Recollections and reflections

Reminiscences, Rafi Ahmad Kidwai

I first came in contact with Subhas Bose in 1923 at Delhi when the Congress was divided into two groups over the question of what was known as 'Council Entry.'...Subhas Babu, as the favourite lieutenant of Deshabandhu, was playing a prominent part in the controversy. more>>

Personal Reminisences

Suniti Kumar Chatterji (...continued)

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

During my brief stay in Vienna, a meeting was arranged by the Indian Central European Association, one of the ordinary meetings which used to be held to inform interested people in Vienna on Indian affairs and Indian civilisation. It appeared that a number of prominent Austrian merchants as well as officials had become members of the Association. These gentlemen were mainly interested in Indo-Austrian trade — export of Austrian manufactured goods to India, and of Indian raw goods to Austria. The Association, composed as it was mainly of students and tourists from India, was not naturally always in a position to advance business for mutual benefit; and judging from what Indian merchants doing business in Paris had told me, Indo-Austrian trade had largely to move by a round-about way, through England. But the students resident in Vienna did their bit by giving talks under the auspices of the Association on Indian religion, Indian art and Indian literature, Indian history and economics and other matters. The German race was one of a Brahmanical mind, as we would say in Indian parlance; they were eager to know and learn — and consequently there was no lack of an audience, big or small, to listen to the lectures arranged by the Association. A number of University Professors, specially those who had anything to do with Sanskrit and with the history of our civilisation in general, had also joined the Association. The meeting which took place during my stay and to which I was very kindly invited was attended by some 40 to 50 Indians. I was surprised to find so many of my countrymen in Vienna. They were not all of them students: there were some senior men, travellers, like myself, and some were slaying in Vienna for treatment. A good many Austrians also were there. Subhas was there as the Chief Guest of the evening. There was no special subject for a talk on that day: mutual co-operation in trade and cultural matters between Austria and India would be of help to both the countries — this was the topic on which a number of speakers lectured, both Indian and Austrian. Most of the speeches were in German, one or two in English. Subhas gave his taIk in English — it was nothing special, but as usual it was suffused with his great love for his motherland. A German translation of his speech was ready, it was then read out.

Subhas heard from me that I had with me about a hundred lantern slides on Indian Art which I had brought with me to Europe with the idea of giving talks on the History of Art in India and on the rise of the Indian National School of Painting at the commencement of this century. He forthwith arranged a lecture on this subject by myself under the auspices of the Indian Central European Association, and he himself presided over it. The lecture was advertised in the local papers, and quite a number of German men and women came, along with some Indians, both men and women. Most of the members of the Austrian part of the audience were professors and teachers, and artists and art-students. My speech was in English, but the slides were there. It struck me that the Germans were very eager for information, and most of the audience stood through the lecture from 8-30 to 10 o'clock on a very hot summer evening. I wanted to appear before my audience in a cool lounge suit; but Subhas proved to be a great stickler for appearances and formality. The lecture was to be held in a hall of the Hotel de France where I was putting up. Shortly before time, Subhas came up to my room, and insisted upon my putting on my black sherwani or tunic of warm Cashmere cloth with a cap shaped like the Gandhi cap to match, and my white Indian trousers tight-fitting below knee. It was a very uncomfortable dress to lecture in for two hours and a half on that hot and sultry evening, in a crowded hall, and the people of Central Europe know nothing of Indian punkhas or electric fans. But I had to concede to Subhas's sartorial dictatorship; and he was in a way right, for I was speaking on an important expression of Indian culture, and it was in the fitness of things that I should be dressed a l’ indienne. I also remembered Subhas's own gorgeous uniform as the G.O.C. ("General Officer Commanding") of the Congress Volunteers on the occasion of session of the Indian National Congress at Calcutta in 1928.

The lecture appeared to be successful. The audience stuck to the last and at the end of it indulged in asking questions, although the speaker was stewing in the heat and was bathed in perspiration. In the very convenient German way, the audience had grouped themselves in friendly hatches of four or six round small tables in the hall, and everybody was fortifying himself or herself with drinks hot or cold all the time — beer or coffee or soft beverages — and everybody paid for what he or she took; a very sensible arrangement, which makes it worth their while for hotel or restaurant keepers to keep a lecture hall. Subhas presided over this function, and he introduced me to the audience.

One evening it was rather late when I had returned to my hotel after a day-long trip in one of the park-like woods near Vienna, taking my return train back from a little suburban village-place called Moedling, as far as I remember. I was having a wash and was ready for a square meal as I was feeling very hungry, when Subhas appeared and asked me to come with him forthwith to the residence of an Austrian gentleman of the name of Fetter. He could not wait for me to take a bite — it was an after-dinner soirée at the place of his friend, and he had promised to him to take me to them. The implication of an "after-dinner" party was not very inspiring to a man who was very hungry, but I resigned myself to my fate, and accompanied Subhas, hoping to profit by a new experience even at the cost of a gnawing stomach. Herr Fetter was in the Austrian Cabinet, or Government service, with an important portfolio or a responsible post, but at that time he had retired from all connection with the administration. He and his wife received us. Both of them were highly cultured people, well-informed on all matters of human interest, and both of them had great respect for India and her culture. There were several other people, both ladies and gentlemen. In this "after-dinner" soirée, there was quite a lavish arrangement for the inner man; we settled ourselves round a table loaded with all sorts of good things, like cool orangeade and lime juice and other soft drinks, plenty of raspberries, cherries, pears and other fruits, and sandwiches and delicious cakes. Our talk continued in the intervals of eating, or vice versa. Yet I must say that on that evening I observed what would certainly be described as an admirable restraint in the matter of eating; it was an ordeal for an almost famishing man to behave like having come there after a good dinner, and in front of such a good spread too. But it would not do to try to make up for my lost dinner in such select company. I followed the lead of the others in my procedure, and I found I was quite correct — despite the sufferings of the hidden Tantalus within. We talked about the trends of present-day civilisation, about the strength and the beauty of certain old-world ideologies, about the crisis in faith and religion in the present world, about the relation between science and religion, about the ideals behind the civilisation of India and how far India can be said to have a message for the modern man; about literature in general; about Rabindranath with whose works, in both English and German translations, everybody appeared to have a good acquaintance; about Mahatma Gandhi and what he really stood for; about the literature and art of China; and similar matters of intellectual and cultural content. It was a very pleasant and stimulating experience indeed, and for two and a half to three hours, we kept up our conversation and exchange of ideas. It was mostly in English, so that the two Indian guests might not be inconvenienced. This meeting with the Fetters, thanks to Subhas's kindness, will always remain a very pleasant memory for me.

