For a Bong any where, Durga Puja is a big occasion; at least that is how it used to be when I was young. In 1958 I used to consider myself to be young. I was just about 24 years old and I felt very young. When Durga Puja came about that year, I participated enthusiastically at the ceremonies held at Tambaram within the Air Force Station. I was then an instructor at the Flying Instructors’ School there. The Puja was held at the Domestic camp at Madambakkam which we could reach on a bicycle in five minutes from the officers’ mess. During Durga Puja, it is also customary to visit all such functions within striking distance, and we followed that social norm .
Of the handful of celebrations that took place in Madras, the Puja performed by he Bengali Association at Giri Road was considered to be a major one. Though the Association was in existence for a long time, it had really settled down at the Giri Road location only in the recent past, perhaps about three years earlier. We found one Mr Guha Roy as the secretary for the association. He was a very active man and he gave us, the young Bong group from the Air Force a hearty welcome when we visited the Puja. Like everywhere else, the four evenings during the days of Puja were filled with songs and dances, theatre and poetical recitations, and of course other traditional items like the ‘Dhunuchi Dance’ and small games for little children. The entertainment programs were managed by a very smart young lady in her early thirties. Through out the days of Puja, she was highly visible running around and arranging events. Her name was Kalyani Kumaramangalam. She was married to the very high profile communist leader from Madras, Mr Mohan Kumaramangalam.
Did some one say that it is a very small world that we live in? Well, I had never met Kalyanidi (as she was known in that group at that time) personally, but I knew very well that she was a sibling of Ajoy Mukherjee, the Congress leader of West Bengal and Biswanath Muknerjee, a major ideologue of the Communist Party of India(CPI). And where did I fit in into this equation? Well, Biswanathda was married to My Geetadi, Geeta Mukherjee nee Roychowdhury. She was a girl from Jessore who was a member of a study circle run by my Ma in our house. As a kid I must have taken a hundred piggy back rides on her; she was very fond of me and it was almost my right to get those rides when ever she came home! It is a small world indeed.
At this moment of my narration I must pause a while for a little detour; I realize that I might have confused some of my younger readers by mentioning Mohan Kumaramangalam to be a firebrand communist. Wasn’t he a minister of the central government under Indira Gandhi? Of course he was.
In the early years of the twentieth century, the Indian National Congress was like a village Mela. It accommodated all sorts of people with all sorts of opinions and social practices. It accommodated internal groups and a cacophony of opinions. Other political entities in the country, be it the Muslim League, the Unionist Party, or the Hindu Mahasabha, were inconsequential. The main stream Congress carried a strong socialist flavour. In the twenties and thirties, when the communist party was politically banned, most of the communists had joined the Congress and co-existed comfortably. This coexistence of Congressmen and Communists within the congress was often repeated within politically conscious families across the country. A few examples are given below:
Sarojini Naidu was a very prominent congress leader. Her brother Harindranath Chattopadhyaya represented Vijaywada as an independent candidate supported by the Communist party of India in the first Lok Sabha. Her son NM Jaisoorya was an MP from Medak on a PDP ticket that was a communist front. Her daughter Padmaja was once again a prominent Congress woman.
Mr P Subbarayan was the Chief Minister of Madras Presidency under the Government of India Act of 1919 for the years 1926 to 1930. He was not affiliated to any political party at that time. In 1933 he joined the Indian National Congress. He was elected to the Madras Assembly under the Government of India Act 1935 as a Congress MLA and served as a minister under C Rajagopalachary and Ramaswamy Reddiyar. His son General PP Kumaramangalam was apolitical and served as the Chief of the Army Staff. His other son Mohan Kumaramangalam was an active communist from his college days. He was a member of the Communist Party of India till 1967. Then, with the rise of Dravida brand of politics in Tamilnadu, he switched to the Indian National Congress and served as a minister under Indira Gandhi. His son Rangarajan Kumaramangalam later moved from the INC to the BJP and was a minister under Atal Behari Vajpai.
