Sister Nivedita Anecdotes – III

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ANECDOTES – III


11th February 1905. Lord Curzon, while giving the convocation address at the University of Calcutta, said that truth was given a higher place in the moral codes of the West before it had been similarly honoured in the East. The educated Indians attending the meeting were hurt, but no one raised a single word in protest. Nivedita was present at the meeting. She became furious at the insult. She just could not silently endure the indignity caused to this country. At the end of the meeting, she forcibly took Sir Gurudas Bannerjee to the Imperial Library. She drew out the book, Problems of The Far East by Lord Curzon, and showed him the pages l55-56 of the book where Curzon had proudly described how he had given false statements about his age and marriage to the President of the Korean Foreign Office to win his favour. On 13th February, Amrita Bazar Patrika, published the excerpts from Lord Curzon’s convocation address together with the relevant portion from the book proving his indulgence in untruth. The next day that news item (published in the Amrita Bazar Patrika) was reproduced in The Statesman with comments. It triggered a serious movement throughout the country over Lord Curzon’s false statements and his unfair allegations against Indians. On 14th February, Nivedita addressed another letter to the editor of The Statesman, which was published with a caption ‘The Highest Ideal of Truth’. In the letter she quoted copiously from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Puranas to show how truth was held in an exalted position in this country. She was more pained to see the cowardly silence of the students present at the meeting who did not say a single word in protest. In the letter, Nivedita censured them also : ‘The students to whom these statements were addressed, received them in ”a faultless silence”. They did well. Less well, however, must we think it, if they stepped into manhood, remembering charges so levelled at their dead ancestors and their national codes, with never a word offered in defence! ‘

* * *

Litterateur Dinesh Chandra Sen was Nivedita’s neighbour. He developed a beautiful friendly relationship with Nivedita. Nivedita believed in extremism in politics, whereas Dinesh Babu was rather of a simple and timid type. Nivedita admired Dinesh Babu for his literary quality and goodness but did not approve of his cowardly behaviour. Sometimes she would rebuke Dinesh Babu for this . Dinesh Babu respected Nivedita very much and would always endure her reproaches quietly, for he knew well that her reproaches were not unjust. One day Nivedita, Dinesh Babu and Brahmachari Ganen Maharaj were walking down Baghbazar road towards the bank of the Ganges. Dinesh Sen was ahead of all, followed by Nivedita and at the end was Brahmachari Ganen Maharaj. Suddenly a crazy bull came rushing towards them. Dinesh Sen immediately took to his heels, fearing for his dear life. Nivedita was left just in front of the bull. Brahmachari Ganen Maharaj quickly stepped in and drove away the bull. When all three of them gathered again, Nivedita laughed and said to Dinesh Sen: ‘Dinesh Babu, today you’ve brightened the image of the masculine rank. Your act of the day should stand as an exploit-memorial.’ Immediately her smile vanished from her face. She rebuked Dinesh Sen: ‘Dinesh Babu, are you not ashamed of yourself ?’ What could Dinesh Babu do? Truly, he did not act befitting a man. So he silently gulped down everything.

But at heart Nivedita was very fond of Dinesh Babu. Nivedita used to say that she respected Dinesh Babu because she found true patriotism in him. She helped him much in the publication of Dinesh Babu’s book on the history of Bengal in English. For one year she worked on this, going through the entire manuscript minutely and editing it. Sometimes they worked on it from morning till 10 o’clock at night with hardly an interval of a few minutes. Dinesh Sen wrote that if Nivedita would take over any responsibility, she worked thoroughly, involving herself as though it were her own task.

She helped Jagadish Chandra Bose in a similar way with his scientific writing.

* * *

Nivedita wrote these words about Swamiji’s patriotism : ‘India was Swamiji’s greatest passion…. India throbbed in his breast, India beat in his pulses, India was his day-dream, India was his nightmare.’

Such patriotism had manifested in Nivedita also. She used to recite every moment, like a sacred mantra: ‘Bharatvarsha, Bharatvarsha’. And she would become ecstatic while doing this. She held everything in India as sacred, deserving worship. She would hold a specific practice in high esteem, even if it might have lately fallen into disuse, only because it must have been beneficent for India in the past. Before boarding a boat from a ghat on the river Ganga, she would touch its water to her head like any other Hindu woman. She would always keep her hands folded in the gesture of pranama whenever she approached any temple or a deity.

