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Blood-stained glasses, and notes on love...
On a recent visit to Chandannagar, a serene riverside town in the Hooghly district of West Bengal, I came across some fascinating personal effects of one Dr J N Sen, MB, MRCS. These are lovingly preserved in the Chandannagar museum, or the Institute De Chandernagore. The label indicated that he was the first Bengali to have died fighting World War One.
A couple of items in the display especially caught my attention. A pair of steel-rimmed glasses, slightly cracked, with patches of a faint brownish stain on them. The label said this was blood stain. The other item was a fading picture of a young, Caucasian lady. Scrawled across its bottom in a large, flowery hand were the words ''Yours with love, Cis". I had to pause and wonder, who could this bespectacled Bengali doctor be, who had to die such a gruesome death so many miles from home.
Afterwards, I came to learn his full name - Mr Jogendra Nath Sen, variously anglicised to Jon, John or Jogi by his English friends. He wasn't a doctor, but a qualified engineer. He had graduated from the University of Leeds, UK in the year 1913. He had enrolled himself in the course, shortly after coming to England in 1910. Perhaps he was following in the footsteps of his elder brother, Dr Jatindra Nath Sen, MB, MRCS. The museum is in the process of rectifying the label, which mistakenly refers to his doctor brother (same initials). More on that later.
One balmy, sunday winter afternoon, I strolled into the Institute, more with the intention of 'killing' some time, than as a serious museum visitor. Gravel crunched under my feet as I walked past what appeared to be a bronze rendition of Delacroix's famous painting of Marianne - 'Liberty leading the people'. This was my first visit, and I had no idea what to expect. As soon as I stepped upon its wide verendah, a commotion greeted me. A large monkey - the black-faced, 'hanuman' kind, had invaded its gardens!
Two irate museum guards hurried to see him off, for he was demolishing the rose bushes. It was apparent that unlike mine, this wasn't his first visit. As if in great amusement, the monkey was making horrible faces at the guards. He played hide-and-seek with them for a while, before scrambling up a tree and disappearing. The excitement over, I walked into the museum's front room and peered into the glass display cases.
Jogendranath was killed in action in May 1916, at the age of 28. This was at the start of the battle of Somme, in France, where the Anglo-French alliance was fighting the Germans. He was busy laying communication lines in the trenches when his regiment came under heavy bombardment. Shrapnels tore through his leg at first, which was bandaged, and then his neck, the last wound killing him instantly.
He lies buried in Somme, which is in Northern France. Only recently, I saw a picture of the British and the French Prime Ministers visiting this place, walking side by side between rows of marble headstones. They were wearing aptly sombre expressions on their faces. I wonder if they had also strolled past one dedicated to Private J N Sen. He is honorably mentioned in British military records, and in the memorials for fallen soldiers at Leeds.
He was among the first to volunteer when WW1 broke out, and the call to raise a local battalion (1st Leeds Pals) was given. This later became the 15th West Yorkshire Regiment. He was the only non-white soldier in his group, a fact easily noticed when the battalion did a march past through the town. At that time, Jogendra was also working as assistant engineer in the Leeds Corporation Electric Lighting Station. Musically inclined, he had also joined the local choir. Perhaps it is here that he became acquainted with one Mary Cicely Weeksteed - the 'Cis' in the aforementioned picture.
Among the items on display is a small book of quotes on the value of friendship. Inscribed on it (in that same flowery handwriting) are the words - "With the very best of good wishes in this world + after, To Jogi, my Dear brother, From his loving sister, Cis.”
The Leeds Pals were first sent to Egypt. I do not know if they saw some action there. In March 1916, they were shipped 'back' to France, where the battle was beginning to rage. There is a picture of Jogendranath sitting with his fellow soldiers on the deck of a ship. Colonial prejudice of that age and circumstances meant that even though he was the most qualified man in his battalion, he couldn't rise to Officer rank. Thus, he died as Private Jon Sen (as he was popularly referred to by his white comrades). This is adequately documented by Dave Stowe, local community historian, and one of Jogendranath's comrades Arthur Dalby, who had survived the war.
Dalby says in an interview with Laurie Milner in 1988 -"We had a Hindu in our hut, called Jon Sen. He was the best educated man in the battalion and he spoke about seven languages but he was never allowed to be even a lance corporal because in those days they would never let a coloured fellow be over a white man, not in England, but he was the best educated. He was at university when he joined up."