Sri Ajoy Mukherjee was a leading Congressman in West Bengal and became the Chief Minister of the state from that Party. The state unit of the Congress split in 1967 and he formed the break away Bangla Congress. He became the Chief Minister again as a leader of Bangla Congress twice, in 1967 and 1969, as a leader of a coalition with the left parties. His brother Biswanath Mukherjee was an MP from the CPI. Biswanath’s wife Geeta was an MLA and then an MP from the CPI. For many years of their active political life, Ajoy and Biswanath stayed in the same house. Ajoy and Biswanath’s sister Kalyani was a CPI activist on her own right. She met Mohan Kumaramangalam through the party connection and married him. She also drifted out of the communist party later in her life and joined the INC following her husband.
Now back to my story of this world being rather small.
During my visits to the Puja location at Giri Road I met and made friends with one Mr Mukherjee and his wife. The gentleman was working with the Leather Research Institute. Both of them were some what older than I was. I found them to be very sociable and friendly. After repeated interaction over the three days of Puja, the Mukherjees invited me to come over to their quarters for a get together on the following Sunday. I had no reason to reject such an invitation and arrived punctually on the appointed date and time. It was a reasonably large gathering with all the standard attributes of a ‘Bijoya Sammilani’ or a gathering after Bijoya (Dassera). Songs were sung and tea was consumed before every one moved in for lunch. It was only when lunch was served that I realized that I had committed a faux pas; I had not informed my hosts that I was a vegetarian. The menu was devoid of any vegetarian food. It was rather embarrassing, for me as well as my hosts. Mrs Mukherjee made quick amends and some stuff was quickly made available for me, but some embarrassment persisted. After the party was over, my hosts insisted that I must visit them again over the next week end so that they have a chance to feed me properly. I made the proper noises and accepted the renewed invitation.
On the following visit I found that I was the only guest. I had the full attention of my hosts and was fed extremely well. We had lots of time to chat. Mr Mukherjee was fond of talking and we conversed for a long time. It appeared to me that he was rather fond of a nephew (actually Mrs Mukherjee’s nephew) who apparently was about my age. Reference to this nephew came up repeatedly as we talked that morning. I remembered then that even earlier, when we had met during the Puja, Mr Mukherjee had spoken about this nephew. Quite obviously this young man was a hot favourite of his uncle. Apparently he was not only fair and handsome; he was also very bright academically. He had already completed his higher studies with honours; he had also become a popular teacher at the Science College teaching molecular physics. The All India Science Congress had held its annual conference at Madras a few months earlier, and this nephew had come down from Kolkata to attend it. How well the lad had grown up after having lost his father in early childhood through a tragic train accident.
I listened to this long chatter about a person of my age group with polite attention but with very little interest. The afternoon rolled on to the evening and it was time for me to take my leave. I made a formal declaration of my appreciation of the excellent fare that I had been offered and the kindness with which I had been treated. In response, Mr Mukherjee launched on a long spiel about how strange the young men of to day have become. He found it strange that young men of my age would be attracted to vegetarianism. Even his dear nephew was a strict vegetarian!
My mind lit up like a light bulb as Mr Mukherjee spoke on. Nephew of a Mukherjee… Brilliant Student … teaching at the Science College … orphan at a young age through a rail accident …. Of my age-group and a vegetarian! It was a list of just too many concurrent hits. I looked up to Mr Mukherjee and smiled. ‘Yes Mr Mukherjee; I said, ‘Arunaditya Mukherjee is indeed a brilliant boy. He is also a close friend of mine. Even though we have not met each other for about fourteen years, we were together in our childhood between 1942 and 1946, when both of us were at Himaitpur Pabna. My father was a close friend of his father, Late Sri Gopal Mukherjee’. Mr Mukherjee looked back at me in wonder and was speechless in his disbelief.
It is a small world indeed.