a govt scholarship and obtained her Master’s degree of education in 1947. But they were exceptions rather than a common rule.
There were a number of famous actresses such as Binodini Dasi (whose relationship with Jyotirindra Tagore was said to be the cause of his wife Kadambari Devi’s suicide), Chaya Devi, and Kanon Devi etc. But those coming to the theatre and film area were not from respectable homes. There were number of women singers (Suchitra Mitra, Kanika Bandopadhyay and many others), and writers(Ashapurna Devi, Mahashweta Bhattacharya, Lila Majumdar). Nobody questioned about their respectability.
Actually from forties to sixties there was a silent revolution going on. By the time, I came back to Calcutta in sixties when I came for confinement of my elder son, there had been so many theatre groups and the heroines were all from middle class homes. To think back, from early fifties to sixties, so many changes occurred in the social arena. Earlier girls had to be chaperoned to all the places outside homes. Even in the university we girls had separate ladies’ common room, and the professors used to come herd the girls to his lecture rooms. In classes girls used to sit in separate blocks from the boys. Though we were not prohibited from talking to our men classmates, there always used to be respectful distance between the sexes. We would converse in the reverential ,’Apni, Apnara’ and never in intimate you,’tumi, tomra’.the concept of friendship between the sexes was a general,’no,no,’ there were a few love marriages. Most marriages were fixed by the guardians after matching the families’ caste, gotra and the families’ financial and cultural status.
By the time I passed out from the university in mid-fifties, I found some breeze of liberation was blowing. Presidency College students would freely talk with each other, and so would Jadavpur university alumni. Amartya married Nabaneeta, so did Buddhadeb Bose’s daughter Meenaksi who married Jyotirmoy Dutta. However they were more or less exceptional. The students not only converse with each other, they use very intimate terms of ‘you’(Tuatara.). I who was not allowed to study in Presidency College because it was co-educational, I was allowed to have a study circle with some Jadavpur University boys. We used to read out our creative write–ups.
My young friend asked me about the genesis of Angana, a paper by ladies’ only without any sponsors. To think back it was indeed a bit astounding. But when some of my father’ old college students called me for a meeting I took it very casually and arrived there with a friend of mine. They told that with their own accumulated resources they will start a ladies’ own paper, they will try to get some advertisement. They have not asked any money from us only asked us to write regularly, which we started to do with joy. We had been regular contributor for our college Newsletter Pravati earlier. I then realized my writing was very much appreciated by the limited reader circle we had. We also tried to get some adverts from corporate houses. There once we met one lady who was heading the public relation branch (name was a bit unusual some Miss Shyam.)That was a bit astounding too as most ladies got jobs only in schools and colleges. Bivadi our Angana editor told us they have no ambition of making money, only providing good reading materials to the readers. As you can well imagine the paper (bi- monthly) died after 3\4 years. But very recently I read in a biography of a quite famous author who used to write under a pen name of a woman, that once some ladies from Angana came to seek a write up from him. Fearing that his identity would be disclosed he told his mother to tell them that he is not at home. So I understand the ladies of Angana tried their best to run the paper for ladies and by ladies in mid-fifties and was such a noble effort. That it was not a flash in the pan. Think of Sananda which is such a roaring success today.
In sixties Calcutta was throbbing with life literature, drama and culture. Bohurupee group of Somvu Mitra, Ajitesh Banerji, and Rudraprasad Sengupta staged famous stage shows. In the film world, Satyajit Roy, Mrinal Sen etcetra removed the stigma of acting of upper and middle class ladies to appear in their films. But many of the fields were being dominated by men only. In the field of literature, the three Bandopadhyays, Tarasankar, Bibhutibhusan and Manik were undisputed emperors. After that so many others came but the incidence of women writers were few and far between.
As I had already said, Calcutta is a land of contrast where tradition and modernity lived side by side. There existed degrees of traditionality. My paternal family was a tradition bound one. Though I studied up to the highest level, was allowed to write and publish and was permitted to go out of our home in search of jobs or even higher studies, nobody imagined love marriage for me. Even if love would have occurred marriage could be allowed only within the same caste and religion.
But there were notable love marriages even in late forties. Indira Devi Chowdhurani (Tagore’s favorite niece) married Pramath Choudhury, after courtship. So did Leela Majumdar (married a Hindu though she was a Brahmo.), Bula Mahalanobis married Bulu Mahalanobish.Narendra Dev married Radharani Devi, a widow. Any way these were notable exceptions. Even Tagore followed his family’s dicta in choosing three very bad alliances for his underage girls and paid for this folly through his life.
Must mention there were some brave girls even in early 40s to fight for the country’s freedom. Beena Das shot at the British Director of education when she went at the convocation to collect her graduation certificate in the illustrious Senate Hall of Calcutta University. She was a teen ager. And got life imprisonment. But she got a reprieve after our country’s freedom. I saw her in her late forties, a very beautiful lady but remained a spinster. I also met another freedom fighter, Kamala Dasgupta whose book ‘Rakter Aksare ’recounted the story of their struggle. She too did not marry, and she loved me a lot. But they were my elder generation. In my time things were more smooth going .I was searching for a job in colleges when I got a call from Viswabharati university to be research assistant to do a Ph.D. I was so thrilled. Shantiniketan always was a place of great fascination for me. So the next chapter in my life was to be opened there. Calcutta’s life of jollity and friendship was over but remained ever imprinted on me. This six years of living in Calcutta surely made me a sophisticated young lady but fortune allotted lot of other experiences which made me so much richer as I shall be writing in my life story.
After the university phase I had to move to another field. I got teaching assistantship to do doctoral programme in Viswabharati University. I was thrilled. Viswabharati was a dream place for me. This is the place where Tagore left his footprints- a completely new experience, so different from the crowded city of joy.
Shantiniketan: a new chapter.
Tagore described this school of his as a nest where the whole world integrates,(Yatro Viswa bhabati eka nidam).But no, it was not immediately obvious to a new comer that there are number of institutes of different culture nestling in one premise,(besides sishubhvan, patha bhavan, siksabhaban, vidyabhavan, sangeetbhavan, kalabhavan, there were Chinabhavan, Hindibhavan too.)But what was very apparent to anybody coming from outside was that classes are not in cement and concrete prisonlike classrooms, but out in the open under shady trees. Students would bring their own mats to sit. The teacher had a stool to sit on and a blackboard was there to make any calculations or any other presentation. That was a unique sight for anybody coming from outside to visit the ashram (as the schools were named.)Sun shine used to play on their hair and so would gentle breeze. That was Tagore’s idea of being one with nature as was there in olden time of Gurukula system. Only later science lab and other accessories were housed in Vidya bhavan building.
As one would enter the premises one used to see a grotto for a statue. But there was no statue .It was named Choity. I loved the cute names of the buildings and places. Tejeshda’s house was called Taladvaj, because it was built around a palm tree, and the top of the tree was seen on the top as a crown. The girls ’hostel was Sree sadan. The cluster of mango trees was known as Amrokunjo. Many a meetings were held there. Tagore himself had several houses, differently architectured. He used to feel bored living in the same house day in and day out His most favorite staying place was named Prachi He had a mud house too whose walls were built of mud and the roof was dry straw. It had a typical rural cottage like appearance and was named Shyamali… But the house where he used to sit and wrote most of his writings was a north facing house known as Uttarayan. It is now used as a museum which retained its original décor. The décor was simple yet elegant where hand woven mats were used as wall covering and bed covers. Even the pot he used for his pens and brushes was so different and unique. It was chosen by his favorite and only daughter in law, Pratima Devi, Tagore, the artist, the poet left his stamp in all those memorabilia. Even houses outside his own had very different architectural elements possibly after South Indian Temple models. Professors lived in a colony consisted of modest bungalows and was named as Gurupalli. Sagarmoy Ghosh erstwhile editor of Desh in his memoire that his family lived there when Tagore was alive and there was a very cordial relationship between the families who lived there. Professor Probodh Sen(the famous chandosik of Bengali department was my local guardian and I used to call him, jethamoshai(uncle).The teachers used to be addressed as dada and didi, unlike Calcutta college of university practice of referring them by their initials, such as SKC,JB etc.
