–Jishnu Dev Varma
My father was an easy going man, who took the ups and downs of his life in his stride. Despite of all the upheavals he faced, he retained that childish glint in his eyes; as he spoke of his younger days. Thus, he never lost the innocence that lay at the core of his heart, which found an expression in his affection and resonated in his laughter. Many remembered him as a person who left behind a story wherever he went. He was affectionately named Noni Gopal by his grandmother. His ‘formal’ name Ramendra Kishore Dev Varma was lost in his informality. He was popularly known as Noni Karta (Karta a term used for those closely related to the Maharaja).
He was the elder son of Prince Brajendra Kishore and Rani Lilavati Devi , princess of Dholpur from distant Rajasthan. I was quite amazed whenever she spoke in Kokborok, the language of our indigenous people with such fluency. Later, her daughters (my aunts) Uttara Devi and Nirupama Devi became Kokborok news readers in All India Radio Kolkata, in those days it was relayed from there to Tripura.
From what my grandmother told me; my father was thoroughly spoilt by his grandma the elderly widowed Maharani of Maharaja Radha Kishore Manikya.
Everyday at lunch when my father refused to eat, the royal band along with elephants turned up to entertain him only then he yielded. One day his father came back home early from office- he was then the Prime Minister of Tripura State. Seeing what was happening in his absence, he went up to his son and whacked him on the backside with a book he was holding. Seeing this the old Maharani landed a tight slap on the prime minster’s cheek. My grandfather did not say a word after the slap from his mother but after a few days packed off his son to Santiniketan. My father studied there for quite sometime but the British Government objected in case he joined the swadeshi movement, so he was packed off to Mayo College, Ajmere in Rajasthan, an institution created for the royalty.
There were some interesting situations that he faced in Mayo. Coming from Santiniketan, an ashram type institution, Mayo seemed strange. In Mayo each hostel was a palatial structure made by the Indian princes and named after their states. There was Jaipur House, Jodhpur House, Bikaner House and so on. There was of course no Tripura House as the Ruler of our state preferred to build educational institutions in his own kingdom rather than donating to Mayo. Since Tripura did not contribute to Mayo College, students from there required to pay extra fees.
On joining there my father was summoned by the principal and asked how many horses and servants he had brought with him. He had none but kept silent. Later he contacted his maternal uncle, the Maharaja of Dholpur and managed both. It was a rule to tip one’s hat whenever a British teacher passed by. Once a lady teacher with her dog were taking an evening stroll when my father happened to pass by, he quickly tipped his hat twice. The teacher came up to him asked “ Why did you tip your hat twice for me?” He replied,” Ma’am the other was for your dog which is also from England”.This must have gone around in Mayo, he was referred to as the Bengal Terrorist.
He was ailing from a heart problem, when I came back from school in Darjeeling and shared a room with him. We discussed many things and he often broke out with an anecdote from the past. It was then I heard these small yet cheerful anecdotes about his interaction with Tagore. I remembered some of his anecdotes but I never forgot the way his face lit up and how his lips curled in a smile as he told me these mischievous stories of his youth.
My father was a student at Santiniketan along with Indira Gandhi, the late prime minister of India.They stayed at Uttarayan (Tagore’s residence) and I believe that once Indira Gandhi complained to Tagore that my father smoked foreign cheroots (cigars); those were the days of nationalism and the swadeshi movement. He was called and Tagore asked him “I believe you smoke foreign cigars”? My father replied, “No, gurudev I sometimes smoke cigarettes.” The poet then questioned, “Do you smoke within the premises?” The reply was, “No.” To which the poet only smiled and asked, “Then why do they notice?”
My father had accompanied Maharaja Bir Bikram on his world tour just before the outbreak of the Second World War. Among others who also went along were the Maharaja’s sister Bibhash Devi who had recently become a widow after the death of her husband the Yuvraj of Baria(a small principality in Gujarat), Durjoy Kishore – the Maharaja’s half brother and Colonel Pulley, his private tutor. Amongst the staff were several others. Mr. Wagner was specially deputed from well known travel firm Thomas Cook; as a guide to the Maharaja. My father told me about the luxury liner Queen Mary on which they had set sail from Bombay and of their stay at The Savoy in London, The Ritz in France and The Waldorf in New York.