Jogendranath was born in Chandannagar in1888, which was then a French colony. He was survived by his widowed mother, and his brother Dr Sen. After Jogendranath's death, his personal effects were sent to them. Years later, the family donated these to the museum.
I have to admit that notwithstanding the confusion due to the labeling, it is because of the institute's efforts that a re-discovery of sorts has been made of this fascinating Bengali adventurer. As per reports on the internet, Dr Santanu Das, Reader at King's College London, was instrumental in bringing Jogendranath's name out of a relative obscurity.
On a visit to Chandannagar, he was stunned (as I was) when he came across the blood-stained glasses inside the showcase. Dr Sen is an expert on Indians who have fought WW1, and while presenting a paper at the University of Leeds, he had mentioned his find. This set the ball rolling, as others also remembered seeing Jogendranath's name on the Leeds War Memorial. Since then, Dave Stowe, and many others have written on this intrepid Bengali adventurer.
I have to call him an adventurer, because I think more than anything else, it is this desire to experience the unknown - be it place, people or fate, which had inspired him to volunteer. Perhaps the same adventure-lust had carried him to the far shores of England. I have difficulty believing that it was entirely out of a kind of peer pressure, or the need to identify more strongly with his adoptive community. Or out of a patriotic/righteous fervor to defend England from the 'German hordes'. He was not even a British subject, but an Indian from a French colony, who was visiting England for higher education. Albeit France and Britain were allies in the war, and Germany was their common enemy. But Germany had never attacked India, while a freedom struggle (against the British) was afoot in India at that time!
To put things into perspective, at around that time, the great revolutionary 'Bagha Jatin' (Jatindranath Mukherjee) was planning an armed insurrection against the British. He was in secret talks with Germany for a shipment of arms. But a Czech agent, working on behalf of the Americans, got wind of the plot and the British were forewarned. Hugely outnumbered, Bagha Jatin died fighting the British on September 1915, near the coast of Orissa (Odisha). This was only a year after Jogendranath had volunteered to fight the Germans.
Whether he had volunteered or not, Jogendranath could've had a successful engineering career in Britain (or anywhere, including back in India). It wasn't a draft, as far as I could gather. He had joined out of volition. I wonder if he already knew that he had no career in the armed forces, since he would never be promoted beyond Private. And still he joined. On the other hand, he was already working at the Electric Lighting station, where he could've continued to work honorably. Or could he? Did he have something to prove to himself, or to his adoptive community?
As I have said before, in a larger, geo-political sense, a war among the Europeans was hardly his fight. But he had a strong sense of identification with the people of Leeds. A typical Bengali trait is how eagerly they integrate with alien societies (without forgetting their root). It seems that Jogendra had immersed himself deeply in Leeds society, through his accomplishments, many talents, and a friendly, joyful disposition. When that same community felt threatened, he could not but join in its defence, irrespective of the wider questions of who was fighting whom, and from where he came. Perhaps he was seeking to redeem himself in some way (whether he needed to do it or not). Perhaps he was anticipating heady adventure, or was simply concerned about Leeds' future. Be what it may, he couldn't stand mute witness to developments around him, and had to participate. So he was among the first to sign up for Leeds Pals.
But I think it is this anticipation for adventure which had inspired him the most. On an aside - Bengalis love traveling, and even when they cant, like Minu's father in Tagore's Kabuliwallah, they love to do so in their imagination. Shidhu Jyatha (Pheluda's guru in the Satyajit Ray detective series) admits that he could have done a lot of things in life, given his vast knowledge and keen intellect. But he chose to do 'nothing', save for keeping the 'windows of his mind open' ("moner janala khule boshe achhi"). Visit any tourist place in India, however remote, and you'll find a significant presence of Bengali tourists there. I say this from personal experience, and I think this is also the experience of many non-Bengalis and Hoteliers. But traveling is expensive and Bengalis, whatever else they are known for in modern India, it is not material wealth. Hence, even with a modest income, they will carefully save to make that one yearly trip. This is usually during the Puja holidays in October. This seed of travel-lust is embedded deep in their psyche, and Jogendranath was nothing, if not also a quintessential Bengali. A romantic wanderer, he had nothing to flee from, and everything to come back to - including his loving family at Chandannagar.
Yet, he chose to go where his heart had beckoned him. For that alone, Jogendranath should be much more than a footnote in history, or a pair of blood-stained glasses.
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