The Luminous Past

— Pramila Devi


Price: Rs 175

Pages: 195
Dimensions (in cms): 12x18
ISBN: 978-0-9562923-3-9
Soft Cover
Publisher: First Feature Ltd., London, UK

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About The Luminous Past

The anecdotes collected in this book, a translation of the original Bengali, span five decades, from the early 1940s to the late 1980s. Pramila Devi joined the Ashram as a young woman in 1941. She learned French, worked in the bakery and the laundry and also taught at the school. Such sadhaks as Nolini, André, Amrita, Pavitra, Pranab, Janina, her cousin Jatin, and especially Bharati often figure in her recollections of these years. In 1962, the Mother asked her to look after the Jhunjhun boarding for students, a work she continued until her passing in 1995. This translation first appeared in serial form in Mother India between 2011 and 2013.


At the outset, this review calls for a full disclosure. I was very fond of Pramila-di, and she was, I suspect, even fonder of me. The relationship between a boarding-house in-charge (Didi) and her ward, as typified by the bond between Sunayana Panda and Pramila-di, is always a healthy mix of love and hate. Since I was in her charge for just two-and-a-half months, it was only love.

There is no dearth of books on life in the Ashram during the forties and fifties of the last century, but most, if not all, are through the eyes and intellect of an erudite author. The innocence and freshness that Pramila-di's diary offers to the reader makes it quite unique and, at times, just takes one's breath away.

Sample this. Talking of the Mother's participation in the Sports Ground in the chapter "The Early Days", Pramila-di writes:

For the walking and running events, the Mother herself would stand with the tape at the finishing line.… When one person finished, she waited for the next. It seemed to us that the Mother showed more compassion for the one who came last. She kept looking at him so that he would not give up midway…The Mother, with her soothing smile, made it clear that he had come first in the test of perseverance.

Visualise the pure joy in the innocent heart of a young girl when she is touched by the compassionate wisdom of her Mother.

A few pages later, Pramila-di records the interaction between the Mother and Nolini-da, Amrita-da, and Pavitra-da during a rainy evening when she takes an impromptu session of poetry recitation. We have always looked at that triumvirate as the three pillars of the Ashram, and to read how the Mother indulgently saw each of them as just one of her many children, gives the reader an insight into the magical world of the Ashram in those glorious days.

In the chapter "Teacher at the School", there is a priceless anecdote, about a despotic landlord named Ramaswamy, which almost gets lost in the abundant garden that is The Luminous Past. Pramila-di records the Mother's decision to pay the expenses for electricity and water to this tyrant against the wishes of Amrita-da. Patiently, she explains to her Administrator-in-Chief that she was "not giving the money to buy his good behaviour" but because this generous act would be good for him (Amrita-da). How eloquently the Mother teaches her children the true values of life!

In the chapter "Jhunjhun Home", Pramila-di tells us an amusing story of an unwelcome nocturnal visitor in the wee hours. The most interesting part, however, comes towards the end of this tale of a thief when we learn of the Mother's instructions, conveyed through Pavitra-da, to continue to keep the doors unbolted at night, so that fear does not enter the minds of the children. "Courage is the greatest possession of the young," Mother said. "Courage brings wisdom." The beautiful simplicity of these few words defines the quality of education that a fortunate few received at her feet in the Ashram.

These are just a few of the guileless observations of an impressionable young mind that you will find in this wonderful book. A pleasurable read that you would not want to miss. I especially recommend this book to all ex-students of yesteryear.

Before I end this review, a second part of the full disclosure is required. Both Pramila-di and I believed that the essence of growing up is all about good food, a meal that does not exclude the occasional non-vegetarian fare.

The Ashram was strictly shakahari in those days, and food used to come to our boarding from the Dining Room. In the early sixties, I had written to the Mother that, having grown up eating meat and fish in the initial decade of my life, I was finding the herbivorous diet rather inadequate. Within a few days, Mother wrote back saying that we could have meat and fish once a week in Jhunjhun Boarding!

Without losing much time, I went to the market and bought twelve fair-sized fish for a rupee and, armed with a cookbook, Pramila-di produced the first delectable Sunday lunch for her nine carnivorous wards. Pranab-da, predictably, was the guest of honour! Though I was her ward in Jhunjhun Boarding for just over a couple of months thereafter, she invited me for dinner twice every week during my entire stay of ten years in the Ashram, serving a dozen parathas with a generous helping of meat curry!

I always thought of Pramila-di as my surrogate mother, and she talked to me about her experiences and many other things, while I gorged on her culinary offerings. The Luminous Past, written in an almost childlike vein, brought back those precious memories, memories of the Mother and the wonderful life in the Ashram.

—Debabrata Haldar

Debabrata, together with his sister, Debjani, and brother, Debashish, joined the SAICE in December 1961. He was in the second batch that completed the engineering course, which was started by Vishwanath-da, and graduated in 1972.

December 2014