There were (and are) many inmates of Sri Aurobindo Ashram who worked tirelessly throughout their entire lifetime to serve Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. They never busied themselves with artistic activities but worked round the clock for work was their medium of practising the Integral Yoga. Such individuals were never very popular in the Ashram community, yet, their sincerity and dedication made them radiate like jewels.
One of such individuals was Padmanabhan Counouma.
Padmanabhan Counouma (17 November 1908—10 February 1991) was appointed a member of the Board of Trustees of Sri Aurobindo Ashram by the Mother on 21 September 1968. On 13 March 1969 she empowered him to act as Attorney and Legal Adviser of the Board and to sign, on behalf of it, all correspondence as well as execute its general business.
Amal Kiran alias K. D. Sethna wrote about P. Counouma in an obituary: “A man of wide culture, partly trained in France, a prominent figure for a time in Pondicherry’s administrative set-up, Counouma played his part excellently in all the spheres of his activity. He was no stickler after red tape and mostly let his sharp intelligence and humane sympathy cut through difficult situations but always took care to carry his fellow Trustees harmoniously and respectfully with him. Though no believer in conventions and ceremonies, he was deeply devoted to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. He offered all his means and properties to them and lived a simple life in service of them and their Ashram…[He was] a worthy worker in the cause of the New World of Spirituality which [the] Gurus have sought to build.”
Noted member of Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives and Research Department, Raman Reddy further adds about P. Counouma: “Counouma was not so well known in the Ashram circle but locally in Pondicherry he was very well-known, so well-known that he handled all the local affairs without anybody from the Ashram knowing about it. Judges, lawyers, politicians, all visited him with great respect and honour. He almost seemed an atheist when you tried to make him speak on spirituality but he had great devotion for the Mother which he expressed in rare moments with a unique sense of humour. Incidentally, he knew better French than Frenchmen. Those days the Pondicherry elite received French education. He was a Keralite from Mahe and educated in Pondicherry and France, where he did his law. He was Conservataire des Hyotheques (equivalent to the Registrar of the Registration Department with very different functions — the French system was much better than the English one) and was paid the next highest salary to the Governor of Pondicherry. He along with Lambert Saravane and Dr. Andre (previous owner of Gloria Farm) went into politics at the behest of the Mother in 1946-48 and withdrew from it when the local politics got very messy.”
An informative article on P. Counouma authored by Samyukta Reddy, who worked in Counouma’s office for around 20 years and took care of him until he passed away in 1991, has been published in the online forum of Overman Foundation.
With warm regards,
Counouma: A Personal Memoir
Counouma was a Malayali and came from Kerala. His father taught French to his mother so that they could speak French at home. When he was eleven his father sent him to stay with his friends in Pondicherry for schooling. He stayed back there for the rest of his life. That’s why many mistook him to be a Pondicherian. He always stood first in the class. His father died when he was 18 years old and financial constraints made him a school teacher for three months in Aryankuppam. Later he became a lecturer in Colway College and went to France to get his degree in law. He was still young when he held high positions in the Government. He was a collector and a judge in Karaikal. In Pondicherry he was acting mayor, revenue minister and held the lucrative post of the “Conservateur des Hypothèques” (Registration Officer) which made him the next highest paid officer in the government after the Governor. He held office in his own house. But he was not attached to money. He refused the French pension and took the Indian pension instead and even that he offered to the Mother. He used to take part in politics and the Mother even encouraged him to do so. He would joke, “Maybe Mother wanted a big local man in her pockets!”
His relations with the Ashram developed from 1935 onwards. The Mother saw him somewhere and told Amrita who was then manager of the Ashram, “I want to see that boy in white coat and black tie. Ask him what time is convenient for him.” Amrita used to go to him to take legal advice in Ashram matters. So when he went this time and told him that the Mother wanted to meet him, Counouma said, “How can I give a time to Mother? I’ll come immediately!” It was about 10.30 a.m. This time would be set aside by the Mother to meet him every day. When they met first the Mother shook hands with him and made him sit on a chair. When he went to Her the second time he pushed aside the chair and sat at Her feet and She blessed him. That was the beginning of his Ashram life. The Mother would give him a bouquet of double coloured roses every day.
