A Few Notes on My Early Years by Amal Kiran

Dear Friends,

K. D. Sethna (25.11.1904 — 29.6.2011) was a Parsi sadhak who joined Sri Aurobindo Ashram at the age of twenty-three in December 1927. He was a noted poet, author, scholar and cultural critic whose published works include more than fifty titles. In 1930 he received the name of Amal Kiran from Sri Aurobindo. He was the editor of the monthly magazine Mother India from the time of its inception in 1949. Some of his notable books are The Secret Splendour, The Poetic Genius of Sri Aurobindo, The Adventure of the Apocalypse, The Passing of Sri Aurobindo: Its Inner Significance and Consequence, The Indian Spirit and the World’s Future, Sri Aurobindo on Shakespeare, The Vision and Work of Sri Aurobindo, Sri Aurobindo—The Poet, Altar and Flame, The Mother: Past-Present-Future, The Problem of Aryan Origin: From an Indian Point of View, Ancient India in a New Light, The Spirituality of the Future: A Search Apropos of R.C. Zaehner’s Study in Sri Aurobindo and Teilhard de Chardin, Aspects of Sri Aurobindo, The Beginning of History for Israel, The Inspiration of Paradise Lost, Problems of Early Christianity, Problems of Ancient India, Our Light and Delight: Recollections of Life with the Mother, Science, Materialism, Mysticism: A Scrutiny of Scientific Thought and The Development of Sri Aurobindo’s Spiritual Thought and the Mother’s Contribution to it.

An autobiographical note penned by Amal Kiran in 1951 has been published in the website of Overman Foundation.

With warm regards,

Anurag Banerjee

Founder,

Overman Foundation.

                                                                 A Few Notes on My Early Years

                                                                                                                                                 Amal Kiran

The moment I was born the big lamp in our drawing-room flared up. My father had to answer the frightened servant’s cry and run from my mother’s side to prevent a fire. The English lady-doctor in attendance on my mother took the flaring lamp as an omen and said: “This boy will be a great man.” It seems to me that she went beyond her data and should have confined herself to saying: “This boy will be a fiery fellow.” I displayed from the beginning a very hot temper and the fury with which I, as a baby, yelled and grew red in the face was worthy of a Riza Shah Pahlevi. And it is quite on the cards that I might have become a soldier or at least a man of action if misfortune had not dogged my steps in my third year. In the literal sense my steps were dogged by misfortune, for a severe form of infantile paralysis attacked my legs.

I was a sturdy baby and could as a small child walk up and down the hill-station of Matheran and was once daring enough to get myself lifted to the back of a huge horse hired by my father and disappear for nearly an hour with the ‘syce’. Among my other exploits was grabbing ugly-looking insects and playing the Grand Inquisitor with them without the least nervousness. For a child of bounding spirits to be struck down by just one night of fever and lamed for life was indeed a catastrophe. The disease attacked not only my left leg but also a part of my right and affected even my speech, so that I have retained up to this day a certain stammer on occasion. The heel of the left foot was pulled up so much that I had to walk with my hand pressed to my knee in order to keep the foot down to the floor-level. Such a way of walking was bound to cause spinal curvature in the long run. What prevented that deformity and greatly decreased the paralytic effects was the operation performed in London, where I was taken in my fifth year by my father, himself a brilliant doctor, and my mother, who had a natural nursing ability.

The trip to London stands out in my memory from the haze of childhood. Prior to that I can only remember the electric shocks received, evening after evening, by my limp leg in the room of a doctor to whom my father had submitted me for treatment.

I became a writer of poetry overnight. For no sooner did a cousin of mine who was then at College mention that he was writing verses about a girl called Katie than I resolved to outdo him. I asked him how many lines he had written altogether. “Three hundred,” he said. Within two days I had penned five hundred lines. They were piffle more or less but here and there was a genuine drive towards self-expression which my cousin noticed and appreciated.

