Phanishwar Nath Renu on Satinath Bhaduri
[HUG translates part of Phanishwar Nath Renu’s reminiscences on Satinath Bhaduri and his times. The original piece appears in Satinath Shawrone (Reminiscing Satinath), edited by Subal Gangopadhaya & compiled by Madhumay Pal in 1972. The work was re-published by Prakash Bhavan in January 2013.]
We used to call him Bhaduriji. I mean, we, the boys from Zila Purnea. Not Bhaduri-moshai, or Satuda, nor Comrade Satinath or Bhaduribhai. Simply Bhaduriji. He used to love Purnea more than India. So the context of my knowing him will remain Purnea. My father was a mid-level kisaan in a village nearby, and often he used to get engaged in various land related court cases. So, I used to know the names of all the big and minor wakils of that area—right from the ones seen in the sub-divisional court to those practicing in the zila kachehri. That is how I came to know about the Chhotababu of the Bhaduri household. One day baba took me to his chamber and I was immediately admonished for not touching his feet. It is at that moment that I spotted that all encompassing, winsome smile on Chhotababu’s face: “Good that you have not touched my feet or else I would have ended up cross-examining your baba about this sudden urge to train you in the right etiquettes,” he said.
On the way back baba started telling me about him: “What a man! No pride of learning whatsoever. Does not utter a word more than what is required. The senior wakils at the bar-library would vouch by his legal digests and commentaries. And handwriting? Likhnewale ki ungliya chum lu! And we all knew that Chhotababu was the tennis champion of the Station-Club. And indeed I saw him playing one day—no fanfare, no karamati—Chhotababu returning each serve with effortless ease. And no reaction betrayed on his face, whether he won or lost a point. Such was his focus and nonchalance.
When I was at Biratnagar (Nepal), studying at Krishna Prasad Koirala’s ashram of a school Adarsh Vidyalaya, I received a letter from Baba: Chhotababu had left wakalati and had joined the Congress, the letter said. He does not stay in his bungalow anymore but lives in an ashram at Tikapatti, a fringe locality. And has started walking barefooted I was stunned for a few hours and began constructing in my mind a certain tapestry: a lonesome itinerant figure with his trademark smile, charkha-jhola-kambal slung on his side, walking down the village path. Unperturbed by fashion and commotion.
By then I had joined the Student Federation. It was in 1942 that I met Bhaduriji for the second time. This time: at Bhagalpur Central Jail. I could see his smiling visage from a distance among the other time-servers in the Segregation Ward. He had also recognized me instantly: “You, here? Shabbash!” And then without giving me any time, this man of few words, started a rare unwinding. He turned to the assembled political prisoners: “This boy made a fool of the daroga of Farebgunj, do you all know? The daroga and some constables and chowkidars encircled their house, intending to trace the volumes on hanging and sacrifice that appeared in Chand and Hindpanch magazines respectively. They had a search warrant too. And young Renu got hold of a red khaddar gunny-bag and put up this little act as if he was taking off to school. Of course those books were in that bag. The daroga, truth be told, actually did express some suspicion but was fooled by his seemingly innocuous reply.” I became red with embarrassment—that was such an insignificant incident. What a thing to tell in front of such big political leaders! But that little incident broke the ice and instantly made my relationship easy with many prisoners thereafter.
Of course Bhaduriji was one of the star football players in jail and I always witnessed his steely nonchalance on and off the field. One day, after a volleyball match, he quietly asked me: “Don’t you know how to handle the volleyball? Badminton? Tennis—anything? Why, will your name be stricken off from the Student Federation rosters if you indulge in games and sports?” I was embarrassed. Actually, he was right. Student leaders would not look too kindly on young boys who would take interest in sports. That was not the ‘political field.’
There were five communal messes in our ward during that period. But Bhaduriji was swapaki—used to cook his own food. There was this man Anath-babu, who ran the mess where I was enrolled. But he used to always admonish me for my tea-drinking sprees. I believe he had this secret mission of reforming me of this habit. So, he would take half a cup of milk, begin pouring a pale red tea ‘liquor’ over the milk and start his daily rant. Every single day. Twice. All that I recall of it was tannic acid and tannin and the distortions and contortions of his facial muscles even as he tried to impress upon me my stupidity. One day I had had enough, rushed to Bhaduriji and asked whether he would allow me to have my tea with him. At this, he enquired what was wrong with the mess. I replied pat that Anath-babu and his gang would not allow me my daily dose of tannic acid. He started chortling. The more I tried to explain that I actually meant ‘flavor,’ the more he would laugh his heart out. “No, no, you are correct,” he said, “But do you know the amount of tannin that a pot of tea contributes gets far outstripped by a tiny piece of betel-nut?” And he stopped himself right there.
