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Saturday, July 04, 2015


A prolonged convalescence has helped greatly to talk at length with my parents, and I have been picking their brains, tracing my genealogical and intellectual inheritance – my roots if you like. I had heard most of it in disjointed snatches over decades, since I was so high, but it is fun piecing it all together at this age, and discovering bits and pieces I hadn’t known. My grandfather’s grandfather on my father’s side was naib/dewan of the Maharajah of Burdwan (when his women travelled by palanquin through forests escorted by paiks – armed guards – the notorious dacoits who lorded it over those parts salaamed and moved aside when they heard it was his folks passing by), a famed astrologer, and more than a dabbler in tantra. His son made a fortune as a muqhtaar, and my granddad was part owner of one of the most famous bookstores in College Street, Kolkata in its time – Chatterjee Brothers – who saved a lot of innocent lives both Hindu and Muslim at enormous risk to his own out on the streets during the Great Riot of 1946, sometimes browbeating bloodthirsty mobs into quiescence by the sheer weight of his aroused personality. I can see where the temper has come from, and how valuable it can be, and anyway it makes me proud that I was not born into a typical Bengali middle-class family of mealy-mouthed, time-serving rats. The tradition has continued powerfully through my own father, who was never formally much of anything for most of his life, and yet chief ministers have sought his counsel, and violent trade unionists have sought his protection to save their skins, and on occasion he has had the ineffable gall to grab the hand of the Dalai Lama himself and put it on his own head, leaving the entire entourage open mouthed – as someone VERY high in the government said then, not many presidents of nations would dare do that. All His Holiness did was to smile and say ‘Happy? Can I have my hand back now?’ There are stories galore, but much has to be filtered for a blog, given the average quality of readership these days…

I have written more about my mother’s side, but only recently I discovered that Sagarmoy Ghose, the legendary founding editor of Desh magazine, to which Rabindranath himself used to contribute once upon a time, when he heard about me, remarked ‘Ore rokte lekha achhe toh’ (he has writing in his blood), because my great granddad the doctor had been a good friend since the days of his youth. What I didn’t know was that I was distantly related to no less a scholar/teacher than Basudev Sarbobhoum himself, with whom Sri Chaitanya stayed during his sojourn in Nilachal, being particularly fond of the malpua that Sarbobhoum’s daughter in law prepared, and whose recipe was handed down as far as boroma, Saraswati, my mother’s grandmother, a legend in her own right, wife of a self-made tycoon who made half of modern Assam (including the only road that still connects Guwahati with Shillong today), a devout and truly simple woman as only very deep women can be, coached in English at home in Shimla by the governess to the children of a certain provincial Governor, whose brother was a police commissioner terribly harassed and disgraced because he had sheltered ‘terrorists’ in the days of the Raj and let them escape, who distributed truckloads of blankets to the needy every winter at Kalighat and Kamakshya and died alone in dire but proud and independent poverty as an ancient widow in Vrindavan. She once defied the whole gang of purohits with apt quotes from the shastras to perform puja despite being a woman at the latter shrine. What do today’s girls know about strong women? One of her sons, my ma’s mamas, was a dashingly handsome playboy in the 1930s, importing Harley Davidsons on a whim and filling his dad’s cinemas with his friends, and another, a doctor, who could speak Latin and Sanskrit with the ease of a master and was a wizard at chess among other things, I have always been told, is the man I resemble most closely, though I shall never put anyone but my dadu in that seat. Add to that what I have done as a scholar and teacher and writer and father all my life, and unless you are the lowest of the vulgar who cannot judge a man by anything but his bank balance, his car and his TRP rating, you will concede I have more than enough reason to be an elitist or a snob ... not with the young and the good at heart, never, but yes, with creatures who will never learn even as much as I have forgotten, and still imagine, assured by the swarm of people of exactly the same mental caliber around them all the time, that they are knowledgeable, they can think, and they have both an ability and a right to form opinions on every subject under the sun. No wonder so many of that type have become either engineers or journalists! A doctor friend of mine, a far better human being than all the hacks he has had to deal with, used the term ‘presstitutes’ for them, and I agreed perfectly, a flood of memories bringing back the reasons why I quit journalism long ago, when it was far less of a sewer than it is now.

Anyway, I am glad I belong to a long family tradition where the permanent – if not always uttered and enforced – injunction has been ‘Consider only what you are leaving behind that people outside your little family will value and revere and cherish’. And I hope that my daughter’s life, and my book, and Shilpi’s thesis, and the fond and awed recollections of a few thousand students will hold back something of me long after I am gone – as Basudev Sarbobhoum is remembered in circles that matter, even six hundred years after his demise. Paris Hilton and Lionel Messi won’t, that’s for sure.

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