This cousin of mine had much to do with my literary awakening in many ways — and was also responsible indirectly for several complications in my mind. It was he who introduced me to the Major Poets. That was in my very first year at school. I began reading with him, and afterwards continued reading by myself, the plays of Shakespeare, the oriental narratives of Byron and almost all the poems of Shelley. Wordsworth and Tennyson followed suit, with Keats coming soon after.

It was only when I came to the fourth standard that I resolved to pay attention to my studies. In the meantime I had written prolifically: two interminable poems in the Byronian ottava rima, based on the surreptitious feasting on Beppo and Don Juan (two works my father as well as my grandfather had forbidden me to read), long rhymed versions of the lives of Napoleon and Shivaji, an imaginary history in verse of an Utopia, a few plays, thousands of gnomic couplets, twenty-six novelettes, each with an alliterative title like ‘The Sign of the Serpent’ or ‘The Mine of Madrid’ — novelettes which I used to read to my private tutor, an aged Hindu, every morning when he came to coach me in mathematics. He particularly relished the detective yarns I turned out and I would make him scratch his head and sit guessing who the criminal was before allowing him to proceed with the story. Every time my father or mother entered the room we would hide the novelettes under the mathematics book and loudly start pretending we were doing ‘sums’. The old man was a great sport — of course to my mathematical detriment — and proud were the hours for me when I saw the gleam of admiration in his eyes at the variety of plot I had spun and my thrilling development of episode on episode.

I don’t know how long the conspiracy would have gone on if it had not been cut short one day by a terrific slip my tutor had on our staircase. With a crash as of a whole set of furniture breaking up, he tumbled from the fourth floor to the third and landed at the foot of the flight with his head below and his legs high up. He was unable to regain the normal position until I with my mother and the rest of the family behind me rushed to the scene and pulled his legs down and lifted his head up. After this accident my private tuition was dropped. I sometimes think my tutor’s own drop was caused by his getting too absorbed in an intricate and intriguing crime-situation I had invented in the story with which both of us had been busy that morning.

The atmosphere of my home was conducive to literary as well as artistic inspiration. My father—a gold-medalist in medicine—was an extremely clever man with a multiplicity of interests. His reading was profuse and covered all subjects from poetry and fiction to occultism and astrology. When the day was over, there would frequently be an after-dinner sitting, with father reading to us out of a book. He had a bulky tome of his own in which he used to put down the best passages he came across in prose and poetry. He would often read out to us from it and we would listen to whatever he read as if it were holy scripture. The quintessence of the whole world’s wisdom seemed to be there. And our attitude to it was like that of Caliph Omar to the Koran when the news was brought to him that the famous library of Alexandria had been set on fire by his army. He was expected to give orders to put out the fire. But he said: “If the books there contain the same thing as the Koran, they are superfluous. So let them burn. If they contain something contrary to the Koran, they are pernicious. Then too let them burn.” We children often thought that if there was a fire in our house what we would first grab and run out with was father’s book of quotations.

On several occasions father’s reading out to us would be followed by his playing his violin and mother singing in accompaniment, while I and my brother (two years younger than myself) and my little sister (many years junior to both of us) would be sprawling on the carpet. As likely as not, I would be sketching my father’s profile: apart from his nose the special feature that attracted me in his face was the disposition of the hair on his high forehead in the Sherlock Homes manner, which seemed to me such a wonder that I once pleaded with him that I should be allowed to have my hair cut to create for myself also a high forehead with receding corners and a strip of hair running out in the middle like a promontory! I may mention here that on the strength of my portraits of my father and other sketches as well as paintings, I was fondly looked upon as a budding Raphael. The hope that I would some day come off as painter in flying colours has not been fulfilled though pencil-work and brush-play came easy to my hand and I could turn them to forceful imaginative uses. Quite early I had to choose between literature and painting, for the urge to both was so great that to yield fully to the one pursuit would have excluded indulgence in the other. I plumped for the pen: it served more satisfyingly those unfathomable secrets within, which Keats had felt as an awful warmth about the heart like a load of immortality. But I have the dream that some day I shall isolate a few years of my life in an ideal studio and project in coloured scene and symbol the poetic visions that always press upon my mind. So far I have illustrated only two of my poems.

