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Tat Tam Asi
Tat Tam Asi
TAT TAM ASI
Maha Bir Maiti was translating in his mind the Sanskrit words from one of the quasi-philosophical treatises of ancient India called the Upanisads. The words were tat, tam and asi, the English equivalents being 'that', 'you' and 'are' respectively. He was on a British plane travelling from Kolkata to Heathrow. It was June 2015. He smiled at the cloud covered sky and the expected drizzle but his heart was filled with gladness as the plane touched down at the airport. He cherished every moment until he disembarked. His papers were correct so it was plain sailing through customs and immigration but as he started walking along the corridor to catch his plane to travel north to his planned destination, he was stopped by a customs officer. To his astonishment he was a Sikh, a black man employed in a position of responsibility! He was pleased to see him though, the defenders of India mainly from the enemies in the west and north. Maha Bir Maiti greeted him, 'Sat Shree Akal'. The Sikh said, “I don't speak your lingo,” in an English accent. Maiti was surprised. A Sikh- does not recognise his own form of greeting!
There was worse in store. Maiti was asked to open his hand luggage which was placed on a bench in the corridor. The Sikh pulled out a gold necklace and asked how much it cost and then demanded a duty of £205-00. Maiti argued a little but paid up. He swore at him in Hindi calling him 'son of a pig' etc. The Sikh slipped up and said that he would call the police if Maiti did not stop. “I thought you did not understand Indian languages, you slave!” said Maiti and moved on.
He knew Britain and its people, the Anglo-Celtic white races, as well as a foreigner could know another because he came to Britain in 1955 at the age of 15 as an apprentice in a large company owning foundries and involved in various other activities such as welding in what was Lancashire those days.
The English company, a private one, had a large engineering works in India in the state of West Bengal employing some 20,000 people. It also owned collieries and iron ore mines in adjacent states of Bihar and Orissa. They needed a special steel, called Hadfield Manganese steel, for crushing iron ores which were in lump form as mined and not suitable for further processing because of their bulk. The owner of the English company sent his son to West Bengal in 1950 with the object of manufacturing plates of this special steel. The son was 30 years old with a degree in Metallurgy and practical experience in iron and steel making.
The son, Mr Eddie Appleton, met Maha Bir's father, a highly experienced steel melter, who followed Mr Appleton's instructions faithfully and worked all hours to help in producing this special steel. Eddie had to stay on in India without a break to successfully produce this steel to British Standard specification but it proved to be a highly profitable venture. Upon being asked if Maha Bir's father wanted anything, to the astonishment of Mr Appleton, all he asked was to take his youngest son to England and train him to come back to this factory in some sort of supervisory position as soon as he was deemed to be old enough for the job. Eddie, as he returned home to England, had to overcome objections from his father, Sir Allen Appleton, born 1894. He even had to persuade managers, foremen, charge hands and the Head of the Union. He told them that it was a one off proposition and the son would return to India permanently once he was trained. Eddie Appleton had to overcome another problem. Landladies in the England of 1955 had notices in the window for outsiders to see: 'No coloureds, no dogs. No Irish.' Maha Bir himself had to overcome two main problems. Firstly, his conversational English proved to be inadequate. Secondly, the food was, as he wrote home, incompatible with what he was used to. Chunks of partially cooked meat was most off-putting and he could not eat beef any way being a Hindu. He liked the soups though especially the ones made with lentils and peas. Of course fish and chips was very welcome like cool clear water to drink when one was walking under the sun for a long time in India.
Unexpectedly, the shop floor workers or administrative staff in the offices were very friendly. Unfortunately, none of them could pronounce his name to the disappointment of the little Indian teenager. Maha should be pronounced with the first 'a' as in 'most' and the second one as in 'mast'. The letter 'i' of Bir should be as in 'list' and the 'r' must not be silent. Instead people at the factory or outside would say 'May-ha Beer'. Apparently, they could not pronounce Bir correctly. The workers respected the boy's feeling and settled for Mat. When he wrote home about his new name, his father wrote back saying that the boy had raised the status of his family. 'Not a matter of joke,' he said 'sahibs giving you a sahib-name!' One of his brothers added a note in the letter, 'Furchunatli or unfurchunatli, we shall called you Khoka as ushualy'. Khoka means baby, Mat being the youngest. His mother added, they all used to write a bit in the same letter usually the same thing, that his uncle says that Khoka will have to call her mammy when he came home. The parents wrote in Bengali but the siblings insisted on writing in English. One of them, who was regarded as more proficient in the English language than an Englishman by his family, added, 'Good marnin Saars.'
Maha Bir could not concentrate. He wanted for the impossible event to happen which was to go back home. Workers in the factory had great sympathy for his predicament so they would invite him at the weekend for a meal and take him to the cinema with their families or any other recreational activities they planned. He got to know quite a few families and his conversational English started to improve.
The General Manager of the Indian factory gave Maiti a package for his wife who was in England at the moment. Quite likely it was Darjeeling tea of which she was very fond. Maiti wrote and asked when he could come over to her house and deliver the gift her husband sent her. He wrote a few letters but never got a reply. The company Personnel Manager heard about Maiti's problem and sent the parcel quickly to Mrs Norton, the wife of the General Manager in India. The Personnel Manager showed his kindness related to an encounter the boy had with the customs at Tilbury when he first arrived in England by ship. The customs officer charged him duty on the watch he had on him which his father bought for him in India. The amount of duty, he gathered later, was about a week's wage for a worker those days. The sterling that one could take out of India legally was very small in amount in the 1950s. It became a great source of anxiety for Maiti as he worried if he would have the fare to travel up to Lancashire. To his great surprise when he went to the Indian High Commission in Aldwych the next day to report and eat an Indian meal, he was told that the Personnel Manager, as if he was clairvoyant, sent him more than enough money to meet his travelling expenses.
