A Childhood Pastime of A Great Spiritual Master
Dr. Vidagdha Bennett
It is November 12th, 2008 and I find myself in Perth, sitting in the Federal Court of Australia, watching a lawyer, who happens to be my brother, argue a landmark case involving intellectual property rights. As the drama unfolds, with both sides trading arguments and counter-arguments, my thoughts turn to a young boy of nine or ten years’ old, who used to sit in the public gallery of the High Court of Chittagong almost half a century ago. In my mind, I see him peering over the railings at a trial taking place in the main courtroom below, listening intently to the speeches made by the lawyers of both sides and examining the faces of the miscreants with keen interest. The boy’s name is Madal. In later years, he would become internationally revered and beloved as Sri Chinmoy – dreamer of peace, poet, musician, artist, athlete and spiritual guide.
In the evening of his life, on those sublime occasions when he was wont to reminisce about his childhood, Sri Chinmoy used to tell us the story of these visits to the High Court on Fairy Hill in Chittagong. By way of explanation, he said that he “liked to watch the lawyers and jailbirds”. Usually one of the family servants, such as the cook, would be delegated to escort him and together they would sit in on various trials and enjoy the proceedings immensely.
I freely admit this is one aspect of Sri Chinmoy that has always mystified me. What attracted a mischievous village boy, someone so full of energy and vitality that family members bestowed on him the nickname ‘Madal’ (meaning ‘kettledrum’), to sit for hours on end absorbed in the crimes and foibles of strangers? Having successfully absconded from his tutor’s dominion, set free for the day to roam in the town, what drew him time and again to return to the High Court?
I realise now that my limited comprehension was based on a very narrow idea of what a saintly person should or should not do. I overlooked the fact that the broad canvas of humanity, that great mass of struggling and imperfect individuals, is his chosen field of manifestation. Moreover, I did not take into account the most central tenet of all, the lines in the Bhagavad Gita uttered by Lord Krishna that convey the very essence of a true messenger of God:
“When righteousness declines and unrighteousness prevails, Myself I embody and manifest.”
Where else then should a young spiritual Master go to imbibe the prevailing values of his time but a court of law, that arena where truth and falsehood wage their eternal struggle, where the innocent are sometimes sentenced to jail and the guilty on occasion walk free, where human justice and divine justice are balanced on the scales of karma, where flawed individuals may rise to nobility and the great may be exposed as flawed?
I believe that Madal’s visits to the High Court of Chittagong were intrinsic to the awakening and expansion of his consciousness. They represented his first steps outside the family circle, they introduced him to the general conditions of life in East Bengal and, finally, they enabled him to identify with the sufferings and joys of a host of men and women. In sum, I believe that his experiences as a silent observer in the High Court served as an important foundation for his spiritual work in later years.
MADAL’S FAMILY CIRCLE
Let us try to recreate something of Madal’s daily life in 1940, the year he turned nine. His family home was located in East Shakpura, a tiny village approximately 13 km. east of Chittagong town and connected to it by waterways and the broad Karnaphuli River. Having retired from his position as Chief Inspector of the Assam-Bengal Railway, his father, Shashi Kumar Ghosh, had founded a bank in Chittagong named Griha Lakshmi (the House of Lakshmi). Each Monday morning, Shashi Kumar and Madal’s elder brother Chitta would leave the village home and travel to town by ferry. They would stay there during the week, sleeping in quarters above the bank, and return home on Friday evening.
This arrangement left Madal and his next older brother Mantu alone with the ladies of the house – their mother and two of their sisters – for days on end. A private tutor would come to give lessons to Madal and Mantu, but the two young boys also had a great deal of free time to play games, frolic with their pet dogs and monkeys, climb trees, pluck mangoes, visit the ponds on their father’s estate and chat to the workers. It was, in many ways, an idyllic life. Theirs was a prosperous family; their father was the enormously respected head of the village council, and there was an abundance of cousins, aunts and uncles who seemed to be in semi-residence at the sprawling Ghosh family dwelling.