Owing to my literary exercises as well as my profound studies of the Zoroastrian scriptures and, to a lesser degree, the Bible at home I found myself head and shoulders above my class-mates and had an exceptionally brilliant school-life, once actually carrying away all the prizes except that in mathematics, which subject — thanks to my private tutor’s predilection for my novelettes — had remained my weak point. Brilliance of academic career continued up to my B.A. Only my matriculation was a poor affair — it marked the sole gap in distinction in English won every year for nine years. In my Intermediate Arts examination I made, I believe, a record by winning the Selby Scholarship in Logic as well as the Hughlings Prize for English, and my graduateship was marked by what was regarded as perhaps a rarer phenomenon: a student of Philosophy Honours happened to beat all the Literature students in Compulsory English and took the Bombay University’s coveted Ellis Prize. I lost my first class in Philosophy by a small margin after my case had been discussed by the examiners. I was told that I did not evince sufficient familiarity with the prescribed textbooks. My reply was that I had appeared not as a student of philosophy but as a philosopher! After my graduation I was advised from home to take up law. I detested law and having been freshly launched on a rather lawless individualistic life I decided to have two more academic years for natural as well as artistic self-growth and went in for M.A. studies.

Ever since early boyhood my father had set me two ideals to follow: to speak the truth and feel no fear. His way of training me up was to assume straight away that I never told lies and that I was always brave. Such an assumption had a powerful compulsive effect on me. I felt that I must never disappoint my father or shatter his ideal of me. So I suffered agonies of self-control in dark places which any normal child would have run away from, and I developed a most ingenious system of equivocation in order not to sneak on my friends whenever I was called upon to act George Washington. My ‘courage’ once or twice enraged my own father, for, on the very few occasions he caned me on the palms I refused to cry and kept laughing brazenly in his face. This courage has also taken me through most difficult and dangerous passes. Nobody could believe that a lame boy whose left leg had very little voluntary movement and whose right one had none too good muscles could dare to be a horse-rider for over fifteen years—and that too at a canter or gallop—since the rise and fall in the saddle necessary for trotting could not be well managed with such legs. Innumerable times have I saved myself for a hair’s breadth from falling off a furiously galloping animal. Most risky of all my riding trips was the fast one along the turns and twists with precipitous edges of the long run from Dehradun to the Himalayan foot-hill Mussoorie six thousand feet above sea-level. The fact that I had only one serious accident in all my riding career speaks volumes both for my good luck and the reckless grit with which I was determined not to look a fool in a family of excellent horsemen. My method of keeping poised on the back of a horse was to fix my knees to the saddle by pulling over them the hanging leather straps in which the stirrups were held. This method was fraught with danger as I found when I once lost my balance and dangled from a galloping horse with my head an inch or two away from the ground and my right leg entangled in the straps! Luckily the animal soon stopped, surprised to find my face right under its own nose. I think I have fully accomplished the ideal of courage given me by my father.