One day when the Mother and Sri Aurobindo were giving Darshan, Counouma was fast asleep in his room. The Darshan was over and yet they seemed to wait for someone. The Mother remarked to a person near Her, “Hasn’t Counouma come?” The latter went and woke him up in his house. Counouma came running and panting for breath. The Mother and Sri Aurobindo laughed at him and everybody else there joined in the fun. He was very close to the Mother. Whenever he went out for Ashram work the Mother would wait for him until he came back.
He had to go once as a deputy to the French Parliament. The Mother permitted him and went to Sri Aurobindo to ask for His darshan. Sri Aurobindo said, “Has he not enough of name and position here that he has to go now abroad for it?” When the Mother told this to Counouma, he cancelled his trip and gave away even his newly made suit to the Ashram.
When Sri Aurobindo passed away, the Mother called him and told him that She wanted the Master’s Samadhi in the Ashram courtyard. He said that the permission had to come from France and that would take some time. The Mother repeated firmly, as if She had not heard what he had said, “I want the samadhi here!” Counouma immediately arranged for it with Governor Baron and got the permission later from France.
The Mother told him, “You were once Janaka and I was your daughter. I also was your mother once. Whenever I came to earth you were with me.”
In 1968 he was appointed a Trustee and in 1969 the Managing Trustee. Much of the Ashram property was bought through him. The Mother called him one day and told him that She wanted the Marrée Garden. By evening he had arranged for the purchase and went to the Tennis Ground to inform Her. On seeing him She stopped playing tennis and was very happy to hear the news. That was the way he worked, always saying “Yes” to whatever the Mother told him to do.
He was never in good health. Dr. Nripen once tested him and found high sugar in his blood. When the Mother knew about it, She said, “You cannot have high sugar. How can they say that? Go and test yourself outside.” When he had himself tested again there was no sugar at all. The Mother was very pleased with the report.
I joined Counouma’s office as a typist in 1970. After seeing me the Mother told him, “She will be very very useful to you.” He was then my boss. I was afraid of even speaking to him. Typing errors were not tolerated. I had to be always on time in the office. All the other offices closed on Sunday except ours. He would sit from 7 a.m. and attend to the problems of all who came there. He would listen patiently to each one and then speak. Even if somebody shouted at him in anger he would remain unperturbed and calmly give them an appropriate answer.
About two months before the Mother passed away, She called him and tied two or three garlands of Patience flowers on his wrist. She told him, “You know why I am tying this on you? This is not ordinary patience. It is My Patience! I am giving you My Patience!”
The Mother gave him more and more work from 1971 and his responsibilities increased day by day. He was consulted for even matters in Auroville.
One day something interesting happened. It was about four o’clock and he had some urgent work in a government office. I gave him tea and was just handing over his bunch of keys when it slipped and fell down. It simply disappeared! It was closing time so he told me to look for it and went away. He finished his work and came back and I hadn’t still found it. He told the servant to sweep the floor of the adjoining room. The keys were below the almirah of that room! “How could that be?” I thought with surprise mingled with fear. When he went the next day and reported it to the Mother, She said, “It is the mischief of small beings who want to disturb your work. Sri Aurobindo intervened and saw that you got back your keys. You have to be always alert in my work.”
Another incident. This happened after the Mother’s passing away. I used to go to him at five o’clock in the morning and give him breakfast. I tidied up his bed and folded the mosquito net and found his shawl very dirty. I thought of washing it but as I was afraid to ask him about it, I only prayed to the Mother and kept quiet. The next day I found another shawl there! I went and asked whether he had bought another shawl. A little displeased he said, “Why do you ask me that question? Somebody else also asked me the same question yesterday evening.” The next day I found the same old shawl again, this time nicely washed and folded! The new one was no more there! On asking him he said coolly, “The Supreme has washed my shawl!” Many such extraordinary things happened in his house.