It was I think close upon 1 o'clock when we left for home, and then I insisted that Subhas had a cup of coffee with me while I tried to get a bite in some wayside restaurant. These were about to close, but we found a place where a sympathetic waiter got for me an omelette and some cold meat and bread, and some delicious hot coffee for both of us. I had then another close conversation with Subhas — on the cultural outlook for India, on the chances of Indian freedom (Subhas was sure that there would be another war in five years and then we must create an opportunity for ourselves out of international jealousies when Western powers would become too exhausted and too disunited), and, above all, on the question of the Romanisation of the Indian languages. It was perhaps nearing 2 o'clock in the morning when we parted at a street crossing, he to go to his pension and I to my hotel in Schotten Ring.

I left Vienna by steamer down the Danube for Budapest on the morning of the 13th June 1935. It was a 12-hour journey, and quite an unforgettable experience. Arriving at Budapest I found my hotel, and after the hot and tiring day on the river, I was getting ready to go to bed, when I received a visitor. It was Mr. Ferenc Zayti, well-known artist, antiquarian and traveller of Hungary, to whom Subhas had written that I was coming to Budapest, and I should be done the honours of the place by him as far as it lay in his power. Mr. Zayti was a magnificent bearded giant of a man, whose notions of history and anthropology were rather imaginative than scientific; but he had made a wide tour of India, and like another great countryman of his, Sandor Csoma Korosi (who, in his search for the ancestral home of his people, the Magyars or Hungarians, came to India over a hundred years ago, then went to Tibet and learned Tibetan, and became the founder of scientific Tibetan studies), Mr. Zayti's objective was to find Hungarian origins in India. He was convinced that he had found them among some of the primitive pre-Aryan peoples of Rajputana, and he was quite happy with his discovery. But he had an artist's love of the picturesque in Indian life, and had painted a whole series of pictures in oils of life in Rajputana and of Indian legends; and besides had made a fine collection of Indian textiles and art objects which he kept in his flat in Budapest; and above all he entertained brotherly feelings for all Indians. Subhas' kindness and forethought in writing to Zayti before I had left Vienna helped me to obtain very good friends in Budapest. Mr. Zayti took me under his protection, and introduced me to a number of other people. There was my old friend Professor Gyula (Julius) Germanua the Turcologist and Islamist, who was at Rabindranath's University of Visva-bharati at Santiniketan for a year as Nizam Professor of Islamic Culture; and I made the acquaintance of Dr. Zoltan Takacs, in charge of the local Ferenc Hopp Museum of Eastern Art, and of Dr. Istvan Medgyaszay, a distinguished architect of Vienna, who had been also to India, and who arranged for a lecture by myself on Indian Art in the Hungarian Union of Engineers and Architects. My visit of six days to Budapest was thus made rich in personal associations through Subhas' kindness and his friendly offices in introducing me to some notable people there.

Subhas is no more, he is now gathered to the Hall of Heroes. He achieved the seemingly impossible thing for us — he turned lifeless and brainless automata into living and thinking men. The personnel of the Indian Army, magnificent fighters, but unthinking pawns in the Englishman's game of imperialism, were made by him to feel for the first time in a hundred and fifty years that they too were men, and had their duty to their people and country — their destiny as not to remain for ever the slaves of the British Sarkar. Subhas also achieved another great thing — he demonstrated that Hindu-Muslim communalism is an artificial creation, an incubus which had its birth in the witches' cauldron of the colonial policy of a Satanic foreign government — Satanic in the sense that it was maintaining itself by sedulously fostering, and frequently creating, seemingly unbridgeable mistrust and its corollary fratricidal conflict among sections of the same people — same in blood and in language, in culture and in history, in life and in mind, only different in some of the outer paraphernalia of formal religion. He made the Hindu and the Muslim, the Sikh and the Christian, and the native Indian and the Anglo-Indian, feel as brothers, as one Indian people, single and indivisible. Our knowledge of all this achievement of his came to us in that great blessing for India, the trial of the Officers of the Indian National Army, Subhas's deathless creation, in the Red Fort of Delhi. He gave to India her first Azad Hind Raj, a "Free Indian State", and with it her great national salutation Jai Hind "Glory to India", side by side with Bankim Chandra's gift Vande Mataram "I salute Thee Mother." For all that he has achieved, his name and fame will be a beacon light for all Indians, irrespective of caste, creed or colour; and he will be a pattern and exemplar for all lovers of their country and people, who want to see them free. To have known such a man is a great honour; and to have come in touch with him, even in a perfunctory manner, is certainly a great good fortune. And it is in a spirit of thankfulness for this good fortune that I have sought to give a record of my very brief yet not very distant contact with one, who, for the spirituality of his outlook, the depth of this love for his motherland and the greatness of his achievement, can without travesty be hailed as a Patriot Saint of India.

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