On Sunday, 12 May 2019, one of the senior-most inmates of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram community as well as one of its most loved members breathed her last at the Ashram Nursing Home. With her passing away, the community has lost one of those blessed ones who had the good fortune of touching the feet of Sri Aurobindo and being blessed by His touch on Darshan days. A most dedicated and sincere soul who would call the Mother the very reason of her own existence, she was the perfect example of the term ‘Divine Worker’. Work was not only her body’s prayer to the Divine but also that of her soul. Such was Kusum Nagda whom we all addressed lovingly as Kusum-ben.
Kusum-ben was born on 28 November 1928 to Visanji Nagda, a Jain scholar and seeker who came to know of Sri Aurobindo Ashram in the early 1930s. Kusum-ben visited Pondicherry for the first time with her father in 1935. In those days, one had to write to the Ashram to seek permission to attend the joint Darshan of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother and also send the photographs of the prospective visitors. Moreover, children below a certain age were not allowed. But Kusum-ben — who was then in her seventh year — was extremely keen to visit the Ashram. Seeing her eagerness, her father took her to Pondicherry. But when she reached Pondicherry, she was informed that she would have to seek permission to attend the Darshan. Visanji asked her to write to Sri Aurobindo. Kusum-ben was in a fix as she did not know English. But her father told her to write to Sri Aurobindo in Gujarati as He knew the language. So Kusum-ben wrote to Sri Aurobindo: “I want to come for Blessings.” Sri Aurobindo conveyed through A. B. Purani that she could come. That was the beginning. Every time Visanji visited Pondicherry, he would bring Kusum-ben along with him.
While recalling her experiences during the Darshan days as well as of the Ashram of the yesteryears, Kusum-ben had told the present author in February 2009: ‘We were allowed to put our head in His lap. So we first did Pranam to Sri Aurobindo, He put His hand on our head. Then we looked at Him. He made a slight gesture with His eye, that is, “Go to Mother.” Then we did Pranam to Mother. She did the same as Sri Aurobindo. There was a little gap between the two of Them; we did Pranam there and both of Them kept Their hands on our head…
‘We used to carry garlands and offerings. There were two baskets on two sides. We used to put the garlands in one of the baskets and the offering packets in the other.
‘There were selected numbers of people… A place was given outside on the footpath. We went group-by-group in absolute silence. Nobody had to say: “Keep silent.” It was automatic. From the time when we were sitting we knew that we were going somewhere to a height. Everybody lived somewhere else. There was joy on the faces which came from deep faith. It was so different! A person serving in Dining Room was also affectionate… At that time the inmates lived in a certain inner satisfaction and inner calm. There were troubles also — that is understood. Sri Aurobindo and the Mother have said that in Their yoga everything would come up. The work was done in a very different way and the feeling of unity was there… In those days the number of people was less. At that time only those people who had really something were called. Everybody was not permitted. The whole atmosphere was very different.
‘I remember His eyes only. All the time I saw His eyes. I saw His whole face but mostly His eyes. I did see Him smile. It so happened that I thought that Dilip Kumar Roy would probably get a smile. So I tried to join him. I would be somewhere behind him though not exactly behind him. I saw that little smile when Dilip Kumar went. Otherwise it was not a smile but gravity and subtle love which were almost like a smile. You cannot say ‘smile’ as we speak of. We never wanted to move away from Him. We went on looking. He also looked into our eyes and then He would blink. His gaze was as if He was looking far, far into the infinite. He would look at you and at the same time He would probably go through you. Mother’s gaze was of love and full of smile.That was the way He said: “Now next.” That was His way of saying. And that blinking was so beautiful! I cannot describe but whenever I think of Him, His eyes will come, that blinking will come and the way He said: “Go.”’
