|Birendrasaday Dutt||Born: 1909-01-13|
|Father: Gurusaday Dutt||Mother: Saroj Nalini Dutt|
|Children: Devsaday Dutt|
A barrister and ICS, he attended St Andrews College, Waybridge from 1927-1929 and later Emmanuel College, Cambridge, from 1929-1933. After his father’s death, he helped secure his father’s legacy by establishing the Gurusaday Dutt Museum to house and make available his father’s spectacular collection of Bengali Art and cultural artifacts, most of which remain the only record of what Bengal used to be like.
Birendrasaday had been a member of the Second Royal Lancers. He had been posted in Libya. In 1941, when his father became gravely ill, he was excused from military service and returned to India.
Birendrasaday was also a Freemason – a member of the Good Fellowship Lodge in Kolkata, India.
Devsaday Dutt on his father, Birendrasaday Dutt:
I was taught to refer to my father as “Daddy”.
He was born on 13th January, 1909, to Gurusaday Dutt, ICS (members of the Indian Civil Service) and his wife Saroj Nalini at the Commissioner’s Bungalow in Chinsurah, near Kolkata, as his maternal grandfather, Brojendranath.De, ICS was then the Commissioner, Hooghly Division.
It is after living for over 60 years that I realize how much I loved Daddy, not just because he was my father, but as a human being. I continue to adore him. I intend to go beyond recollections to be able to truly explore my thoughts about Daddy. Recollections, after all, are a series of facts, of events that had taken as one can best remember. They get coloured by one’s fondness as well as one’s prejudices.
Daddy was born at a time when King Edward VII was King of Great Britain and India was very much the Jewel of the British Empire. Kolkata (Calcutta) was Capital of British India. From Daddy I gathered that my grandfather was very westernized (not so my grandmother) and believed in the principle of “children should be seen and not heard”.Daddy also believed this – so I spent more time with the servants than with my parents as a child. But Daddy did encourage me to take a keen interest in games and took me to see the local football derby (East Bengal v Mohun Bagan) every year, where he lustily cheered East Bengal of course(we being from Sylhet District, now in Bangladesh).
Daddy’s recollections of British India were fascinating. It was an age that had already passed on – it was so different!! His recollections of his mother, Saroj Nalini, were very loving. She seemed to be an ideal human being in every way. Listening to Daddy, I realized not meeting her(she died in 1925, long before I was born), was indeed a great loss for me. She was a “good” person – cared for everyone who touched her life, very affectionate by nature, and worried about everybody else’s problems. She was only 37 when she died (Daddy was only 16 then). Her death left a great impact on both my grandfather and my father. My grandfather shed his westernised image, went back to his roots and did a lot to revive the folk art and dances of Bengal. He started writing extensively, and started the Bratachari Movement. But that is another story.
Daddy found it difficult to adjust to his father after he returned from England in 1934. He had left a westernized father before he went to school in England and then to Cambridge. He saw his father very occasionally during his years in England. When he returned, he was very surprised to see his Baba wearing a dhoti and spending all his evenings reading and writing. But the lifestyle of the house had not changed. After all, the servants had all worked for us for many years already.
Daddy was a firm believer of the Brahmo Samaj. Brahmo ideals of being truthful, being selfless, doing the “right thing” were deeply embedded in his psyche. I recollect having a discussion with him just before I went to England for higher studies, when he explained why it was important to be a “Good” man rather than just a “Great” man. The nicest combination was to be both good and great. But being “great” without being “good” was, in his words “no good at all”. Many times in my life, I have reflected on what Daddyhad said to me in the verandah of our house just before sunset – and every time I realized how true it was.
I grew closer to him, specially after moving to England. We would correspond frequently and share ideas. I had written to him about what an English Professor had told me. He had said “Religion should be like one’s toothbrush – you need it everyday but it is personal – you don’t discuss it with others”. I felt such a philosophy would solve many of the World’s problems. Daddy heartily agreed and was very happy. He wrote saying “now I feel that I have been able to bring you up properly”. It was the greatest compliment I have received from him in my life.
Life in our house was so different in my childhood. My grandfather being a member of the Indian Civil Service and a Brahmo, the lifestyle of our house was very similar to those of other Brahmo Civil Servants of the time. Daddy continued the lifestyle that was prevalent in my grandfather’s lifetime, after my grandfather had passed away.