Around mid-December, 1955, the Personnel Manager came to the shop floor and said to Mat that he had to meet one Chris Norton tomorrow, Friday, at Liverpool. He should look for a black Morris Minor in Brownlow Hill by the University clock tower. Mat was asked to be there at 11.00 am and 'you must be punctual', added the Personnel Manager smiling. He could take the Friday off added the foreman. There was no danger of Maiti succumbing to Indian time-keeping because he had already been several months in the country. Three things he learnt quickly: not to open your mouth while eating; not to speak with a loud voice; never to be late for an appointment.
Maiti realised that Chris was the son of the Baro sahib of the factory where his father worked. He was glad that Chris was at least six feet tall with a head full of blonde hair and here and there he would throw in a Hindi word while speaking. He was wearing a thick black overcoat.
Chris could see that the little Indian boy was freezing. He took him right away to London road and bought him a winter coat, a scarf and a pair of gloves. Maiti thanked him profusely, another custom he learnt quickly, and said that he had a coat but left it at his lodging because it was such a nice day when he left. He promised to pay the money back to Chris. Chris said, “You know about Christmas. It is our custom to buy gifts for relatives and friends. What I have given you is a gift. You don't have to pay me back.”
He was then taken to Picton library. “I know this area,” enthused Maiti. “I travel to Central station by train; walk through St John's garden; go round the library and there is Byrom Tech. I come for a whole day and two evenings a week. I eat fish and chips from a newspaper for my lunch from a place in Dale street.”
“What are you studying for in the Tech?”
“City and Guilds it is,” answered Maiti. “The college has organised the courses for me. The company has said that I must aim for an HNC in metallurgy”
“I know,” said Chris. “Higher National Certificate that is. There are many in your company with that qualification. You can study further and sit for various grades of membership of the Institute of Metallurgists and end up with degree level qualification.”
For the first time since he came to England Maiti felt elated; degree level qualification! And all the hands-on-experience! His father will be proud of him when he goes back home. Home-Ah- home. Chris bought him fish and chips and mushy peas after he showed him the Liver and India buildings. Maiti learnt that Chris was born in India in 1933 and he was doing a PhD in Ancient Indian Philosophy at a University in the Midlands. His parents are still in India except that his mother spends six months in India and an equal amount of time in England. She neither likes India nor the people. His father comes home for six months every three years on furlough. His sister was also born in India. She is 16 years old. “We had our schooling in a special school in cool North Bengal,” said Chris. “Everything was very British there, uniform, assembly, food and language.”
Chris Norton was frank with Maiti. He said that the British children were warned against fraternising with the natives except a handful of them who were students in his school. They were the sons of Maharajas but they were neither Indians in their manners nor British no matter however hard they tried to emulate the sahibs. Chris like other British children came to their parents' home in India during vacation time but life was very boring there.
“There was no chance of meeting someone like you for example,” said Chris. “Absolute segregation. You in barracks-type accommodation; us Europeans in individual special, spacious bungalows surrounded by huge gardens and boundary walls or fences. Natives were discouraged to visit our area except for the servants.”
Maiti or, quite likely, most other Indians never thought of the disparity in life styles or separation of the two races like that. Indians accepted their very inferior status in the comity of nations but Chris made him think seriously about his indoctrination by his family that the white British were the most superior race in the world. Indians, his father will tell the children often, were lucky to have the British as their rulers.
It occurred to him slowly that his family lived in abject poverty. For a Bengali home, where even a small piece of fish is mandatory with rice for both lunch and dinner, his family could afford it for the midday meal on Sundays only. The most exciting enterprise for his father was to take his family out to the bazar about a mile from their residence and eat breakfast in the same cafe every week. The next operation was shopping for vegetables and fish to be cooked for the midday meal to be eaten late afternoon. On the other hand sahibs had servants, dozens in each household, and phaetons or a few cars for transport to go out and visit friends miles outside the township.
Chris came back to England permanently in 1948 and did his higher school studies for University admission. Much to the disappointment of his parents, who wanted him to read engineering, he decided to study philosophy. Chris let Maiti know that he was not aware until now that a young Indian had arrived from the industrial town he knew so well. He was sorry, he gathered from his sister, that his mother was unable to respond to his letters but did not volunteer any excuse for it. Maiti said genuinely that he need not be sorry because he has already given him so much of his time and he did not recall ever being in a private car before; and being driven by a pakka sahib! They had an exhausting day driving round Liverpool and seeing part of a film in Palaix de Lieu; part because it was so bad that they decided to leave after suffering it for half an hour.
Then around 7.30 pm, surprise, surprise for the boy. Chris drove up to the docks and went on board an Indian cargo ship. The captain himself, a Sikh, received them. The surprise was a meal with the captain and his officers; an authentic Indian meal! Although the dishes were not familiar to him, Maiti tasted the Indian spices in them and he ate as though he had not eaten for a month, although the menu was non-Bengali.
On their way back to Maiti's lodging, Chris told him that his father's elder brother is the Managing Director of the Calcutta office of the company Maiti's father works for. The Indian cargo ship where they had their meal is one of the many vessels which is used to carry company products overseas, mainly to Europe. He loves Indian food and there is an understanding between him and the captains of these ships to let him know where and when they are docking. They always do and Chris never fails to drive up to eat as they did tonight. They give him a bed to sleep it off if he drinks. His mother, in spite of her aversion to India and Indians, likes curry and rice once a week, but it is very anglicised and not quite to Chris' liking.
A very happy young boy said as he got out of the car, “Shall I see you soon?”
“Yes,” replied Chris without hesitation, “but it will be some time before I am up this way.”
Maiti did not realise that it will be December, 1958 before he would get a letter from Chris asking him to meet by Lewis' store on a Saturday. He thought that Chris had forgotten about him. He was delighted to keep his appointment and hoped to have another nice day when he did not spend all his spare time studying. He was accompanied by his sister.
Maiti, now 18 years old, nearly swooned. He had never seen some one as beautiful as her. She was called Elizabeth. Her colour was nearly as white as the snow which fell that day. Her shoulder length blonde straight hair suited her. Her eyes were as blue as the Indian midday sky in September. She was jolly and greeted him warmly. “Hello Maiti, we meet at last,” she said. “I have heard a lot about you from my brother.” She then acted out a scene by bowing down to her brother and saying, “You know my brother of course; Dr Chris Norton, now a lecturer at a University in the north of England.”