Kusum-ben was also present in Pondicherry when Sri Aurobindo met with an accident on the eve of the November Darshan in 1938. As a result of this accident, the Darshan of 24 November was cancelled. Kusum-ben tells the present author about this incident that those who came for the Darshan were in a state of shock for not being able to see Sri Aurobindo. But, she recalls, ‘Mother doubly gave Herself. Her smile was overwhelming! It may not have been easy for Her also but She was giving such love because She knew that those people who came for the Darshan would feel sad.’
Visanji and Kusum-ben would stay in the Ashram for months. Thus young Kusum-ben got more and more attracted towards the Mother whom she would meet often. One day in 1942 she realized that she could not live without the Mother as she had developed an intimate bond with Her. She told Visanji that she would like to stay in the Ashram for good. Since the date of her departure from Pondicherry was approaching, Kusum-ben requested the Mother to kindly allow her to meet Her every time She opened the door to Her apartments on the first floor of the Ashram main building. The Mother would open the door four times and every time Kusum-ben saw Her. On the eve of her departure from the Ashram, the Mother kissed Kusum-ben on her forehead and said: “Come back soon.” Kusum-ben replied: “Call me back in one month.” Kusum-ben left Pondicherry on 22 May. But after reaching home it seems that she began to spend her days in an unhappy state. Her mother observed it and one day remarked: “I find you so miserable — you better go back to Pondicherry.” As Visanji had a business to attend, Kusum-ben was sent to Pondicherry with her aunt. On 22 June 1942 they reached Pondicherry. It is interesting to note that Kusum-ben had requested the Mother to call her back to Pondicherry within a month and she was back in Pondicherry exactly after a month.
After staying for a few months in Pondicherry, when it was time for her to go back to her paternal house, Kusum-ben went and told the Mother: “I don’t want to go this time.” The Mother did not answer. But when Visanji went to see Her, the Mother told him: “Kusum is not going. She is seventeen now, she can decide for herself.”(Kusum-ben recalled with a smile: “I don’t know how She said seventeen for I was fifteen years old at that time.”) The Mother also said to Visanji that She had already kept a room ready for Kusum-ben. Thus, Kusum-ben stayed back at Pondicherry and was soon made an inmate of the Ashram. The Mother also told Kusum-ben: “Now you are mine. All that you want you will get from me.” When her own mother came to Pondicherry, she had exclaimed: “You are stolen away from me!” In November 1943 she was joined by her younger sister Dhanavanti, who went on to become one of the finest artists of the Ashram.
Kusum-ben was one of the first students of the Ashram School when it was started in December 1943. Though she did not show any signs of brilliance in the school where she studied before joining the Ashram, she began to excel in every subject taught at the Ashram School. Sunil Bhattacharya, who was a very popular teacher, had once remarked: “I never had a student like Kusum.
In 1944 the Mother asked Kusum-ben to join Golconde — the oldest dormitory of the Ashram — where she worked for eight years. She would go to Golconde right after the Mother’s Balcony Darshan at 6.30 a.m. Her work was to mark the laundry given by the inmates and supervise the workers who washed the clothes. Every day in the morning, she would undo all the bundles, check the numbered items and add numbers to those which were unnumbered. She would finish her work within an hour and leave for her house to have her breakfast. She would return after half an hour and mark the laundry which was collected afterwards. She would then go to the Laundry Room in the basement of Golconde to supervise the workers who washed the clothes.
One day in 1945 K. Amrita, the Manager of the Ashram, informed Kusum-ben that the Mother would like to meet her and Anu-ben Purani (daughter of A. B. Purani) that very evening. When they met the Mother, She informed them that She had chosen both of them to look after the children of ‘Dortoir’— the first Boarding in the Ashram. Kusum-ben recalls: ‘I was then 17 and not an extrovert, timid by nature, a lover of solitude who hardly ever spoke and whose feelings would not easily find expression. All this was tickling inside, when the Mother came out with, “This is the right age for this work.” Then again another instruction, a very touching one: “Now you will work like two bodies with one soul.” Then again, “With children you should be like children, play with them.” My nature-erected wall, that upon which I had been leaning so long, must crumble down it seemed—I must assume another nature!’
