Sri Aurobindo: His Birth Place, Nirmal Nahar and Peter Heehs
By Anurag Banerjee <email@example.com> date 29 August 2008 16:54
On the auspicious day of 15 August 2008, the second edition of Nirmal Nahar’s book Sri Aurobindo: His Birth Place saw the light of the day at Sri Aurobindo Bhavan, Kolkata. This book is of immense significance and it won’t be an exaggeration if one calls it a ‘priceless document’ for Nirmal Nahar has removed all the misconceptions that were prevalent regarding the actual birth-place of Sri Aurobindo in it. For those who are unaware of those misconceptions, here are a few words to explain to them.
It was assumed that Sri Aurobindo was born, not in Theatre Road, but at 237 Lower Circular Road (now known as Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Road) by many. Why was this house considered to be the birth-place of Sri Aurobindo is explained in Sri Aurobindo: His Birth Place, so repetitions would not be necessary; the interested reader is requested to go through the book. This building currently houses the Ministry of External Affairs and Foreigners’ Registration Office. As a result, on 15 August 1949 Sri Aurobindo’s birthday was celebrated over there with pomp and splendour under the initiative of Nirmal Chandra Chatterjee (father of present speaker Somnath Chatterjee), Bar-at-Law, who was also a member of the Hindu Mahasabha and eventually became a member of the Lok Sabha. At that time, that house on Lower Circular Road was owned by Nalini Ranjan Sarkar, the Finance Minister of the West Bengal Government and Chairman of Hindustan Cooperative Insurance Company Ltd. He attempted to declare the house to be a heritage property (as Sri Aurobindo was supposed to be born over there) and a group of intellectuals was formed to put forward the claim. But in reality this claim was erroneous. When Sri Aurobindo was informed about it and was shown a photograph of the house, he had remarked: “No, not this house.”
Ten years earlier in 1939, Sri Aurobindo had specifically told Nirodbaran that he was born in House no. 4 at Theatre Road which was owned by his father’s friend Monomohan Ghose, a lawyer by profession. In 1949 when this misconception regarding his place of birth was raised again, Sri Aurobindo dictated a note to Nolini Kanta Gupta. This note was sent to P.T.I. through telegram by Nirmal Nahar who was then a correspondent of P.T.I. as well as an inmate of Sri Aurobindo Ashram. For those who are unaware of Nirmal Nahar’s identity, the author takes this opportunity of informing them that he is the patriarch of the illustrious Nahar family, the son of Prithwi Singh Nahar (a direct disciple of Sri Aurobindo), the elder brother of Sujata Nahar and he himself was a member of Sri Aurobindo Ashram from 1942 to 1951; he left the Ashram after Sri Aurobindo’s mahasamadhi. He was also one of the founder-trustees of Sri Aurobindo Bhavan. The telegram to P.T.I. is as follows:
“When attention was drawn to several press enquiries particularly in Bengal as to the exact birthplace of SRI AUROBINDO, Srijut Nolinikanto Gupta, Secretary of Sri Aurobindo Asram told P.T.I.: “SRI AUROBINDO WAS BORN IN THE HOUSE OF LATE BARRISTER MONOMOHON GHOSE, A CLOSE FRIEND OF HIS FATHER, DR. KRISHNA DHAN GHOSE. THE HOUSE WAS IN THE THEATRE ROAD AND THE NUMBER BEING MOST PROBABLY 4 (FOUR). WE ARE NOT AWARE WHETHER THE HOUSE STILL EXISTS OR NOT.”
Nirmal Nahar has seen the original note that was dictated by Sri Aurobindo to Nolini Kanta Gupta and he remembers that there were some corrections in the original manuscript in Nolini Kanta Gupta’s handwriting. It implies that after Sri Aurobindo had dictated it, Nolini Kanta Gupta must have read it out to him for confirmation and Sri Aurobindo had changed a word or two.