When I joined Vidyabnavan (university), Pratima Devi was not alive. Her husband Rathindranath, Rabindranath Tagore’s only son left Santiniketan after a scandal when he eloped with a married lady. He was a talented botanist (specially educated as such in England) and planned some fusion trees for the garden in Uttarayan. I remember seeing a mango creeper in that garden.
I did never see Tagore because he passed away when I was just 9 years of age. But some very famous people who actively were involved as teachers and coworkers of Tagore in building this ‘Poet’s School’, were there still. I shall mention Sri Ramkinkar Baize, the famous sculptor, whose sculpted Yaksa and Yaksini statues adorn the front of Delhi Reserve Bank and was appreciated by all the outside world. His several statues and murals were there in Shantiniketan. He was teaching in Kalabhavan. What is surprising is that he had no formal training in any school and rose from a very poor Santal family. He never married but lived with a Santal woman. He did not have any fixed home and would come to the common kitchen for his lunch and dinner. When I joined there the cooking was done by professional cooks but the students had to serve food according to a prefixed roster. When I first saw him as I had to serve him he looked so rustic and devoid of the manners of civil society I thought he was a madcap. Later I came to know about his immense talent from others. How did they choose this, ‘Rough Diamond’ covered in all this grime?
Only a genius like him could discover this genius.
Another very significant person I met there was Bibidi (Indira Devi Choudhurani, Tagore’s very dear niece to whom he used to write his daily experience when he was residing in his boat when he was supervising his zemindari in Patisar.) The collection of these letters were later published as a book called Chinnapatra (meaning excerpts of those letters.).She married a famous writer Promoth Choudhury. Her father was Satyendranath Tagore, the first ICS of Bengal. Indira Devi was known for her fabulous beauty and her profound knowledge of both Bengali and Western music. She was also very proficient in English and French. When I saw her she might have been in her sixties. She was a widow and lived in a modest house. She wore white borderless sari and blouse, the common attire for Bengali Hindu widow, though her parental house was known for its affluence, style and fashion and they were Brahmos. She was a very cordial, warm person and welcomed me to her heart and house immediately. The only reason was she read some of my stories in some copies of Angana which my roommate Renu supplied to her. She treated me like a daughter though I was just a 22 year old Ph.D. student with no special name or fame. Later she was chosen the Vice Chancellor of Viswabharati and must had shifted to the palatial building allotted for the Vice Chancellor. I had moved away then and forever she would remain to me the simple and warm Bibidi.
I met a lot of celebrities there but on very familiar terms. For instance Annadashankar Roy, the famous novelist and his foreign wife Leela Roy.All students (foreign and research students) had an open house in their place. Knowing that I came from Comilla, Annadashankar babu would recount his days in Comilla when he was a Judge there. Their first son was born there. Their daughter was a student of mine, at that year when I was taking class in Siksabhavan (college).
Amartya Sen’s home was Shantiniketan but he studied in Calcutta, but we used to see his father Kshitimohan Sen Shastri, a very revered person and Tagore’s close associate taking strolls in the morning. My guide and professor Venkatraman was an erudite scholar, but he was immersed in his own research work so my connection with him stopped with only suggesting a topic for my research topic,’A comparative study of Mahajana and Heenajana Buddhism. ‘And suggesting some basic books. Somehow the topic did not allure me and mostly the whole year I wasted by reading English novels in the library. However my teaching of Logic continued and that covered my board, lodging and tuition fee. Teaching under the trees was being done as Tagore told in close proximity of Nature was fun, the only problem was the students could not take notes. For me a black board was given for any writing and illustrations.
The library was quite spacious and books were neatly stacked But in the Education section I could not trace the books that my guide mentioned so I was even more discouraged to pursue my research work .Now after sixty years when I obtained my Ph.D. in education from Madras university and guided dozens of Ph.D. and M.Ed. students in doing their research work in Chennai, I understand we should give them assistance in learning research techniques Without that structured approach just sending them to randomly survey books would not lead to any fruitful work.. To come back to Shantiniketan library, it was looked after by Bimalda son of one of the old timer Prabhat MUKHOPADHYAY //who was Tagore’s secretary and wrote a significant biography named Rabi rashmi. There was a bell outside the library and every morning at the ring of the bell all the inmates of various hostels would assemble at the field outside the library to chant a prayer. The veranda in front of the library used to serve as the stage for any drama (which were plenty) by either of the institutions, from primary school to the university students.
Chanting of slokas from Upanishad was routine to us, the students of Sreesadan (the girls ‘hostel).We had curfew at 6 pm and as we entered the premises, our hostel super Sudhadi led us to the prayer’Saha nou bhavatu, saha nou vunaktu………sarve sukhino bhavatu etc. It meant let everybody be together, everybody be happy and in good health etc. I am not sure whether that practice is still there. On every Wednesday there used to be a prayer meet in the old prayer hall, whose walls were adorned with colored glasses. This was built on the site where Devendranath Tagore, Tagore’s father sat in meditation and uttered, “Here I found peace of mind, and calmness for my soul.”(moner aram and Atmar shanty),and donated this place to Tagore on which later Tagore built his abode of peace, Shantiniketan and his ideal, a poet’s school where children will learn in the gentle embrace of nature with no stranglehold of discipline. Of course that did not mean license to do anything they like. It just meant learning with joy.
At the beginning he started with a few devoted but extremely talented teachers who used to teach the handful students to learn alphabets, reading, singing, drawing and painting. Nandalal Bose was the head of Art school, and his star student was Sri Ramkinkar Baize, whose name I mentioned earlier. During my time Sri Shailajaranjan headed SangeetBhavan. One of the eminent faculty was Sri Shantidev Ghosh, brother of Sri Sagarmoy Ghosh, the illustrious editor Desh paper whom I mentioned earlier. One of the equally eminent student was Syad Mujtaba Ali (the famous writer).Even our erstwhile Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was a former student of Shantiniketan and when I stayed there she came for the Annual Convocation as the Chancellor of the University.
One interesting thing I should mention regarding appraisal of one of my stories by two literary stars of Shantiniketan., Ashokebijoy Raha and Rani Chanda. Ashokda was a faculty in Bangla bivag of Vidyabhavan and a novelist. Rani Chanda became famous by writing one book,’Alapchari Rabindranath’, which consisted of some of Tagore’s conversations with her and other inmates of Shantiniketan. I wrote a story titled ‘Satin’ basing it on the life of a flower seller who used to sell his ware in front of our common kitchen. Ranidi liked my story but gave me a valuable advice. “Do not use too many metaphors in a story. A write up should be like a Japanese garden. Where all the words should be essential for the plot, so much so if you move one word it will look empty.’ Her own writing was devoid of all verbosity and very free flowing.
Ashokda questioned the main tenet of the story. Anyway I sent it to Desh and the story was immediately published and earned quite a few fan letters. So I understood judgment of stories are very subjective. All the faculty were very simple. I once went to professor D.M.Dutta, a celebrated writer of two volumes of Indian and Western philosophy, to discuss about my thesis topic (Buddhism). I went in the morning to his house, (he was not a faculty of Viswabharati, but was staying there after retirement from Calcutta University).He wore only a banian on his upper body and of course a dhoti. He lived alone and he was struggling to light a coal stove. We had discussion on Buddhism in that fume filled kitchen itself.
One of my hostel inmate was Minu Choudhury, who was from east Bengal(now Bangla Desh). Minu looked and behaved exactly like a Hindu girl and we would often forgot that she was a Muslim girl. Only much later she made her name as an excellent Rabindrasangeet singer, with the name, Sanjeeda Khatun. One of the Ph.D. student also became a famous journalist. Amitava Choudhury. No, not the Mag sesay award winner by the same name.
