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IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF XUANZANG: TAN YUN-SHAN AND INDIA

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FOND MEMORIES

17

In Memory of Father 

 

Tan Wen Dasgupta 

During a visit to America in 1985, while travelling on a California highway, an amazing scene unfolded in front of my eyes.  Against a backdrop of deep blue sky, there appeared a swath of white cumulus clouds in the form of a mountain range.  Our eldest brother who is the most knowledgeable in Sinology uttered: "look at the cloud-mountain".  Father's name "Yun-Shan" literally means "cloud-mountain".  Prior to this spectacle, I had no notion of what "cloud-mountain" meant.  This sudden revelation sent a pleasant spine-tingling sensation through my entire body.

My father was born nearly a hundred years ago in a village called Chaling in the Province of Hunan.  he came of a literary and religious family.  These two traits were inherited by father in good measure.  Moreover, from an early age, father displayed such strong principles and a thirst of knowledge that the native soil could not contain him very long.  After completing his education he left for Singapore in 1924.  In his words, this period was spent in teaching, in writing poems and articles for various journals and newspapers, and in contemplation of his mission in life along the seashores in his spare moments.  He was young and full of self-confidence.

During the four years in Singapore, the most memorable moment in Father's life was his first meeting with Gurudeva Rabindranath in 1927.  On hearing about Rabindranath's tour of South-East Asia, father went to meet him.  Coincidentally, Rabindranath was looking for a qualified Chinese teacher for his Visva Bharati University.  In the meanwhile, the thought of reviving the ancient cultural interchange between China and India was crystallizing in father's mind.  Rabindranath's invitation to come to Santiniketan to teach was, therefore, a command, hard not to accept.

However, a personal matter unexpectedly and temporarily came in the way.  This too I learnt from my father.  Before leaving singapore father went to bid goodbye to his close friends.  One of them happened to be a young teacher in the Chinese Girls' School.  She was also from Hunan Province.  One of the pioneer Chinese teachers in Malaya, she was a great admirer of father's poetry.  In fact, she had learnt by heart all the poems that father had published in the local journals.  At the time of parting, her tear-filled eyes were evidence of a deep relationship that had already emerged between the two.

After father's departure for Santiniketan, mother remained in Malaya for sometime in her teaching profession.  In those years, because of shortage of funds in Visva Bharati, father did not take any salary.  It was mother's income that supported the two establishments.  In reply to mother's first letter from Singapore, father responded in poetry: "your letter filled my two eyes with tears".  After mother's death, I heard this poem in its entirety from father for the first time.  The first child was born in Malaya in 1929.  He was not only the eldest brother, but also the follower in the footsreps of father's life-long mission.

In 1937, the China Hall or Cheena Bhavana was built and inaugurated as an important institution within Visva Bharati.  This auspicious occasion was graced by Rabindranath himself.  Because of Jawaharlal Nehru's indisposition, his daughter Priyadarshini Indira conveyed Nehru's good wishes.  behind the success of this remarkable institution was the dream, planning and tireless efforts of one dedicated seeker.  The rare and valuable collection of books and their careful upkeep was meticulously planned.  The teaching curriculum and the research programs in the Cheena Bhavana are silent testimony to the strength of his vision.

China and India, two neighbouring civilizations.  In their ancient history (from the Fifth to the Twelfth Centuries), close ties between the two countries were established through the medium of Buddhism.  China's way of life and philosophy and greatly influenced by Buddhist scriptures.  Unfortunately, those ancient ties have been severed for many centuries.  My father's mission for life was to bridge that chasm and to firmly reestablish the culture ties.  The vicissitudes of personal life, its joys and sorrows, its pleasures and pains, its glories and pitfalls became secondary to this dream.  His arena of activity was spread between these two expansive nations.  However, behind this life-long undertaking lay the touch sacrifice of another person, that of our mother.  She took on the responsibility and burden of running the household and raising a large family of five sons and two daughters, tirelessly and without complaint.  On top of this, she took care of the hospitality of many friends and guests who frequently visited father in connection with his work.  Mother's household itself changed venues several times.  From Singapore to Santiniketan to Shanghai to Changsha and back to Santiniketan.  She never had the pleasure of enjoying the company of all seven children in one location.  The pain of separation from some of the children remained with her throughout, but she never let this pain get the better of her responsibilities.  My mother started her career as a teacher.  After a lapse of many years when she stood beside her husband and raised a family, mother went back, in late life, to her teaching profession.  She built her own school in Changsha and named it Dathong or "Great Confluence".  This school will celebrate its Golden Jubilee next year.