Our house was full of servants when I was a child. They were all male. There were 24 servants’ quarters in our house. All the servants had titles(that described the work they did) like Abdar (something equivalent to the English Butler), Bearers (who looked after the linen and were at our beck-and-call), Bawarchi (Cook, who was a Mog, a Buddhist clan from Chittagong), Khansama (the Cook’s assistant), Khidmatgars (Cook’s helpers who would prepare the spices for cooking and buy vegetables from the market – not the meat and fish – the Cook insisted on buying that himself)), Masalchis (Dish washing staff), Jamadars (Sweepers), Malis (Gardeners), Durwans (Security guards) and the Driver (Chauffeur, who left after Daddy sold my grandfather’s Chrysler – it was “too grand” for Daddy’s liking). We even had a live-in Tailor (whose main job was to provide the uniforms for the servants), a Goala (Milkman – as we had cows in the house), a Dhobi (who washed everyone’s clothes) and I believe even a Barber (who had gone before I grew up). All searches for any servants, either new or replacements for those who went on leave, were made by the Abdar. The person would then be brought for an interview before Daddy who would then appoint him. Most of our servants in my grandfather’s time were Muslims except for the Malis and the Durwans. The Abdar was Abdul who died when I was a child. He was replaced by Gokul.
The work and “reporting relationships” amongst the servants were clearly defined. The Bawarchi was the master of the kitchen and the Khansama, the Khidmatgars and Masalchis reported to him. The Abdar would have to take permission of the Bawarchi to enter the kitchen. The Abdar, on the other hand, was in charge of every other servant. It is hard to believe in this day and age that the Abdar was in charge of all the cutlery and crockery, which included a lot of silver. I never heard of any theft in my youth. All the servants were so trustworthy.
The interesting point to remember was that Daddy called all his servants by their names, never by their titles. A title was referred to only to distinguish between servants who had the same name. So we had “Jatin Bawarchi” and “Jatin Mali”, for instance. He insisted that I follow his example. Daddy’s elders were often critical of this as they felt it was “not good to be familiar with servants”. But Daddy never changed.
Daddy was deeply concerned about servant’s health. He would personally call for the family doctor, and would take a servant to the hospital himself. His concern was genuine. That is probably why so few servants ever left Daddy’s employment. Very few were ever sacked, very few ever left. Most of them died in the house – some went “home” to die. These were always very sad days, as we were like a large family.
Daddy laid a lot of emphasis on discipline. Our home ran like a clock. Even the dogs knew all the timings. Daddy was up by 5 am. He would pray quietly in his bedroom, then at 5.30 a.m. let the dogs out and open the doors for the servants. The newspapers arrived early in those days and he would be in the Morning Room (where he had his morning tea and read the newspapers) by 6am, after checking that I was up and studying. Breakfast was in the Morning Room at 8.30 am. “Elevenses” comprising of pastries, sandwiches and cheese straws were served in the Parlour(upstairs Drawing Room) at 11am on days on which my mother would invite her friends for coffee, Lunch was at 1.30pm and Dinner at 9pm (unless my parents were invited out). The Bearers would be ready to serve the food behind the latticed wooden partition (a lovely object made of Mahogany from our house in Sylhet) that stood between the Pantry and the Dining Room. The dining table had to be properly laid, and it was the Abdar’s responsibility to see to it. The Dinner Gong would start to sound a minute before each meal, starting gently, gradually building up and ending with a loud bang to signify the top of the hour. This was the Abdar’s job.
Gradually, with time, the number of servants reduced. Most of them were not replaced when they died. The servants’ quarters in our house gradually became more of a godown. The World was changing. In the early Sixties, there was a major change in our house. My grandfather’s Art Collection moved to the Gurusaday Museum at Bratacharigram, Thakurpukur which was then outside Calcutta. Many of his rare books on Art also went to the Museum. Daddy then gifted a lot of my grandfather’s books to various public libraries. Suddenly the house had lot of empty space. So Daddy decided to rent out the ground floor to a Scotsman named Walter Paris, who was a bachelor and worked for the Bengal Chamber of Commerce. Then there was no Morning Room, no Study (although Daddy did convert one of the bedrooms upstairs to a Study) and no formal Drawing Room (so the Parlour upstairs where my mother held her meetings and parties) became the Drawing Room.
Daddy was actually very happy about all these changes, as he was essentially a simple man. Our ancestors for many generations were Vaishnavs, so I suppose the philosophical bent of mind of the Vaishnavs had somehow permeated down to Daddy. He did not mention this, but this is my guess.
He was not attracted to things material. He had very few clothes of his own – he never bought any himself and did not believe in having more than what he considered necessary. Often, he would present his clothes to some servant. It was only after he died that my mother appointed women as servants in the house. I had married a few months before Daddy died, and was posted in Agra not long after I returned to India – living away from home.