Much later, in 1987, when I went to Anand to be an audience for observing my son receiving his MBA degree from The Instt of Rural Management, I met a very young Bengali girl who just joined Visvabharati as a young lecturer. I remember her for a unique name, Sabujkali Sen. I asked her if Shantiniketan still remained an abode of peace with its Chatimtala, Amrokunjo, that circular tea shop which Tagore named as Chachakra, that Kalor dokan from where we hostelites used to buy our necessary provisions from soap to bucket and what not. The red dusty road called ‘khoai’.the big field called Bhubandangar Math. Many of these are made immortal in Tagore’s writing. She said the physical features remained unchanged but modernity has crept invite was because it was made a Central University and many of the Central Govt rules needed to be implemented.
In very recent time, I read in the newspapers that Sabujkali was made the vice chancellor of Viswabharati and had to curb student violence and turbulent behavior. Had it been possible, I would have asked her how it thus changed from 1987 did to2018.Alas change is a constant occurrence and nobody can stop that. When I first saw the simple yet Viswabharati in 1955,the song that came to my mind was ‘khelicho a biswa loye birata sishu unmone.’ Translated it means, Oh the big infant you are playing with the magnum world as though it is a toy. But to think deeply, it becomes clear that it was not a mindless game. In this dirty and dusty Rarh Bhumi( north Bengal) Tagore meticulously built up his well thought out school and college and a technical school in Sreeniketan where unique hand crafted art work were used to be commercially produced and sold. Those included batique work on fabric and leather, and many other artifacts that were completely village art but were saleable in sophisticated homes. Another small thing I would like to mention, we used to look forward to Shanthiniketan girls for setting styles. They used to wear bordered white cotton saris, would not go beyond simple hairdo often loose hand tied ‘khopa’ but would adorn them with unique things such as two chillies, one red and another green, or may be a small twig where two baby mangoes were dangling. Their kolam drawings were exotic. They would not go for our traditional wet rice powder but would use flowers or various spices or lentils to give them unique looks. But the praise for Shantiniketan style stopped here. For the boys of Shantiniketan they used to be jeered
There used to be many functions, dance dramas, straight dramas, songs and dances .In the college day function I had a chance to play the role of the heroine, because I played the same role in a Calcutta stage .This.one was a mixed drama with girls and boys. Any way it did not give me the expected happiness or ovation that I received in Calcutta.
Another difference I found in Viswabharati from Calcutta. Here professors were called dada or didi and by their initials. Tagore wanted the school and college to be like a family as it was in Gurukula system. And these institutes were termed Ashram where students revered the teachers as father substitutes. I wonder if that practice is retained in later years. Even if that custom persists the spirit might have gone as I read in the newspaper they gherao their vice chancellor and destroy college property etc. Usually an idealist’s dream was implemented but when it becomes too big, too rich. Taken over by Central Government, rules and regulations fetter the spontaneity and charm of the original idea, and high values descend to commonness.
As I said earlier, my marriage was settled suddenly and I was not finding any joy in pursuing Ph.D. in Philosophy, I quite gladly left it and entered a new phase of life.
From Chennai to Sydney, Australia._________________________________________
I was married in 1956 and came with my husband to Chennai where he was working as a scientist in Central Leather Institute, one of the 16 national research labs. But soon after he was deputed to go to pursue higher education under Colombo Plan to Sydney, Australia. It was a kind of honeymoon time for us. It was also a time to learn (me at Sydney University and my husband at New South Wales Technological University.), earn degrees from there and to get soaked in the culture of a completely new continent called as ‘Down Under.)In those days people especially Bengalis used to travel to England for higher studies. The culture of Britain was pretty well known to us, through story books and novels and from the people who visited and stayed there. But Australia was a fairly unknown domain. From school text geography books we knew it was a sheep breeding country. And that was not only that. People jeered at us for travelling there.
I remember we went to a customs official to clear some of our documents. He was a Bengali so we expected quick clearance. He cleared our doubts and papers with a dismissive remark, why are you going to a place of sheep and goats? People go to England and Germany, surprisingly you chose this unknown country. ‘We had no answer to this question. However after we went there we discovered a glorious new vista. Those days students usually would go by boats to their destination but because my husband had to join on a stipulated date, he went by air. But my ticket could not be obtained on the same flight. Those days only a weekly one flight would go from Madras to Sydney, so I had to travel alone by next flight. Again one will have to change into a Quantas plane from Singapore. I boarded a ‘Fokker Friendship’ plane Jet Airways was not in existence. I had never before travelled by plane, leave alone changing plane etc. shall skip my hilarious journey (that was how I marked a brown gentleman, overheard to also go to Sydney and followed him like Mary’s little lamb so that I should not board on a wrong plane, and followed him in the dining room where breakfast was served and ate meticulously imitating him by holding the knife and fork in his shown way. I am sure he must be pretty suspicious about me. Any way I landed at the correct airport. I could see my husband was waiting for me on the other side of a barbed fence. Anyway, I had to go through the customs and quarantine barrier before. Here I had the first brush with Australian accent. The gentleman on the other side of the table asked me, “Did you do your exraai?” Exraai? What was it? I firmly shook my head.
The gentleman’s face became grim. He said, “In that case you have to stay in the quarantine area. “My heartbeat stopped. My husband was waving at me from his stance across the fence and I have to be imprisoned here? Then the gentleman wrote on a piece of paper, Did you have your x-ray done? ‘I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I understood that in broad Australian pronunciation ray sounds like raai.I was immediately allowed to come out as I was fully immunized before I boarded the plane for Australia. A Philipino classmate of mine told me that she had a similar experience when somebody asked her, Have you come here to die? She was completely taken aback. Later it turned out to be a very innocent question as “Have you come here today?”
My husband took me to a beautiful stone walled palatial villa which was the house of Mr.Kailash Sengupta, press attaché of the Indian Embassy. Fortunately for us he was the brother of my father’s best friend from Comilla. He and his wife very graciously hosted us for a week in their house and found a reasonably priced boarding house nearby. It was one of a house of a governor of Sydney, and the place was named after him as ‘Hopetown House’ which was to be our home for the next 4 years. We paid Seven pounds for a two sitter bedroom and breakfast for a week. Which just suited us fine as my husband’s Colombo Plan Fellowship was quite meager. Those days, Australian pound was 11 Indian rupees. Its proprietor was a Greek man, named Cooney and it was serviced by his wife called Faye who was a descendant of an aboriginal. But over the years she became very much adept in Australian culture and language which was basically British. Of course being a penal colony the prisoners would speak with a cockney accent and after generations of inter mingling and intermarriages the people developed their own lingua. But Faye had the basic features of Australian aboriginals that was high cheekbones, thick lips and curly hair. I came to know later that when Britishers discovered this continent (whose size was that of a large island) they killed off the original inhabitants who resisted the invaders with their bow and arrows and boomerangs, and set it up as a prison for criminals of Britain. Gradually when they came out, settled there itself many immigrants from Europe Greeks, Italians etc. it became a cauldron like America.
However, unlike what we thought and knew about Australia turned out to be quite wrong. No longer we came to see Australia as only a sheep breeding country but a veritable British country with its gorgeous university, Sydney University which was established in 1857, the same year Calcutta and Madras universities were established.
Sydney University was the first significant building I was introduced to. There were several Indian students, pursuing their higher studies residing at the guest house we were in. I wanted to do some course in the said university. One Dr.Rao from Tirupati was finishing off his Ph.D. in Physics at Sydney University and agreed to be my guide there. The tram stop was very near his Department but we had to cross the road. This was the first time I learnt we had to press a stop button on the footpath stand and we have to press it for stopping the traffic for allowing us to go. The university was on a high plateau of a hillock and sported a majestic view with its lichen covered frontage. The structure was built after London University with a large quadrangle at the Centre. Other buildings including the administrative building surrounded it. I went in to find out about the possible courses I may be admitted in. Though I was a Master’s degree holder in Philosophy I did not want to go in for doctoral degree because my husband’s tenure in Sydney was short. Because he was a Colombo plan scholar he was already admitted for Ph.D. course as he could use some of the data he already collected in Chennai. He joined New South Wales Institute of Technology, for doctoral work in Organic Chemistry (Leather Chemistry).His work would be the first in NSW university .It would be possible to finish it by two and a half year. Later we stayed back 4 years.