One day Nivedita and Christine were invited by Sisir Kumar Ghosh to come to the office of the Amrita Bazar Patrika. Some Indian ladies were also present there. Sisir Babu introduced Nivedita and Christine to the ladies. Nivedita instantly became one of them, as though known to the Indian ladies for so many days. In the corner of the room an earthen lamp was burning on a bell-metal lamp-stand : there was no electricity during those days. Both Nivedita and Christine were totally charmed to see the bell-metal lamp-stand and the earthen lamp. They were intently looking at the objects, after a while they uttered the word arati and made pranama with their folded hands. All who were present there, ladies especially, were surprised to observe their mood. They were seeing these things since their childhood, but on that day they could feel for the first time how sacred the earthen lamp and the lamp-stand were.

* * *

Giribala Ghosh was a student at the Nivedita School. She was widowed at an early age and was left with a daughter. She lived at her maternal uncle’s house. After attending the school just for one year, her daughter was married. On the day of basibiye, i.e., the day following the marriage, Nivedita went there to bless the newly-wed couple. The thoughts of HaraGouri arose in her mind while looking at the bride and the groom. She became ecstatic and kept repeating: ‘ShivaDurga,
ShivaDurga’. Completely oblivious of the surroundings, she sat cross-legged on the ground of the bridal room and kept swaying with her hands stretched out, and repeating continuously, ‘ShivaDurga, ShivaDurga’. She remained in that position for a while and then left suddenly engrossed in that mood.

* * *

One day Dinesh Sen pointed out to Nivedita a verse on Shiva, as narrated in Shunyapurana. It ran like this: ‘Oh Shiva, why do you live by begging? Begging is a very heinous profession. Someday you may get something while on another day you return with empty bowl. If only you till the ground and raise paddy, your hardship will be over. Oh my Lord, how long will you live naked or wrapped up in a clumsy tiger-skin? If you cultivate cotton and spin yarn, you will get the comfort of wearing woven clothes and be happy!’ It never occurred to the mind of Dinesh Babu that this out and out rural verse could contain any extraordinary Indian thought in it. But while reading it, Nivedita became profoundly excited and kept muttering, ‘How wonderful! How wonderful!’ Dinesh Babu asked: ‘Sister, what have you seen in it that makes you wild with joy like a pauper suddenly getting a kingdom?’ But Nivedita did not shift her eyes from the verse, as she clasped both of her hands. With her eyes glistening with profound delight and pride she only kept repeating: ‘Oh Dinesh Babu, it’s a wonderful thing!’ A speechless Dinesh Babu thought what could have happened to that crazy girl! Next day he approached one of Nivedita’s friends (perhaps, Sister Christine) and inquired : ‘I couldn’t quite follow what Nivedita got from that verse? Have you any idea?’ She said: ‘Yes, I’ve heard about it from her. Ordinary devotees or worshippers pray for help from their worshipped deities – Oh my Lord, be gracious and grant me wealth, name, fame, grant me good health and a host of other things. But in that verse the devotee, out of his love for the worshipped deity, completely forgot himself, the thoughts of his personal sorrows are totally lost in his mind. The sufferings of his worshipped deity have softened his mind, now his only concern is to see how to remove the sufferings of his deity.’ Dinesh Babu then came to understand why Nivedita was overwhelmed on reading the verse. In fact, Nivedita herself was very much the
image of such an idea!

* * *

Nivedita tried to imprint nationalist ideas in the minds of her girl students through all their activities and behaviour including language, dress, education, music, and everything. She introduced everyday singing of the song Vande Mataram in her school. Any national object, no matter how insignificant it might be, was dear to her like a worshipped deity. She tried to infuse this reverence into her students also so that they could view any national object in such depth.

Once the British Government set some political prisoners free from the Andaman jails. Nivedita declared a school holiday to commemorate the event and decorated her school premises, placing mangal ghats (earthen pitchers with swastika inscribed on their bodies, symbolic of beneficence) supported by plantain saplings at the entrance.

In order to hear the lectures of Surendra Nath Banerjee, she used to take the senior girl students in a carriage to the Brahmo School. Surendra Nath gave lectures on nationalist issues in a park and the students heard him standing on the verandah of the Brahmo School situated adjacent to it.