After he bought his house, the Mother came and said, “It is really like a minister’s house!” He never hid anything from the Mother. When he was a minister he would always inform Her whenever he had any guests and She would personally select the food and the wine which had to be served to them.
The Mother gave a photograph of Hers to his office. She said to him, “Keep this in your office. Whenever you are in difficulties, turn this photo towards the person sitting in front of you so that he can see it. I will do the rest!”
On the 22nd of February 1982 Counouma fell down in the Ashram courtyard and fractured his leg. He had to be operated on and a doctor was specially called from Calcutta. Everybody said that an operation was necessary. Only Nolinida didn’t approve of it. When the doctor came Counouma had high fever and the operation was postponed. Instead the doctor made him take fruit juices and meat soup. His diet had been very meagre before. It was as if he had been living on the Mother’s Grace. His health deteriorated. Sri Aurobindo appeared to him in a vision and granted him further life. The fracture joined without an operation and his leg became all right. From then my typing work decreased and I was busy all day giving him medicines and fruit juices. When I gave him food he would say, “Matru hastena bhojanam!”
In 1988 he was in a critical condition. Doctor Datta said always, “Only a miracle can save him! We cannot do anything!” At that time I saw a dream. Counouma was standing near the Samadhi. I and few others were also there. From inside the Samadhi the Mother spoke firmly, “Counouma, you have to live a little longer!” Counouma responded immediately, “Yes, Mother!” When I went and told him about this, he said, “It’s not just a dream; it’s a vision. Whenever Mother would ask me something, I said, ‘Yes, Mother’!” He got then a new lease of life for two years.
The last three months of that period he was not keeping well. He would always call me, “Amma! Amma!” like a small child. I could hardly go anywhere else. In spite of his extreme weakness, he worked to the last. Finally like Bhishma waiting for the equinox on his bed of arrows, he died after three days of intense suffering on the “ekadashi” of 10.2.91. He gave me the love of a son to his mother.
Somebody saw in a vision the Mother taking him up with both Her arms. Two days later I similarly saw him well dressed and sitting at the Mother’s feet. He had lived calmly without any binding attachments or relationships.
It is significant that Counouma’s birthday was on the same day as that of the Mother’s passing away, the 17th of November, and the twelfth day after his death coincided with the Mother’s birthday, the 21st of February.
Whatever I have recounted here is true, i.e., as witnessed by me or related to me by Counouma himself. There is nothing imaginary. I finish here with my pranams to the Mother and Sri Aurobindo.
The Mother with Dyuman, Rasendran and Counouma on 25 October 1954
The Mother (putting her signature on the first day cover on Sri Aurobindo’s Birth Centenary) with P. Counouma and Noren Singh Nahar
(From left to right) Vishwanath, Udar Pinto, Counouma, Ranganath Raghavan, Himanshu Niyogi, Dyuman and Chinu at the Foundation Stone Laying Ceremony for the extension of Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press in 1980
Photographs courtesy: Ms. Gauri Pinto and Ms. Tara Jauhar.
5 Replies to “Counouma: A Personal Memoir by Samyukta Reddy”
Thanks, Samyukta, for bringing back the memory of another soul, dedicated to the Mother, mandated by the Mother.
The person standing between Udar and Counouma is Kalyan Chaudhuri.
Letters to Surendra Mohan Ghosh
I had wired that I would write a letter of explanation, but I have been unable to do so because we could get no definite information on the points I have mentioned, not even the question of the alleged refusal to send the money order. It is now suggested that it may have been only a doubt due possibly to a mistaken impression that French territory in India was like France and other French territories a hard currency area subject to restrictions in this matter because of the difficulties created by the dollar exchange. But French India has been declared a soft currency area where the exchange is in rupees and in pounds; so this difficulty cannot arise. Up to now money orders are still coming in.