Soon, I noticed that those who would lecture us on the side effects of guzzling tea would be the ones who consumed the maximum quantity of betel-nuts. Bhaduriji was trying to show the inconsistency of the health-wallahs—the gap between precept and practice. His tremendous and silent humanism would thus shine forth. Unexpectedly, minimally. That day he had narrated to me stories of some of the most famous tea-drinkers in history and how many cups they would gulp down every day. I still remember Gladstone was one of them. At another time, one of my ‘well-wishers’ complained to Bhaduriji that I had again gotten into the habit of smoking. His reply was typical: “Did Renu ever quit smoking? I always get the faint smell of Abdullah Cigarettes around here. May be he will be dismissed from his party if he quits smoking. How can you engage in red-hot political bahas without a fag?” It is only later, when I was alone with him, that he lightly suggested to me that the ‘sundries allowance’ that we used to get could also be utilized for officially acquiring cheap and proscribed Russian books and not just for buying Abdullah Cigarettes.
Life in jail is a curious leveler. You begin to detect the masks among different individuals. Our reverence for many big leaders got a severe jolt within the boundaries of the jail. We were witness to astonishing kinds of deviousness in everyday matters. Circumstances forced us to become iconoclasts—divesting our consciousness of uncritical hero-worship. In such moments of confusion, it was Bhaduriji who would give us clarity and succor through his tireless, unadorned way of living. I recall that we used to get note-books and pencils in jail and many prisoners started writing. Birendranarayan from Bhagalpur would write plays and inspired other prisoners to act out his scripts. Ranen-babu wrote a short treatise in Hindi: Samajvaad ki Moti Baatein. Our Gandhian Rambahadur-babu composed a complicated chart on austere food habits and titled it Gandhivaadi-Aahar. One day Bhaduriji asked the Jail Superintendent to transfer him to the isolated T-Cells. The Superintendent was very surprised at this strange request. Why would one, on his own accord, wish to live in an isolated cell? What kind of prisoner was this? But some of us decided to join him in those cells soon. It is then that I realized why he was so interested in the T-Cell. It was possibly the best place to read and write, away from the din that marked our diurnal life in prison. One day I chanced upon his ‘manuscript’—a diary of sorts—and could not stop until I finished the whole thing. I quickly realized the tremendous literary and social power of this work. He would underplay it, of course. Divert all discussion to other subjects. But what tremendous grace and fortuitousness: I was the first reader of Jagori! A curious side-effect followed too: since my reading of the manuscript, I would often see someone in jail and think in my mind: “Babaji, your sketch has been etched right to the last detail in Jagori.” And chuckle.
I had never discussed his manuscript with Bhaduriji, save once, when I blurted out: “Bilu too, could not stand blood,” referring to one of the key figures in his novel through whom a section of that astonishing stream of consciousness meandered. He was silent and I did not press further. But I could gather that he knew what I meant. Actually, a few days ago, while slicing some bread, he had accidentally cut his finger. The moment he saw the blood oozing, Bhaduriji fell senseless. As he gained consciousness and encountered our puzzled, worried looks, he routinely brushed it off: “Ah, you all carry on with you work. It is nothing. I just can’t stand blood.”
In one of the kavi-sammelans in jail I had decided to recite a rather longish poem of mine. Written in free verse. The poem tried to dramatize what might have gone through Gandhiji’s head just after Kasturba’s death. I was young and it was a precocious bit of writing. At one point I wrote how Gandhiji was thinking about his first kiss with Kasturba and about such intimate moments spent with her. I was possibly thinking about the most human thing to do after the death of one’s beloved. But it stirred a hornet’s nest. The elderly gandhivaadis called the very thought obscene. I had to sit down; my recitation unfinished. Saddened, I came back to my cell. Bhaduriji walked in: “I heard the recitation session was very good today. Now, where is your poem?” When he saw the length and the freedom that I took with the metrical structure, he smiled in exasperation. Then, after giving me a hearing, remarked: “So, what did they say? Gandhiji had never kissed Kasturba?” And continued, “You know what? In the free verse mode there may not be any tuk (rhyme) but never ever forgo taal(rhythm). Those two nurtured taal in their relationship, which the world will little appreciate if it continues to vacantly moralize. And yes, why don’t you try writing stories? You do have a fine sense of the situation and the spread.”
