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Profiles in Greatness: Sudhir Kumar Sarkar

sudhir kumar sarkar

There are men and men; qualities differ.  We have little men in plenty even though famous and powerful.  Such little men who become ‘great’ in appearance cause us greater despondency than the ordinary little men would do.  For, looking at the ‘great’ little men, we doubt the legitimacy of greatness itself.  But true greatness has very little to do with fame or power.  We can experience the values of greatness when we come in contact with the truly great.

The author had personally known the two great men who are the subjects of this article (the previous issue carried the first installment on Nolini Kanta Gupta).  In order to appreciate their courage and convictions, we have to re-live, at least to an extent, the spirit of their time.  In the revolutionary phase of their life the target of their attack was the most formidable empire in the history of all times, not a crowd of helpless and innocent people.  Their involvement in violence is not to be confused with the kind of violence perpetrated by stooges, cowards, fanatics and fools.  These men were greater than their deeds, a truth which grows clear when we look at their lives in their entirety.

“One of the bravest and most fearless sons of the Motherland!”  This is how Nolini Kanta Gupta described Sudhir Kumar Sarkar.  Their friendship can be likened to that between Damon and Pythias—incredible for many today.  Once there was an identification parade; two ‘witness’ brought by the police, were required to point out Nolini Kanta to a magistrate while Nolini Kanta stood among the others, also accused in the Alipore Conspiracy Case.

“Look straight at them as they pass by you.  For the rest, leave it to me,” Sudhir whispered to Nolini who was in the front row.

Nolini did as advised, but behind him, Sudhir feigned terrible nervousness, looking fidgety.  The witnesses, who were the ones to be really nervous, enthusiastically pointed their fingers at Sudhir and exclaimed, “There, there he is!”

Not only all the under-trial prisoners, but also the officers including the magistrate burst out laughing.  But the magistrate understood Sudhir’s trick and was surely not pleased  with him.

Born in Faridpur (now in Bangladesh) on the 21st of February 1889, son of a poular medical practitioner, Sudhir Kumar joined the National College, Calcutta, of which Sri Aurobindo was the principal.

Bengal, threatened with the proposed partition, was plunged in a turmoil in 1905.  The already growing revolutionary spirit among the young received a boost.  Sudhir Kumar, in his late teens, joined the group of Barindra Kumar Ghose, Hemachandra Das,  Ullaskar Dutt, Prafulla Chaki, Khudiram, Kanai and others.  After successfully participating in some daring missions planned by the group, Sudhir Kumar was priviledged to live with Sri Aurobindo, to serve him in whatever way he could.  This was a reward which proved invaluable to him.  In the presence of Sri Aurobindo Sudhir Kumar would feel awe-struck, but the Master would not let him feel so.  The detachment and humility with which Sri Aurobindo spontaneously conducted himself, charmed the young Sudhir.  One day, in an introduction to somebody, Sri Aurobindo referred to Sudhir Kumar as his ‘friend’.

“How can I be your friend, sir—you being infinitely superior to me in learning and wisdom?” protested Sudhir.  “We are friends because we believe in the same ideal, ” was Sri Aurobindo’s calm explanation.

Sri Aurobindo was translating the Mahabharata into English, straight on his type writer, several sheets with neatly typewritten verses had collected on the floor. Sudhir Kumar, suffering from high fever, was lying nearby.  Suddenly he vomited—and the typescripts were flooded with his spew.  Sudhir Kumar recollects: “Sri Aurobindo’s serene face did not betray any sign of dismay; neither did he come hurrying to save his manuscript. Slowly he rose and himself began cleaning up the mess. I felt mortified. I felt terribly embarrassed and at the same time overwhelmed by profound gratitude. Never had I experienced such love and kindness. At least I expected to hear some exclamation like ‘Oh, how he has spoilt all my endeavour!’. But, no, nothing came out of him, there was no sign of perturbance on his face!.”

Sudhir Kumar was arrested in May 1908 in the celebrated Alipore Conspiracy Case and was sentenced to life-imprisonment in the Andamans along with 19 others.  During the year in Alipore jail as an undertrial prisoner, he took great care of Sri Aurobindo, bathing him and feeding him, for Sri Aurobindo often remained in a state of trance.  On the eve of his deportation, he managed to ask Sri Aurobindo, “What should I do if my morale breaks? ” “Think of me; I shall be always with you,” assured Sri Aurobindo.

While this secret enabled Sudhir Kumar to bear with untold and inhuman torture to which he was subjected at the infamous Cellular Jail, it is of profound significance, for while Sri Aurobindo was the uncrowned king of the people according to Barrister Norton trying to secure punishment for him, he had not been looked upon as a Guru or a spiritual personality.  Sudhir Kumar must have been a genuine devotee even then, perhaps unknown to himself, to deserve such a counsel from his Master.

Sudhir Kumar was set free seven years later. Hard labour in the Andamans and brutal treatment (their hands would be chained to clumps fixed on the cell walls at such height that their feet would hardly touch the ground – and they were left like that for days and nights) for the slightest disobedience and incarceration in most unhygenic jails in the mainland had reduced him to a skeleton, but had not affected his spirit.  He was a dreaded young man in the eyes of the authorities; the public played safe by avoiding him. Undaunted, Sudhir Kumar employed a bit of his adventurous spirit in the fields of explorations and innovation.  Meanwhile he had married Suniti Devi.  With this ideal partner he moved into the forests of Assam and began his business with extracting catechu from accacia trees.    Through all this he maintained his contact with the freedom fighters and secretly collaborated with them in a number of schemes.

At last, in 1938 he came over to Sri Aurobindo Ashram at Pondicherry and led the life of a Karmayogi.  All those who had come in contact with him would readily agree with the observation of Jayaprakash Narayan, who visited Sudhir Kumar when the latter was in a coma: “a lion among men”.

He passed away on the 27th of April 1974.  He was eighty five, but till the time he entered a coma preparatory to his departure, he exemplified the truth that it is possible to be a visionary, a strong believer in man’s ultimate divine destiny, despite going through the experiences of man’s inhumanity.