I entered St. Xavier’s College with a mind razor-sharp and an imagination richened by a many-sided culture. Literature was still my main inspiration, but together with it I had found another source of inner growth: this was philosophy. My early preoccupation with religious studies had inclined me towards questions of metaphysics and in an irregular way I had brooded quite a deal on the problems of soul, free-will and God. For a schoolboy to be caught up in such serious matters was a rather bewildering spectacle to many people. I had collected a whole library of philosophical classics—Plato and Seneca and Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius were my daily companions. I cannot aver that I understood all they had written but I did imbibe in general the metaphysical attitude and appreciated with keen logical pleasure the general unfolding of their systems. Perhaps more deeply felt by me than their metaphysics was the discussion they stirred up of the problems of good and evil, of justice, charity and equanimity. The practice of philosophy, so to speak, became my ideal and even my father was struck with the wise air I used to carry about me. Not that I grew dull and platitudinous—I remained alert in intellect and exercised a keen ingenuity with regard to most topics that came up for consideration. But I lost the old hot temper, became full of understanding and the boy who had at one time been the despair of his parents for his reckless and wayward disposition—a disposition which on a few occasions made me almost indulge in obstinate physical tussles with my father—took on a most gentle manner. This gentleness was the outcome of my ‘philosophical’ development and did not reflect any weak or goody-goody element in my nature. For the mind remained critical and forceful. Only, at the moment its critical force was turned against cheap materialism and cheap eroticism. The part played by my Jesuit teacher was evident here; but his influence worked in another and more unexpected direction too. He was a man with a strong scientific bent; religion, philosophy and art were rich enough in him, yet the most dynamic side of him was scientific. In response to his general magnetism for my imagination I turned to the fascinating realms of science. At first it was the storing up, in my memory, of various interesting facts about things, then a study of the processes of Nature and life, and finally a confrontation of the ultimate issues by the scientific outlook. While this was going on, I was drawn by a kind of mental-strength affinity with my Jesuit teacher to strong critical semi-pragmatic intellects wielding the literary pen in English.

I was in the habit of exchanging reading matter with a friend and one day he gave me the plays of Bernard Shaw. It proved a momentous event. Bernard Shaw strode like a laughing colossus over my mind and I could never read enough of him: his pungent, penetrating, humbug-proof and dare-all advocacy of new ideas and ideals made the growing strength of my own intellect look around and feel that there was cheap religionism as well as cheap materialism, puritanical sham no less than erotic tawdriness. At this psychological stage, the full drive of the scientific movement came home to me. Shaw had dabbled in biology and his theory of the Life Force was attractive and inspiring but did not then seem to me quite a logical assumption. Shaw’s biological philosophy took me to biological science proper and there I met another big figure, Ernst Haeckel. I found that there was a large literature about Haeckel: the Jesuits had done their best to ‘heckle’ him and to ‘riddle’ with criticism his famous Riddle of the Universe. But nothing they wrote could ever equal the perfectly poised yet deadly championship of Haeckel by that Catholic priest who had renounced Rome, Joseph McCabe. McCabe I regard as the most powerful factor in the demolition of orthodoxy in the English-speaking world in the first twenty-five years of the present century. There was nobody in that period so inexhaustibly, indomitably, effectively anti-Rome and anti-religious. He had a first-class scientific brain with a first-class critical faculty equipped with a balanced yet not bloodless style, a simulating and finely organised gift of word working in a range of knowledge that was both culturally and scientifically broad. He had certain serious lacunae in his mind, but these I discovered much later with the help of Indian philosophy and the extraordinary experiences which are the commonplace of the East. Lesser defects I lighted upon during my early College days, defects that the re-reading of the major poets laid bare, defects of appeal to the higher idealistic imagination without which Art would cease to be a living force.

All these things, however, were forgotten in the first flush of my enthusiasm for Haeckel. What Haeckel and McCabe gave me was a spur to tear to pieces the complacent dogmas of orthodoxy. As soon as I began to reason things out, I saw that the so-called proofs about God and the immortal soul were open to criticism. The vast accumulation of scientific fact in the nineteenth century seemed to support this criticism and to be utilisable for carrying the war deeper and deeper into the celestial country. Still, it was no easy thing to give up God. A very long while, my emotions fought against my intellect. I suffered fits of sombre depression, a tearing at the vitals made me miserable whenever I wanted to reject the unseen Friend whom I had taken to my heart so fervently in my early school days. Under the night sky I would sit with tears in my eyes at the prospect of infinite emptiness where there had once been an invisible omnipresence. I put up every argument I could to keep in its place the old religious conviction, but nothing was of any avail against the relentless march of the outward-looking analytic mind. At last I became an atheist. Something in me heaved a sigh of relief. I understand it now to have been the sense of freedom from the bigoted background of all orthodoxy, the obscurantist tendency latent in every formal creed, the puritanical bleakness which is half sincere and half hypocritical in each religion. A strange courage flowed into me as at long last I had become my own master and could carve life to whatever shape I liked. There was as yet no desire to live lawlessly, no licentious impulse; my atheism was intellectual and dispassionate and though it rejected puritanism it had not been tinged by the subtle sensuality of an Anatole France or the Dionysiac zest of a D’Annunzio.