As to the food question, it is now stated that vegetables and fruit from Bangalore will be allowed to come in without hindrance and other food commodities which come under the mischief of the Customs will also be allowed subject to the taking out of a permit by the merchants. The rumour of prohibition was due to a panic among the merchants both of the Union and Pondicherry caused by the creation of the Customs line which comes into operation from today and the additional rumour of drastic measures to be taken to bring pressure on French India to join the Union. If things go well, there may be a difficulty of high prices but nothing worse.
At the same time there are signs of tension and we do not know what may develop from these. For instance, it is said that booking of goods of Pondicherry has been stopped on the Railway except for newspaper packages and perishable goods; equally it has been stated that the French authorities are forbidden a transit of local goods out of French India into the Union and have created a post to prevent their passage. That is all for the present. I suppose we shall get some clearer indications once the Customs are in vigour.
I shall write afterwards about our own threatened difficulties in French India itself, if they develop. But we badly need some reliable information as to what is likely to be the fate of French India. On the one side the French India municipalities have fixed December for the proposed referendum. If there is a referendum, the voting will go by the usual methods and the result will be whatever the local Government here dictates and not a genuine plebiscite; there would be no chance of an accession to the Indian Union or a merger unless Goubert and Co would make, as they once tried, a bargain with the Government in Madras or in Delhi. On the other hand, it has been broadly hinted that there will be no plebiscite and the fate of French India will be determined by direct negotiations between the Governments in Paris and in Delhi. But when? We were once informed that it would be in April or June after the return of Baron as High Commissioner but the politicians here are resolute not to allow the return of Baron because he will [be] under the influence of the Ashram—just as Saravane, Counouma, Andre etc. are to be kept out of all positions of authority for the same reason and because they are supposed to be in favour of accession to the Indian Union.
1 April 1949
There’s a strange inconsistency here.
“The Mother told him, “You were once Janaka and I was your daughter. I also was your mother once. Whenever I came to earth you were with me.”
ln the Record of Yoga Sri Aurobindo says:
“D [Durai] Swami
Francois I. Chandragupta. Janaka.”
from Shyam sundar jhunjhunwala’s-” Down Memory lane”
Padmanabha Counouma, hailing from Kerala, was a resident of Pondicherry for years before he joined the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. He rose to be the Managing Trustee of the Ashram and died on that chair in 1991 at the age of 82 after a prolonged illness.
He was a scholar of French law that prevailed in Pondicherry in those times. He served as an officer of the Government of Pondicherry, holding the post of the Registrar of Documents. Also a politician, he was a member of the Pondicherry Assembly for some period.
Counouma was a firm believer in the principle that everyone has a right of being heard. He was always ready to hear all the parties on any issue, even in matters on which he had already made up his mind. Sometimes he narrated to me his experience in the Assembly when he was a lone independent member. The different party speakers had spoken on the subject of the ongoing debate and the matter was going to be treated as closed when he wanted to speak. Of what use it would be for him to speak when he had no supporter ? But he solicited their indulgence in hearing him all the same and he was allowed to express his views. Well, one of his suggestions was accepted.
When the Tamilnadu Agricultural Land Ceiling Bill was referred to a Select Committee, the Select Committee was touring the State to elicit public opinion and giving personal hearing. Counouma and I went together to Cuddalore to appear before the Select Committee for both the Ashram and Auroville would be affected by the provisions of the Bill.
Later, it was thought advisable to meet the Chief Minister at Madras. The matter was reaching its final stage and after asking Mother, both of us went together to Madras.
After finishing the work at the Secretariat, we took our lunch at the house of a relative of Counouma’s who had already been informed of the visit. He had gone to Madras after many years
and the host family was quite excited.. It was a sight to see. Counouma asked them to treat me as his brother, and he himself looked after me there as a guardian would take care of his young ward.