I was given the option of studying either a Diploma in Town Planning or a post graduate Diploma in Education. Needless to say that I chose the second one. Later I discovered that I entered into the calling of my life which kept me happily busy next forty years. I had to come to Sydney University building for three general papers, and the rest of the optional papers I had to go to Sydney Teachers ‘college, which was located at the same campus. Also I found that Sydney University was huge and it housed medical college, Law College and many other disciplines. Several other facilities were there for students. Locker for students, multiple canteens for them. Even there was a rest room for post graduate women students where there was a music room, canteen, a place for relaxing etc. It was named Manning House .In the. University education Department, we had some very qualified teachers, Prof Philp, Dr.Wylie, Dr.Howaai. In my general class I had 150 students, most of them were Australians, with a sprinkling of Chinese, and Fiji students. I was the only Indian student and I made a lot of friends which lasted 50 years through letter writing. It was an integrated course of 4 years, the last year was teachers ‘training for graduate students like me. I found this system later in India in Mysore University
At first I was not sure about joining the course because we did not have much reserve money for paying the tuition fee. My husband’s scholarship took care of our board and lodging and his study expenses. But my husband encouraged me to join the course and later I found it to be a very good decision, because as soon as I successfully finished the course I was absorbed as a teacher of N.S.W public school. I got good pay and could also join M.Ed. course in Sydney University as a part-time student which later enabled me to be a lecturer of education in Madras University and get a doctorate in Education from Madras. By the way, when I joined I did not realize I was creating history as I was the first Indian teacher in N.S.W about which I would write later.
Sahityam, my young friend here enquired after my drama activities, so I should clarify some points here in my teachers’ education here I had taken speech and drama as supplementary courses. I need to pass in those papers but marks would not be added for additional credit in the final count. One Mr. Hoffman used to take both the classes. I learnt in the drama classes how movement on the stage is more important than dialogue delivery. He would ask us students to come up on the stage and do some common every day activity, such as putting the clothes on the clothes line for drying. There would not be any concrete objects in the hands of the person. It would be only mime activity. At the end of the course, the class had to put up a drama. It will be evaluated. Mr. Hoffman chose King Oedipus, I was included in the chorus group.
After the course, I had the opportunity of attending two camps organized by New Education Fellowship. I joined their drama workshop. There I learnt many other techniques .Because I was a very enthusiastic participant I was given a piece of dialogue from the plays. Joan’ by GBS.I came to learn that is called monoacting. Later in Sydney Indian Association programmes I improved on the plays. There was a play written by Tagore(in poetry) named Gandharir Abedan(An appeal by Gandhari).That I edited and brought out three main characters, Gandhari, Duryodhan and Dhritarastra and acted the whole thing alone. That was hugely appreciated. Another poem of Tagore (kripan) I put up as a mime show as the poem was read out from behind. It was enacted several times in Chennai and was made into a radio play and was aired by All India Radio, Chennai.
Sydney University was the venue of a Film Festival in 1959,.I bought season tickets for that. But they were so many and often running simultaneously we could not watch many of them. But one interesting thing happened there. One of Satyajit Roy’s masterpiece trilogy ‘Aporajito’ (The Unvanquished) came there minus any English subtitle. I was spotted as a Bengali student some of the organizers requested me to sit with them in the projector room and give a running translation of the film’s text. It was not an easy task as I have never previewed the film. And instant translation was not my forte. But I ventured it .At the end of the film the organizers congratulated me saying I have done a good job. Anyway, Roy’s are usually visible story telling with little but significant dialogue. So people could appreciate me for my apprentice effort.
In many ways I was making lot of friends and imbibing in Australian culture. Some invited me and my husband for a game of tennis. Though none of us knew the game, we went and learnt the art of barbequing as all of us had to bring some food for after game barbeque. I brought Keema balls. Most of which fell through the strainer as I was roasting them but all others shared their food.
Australians, I found out were very friendly people and I was told that Britishers were cold in comparison to them. However we got very warm behavior from them. Sydney was a pretty city with lot of sunshine and number of beaches. Our Hopetown house was near Coogee Beach, in south Sydney. The famous Opera house was not built then. My stay in Hopetown House had some benefits. It was meant for low wage earners where we meet the common people of Australia .Also there were number of Indian students pursuing their post graduate studies with meager scholarships. Besides there were number of people from other Asian and European countries. Of course most of them were Australians. So it had quite an international and inter class mixture of crowd. I also saw how old people live there. In Hopetown house there were three old ladies. They get government pension but make their own arrangement for living independently, renting own apartments, doing their own shopping .Their grown up sons and daughter visit them one or two days. Maybe for Christmas or the parents’ birthday. Not at all like our joint families.
We had a common kitchen and we shared a common fridge and gas. We had to put coins in the coin box to light the gas .There was a telephone on a hanger and a fixed speaker. Mind you I am talking about a country in the 50’s. So many of the modern technology did not overcome us. We kept contact with people at home through air letters and communication was tardy. We used to pay 7 pounds a week for bed and breakfast for two. Did I write earlier that 10 Australian pounds were equivalent to 11 Indian rupee? Later the money system had changed.
While we met common Australian people in Hopetown House, we mixed with the elite crowds of the embassy (Indian). Through the Senguptas I learnt the niceties of living, such as hosting dinner and lunches. These people usually will live in their independent cottages. And naturally more luxuriously. We found one very friendly couple Mitra’s. Bimal Mitra was the Trade Commissioner of Indian Embassy. Actually the Ambassador’s office was in Canberra, so the Press Attaché Mr.Sengupta was the highest officer in Sydney. We became great friends. They used to live on the north shore in a place called Chatswood. Usually we would be picked up by Mr.Mitra. On Saturday evening to their home. We would have dinner and very long adda. We would stay in their house for the night and get up very late next day and have luchi and potato curry for our brunch (amalgamation of breakfast and lunch) and would come back by train which was very popular mode of travel in the suburbs. The friendship lasted our lifetime. We even attended their daughter’s wedding in India.
Another Australian couple adopted us as their Indian friend, Del Cross who would have been mother’s age had she been alive. They were very warm hearted person and we would sometimes go over to their place and stayed overnight. Del and Arthur Cross were childless couple and treated us like their own kin. They even came and lived with us in India later. Arthur’s hobby was to make pottery. They had a brick kiln out in the garden. He gifted me a clay tray which I preserved for a long time. From Del I learnt so many Australian manners and customs. From them I came to understand that Australian people are not very class conscious as Britishers were. Arthur was a bursar, sort of a watchman in one of the teachers’ colleges of Sydney. But I did not notice any poverty, or any sign of inferiority complex in them. Of course my observation may not be correct, basing it on one sample alone. In Hopetown house we found people from different home backgrounds. One Mrs Chandler was very friendly with me. She used to help in housekeeping and all. Another lady talked about her with contempt. I protested and told she was a rough diamond but this other inmate wrinkled her nose and said she did not find any diamond in her but roughness alone, as she was from a lower class. Of course this remark might have been originated from some personal animosity. In the meanwhile I completed my B.Ed. Course and was appointed in one of the public schools of Sydney. This was a beautiful school right on one of the beaches and was named as Bondi Beach School. I had written earlier that I did not know that I created history with my entry in the school. One day a reporter came and interviewed me and took my picture with my class. Later I was introduced to the Education Minister Mr.Heffron as the first and so far only Indian teacher in N.S.W. It was reported in the Statesman (Indian Edition).Naturally I became a pioneer teacher of a kind. Later I taught in another school named Crown St School, the reason being on 1st January 1959 I was in a bad accident. We went to a big New Year’s Eve mela on Coogee Beach and went up on a joy ride on a Ferris wheel. The iron stand of the Ferris wheel snapped and we along with others crashed down. There was one death and several were injured. My husband escaped with minor lacerations but I had a broken pelvis and had to be hospitalized. That was my first experience of being hospitalized. It was a missionary run hospital called St. Vincent’s Hospital. I was released after 8 weeks. But I could not still climb the steps so I was given a job in Crown St School. Though all school education was free, the children here came from poverty stricken homes. I had one student Lauren Murphy, who came from a broken home and lived with an alcoholic mother. She was very naughty and gave me a very hard time in the class. Later she was removed from the school and was placed in a delinquent children’s home. I wrote a story making her the central character, which was published in Angana.