Bhaduriji would maintain a small book rack in his cell which housed sundry novels. But also some English writings of M.N. Roy. Those who were in jail with Bhaduriji during the satyagrahi days in Hazaribag used to tell us that deep down Bhaduriji was a Roy-ist—asl mein woh Roy-ist hain, was the inference. This was a way to suggest that he had dubious loyalties, since during the Great War the Radical Humanists supported the Brits. And this running down the ‘other’ has been a standard, time tested way to prove by implication, how authentically radical one’s own position is, isn’t it? So, when I noticed those books on his rack, I asked him impulsively: “So, you still continue to be a Roy-ist, it seems?” “Of course I am,” he replied, “Have you had the chance to read any of M.N. Roy’s works? Do you comprehend, I mean feel, the dialectical process that you all are taught or is it mostly rote learning as Badrilal seems to practice every morning here? Have you read some of Plato’s dialogues? Or Indian philosophy? Not Upanishad. But say thinking about Nyaya and analytical philosophy—not in a faux comparative framework, which is a lazy endeavor, but in order to truly relate to what you and I have been doing?” That day I realized that he was no ist, save Purnia-ist. This incident reminded me of the lore of how a so-called French scholar had once an audience with Bhaduriji and was trying to give him some high-falutin lecture on French literature. After a while, Bhaduriji sought his permission, got a primer on French language from his home library and smilingly requested him to meet him again once he was done reading it (Those of you who have read Shotti Bhraman Kahini and his essay Madhusudan o La Fontaine will know how deep and subtle his knowledge of the French language and literature was, though otherwise Bhaduriji was a man firmly grounded in the blood and grime of Purnia). Gentle as he was, Bhaduriji would give no indulgence to inanity and glibness. That is possibly one reason why he could not remain in the arena of public politics.
I remember another incident quite vividly. The jail administration had warned us that we could not celebrate January 26 in any form or manner. A day before, a thorough ‘search’ of our cells took place and sundry national flags, boxes of color, red ink, green and red papers—were all confiscated. The plan was to lock us up on January 26, with a threat that in case we indulge in nara-baazi and so on within our cells, there would be a lathi-charge. The gandhivaadis were against any form of programmatic politics. They argued: since we are locked up, we are now helpless. So, being closeted within the four walls of our cells was a form of protest in itself. The administration was naturally happy with this division of opinion. Anyway, we planned to stick to our program, queued up and started the proceedings with a few choicest slogans. Then we started singing bandemataram. The officer among the warders outside gave a shrill order—we could hear him loud and clear. Hearing the order, the gandhivaadis spread their blankets and began spinning charkhas. Presently, we heard the sound of the warders’ quick-march, approaching and approaching ever closer. At that moment Bhaduriji left his writing desk, came up and took his position right in the front row. He was already hit during the satyagraha days at the Purnia Zila Jail. A black mark on his neck bore the sign of that hit. Standing behind him and watching him sing bandemataram, I was wondering whether the lathi would again fall next to that very spot that day.
After our release from prison, one day I went to meet Bhaduriji. As I approached the Bhattabazar junction, I spied CID inspector ‘muchhedaar Shukla,’ taking a close look at Bhaduriji’s place. The dreaded Azad Dasta was still quite active in Purnia and it is through them that we came to know about some recent killings of the CID wallahs or about some fresh encounters with the police. But why Bhaduriji—he was a pure ahimsak? And then I recalled that indeed he was one ahimsak who was marked X in jail. The charge against the gandhivaadi Y detainee was “that he was trying to overthrow the government.” And against the left-winger: “that he was trying to overthrow the government by means of terror and violence.” So, I gathered that the X mark was haunting him even outside of the jail. When I reached his place I appreciated the context better. Kuldeep Jha, the secretary of Azad Dasta, had come to meet Bhaduriji the night before and could not take off. He was sleeping peacefully, under mosquito net and all, in one of the basement rooms. When I informed Bhaduriji about the khufia activity, he did not seem to be very bothered.