Maiti nodded enthusiastically and said that he did know her brother. What is this doctor, he wandered. Elizabeth spoke again. “My brother is 25 and I will be 20 next month. “I will be 19,” added Maiti quickly.
They talked about their Indian experiences. Unlike her brother, Elizabeth remained with her grandparents in England with regular visits to India since flying became a routine form of transport. In the evening they went to Manchester's only Indian restaurant to eat. Elizabeth was as fond of Indian food as her brother it seemed. Second time round Maiti also enjoyed it and he asked for white boiled rice, dahl and vegetable, finishing the dinner off with mutton masala. He came prepared this time and paid for the meal.
He kept thinking of Elizabeth for days on end until one day he bumped into her in the Picton library. He picked up the courage and asked her if she would like to see a film. She agreed and in the year 1959 he saw a film with her once a month but Chris came as well always probably to provide chaperonage to his sister. In the month of July Maiti waited in London road as arranged but they did not turn up. It was the Indian way of doing things and the young Indian was surprised that a sahib and memsahib would act in such a similar manner. They knew where he lived and they could easily send a message and let him know that they were unable to make it on that occasion. However, although he wanted to see Elizabeth, he learnt enough about the British by now not to approach them asking why they stopped coming. He was heartbroken but at the same time persuaded himself to accept the situation when in October an invitation arrived to attend a reception for Chris' wedding. He remained in a state of high excitement until the day arrived when he went to the hotel in Chester in the evening. He had no opportunity to meet Elizabeth nor to speak to Chris. He sat at a small table with a middle aged couple who smiled at him but did not encourage Maiti to generate conversation. He ate his meal and left without even saying hello to Elizabeth and Chris who were seated at quite a distance from him at the top table.
Days went by. He had difficulty in concentrating. In a few days, much against his own considered judgement, he wrote a letter to Elizabeth at the address given for the wedding invitation. He wrote foolishly albeit briefly:
My darling Elizabeth,
I do not see you at all now; your beauty, your blue eyes and blonde hair. I cannot sleep thinking of you. Meet me this Saturday in Liverpool please; opposite the Odeon in London road. I will be there at 6.00pm.
Saturday came. To his utter disappointment it was Chris in his car. He took him to Manchester for the now familiar Indian restaurant and brought him back to his lodging. He talked to him while driving back.
He asked if Maiti was in love with his sister and if he wanted to marry her. Maha Bir exclaimed loudly, “Yes, yes,” and waited eagerly for a reply.
Chris said, “You are too young to be in love and to get married. What is important - whoever has thought of love and then marriage in your culture?” He said that Maiti was chasing the willow-the-wisp. Chris recognised that he himself was guilty of not nipping it in the bud and, in fact, he inadvertently gave the impression of encouraging the situation that has developed. Elizabeth recognises that she had been guilty of giving a false impression. Marriage to Elizabeth was an impossible dream for him.
Chris stopped at a lay-by, switched off the engine and facing him said bluntly, “You will have to return to India where you will live in slum condition. Can you imagine my sister surviving that? She does not speak your language. She will be totally lost in your culture. But suppose you stayed on in England. Firstly, you will have great difficulty in being accepted by any company. Secondly you will never rise above the rank and file. What sort of living condition would you have? Above all you are a man of colour. Take it from me, even to those white sahibs who profess to be broad minded and liberal, you are primitive and backward. They feel obliged to educate and civilise you. Have you not noticed my mother will not allow you to come to our house, even when you brought a gift back from my father? I meet you because of my affinity for the land where I was born. If I lived there I should make sure of my living condition to be what I am used to. At any rate I will not socialise with the natives. I will stay with my own kind. My sister will fall in love one day with someone from her own race and she will have children and grandchildren.” He stopped suddenly and seemed to regret his own harshness towards the young man. He said, “My sister and I enjoyed being with you although we kept it a secret from my mother and family. You are our link with India.”
Maha Bir did not expect Chris Norton to speak to him in that manner but he did not feel any animosity towards him. He remained grateful to him for the time he spent with him and for really taking care of him. “Good bye Chris,” said Maiti. “I am sorry to have made you so angry with me.” Chris had a lump in his throat. He held Maiti's hand firmly and then drove off without saying anything.
Maha Bir was broken hearted. Day and night in all conscious moments he saw a snow white face with blue eyes and shoulder length straight blonde hair. He sighed. He missed Chris as well whom he saw no more.
In March, 1960, Edward Appleton, now 44 years old, returned home from India and enquired about Maiti. His father did not want him to return until he was old enough to become a part of the managerial team, however junior. This meant that Maiti must have employment at least for another five years or so in England after which he could easily be fixed with a useful job with a future in the factory where his father was now promoted as a foreman in the non-ferrous foundry of the company.
Mr Appleton gave him a sealed tin of a Bengali sweet called rasagolla which he ate alone because there was nobody interested to share it with. It was five years since he last tasted it. He sobbed freely in the privacy of his room at his lodging; his mother, quiet and withdrawn; his father, weather beaten face, very very dark skin, bald and short but so much in demand from big sahibs like Mr Appleton. India, Oh India- the brassy sky of September with torn white clouds moving lazily and dissolving.
Mr Eddie Appleton, man of principle, man of integrity, man with honesty, an upper class sahib who appreciated his father's unfailing, faithful loyalty to him, planned out Maiti's future activities in the company. In due course he finished his accredited apprenticeship and should get his HNC soon. Mr Appleton arranged for him to be involved in the company's welding activities and in January, 1962, at the age of 22 years, he became an Assistant in the very large Quality Control Department of the company. Mr Appleton advised him to apply for jobs in other companies in Britain so that he went back home with wide experience of his chosen technology.
