Personal Reminisences

Author: Suniti Kumar Chatterji

Suniti Kumar Chatterji (1890-1977) was a world renowned linguist, educationist, litterateur.

Subhas Chandra Bose was junior to me by some six years at college, and some of his intimate friends were my pupils when I became a professor almost immediately after taking my M.A. in 1913. When he was at college in Calcutta, I had occasion to hear something about him shortly afterwards, as I shall narrate below; and I think I saw him for the first time sometime in 1917-1918, possibly at some inter-collegiate function, I forget where. I was impressed by his tall and handsome presence and by his highly intelligent face which with its glasses seemed to reflect uncommon distinction with intellectual seriousness. He came from a distinguished Bengali family which was settled at Cuttack in Orissa. Among his brothers were a well-known doctor and two lawyers, one of whom, Sarat Chandra Bose, is now an all-India personality in politics. A couple of years after I had left college and was settled as an Assistant Professor at the University of Calcutta, a most unfortunate incident occurred (it was early in 1916) at the Presidency College, the premier Government college of Bengal, which was my college as well as Subhas’s. It was the assault by a number of students on Professor E. F. Oaten. For Indian college students to combine and give a beating to one of their teachers was an almost unheard-of form of sacrilege; and the fact that the Professor was an Englishman gave a political and a 'seditious' colour to the incident. I myself had the privilege of studying under Professor Oaten in the B.A. class at Presidency College when he first came out to India, I think it was in 1910. He was Professor of History, and our experience of him was that of a rather fine and intellectual type of a young Englishman, who knew his subject well and was eager to know more, and took a great interest in his students and in things Indian. I remember the pleasure and pride I felt when he complimented me highly on an essay on the Rise of Nationalism in Italy in the 19th Century which I wrote as a class-work. He was impressed by the sonorous quality of the Sanskrit language after he had heard a long passage from Kalidasa's Raghu-vamsa which I recited at the Annual Steamer Trip of the students and other members of the Calcutta University Institute which he had gladly joined. Mr. Oaten was a handsome-looking man, well-spoken and highly cultured, and it was expected that he should have a brilliant and a very popular and useful career in India in front of him. He published a book on Anglo-Indian Literature which was a pleasantly written and informative work about the English writers on India and on Indian themes. But unfortunately we were distressed to find that he was not pulling on well with his pupils after a couple of years' stay in India. It was said both by his pupils and by some of his colleagues in the staff of the Presidency College that he was developing the superior, stand-offish attitude of the typical Anglo-Indian vis-à-vis the Indians: but I have no personal knowledge of this. He is further said to have expressed himself against Indian nationalistic aspirations in the typical British imperialistic manner, and to have employed language towards his Indian students which a teacher should never have used; and a colleague of his later told me that in the Professors' room in Presidency College he once had an argument with Mr. Oaten — the latter was annoyed at the Indian students not having a sense of realities; they, according to Mr. Oaten (as reported by this gentleman) should admit and accept the simple fact that the British were ruling India because they were morally superior to the Indians, and a frank admission of this position would then do away with a great deal of mutual misunderstanding. Mr. Oaten's colleague told him that, leaving aside the question of the validity or truth of his assertion, he ought to realise that the youth of any country would not like to accept this position of racial or national inferiority, and, to say the least, it would be tactless to argue like that before young students, and particularly by a professor who was an Englishman. But on Mr. Oaten's insisting that it was a palpable matter of social superiority that ought to be generally admitted, his Indian colleague, according to his own statement, retorted: "Mr. Oaten, you may think yourselves to be a superior people, but you should know that in spite of your having ruled us for 150 years, there are hundreds of thousands of our countrymen who would think your touch even to be polluting." During the year that I was his student, such an uncivil attitude was not in the least discernible. It was reported that there were unpleasant bickerings and incidents in the class room; the boys ceased to come to his classes, and that was looked upon as "indiscipline'1, and the matter culminated when one morning the students waited for their professor and made what was certainly a cowardly combined attack on him, using their fisticuffs. Subhas, it is said, as a leader and organiser of the students had made himself prominent in the college, and he was implicated in the assault. But I personally think he would never stoop to this sort of thing. In any case, the incident and the enquiry which followed created quite a sensation not only in Bengal but all over India. Subhas and a number of other students were expelled for creating this disturbance, and one of the students, Ananga Mohan Dam, was interned as a political suspect. Subhas returned to Cuttack where he had to keep away from regular college life for a year and a half. During this time he worked with the students at Cuttack, and organized them for social and cultural work. In 1917, his rustication was revoked by the late Sir Asutosh Mookerjee, the creator of the University of Calcutta as a centre of higher studies and research, and he returned to Calcutta and joined the Scottish Churches College in the third year B.A. class with Honours in Philosophy, taking his B.A. degree in 1919 with a first class.

