Chum: the Silent but Radiant Jewel
There are people who speak a lot but convey nothing substantial. And there are people — alas, only a handful — who don’t speak much but convey a lot through their silence or soulful expressions of their eyes. In spite of their silent presence, such people are easily noticeable even in a crowd because the radiance of their personalities shine brightly like a glittering jewel. One of such rare beings was Debjani Ganguli, better known in the Aurobindonian community of Pondicherry as ‘Chum’.
Chum was born on 6 May 1939 to Chittaranjan and Anima (Minnie) Ganguli. The Gangulis were residents of Kolkata. Her grandfather Nolin Bihari was the proprietor of ‘N. B. Ganguli Constructions’, a well-known construction firm which constructed the buildings of Royal Calcutta Turf Club and Calcutta Race Course to name a few. He had seven sons (Manoranjan, Niharranjan, Chittaranjan, Sudhiranjan, Amiyoranjan, Kanakranjan and Robiranjan) and two daughters (Gauri and Chhobi). Chittaranjan, the third son, had visited Pondicherry for the first time in 1940. When Nolin Bihari passed away in February 1941, Chittaranjan suggested that the entire family should visit the Ashram of Sri Aurobindo for solace and stay at Pondicherry for two or three months. The Gangulis reached Pondicherry on 20 April 1941 and stayed in Sri Aurobindo’s ‘cave of tapasya’ till the end of June. But in the very next year, Chittaranjan passed away at a very early age leaving behind his young widow and Chum, his only child, who was then three years of age. As a result, the Gangulis with the exception of the second and fourth brother, decided to settle in Sri Aurobindo Ashram as inmates. Thus Chum joined the Ashram as an inmate at the age of three with her grandmother Sarala, mother Anima, uncles and aunts.
All the members of the Ganguli family were given work in the various departments of the Ashram. Sarala, the matriarch, worked in the Bakery, Dining Room and Mother’s Kitchen. Amiyoranjan worked in the Granary, Laundry and later joined the Ashram Press of which he was made the Manager. Kanakranjan worked in the Washing Wing of the Dining Room and also in the Ashram Press. Robiranjan worked in Atelier, Dining Room, Laundry, Photography Department and the Ashram Press. Gauri was in-charge of the Mother’s rooms in the Playground and Sportsground while Chhobi, worked initially in the Dining Room and later at Pavitra’s office and the Recording Section of Sunil Bhattacharya. Manoranjan, who was the eldest of all, settled in the Ashram with his wife Jyotsna, four sons and two daughters in 1944. He was in-charge of ‘Le Faucheur’ garden. An indefatigable builder, he constructed the Tennis Ground (the area of which was used to dump garbage in the 1940s), the Playground along with its old body-building section and the Mother’s room. A skilled entrepreneur, he ran a motor workshop and had also taken up the agencies of Fiat, Fargo and other companies.
When the Mother started the Ashram School in December 1943, Chum was among its first batch of students.
In the late 1940s, the Mother would meet Chum and her cousins Jhumur Bhattacharya and Madhuri (Bubu) Ganguli everyday at noon in a small room on the first floor of the Ashram main building. This room was called ‘Couloir’s’. The Mother called the three sisters Her ‘three friends’ and also made a sketch of them.
Sketch of Chum, Jhumur and Bubu made by the Mother
Sometime in 1949 Tara Jauhar and her younger brother Promesse joined Chum and her cousins. Tara Jauhar recalls in her book, Growing up with the Mother: ‘Our group had a little ceremony every day. After we had offered our flowers to the Mother, She would carefully select flowers for each of us, and then give us each a big tomato. We would then form a little circle by placing our arms on one another’s shoulders and place our heads together. Promesse would stand in the centre of the circle. The Mother would pull us close to Herself until each head came into contact with Hers. Then She would concentrate for some time in this fashion before bidding us Au revoir… She called this little ceremony, “Le circle magique” (the magic circle). She explained to us that while She concentrated thus with us, a golden thread came out of Her head and passed through ours and returned to Her. And thus, She knew exactly what was going on in our little heads.’ (p. 106)
Chum (in the middle) on the stage. On her left is Gauri Pinto.