Yet Madal pined to accompany his father to town and, by various subterfuges, often succeeded in following his father as he walked to the little pier at the beginning of a new week. On many occasions, seeing his youngest child so determined to emulate him, Shashi Kumar would surrender and allow Madal to board the ferry with them. Madal was his seventh child, born when he was forty-nine years old and his wife, Yogamaya, was thirty-seven. His other children were spiritually inclined, quiet and restrained, but this one was different. Madal was lively and full of irrepressible energy. By the time he was eight or nine, he could barely be contained and although he was the darling of the family, one imagines that it might have been with something akin to a sigh of relief that his mother and sisters saw him leave for a trip to town.
Arriving in Chittagong, Shashi Kumar and Chitta would set about their work, leaving Madal in the strict care of one of the bank’s workers. He was not allowed to go out into the streets alone, but he won permission to accompany the bank messenger on the back of his bicycle when he went out on errands. If Madal had succeeded in abstracting a few paisas from his father’s coat pocket, he would beg the messenger to make a stop at the stall of a sweet vendor and he would purchase a small bag of sweets to distribute to various officials in the bank.
Apart from riding on the back of the messenger’s bicycle, an activity all the more thrilling because he was forbidden to have a bicycle of his own, Madal’s favourite pursuit was to go to the High Court.
THE SYMBOLISM OF THE HIGH COURT
Unlike other cities in Bangladesh, the topography of Chittagong is full of contours. The Chittagong High Court is a monstrous and imposing two-storied red-brick edifice constructed by the British on Fairy Hill (“parir pahar”). For many years, it was the largest single building in India atop a hill. Until recently, it dominated the landscape and could be seen from afar by people approaching Chittagong via the Karnaphuli River or by road. To Madal, as he arrived by ferryboat from the village with his father, it would have been the first thing he saw each time he went to town.
East Bengal at that time was part of India and India was ruled by the British. The strong imperial presence in Chittagong had lasted almost two hundred years. In fact, the British had built their own part of the city adjacent to the old, existing city and, as in the rest of India, they had given it a separate identity. They strewed their section with massive buildings which were somehow believed to enshrine their values. Such buildings, writes Simon Winchester in the foreword to his insightful book “Stones of Empire: Buildings of the Raj” (2005), written in collaboration with Jan Morris, were “an assurance hewn in red sandstone that constitutional rule and democracy would long flourish.”
In Chittagong, the British purchased a 25-acre property comprising a hill and surrounding valleys from a Zamindar by the name of Akil Chandra Sen. On the crest of the hill, they built their High Court, which was also used as the seat of administration. The building covers a staggering 250,000 square feet and has literally hundreds of rooms. It also commands panoramic 360 degree views of Chittagong, including the port area, large portions of the Karnaphuli River down to its mouth, the Deang and Banskhali Ranges to the South and the Hill Tracts to the east. On the lower slopes of the hill, the British constructed other important buildings relating to the “civilised governance” of the colony.
What was the rationale behind such an excessive display of grandiosity? Christopher Alexander in his book “A Pattern Language” (1977) supplies a partial explanation when he observes, in a more general context:
“The instinct to climb to a high place, from where you can look down and survey your world, seems to be a fundamental human instinct.”
Yet surely there is more to it than this, otherwise the British would have been content with a modest building more appropriate to the needs of this far-flung colonial outpost. The imperious architecture of the British Raj is more damningly interpreted by Simon Winchester and Jan Morris who write:
“…the High Courts of India were very conscious of their own importance, and into them the architects tried to build the loftiest meanings of empire… they were also the largest buildings in their neighbourhoods, towering above the rest like legal maxims… The High Courts did not often express a quality of mercy, but generally made the malefactor feel as alarmed as the judge was all-confident.” (p. 111)
Yet it was through the doors of one such High Court that a small boy dared to pass, accompanied by a humble cook.