On the other hand I made some friends with my colleagues. One was Mrs. Basser who was a poet and gifted me her book of poems. There was one Miss.Sowter who disliked me right from the beginning. She was unmarried but heavily pregnant. I asked Mrs.Basser what will happen to the baby who would be born without a father? Mrs. Basser was not disturbed and said calmly,” She will give it away. After all it is nothing novel to her. Last year also she had a child.” I came to learn it was no scandal to carry a child out of wedlock. The government took care of all such children.
I had another very nice friend called Fanny .She was Greek, single and very good-looking. She used to come to our house and shared our Indian lunch and dinner but never called us to her place. By then I understood Australians do not usually call others to their houses. In Fanny’s case her Greek father was very averse to brown people. So, she invited us to her house when her people were away. It was a beautiful and large house, not a small cottage but for dinner she took us to a seafood restaurant near her house. But we got invited to many respectable, middle class homes because of our identity as Indian students, especially after we joined a group called New Education Fellowship. There we met one renowned headmaster, Donald MacLean. He was a writer and wrote a book called Nature’s second sun (meaning Love).It described how pupils could be treated through love. After reading this book I sent it to my father (who himself was a writer and a professor).He wrote Mr.Maclean an appreciative letter. Mr. Maclean wrote back and they became pen pals after that.
In Australia we never faced any antagonism because of our skin color. May be they did not mind our existence because we were few in number and lived only temporarily. So we were not threat to their job getting. Foodstuff were so much in abundance and so pure, we would not cost the country too much. In fact those days we did not need any visa for entering the country as it was one of the commonwealth countries and a visiting permit was sufficient. At the end of four years my husband collected his doctoral degree and I got my degrees in Education. There I also spent a productive stage practicing dramatics and speech making. I carried my first son who was named Master Sydney Ghosh by my octogenarian granddad. So Sydney was a very fulfilling episode in my life. However I would like to mention one factor. Though Australia was no less erudite and learned people hankered to go to Great Britain. May be that was the “The grass is greener on the other side “syndrome. Thinking they would have more ‘quality education’ and ‘moneyed jobs’ abroad. However we came back by boat to the last chapter of my life…
Madras (Chennai) _________________1954 —2019. The last phase of my life.__________________________________________________________________________________
I had come to Chennai in 1954 before my marriage. So I would chronicle my feelings, wonderment about this place from that time onwards. The first thing I registered was that there was no ‘Madras ‘station but the terminal railway station bore a sign post ‘Central. ‘My relative, Meshomoshai came to receive me at the station. The first impression about the city was that, it did not look like a big, busy urban city such as Calcutta. It looked like a big town with big spacious roads which had shack like shops on both sides of the road, bearing signposts written in Tamil. How could people from other states locate any address here? Obviously, it was my individual problem. All others including my relatives residing here were happily managing with their limited vocabulary. We proceeded towards Teynampet passing cinema halls, Fountain Plaza, Chinese doctor’s clinics all on that broad road called Mount Rd. My relative told me that previously there was only this pukka road in Chennai running through the city ending at St Thomas Mountain. Hence the name ‘Mount Road’. Much later it came to be known as Anna Salai after one ex chief minister, Annadurai.
How old was Chennai city? Once I had done a comparative study of the historical origin of Calcutta and Chennai. The sources were S.Muthayan’s (historian) book called the queen of Coromandale (or some such name) and some souvenir published by Nikhil Biswa Banga Sammelan. I came to the conclusion that Chennai is older to Calcutta by some 25 years. I would not insist on the authenticity of the primary sources but what I garnered from hearsay, secondary sources etc. I am listing out some facts regarding the history of these two cities. There is a book nearby named ‘Kolkata’ by Sri Pantha, which reported that Calcutta was the amalgamated name of three villages, Sutanuti, Gobindapur and Kolkata. The story goes like this, a British gentleman was passing by a freshly reaped paddy field and asked the farmer ‘What is the name of this village? ‘The farmer was foxed by his language and thinking that he was asking about when was the paddies cut, he answered ,’kal katta Sir(it was cut yesterday)’The Sahib took the answer to be his question’s and Calcutta got its name. Chennai was a part of some person’s name.
Despite being an earlier city, Chennai still was not as developed as Calcutta because Calcutta was the first capital of India, when it came to be ruled by East India Company. The governors resided in Calcutta and Park St, Chorangi became the fashion centres of India. Schools and colleges were established to give ‘babu’, English education so that take up low ended jobs like clerks, translators etc. to help the British administration…
In South India, it was still rajas running their kingdom. The Chola, Chera and Pandiyan kingdoms were locater in Madurai and Trichy. Chennai was only a small insignificant port. The Portuguese missionaries spread foreign education in other places but it spread out to Chennai. Schools and Colleges of high standards were the fall out of this educational conquest. Both Calcutta and Chennai sported their own Universities in 1857
To get back to my own life history I came to Madras to spend my holidays and I stayed with my aunt (mashima) who herself was the principal of Calcutta college of education. Anyway her husband, chief chemist of T.C.S had a house in Teynampet and we stayed on there. To come to their place we had to cross a very crowded and busy market which was no different from our Calcutta markets. But the back side was very residential and pretty empty and if you keep on walking you could reach Mount Rd. Land was cheap those days, and some Bengali gentleman bought chunks of lands and built big Bungalows, Amazingly, they were all connected to film industry. To name a few, they were Haripada Chandra, Jyotish Sinha, Dhiren Dasgupta, Kamal Ghosh etc. They were also in some ways became pioneers in establishing Bengal association and allowing a place for Bengali population to meet and get together.
One of India’s first sixteen national institutes was established there was Central Leather Research Institute (established in 1952).Its first director was a Bengali, Sri B.M.Das. My husband was one of the first batch of scientists there, which also employed some of his alumni Bengalis. In 1955, Nikhil Bharat Banga Sahitya sammelan was holding their annual meeting in Chennai. Sri B.M.Das was made the president of the welcome committee.
In 1954, Adyar in the southern Chennai, was quite developed only up to Gandhinagar. Kasturbainagar was not in existence. I was shown round two famous temples, Kapileswar and Parthasarathy temples, one in Mylapore and the other in Triplican. Chennai boasted of two famous beaches, Marina and Elliot’s beach but I shall write about them later. Meanwhile, a group of Beltala Girls’ School, Calcutta came over to Chennai as tourists. They did not like the place they were assigned to stay and landed in my aunt’s house. As the leader of the group was the headmistress of the school and my aunt as a principal of a teachers’ training Institute knew her well, she was obliged to organize their place of dwelling and also their sightseeing. I became their guide. We visited the university, Marina beach just opposite the university .They went to see Mylapore and bought lot of saris from Rangachari shop (that was a small sari centre those days. They gifted me one sari and went for having lunch at Ratna Café in Pondy Bazar. We all had vegetarian lunch but one of the teachers refused to eat there. She was a child widow and could not eat onions and garlic which were present in south Indian ‘sambar’. So we came back to my aunt’s house where my grandmother, a widow had perfectly vegetarian food, so Putuldi the above mentioned teacher could comfortably eat. She also stayed in our house. While staying there she also brought a marriage proposal for me with her cousin brother who was working in Chennai, Central Leather Research Institute. Anyway I was blissfully unaware of all this plan so we happily went to visit the Research Institute, and the girl seeing thing was done. Of course he too was an innocent party as he was not thinking about his marriage then as he was pursuing his Ph.D. programmer at Madras University. However Putuldi pursued the matter after going back to Calcutta. My family readily agreed because he was a promising scientist in a national research institute and had a prospect of going abroad. Their family too agreed so the alliance was fixed. Of course it took a year for everything being organized and I went to Shantiniketan about which I wrote earlier. Any way I was not enjoying my doctoral attempt in Philosophy and was happy to get married. We were married in 1956 and my second stint in Madras started.
