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Tribute – Jnan Sevak Chatterjee – Reminiscences

By Indrani Roy

Jnan Sevak Chatterjee or Bipinda, as he was fondly called by all at Sadharan Brahmo Samaj and its neighbourhood (Samaj Para), was a social worker in the truest sense of the term.

As I remember, Bipinda was a well-built person with long unkempt hair, attired in a crumpled dhoti and equally crumpled Punjabi. He roamed about barefooted. He lived in the Sadhan Ashram building with his wife Smt. Swantana Chatterjee and was ever available when anyone in distress asked for his help. He was the main stay of Sadharan Brahmo Samaj Relief mission and rendered outstanding service during any calamity, natural or man-made. During Maghotsav, Bipinda was busy collecting subscriptions, looking after the comforts of people who came from outside Kolkata (Calcutta then) to attend the ‘Utsav’ and stayed at the ‘Jatriniwas’, and last but not least, supervising the cooking and serving of the community lunch.

Bipinda was available for social services all round the year. His social work ranged from arranging wedding feasts (professional caterers were unthinkable in those days), nursing critically ill patients – especially during the night, to taking part as pal-bearers in the last journey to the cremation ground. His service was not restricted to the Brahmos alone. Whoever asked for his help never went unanswered. He was ably supported by a dedicated band of young men in rendering these services.

My father, late Dr. Rabi Kundu, in his youth was a committed member of Bipinda’s squad. He nurtured a deep respect and love for Bipinda all his life. In this connection I would like to relate an unusual incident which my father used to narrate to us, which showed the confidence and trust Bipinda commanded amongst not only the members of the Brahmo Samaj but the society at large.

It was a night in the nineteen forties, during the distressful times of the World War II, when Bipinda alerted his team for an assignment. A gentleman had called on him in great distress. His wife had died a short while ago. He was new to the city and because of the war-time situation he could not find anyone to help him with her funeral. Having heard of Bipinda from one of his acquaintances he had come for help.

Bipinda was ready with his team and reached the residence of the bereaved gentleman. It was a rented apartment in a narrow bye-lane of North Calcutta, dark and sinister in the gloom of the war. The area was not known for its respectability. However, they found that the body was laid out on a bamboo stretcher, bedecked with flowers that completely enveloped her, keeping only her face uncovered. She was at the prime of youth and endowed with unusual beauty. There were too many flowers enshrouding her beautiful form! They took it as a tribute coming from the overwhelming grief of the gentleman.

The young men took up the stretcher on their shoulders and started off for the cremation ground at Nimtala. Bipinda was at the lead. The gentleman was to follow them with the death certificate after locking up his apartment.

The boys led by Bipinda went ahead, not looking back, till someone felt dampness down his shoulder. The streets were dark except for the dim street-lights, covered up to restrict their glow due to the black-out. As they came near a street lamp, in its subdued lighting the dampness seemed to leave a stain the shirt. On looking back they found no one following them. The gentleman had vanished in to thin air. Bipinda led his team with the dead body to the cremation ground and put down the stretcher under a lamp. They were horrified to find blood stains on their shoulders! When the flowers were removed, the body was found to be soaked in blood, oozing out from a deep wound. The woman they were carrying on their shoulders had been stabbed to death and the man who had tricked them in to disposing off the body was nowhere to be found.

There was a great commotion at the burning ‘ghat’ as the funeral party could not produce any death certificate and it was clearly not a natural death. Bipinda and his party of helpers, (my father included) were detained by the police for interrogation. It was well past midnight.

Bipinda requested the authorities to make a phone-call which was fortunately granted. He called up the Police Commissioner, who was a member of Sadharan Brahmo Samaj and very well known to Bipinda. He took t up the case immediately and vouched for the innocence of the party as he knew about the social services rendered by Bipinda and his team. Bipinda was so well known for his self-less service that he could be exonerated from the false charges. Such was his reputation!

Till this day, I cherish my childhood memory of Maghotsav in which Bipinda held a prominent spot. I salute his courage, sincerity, generosity and devotion to selfless sense of duty, which is so rare today.

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