Sometimes he recalled their meeting with Hitler who advised the Maharaja to develop communications by building roads. On another occasion he recollected the incident when President Roosevelt of the USA came in a wheelchair to the stairs of the White House and received the Maharaja and asked to be excused for not being able to stand up. My brother just updated with an anecdote that he heard. Roosevelt threw a ball for Bir Bikram and during the ball Mrs Roosevelt and another lady asked my father and my uncle Durjoy to dance and they both refused. Bir Bikram was very angry and asked them afterwards why they refused as it is very rude when your hostess asks for a dance. They said all the women were very tall and they felt they could not manage them. Next day Bir Bikram ordered shoes for them with heels.
He told me that besides the President, the Maharaja and his entourage were the only ones to be allowed in cars into the World Fair, in New York. He mischievously added that the Americans remarked, “Hey! Who are these niggers in cars?” when they saw some of the members of the staff who were dark.
He said that his cousin, Durjoy Kishore often came to the breakfast table unshaven and that immensely annoyed Colonel Pulley who had an inherent dislike for beards. When he was the military governor of Persia he had all the members of his staff shave off their beards, which caused a major furor in a Muslim country. The colonel was relieved from this post that was how he became a tutor to the Maharaja.
While visiting monuments with the Maharaja, Durjoy Kishore and my father purposely lagged behind and then slowly slipped away from the others and ran off to the nearest club and returned to their hotel late in the night. Next morning when the Maharaja asked them where they had been, they said that they had lost their way.
On hearing this, the Maharaja patronizingly gave them tips on how to go about in a big city. On many occasions both of them wished the Maharaja ‘goodnight’ at around eight in the evening. He thought that they were retiring to their rooms; but they dressed up and went from one night club to the other, only to return in the wee hours of the morning. When they were in London, the Maharaja asked both of them to visit Oxford and Cambridge they instead went off to Paris.
The world tour had to be cut short as the war had broken out and there was much tension about sailing back to India. Once back in Agartala some differences cropped up between the Maharaja and my father, who joined the 7th Rajput Regiment of the British army and left home. He went off to fight in the Arakan Front in Burma. When he was training at Mhow in Madhya Pradesh; his cousin Durjoy Kishore went there and tried to persuade him to leave the army. He said ‘Why get killed by a bullet that costs just a few pennies? Come back home, we can share whatever I have”. My father however did not relent; he went on to fight under Colonel Sawyer who became the Army Chief of Britain. Later, it was sad that even close family ties and intimate friendships were torn apart by differences of perspectives and politics.
During the war a Japanese doctor was taken into captivity. The Japanese valued their honour above all and for them death was better than captivity. The prisoner took out a knife; my father saw that and stopped him from committing “Hara-kiri“(suicide). After the war they became good friends; the doctor visited Agartala with my father. My father presented the hara-kiri knife to his younger brother.
To me, who was then just a young boy of 17, all these seemed to be right out of the fairy tales. He saw the bewilderment in my eyes and took me to the house of Dwijen Dutta, who was the Maharaja’s private secretary and had been with them on that tour. My father asked him to show me the photographs and memorabilia that he had preserved. I went through the old photographs, menu cards of Queen Mary and newspaper clippings. One that caught my eye as a teenager was the “New York Times”, it read something like, “Ricky (Ramendra) and Dicky (Durjoy) are leaving New York, Night Life will be Dull”. In today’s phraseology –“they must have really freaked out”!
When he passed away in 1974, he was given a state funeral, a holiday was declared and many articles came out in local and national papers. The press highlighted his contributions in the development of the state,prior to the merger and later when he served as development commissioner and chief secretary. I was quite taken aback because he never boasted or even told me of these, only then I realised how understated he was. There was one headline that perhaps suited him the most, ”A Lion Hearted Man has passed away”.