I was learning so many things. How to run a family, how to cook, how to direct the maid to do the household work. Their services were pretty cheap those days. She asked for six rupees a month for sweeping and mopping the floors, washing our clothes there was no running water in the kitchen or bathroom. She had to draw water from the well and fill the cement drums in the bathroom. She had to pump the potable water for the kitchen, from a tube well. She would also wash the rice for cooking and picked up the stones or any impurities therein. Vessels were cleaned by drawing water from the open well. There was no cooking coal. Usually wood was used as fuel. For fast cooking, charcoal stove was used. There was also another kind of fuel called lignite coal. The problem with these they will burn up very fast and get reduced to ashes in no time. There was no use of Kerosene stove still then.
My father presented us one ‘Icmic cooker’ which had a few cook boxes which had to be put upon one another with rice, dahl and vegetables with measured water for getting steamed. They were then inserted into a tube container(either of copper or aluminum).At the bottom of the tube one had to put a lit charcoal stove which would steam the whole package at one go. Nothing would get burnt and the food will remain warm after several hours. A marvelous contraption but it also has exited with today’s myriad new gadgets. When we came back from Sydney after four years’ stay, in 1960, we found kerosene stove’ janata’ has taken over the kitchen’s cooking. Few years’ later, people started using cylinder gas.
Vegetable carts used to come to each street with their respective signature calls. Therefore, we did not have to move out of our houses to buy vegetables. Fish market was outside in the proper markets and Bengali babus were very particular about going there and select fish of their choices. They were pretty cheap. I cannot remember the price of various fish, but still remember, Rohu and Katla sold for 6 rupees a kilo. We used to get lots of ‘tangra’ fish, but mostly sea fish such as ‘shankara’ and’ vetky’ were usually procured. Eggs were 4 annas a ‘hali’ (Four made a hali).Sheep and goat meat were 6 rupees a kilo. Milkmen used to bring their cows in front of the gate and would milk it under our watchful eyes Mostly buffalo milk was consumed by people
When I first arrived in 1956 after my marriage I found that I had to be adept at spoken English because most of my husband’s colleagues, were non Bengalis. Now, though I had an M.A degree and taught in Visvabharati College for a year my English was prepared and stilted. I became proficient in spoken English after I stayed, studied and taught in Sydney. Then I was regarded as one of the ‘learned’ housewives. But my son was very young and I did not think of taking a job.
In Chennai, we used to get our groceries from T.U.C.S (Tamilnadu Cooperative shop) at very reasonable rates. Those days many of our now populated places were paddy fields. We used to come to Elliot’s Beach riding on the carrier of my husband’s bicycle. People used to caution us about the slums on the other side of the road which were supposed to house criminals and antisocial elements. The beach used to be gloriously sunny and lonely. Today’s popular Besantnagar was nonexistent. The nearest locality was Adyar.
I discovered The Bengal Association, T’nagar even before my marriage as I searched for a library of Bengal books. They had a small cupboard full of story books, but I also found palace for cultivating my passion for drama acting. At that time they were practicing for a drama to be staged during Puja celebrations. The name of the play was Ulka and I went only to see the rehearsal. That day one of the participants was absent. On their request I became a proxy for that role. I was immediately chosen to be included in the final play. But I was then just newly married and my husband’s permission was a must. So the next day somebody came to seek the permission and it was immediately granted. That was the first time I did act with a mixed cast. My husband actually came from a very traditional family but I discovered this good man was a ‘Rasikar’ (appreciator of fine arts including dramatics). So he did not object to my taking part in the drama. Another reason for his approval was, though earlier the club never had ladies acting in those public shows, last year, Mrs.Kalyani Kumarmangalam, niece of Bengal Chief Minister Ajay Mukherjee and wife of Mohan Kumarmangalam (Petroleum minister of Central Government)herself joined the drama group and broke the barrier of gender separation.
I earned some fame in the mother’s role of that play, the memory lingered and after our sojourn of 4 years in Sydney I was sought out and I used to act in the Puja dramas every year. It also opened some avenues for writing and directing dramas. But first things first.
We came back from Sydney and as I was carrying I went to Calcutta for confinement. We then came back to settle in Chennai. We had our first child who was named by my octogenarian grandfather Master Sydney Ghosh. He told me ‘Since you conceived in Sydney, you shall call him by this name which will remind you your old granddad and your stay in Sydney.’
It has a funny consequence; every new acquaintance would ask him how long he had been in Sydney and I had to explain that he had never seen the lights of Sydney but only of U.S.A. where he is staying since 1987 till today.
Since we came back to Chennai we found that the city had become more urbanized. The paddy fields of the city were vanishing. For going to C.L.R.I we had to go past lonely stretches and there were cases of snatching of money purses and valuables. Now on those places, I.I.T. Madras had come up. It had a huge campus, comprising a part of Rajbhavan garden and forest area. Sri Bibhuti Sengupta was appointed as the first director of I.I.T. His wife (our Shantidi), Mrs Shanti Sengupta was a model housewife and was very friendly to all the wives of the Bengali community residing around Adyar. In C.L.R.I, Mr.B.M.Das was no more. Dr.Naiyudamma, a Telugu gentleman was the director there.
We stayed in a rented house (rent was Rs.100.)From 1960 to 1969.We stayed in Gandhinagar. The closest school to our house was St. Patrick School where our son Sydney used to study. In the campus there was a small shack like place which was the Kindergarten section named St. Michael’s School. Sankara School was across the Main Rd. The children needed to cross the busy main road to reach that school. My son (5), was to be accompanied by my maid Kokila (16\17) who would bring him back home after the school.
Meanwhile other colonies such as Besantnagar, Indiranagar, and Shastrinagar were being developed. Besantnagar, then was only alone colony on the Elliot’s Beach. A few C.P.WD quarters stood there. In 1965 GOCHS (Government Officials ‘Cooperative Housing Society) laid a corner stone for few houses. My husband could get some housing loan from his office and in 1969 our flat was ready We paid Rs40, 000\- for an ‘A’ type house (1250 sq. feet carpet area) and a garage on the adjoining ground, on 13th Cross St It was such a lovely house, two bedrooms and a large hall very spacious kitchen, two modern bathrooms and loveliest feature of the house was three large balconies – all cross ventilated. So fans were not needed. Compared to our old house in Adyar it was so much more spacious, well lighted, bereft of mosquitoes (we were on the second floor) croaking frogs and rats we just fell in love with it. My husband used to say, ‘It is like paradise to sit on the front balcony. ‘We could see the sea and hear the lapping of the waves when it was quiet at night. Of course it did not have the facilities of buses, big shops, banks, post office, and hospitals. Those things we left at Adyar. For shopping we had to go to Mylapore or T’nagar. 5B buses would transport us to those places.21B would reach us to Marina Beach. But to reach that bus stop we had to walk a mile to L.B. Rd, near Eros, the only cinema hall of the neighborhood, For select film shows we had to go to Mount Rd, but all the buses used to come back to their terminus by 9.p.m, we had to come back home with a show half seen.
In the meanwhile IIT-M had a Central school in their campus, entry to it was by entrance exam. Sydney had no problem joining that school. That was the prelude to his entry into IIT-M, where he did his B.Tech in Mechanical Engineering. Meanwhile my second son born in 1965 was studying in C.L.R.I Central School. It was easier to reach him there as it was located in C.LR.I. Campus and my husband could drop him to his school before he could enter his office. Sydney bicycled to I.I.T. because for the first year we got permission to keep him home as it was within a radius of 3 miles from IIT.
I got a call from a college of Education in Santhome which was not very far from our home in Adyar (and later in Besantnagar).The college was run by Catholic Missionaries (FMM. Group who started the famous Stella Maris College of Chennai.)The name of our college was similar. It was Stella(star)Matutina(morning).Though the people often used to confuse the two names, it became a premier post graduate institution for Teachers ‘education, which provided B.Ed. and M.Ed. courses for post graduate students. At the time our college was started there was no Education Department in Madras University. Of course the degrees were given by the university. Unlike Calcutta University, here Masters’ degrees were available in the affiliated colleges. At the time I joined the college (in 1968) there were six colleges of education for training high school teachers. Of them two were government colleges. The most ancient was Saidapet College of education (for Men) where our ex- president Dr.Radhakrishnan studied. For women, Lady Willingdon College was established right on the Marina Beach front. Protestant Christians ran a men’s college and named it Meston training college .The college for women by Protestant Christians was St. Christopher’s and I mentioned our college run by Catholic missionaries was Stella Matutina. There was another college for general categories named N.K.T.National Training College. The minority schools and colleges (run by the missionaries were allowed to take certain number of that particular denomination of students but we followed the same syllabus dictated by the University and the students sat for the same public examination. The faculty had to be selected on the same norm of degrees etc. as specified by U.G.C. The salary was disbursed through the State Board of Collegiate Education.
