My son Pradip asked me to write down what I remember of my Mejda (second elder brother) Sukumar Chatterjee.
So, I begin.
Gopal Chandra Mukhopadhyaya of Chandni Para, Shantipur, Nadia District of West Bengal, my grandfather, was the only son of his parents. His mother’s name was Nistarini Debi. He was married off immediately after his sacred thread ceremony and was turned into a Ghar Jamai1, and made to stay in his father-in-law’s home since his wife was the only daughter of her parents.
During the Indian Mutiny of 1857, Gopal Chandra ran away from his in-law’s home and started a business which was of supplying provisions to the East India Company’s army. For that purpose, he began travelling with the regiments. There was much fighting in Kanpur, following the mutiny but he was able to keep up supplies throughout the campaign. By this time, Gopal Chandra picked up some English words and continued to accompany the troops even after the uprising was quelled.
I was told by my mother that Gopal Chandra had become a sadhak (practising yogi) and had joined the Freemasons as well. As his wife did not accompany him, he re-married. Sometime in 1876, my mother was born. She was named Subaalaa. At the age of 11 she was married off to Rajendra Nath Chattopadhyaya, the 16 year old son of Dinanath Chattopadhyaya of Jessore2. After marriage, when Subaala went to her live with her in-laws in Noraal, her father became very upset. On the couple returning after a week, he kept both of them back. In 1891 their first son Kumarendra was born.
One morning Subaalaa and her mother went bathing in the river Ganga. They got into water, keeping a change of clothes on the bank. When they returned after their bath, Subaalaa found a dog had left a bone on her mother’s pile of clothes. She could not put them on, so without changing, they returned home in wet clothes. Hearing about it, Gopal Chandra told her wife, “Wear the sari at once. You will have an excellent son.” Disgusted at the suggestion, my grandmother refused. Then Gopal Chandra turned to his daughter, “You wear it!” As Subaalaa Debi was dearly loved by her parents and by her grandmother, she obliged. Before Mejda’s birth, her father had told her, “Bring him up with very great care. My intimate friend is coming.” She did not understand what he meant.
Sukumar as Mejda was named was born in 1892, a very handsome boy. When he was 2 years old, in 1894 a sister was born and named Sulolita. Her pet name was “Rakshaa”. She, too, was very good looking. Gopal Chandra instructed Subaalaa: “There is serious danger for this girl. Do not do ‘gouri–daan’ (marrying girls off before puberty, as was the custom).” My mother used to keep Sulolita’s face covered so that boys would not see her. When Sulolita was 2 years old, their third son Ranjeet was born in 1896 (his daughter Sulochana was a star in Hindi movies), followed by Suchorita, a daughter in 1898, and Sanjeeb the 4th son in 1900. Two more boys and 6 girls followed. I was the last – the 8th girl and the 14th child.
After the birth of four of his grandsons, Gopal Chandra resumed his earlier practice of accompanying the “Gora Paltan” (White or British army) as their contractor. He was extremely imaginative and talented, making models of constructions with twigs for approval instead of doing drawings. That is how he came to Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh and built many houses and bungalows within the Cantonment. The house in which I was born was 746, Madhaataal. Grandfather made a will in favour of these four grandsons with our father Rajendra Nath as the custodian.
When Sukumar was 7 or 8 years old, Gopal Chandra would invoke spirits upon him. He stopped after one session when Sukumar took time regaining consciousness. He told Subaalaa, “None of you will ever see ghosts.” Sukumar tried hard but never saw a ghost ever.
About 1900, Gopal Chandra’s second wife died. He brought his first wife back to live with him. In 1905 Gopal Chandra died. His mother was still alive, paralysed. Following her wish, Sulolita, the eldest daughter was married to the 5th son of the Banerjee family of Panihati Titagarh Paper Mills3. She and her husband were poisoned by his third brother and his wife. Sulolita survived but her husband did not. She became a widow at the age of 16 in 1911. Around this time in a dream, mother Subaalaa had a vision of Swami Keshvananda of Vrindavan. She got father, eldest sister Sulolita, Mejda Sukumar, initiated as the Swami’s disciple. Our eldest brother Kumarendra and his wife did not go through with the initiation.
At the age of 12 or 13 after the sacred thread ceremony4, Sukumar used to frequently visit sadhus in the forests. During the reign of George V, Swadeshi Movement5in India particularly Bengal had become very strong. At that time Sukumar joined the Ghadar Party6( headquartered in San Francisco) Secretly, without telling father, mother came to Calcutta, sold her ornaments and sent Sukumar off to America. Swami Vivekananda by then had visited America and returned a famous sage. My mother sent Sukumar to the USA lest the British Government imprisoned him for his revolutionary activities. Details are not known. He knew Barin Ghose, Sri Aurobindo’s younger brother (arrested in the Alipore Bomb Case) the Ali Brothers (Shaukat and Muhammad) and was quite intimate with Sarojini Naidu and her elder sister Mrinalini Chattopadhyaya7. Because of this connection, after I graduated, my mother sent me off to Sir Ganga Ram B.T. College8, Lahore where Mrinalini Chattopadhyaya was the Principal. I had no money besides the train fare. She not only admitted me but even gave me a stipend monthly—but that is another story.
Pronobesh, our youngest brother, was arrested in the Kakori Bomb Case. Mejda knew the Muslim CID officer concerned very well and demanded to be shown what evidence existed against his brother. An entry in a register was shown which he promptly tore away and destroyed leaving the official aghast. Pronobesh escaped life imprisonment but after his release he suddenly disappeared. Mother hunted high and low, going wherever he was rumoured to have been seen but never found him. That affected her very deeply.