Subhas had come into some prominence as a result of the Oaten affair. His staunch nationalistic sentiments, however, became well-known in the student community, and he was easily the natural leader. There was always a vein of the mystic and the ascetic in Subhas' temperament. While a lad of fourteen he is said to have made up his mind to become a Sannyasin or Hindu medicant monk, and with a friend of a similar trend of mind he wandered about for nearly a year in the ochre of saffron garb of the Sadhu, and visited Hardwar, Mathura, Brindaban, Agra, Benares and Gaya. His having remained a bachelor all his life is just a result of this ascetic mentality of his. He had a natural bent towards the parallel of Yoga and towards practical mysticism through ritual and prayer.

In September, 1919, I went to Europe, after five years of work as Professor in Calcutta, on an India Government Linguistic Scholarship, and was admitted into the University of London. The same year Subhas was sent by his father to England to prepare for the I.C.S. examination; and he also took his admission into the University of Cambridge. Dilip Kumar Roy and Kshitis Prasad Chattopadhyay, close friends of Subhas, also came to England about the same time. Kshitis was an old pupil of mine, one of my first pupils, and I think it was through him that I had on one or two occasions met Subhas when he came to London. It was generally in the Indian Students' Y.M.C.A. which was then situated, in 1919-1922 when I was in London, at a place called the Shakespere Hut, which was a widely scattered single-story establishment in wood, with small cubicles, and hot baths and common halls laid out. This place was in Gower Street, in Bloomsbury, and was close to University College. It was a club and residential quarters for service men back home on leave during World War I, and at the end of the war, it was placed at the disposal of the Indian Y.M.C.A. which started there a hostel and a club for Indian students; and the place was immensely popular. I had my lodgings elsewhere, in a students' hostel run by the British Y.M.C.A. at 32 Bedford Place, close to the Shakespere Hut, where for a long time we (myself and a Tamil student) were the only two Indians living with about 30 British students and about 18 students from different countries of Europe, Africa and America — from France, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Rumania, Yugoslavia, Greece (Cyprus), Egypt, South Africa, and the United States. But I was a member of the Indian Y.M.C.A. club also, and was a frequent visitor there, and thus I had an opportunity of meeting other Indian young men who would come to London from Oxford and Cambridge, Manchester and Leeds, Glasgow and Edinburgh, and other places, particularly during vacations. But I cannot say that I could get to know Subhas intimately. Only on one occasion (I think it was in 1920) we corresponded: Subhas wanted to celebrate a reunion of Indian students at Cambridge on the Vijaya Dasami day, the last day of the Durga Puja. This Vijaya Dasami is observed all over Hindu India. Subhas wanted to know the exact English date on which this festival was falling that year, and he wrote to me as he knew that I had with me a Hindu almanac (Panjika or Panchang) in Bengali. I gave him the information, and that was all.

The condition of Subhas grew worse and according to the medical recommendation for change of place, he was brought to Madras. There also he could not and did not take any solid food. He was then living on morning tea and the rest of the day on plain water or sometimes mixed with, sour lime juice. He lost his weight by 82 lbs. and became a physical wreck. Despite his ill health, Subhas was as cheerful and energetic as ever. He would not eat but he would feed others and for that, he would cook himself. That was his pleasure. His preparations were really excellent. One day he said in all humour that when he would be released he would be able to earn at least Rs. 40 per month as a cook and thus remove himself from the list of vagabonds. In this connection, I remember, our Mej-Da (second elder brother) — Sarat Babu — used to call us in affectionate banter 'vagabonds' and Subhas the Prince of Vagabonds. We enjoyed this joke heartily. That Prince became the supreme head of the Free India Government and idol of 40 crores of Indians.