Chum was among the fortunate ones (the others being Tara Jauhar, Bubu Ganguli, Jhumur Bhattacharya, Gauri Pinto and Parul Chakraborty) whom the Mother would continue to meet every day from the date She resumed all Her activities which She had stopped temporarily following the mahasamadhi of Sri Aurobindo till December 1958 when She stopped most of Her activities due to ill-health.
Chum was never good in studies nor did she excel in sports though she played volleyball reasonably well. She was a mischievous teenager who found delight in putting flowers on the bald-head of Anilbaran Roy when the latter meditated near the Samadhi. But this mischievousness was only a part of her personality. When she was fifteen, she had the experience of the awakening of her psychic being. She was absent-minded and looked out of the window when the classes were in progress. And what would she think of? It was the Mother who always occupied her thoughts. Her absent-mindedness did not go unnoticed. When one of her teachers complained against her to the Mother, She had replied — much to the astonishment of the teacher — “Don’t disturb the child because she is discovering her psychic being.”
The Mother with Chum, Chitra Jauhar and Shirin-ben on 7 October 1954
The Mother with Ravindra and Chum on 7 October 1954
The Mother with Chum at the Playground
The Mother kept a meticulous eye on Chum’s material well-being and inner spiritual progress. She ensured that she stayed under Her protective wings. Once, when Chum was compelled to go to Chennai to attend a concert with some of her friends and cousins, the Mother was visibly unhappy. When She later met Chum, She had exclaimed: “You also had gone!” She was surprised because She did not expect Chum to attend that concert. But in 1958 when Chum’s mother had to go to Kolkata to for a surgery, the Mother asked Chum to accompany Anima. It was Chum’s first visit to Kolkata after joining the Ashram as an inmate and it was also her very last visit for she never stepped out of Pondicherry again.
Chum was quite psychic in her approach to the Mother. Once, when she was going in a queue to receive the Mother’s blessings, she saw that the Mother was distributing red roses to everyone. While standing in the queue, suddenly a thought occurred to her: “I don’t think that the Mother would give me a red rose.” When her turn came and she stood before the Mother, the Mother told her in French: “That’s what you think? Here is a red rose.” And She gave her a red rose.
When Chum left her studies, the Mother asked her to join the office of Pavitra where foreign correspondence was answered. When Sumitra Nahar, who worked as Pavitra’s secretary and later André Morisset’s (the Mother’s son who became the de facto head of the Ashram School after Pavitra’s demise) left for France in 1978, Chum became André’s secretary. Her work consisted of drafting official letters as well answering the queries of aspirants for which she took help from Tehmi Masallawala (who appreciated her style of writing) and Jugal Kishore Mukherjee. Later she was made the in-charge of the said office.
From left to right: Chum Ganguli, Sumitra Nahar and Dolly Mutsuddi with André Morisset’s (the Mother’s son)
The present author fondly recalls how Chum’s eyes would go moist whenever she spoke of the Mother. Her conversations revealed how profound was her love for the Mother. The sweet memories of her growing up with the Mother were the greatest treasures she cherished and she was perpetually in love with those memories. LOVE, in fact, was the most important emotion of her life. She radiated love so much so that not only individuals would become a captive of her love but animals too could feel it. Whenever she would go for a walk, street-dogs would rush to her and jump on her. Even the pet-dog of her cousin Bubu would rush to her whenever she visited Bubu’s house, much to the envy of the latter. She could also feel the vibrations of plants and flowers when she walked in gardens.
Chum with her mother Minnie in February 1971
Chum was very close to her mother, Minnie. Towards the end of her life when Minnie suffered from a number of age-related problems, Chum would look after her day-and-night. She would spent two-and-a-half hours in her office attending to her work and then rush back home to attend on Minnie. It was quite a difficult period for her when she had no sleep for almost eighteen months. Minnie’s demise on 29 April 2005 also affected her own health. She had a nervous breakdown. She already had an anxiety complex which ran in her family and the nervous breakdown aggravated the physical disorder. However, thanks to the medicines and counseling provided by Dr. Alok Pandey, Chum recovered. As a result, she would look upon Dr. Alok Pandey as a son and was quite fond of him.