Maiti needed money. By a stroke of luck he got an evening teaching job in the local technical college. All the income from that and an amount from his salary as an Assistant in the Quality Control department made a tidy sum which he sent home. The money he sent to his father was very large in amount compared to what he could earn in the factory and he had no other income. Maiti asked his father to retire but he refused. Instead a letter came from his mother in a year to say that, with the help of Mr Appleton, they built their own house in the town of Asansol, a beautiful two storied building with a large compound and many rooms for all the children. Maiti felt elated.
He started applying for jobs advertised by various companies in the country but he did not receive even an acknowledgement to his letters of application. The Personnel Manager advised him not to volunteer the information in his application that he is an Indian unless asked. To his next letter he got a reply offering interview. As he entered the interview room the panel seemed surprised. The chairman said bluntly that he should have stated that he was Indian. There will be a strike from the workers if he was given the job. He was not even asked to sit down although his train fare was reimbursed. In a further interview in Distinction for a job as a technician for Non-Destructive-Testing of castings, he was made to sit down in the reception area from 11.00 am to 1.00 pm but nobody called him. Upon asking the next receptionist who relieved the first one for lunch, she made a few genuine enquiries and then said that the manager of the department was extremely busy. He might as well go home. In another interview in a foundry near Manchester, the manager was very courteous but one of the directors walked in and said, “How did you get in? Did you slip the net?” An embarrassed manager paid him generous expenses from his petty cash box and saw him out the factory gate. Maiti gave up applying for a position after half a dozen abortive efforts. Then in the year 1964, a job was advertised by the Government of India. He had direct practical experience but the job went to an Englishman. He gathered later that it was still a white man's India. He tried for another job with a private company in India but it went to a Scot. He at last realised the futility of trying to get a position either in Britain or in India.
Then in the year 1965 the Head of Engineering where he taught part time asked him to apply for the post of full-time Assistant Lecturer, taking classes in Welding and Non-Destructive-Testing. He asked the Personnel Manager and then Mr Eddie Appleton whether he could change course after all this time. Mr Appleton phoned the Foundry Manager in the Indian factory who rang back to say that Maiti's father though disappointed had no objection. As was his nature, Maiti carried out his new job with total dedication to the great satisfaction of the Head of Engineering. The Principal and the Vice-Principal showed an amount of interest in Maiti's progress and the generally favourable reaction of staff at the college because as yet it was not the custom to employ black men to teach, sometimes mature students. Maiti himself learnt to drive, bought a car and enjoyed his work and life at last. The college staff were largely friendly.
He met a chap from East Pakistan with whom he became friendly. The man ran an Indian restaurant which he built up from scratch. The restaurant was by the main road going from Liverpool to North Wales. It was situated in a secluded countryside a couple of miles after the industrial complex on what was the road to Chester and North Wales. He bought 60% interest in the restaurant and built a small house on its ground. He used the ground floor as an office and the first floor as his living quarters with a separate independent entrance of its own. Since he became a full time lecturer, mortgage or loan became easy and the Head, who was the only person who knew about his share in the restaurant, helped him with advice. He asked Maiti not to let the college authorities know about his share in the restaurant. He asked him to keep a low profile which encouraged Maiti to spend his time in the kitchen and become an expert cook. His partner received customers and remained in charge of the till and drinks in the front. He had plans to turn the restaurant over to Maiti and return home once the latter had enough money to buy him over.
Maha Bir had very little time to do any thing else but however hard he tried there was no promotion for him to a full lectureship. The Head said that the college was expanding and has now built up staff and laboratories in many subjects. It has been accredited to run HND and College Diploma courses, the latter being regarded as degree equivalent. All new staff have even PhDs among them. Maiti's chance of promotion was low but what he should do is build up the Welding and Non-Destructive-Testing laboratories. The Head has secured a large amount of finance from local industries to do just that. They are going to appoint a Senior Lecturer to take charge of the subject in 1968 and if the laboratories were ready to take on students for advanced courses, his chance of promotion was high. He should also try to be a member of the Institute by examination. By 1968 Maiti did both successfully and at the suggestion of the Head went to meet the Education Officer of the Institute in London.
His train did not get to Euston Railway station on time but, in spite of him taking a taxi, he was 15 minutes late for the appointment. As he entered the Secretary's office as directed at the reception both the Secretary and the Education Officer were standing in the middle of the room. Very unexpectedly to Maiti, no sooner he entered than the Education Officer threw his arms in the air and made an angry howling sound. Right away they both walked out without saying a word to him and Maiti followed them for the exit staying close behind them. The Secretary might have felt sorry for him. He said, “There is a coffee machine in the corridor near the exit.”
He did not have the coffee but headed for Euston railway station. All the way to Liverpool he looked out the window and thought how pretty the landscape here. The sahibs and memsahibs are right when they say this green and pleasant land. Unfortunately he seems to have to interact with unpleasant citizens of England most of the time in so far as his career is concerned; the employment career that is. Throughout his train journey he could think of nothing else but his home in India. In his 28 years of longevity he spent nearly half the time in England without seeing his parents, aunts, uncles and the siblings and cousins. In those 13 years he had been refused accommodation by landladies, men have made monkey gestures or been downright abusive. Most of them made jokes about his colour, physical size and about his food; the smell of it! They mimicked his accent while speaking in English or some of them just barred his way while he was walking to his destination and shouted 'hala, hala.hala', which was meant to be his language of communication. He was asked how did it feel to live in a house and have rich food three times a day? Does he miss his loin cloth and the bowl of rice? Is he uncomfortable in proper civilised clothes? He showers in the facility the company provided after work every day. His race must be very dirty. How does he know he is dirty? When is he going back to the hell-hole as called by people who had the bad luck to visit India? Maiti cursed them under his breath but immediately drowned in guilt as well; what about so many of them who made him feel welcome? What about those who invited him to their homes and had taken him out to attenuate his home sickness?