The Congress was still an illegal association. District level Congress workers would meet periodically to discuss issues related to the Kasturba Memorial Fund. The first of these meetings took place at Bhaduriji’s place. I was present. At that meeting a few Congress workers suggested the publication of a parcha (handbill) to expose, and caution the people about, the Jan Dasta methods of looting and extortion. Bhaduriji had found this proposal ridiculous and opposed it by making the point that even if it were to be true, this kind of a handbill would merely help the police. The ones proposing the publication actually nurse a hidden agenda, to be in the district administration’s nek-nazar. Those who proposed the handbill did not expect such a sharp intervention at all. I laughed my heart out. A few months later there was government decree to all kisaans and shop-owners to contribute money to the National War Fund. This was forcible extortion by the government. People started selling off land and cattle, jewelry and utensils in order to get hold of the amount fixed by the officials by the appointed date. The whole district was suffering, seething silently. The Congressi-babus had just come out of jail and so did not want to expose themselves immediately to this freshly brewing issue. At that point one day, in many leading newspapers, a long letter got published—a letter full of teeming satire, on the pure extortionist techniques that the government had adopted. The District Magistrate was livid and fuming and immediately sent off a Show Cause Notice to Bhaduriji. We had a merry laugh and argued about its Hindi equivalent: kaaran bataao or dikhaao wajah—what could be more appropriate? But as Bhaduriji began to think of a suitable reply, the DM sent him a letter of apology. We came to know that the Judicial Secretary from Patna had sent a strong memo to the DM, asking him to rescind the charge against Bhaduriji. Thereafter this War Fund tamasha also stopped.
Meanwhile Jagori saw the light of the day—finally, after a few rejections! Some wonderful reviews followed. Awards too. But Bhaduriji was by then an itinerant journeyman. He had quit the Congress in 1947. He had briefly joined our party—C.S.P., but also quit it pretty soon since he realized that not unlike the Congress party—some Zamindar scions actually ran the party. He had no business in raj-kaaj (governance of the new nation) as he used to say. At that point I had also quit the party. I recall a funny incident of that period. We were all travelling from village to village working for the Party and decided to stay over in a village close to River Parman on a particular night. The comrade who was from that part of the district promised us fish for dinner. So, as we approached the river-ghaat and as the comrade began calling out the names of the local fishermen, to our utter surprise we sighted the fishermen running helter-skelter. The comrade raised his voice further. More running ensued. Bhaduriji got it. He started cackling: “Arre, first get rid of the red socialist headgear of yours. The poor men are sanguine that we are the police.”
“You have seen enough Renu. Start chronicling. Via the inner you. The words and feelings that are hidden within you. Unbind them. Let the world know and feel with you,” he told me one day. I had by then published about a dozen short stories in the magazine Vishwamitra, published from Calcutta. But could not muster the courage to write a novel. Maila Anchal was published in 1954. The day I got hold of my writer’s copy, I ran down the streets, straight to him. I knew he was so happy and proud for me. Meanwhile, a few local Hindi writers spread the canard that my book was a copy of Bhaduriji’s Dhorai Charit Manas. Om Prakash, the proprietor of Rajkamal Prakashan wrote a letter to Bhaduriji and enquired about the matter. Bhaduriji’s reply was characteristic: “I am sure you have a couple of Hindi writers who are also adept in Bangla. Please ask them to read both the works. Renu has seen life in his own terms; he has evolved by developing his own resources and philosophy.” And told me: “Now you are an ‘all-Hindi figure’; these things are a natural corollary. The more well known you will become, the more you will witness the stingy-ness of soul. Don’t let that deter you. You have seen far sterner stuff. The world awaits you—sundry naysayers hardly matter. Just keep on writing.” For the muharat of Teesri Kasam, both Basu Bhattacharya and Basu Chatterjee came down to Purnia and they wanted Bhaduriji to hold the clap-stick. I was horrified, knowing his doubts about certain Hindi films. But he acquiesced, quite willingly, in fact.
It is impossible to write about our association and the days we lived in one short piece. I have barely narrated some disjointed incidents. Bhaduriji was such an accessible man. One who never ever gave priority to disinterested intellect, though he was the foremost writer-activist-intellectual of our time. It would be apposite to end this tribute with a couple of lines from his Shotti Bhraman Kahini: “To be ordinary is the real blossoming, the fulfillment of human identity. Extra-ordinariness is a long-nosed caricature of that self. When our sensual soul is no more, we call it thoughtful mind. The limbs of the dead frog dazzle everyone in the frothy brightness.”