One day Lady Abala Bose, wife of Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose, came to her school. Nivedita became very happy and made her students sing the song ‘Banga Amar Janani Amar’ (My Bengal, My Mother). When the girls were singing, her delight knew no bounds, tears of joy rolled down her cheeks.

* * *

Many of Nivedita’s students would not take food from her hand, because she was a foreigner. But, such an attitude shown by the very students who were to her dearer than her own life could not hurt Nivedita. Rather, she respected their firmness to abide by social norms. She never wanted to hurt people’s sentiments or give injury to traditional social practices and rituals of Indians.

One day Nivedita took her students in a joyous outing to the Museum. The girls moved around for a long time and felt tired and thirsty. She quickly took out the glass she had brought with her, washed it under a water tap, filled it with water and held it out to one of the girls. The girl was acutely thirsty, nonetheless she could not take the glass touched by a foreigner. Another girl sharply took away the glass from her hand and drank the water herself lest Nivedita was hurt. But Nivedita was neither
annoyed with the first girl nor felt hurt.

* * *

One day Nivedita hired a boat and took her students to visit Dakshineshwar temple. Alighting from the boat she first reached Sri Ramakrishna’s room and spent a long time in meditation with others. Then she took the girls to see Bhavatarini. All the girls entered the temple and saluted the Mother Kali. But Nivedita had no right of admission inside the temple. So she reached the end part of the natmandir, negotiating her way through the chandni by the side of the river Ganga. Standing over there she saw the Mother Kali. The girls were very sorry that Nivedita had to take a look at the Mother Kali that way. But Nivedita was not disturbed – she was overwhelmed with joy having had the vision of the Mother even from there.

* * *

When the goddess Sarasvatl was worshipped at Nivedita’s school for the first time, She was offered uncut fruits like grapes, date-palms, sweets and not any cooked food items in order to take care of the sentiments of the girls. After the floral offerings, the students carried those fruits to their homes – they did not have the courage to take prasada within the precincts of the school. But Nivedita’s love had the power to sweep away these social restrictions to a great extent and a different scene was observed on the next year’s Sarasvatl puja. The initiative this time was taken by the students themselves. They offered the goddess with fried luchi and cooked curry, etc., at the seat of the goddess in the ground floor. However, to maintain the sanctity of the latent tendencies of the Hindu-widow girls, neither Nivedita nor Christine came down to the ground floor even once. But when the puja was over, some of the girls went up and forced them down. Now greatly delighted, all of them sat together and shared prasada.

* * *

In the days of the blind rush for imitating the English, a nationalist education for Indian girls was initiated, ironically enough, through the benign hand of an ‘English woman’. We simply do not know the enormity of social obstacles, the physical hardship and severe poverty that Nivedita had to endure to run her school. Perhaps, we shall never come to know that, because so easily did she involve herself in other people’s sorrows and sufferings as equally she was unmindful of her own pains and privations. But truly she had to spend many days unfed and under-fed in order to run the school. Initially no Hindu maid would agree to work in her household because she was a mlechchha (foreigner). Even if they would, they would not agree to touch utensils and other household goods used by her. So during those days she had to help herself in this regard. Because of difficulty in cooking food she mostly lived on fruits and milk. As the days passed, her kind behaviour made the womenfolk of Baghbazar locality accept Nivedita as one of their own. Even the natural tendencies of an otherwise illiterate maid-servant were wiped out by the quality of her love. Nivedita’s self-sacrifice for the cause of India was so evident that even she thought that indeed Nivedita belonged to India, no matter if she was a Memsahib. So, later on, the maid never objected to washing her used utensils. But the utensils used by any other Memsahib who might have called on her had to be washed by Nivedita herself.

The premises of 16, Bosepara Lane was her school as well as residence. The house was not at all healthy. Over and above, as Nivedita was born and brought up in a cold country, she used to suffer greatly during the summer days. The ceiling of the house was low, and during the summer days the rooms would become so hot that anyone staying at the room for a while would develop headache. In those days there was no electric lamp or fan. She had only a small hand fan. During the hot summer days in that room she would keep on writing books with singular attention, her head downcast. Needless to say that during the hours of writing it was not possible to use the hand fan. Perhaps, as she remained singularly absorbed in writing, it made her insensitive to the heat. At times she would come out of the room after writing, to look at things that the students might have been doing. At that time she would be seen with her face reddened with heat. One day while she was supervising the work of the girls, suddenly she took her seat rubbing her forehead with fingers. When somebody inquired, she said: ‘It’s greatly painful.’ After a while she was again absorbed in her writing. Due to living in that home, Nivedita frequently fell ill and suffered from malaria on a number of occasions. In fact the whole locality was unhealthy. But in spite of all requests and entreaties from her well-wishers, she did not agree to leave the house and change over to some healthier place within the town. How could she leave the place that gave her first refuge in India, no matter how unhealthy it might be? She used to say: ‘The place has adopted me, leaving it I will not go anywhere.’