My appointment to Stella Matutina was an interesting episode. In fact, in the beginning of my job hunt I targeted only the schools. I went to St. Patrick’s school but it was a boys’ school run by Patrician fathers. Though there were some women teachers in the lower classes, I was over qualified to teach the primary class boys. There was another small school which is now quite a big school called Bale Vidyamandir. Anyway I met the head mistress who lived bang opposite our house. When I approached her she told, “Mine is a primary school. I pay the teachers who are B.A. B.Ed Rs\100 a month but since you are an M.A. M.Ed I can give you Rs\200.In Australia I used to get Rs\1250 each fortnight so here this pay did not suit me. I travelled a little further and found a big school, in Santhome. That was Rosary Matriculation School. The head mistress was a white nun. But after four years in Sydney, working and studying there I had on issues on that count. But the h.m after scrutinizing my portfolio gave me a valuable advice. ’My dear, you have not prepared for any school teaching. (Every high school teacher has to teach two subjects. In my case I can teach only English as my other option was philosophy which was not a school teaching subject.)You are fit to be in a college of education.’
As it happened there was a college of education on the top floor of that school. So kind of reluctantly, I walked up to the top floor. The Principal’s room was right in the front and the door was ajar. As I stood there a while, a white nun (she was the principal, an Irish lady, her name was Sister John-Houghton.) came out and asked me my reason for visiting her. I was called inside. I told her that I was looking for a job. She saw my papers and certificates and shook her head. She said ‘We are fully staffed now, but leave your address. We would call you if such need arises’. Sure enough I got a call 3 months later. That was the only interview I faced in my whole career (barring the one at Sydney school board.) I joined Stella Matutina as a temporary lecturer in 1968 and retired as its principal in 1991.
In the meanwhile let me recount how Madras was changing and along with her I, too. By 1965, I got my younger son, Amitava (nicknamed Kuttush). My children grew up in 2nd Canal Cross Rd. It was an independent two storied house. We rented the ground floor and enjoyed the beautifully cemented frontage. At the back of the house there were plenty of big trees, which included guava, mango, papaya, sabeda, coconut trees. There was a very fruitful jackfruit tree which was my husband’s favorite. He loved the curry of unripened jackfruit, and often the whole family would sit around one whole unripened vegetable and engaged in peeling and skinning i.e. had to pick the seeds and separate the edible part of the vegetable. I do not know whether you are familiar with this difficult task. It has a thick sticky juice which once adhere to your hand, it is extremely difficult to get rid of it. There is a familiar folk song which explains it well. “Love is like the juice of an unripe jackfruit which once is smeared on you, it will forever bind you. “We used to dip our hands in dishes of oil and would sit for this task. Other fruits were collected by the house owner, but he used to give us a share of them. During day time my husband would go to his office and I did not have much work besides child rearing. In the evening we would go walking to the C.L.R.I. quarters where there were number of Bengali families. We whiled away our time by chatting with them. Before Durga puja we would go to the Bengal association to watch the idol making.
The association was built by a few Bengali babus who used to gather in a T’nagar house to play cards and chatting. Central to the group was Sri Haripada Chandra who was a famous make-up artist. He was so renowned for his skill that film actors from other cities, such as Kali Mukherji, Uttamkumar, later Sharmila Tagore etc. would fly over to Chennai to have their make overs done by Haribabu. There were few other ‘Bengal enthusiasts’ who put in part of their earnings and savings to buy a patch of a land to build a structure for their meets and addas, in Giri Rd. The building was built on the same spot where it stands today. The library was shifted from Nirmala Sengupta’s house to the new building. In the hall, there was a small platform which used to be our stage to enact dramas. Durga idol was made locally by Hari Babu’s brother, Madal Chandra. One month earlier to puja, rehearsals for puja drama would start. Puja was performed for 3 days, and it was the lone puja in this locality so many people from distant suburbs also used to come and join in the puja utsav. Only on ‘Navami’ bhog prasad was distributed. Strangely, it used to be rice and meat curry. (not the traditional Khichuri bhog.)
My acting skill was developed through those Bengal Association dramas, where I had as my cofactors Kalyanidi (I.P.T.A. fame), Nemaida (Nimai Ghosh, whose film ‘Chinnamul’ won award in an international film festival) etc. Suhas Sarkar was our drama director. Sri Debabrata Mukherji, my husband’s colleague, who was like a big brother (Barda) to all also used to travel with me from far away Adyar to T’Nagar. Proshanto Chandra (Haribabu’s son, Rajat Bose, Bijay Ambaly, all were very eager participants. As was Ontudi (Anjali Sarkar) Suhas Sarkar’s wife, who earned her name as an Art Critic and was Lalit Kala Academy member. Even Satyajit Ray’s famous actress Sharmila Tagore joined one dance drama, Tasher Desh, produced by The Bengal Association on the Tagore Centenary year. I also saw Kaberi Bose, heroine of famous films such as ‘Rai kamal,’ Aranyer dinratri’. She came as a visitor, may be to see the Durga idol. Unfortunately this talented actor died pretty early in a car accident.
The Bengal Association was quite hospitable to drama troupes. When Bohurupee group came to perform in the city, they were invited to the association. Sombhu Mitra, Tripti Mitra, Kumar Ray et al came and Shombhu Mitra read out a poem,(probably ‘Madhu Bansir Gali).Later, when Bengal Association renovated the auditorium, Arun Mukhopadhyae and his troupe performed ’Jagannath’ on this stage. At a later day Bivash Chakravorty brought his troupe and performed ‘Madhab Malanchi Kanya.’
In fact it was felt quite early that Bengal Association auditorium was inadequate for drama shows. So a concrete stage was put up, supervised by the first Director of I.I.T. Sri Bibhuti Sengupta. But though it was a spacious and strongly built stage, it was not perfect for dramas. The acoustic was poor. People used to complain year after year that dialogue was inaudible because of reverberations. Very recently however those defects were corrected. Along with the changes and years our theatrical skills also improved. It was no longer shouting before the standing mikes but ability to move about more freely on the stage.
I shall recount another skill that I developed. I joined Stella Matutina when my younger son was 3 years old and was going to school. The next year was Gandhi centenary year. Sr.John-Houghton called me and said,”Mrs. Ghosh, since you are a Bengali, you must be creative like all Bengalis”.Sr.John Houghton studied in Calcutta and somehow she developed such a notion. She continued, “So you must do something to celebrate Gandhji’s hundredth year.’
Now I could neither sing nor dance, so I planned a pageantry with Gandhiji and other freedom fighters of India. It contained a small drama scene with, Gandhiji, Nehru.Kasturibai Gandhi, and Indira Gandhi etc. The total thing was named Amardeepam (The Light of India).The programme was held on Museum Theatre stage, along with our college day programme. It had prize giving ceremony, college report reading and was rounded off with this show. Among the distinguished guests were the chief of American consulate and his wife. Somehow they liked the play a lot and praised it in their monthly newsletter. From then onwards it became a responsibility of me, writing and directing the English play for each College Day. That was my first attempt at writing plays and directing. My colleagues also appreciated me and after successful productions would say ‘It has Mrs.Ghosh”s stamp on it.’ Though I used to make up plays out of known stories or poems, I did not try writing English plays. It was Sr.John Houghton’s encouragement that put me in the arena of writing plays and directing.
