Bisected by a dusty red path, the vast fields of the Ashram had a cluster of cottages on one side, known as Gurupalli. These housed our teachers. The cottages stood like dolls’ houses in a row framed by tall palm trees and fragrant malatilata creepers.
They were modest huts, really, with red-tiled roofs and homely interiors that matched their simple exteriors. Yet, like the people who lived there, they exuded a warmth and a welcoming spirit that drew us to them.
The “furniture” was often just a wooden divan, covered with neat rolls of bedding, and a cupboard for books. The inner courtyard doubled up as an open-air kitchen and the tantalising aroma of fish curry often wafted across the field to tickle our nostrils. We followed the scent and reached its source, to be greeted with an “Aisho, aisho, ma [Come, come, child]”, and a helping of fish and rice with some delectable pickle would be placed in front of us.
If we were lucky, we got some sandesh or palm-jaggery kheer. My mouth still waters at the memory of those al fresco picnic meals. As far as I can recall, till 1935, Gurupalli had just three pucca houses. Near the pond was the one that belonged to Dr Dhirendra Mohan Sen, Gurudev’s personal secretary, and another that sprawled over a large compound, appropriately named “Simantika” (Land’s End). This belonged to Shri Lalitmohan.
The Ashram pond near these houses doubled up as a swimming pool, and we watched with envy as our Bengali mates cavorted about, swimming and diving like mermaids. To help the rest of us – landlubbers from Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Sri Lanka, or Sindh and Gujarat – the Ashram appointed Jiwan da to give us swimming lessons. When Jiwan da felt we were not trying hard enough, he would drop us like penguins into the water and wait for us to thrash about before rescuing us. God knows how much water we swallowed, but we did eventually manage to pass our test.
On some occasions, when expert swimmers from outside came to give demonstrations, the Ashram pond turned into an Olympic pool. We never clapped for it was strictly forbidden in the Ashram, but said “sadhu, sadhu” to express our appreciation.
Most of our gurus stayed in Gurupalli. The first of the little cottages was divided into two parts. One half belonged to Bade Pandit ji (as Pandit Hajari Prasad Dwivedi was called), while the other half housed the family of Gosain ji. Next door, in a pucca house of his own, lived Shri Sarojranjan Chaudhuri.
He escorted students like us, who could not go home for Puja because of the long and tiresome journey, to see the annual Durga Puja at Shiyuri. His round face was always wreathed in smiles, and his pretty wife, whom we called Mashima (aunt), took us there in their car, a rare treat. I still remember her lovely face: her hair was trained to frame her oval face in little waves and smelt of the perfumed hair oil she used.
She also had the longest eyelashes I have ever seen. A huge red vermilion tika graced her brow and the neat parting of her hair had a similar red streak. Her lips were stained red with the juice of the paan she always chewed. After we had been to see the huge Durga idol at the pandal, Saroj Babu would take us for a final treat: a traditional jatra play. Before dark, we were taken back to the Ashram and deposited in the hands of our hostel wardens.
All of us who came from Uttar Pradesh had declared the house of Bade Pandit ji our special adda, and whenever hunger pangs hit us (at least once a day) we trotted off in search of sustenance. We ran through their tiny bedroom and descended on his wife (Bhabhi to us), who was to be found in the little kitchen attached to the courtyard at the back.
Bhabhi was a simple Bihari soul, and her sweet voice had given a new twist to my name: Gaura. To her I was always “Gaw-ra”. Her tiny round frame contained immense patience, and if there was nothing else available to feed us hungry hordes, she would place a whole canister of puffed rice to which she added chopped onions and chillies, fresh green coriander, salt and mustard oil. Within minutes, we had licked it clean.
There were seven or eight of us who attended Pandit ji’s Hindi classes. I must tell you a little about Pandit ji at this point. You could spot Pandit ji and his long legs and arms from afar. He always wore a loose khadi kurta with a carelessly slung silk shawl, and his classes were like none other in the Ashram.
Often, as soon as a few drops of rain fell from the sky, our otherwise strict Pandit ji would give us all leave “to get wet”. This was an excuse for the rest of the classes to join in, and those unique rainy day “holidays” were surely a Shantiniketan invention! Any class was free to seek this kind of leave and get soaked in the rain. We ran around the fields, shouting and splashing with joy, singing
Shraboner gogoner gaaye
Bidyut chamakiya jaaye
Shorbori shihariya othe, hai...
as we danced.
Whether “Shorbori” trembled of not I do not know, but the Ashram certainly did, with the shouts and shrieks that we added as we sang these immortal lines.
Excerpted with permission from Amader Shantiniketan, Shivani, translated from the Hindi by Ira Pande, Vintage.
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