INSIDE THE HIGH COURT
Walking up Fairy Hill, approaching the huge façade and then entering through the imposing front portal – acts requiring no small amount of courage – Madal truly found himself in a “House of Wonders”. It was beyond anything that he had ever experienced in his village. The High Court literally thronged with a life of its own. Vaulted corridors and wide staircases led to court after court and the white marble floor echoed with the myriad footsteps of justices and judges in their flowing robes, lawyers, pleaders, litigants and criminals.
As he ventured down the long, cool galleries, past alcoves where clusters of lawyers conferred in hushed voices or family members tried to offer solace to each other, beneath portraits and sculptures installed by feringhi from another culture, his ears would have caught snatches of English and perhaps the language of traders in this port city – Arabic, Burmese, Dutch and Portuguese, as well as Indian dialects that differed greatly from his own Chittagonian dialect. One can imagine the fascination that this exerted on the young boy, especially one whose father wore Western clothes to work and could converse in English.
What kinds of cases were referred to the High Court? It seems that the village councils (‘panchayat’) – of which Madal’s father was the chief judge in their area – dealt with local matters, such as the determination of property boundaries, theft of cattle or produce, broken contracts, dowry payments and such. The High Court had jurisdiction in company matters, matrimonial issues, bribery, major litigation, bankruptcy and so forth. One can only imagine the tales that were spun before the court and absorbed by a wide-eyed boy sitting in the public gallery, a little boy who, undoubtedly, was wise far beyond his years.
It is also worth noting that Chittagong was not at that time the “sleeping beauty emerging from mists and water” that Chinese traveller Huen Tsang eulogised in the 7th century AD. Anti-British feelings were reverberating throughout the sub-continent and, for a time, Chittagong was in the forefront of the movement to expel the British. On April 18th, 1930, sixty-five revolutionaries, men and women, led by the great patriot-hero Surya Sen, had simultaneously raided the armoury, police station and telegraph office in Chittagong. They then proclaimed an independent national government.
This offensive caught the British by surprise and shocked them to the core. Many of the revolutionaries escaped to the surrounded hill areas. Manini Chatterjee, in her book “Do and Die: The Chittagong Uprising: 1930-34” (1999) reports that the official backlash was heavy and by 1931, the year of Madal’s birth, Chittagong had come under virtual martial law. The administration had special powers to arrest, detain and punish anyone it thought was connected with the revolutionaries. This touched on Madal’s own family as one of his relatives was jailed for revolutionary activities. In addition, the leader of the revolutionary movement, Mastar-da Surya Sen, was connected with the family. Sri Chinmoy clarifies:
“Surya Sen happened to be a distant relative of my mother’s younger sister’s relatives. A few times he came to my mother’s sister’s place to hide… The British Government was always in search of Surya Sen.”
Over the next three years, the revolutionaries in hiding waged a guerrilla war against the entrenched colonial power. Eventually, in spite of the best efforts of East Bengalis to protect them, those who were still alive were captured, interned in Chittagong Jail and then tried in the Chittagong High Court. Some were sentenced to years of imprisonment, more serious offenders were deported to the Andaman Islands, while their adored leader, Surya Sen (who was not arrested until 1933) was hanged in 1934, evoking a surge of public sympathy and giving new impetus to the anti-imperialist struggle. It is not an understatement to say that the events in Chittagong shook the foundations of the British Empire. In 1934, the city was described by the Intelligence Department as “the mainland of Bengal revolutionary activities.”
The uneasy situation vis-à-vis the British was compounded by the outbreak of the Second World War which led to a massive military build-up in Chittagong as the British transformed the port city into a key military base. There was an influx of allied forces from Britain, Australia and America. Soldiers were massed on parade and they flooded the streets. Sri Chinmoy recalled that sometimes these soldiers would affectionately pick him up and carry him on their shoulders.
Ultimately, the War was to bring much hardship and suffering to the people of Chittagong. Because of its strategic importance to the British and its proximity to the war front in Burma, the city was vulnerable to invasion. It became a target of Japanese attacks, there were frequent air raids and, after the fall of Burma in early 1942, refugees flooded the city. Sri Chinmoy later wrote of those times in his book “My Brother Chitta” (1998):
“My father passed away in 1942 during the Second World War. In the last year of his life, the Japanese began to bombard East Bengal and a huge hole, like a swimming pole, opened up in front of our bank in Chittagong. Many times, when we heard the planes coming, we had to go inside the air-raid shelters.”