In 1921, after taking my D. Lit. degree from the University of London, I got my scholarship extended for one year more, and went to the University of Paris, and then I lost all touch with Subhas and his friends. Subsequently after returning home to India in November 1922, I heard that Subhas was successful in the I.C.S. examination in 1920, only eight months after his arrival in England, and was selected as a probationer. But as he had no mind to take up service — even the 'heaven-born service' of the Indian Civilian! He had resigned shortly after his selection. But he stayed on at Cambridge and took his B.A. with Honours in Philosophy in 1921, and returned to India soon after. He was made Chief Executive Officer of the Corporation of Calcutta, and under the first Nationalist Mayor of Calcutta, the late Mr. Chitta Ranjan Das, Subhas quietly came into prominence, his having abandoned the Civil Service (the examination for which he took and passed, it is said, only to demonstrate before those who made a fetish of this service that he thought very little of it himself) making him immensely popular with the people.

Subhas now became a leading figure in Indian politics, and he was soon known to be an ardent soldier of India's struggle for freedom. His career after his return is now part of recent Indian history. Like a great many other countrymen of his, I was watching this career, generally with warm appreciation. And at times with a certain amount of misgiving or misunderstanding. Not being in the midst of it, politics did not have much charm for me, and I did not preoccupy myself with the various currents, and cross-currents of our Indian politics in which Subhas was a force, although in a general way our nationalistic fight for Freedom and the marshalling of all the anti-national forces against British Imperialism was watched by me. I saw Subhas in Calcutta many times, naturally enough, but it was always from a distance.

It was in 1935 that I had occasion to come in personal touch with Subhas once again, and then it happened again in Europe. Subhas was keeping bad health, and he had to go to Vienna, I think for the second time, for treatment and for an operation, possibly early in 1935. Austria was still an independent state, and although Naziism was making considerable headway there, particularly among the young generation, it was still free from the things which were making the name of Nazi Germany looked upon with misgiving all over the world. Jewish doctors were still allowed to exercise their world-renowned skill, and patients suffering from all types of serious ailments were coming to Vienna from different countries of the world for treatment, India sending a good number every year. Subhas, as a preliminary to being operated upon in a nursing home, was staying in Vienna. But he was not idle — he was taking part in various activities, with the support of a number of Indian residents, mainly students in Vienna. Prior to this, Subhas had made trips into the interior of Germany, and he was more or less familiar with the conditions of Central Europe and its politics; and he had also learned German well enough to be able to converse in it freely, though he could not give ex tempore speeches in it, as far as I could see. During his stay in Vienna, Subhas met the prominent Viennese scholars and intellectuals, and occasionally he would write letters to the Bengali press in Calcutta (e.g. the Ananda Bazar Patrika) giving to his own people bits of his experiences. In one such letter he mentioned an interview he had with Professor Heine-Geldern, well-known anthropologist, who spoke to him in appreciative terms of some of my articles on the non-Aryan bases of Indian civilisation. This naturally made me all the more interested in Professor Heine-Geldern and other Viennese scholars and their scholarship. An opportunity presented itself during the middle of May 1935 to enable me to go to Europe a second time. The Second International Congress of Phonetic Sciences was being held in London in July 1935, and as I was selected to act as chairman over the Indian Section of the Congress, my University gave me a subvention (at the suggestion of my former teacher Professor Daniel Jones of London, President-elect of the Congress) for my travelling expenses. I left India during the fourth week of May and made a tour of Austria, Hungary (Budapest), Czechoslovakia (Prague), Germany and Belgium before arriving at London on the 16th of July 1935. I was in Vienna for 11 days from the 4th of July to the morning of the 13th, when I took the steamer journey down the Danube from Vienna to Budapest. During these 11 days, I met Subhas in Vienna several times, and had long and intimate talks with him on various matters of national and cultural interest.