To cap it all, there was financial hardship. She had to meet all the expenses of running the school and maintaining herself out of the earnings from her writings and the monetary help that Mrs Ole Bull used to provide. When she would face financial hardship even after so much of labour, she would first curtail her own personal expenses. Lady Abala Bose (wife of Jagadish Chandra Bose, and who was very intimate with Nivedita and closely observed her over a long period) said: ‘Her neighbours knew how the lion share of her income was used to meet the sorrows of the poor, to provide food for the hungry. For this she would sacrifice even her basic needs.’ Rabindranath Tagore while reminiscing said the same thing: ‘It was not out of donations, not even from the surplus that Nivedita met the expenses of the school. It was out and out part of sharing her food. This is the truth.’

* * *

The twenty-two year old widow, Giribala Ghosh, lived at her maternal uncle’s place at Baghbazar with her daughter. She keenly wished to study at Nivedita’s school. She enrolled herself there, but had to discontinue due to criticism of the neighbours. One day, on her way to the Ganga for bathing, her grandmother heard Sanskrit verses in chorus being sung by the students of the school. She liked it so much that she made Giribala rejoin the school. But on the slightest pretext she was not allowed to go to school. Most of the days the school carriage coming to take her would return without her. The driver of the school carriage, fearing damage to it, would not enter the lane leading to her residence and her guardians would object to her walking down the lane to reach the carriage. When Nivedita heard about this, she instructed the carriage driver to pick Giribala up from her house. But one day the carriage dashed against the corner of a house and was badly damaged. Nivedita very much disliked if any loss or damage was caused to anything. So she herself went to Giribala’s house. She talked to her maternal uncle for a long time and finally said: ‘You may be displeased with me. Call me in whatever terms you may like to, but I beg of you to allow this girl from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. to go to my school. The women members of your family go to the Ganga for bath or to Kalighat. Why can you not send this girl for a few hours even?’ While saying this, Nivedita knelt down before that gentleman. The gentleman became embarrassed. Raising Nivedita, he immediately called for Giribala from inside the house and handed her over to Nivedita. She hugged the girl with both hands and began to say: ‘My child, from now onwards you will be able to go to school everyday.’ On that day she herself took the girl to the school in her carriage. On reaching her own room she affectionately wrapped the girl with a shawl and said: ‘My child, take this and come to the school everyday, covering yourself thus.’

* * *

Before beginning of the summer vacation or any other long vacation, Nivedita used to feed her students. The number of students was not small and she was poor. So it was not possible for her to arrange for good food. She would count the heads of her students well ahead and buy fruits and sweets according to her means. Then she would wrap them in small packets made of ^/-leaves and distribute them from a basket, approaching each of her beloved students. Thereafter she would stand in a corner with an empty basket. After taking the food the girls would drop the empty packets in the basket, and with a smiling face Nivedita would watch the entire proceedings. In this way Nivedita would serve her small ‘goddesses’.

* * *

Nivedita was a mother to her students in the true sense of the term. Hindu widows were required to maintain many restrictions with regard to their food. So on many occasions they would reach school without taking any food. Nivedita could tell by seeing their faces who of them had not taken their meal and would be anxious to feed them. She had one young widow student, named Prafulla Devi, who was her neighbour. On every ekadashi (the eleventh day after the full moon or new moon, which one spends in full or partial fasting, prayer and worship), she would make this student sit before her, then taking due care to avoid being touched, she would feed her sweets and syrup. On one ekadashi day she had to go to Jagadish Chandra Bose’s house on an urgent piece of work. Suddenly she remembered that it was ekadashi and she had not fed Prafulla. She immediately rushed Backto her house and called Prafulla and repeatedly apologised, saying: ‘My child, I’ve forgot, what a wrong! I haven’t fed you while I took my meal. What a wrong! ‘

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