Another skill I acquired over the years that was short speech delivery. In Sydney we used to celebrate Tagore Jayanti with songs, dances, short plays (one I wrote from a small piece from Lipika).We had to say also something about Tagore. Though I did not have many of his books in Sydney, yet I prepared a short speech from whatever I remembered about his work and delivered it. It was just a small homely function in Mr.Sengupta’s house with about 40 embassy staff. But Mr.Sengupta who was a fine, polished speaker himself, was a little surprised and praised me after the function.(I wish to mention here that may be I carried it in my genes as my father, brother, sister all went in teaching, and I too was a professor later.)However those bits of encouragement helped me in speaking up, in University seminars, classrooms and later on public functions too. I remember, there was a memorial service for Dr.B.C.Roy in Bengal was attended by Sri Rajagopalachari and Kamraj. Both were re tired by then. But I was called upon to give a talk and that established me as a speaker there.
All those skills of facing an audience and talking ad lib helped me in my profession as a professor. One had to face the students every day and keep them attentive and focused for the hour long classes of B.Ed. section. For M.Ed. classes there were only handful of students and it was mostly seminars and interactive classes. But in B.Ed. classes I had to handle one of the general papers such as ‘Education’. Those days our college was permitted to take only 100 students because teacher trainees needed personalized care so the teacher student ratio had to differ from Arts and Science colleges.
The physical and social changes were happening in Chennai. It was becoming more and more urbanized. In the 50s most of the houses of the city were bungalow type houses, they were independent, houses with large compounds. Gradually two storied houses made their appearance. But none of the houses had any lifts .The apartment we shifted in 1969 was in Besantnagar. It was an apartment comprised of six flats and a three storied house. It was on a four ground land and separate water tanks and sumps. At the beginning the surrounding was full of sand (because it was so near the sea) but gradually the inhabitants started to put boundaries to their apartments and started to plant trees and greening the place. Gradually banks came up, the first one was IOB, and next to come up was SBI. Today there are numerous banks there. A post office too came up. Then some inhabitants said we need temples to worship. Today there are two three Hindu Temples. One big church, Velangani’s Church became a tourist attraction in Besantnagar. Many eateries and hotels too came up. So many were they that we could not view the sea from our balcony anymore. Grocery and vegetable shops too multiplied. In fact we could view the growth of a colony before our eyes.
Our two sons who were 5 years apart were growing up too. When we moved to Besantnagar they were going to Kendriya Vidyalaya. First in IIT and later in C.L.R.I. That was convenient for us for we bought a second hand Morris Minor car and my husband used to take them along with two other neighbors’ children to drop them to their school, which was in his office campus.
Besantnagar grew up fast, depriving my children their playground where more and more buildings cropped up. We had quite a handful of Bengali friends in Besantnagar and Adyar and they found going for Durgapuja was inconvenient so we held our first Durga puja at the C.P.W.D community hall (Besantnagar) in 1979. Makeshift pandals were set up. If the money was insufficient, there was no dearth of enthusiasm on the part of the organizers and participants. They collected contributions from the local neighborhood who also joined the puja festival and took part in the puja and festivities on all the three days. The inevitable fallout of the puja was starting a new association to continue the puja at least the next three years. The association was named South Madras Cultural Association. Consequently, my drama activities gradually shifted to the association which was near my home. I still maintained contact with Bengal Association (even today).
In the meanwhile my children grew up and very quietly my elder son Sydney (alias Tathagata) got admission to IIT-M in the Mechanical Engineering stream. The younger one, Kuttush (alias Amitava) was still a school-going child. Meanwhile, I had enriched myself with more academic degrees, such as Post M.A. Diploma in Guidance and Counselling and Diploma in Tamil. Then came the opening for doing part time Ph.D. for the working college teachers. I was the first from our college to earn the degree in 1981. However, a cloud of misfortune was gathering in our family. My husband was diagnosed with angina of the heart. He had a silent attack in 1981 but he recovered and resumed going to his office. He even took up consultancy work outstation. He was a very innovative scientist and received two Invention Promotion Award s from the President of India
In 1983, July, when he was in Kanpur he had a massive heart attack and he passed away at the Guest house, alone without any body near him. I was in the college carrying out college work. My Principal and one of my colleagues called me and brought me home without breaking the news. I was surprised to see number of people in the house. Anyway the news had to be broken and borne. My younger son was studying in Loyola College and my elder son was studying in IIM. Bangalore. Both were called up. I would not go into the details of my personal sorrow. My first thought s were, how I could maintain this house here and pay for my sons’ college studies. However time and tide wait for nobody and by the grace of God both could finish their higher studies. Tathagata graduated from two prestigious institutes, such as IIT-M and IIM. Bangalore, Amitava got his degree of management from IRMA. Both got good jobs and settled down. Both were married off early to two lovely and pretty Bengali girls. But as more meritorious students are lured off to U.S.A. my elder son too got sucked up in the mayajal and left with his wife. Last 30 years they are in America. My younger son settled here with his family. He works here as a Corporate Executive Trainer. I have to leave my paradise of house in Besantnagar and live with them in Adyar. Anyway this is not their life story, so I should tell about my life story in a nut shell, which is not easy because I am today an 85 year old lady and not particularly mobile. So from then on what happened to me and Madras, which I made my second home. After my husband’s departure I took charge of all the household responsibility plus those tasks of banking, paying various taxes and numerous other things that my husband used to take care of.
My job at the college gave me some financial stability. I also got little money as a life pensioner from CLRI. The house was paid for by my husband so I did not have to worry about our boarding. I had my colleagues as my friends. The colleagues of my husband in CLRI, did not abandon me. Of course my boys became my best source of strength.
I also became a member of a literary organization, Nikhil Bharat Banga Sahitya Sammelan which was an all India body which spread its wing to Chennai and started a new branch here. We used to have literary meets every month when we used to read our own written poems, stories, articles etc. In fact I grew with it and the habit of cultivating Bengali literature which was dormant since Angana days became more gripping. Of course in between some writing in my professional field was continuing but the language was English and did not give me the sense of fulfillment that Bengali writing gave. This association drew like-minded amateur writers of Bengali, poems, short stories and articles. They wanted to be in touch with contemporary Bengali literature. Some wanted a forum to teach their children to learn Bengali. Though there was no facility for printing we started a literary magazine named Sagari and with great enthusiasm started to hand write few copies. Later we contributed some money and had Sagari printed from Calcutta. That magazine still exists and is being noticed by some illustrious Bengali writers of Calcutta and Delhi too. Some had become quite adept in writing in Bengali. Some published in famous Bengali magazines. Some published their own books. They acknowledge their gratitude for the encouragement they received from our association. Some mentioned me in their forward. I humbly accept these as my greatest reward. One of our members instituted a prize for the best write-up of that particular edition of Sagari, which had to be judged by outside judges. I was the first winner of that prize and later too I received the medal twice. But the best thing about this association was that it tickled my creative vein and I wrote some good stories for it. I published two books, one a short story book called ‘Galper jhampi’ and another a collection of self-written drama book, ’Natick samagra’. The seed was sown from my writing ‘Amar Deepam’, probed by Sr. John Houghton. Previously, I had a compilation of my stories written earlier during Angana days, but it was with my father’s writing published by his publishers.
In the professional arena too I had written books on education, challenges and issues in Emerging Indian Society and another counselling, study habits and achievement. There were many smaller booklets, books I wrote which I cannot remember with my failing memory. So at the end of the day I thank God for blessing me by allowing my creative talents to be expressed abundantly. I have no right to judge if I deserved all these.
Yesterday a lady (94) called me up. I met her in an Eye Hospital where we went for cataract operation and exchanged our cards. The lady very smart and fashionable was a Bengali, married to a Cherian (Malyali) and lives in a posh area of Chennai. She called me up quite unexpectedly and possibly was interested in seeing the list of degrees suffixed to my name. She told me “You are such a learned person, I don’t know if you will remember media am calling you because I found you to be a very friendly one.”
I was mighty pleased but told her what I am going to tell you too. I am no great pedant. God provided me with a lot of opportunities and by His grace alone. I could utilize them. So actually I am one of you, and if you know me as such and love me as much I shall be so grateful. Ami tomaderi lok.ei hok amar sesh porichoy.