Charaiveti: Journey from India to the two Cambridges and Berkeley and Beyond, Part 1

by Pranab Bardhan

All of the articles in this series can be found here.

In long plane journeys I do not sleep well. But some years back in one such journey I was tired and fell fast asleep. When I woke up, I saw a little note on my lap. It was from the captain in charge of the plane. It said, “I did not want to disturb you, but from our computer log I could see that your total travel so far with our airlines group just crossed 3 million miles. So congratulations! It seems you travel almost as much as I do.” I made a quick calculation, 3 million miles is like 6 return trips from the earth to the moon. With a deep sigh I chanted to myself, as our plane was hurtling through the night sky, a word from an ancient Sanskrit hymn: Charaiveti (keep moving!)

There was a time when, for me as a young boy, a rare trip from one part of my city to another was a breathless adventure. I grew up in the mean streets of Kolkata (then known to others as Calcutta), spending much of my boyhood and youth in a cramped rented house on a narrow by‐lane of north Kolkata, with no running water or flush toilet, and all the rooms packed with refugee relatives from East Bengal, recently displaced by the violent Partition of India. My father, as an educator, was not very poor by Indian standards, but for a time he had to support most of those relatives. He had no savings as whatever was left of his paltry income he spent on good food and books. Very early in my childhood he instilled in me an appetite for both, and also the habit of rational, irreverent thinking and a deep sense of irony.

He had plenty of opportunity to do so as he had decided to home-school me. As a result my early education was heavy in areas of his interest and expertise (mathematics, literature, history, politics, economics, and discourses in his pugnaciously atheist and sardonic attitude to life), and less in some branches of science or art practice. He was also a good raconteur; he relished telling stories of even everyday happenings spiced with a good deal of ironic wit and great style, which made him popular with many of our acquaintances. My mother used to complain that even when a mishap struck our family, he spent less time in handling the situation than in polishing the narrative for the time when people will come and ask him about what happened. As a child I dreaded his occasional temper tantrums and resented his domineering ways of controlling his family, but I also closely and admiringly observed how meticulously he collected his materials from the teeming life around him and in the streets or marketplaces (going out to the bazaars in search of food items that he considered best both in quality and bargain was his daily preoccupation) and how he turned them into masala ingredients for his colorful stories. It was not until much later that I realized how much of his wit and humor actually served as a shield against the frustrations in his life and against an unfair society, that simmered inside.

Since my home schooling hours were quite flexible and depended on when he was free, much of the day I spent playing with the street kids, who came from much poorer families in the neighborhood (including some whose mothers were sex workers in the brothels nearby). Since the narrow by-lane of not more than ten feet width in front of our house was the playing field, you may imagine how the rules of soccer or cricket were mangled and adapted to our limiting circumstances (for example, in our cricket, usually played with tennis balls, if you catch the ball off the bat after it hit one wall, then the batsman was out, but not if it had bounced off both walls on the two sides of the narrow street).

In periods when our house was particularly over-crowded with relatives, my father often sent me and my sister and mother off to our maternal uncle’s home in Santiniketan, a small town about a hundred miles north of Kolkata. This town was famous in India for having the residential educational institution established by Rabindranath Tagore. Santiniketan’s wide open fields and ravines gave me a great deal of freedom to wander about, exploring nature, playing, plucking fruits and catching fish with children from extremely poor families from the neighboring village (most of their parents worked as rickshaw‐pullers and maids), who also did not go to school. My father would occasionally visit for a short time and give me homework for the next few weeks, which I frantically finished in less than a week, so that I had all the time to play with those friends.

Even though I was not a student at Santiniketan, I used to accompany my friends in the neighborhood who were students to attend the numerous cultural events that took place in the campus every week. Every Wednesday morning there used to be a solemn gathering where the master of ceremony was Kshitimohan Sen (Amartya Sen’s grandfather), a professor of Sanskrit, who used to recite verses from ancient texts and interpreted them, which were almost completely unintelligible to us children; we all used to wait for the beautiful Tagore songs that the sermons were frequently interspersed with. Amartya-da’s (I have always addressed Amartya in that typical Bengali younger-brotherly way) mother told me that when he was a small child she once took him to that Wednesday gathering where Tagore was the master of ceremony. The child was obviously bored by Tagore’s sermons and the hushed silence around him, so he started blabbering away, and his mother shushed him. At this the child pointed his finger at Tagore, and loudly said, “why is that fellow talking then?” Clearly a pointed argument from an ‘argumentative Indian’!

My young days in Santiniketan were immersed in Tagore’s music, poetry and drama. In our neighborhood I once acted as the sick, dying but dreamy child, Amal, in his famous play ‘The Post Office’. (Much later I came to know that this play was staged in the orphanage run by Janusz Korczak in the Warsaw ghetto, just before he and the children were taken by the Nazis to the Treblinka concentration camp). In the house next to ours in Santiniketan lived Neelima Sen and a few houses away lived Kanika Bandyopadhay, two of the best singers of Tagore songs; to this day their voice and melody from a distant past ring in my ears. My cousin, Sudhir Chanda, who lived with us and learned Tagore songs there, later in his life started a well-known Tagore music school in Delhi.