Bimsa Shatabdir Pratham Dashake Sri Aurobindo

— Manoj Das


Price: Rs 200

Pages: 169
Dimensions (in cms): 14x22
ISBN: 978-93-84101-07-7
Hard Cover
Publisher: Sagnik Books, Kolkata

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About Bimsa Shatabdir Pratham Dashake Sri Aurobindo

Description of content for corresponding English title Sri Aurobindo in the First Decade of the Twentieth Century

When first published in 1972 as Sri Aurobindo in the First Decade of the Century, this book brought to light the then unknown private correspondence relating to Sri Aurobindo between Governor-General Lord Minto and Secretary of State for India Lord Morley, as well as the debate on Sri Aurobindo in the British parliament. This book provides a unique insight into the politically active phase of Sri Aurobindo's life.


Review of corresponding English title Sri Aurobindo in the First Decade of the Twentieth Century

It is heartening that the second edition of the book bearing the above title is now available. It is also significant that this new edition has appeared this year which marks the 125th anniversary of the Mother's birth. The author, Manoj Das, is well known world wide. Among many other awards, Prof. Das was recently awarded a Padmashree by the Indian Government. He is also an internationally renowned writer of short stories and essays. In addition to all these, he is a recognised expert on the integral philosophy of Sri Aurobindo. It is therefore not at all unexpected that this definitive work is so immensely readable.

     The raison d'etre for this new edition is clearly spelt out in the preface, where anecdotal reminiscences are presented in a chatty style. The author's research into the private correspondence between Lord Minto, the then Governor-General and Viceroy of India and Lord Morley, the Secretary of State for India, resulted in a wealth of informative reading. The noted industrialist, Sri Birla, sponsored this research which had to be undertaken at the India Office Library, London. Manoj Das initially was not absolutely certain whether Sri Aurobindo would at all feature in these correspondences. According to Sri Manoj Das, "Would not my proposed search amount to beating in the bush?" When this was placed before the Mother, she wrote back: "GO, with my Blessings." Thus, it is rewarding that a second edition of this wonderful book has appeared this year.

     The contents have done justice to the title. The book vividly recreates Sri Aurobindo's action during those tumultuous `Agniyuga' years of the first decade of the last century. These essays also chart the genesis of the Bande Mataram — the English daily edited by Sri Aurobindo which had the propensity to stir up endless controversy. Sri Aurobindo's flaming utterances stirred up the national psyche and people from all walks of life seemed determined to revolt against oppressive British policies. Manoj Das' witty notes, sprinkled with liberal doses of Aurobindonian humour, constantly focus on Sri Aurobindo's ingenuity at beating the English at their own game. Much to the chagrin of the imperialist regime, nothing inflammatory or seditious could be found in Sri Aurobindo's editorials. Yet, it said everything to rouse the nation to fight for freedom. In this context, I am reminded of a joke that I first heard from my uncle in Calcutta which concerned `Englishness'. In those days Calcuttans said "An Englishman will never lie to you, but what he will tell you would be far from the truth!" In a similar vein, what Sri Aurobindo wrote was enough to raise the public morale against British administration, yet, it was so cleverly worded that it never appeared to be seditious.

     The chronology of events charting Sri Aurobindo's involvement in the national politics is carefully presented. Chapter I really sets the scene and provides "Glimpses of Calcutta Days" at a time when Curzon resolved to partition Bengal along communal lines. This is immediately followed by a very interesting although journalistic interview of Sri Aurobindo by Henry Nevinson. This interview gives a feel for his personality during that time. For a lay reader, or a non-devotee, such a description is essential — it helps sustain the interest of the general reader in the principal figure of the book. It required the keen discretion of a Manoj Das to choose this particular interview as relevant material to be incorporated. To quote Nevinson, "He was a youngish man, I should think still under thirty. Intent dark eyes looked from his thin, clear-cut face with a gravity that seemed immovable, but the figure and bearing were those of an English graduate...." That intent face is very much apparent on the accompanying picture the book includes — it shows a Sunday edition of the Bande Mataram (September 1907), the newspaper that caused such a furore in its time.

     Manoj Das has won international acclaim as a storyteller. He has used this remarkable talent to introduce or illustrate a particular point at the most appropriate places. I will cite an example. In order to illustrate the impact of the `Swadeshi' movement and the involvement of Sri Aurobindo in the Surat congress in 1907, he narrates the following tale: "In a remote Indian village a grandmother was putting chips of wood in the fire one evening, with her little grandson relaxing against the wall beside her, perhaps waiting for the twilight gift of a tale from the granny. A flash of flame from the oven revealed to the boy a red-bellied mosquito on his chest. `See, grandma, how this mosquito is sucking my blood. It must be British!' `Oh, no,' said Grandma, `All those who suck blood are not British.' `Is this one then Swadeshi? Well, in that case I will not kill it even though it is so bad,' the boy said blowing the mosquito away."