After three sons, Tan Chung, Tan Chen and Tan Lee, I am the first daughter Tan Wen.  Because of this, I received special affection from mother.  However, in my childhood, father appeared remote.  I did not get to see him in the first few years.  This caused me to avoid him as a child.  China was then engaged in war with Japan.  There was bombing and destruction everywhere.  Our city of Changsha did not escape from this rampage.  I have heard from mother that during air raids she would gather me and my three brothers hurriedly to head for the bomb shelters.  There, she had taught all the children to utter the words "Nomo Amitofu" or "Greetings to Amitava", and we would all chant them.  Leaving the family in China under these conditions was a concern.  On the urging of Rabindranath, father returned to China to bring mother and the two youngest children to Santiniketan, leaving the two eldest sons in China.  This split in the family caused endless concern in mother and cast a shadow in our young lives.

My younger sister was born a year before Rabindranath's death.  he named her "Chameli".  He said the word had phonetic resemblance to Chinese.  After that two younger brothers were born in Santiniketan.  They also received Bengali names: Aujit and Arjun.  The youngest was born when the dance-drama Chitrangada was being staged in Santiniketan.  The song "Arun Tumi Arun" was reverberating in our minds.  That's how the youngest brother acquired the name.  Today, when I think of father, I remember his strong straight body, his bright dignified face.  His bearing and personality set him apart from most men.  Even in his dress he was distinct.  He always wore clothes of his own particular design.  He was remarkably self-disciplined.  I have never seen him utter a harsh word even when someone offended him.  He lieved a life of strict regularity and control.  In the morning he would get up long before sunrise and go to the roof of Cheena Bhavana to do his morning meditation and exercise.  Following that he would come down to say his prayer to Buddha and start his days work.  The whole day would be spent in preplanned activities.  Everything was done like clockwork.  Even while bathing, the number of pails of water used was predetermined.

Father tried to teach his children by example and expected them to follow his disciplined life.  Thus he appeared rather strict to my young mind.  That behind this formidable facade was a kind loving heart was revealed to me in later life, much later.  Laxity and shoddiness in work was against his character.  He expected the same high standard of behaviour and work ethic from his children.

Besides being blessed by Rabindranath, father received encourangement and co-operation from many leading personalities in India and China which helped him immensely in fulfilling his life's mission.  The exception was Mahatma Gandhi which father acknowledged with due respect and humility.  When father had approached Gandhiji for his support in re-establishing the ties between India and China, his response was straight forward and direct: "My first duty is to look after the welfare of my own country.  Beond that, where is the time for anything else?".  These words rang true in father's ears.

The existence of Cheena Bhavana and father's life-long efforts came to the attention of many intellectuals in China.  The Chinese Government had given full financial support for the works carried out in Cheena Bhavana for many years.  Although this support was halted in 1949 with the change in the political structure in China, the new Government respected the research and teaching at the institute.  In 1956, the invitation to father to visit China came from the Premier himself.  In his letter to father, Zhou Enlai said: "We are fully aware of the valuable work you have engaged in for such a long time.  But you have not visited you homeland for many years.  Come, take a look of what we have accomplished".  At the suggestion of the Chinese Consul-General in Calcutta, I accompanied father on his trip to China.  During the trip, I became aware for the first time of the ease with which father's personal could attract the attention and respect of the political leaders in China.

Two encounters deserve special mention here.  First was the meeting with Chairman Mao Zedong.  Father had written a letter to the Chairman criticizing his one-way leaning in foreign policy.  Mao mentioned this letter and said that in the effort to help improve China's industrial wealth quickly, no super-power other than the Soviet Union is likely to come forward.  And this was the reason for China's one-sided policy.  He spoke those words with such passion that even my uninitiated mind could respond to them.  In retrospect, father's far-sightedness in this matter becomes more apparent today.

The second was the meeting with Premier Zhou Enlai.  The appointment was at midnight!  We were given to understand that was the customary time for serious discussions.  The Premier's graceful demeanour impressed me very much.  When I garlanded him in traditional Indian style, he immediately said it was a photo-op not to be missed.  A photographer was summoned right away and pictures were taken.  I remember that my artist sister Chameli had sent a hand-made batik table cloth depicting Saraswati as a present.  Zhou received it and looked at it carefully.  He said regretfully that it was not customary for the new Government to exchange gifts.  But later he sent autographed copies of four albums of paintings by famous Chinese artists.  Father's visit with Zhou Enlai lasted for three hours during which he listened carefully about the Visva Bharati University and the Cheena Bhavana.  When my father invited him to visit Santiniketan, he sent for his itinerary to see if it was included.  Subsequently, Santiniketan was added to the list. Following the long meeting we had a light suppoer of simple food.  The entire ambiance was spartan, but the Premier's personality lent a special aura to the occasion.