The Head of department was such a man and he was well aware of the humiliation meted out to him by some of his own racial group. He guessed that there was something amiss regarding his visit to the Institute in London. The Head did not demand a report but in a week he asked him about his expenses. Maiti still did not claim it and the Head did not press him further. He understood.
Maiti asked the Head in a year if it was silly of him to expect promotion. The Head said that his promotion in this college was unlikely but his hope was not silly. He said that in this country, a school aspires to become a college which as quickly as possible becomes a University. He did not think that the powers that be realise what education is all about. They certainly do not know the function of a University or the necessity of a college. It is clear that they have no idea as to how difficult it is to be a moulder or a machinist or, say, a welder or a brick-layer. In this country they will expect a degree to be a butcher or ice cream seller! He should apply for a lectureship whenever and wherever it was advertised. The Head will naturally do his best for him and give a well deserved glowing reference.
Maiti did not want to go through further humiliation in his job-seeking expeditions. However, he decided to educate himself, not in engineering but in philosophy a taste of which lingered with him from what Chris Norton used to say many moons ago. He decided to do a degree in philosophy by distant learning, hoping to be Maha Bir Maiti, BA, by 1973. The very thought blew away all the heart ache of living in England but to make sure that he must always be in a state of dukkha, suffering, the Education Committee asked him to attend an interview.
The panel had about half a dozen councillors plus his Head of Department and the college Principal. The chairman was courteous. He said that Mr May-ha Beer May-ee-tee should know how well the Head thought of him. Even the Principal was pleased with his knowledge of the subjects he taught and the endearing personality he had. The chairman said that he and the panel were sorry that there was one member of staff in his department who disapproved of him solely because of his colour but he was the only one among a staff of several hundred in the college. Maiti felt grateful and said, “Thank you Sir.” “Don't mention it,” replied the chairman as he felt genuine sympathy for him. He then came to the reason for this interview. Once Maiti admitted that he was heavily involved in the restaurant business, the chairman said that he was sorry to say that he must give it up or resign from his college post. It was the policy of the Education department that college staff must not engage in activities for financial gain. The panel could not make an exception.
It was 1970 when Maiti was 30 years old and he had been at the college as an Assistant Lecturer for five years with no prospect for career advancement. He had already bought the whole restaurant business from his partner who wanted to go home with his whole family to Pakistan, his one reason being his children speaking English as the first language with generous use of expletives. The second reason was their brazen habit of promiscuity with all and sundry. He hoped to reform his children once he settled down in Pakistan, his natural home.
Maiti talked to the Head. He said that there was no chance of him being promoted but he knew how well he ran the restaurant which was now known and supported by diners from far and near. All he would say was that it would be foolish to give up the restaurant where he can prove himself and, particularly, since he was the sole owner.
Maiti listened and decided to forgo the pleasure of retiring as an Assistant College Lecturer. The restaurant made a name for itself regarding Indian cuisine, hygiene and courteous staff. He did not give up his distant learning of Western Philosophy and in the year, 1973, he got his degree. In the same year, he persuaded one of his maternal cousins, aged 35, who was working in the middle east in a high class Indian Hotel as the Head waiter of its guest- restaurants, to join him. This gave him the freedom to visit home for three months while his cousin went home also for the same amount of time when Maiti returned to England. They did this between them every year. His father was 69 years old in 1973 and mother 60. Life was good at last for him and in 1978 he returned permanently to India. He bought a flat in Kolkata because thanks to the restaurant he could be considered a wealthy man in India. He devoted his time culturing Hinduism and Buddhism in the two ancient Indian languages, namely, Sanskrit and Pali respectively. He learnt these languages from competent pandits by private tuition. He talked on Hindu philosophical theorems in countries other than India and wrote occasionally about his interpretations of ancient ideas. He never visited England again, although he came to Dublin once to give a lecture, until to his utter surprise a letter arrived from Chris Norton in March 2,015.
The letter said that he was visiting North Wales with his family for a holiday from his home in north Liverpool and he saw this restaurant. He came back one evening to have a meal with his family because people praised its food and service. The owner was very friendly and chatty particularly when it transpired in course of their conversation that he was Maiti's cousin. Chris was a little surprised that he did not hear about it before but, believe it or not, he stayed on at the University in the north, but away from Liverpool, as an adjunct professor for many years after his retirement. He is back in Liverpool for good and is going to live in the family home. He understood that Maiti was going to visit England to sell the restaurant so that his cousin could go back home permanently. He had seen odd articles on Indian philosophy by M B Maiti but he did not connect him with these.
Chris was the chairman of a local philosophical group. Would Maiti give a talk on a topic of his choice in Ancient Indian philosophy? If he agrees would he give a title and a synopsis of his talk? There is another reason why Chris is anxious that Maiti responds to his request which is that his great niece is getting married. Maiti is invited to the ceremony. The wedding was in the first week of September. Maiti's talk could be scheduled for Tuesday, 15th September, 2015. Maiti agreed and decided to go to England in June which should give him enough time to do all the paper work for selling the business. He gave Chris a synopsis and title which was Tat Tam Asi.
Maiti was sorry to have left India too soon because all the paper work was completed by the end of July. He decided to stay in a hotel in Mount Pleasant and spend the day mostly in Picton Library reading and making notes on Western philosophy. He spent quite an amount of time in Bold Street, Dale Street and visited Toxteth, Old Swan and many other areas. He was taken aback at the change that had taken place in Britain. He decided to write notes so that he could write articles at home about Britain today.