When Kumud-ben, the erstwhile in-charge of the apartments of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother in the Ashram main building passed away, Chum asked for and was given the charge of the Mother’s apartments. Despite her failing health and weakened heart-condition, she continued to supervise the cleaning and maintenance of the Mother’s apartments in the second floor of the Ashram main building. At one point, her heart was functioning at only twenty-five percent but her sheer determination and will-power kept her going. Towards the end of her life, every six months, she used to go to JIPMER where doctors would examine her and change her medicines. Once, when she collapsed in her room, she was transferred first to the Ashram Nursing Home and then to Desiree Home so that medical help could be provided to her at the earliest. She spent her last months in Desiree Home where a separate room was provided to her. In spite of being physically very frail, she spent long hours in the Mother’s room supervising the queue of devotees during the Darshan of 21 February 2016.
The present author was fortunate enough to receive Chum’s infinite love, affection and support since the time they met for the first time on 11 August 2010. The bond of mutual love which had developed over the years was indeed one of the greatest gifts of the Divine. She would lovingly call him ‘Teddy’. In her office there was a teddy-bear which adorned a long table near the door; the author would tell her often, pointing at the teddy: “That’s me, reminding you all the time about my existence.”
Chum would be the first person to greet the present author on his birthdays in the early hours of the day but as he would be asleep at that time, she would leave behind a message that she would call again later. And indeed when she rang up in the evening, her warm greetings would light up the heart with supreme delight. The talks which the present author had with her — be it at her office, or residence or over the telephone — would centre around the two loves of her life — the Mother and the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. When the author met her for the last time in November 2015 at her residence, she was on her bed; she looked quite frail as she had lost her appetite but the fighter-spirit in her eyes was intact. Having spent a delightful hour in her loving company the author took leave of her. It was raining heavily on that day. Who knows, maybe Nature was crying as it would be the last meeting between both of them.
In spite of being physically very frail, Chum spent long hours in the Mother’s room supervising the cleaning of the Mother’s room and arrangement of flowers for the approaching Darshan of 21 February 2016. In spite of her busy schedule, she did not forget to send a greetings card to the present author who got married on the 17th of the same month. On the 21 February, she remained in the Mother’s room supervising the queue of devotees for almost throughout the day with a brief break during which she took only a sandwich. After the Darshan she retired to Desiree Home to convalesce.
On 6 May 2016, Chum turned seventy-seven. On the occasion of her birthday, the present author rang her up to convey his greetings. Both of them talked for quite some time. During the course of the conversation, she told the author: “I am going back home after three days.” The author felt that perhaps her health had improved hence her physicians have allowed her to return to her house. They continued to exchange text messages for the next two days. On 8 May at 6.34 a.m. Chum sent her last text message to the present author in which she wrote:
‘Good morning Teddy! The sweetest and happiest of smiles to open out a new and joyous day before you! The Mad Hatter.’
On 9 May 2016, in the evening, when dinner was served to Chum, she said: “I don’t want to eat now. I’ll eat later.” One of her friends named Bela came to meet her. During the course of their conversation, Chum asked her: “Do you really love me?” Bela replied in the affirmative. But then she observed that Chum was not responding and her head went sideways. The nurses were called. They found that her blood pressure was dropping drastically. At 7.30 p.m. she breathed her last.
On 6 May Chum had told the present author that she would be leaving for her home after three days. Exactly after three days, she left — for her real home — the lap of the Mother.
6 May 2019 is Chum’s eightieth birthday. She would have turned ‘eighty years young’ if she had not left for her real home. But has she really left? No, never. She is here, with us, all the time. She would only leave if her beloved ones stop loving her. And has anyone stopped loving her despite her absence from this physical world? No. So, Chum continues to live and smile in our love for her.
Photographs courtesy: Shri Ranganath Raghavan, Ms. Tara Jauhar and Shri Anurag Banerjee.