It is as a teenager that I got to know Daddy. He never preached to me. But his example was what I saw and now value. He used to say, “Life is too short, and that we should be grateful to God for what He has given us”. His philosophy was “just because one owns a garden full of trees with fruits does not mean one has to eat them all”. He never installed any air-conditioners in the house in his lifetime. They were installed later, after his death.
As a teenager, I remember asking Daddy whether we were rich. Obviously someone at school had said so. Daddy looked at me and said “we were warm”. I wondered what that meant, so I asked him. He went to the Library, fished out John Galsworthy’s “Forsyte Saga” and said “read this”. Yes it described what a “warm man” was – someone who was comfortable in life but not vulgarly opulent.
Daddy detested “positions”, hated the political aspect of man, and hence was reticent about joining Committees, Boards, etc or becoming President, Secretary etc. He used to say that one can help others without being labeled. And he did help numerous individuals, quietly and anonymously.
Daddy was very punctual, and hated people being late. This habit helped me a lot in my later life.
Daddy hated gossiping. He felt that was what women did (male chauvinism, I suppose) – but I never heard a word against anyone from him.
We had certain rules of the house. One was, there was no discussion about money at the dining table. One could talk about Economics at the macro-level – but no further. The other was, there was no discussion about Politics or Religion during meal-times. Apparently, such discussions affected one’s digestive system. I am not a medical man and have never checked out the veracity of these views. In my time, children just accepted what their parents told them.
Being called to his Study, which was next to the huge Library Room containing my grandfather’s books, was generally bad news. Thanks to the system of having Weekly Report Cards that my school (St Xavier’s) had, I was often hauled up there, and on occasions corporal punishment was meted out.
Many thought Daddy was “putting it on” when he said he could not eat with his hands (he did occasionally, specially at weddings – but he was uncomfortable doing so). But he encouraged me to learn to eat with my hands (using only the thumb and three fingers of the right hand), which I did at my maternal grandmother’s house. Daddy could not eat fish with many bones in them – so, although I love Hilsa fish, Daddy could not eat it. Some of the dishes he liked, I hated – like Pishpash for instance (a stodgy stew is the best description I can think of). We had Indian food for lunch and Continental food at dinner. Our Bawarchi was a great Continental cook (all Mogs are) and was an equally bad Indian cook. So the Indian cooking was done by the Khansama, a muslim and very good at his job.
Daddy taught me to wear a dhoti, the Bratachari way. In fact, I don’t know how to wear it any other way.
After graduating, I had expressed a desire to join the Indian Administrative Service. It was Daddy who dissuaded me, saying that the World had changed and that I should be equipped to understand and handle finance (something he was not good at). So I went on to becoming a Chartered Accountant in the UK. When I had the opportunity to go to Oxford, Daddy was very disappointed – as again I was breaking family tradition by not going to Cambridge. I explained to him that it was the firm’s prerogative and that I was lucky to have been one of only six that were selected. He realized it but said he was just getting old.
I had wanted Daddy to come out to England while I was there. But he did not want to. He said he had fond memories of his beloved “Emma” as Emmanuel College, Cambridge is referred to colloquially. I realized the truth in what he meant years later, when I visited my College and felt everything was “different”. The only time he wrote to me “I wish I was there” was when I wrote to him from Paris, where I was posted for a short while. He described Paris so well that I visited many of the places he mentioned. He had written “go to the Basilica of Sacre Coeur in Montmartre on 14th July(Bastille Day) and I will be there in spirit with you”. I did. It was wonderful.
He loved my letters I had written from Jamaica, Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador and many other countries that I visited during the course of my work in the UK. He preserved them. He used to say “tell me about the people there – descriptions I can read in books”.
I had a choice of staying on in England after completing my studies. I was afraid to broach the subject to Daddy. But I was really surprised by his thinking. When I came on a holiday to India in 1972, Daddy said “we must learn to move on in life – nothing ever remains the same, so don’t cling to the past.” He went onto to explain how his father took a conscious decision to leave the zamindari in Sylhet and take up life as an ICS officer. He chose to live in Kolkata. Daddy said, “may be the day will come when you might want to live in another city in India, and one day you may want to live elsewhere in the world”. The concept of “Global Manager” or “Global citizen” was not prevalent then. But Daddy had the foresight to see what the world was heading towards.
Sadly, he died two years later, suddenly – without any fuss. He had had a massive heart attack. I then chose to return to India soon after. He was not there physically, but I wanted to be close to where his spirit was.
I am left now only with recollections and of thoughts of the man Daddy was. I consider myself fortunate to having been in close proximity to such a “good” man.