THE GREAT FAMINE
The Chittagong region is extraordinarily fertile, with three crops of rice per year. In 1940, only 7.4% of the population lived in urban areas. The principal primary industries were the cultivation of rice, jute, fruits and vegetables. The very name “Shakpura” means “place of vegetables”. During the War, farmers of the region were forced to sell the bulk of their rice to the British at a very cheap price and it was used to feed the armed forces, both those stationed in India and those fighting abroad. As the War progressed, the British took emergency measures to requisition and stockpile rice for the soldiers. Moreover, they destroyed more than 60,000 small boats which, in the delta, were essential to the grain distribution system. The British rationalised this action by saying that it was to prevent the invasion of the Japanese, but in reality it was to break the backbone of the revolutionary movement.
These actions precipitated the Great Famine of 1943 – paradoxically, a season of bumper crops – in which five million people in the Chittagong area died from starvation. The Great Famine is known in Bangladesh as “panchasher manvanter” – the famine of ’50 – because it occurred in the year 1350 of the Bengali calendar. Fortunately, Sri Chinmoy’s elder brother Chitta had foreseen this eventuality. Sri Chinmoy writes:
“My brother Chitta was concerned that if the War continued, it would be difficult to find enough rice and other food for the entire family. So he sent one of our servants to the town to buy about forty huge bags of rice. He bought enough not only for our family but also to sell to the poor people at a very cheap price. The servant brought them back to our village by boat and others came to help him unload them. I tried to lift one bag, but I could not even budge it. My brother also bought other kinds of food. He kept everything in a temporary shop, and every night one servant stood guard in front of it.”
It is still widely believed in Chittagong that the food crisis was engineered by the British Government in order to compel Bengalis to flock to the army recruiting centres. Thus the British would acquire much-needed manpower and the independence movement would be substantially reduced, if not crushed.
The Ghosh family, however, took another route. After their mother passed away in 1943, they applied to join the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, South India. Madal’s eldest brother, Hriday, who had been a resident there since 1933, came back to Chittagong and made all the necessary arrangements. A very small number of young children, whose lives were endangered by the War, such as Madal, were given permission by the Divine Mother to join the Ashram. Hriday wound up the family affairs, gathered Madal, Mantu and various other members of the family and set out on the long journey to Pondicherry, gradually leaving the war zone behind. From Chittagong, they travelled more than 2,300 km. (1,430 miles) by train, arriving at the Ashram in March 1944. As a postscript, one notes that on March 25th Japanese aircraft, consisting of five medium bombers and thirty fighter planes, attacked Chittagong.
A PASTIME ILLUMINED
In many ways, Sri Chinmoy’s early experiences in the Chittagong High Court were a fast track to his understanding of the human condition. And it meant that several decades later, when he moved to New York and came into contact with all the extremes of Western lifestyle, nothing would ever surprise him about human behaviour, there was nothing new for him under the sun. He had seen and heard most things.
Effectively, this means that it is not entirely accurate to assume that Madal was a naïve village boy who had somehow been sheltered from the harsh realities of the world. By the time he was twelve and his eldest brother took him to South India, he had endured the bombing of his homeland, its occupation by armed forces, the destruction of his father’s bank and, outweighing all else, the illness and untimely deaths of both his parents. He had spent most of his time in the company of adults, and he had the unique perspective of someone who had observed a wide range of human behaviour during trials at the High Court.
Looking back now at the man he would become, I believe it is possible to see his experiences at the Chittagong High Court reflected in many aspects of Sri Chinmoy’s life: he always saw truth in its many facets; he accepted the flaws of humanity; he sympathised with all parties; he urged people never to judge others; and he himself did not judge. As he wrote in one short poem:
We return in the end to the image of a young boy who liked to go and sit for hours in the High Court. It is something that I have never understood – until today.
My Brother Chitta at Sri Chinmoy Library