In this context, let met touch upon an event that took place during Premier Zhou's visit to Santiniketan.  The Premier's special train arrived at Bolpur station the evening prior to his tour of Santiniketan.  Father went to Bolpur to meet the Premier.  Of the many topics of discussion he carried with him was a special request.  That request came from no other than Pratima Bouthan, Rabindranath's daughter-in-law through her confidant Kshitish Roy.  Bouthan was aware than in the past the Chinese Government had helped Visva Bharati with generous financial support.  She was hoping that the present Government would like wise support the construction of a Memorial to Rabindranath where his archival materials could be properly preserved.  Initially, father was somewhat hesitant to broach the subject with Zhou.  Father's connections with the previous Chinese Government was strong.  But he was not sure of the support he would get from the present Government.  However, his deep dedication and commitment to Rabindranath came on top.  Next day it was announced that the Chinese Government had donated Rs. 60,000 towards the establishment of a Memorial to Rabindranath Tagore.

It is appropriate here to correct a misinformation.  There is a common belief that father was a class-mate of Mao Zhedong.  This is incorrect.  Although the two went to the same school, Mao was senior to father by a few years.  When Mao was an established leadre among the students, father was still an up-and-coming flag-bearing junior among the youngercrowd.  However, some close associates of Mao, one of them a Minister, remembered my father well.  Moreover, during our visit father met an old teacher who had very fond memories of both Mao and my father.

In 1959, border dispute between China and India reared its ugly head.  The hurt and disillusion caused in father's soul can not be comprehended by ordinary mortals like us.  The life-long dedication of father to build up cordial relations between the two great countries appeared to be at the point of crumbling.  There was only pain and suffering in his countenance.  One person who could bring a sliver of joy in the face of my father was his long-time dear friend Anil Kumar Chanda.  He tried his best to cheer up father by saying "even brothers some times fight".  The tension was felt by other members of our family as well.  The poet's words: "so much joy has turned to sorrow, so many friends will turn tomorrow" symbolized the pain in all of us.

One afternoon I went to visit my respected teacher at his home.  He welcomed me and said in the presence of others: "she is not one of the bad guys".  I came home with a heavy heart, having been branded by a racial identification that I was oblivious of.  In his novel "Gora" Rabindranath has said no one is born with racial markings.  I felt this was only an ideal.  In reality, it was very difficult to reach that lofty height of colour-blindness that our father achieved.

After retiring from Visva Bharati, father's work ethic once again made him restless.  The result can be seen in the start of the gigantic World Buddhist Academy in Bodh Gaya which was, once again, my father's brainchild.  Unfortunately, before this project could be completed, father's life-flames were extinguished.

Father's last days were spent as a mendicant.  In fact, his whole life was lived in sacrifice and not in luxury.  Even in old age, when most mortals break down in health and require assistance, father had no such need.  After our mother's death, the children tried hard to keep father in some semblance of comfort.  But no amount of pleading would succeed in keeping him close to us.  Again in the words of the poet: "you want to keep me in bonds of love, but do you have that capability?".  He took shelter in a small room in a temple in Bodh Gaya.  A simple ration came from a poor family in the village.  Father subsisted on it contentedly year after year.  Even in his last days father was free of any ailment.  His mind was strong as ever.  But unfortunately, his weakened constitution ultimately succumbed to a bout of flue.  In 1983, father breathed his last in his favourite place of pilgrimage, Bodh Gaya.  None of his children nor any friend was present at the time of his demise.

The funeral pyre was built on an open field next to his incomplete dream, the World Buddhist Academy.  Our eldest brother lit the flame.  The harsh environment became aglow with the ultimate sacrifice of father's life-long pursuits.  The two Chief Bhikshus from Bodh Gaya and father's long-term friend Reverand Jinaratna of the Mahabodhi Society stood in front of the pyre and chanted Bodhist scriptures in Pali.  I felt that in the modern annals of exchange of knowledge and culture between India and China a major chapter had come to a close.

Translated from original

Bengali by Tan Lee

November 30, 1997

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