I distinctly remember the day on which I declared my atheism to my father. I was still at school, but this was a holiday. It was nearing noon. I was sitting at my desk reading Haeckel. My father had noticed some time before that I was devouring scientific books and he had marvelled how I could take in with delight such heavy stuff. Now he came from his morning medical round and saw me absorbed in my study. He leaned over my shoulder and found it was Haeckel I was poring over. I think he made a remark to the effect that Haeckel was rather blind to religion. I lifted my face and slowly said that I too feared that there wasn’t a God. The shock to my father was as if a thunderbolt had struck him. He went pale and said that he did not wish the wrath of the Almighty to be brought down upon his house. I plucked up courage and replied that the wrath could come only if the Almighty existed and that I was pretty sure He didn’t. Baffled, my father left me and I believe he was very much troubled in mind. But he had enough admiration for his son’s intellect not to adopt an intolerant attitude: he began to talk with me at night and argue out the issue. I am afraid I made mincemeat of his arguments. Then he suggested that I should meet some noted savants of our community who were in a position to discuss theology and philosophy. I accepted the suggestion with a war-whoop as I felt I could give them all a tough fight and deal them a decisive knock-out. Forthwith I projected a treatise logically and scientifically demolishing all the supports of religion. I took up point after point and kept enlarging the treatise until it became almost a book. My father waited for the magnum opus to get complete. I admire the way he handled me. After that first outburst he was all tact and understanding and even in such a crisis he never forsook the warm sympathetic relationship he had established between himself and his children as between friends. I was the first atheist in the old and large Sethna family. I had done something unprecedentedly shocking—but the intellectual in my father was equal to the occasion and gave me ample room for free thought and free speech. Perhaps he had the confidence that in course of time I would outgrow my folly. He did not see the day I plunged into Yoga and found God to be the most intense and constant fact of my life. Nor did he see the end of my materialist book. For I could not finish it soon and just a year after my matriculation he died suddenly of heart-failure early one morning.

The death of so fine a man and so beloved a parent was a tremendous blow. I missed him terribly; but his absence caused a new strength to awaken in me. Up to then I had been dependent a good deal on him for guidance in practical matters. His death threw me back upon myself; I had to tap my own resources, face difficulties, meet people and get things done. Also his presence had served as a moral light; its removal unloosed energies and passions that in the three remaining years of my undergraduateship went rather recklessly forward. The intellect was never submerged, it burned and shone with ever-increasing force; the poetic imagination was still a great light transforming all commonplaces and keeping a golden gate open for the true soul in me. I was no more a mere precocious dreaming yearning searching adolescent: I became with an all-round wakefulness and a multi-mooded realism a grappler with life adventuring between the abyss and the empyrean: in short, a man.

And with the advent of the man I may appropriately close these few notes on my early years.

