Through chapters based on the locales in Bengal where the dramatic events in Sri Aurobindo's life played out, this book draws the reader back to the years 1906 to 1910, when Sri Aurobindo was at the centre of the freedom movement. Using multiple sources and first-hand accounts, the story is rich with details of the life and activities at such locations as 12 Wellington Square, Sri Aurobindo's revolutionary headquarters, the National College at Boubazar Street where Sri Aurobindo acted as principal, the office of Bande Mataram in Creek Row, the house on Grey Street from where he was arrested in April 1908, Alipore Jail, the Sessions Court where he was acquitted, and Chandernagore, his place of seclusion before he departed for Pondicherry.
Biographical sketches of Sri Aurobindo have become available aplenty in recent times. But the subject of the book under review is something that has never been discussed at length under one cover. The content is clearly indicated in the extended title of the book and the introduction by the author corroborates it further. It deals with the places and dwellings in Bengal, particularly in Calcutta, where Sri Aurobindo lived during his brief stay in the state.
The original Bengali version of this book was published in August 2003, and the English version has been rendered by the author after almost nine years. The idea of documenting information about the places where Sri Aurobindo had stayed sparked in his mind when the late Smt. Jaya Mitter, the then Secretary of the Sri Aurobindo Institute of Culture at Regent Park, Kolkata, took the bold initiative to install plaques at the places which were associated with Sri Aurobindo's stay in the city. This Herculean task was carried out by her with the help of many other enthusiasts and admirers of Sri Aurobindo. Out of the thirteen places where the plaques were to be installed, several of the houses no longer existed or had totally changed their forms, and many hurdles had to be crossed before they could be identified and marked. Anshu Banerjee has done a remarkable work by writing on them in detail. As he unfolds the history of these places, not only Sri Aurobindo, who is obviously the central character, but other people and incidents related to the locales come to the fore.
The book is arranged chronologically starting right from Sri Aurobindo's birth in Calcutta and his schooldays in Darjeeling, which is also in Bengal. This is followed by 12 Wellington Square, the house of Raja Subodh Mullick, where perhaps Sri Aurobindo spent the longest part of his stay in Calcutta. We learn about Subodh Mullick's household and lifestyle, and how he stood by Sri Aurobindo and contributed to the Nationalist Movement to free India from the clutches of the British rulers.
The detailed account of the National College and School enlightens us about some little-known facts which nevertheless are interesting and worth reading. The ideals of the institution, the teachers, the courses that were carefully chalked out and taught there, and the inspiration it evoked among the students, details which very few people are aware of, are recorded in this chapter with utmost sincerity.
The operational details of the Bande Mataram
newspaper and the incidents that took place around it come naturally in the context of its office situated on Creek Row, which also belonged to Raja Subodh Mullick. The full history of the journal from its beginning to its end is meticulously written out.
Some scenes from Sri Aurobindo's personal life – his marriage to Mrinalini Devi in a house in Baithak Khana Road, or descriptions from his in-laws' place in Serpentine Lane – are deftly woven into the texture of his political life and work. The poem written on the occasion of his wedding, following the common practice in those days, is a delightful bonus for the reader. We also come to know that Sri Aurobindo was a gourmet of Bengali food and cooking, that he could eat a sumptuous quantity, and that he enjoyed the company of his in-laws.
Another little-known temporary shelter on Choku Khansama Lane, where he lived with his family, is also extremely interesting. 23 Scott's Lane similarly gives us an intimate picture of Sri Aurobindo, courtesy of his close associate Abinash Bhattacharya. There is a long description of the Maharashtrian yogi Vishnu Bhaskar Lele, who stayed here for a few weeks at a stretch and gave Sri Aurobindo lessons in yoga. Sri Aurobindo's short stays with Mrinalini Devi serve to provide invaluable insight into their relationship. How faithfully Mrinalini followed her husband's advice is clear from her learning yoga too from Lele Maharaj. Also, when Sri Aurobindo was down with a serious illness, Mrinalini's undaunted nursing and care for Sri Aurobindo easily melt one's heart.
The Muraripukur garden house occupies the next chapter, followed by the arrest of the firebrand group of revolutionaries, an event which is more or less known to all who have read a biography of Sri Aurobindo. Details of the life at the bagan
, as it was popularly known, and the daily routine of the boys who lived there, complete with their oath-taking ceremonies, are carefully recorded. Barin Ghose's activities and organizational abilities are also described here.
The next chapter deals with Sri Aurobindo's arrest, the Alipore bomb case trial and his subsequent release from the Alipore jail, and his short stint at 6 College Square, his uncle Krishna Kumar Mitra's house. Here, Sri Aurobindo's birthday was celebrated by his young admirers and associates, a fact which may not be known to many. There appears to be some confusion regarding that birth anniversary which is quoted in the police report as his 39th, but in the year 1909 Sri Aurobindo would have completed 37 years of age.
The final chapters describe his leaving Calcutta from the Karmayogin
office at 4 Shyampukur Lane for his last destination in Bengal—Chandernagore. This phase is also well known and oft repeated in biographies of Sri Aurobindo, but nonetheless it never loses its importance and the thrill it provides to the reader. Here the author tells about Sri Aurobindo's close contact with one of his associates, Motilal Roy, in whose house he lived in secret seclusion and who later kept contact and helped him during his initial days in Pondicherry.
An excellent book to read about the lesser-known aspects of Sri Aurobindo's life in Bengal and about the places which people are sadly unaware of, Smriti Tirtha
throws light on this phase of Sri Aurobindo's life. It may not be unfair to mention here that the lucidity of the language in the Bengali original has not been carried over to the English version, which sometimes appears to be a literal rendering. Apart from a few misspellings, the get-up of the book, the photographs, and the attractive cover are all up to the mark.
Anshu Banerjee did intensive research and put in his sincere effort to make the book not only a readable and informative one, but also a historical documentation of a so far uncharted area. It was truly his labour of love. The only regret is that Anshu Banerjee did not live to see this English version in print as he passed away just before its publication.
Gopa Basu is the Librarian of the Sri Aurobindo Bhavan Library in Kolkata. She has translated a number of books by Sri Aurobindo, the Mother, and their disciples. She also contributes articles to journals on topics related to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.