'To begin with,' he wrote 'Britain is more black than it ever was. A black man whether from Asia, Africa or the Americas will often say –Britain, our country, the best in the world; we accept that we the British colonised many countries.-- They don't realise that they were the ones who were colonised. Does one become British in tradition and colour because he has naturalised? Even if you are born in a country it should take many generations to forget your natural habitat; surely it should take a few centuries before they mutate and change by, say, miscegenation? It was the white man of Europe established as British or French over millennia who made their own nations rich by slave trade and by exploiting the resources of other weak and disunited countries by occupying them with their superior weapons of mass destruction. To be fair many white men and women cry at the plight of refugees who are landing in Europe. They will not acknowledge that they have not stopped their crusading zeal even now after so many centuries, uncle Sam leading, UK and the French following gleefully to bomb countries which are weak militarily. Hundreds and thousands of civilians are killed but that is unavoidable collateral damage! One British or US soldier killed: understandably national mourning. They have this NATO- you may guess correctly if you say led by USA, thousands of miles away. They broke up Yugoslavia; murdered Arab Heads of state, with or without UN approval. For ever and ever, you hear of spreading democracy like the proselytising white Europeans before them bringing Christianity. Can you blame those Arabs, Africans and Asians who have re-branded them as North Atlantic Terrorist Organisation?
I am surprised to see how inept the white man is. They would say that they will allow only 100,000 immigrants from Asia to settle in their respective countries in a year. They cannot work out that there is a multiplying factor. As soon as he settles he will bring his spouse over and children, usually five. His parents and other relations would follow. If you offer a place in Europe to any Asian or African he will leave everything behind and come here to settle. The reason is that when the resident immigrants, say, from Britain go back to their place of origin for a holiday, they boast of their houses, cars and the generally extravagant life style that they enjoy outside Asia and Africa. The British and other western leaders say repeatedly that immigrants are needed in their countries. One can understand the necessity of immigrants for nascent countries in North America, Australia or New Zealand but an ancient country such as Britain or Germany? They should forfeit their right to exist as nation states if they have to poach manpower from far away lands year after year ad infinitum. The powers that be lack perspicacity and prescience surely. They do not seem to be very intelligent. Churchill the great British hero said that Indians were a primitive people. He was right I think because how else would a 19 year old boy be in charge of middle aged natives of long experience in their trade or profession? These white teenagers were offsprings of people who were neither intelligent nor moral in spite of professing to be so continuously. However, it is true that Britain's medical service will cease to function without the immigrants from Asia and Africa. How about the needs of those countries from where they are picked and lured into Britain? No sooner they train their medical staff than they are off to Europe. The British are more crafty than other European powers. The western- educated class of Asia, Africa and Latin America will learn English. Westernisation, in terms of dress, living styles, food or entertainment is progressing exponentially in these countries because the bulk of the population has been brain washed into believing that modernisation means westernisation. Africans feel civilised as do the Chinese and other Mongoloid races, such as those of Japan or Thailand, when they go about in their suits and ties and communicate with each other in English. Even the Afghans are giving up their shalwar kamiz. Any time, as it embraces western democracy, the Burmese will aspire to be black sahibs and memsahibs in dress, language and food.
The British will tell you that they are the fifth richest country in the world. Yet they, like the US and other European countries, are in debt which obviously will never be paid back. They remind me of Charvak, a famous Indian philosopher, probably living in the 9th century BCE, who dismissed reincarnation and gave the following advice for people to follow in this only life:
'As long as you live be happy,
Borrow money and drink ghee'
Ghee is clarified butter and drinking it must have been the privilege of the elite in his time. Incidentally, in case someone is curious, the original Sanskrit version is as follows:
'Jabat Jeebet Sukhang Jeebet,
Reenang Kritva Ghritang Peevet.'
I should warn our friends in Africa, Asia and even the sahibs of Australia: Watch out for the new imperialists, the Chinese. They are sly and desperate to be English and to devour your resources.'
Maiti wrote more in this vein and did not quite know how to rewrite it for a periodical or a newspaper in an acceptable, politically correct form.
Time still dragged on for Maiti. He was home sick for Kolkata. Then at the end of August, a letter came from Chris Norton asking him to stay in a house in the east of Liverpool for as long as he wished as the guest of his family. That also will be the venue from where his great niece will get married.
Chris Norton came to fetch him in his big car not the Morris Minor Maiti remembered so well. “It is nearly 60 years since we parted company,” said Maiti quite pleased to see someone from the past and someone who did so much for him against the express wish of his mother.
“56 to be exact,” replied Chris.
“You have kept your hair!” enthused Maiti. “Look at me! I am bald as a coot; false teeth; pacemaker and nearly Kalidas No 1.”
“I don't know where I got that word from,” explained Maiti with a cheeky grin, “You have forgotten Hindi! Kali is black. Das, let us say, is Mr. There are many shades of blackness in the Indian subcontinent as you may remember. Class 1 is very black.”
Chris was pleasantly surprised to see that Maha Bir accepted a very large whisky with an abundance of ice. A couple came through the front door.
“I have a surprise for you,” said Chris and introduced the lady who walked into the room. She stared at Maiti for quite a while and vice versa.
“You have changed,” said Elizabeth. “You have changed a lot.” She was disappointed.
“You have not,” said Maiti, “except that your hair is full of streaks of...” He could not find the right word. His English failed him. He looked at Chris who said “grey.”
“Are you a Buddhist monk now?” asked Elizabeth seeing him in his saffron robe.
Maiti said with a serious face, “I am not a monk, Buddhist or Hindu but I have been a Brahmachari all my life. You know, the one who uses a minimum of material luxuries and, very importantly, one who remains a celibate. I have managed the latter easily but not substantially the former.”
Elizabeth's husband walked in. A very aristocratic demeanour thought Maiti; tall and handsome dressed for dinner perhaps in white tie. Maiti felt diminished. He asked for another whisky. He was always afraid of the white sahibs in uniform such as the customs officer, officers on board a ship, the police and the toffs. He stood up, felt much diminished and his mind reversed into his boyhood. They lived in slums- the sahibs in gorgeous bungalows. They walked- sahibs in phaetons or cars. They travelled third class by train packed like chickens to the market in baskets-they in first class compartments.
“He is a knight you know- Sir,” interjected Chris jocularly and broke the silence, “and my sister is Lady!”
“He is a Professor you know” said Elizabeth's husband pointing to Chris. He came over to Maiti and shook his hand. “Very glad to meet you,” he said. “My brother-in-law has done the ground work. He has told us a lot about you.”