But there is one person who strongly disapproved that Theatre Road was actually the birth place of Sri Aurobindo. He is Peter Heehs, a noted historian and biographer who is also in-charge of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives. He claimed that Sri Aurobindo was actually born in 237 Lower Circular Road and presented some evidences to prove his point of argument based on the following:
1) The Calcutta Street Directory of 1872 which states that the house at 237 Lower Circular Road was owned by Monomohan Ghose.
2) Ambalal B. Purani’s Note in the Appendix of his biography of Sri Aurobindo and a photo of the so-called house where Sri Aurobindo was said to be born.
3) The claims of the daughters of Monomohan Ghose that Sri Aurobindo was born in their house.
4) A claim by Basanti Chakravorty, the daughter of Krishna Kumar Mitra, Sri Aurobindo’s uncle.
Thus, based on these arguments Peter Heehs did not give any credence to Sri Aurobindo’s own claim and challenged his memory as well. According to him, Sri Aurobindo’s memory had failed! Such impudence is intolerable! He considered the statements of the daughters of Monomohan Ghose to be more precise and faithful and dismissed Sri Aurobindo’s own proclamation!
But Nirmal Nahar has refuted the preposterous claim of Peter Heehs and provided the actual facts that lead to the elimination of this entirely misleading claim of Peter Heehs. Mr. Heehs is a noted historian, yet he writes: “All historians know that historiography deals in probabilities, not certitude.” What does it mean? History stands on the pillars of mere ‘probabilities’ only? Only probable facts, no matter how incorrect they are, will be taken into consideration without evaluating their accuracy! What strange notions! History means nothing but certitude. And the study of historiography does not deal in probabilities but precise evaluation of authentic facts and figures.
Nirmal Nahar is not a historian but as a researcher, he is far better than Peter Heehs. His research is not superficial; he looks into each aspect meticulously and brings out the actual facts which have been long ignored. Many are not aware of the fact that he had played a significant role in bringing out undiscovered truths about Sri Aurobindo and the Mother which helped Sujata Nahar to pen her spectacular series titled Mother’s Chronicles. How he has routed Peter Heehs’s claim has been explained in his book so the author won’t go into the details of it and would request the readers to go through the book instead.
But the author would like to say a few words regarding Peter Heehs’s claim that Sri Aurobindo’s memory had failed. In 1949 Sri Aurobindo had dictated a series of articles to Nirodbaran for the Bulletin of Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education. The initial articles dealt with the importance of sports and gymnastics. In his book Twelve Years With Sri Aurobindo, Nirodbaran writes about it:
“Quite a series commenced and the most memorable of the lot was the article “The Divine Body”. It was a long piece and took more than a week, since we daily had just about an hour to spare. As he was dictating, I marvelled at so much knowledge of Ancient Greece and Ancient India stored up somewhere in his superconscious memory and now pouring down at his command in a smooth flow. No notes were consulted, no books were needed, yet after a lapse of so many decades everything was fresh, spontaneous and recalled in vivid detail!”(pp. 247-248)
Dear Reader, please make a note of the year. It was in 1949, a year before his mahasamadhi. And his own statements regarding his place of birth dates 2nd and 3rd October 1939 and 2nd September 1949. My question is: is it possible that Sri Aurobindo, who could remember so much about the sports and gymnastics of ancient Greece and India, would forget his own place of birth? For the sake of argument (though quite unnecessary) even if we admit that his memory could have failed in 1949, but what about his earlier statement of 1939? Certainly his memory could not have failed twice and if it had, both the time he could not have mentioned the exact place, that is, 4 Theatre Road (which is now 8 Theatre Road where Sri Aurobindo Bhavan now stands).
Page 29 of Sri Aurobindo: His Birth Place quotes Peter Heehs:
“Sri Aurobindo’s impressions that he was born in Theatre Road was not based on his personal knowledge; it must have been communicated to him by members of his family, other than his father and mother. It is not surprising that when Sri Aurobindo was informed that he was born in the house of Mono Mohan Ghosh, he or his informant came to the incorrect conclusion that his house was 4 Theatre Road.”