Prior to leaving India, while travelling from Calcutta to Bombay for my steamer, I had the privilege of meeting Mahatma Gandhi in our train. He joined us at Wardha on his way to Bombay, and I thought it was too good an opportunity to miss seeing him. I was privileged to come into personal touch with Mahatmaji on two occasions previously, in Calcutta — once, when he visited the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad, when as a member of the governing body who spoke a little Hindi I was of the party which look him round that institution; and again at the residence of the late Mr. Sudhir Roy and Mrs. Aparna Roy (the daughter of the late Desabandhu China Ranjan Das) when Gandhiji came there to listen to Bengali Kirttan music and songs, and on that occasion I was requested to write out in Devanagari characters for Gandhiji's use the text of the Bengali Kirttans with a Hindi translation opposite and a Hindi essay on the Bengali Kirttan. On my way to Europe I was carrying with me copies of a booklet by myself on "A Roman Alphabet for India." As an advocate of the adoption of the Roman script for all the languages of India, I wanted particularly to meet Mahatmaji and place my views before him, and I thought it was a good opportunity to see him in the train. I managed to get into the third class compartment in which Mahatma Gandhi (with the late Mrs. Gandhi) and his party were travelling. I introduced myself, and handed over copies of my pamphlet to Mahatmaji and to his private secretary the late Mr. Mahadev Desai; and on Mahatmaji's enquiring about it, I told him of the purpose for which I was going to Europe. When Gandhiji heard that I intended to visit Vienna also, he told me that if I met Subhas there, I was to tell him that Mahatmaji had already replied to his letters, and I was to tell him also, as a special message from Mahatmaji, that he must get well quick — it wouldn't do to remain an invalid so long. Mahatmaji took a good deal of affectionate interest in Subhas, and it, was indeed quite pleasing to find him in this anxious frame of mind for Subhas' health.

On reaching Vienna I took a room in a hotel in Schotten Ring in the heart of the city which was the headquarters of the Indian Central European Association, and also of the Chinese Students in Austria. The late Mrs. Kamala Nehru, wife of Pandit Jawaharlal, was travelling with us in our steamer, accompanied by Dr. Atal. She was coming to Central Europe for treatment for her illness which ultimately proved fatal. Indian students in Vienna got information that Mrs. Nehru was coming to Vienna by our train on the morning of the 4th July, and so they mustered strong at the station to receive her. We took advantage of their presence, and Dr. P. N. Katyar from the U.P., who was the secretary of the Hindusthan Association, together with Mr. Amiya Sarkar, nephew of Sir Jadunath Sarkar, who were at the station with the others, helped us to go to Hotel de France and take rooms there.