The Mother also instructed that no child should be touched to wake him up; instead he should be called by his name until he woke up. Each and every child was asked to be brought up just like a tender flower.
Early in the morning Kusum-ben would go down to inspect the maids washing clothes. After the children left for school, she would get busy with her activities which included dusting the furniture, preparing the dining room where small individual tables were set out and put away on a daily basis. After the children left for the second session of the school post-lunch, she ironed their clothes. In the evening, along with Anu-ben Purani, Kusum-ben prepared the children for the Playground. During the absence of the children, Kusum-ben and Anu-ben prepared their dinner. Thus, Kusum-ben worked for almost eighteen hours a day for seven years without knowing what fatigue meant. She would say that she got her energy from the Mother’s smile. However she had to discontinue her studies as a result of her responsibilities.
The Mother was quite fond of an alcohol-based lotion called ‘Friction de Foucaud’ which was manufactured by a French company owned by Madame Lucienne Merle, a friend of the Mother. This lotion was imported from France as it had sixty uses. Following the merger of Pondicherry with India, the import of ‘Friction de Foucaud’ was banned. The manufacturing company suggested that the Ashram import the basic essences from France and add the alcohol in Pondicherry. The Mother accepted the suggestion and asked Udar Pinto to start a chemical laboratory for the said work. Thus Udar Pinto started the Laboratoires Senteurs.
Udar Pinto recalls in his reminiscences: ‘… it was the Mother’s practice to get me to start many things in the Ashram and when these were well established She put me on to something else. So I did not remain to run any one unit but started several. To this end, I had to train someone each time to carry on the work when I had to go to start something else.’ He started looking for someone who could carry on the work at Laboratoires Senteurs. He took a list of names to the Mother who pointed out the name of Kusum-ben.
At that time, Kusum-ben was still working in Golconde. She realized the difficulty in managing two unrelated departments so she wrote to the Mother: ‘Mother, I accept with joy, and at the same time I offer it to You to take the charge. With You I can do all, but without You, I can do nothing. Your help will be extremely necessary to be able to accomplish these two tasks.’ The Mother replied: ‘Je suis toujours avec toi dans ton travail et tu peux toujours compter sur mon aide qui ne te manquera jamais (meaning, ‘I am always with you in your work and you can always count on my assistance which will never be missed’). Thus, Kusum-ben took charge of Laboratoires Senteurs and continued to run it for over sixty years till the end of her life.
The Mother had promised Kusum-ben that She would always be with her. And Kusum-ben had told the present author: “When I am at home I am full of Her presence… I don’t feel a single day that She is not here.” She had further added: “When I go for Darshan, I don’t feel that I am only seeing photos. I feel everything like my old Darshan days; whatever was happening inside happens now also. Of course if I want to use my mind then They are not there, instead Their photos are there. But in my heart only They are there… I ask sometimes: “So many people say Sri Aurobindo is there in the subtle physical. I can feel you so much but you never want to show yourself to me.” There was a time when I used to see Mother everyday in my dreams but it was long back. I don’t even see Them in dreams. I get up, I work, I feel I am directed and guided but I don’t meet Them. Maybe that keeps me humble.”
Yes, humility was the most striking feature of Kusum-ben’s personality. There was never any air of spiritual ego in her. Her name meant ‘flower’; she was sweet as a flower but if necessary she could become extremely stern but without losing her inherent sweetness.
With the passage of time, Kusum-ben’s body became weak but not her spirit. Despite her failing health she continued to attend to her work at Laboratoires Senteurs. A few days before she left her body, she developed breathing problems and constipation. She spent her last days in the Ashram Nursing Home where she was on oxygen. She left peacefully in her sleep at 3.40 a.m. on 12 May 2019 at the age of ninety after serving the Mother and Sri Aurobindo for over seventy-five years.
She would always be missed!
With warm regards,
Kusum-ben with Anurag Banerjee