Of Sukumar’s stay in America, details are not known. Reaching there, he started working for Sikh farmers, helping them harvest potatoes. In due course he met the famous journalist H.L. Mencken and started working as his office boy. While cleaning the wastepaper basket he would read the discarded papers. Watching him do that, Mencken took him under his wing and taught him journalism.
Sukumar practised yoga rigorously. He used to deliver regular lectures on various subjects including Hinduism and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity in San Francisco under the auspices of “FIAT LUX” society. He learnt cinematography, met Edison and the pioneering Botanist Luther Burbank. He bought a 6-seater car, auto-wheel, cinematograph and other photographic equipment. From the car’s dynamo and battery connecting electricity in our Jubbulpore home’s veranda, he showed father silent moving pictures. Later in Kanpur and Allahabad cinema halls he showed Hindi films like “Maya Mahal”.
He was one of the pioneers in making movies. Manohar Barwe the famous Marathi singer’s performance was arranged at home in 1928, thanks to Mejda. His pioneering work is testified by the following report of Saptahik Hindustan weekly of 19-25 June 1988. ‘Aadarsha Chitraa with headquaters in Bombay and branches in Calcutta and Jabalpur made a film in 1935 named DHUANDHAAR, with plot based on Seth Govindadas’ play. Screenplay, dialogues and songs were by Dwarkaprasad Mishra (later Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh). Music was by Shoolapaani Mukherjee who had worked in New Theatres’ ‘Chandidas.’ The hero was Vishnudayal alias Lallu Bhargav. A new actress was engaged from Chhindwara: Leela Chitnis. Direction was assigned to Sukumar Mukherjee who had returned after taking training in Hollywood in direction. However, his anglicized behaviour and style did not appeal to the Congress leaders and he was removed.’
Not to be put down Mejda decided to put his skill and expertise to constructive use. Among his papers, I discovered his detailed ideas about alleviating poverty in India:
‘The sum of $18,000 to $20,000 is required to start a moving picture studio in India for
the purpose of educating the illiterate Hindus by visual illustrations in matters of sanitation,
progressive agricultural and industrial methods, and the comparative progress of the world.
Part of the money will also go to introduce modern agricultural methods, demonstrating
with modern farm implements. Part of the money will also go to introduce a scheme of education which shall embrace the best culture of both East and West. This shall be done by means of an Advisory Committee to the Indian Educational Council, which shall consist only of those who have widely travelled and know the needs of the people. Part of the money will also go towards the stopping of the periodic starvation times, known as famines. This shall be done by helping the farmer to increase his production by using modern agricultural methods which he shall be taught, and then storing the surplus away for times of famine. The Moving Picture equipment shall be bought in America, as well as the farm implements. Within a period of from two to three years, this organization shall be self-supporting, by making and exhibiting different pictures both in India and abroad.’
Mejda bought an auto-wheel which if fixed to the rear of a bicycle, ruled out the need to pedal and sounded like a motorcycle. To Sanjeeb, he had given all the parts for making a complete cycle and a toy cycle. There were many types and sizes of cameras and machines among his collections. Mejda had brought an enlarging machine, 2 peddle-dryer machines to squeeze water from washed clothes. In 1941, the Principal of Gokhale Memorial Girls School, Calcutta, Rani Ghosh, bought the two for their Home Science classes for Rs. 200.
In 1934-35 Sukumar was working in the Red Cross in Delhi. At that time we lived as tenants in the house of J. Diesh, wine merchant on Baird Road in Delhi. We had left Jabalpur after father died in 1916 when I was 8 years old. My second eldest sister, Suchorita, was married and lived in 134 Napier Town. I stayed with her for completing my MA in Psychology in 1951.
As a child, Sukumar used to wear girl’s clothes at home. At the age of 16-17 during the Holi festival, dressed up as a girl, his face covered, he would dance and get money at the houses of father’s friends. In 1934 he met Gadar Party’s Hardayal Singh at No. 2 Hailey Road, New Delhi.
During 1939-40, Sukumar worked with Nirula’s Hotel & Restaurant in New Delhi. For them he made Rose Syrup, Mango Fool, Orange Crush. Nirulas profited greatly from this. Madan Nirula, the youngest son was his favourite. Lakshmi, Nirula’s wife, used to call him in jest “Sasurji(father-in-law).” In my marriage in June 1943 when expenses were heavy, Nirula assured Mejda that he could spend as he wished.
In 1944 July, Mejda suffered a stroke and was completely paralysed. In October-November, I brought him with great difficulty by train to my uncle’s house at 173/3 Rashbehari Avenue, Calcutta, with mother and one servant. After homeopathic treatment and powder massage he could move his mouth a little. I would make out his needs from the single letters that he uttered (as in the case of grandfather Noirtier in Count of Monte Cristo). In 1945 on January 27th Sunday, he passed away, aged 52 years.
While in America, he had acquired a silver mine and fell in love with an American lady who was psychic. She told him that she had seen his mother weeping with a child in her lap. This was the sister who was born before me but died in infancy. Mejda came back to meet all of us, intending to return to the USA [which father would sarcastically refer to as “your desh (land)”], but because of the stroke he never could. That silver mine possibly went to that lady. He wrote a Hindi novel documenting his adventures with mobsters and others in America called “Patal, ya bhramta bharati”.(Roaming Travelogue)
About the author
- A man made to stay with his wife’s family in their home
- In the southwest of Bangladesh, bordering West Bengal in India
- 20 kms north of the city of Kolkata
- It is a rite of passage for Hindu boys, particularly Brahmins
- A movement to boycott British goods and use locally made ones only, as a mark of protest against colonial rule
- An international movement, started by Indians based abroad to galvanise resources and fight British imperialism
- Leading revolutionaries who participated actively in the freedom movement in India. The Alipur Bomb case was a criminal case brought against some of them involved in the killing of Europeans
- Teachers’ Training College