I should mention here that the exemption we wanted in the Agricultural Land Ceiling Bill for institutions like ours was claimed by other institutions in general in the State and it was provided in the statute. Both the Ashram and Auroville got the benefit of the exemption for the existing holdings. As Auroville had to acquire more lands for which permission had to be obtained from the Government of Tamilnadu, I went to Madras later to see the Chief Minister Karunanidhi with our request. He had already visited Auroville earlier and readily agreed to give an ad hoc exemption for 500 acres to start with. He dictated the order on the spot.
When the Society- Auroville trouble started, Counouma took active part in it. He obtained a certificate from Nolini about himself to the effect that he was the wisest, sanest and most impartial man and that his advice should be listened to. In a meeting at Auroville when a resident of Auroville, Bernard, raised the objection that the man appointed by Mother should be listened to and not the one appointed by a man like Nolini, I asked him not to speak derogatorily of Nolini. The result was that then those who found it convenient to supersede Mother’s direction by Nolini’s, increased in number and a sordid drama ensued in which I got beaten from all sides. Of course, Nolini and Counouma also were thrown away by their, new admirers after their self-interest was served.
Counouma, the astute politician, however succeeded in keeping the Ashram organisation intact in spite of the attacks of the Gang of Four, so to say. But he did so at the heavy cost of Auroville and Sri Aurobindo Society. He knew what he was doing. In later years when one could ruminate over the past, he sometimes expressed his doubts about the correctness of what he had done. It was too late then and the only reply I gave him was that he had saved the Ashram structure.
In those days there were heavy differences of opinion between Counouma and me. With his authority as the Managing Trustee of the Ashram and his shrewd manipulations, he could
in most of the cases have the upper hand over me, but I never yielded to him on any principle and we found ourselves opposing each other for long. But I don’t think we ever stopped speaking to each other or felt like enemies. There, it was a great quality of his, very often absent among our fellow-Ashramites, that he could maintain speaking relationship with those with whom he differed.
His capacity of objective analysis and viewing was also remarkable, though his political sense would take the driver’s seat and mostly he left himself in the driver’s hands. I witnessed him on a good number of occasions going back on his right discernment and words without blinking his eyes.
To give an instance. relates to the time when he had a major say in the Sri Aurobindo Society and used to attend the meetings of its Executive Committee as a special invitee. Just before the meeting, on the corridor, he assured me that a resolution would be passed to the effect that no more cut will be made from the donations received by the Society earmarked for the Matrimandir. A few minutes later, in the meeting he started dictating the resolution that 50% will be cut and paid later in indefinite future. The only concession he made was that my objection was recorded.
I may give one more instance, a bit long though. One morning he requested me to go to Auroville to quieten a group of residents there who were planning some disorderly acts against Navajata. He also added that I would not be able to return in time for the scheduled meeting of the Executive Committee of the Society and that as he would be attending that meeting he would take care of the matters there. In that meeting a resolution was passed stripping me of all my work given by Mother and vesting it in the person dislodged by Mother in 1971.
The resolution was passed unanimously by the whole Executive Committee which had two of the Ashram Trustees also as its members. The subject had not even been put on the agenda of the meeting sent to me. Counouma had attended that meeting and as a part of the plan he had packed me off to Auroville on his mission and on my return when I reported to him about the good meeting I had there, he complimented me and kept the
fact of the resolution a secret. I came to know of the resolution a day or two later when my daughter Manju received it with a shock and phoned me at my office at Auroville.
Counouma had the capacity to pretend that he was not a party to it and even said that it should not have been passed. Santosh Chakravarti, who had settled down at the Ashram after retirement as a Judge of the Calcutta High Court, had drafted the resolution in consultation with Counouma, felt repentant afterwards for his role in it. I consoled him saying that if not he, someone else would have given the legal aid to them in the matter and that the wheels of destiny would have taken their own course anyway. He agreed with me that the resolution was invalid in law as it was a capricious and mala fide act, and that it would have been set aside by the Calcutta High Court if I had chosen to approach the Court. He felt more sorry for the fact that the Resolution went against Mother’s direction.
