This series of travel essays combines historical research, city walking tours, and textual references from the writings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother to explore the various places in England and Japan where Sri Aurobindo and the Mother lived. The author muses on how these different physical environments and cultural influences may have contributed to the human aspects of their lives. Also included are essays on Sri Aurobindo the poet and the Mother as an artist, two areas of their lives in which their contact with England and Japan has played an important role. All essays but one have been previously published in journals.
Sunayana Panda, who grew up in the Ashram, has given us a delightful little book, which traces the journeys she has made with her husband Giles Herdman in search of places in Britain and Japan connected with the lives of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother before they came to Pondicherry. She writes vividly and evocatively, and takes us along with her on her explorations.
The first essay deals with Manchester, and took me on an excursion down memory lane. I think that the Manchester I was familiar with in the 1940s and 50s must have been much more like the city that Sri Aurobindo knew in the 1870s than the modern one that Sunayana and Giles visited. Long before the Clean Air Act rendered Manchester and the surrounding towns unrecognisable to those of us who knew them in their industrial grime, how many times I have passed that Octagonal Church on Stockport Road, where William Drewett had been a minister, on the way to visit my paternal grandmother! My father, also a Congregational minister like Mr. Drewett, had preached there several times when he was a student pastor. And how familiar appeared the house in Shakespeare Street, Moss Side, where young Aurobindo and his brothers lived with the Drewett family, when I saw its photograph in Purani's biography of Sri Aurobindo. My friend Satyajit Ghosh, who used to work in the Physics Department of Manchester University, told me – quite a few years ago now – that he could see that house from his window. But now, Sunayana tells us, the whole area has been demolished and rebuilt; not only the grime has disappeared, but the house and even the street. Is it not interesting that Sri Aurobindo, who was born in Shakespeare Sarani, Calcutta, should live in Shakespeare Street in Manchester? The only building that Sunayana and Giles could find which had been part of Shakespeare Street in the 1870s was the Pub—which the young Aurobindo must have passed, but surely never entered.
The next essay introduces us to the four houses where Sri Aurobindo and his brothers stayed after they moved to London, and he became a student at St Paul's School. The school was founded in 1509, and originally stood in the City of London. But in the 1870s a new site was purchased in Hammersmith and a new school built. It was opened in 1884, the year that Aurobindo Ackroyd Ghose and his elder brother Manmohan joined it. Once more I felt on familiar territory, for in 1968–69 I lived in Barons Court, very close to St. Paul's School. Sunayana found that the school had been moved to another site in 1968, and its building no longer exists. Eventually she found the High Master's house—the only part of the old school compound that still remains as it was in those days. When I lived nearby, the school was still there, standing clearly visible from the road amidst its grounds. It looked very similar to my own secondary school, which was built around the same time, like many others around the country. Perhaps I would not have paid it much attention except for the fact that it was just at that time – and in a house not far away – that I first learned about Sri Aurobindo. When, a little while later, I came across his biography by Purani, of course St. Paul's School took on a new significance and interest for me. I remember too, after reading Purani-ji's book, walking down the Cromwell Road and trying to find out which was the house where Sri Aurobindo and his brothers had stayed after they left Shepherds Bush, their first place of stay in London.
After tracing the four different houses where Sri Aurobindo lived during the next five years, all of them still standing and in use, Sunayana devotes a chapter to his time at St. Paul's School, and outlines the story of the school itself.Then she moves on to Cambridge, and a visit to King's College where he studied from 1890–92.
The fifth chapter is devoted to telling how a commemorative blue plaque came to be placed on the first house where Sri Aurobindo and his brothers stayed – 49, St. Stephen's Avenue, in Shepherds Bush – stating "Sri Aurobindo, 1872–1950, Indian Spiritual Leader, lived here, 1884–1887". These blue plaques are a British institution, started, she tells us, in 1867. Buildings all over the country are marked if someone eminent enough has lived there. The body responsible for installing the plaques is called ‘English Heritage', and the privilege is not given easily. Giles made an application in 2001. Sunayana recounts the interesting tale of how finally the plaque for Sri Aurobindo was approved, and how it was installed on 12 December 2007.
The following two chapters recount the explorations and experiences of Sunayana and Giles on two visits to Japan, tracing some significant aspects of that unique culture, as well as places connected with the Mother's life there. While the first visit was spent absorbing the atmosphere in Tokyo and Kyoto, their second trip, for which they had prepared themselves for over two years, had two specific goals: to find the house where the Mother had lived in Kyoto, and to identify where the familiar photo was taken of the Mother standing alongside Rabindranath Tagore in a garden, in front of a large statue of the Buddha. This time they had an address for the house, and a hand-drawn map to guide them. After taking a wrong turn and experiencing a particularly beautiful corner of the city in cherry blossom time, they did find the house, now somewhat modernised. Identifying and locating the Buddha statue proved more complicated, and the essay closes without the mystery being fully solved. Yet they left Japan with a sense of achievement and satisfaction, feeling a new understanding and appreciation of the Mother, and the importance of her time there.
The collection closes with two more essays, one on Sri Aurobindo as a poet, the other on the Mother as an artist, both of which contain fresh insights and suggestions.
Sunayana is an accomplished writer and storyteller, and makes us accompany her on her explorations, carrying us from one fascinating detail to another in a delightful way. The book is illustrated by photos taken by Giles in the course of their journeys. There are some especially beautiful ones of the area around the house where the Mother stayed in Kyoto. I can warmly recommend this attractively produced book as an informative and enjoyable supplement to the various biographies available on Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.
Shraddhavan, a long-time resident of Auroville, coordinates the activities at Savitri Bhavan and edits its journal Invocation.