     The book subsequently deals with all the ramifications of the famous Alipore Bomb trial. The author chose to unfold the saga of the trial by quoting the following punchy opening lines: "`The Alipore Bomb Trial was the first State trial of any magnitude in India...' The trial was the biggest news in many of the Indian Newspapers for one full year — 1908-1909." Interesting footnotes, undoubtedly a result of painstaking study and research, heighten the impact of many leading passages. For example, while describing the impact of Bande Mataram as well as of Yugantar, the following footnote is appended:

"Valentine Chirol wrote in the Times (London), `The sale was unbounded. The circulation of Yugantar rose to over 50,000, a figure never attained before by any Indian newspaper, and sometimes when there was a special run upon a number the Calcutta newsboys would get a rupee for a single copy.'" Although the Alipore trial is dealt with at considerable length covering chapters V-X, there was never a dull moment as I read through the details. It was revealing to read in context all the subtle nuances of the argument — not merely the dramatic although prophetic conclusion. In fact, C.R. Das' inspired summing up (beginning with the famous lines "My appeal to you therefore is that a man like this...stands not only before the bar in this Court but stands before the bar of the High Court of History...") stands apart prominently only after the context is clearly set out. This has been done admirably well by the author who has offered a distilled flavour of the entire case. A wealth of press reports from both English and Bengali newspapers provide interesting information — both humorous as well as sensational. These include The Bengalee, Amrita Bazar Patrika, The Times (London) and Statesman in English, and the Basumati and Bangabandhu in Bengali. In fact, after reading the author's own notes and the news reports one can really appreciate why the Alipore bomb trial stands out as a landmark event of the first decade of the twentieth century.


     Although many of us have heard about the Morley-Minto reforms, we are generally not aware of the sheer enormity of the number of times references have been made to Sri Aurobindo in a series of correspondences between Lord Minto, the Viceroy and Governor-General of India, and Lord Morley, the Secretary of State for India. Only after reading this delightful book did I learn that often the two had differing viewpoints on Sri Aurobindo. While Minto consistently adopted an unsympathetic attitude, Morley often adopted a rather reasonable tone. For example, Manoj Das pertinently quotes the following from Morley's letter to Minto (May 5, 1910) concerning the issue of further proceedings against Sri Aurobindo: "...I have always understood that proceedings for sedition was only advised when a conviction was reasonably certain. Is a conviction reasonably certain in this case? I should think decidedly not, and I hope not...."

     The enduring appeal of the book is attributable to the author's ability to seamlessly weave anecdotes, press reports, correspondences, and even parliamentary debates related to Sri Aurobindo, and to put before us his genius in shaping the destiny of India during the first decade of the last century. In fact, only after reading chapter XIII did I learn that there was a debate in the British Parliament on Sri Aurobindo. The introductory notes are spelt out succinctly: "...But the evaluation of a debate in the first decade of the century must be done keeping in mind the quiescent spirit of the time. And in this light the first debate on India in the `new Parliament' in 1910, was almost revolutionary! And this debate was on Sri Aurobindo." From Manoj Das' explorations we can feel the verve of these debates. They illumine the oratorical abilities of some of the then British parliamentarians — Mr. Keir Hardie (the founder of the Labour Party), Mr. Ramsay MacDonald (former Labour Prime Minister of Britain), Mr. Montagu (the Under Secretary of State for India) etc. They also reveal Mr. Keir Hardie's and Mr. MacDonald's favourable disposition towards Sri Aurobindo. They also remind us about certain magnanimous utterances in favour of the Indian uprising and Sri Aurobindo which, very often in our nationalistic zeal, we tend to overlook. Manoj Das' researches present the readers with a thoroughly balanced view of these parliamentary debates.

     Even after Sri Aurobindo's departure to Pondicherry, the British Government relentlessly tried to arraign him. The concluding chapter provides a summary with astonishing clarity of the then press coverage on Sri Aurobindo's `disappearance' to Pondicherry. Not all were sympathetic to him — including the Statesman.

     The book includes four appendices. Glowing tributes to Sri Aurobindo, first, by Bipin Chandra Pal (appendix 1) and by R. Palit (appendix 3) are included (mainly as extracts from published books). This provides the reader with a wealth of interesting biographical information. The second appendix presents "Two Articles from a Banned Book". The first deals with the Bande Mataram Prosecution Case of 1907 while the second deals directly with the famous Alipore Trial, 1908. The latter also includes details about Sarojini Ghose's (Sri Aurobindo's sister) appeal to the general public for funds to defend Sri Aurobindo — the poignancy of the appeal is bound to touch every reader's heart. The last appendix is entitled "Government's Dread of People Meeting Sri Aurobindo" — this includes very interesting extracts from Ruler of Baroda by Philip W. Seargent.

     The book should be of sustaining interest to a diverse set of readers — researchers studying this period of Anglo-Indian politics, biographers, journalists and, generally, all interested in a good read in the English language. It should also form a delightful companion to Peter Heehs' The Bomb in Bengal. Most importantly, the contents and the style should equally appeal to the devotees of Sri Aurobindo as well as to the general reader interested in this epochal period of our country's history. Non-resident Indians based in Britain should also find this book interesting — they can relish and compare the tone of current parliamentary debates daily aired on British television, with those of yesteryear. Manoj Das' explanatory notes, his style of presentation and, importantly, the judicious choice of material included have all contributed to the intellectual appeal of the book. Although an enormous amount of resource material was collected from the India Office Library in London, the maturity and discernment of the author enabled him to overcome the temptation of including too much material. As a result, he has never wearied his readers with superfluous information. The first edition of the book received the prestigious Sri Aurobindo Puraskar in 1997, the 125th Birth Anniversary of Sri Aurobindo. This second edition deserves another similar award during the Mother's 125th Birth Anniversary.

— Dr. Satyajit Ghosh

Dr. S. Ghosh is a Research Fellow at the School of the Environment, University of Leeds, U.K.

November 2003