Maha Bir Maiti, the son of a very poor slum dweller, had a lump in his throat and a held back tear in his eye. His heart brimmed over with gladness. He felt elated; nothing but the best for the most beautiful girl in the world with a snow white skin, blue eyes and shoulder length straight blonde hair-Eh!
The family of Chris and Elizabeth all arrived-a very large gathering. Maiti asked Chris' great niece to sit beside him. She held the end of the chador on his shoulder and said, “You are a sannyasi.”
“Very nearly,” said Maiti somewhat surprised. “But how did you know such a term?”
It transpired that Chris used to tell the children tales of India often.
Maiti raised his voice although he knew that his accent will then deviate for the worse from the normal considerably but he had no option. It was such a large room and there were so many people. He addressed Chris. “Do you remember inviting me to your wedding reception? I just came, feasted and made a quick exit. I never even went to the happy couple to wish them well. I did not bring a gift; not even a card! I repeated similar mistakes over many occasions. I just did not know the customs. So when you invited me this time, I was lucky. I was in India. I bought this for this nice lady. A customs officer, a black one this time, nearly confiscated it.”
He brought out a box which he opened with the necklace in it and a card wishing the couple a happy and long life. They were over joyed and shouts of 'you shouldn't have' came from many. In spite of many requests, Maiti left after this. Elizabeth drove him to his hotel in Mount Pleasant. She said, “Good Bye” and hoped very much to see him again. She leaned over to kiss him but Maiti put up his right hand between their faces. “Sweet Elizabeth. Have you forgotten I am a Brahmachari!”
Time dragged on for Maha Bir. He was anxious to go home so he was very glad when it was 14th September. He was taken to Abercrombe Square the following day for his talk. There was a large gathering in a large lecture theatre. He was provided with a slide operator.
He said, 'The most accepted view is that you, a sentient being, is the atma which equals Brahman, the adhar, i.e., the receptacle of our vishwa, the universe. It is noted that atma is infinitesimally small whereas Brahman is infinitely large. My problem has been that no matter which Indian treatise you read, they all say that the essence of atma cannot be known. The title of my talk is based on a discourse between a Brahmin father and his son. I have been giving this talk for nearly 20 years now in many countries and many places in India. I noticed one day, because perhaps of the questions which inevitably followed after each talk, I had deviated substantially from the original writing which you will find in Chhandogya Upanisad. I trust the author of the original narrative and the present audience will forgive me but it just happened in my attempt at clarifying certain ambiguities.
I am using a Sanskrit word called Shunya which is much used in Buddhist literature and means literally zero. For our purpose in this talk we may regard shunya as a void that is space of certain geometry, devoid of tangible matter. A western audience would probably identify such a void with a similar concept posited by a Greek philosopher, the atomist, Democritus (circa. 460-370 BCE). Without space, he says, we will not have gases nor the motion of fundamental particulate matter. Without the freedom to move the fundamental particles can not collide and concatenate to produce geometric forms.
The essential theme of shunyata, (nothingness?) emphasises that the existence of svabhav, self, is contingent upon many parameters. The self of a jiv, being, be it a bacterium or an elephant, is a conglomerate of transient moments of apparent existence of such perceptible or imperceptible parameters as mind, bodily parts, blood, neurons in brains and senses. The conglomerate breaks up incessantly with these impermanent moments until the geometric form is not kinetic any more. The self which we now accept as dead, in time disintegrates into gases and particulate matter and then abides in a permanent environment of shunyata and is intangible.
Now to the nature of the Upanisadic discourse:
A long time ago in ancient India, in the region of Gandhara, lived Vidagdha (learned) Gautama. His wife Maitreyi was a srotriya. A srotriya recited Vedic verses in age old traditional manner and had an extensive knowledge of Vedic writings. They had a son called Ajatashatru Varuneya who was intelligent and quick thinking with a photographic memory. On his 12th birthday his mother cooked payesam, white rice boiled in milk with jaggery and sweet, fragrant dried fruit and nuts. The three of them had their customary baths in the river just before the sun set and sat down together before their evening meal. The father said that he wished to talk to the son so would he pay attention. The boy's paternal grandfather Varuna joined in who was a hota. A hota carries out rituals according to prescribed rigid specifications.
The boy said, “I am listening father.”
Vidagdha Gautama began, “Om, Hari Om. Dear boy you are in the habit of announcing that you belong to the Brahmin varna, colour, which is the highest class in our social hierarchy. Nobody can be a Brahmin unless and until he satisfies certain criteria. To begin with he must study the Vedas. Go therefore and find a Guru.”
Ajatashatru Varuneya combed his long hair and carried only an extra pair of saffron coloured dhoti, chador and towel. He also carried a kamandalu, as a sannyasi does, a small metal water vas. He travelled north along the western bank of river Sindhu and decided to end his journey in the land of the five rivers. He looked and looked, enquired carefully and chose a Guru who lived in a cottage in the forest with his wife, seven children and parents.
Guru asked, “Om. What does ajata mean?”
The Guru asked, “Can you read Sanskrit? Can you read Pali?”
“No, revered Guru dev.”
Guru seemed pleased but asked, “What is the meaning of Guru?”
The boy concentrated. He answered,“Gu is ignorance and Ru is Remover. Guru removes ignorance.”Guru said, “Go and fetch firewood.”
A very happy boy hopped skipped and jumped all the way. About a quarter of a mile on he came to a mango grove with a thousand trees. Inside the grove and outside he found dried twigs and thicker branches on the ground. As he returned to the cottage, he broke them up into manageable pieces. The Guru took him to a huge enclosure. “I have one hundred cows here,” he said. “You take charge of them and as you take them out for grazing you coax strong bulls to come and mate with them. In 12 years time when you leave me as a well educated young man to go home and marry, I want my cattle to number one thousand.
Guru patni, Guru's wife said. “Be the child of our home; the enfant de la maison.”
Twelve years were not long enough to be a scholar. “The higher knowledge,” said the guru revolve around atma=brahman. None of us really know what they are. Even Mrityu (Death) deva is confused about them and all the other devatas too. You may find an answer yourself one day but I will impart the lower knowledge to you.