I could see that Subhas's was a name to conjure with among the Indians in Vienna. Subhas was just out of hospital and was still convalescing, and yet he was very much on the move. He was treated with great deference by all cultured people and men of position in Vienna who had any remote connection with or interest in India and the East; and he was also held in esteem by important members of the Austrian government. I was enabled to contact him within a couple of days after my arrival. He invited me and I think two other friends also, to lunch with him in the pension where he was putting up. There I found he was fluent enough in his German. I noticed that in the food he ordered he was not at all an orthodox Hindu who rigidly followed all their food taboos. In the meanwhile, I had made the acquaintance of Professor Baron Heine-Geldern — I had rung him up, and was very kindly asked to tea at his place, and after that Professor Heine-Geldern took me to a meeting of anthropologists where a German scholar gave a lantern lecture on the domestic animals of Mohen-jo-Daro. Two young Austrian scholars, who wanted to go to India to study the Nagas in Assam, were among those who attended, and I was glad to meet them. Subhas and I talked about the scientific and anthropological work in our country. The religious and cultural situation in Nazi Germany as a result of both a national Germanic revival and a growing anti-Semitism was also discussed. I had read a little about a definite swing in the mind of educated Germans towards a revival of the old heathen or pre-Christian Germanic spirit. They were not feeling happy with Christianity as a religion with a Judaistic basis. The mildness and humility that underlay a good deal of the teachings of Christ were not in accord with the aggressive Nazi spirit, and some German thought-leaders were casting about for a new ideology and a new philosophy for a truly Germanic nation. Dr. Wilhelm Hauer, Professor of Sanskrit at Tuebingen University, was a leader in the direction of evolving a Deutsches Glauben or a German Faith or Religion; and this German Faith Movement was (as I had heard) gaining ground among the Germans with the rising tide of German racialism. I had also heard that Dr. Hauer as a Sanskritist who knew the Gita and thought that the Philosophy of Action in a disinterested spirit (nishkama karma) was most suited for the German temperament; and in his directing the tone of the German Faith Movement, this Gita idea, as an old Aryan idea, was being given prominence. I asked Subhas if he knew anything of this state of affairs in Germany. Subhas was interested in all that he heard from me, and he thought he would look closely into the matter, and would welcome it as a line of cultural and ideological rapprochement between Germany and India. I also broached to Subhas my idea of adopting the Roman script for all the languages of India, and thus furnishing a Pan-Indian bond of union through the script, apart from the special merit of the Roman system of writing. Subhas was interested, and asked me to send him a copy of my pamphlet on this subject. This I did, and Subhas, I think, read my pamphlet carefully; and one evening, till late at night, he and I had a long talk on this matter in a cafe in Vienna, and I think I was able to convince him of the value of the Roman script. Subhas was, as the subsequent great events in his career abundantly proved it, a man of prompt action. The adoption of the Roman script by Turkey had also impressed upon him the importance of it in the modern world. When he was convinced of the great role the Roman script could play in uniting India and at the same time in linking it with the world outside, he made a timely appeal for a dispassionate consideration of the question of the Roman script from a nationalistic point of view in his Presidential Address before the 51st session of the Indian National Congress at Haripura in February 1938. What he said there was this: "To promote national unity we shall have to develop our Lingua Franca and a common script...So far as our Lingua Franca is concerned, I am inclined to think that the distinction between Hindi and Urdu is an artificial one. The most natural Lingua Franca would be a mixture of the two, such as is spoken in daily life in large portions of the country; and this common language may be written in either of the two scripts, Nagari or Urdu. I am aware that there are people in India who strongly favour either of the two scripts to the exclusion of the other. Our policy, however, should not be one of the exclusion. We should allow the fullest latitude to use either script. At the same time, I am inclined to think that the ultimate solution would be the adoption of a script that would bring us into line with the rest of the world. Perhaps, some of our countrymen will gape with horror when they hear of the adoption of the Roman script, but I would beg them to consider this problem from the scientific and historical point of view. If we do that, we shall realise at once that there is nothing sacrosanct in a script. The Nagari script, as we know it today, has passed through several phases of evolution. Besides, most of the major provinces in India have their own scripts, and there is the Urdu script which is used largely by the Urdu-speaking public in India and by both Muslims and Hindus in provinces like the Panjab and Sindh. In view of such diversity, the choice of a uniform script for the whole of India should he made in a thoroughly scientific and impartial spirit, free from bias of every kind. I confess that there was a time when I felt that it would be anti-national to adopt a foreign script. But my visit to Turkey in 1934 was responsible for converting me. I then realised for the first time what a great advantage it was to have the same script as the rest of the world. So far as our masses are concerned, since more than 90 per cent are illiterate and are not familiar with any script, it will not matter for them which script we introduce when they are educated. The Roman script will, moreover, facilitate their learning a European language. I am quite aware how unpopular the immediate adoption of the Roman script, would be in our country. Nevertheless, I would beg my countrymen to consider what would be the wisest solution in the long run."

Subhas was misunderstood by a great many of our patriots when he proposed the Roman script as the National Script of India in place of the Devanagari, which is favoured and supported by the largest number of Indians. I do not dilate upon this point, as a professed supporter of the Roman script for Indian languages. But I think this support of the Roman script, knowing fully well the strength and extent of Indian popular sentiment against the foreign alphabet (which was, moreover, the alphabet of the people from whose control of Indian affairs we were struggling to set ourselves free) demonstrates some noteworthy traits in Subhas's character — his openness to ideas, his prompt advocacy of what he thought was right, and his solicitude for the unity and welfare of his people.

From Netaji: His Life and Work, edited by Shri Ram Sharma, published in 1948 by Shiva Lal Agarwala & Co. Ltd., Agra