The author would like to ask Mr. Heehs: “Why would anyone come to the ‘incorrect conclusion’ that Sri Aurobindo was born in Theatre Road?”
Peter Heehs claims that Sri Aurobindo was informed about the house where he was born by ‘members of his family, other than his father and mother’. Sri Aurobindo’s father Dr. Krishnadhan Ghosh had died in December 1892 before Sri Aurobindo could reach India. So he could not have informed Sri Aurobindo about his place of birth. All right, agreed. But he could have told Sri Aurobindo about his birth-place when they were staying in England; that does not seem improbable. And what about Swarnalata Devi, his mother? She was alive at that time. Peter Heehs might argue that since she was insane, her statements could not be relied on. If that is his point of argument, the author would like to quote a small incident narrated by Sarojini Ghose, Sri Aurobindo’s sister where she describes his first meeting with his mother. On 5 July 1940, Sarojini recalls:
“Sejda [meaning Sri Aurobindo] went to see Mother at Rohini, Deogarh [the place where Swarnalata Devi resided]. Mother did not recognize him. She said, ‘My Aurobindo was small, he was not so big!’ She said again, ‘My Aurobindo’s finger had a cut on it.’ As a matter of fact Sejda, in his childhood, had cut his finger on a glass bottle, and since then he had had a cross mark on it. Sejda was identified by showing his finger to Mother. Borda [Benoybhusan] was also recognized by her in a similar manner. His identity was accepted when she was shown a cut mark on his chin.” (Sujata Nahar, Mother’s Chronicles, Volume V, p. 64)
So Swarnalata Devi’s memory was not so bad after all despite her illness! Moreover, Benoybhusan, Sri Aurobindo’s eldest brother had also said that Sri Aurobindo was born in Theatre Road. There is no reason to disbelieve him. At the same time, the author would like to ask Mr. Heehs what made him conclude that Sri Aurobindo’s family members would give him the wrong information regarding his place of birth? Sri Aurobindo’s maternal grandparents Rajnarain Bose and Nistarini Devi could have told him about his birth place; his maternal uncles and aunts could have also done the same. Perhaps Mr. Heehs is unaware that when a child is born, the elders of the family to which he belongs, goes to the new-born to bless him. This practice was prevalent when Sri Aurobindo was born 136 years ago and exists even now. Moreover, he was not born in a Nursing Home. So there is no reason to assume that Sri Aurobindo’s family members or those who were the informants “came to the incorrect conclusion that his house was 4 Theatre Road.”
At the same time, the author would like to say that “ALL HISTORIANS ARE NOT ALWAYS RIGHT.”
Any person who has the minimum regards for Sri Aurobindo would not even dare to disbelieve him. But Peter Heehs, being Peter Heehs, did so. To him, the statements made by the daughter of Mono Mohan Ghosh and Basanti Chakrovorty were nothing but truth and the one made by Sri Aurobindo himself was ‘incorrect.’
In his book Sri Aurobindo: A Brief Biography, Peter Heehs states the place of Sri Aurobindo’s birth to be Chowringhee which is a huge area that covers both Theatre Road and Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Road (formerly Lower Circular Road) so that no one can claim that he was wrong. He has been politically correct; thus, he had prevented his own ego from being hurt. After all, what else can be expected from a person like him who writes:
“What about the assertion that Aurobindo was an avatar? I can’t say that the question interests me very much…The Aurobindo that interests me is the one who turned from a life of hectic action to a life of contemplation but was able, during his forty-year retirement, to write a shelf full of books on philosophy, political theory and textual criticism, along with thousands of letters and, yes, that epic in iambic pentameter.”
This statement proves Peter Heehs has no interest regarding the evolutionary Yoga initiated by Sri Aurobindo, yet he is still a part and parcel of the Ashram!
Sri Aurobindo, the Seer-Poet must have had a vision of the future due to which he has said: “…my biographers probably know more…than I do…” (Nirodbaran, Correspondence With Sri Aurobindo, p. 79).
“I do not want to be murdered by my own disciples in cold print.”