On the other hand, even years later, when Carlo Schuller spoke to Counouma about it, he affirmed that it was a wrong thing, but he refused to tell the Society to rescind the Resolution. Nor was Nolini willing to move in the matter.
In the late seventies the Income Tax Department was reopening cases of charitable trusts, particularly of those engaged in commercial activities. As I was personally attending to the Income Tax matters of the Trusts’in which I was an office-bearer, I became aware of the proceedings in the pipeline against the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. The Assessing Officer confided to me that the matter was being taken lightly by the Ashram representative and advised me to do the needful in the matter. The good-hearted officer hinted that he was under pressure as there were anti-Ashram reports and quick action was needed. He did not know that I myself was a persona non grata in the eyes of the Ashram establishment, nor could I make of it an excuse before him. I talked to Counouma, and as he was with the toppers in the establishment against me, I suggested that I had discharged my duty by informing him of the situation and that he should do the needful. He thought for a while and showed his capacity of taking objective decisions for the sake of work. He decided that both of us will handle the matter together and asked me to fix an appointment with the officer.
When we were to go to the Income Tax Office, Counouma arranged to pick me up from my residence for he did not want both of us to be seen together by another Trustee colleague of his living nearby. Well, we represented the Ashram before the Income Tax Officer to his satisfaction and sent him the needed clarifications. That trouble ended.
Next morning, Dyuman was emotional in telling me, “We all are Mother’s children. Let us forget the past. We work together.” It was a short-lived emotion.
Counouma, in later years, showed considerable affection for me and was also interested in my personal welfare. In 1981, he came to see me at the Ashram Nursing Home where I was lying in bad condition. He felt genuinely concerned and wished me to recover soon, saying, “There are many more wishing you recovery.”
Later, when I continued to suffer at home after leaving the Nursing Home, he visited me there, advised me to switch over to another doctor and when we decided to consult Dr. Chaudhari, an eminent surgeon at the JIPMER Hospital, he gave a letter of introduction for him. The doctor used his discretionary power to visit me at home as I was in great pain and decided to make a puncture in the infected part then itself to take the pus out and give me immediate relief. Counouma sat outside the room while the surgoen was at work and left only after that. When I was admitted to the JIPMER Hospital for the final surgery, he went to the house of Dr. Chaudhari and requested him to take good care of me. It was something very unusual for him to do and I felt touched and grateful to him for it.
The surgeon himself wanted to know more about me in the context of Counouma’s concern and assured me of his attention and added with humour that the second reason of his special attention was the fact that the name of his wife was the same as that of my daughter, Manju. One day, when out of boredom in the post-surgery period, I went to the Ashram for an hour’s change of air in the car, using the back door of my room and a subsidiary gate of the Hospital Campus, the doctor’s wife noticed me from their house on the way and reported it to her husband. She also had started taking care of me.
Counouma never claimed to have spiritual experiences and
was completely free from hypocrisy, a disease from which many suffer. He always worked in the interest of the Ashram as he saw it.
One of the several things I learned from him was that one should retrace one’s steps on discovering one’s mistake. He would at times confess also.
We had our moments of humour as well. About the special patronage extended to some persons in the Ashram, sometimes Counouma would say, “Well, Mother was an Empress and she had her favourites.”
In his lifetime his was a familiar figure in the Ashram surroundings. Frail bodied, dressed in a clean white lungi, a long sleeved kurta and a white
on his shoulders, he came to the Ashram at fixed hours walking from his house nearby. I see him like that.
Counouma had given a talk in school on republic day in french, later repeated verbatim by Jugalda in english later, about Mother’s advice to youngsters in french India about how to get independence from the french…