                                                                   ________________________

7 thoughts on “A Few Notes on My Early Years by Amal Kiran

  1. Memorable notes , indeed – Amal-da had this wonderful knack of sharing narratives , memories and recollections which are always instructive and anticipates the man in the making – A many sided genius –
    Siurendra s chouhan – SAICE -2019

  2. In my personal contact with Amal Kiran down several decades, there are scores of details that some day or other I intend to jot down. Nobody can ever forget the erstwhile – late 1950s – East Wing above the main entrance of the Ashram school, packed with auditors three times more important than the initially intended Higher Course students, to listen to Amal. It was a festival of poetry, philosophy, linguistics, wit, both exuberant and in-drawn. One day, after his class on “Thought the Paraclyte”:
    “Lustred, pale-blue-lined of the hippogriff,
    Eremite, sole, daring the bourneless ways,
    Over world-bare summits of timeless being
    Gleamed; the deep twilights of the world-abyss
    Failed below. Sun-realms of supernal seeing,
    Crimson-white mooned oceans of pauseless bliss
    Drew its vague heart-yearning with voice sweet.
    Hungering, large-souled to surprise the unconned
    Secrets white-fire-veiled of the last Beyond,
    Crossing power-swept silences rapture-stunned,
    Climbing high far ethers eternal-sunned,
    Thought the great-winged wanderer Paraclete
    Disappeared slow-singing a flame-word rune.
    Self was left, lone, limitless, nude, immune.”
    Amal and I with a couple of others continued discussing what the fabulous monster hippogriff would look like. Amal took up the duster to clean the blackboard (which in fact was green) and asked what the elements that constitute this creature were: (a) Horse; (b) Eagle; (c) Lion.
    With easy, precise gliding of chalk, in no time did he sketch the entire monster with cruel steel-sharp out-drawn claws, fierce beaks, piercing eyes and the impatient sinewy tail.
    Speechless we left the class. I regret having had no numeric phone-camera as yet.

  3. What a magnificent self-portrait, of Amal’s earlier years, full of wit, humor and insights! Amal Kiran was perhaps the last of the Renaissance figures the Ashram has produced.

    His correspondence with the legendary personalities of his times including Albert Einstein is truly breathtaking.Had the privilege of editing a commemorative volume of essays on the occasion of his birth centenary.Being given access to his rare personal papers and correspondence was a miracle of sorts.Readers would discover gems in his correspondence with Sri Aurobindo on life,literature,yoga and politics.What an astonishing range of disciplines he covered and with what mastery!

    As an editor of ‘Mother India’, he corresponded with his contributors through postcards that carried his comments and observations written in a very clear hand.

    His humor is legendary.Here’s an [apocryphal] anecdote:

    The telephone rings and Amal picks up the phone at his residence:

    ‘ Hello, is this Auro Food?’ [ After the famous Auro Food Industries of Pondicherry]

    Amal’s prompt reply : ‘ No, this is Amal Cola !’

  4. Sethna wasn’t a small master of expository prose, as I had tried to show in my serial on his prose in Mother India. But this an example of his expertise in the narrative-descriptive mode. Thanks must go to our dear Anurag for this revelation.

  5. It is easy to understand now why Amal Kiran remembered his father on the last day of his life when he himself was 106 of age. He asked his attendant nurse in the Ashram Nursing Home, “Where is Udar? Where is Nirod? Where is my papa?” The attendant nurse replied, “They are in heaven.” “Then what am I doing here?” – Amal murmured. The nurse noticed that he then closed his eyes and begun to withdraw from his body.

    Thank you, Anurag, for digging out this gem from your goldmine. What an elite family background and a rich brilliant multifarious literary and intellectual foundation Amal had. I remember in Nirodbaran’s (or perhaps A.B. Purani’s records) of talks with Sri Aurobindo that Amal’s prose writings were regarded by Sri Aurobindo as equal in quality as that of Jawaharlal Nehru but the later’s writings were widely read because, according to Sri Aurobindo, Nehru was a famous public and political personality while Amal was not. Renowned Paul Brunton (In search of Secret India fame) met Amal in the Ashram, held him in high regard among the inmates and kept in touch with him through correspondence.

    Amal grew into an Aurobindonian Bertrand Russell. Of course, intellect has its human limitations and Amal lived through those bright limitations. Nevertheless, he embodied a shining vistas of soft soothing sparkling intellectual culture. In this sense, he will remain a renaissance man in the unfolding creation of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.

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