Dialogue with Prithwindra MUKHERJEE – The âshram in Pondicherry & the European Influence

Bertrand de Foucauld: “Why were you put in a school (âshram) located more than 1,800 km from the parental home? “

Prithwindra Mukherjee: “The territories that Sri Aurobindo had known in his life can be summarized as follows: (a) 1872-1879: birth in Calcutta, pension in Darjeeling; (b) 1879-1893 perfect English training, please, with a Latinist, away from contact with India; brilliant graduate of Hellenist, candidate for a post in India (the coveted Indian Civil Service); 1893-1905: employed by the princely state of Barodâ, he is notably a professor; he uses his leisure on one side to plunge back into Indian tradition until the discovery of a key to the Vedic mysteries; on the other hand, to urgently free his people from slavery that suffocated them, he comes into contact with some members of a secret society (including the great Tilak) who will be able to bring water to his mill; in 1902, he received the visit of Nivéditâ, an Irish revolutionary disciple of Vivékânanda, who invited him: “The Master has left us… Bengal is waiting for you. “; in 1903 Sri Aurobindo and Jatindra Mukherjee meet in Calcutta; Jatindra accepts the proposal to form a clandestine society capable of managing an armed revolution of the kind of the “guinea pig rebellion” of 1857; thus mandated, with a dozen years of perseverance, Jatindra creates the powerful federated network of non-centralized cells called Jugântar (“End of an era”), having as emissaries at work everywhere in India and in the world ; taking advantage of the visit to Calcutta of the Crown Prince of Germany, son of William II, in 1912, Jatindra will obtain a promise of Indo-Germanic collaboration known in History as Zimmermann Plan; 1905-10, Aurobindo dominated the pan-Indian political arena; 1910-50, like a meteor, before disappearing to carry out an intensive spiritual quest in Pondicherry, Aurobindo will leave the order to follow Jatindra Mukherjee.

True to his mandate, Jatindra rocked the British Empire in 1915 with his formidable plan for Indo-German collaboration. Knowing that a country that has been a slave for centuries cannot suddenly achieve independence, a country rotten by multiple fears: fear of living, fear of dying. Above all, we should learn to die, die for a cause, die for the fatherland. We will die … so that the Nation is born! He had said, in the context of an uprising, September 9th, 1915, while he waited on the coast of Balasore in Orissâ, with four desperate companions, the considerable delivery of weapons loaded in three boats from the coast of California and dispatched by von Papen, Military Attaché of Germany stationed in the United States, under the direction of Ambassador von Bernstorff.

Although, still in 1948, Pondicherry was a French territory, although the distance between Calcutta and Pondicherry was impressive, although to be admitted to the ashram one had an authorization from the Mother, this multiple interior historical and emotional proximity was necessary and sufficient. “

Bertrand de Foucauld: “What drove you to France? “

Prithwindra Mukherjee: “Prabodh Chatterjee, my mother’s cousin, was a two-time gold medalist from the University of Calcutta for his research and teaching in the field of physical science. During the War, he began to learn two languages ​​which he considered fundamental for the exercise of his trade: French and Arabic. Out of affection, he gave me some lessons in these two languages. Having no French without Toil, he was far from the real pronunciation of French words (which he pronounced loune-Di, mèr-Di… Di-mèn-tchi[1]For the respective French words: lundi, mardi, dimanche. Generally speaking, in the French language, the “e” at the end of a word is not pronunced. Note from BdF). I had spotted him admiring science education in France. Râmmohun Roy, Father of the Indian Renaissance, had such esteem for France that one day, in the open sea, when he saw a boat passing by with his French flag, eager to rush to the bridge to greet his friend Abbé Grégoire’s country, he stumbled and his ankle would remain disabled all his life.

It was at the ashram, raised directly by the Mother, that we learned to love France. French by birth and proud of it, the Mother had chosen in 1920 to live in India with Sri Aurobindo, to stay there, faithful to the post designated by her Master, until her last breath in 1973. From my first school year at the ashram, I told her that I would like to learn good French. Immediately she offered to give me the first lessons, every day. The love which animated her by translating the Master’s masterpieces into French opened me towards a vocation which I am happy with: pushed by Etiemble, I was going to become in the early 1970s a founding member of the l’Association française des traducteurs littéraires (French Association of the literary translators). Struck by the singular charm of French literature, I wondered if there was no way to share this pleasure of reading French works with my compatriots through translation. I translated French celebrities – Camus, St-John Perse, René Char – completely unknown in India.

In addition to translations, the language courses – Bengali, French and English – that I taught in Pondicherry between 1955 and 1966, I published many articles devoted to French literature, I lectured at the Alliance Française. All these activities earned me the nickname of Mr France in the circle of friends. Consequently France did not seem to me to be a country as mysterious as in the eyes of other scholarship holders. I had the impression that I had to compare my scenario of France and the French people of the time with the reality which gradually revealed its unsuspected mysteries. Just as in India the foreigner is welcomed like a cousin as soon as he gibberish two words in Sanskrit or in one of the twenty-two official regional languages, in France the foreigner is a king as soon as he succeeds in murmuring Je t’aime (I love you). Some more benevolent, among the friends, while appreciating the quality of my French (which I learned with the Mother) did not hesitate to point out that, although correct, I practiced a language a little too literary. Furious, I had seized two slang dictionaries with such zeal that in no time these same friends shouted at me: stop!

(Cover photo: Prithwindra Mukherjee in 1954).

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