So Varuneya learnt all of Rig-, Sam-, Yajur- and Atharva-Veda. He acquired a thorough knowledge of phonetics (shiksha), grammar (vyakaran), etymology (nirukta), astronomy (jyotisha), metre (chhanda) and ritual (kalpa). Apart from the Sanhitas, he studied in depth and debated the Brahmanas, Aranyakas, the twelve principal Upanisads and finally the Darshans.
He returned home when he was 24 years old. His parents, grandfather and the other members of his family, including some new additions, pleased to see him, sat down with him several evenings and listened to his experience in a land so far away from Gandhara.
Maitreyi asked one day “What was it that you gave the Guru and his wife as dakshina, material offerings to express your gratitude and reverence?
The mother was standing and was at the point of sitting down when the son touched her feet with his forehead and when they all sat down, he said, “Om Hari Om. I used to copy the Rig-, Sam-, Yajur- and Atharva-Veda on palm leaves as I read them since the Guru's copies were fading because of use and age. I gave these to Guru dev and then the one hundred cows I was entrusted with, which multiplied to one thousand and two hundred. For Guru patni, I picked flowers white, red and yellow to represent the three classes, namely, Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaisya. I could not get any black flowers so I procured a cane basket and dyed it black which represented the Shudra class. It acted as the receptacle for the flowers and I was pleased about it because those who do hard manual work under the hot sun and heavy rain are the ones who sustain us. They, to me, are the highest, not us. I washed the feet of Guru's wife and placed the basket of flowers in front of her and said:
“Om. May we respect one another; may we pursue our goals together; may we remain united. Om. Shanti, shanti, shanti.”
Grandfather, Hota Varuna asked, “Grandson, katame devah, how many devas?”
“You obviously know how important a devata Agni, fire, is.” said grandfather. “We humans hand over our offerings to him. He takes them to the appropriate devas and devis on our behalf. Can you name three forms of Agni?”
Varuneya replied, “(1) Lightening. (2) Household fire. (3) The fire in the ocean (Barabanal).
“How many tongues does Agni have?”
Ajatashatru Varuneya replied without hesitation. (1) Black (Kali). (2) Frightening (Karali). (3) As fast as mind (Manojava). (4) Deep red (Sulohita). (5) Deep purple in colour (Sudhumravarna). (6) Scintillant (Sphulingin). (7) The phenomenal Universe (Visvarupi).
The following evening when the four of them sat together waiting for dinner, Vidagdha Gautama asked Ajatashatru, “Have you ever said something that should not have been said? Have you ever not said something that should have been said? Have you a list of deeds in your short life which were inequitable? Have you done anything that was praise-worthy?”
Ajatashatru replied, “Honoured Sir even the vast phenomenal world is transient. The moments when I have said something untoward have perished long ago. The moments when I said something appropriate have perished as well. There were many a saying of mine which were unacceptable; there were a few, however, which did not give offence but the moments of those deeds and sayings are long gone. I learn from my misdeeds and also good works but I do not cogitate on them because I acted according to the context of each circumstance.”
The father said, “I am glad to see you as a pragmatic person but tell me. Have you ever heard the following mantra in the Brihadaranyaka Upanisad:
Lead me from false to true,
Lead me from darkness to light,
Lead me from death to immortality.
“I have dear father.”
The father frowned, “Tell me how can there be immortality after death?”
The son said, “Dear father. The wise ones say that the body dies but inside it resides the atma which never dies. However I can not comprehend the nature of atma neither did my Guru in the land of the five rivers.”
About 200 yards in front of the cottage which faced east stood a huge Banyan tree. The following morning all four of them sat together again to continue with their discussion. They agreed that nothing remains the same because nature is protean. They also emphasised that the nature of atma and Brahman was too abstruse for all of them. So they need not detain themselves discussing something they knew nothing about. What they did know of course were the daily usage of pronominal words such as I or you. As the body, which they must call self, nucleates and grows, apart from blood etc., senses emerge and take part in the physical functioning of the self. Such aspects as hearing or seeing are concomitant with the growth and consolidation of the self. Indeed they are vital constituents of a self. A pronoun such as 'it', although a mere human construct, takes its place conjointly with, say, senses. They decided that the pronouns must play a vital role in any thesis they wished to propose. The most tantalisingly frustrating question not yet answered is, “What am I? What are you? What is she? What is it?”
The father held 12 pieces of firewood tied together with strings and asked his son what would he call this collection together. The boy said to everyone's satisfaction that he was holding a faggot in his hand.
The father said that he was going to refer to it as the pronoun 'it'. For this inanimate bundle he must emphasise that 'it' was not equivalent to the self of a living being; only the pieces of firewood comprised the self. He then untied the strings and separated the pieces of firewood. He said addressing all three of them that the faggot was no more. It was now shunya, a small imperceptible micro-void in the ineluctable vast space that engulfed it.
The sun glistened in the banyan tree like the stars in the azure sky at night. The birds feasted themselves on the red fruit. The father said to his son “Fetch me a fruit from that yonder nyagrodha tree.”
The young man pleaded, “O winged fellow creatures of the sky, the tree is too tall and I am very short. Throw a piece of fruit to me.”
A ripe red fruit fell in his cupped hands.
Vidagdha Gautama said,”Open the fruit.”The son said, “It is open Sir.”
“What do you see in the opened halves?”
“Seeds; many of them.”
“Cut open one of them,” asked the father.
“I have done so father,” said the son after cutting the tiny seed with some difficulty.
“What do you see in those cut portions?” asked the father.
“Nothing, Honoured Sir,” replied the son.
Vidagdha Gautama shouted in an excited voice, “You see shunya. That massive tree, it is shunya. Your grandfather, he is that. I am that. Your mother, she also is that. O grandson of Hota Varuna, son of Maitreyi and Gautama, O young Vidagdha Brahmin Ajatashatru Varuneya TAT TAM ASI.”