Oral history interview with Ashin Datta

Datta, Ashin
Iqbal, Iftekhar

Ashin Datta, interviewee (male)
Kris K. Manjapra, interviewer (male)

Prof. Datta, would you please say your name so we have, have it on the recording? Your full name.
In Bangla or in English.
In English, please.
My name is Ashin Kumar Datta, spelled D-A-T-T-A.
Thank you, and can you just, beginning with your professional achievement, can you just state what your, kind of, main activity was in terms of career?
Yes, I took a degree, or two degrees, BA and MA in History, from Calcutta University. My college was Presidency College. Then I was lucky enough to go to Oxford with a Rhodes Scholarship, and there also I did a degree in Modern History. Also, I became qualified as a barrister. So, when I came back, I practiced law for a short while, and then gave it up and joined Jadavpur University as the principal of their College of Arts, and my work there was mainly administrative, not scholarly. People here, they have...they have been very kind. They have a lot of affection for me.
I belong to a family of Calcutta and -- and of Assam, Lower Assam, Silchar. Now put me your questions.
Okay. So --
You ... Do you need to check whether --
No, no, it's recording. This light shows it's recording. It's all very digitized these days. So ... the ... what I've been doing is what's called a life history interview. It doesn't mean that we have to go on for hours and hours.
We just go on for an hour, however -- until you feel tired. You just let me know, and we'll stop. What I am interested in is where you came from and how you came to Presidency College and what your experiences were at Presidency College. And then also, I'd be very interested in how you ended up at Oxford and what your experiences were at Oxford. So, a lot, but we'll just go as far as we can. So, can you just start by going -- telling a little bit about your birth, your childhood, the kind of family you were born into?
My family's connection with Presidency College goes back to mid-nineteenth century. My grandfather, he became a lawyer and he, at that time -- he was born in 1855. So, he came to Calcutta about 7 -- 1872 -1873, something. At that time, Presidency College was really the only college in Calcutta. There was another, City College, but Presidency College was the leading college.
And that's the history of Presidency College of that time. There are printed books and literature. What he did, he did not take a degree in law but became qualified, went back to Silchar. Silchar is a district town in Lower Assam. It's a Bengali area. Though administratively part of Assam, it is a Bengali area, an extension of East Bengal. And my grandfather established a practice in law in Silchar. My maternal grandfather also ... came and qualified from Calcutta Presidency College. He completed MA and BL, Bachelor of Law, degrees from Calcutta University, went back to Silchar, and he was a very successful lawyer, you see. He had an extensive practice in criminal law, mostly in cases that involved losing your neck, in eastern Bengal, and he had also connection with Calcutta University because Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee was a near contemporary of his in Presidency College, and my maternal grandfather, he was a member of Assam Legislative Council for ten years and then of the Indian Legislative Assembly for ten years.
He retired from these activities in 1926, yes. He was a very successful man and ... What was it? My paternal grandfather's brother had seven sons, and they all were educated in the manner Bengali middle class considered it necessary at that time. And my maternal grandfather had four sons, and they were highly educated, and ... the eldest of them went to Oxford. Second one went to England and became a barrister-at-law. The third one was a very successful man in administration. He became the ... What was it? Comptroller-General, Auditor ... in charge of auditing of government accounts of the whole country. So, they two -- two -- both the -- both the families were highly educated, and ... We were four brothers. My eldest brother was a very clever man. He joined the ICS [Indian Civil Service], you know. He joined the ICS. The second brother, he was ... he became drawn into business. He was a very fine man. The third brother became a medical doctor. He died unfortunately in an accident, car accident in Singapore. And the fourth is myself.
You were the youngest.
I was the youngest, yes. And I came to Presidency College in 1939.
When -- what year were you born?
1923. And your family, was it a -- did they have Brahmo [Brahmo Samaj] connections or was it a very secular family?
Yes. Yes and No. Not secular in that sense because all the customary pujas used to be held in my father's family. And in the village, at the time of Durga Puja, all the members of the family tried to come to the village and celebrate it, Durga Puja. So was Durga Puja celebrated in my maternal uncle's village home. They did not become... they continued to be connected with the idolatrous society. And they would very jokingly refer to the Brahmos. But, in values and in outward conduct and such, they were like a Brahmo family. But mind you, they continued to have all the customary rituals of a Hindu family.
And when you were a child, what was your education like before coming to Presidency? Was it...
My district town, Silchar, that had a High English School from 1863, and many of our relations, they came to Silchar and took advantage of the high school education there. That was the practice of all well-to-do families in district towns at that time. So in my grandfather's time and my father's time, there were quite a number of young people, related and not related to us, but staying in our family home, so that they could take advantage of the high school there.
Hmm. And the high school was run by ... who was it?
It was a government -- government school.
Government school.
Silchar Government High School and my eldest brother ended up -- To be in the ICS, you had to be very clever and do well in your university. So all of us, all four of us after matriculation examination came to Calcutta Presidency College.
From Assam?
From Silchar.
From Silchar. Yes, yes.
A lot of ambitious people also came, and ... you can say that it was a sort of elite group of people in those small towns who ... tried for and managed to provide education of that sort to the sons of the family. And what is...
And then so you ... you came to Calcutta in 1939, and what was the -- were you at all shocked by entering the big city of Kolkata, or was it not a new experience? Was there a big change or not really?
No, no. Not really because we .... We were in the habit of visiting Calcutta occasionally, and you see my paternal grandfather, my maternal grandfather were both educated in Calcutta.
At Presidency.
in 1880s, 1870s. Then in my father's family seven brothers -- of the seven brothers my father came to Presidency College. His younger, next brother, he came to City College and became qualified as a lawyer. And the third brother, he was really successful, he joined medical college here, and then he was sent to Edinburgh, and he became a graduate of Edinburgh in Medicine. The fourth brother, he was also very clever, and he competed successfully to be recruited in the Audit and Accounts Service. He became the Auditor-General of what ... of Bombay Presidency. What was the name? Not Auditor-General. Anyway, the top man in Bombay's accounting service, auditing and accounting service. The fourth brother [sic], he became qualified as a civil engineer from Bengal Engineering College in Shibpur. The next brother, he studied agriculture in Allahabad and joined Assam's Agricultural Service, and the youngest, he ... he took Master's degree after a Science degree in, in ...
Masters' degree in History and also qualified in Law, and he came to Silchar, came back to Silchar, set up a good practice, and eventually became the government pleader of the district. My father was the government pleader from 1932 to 1947. And this youngest uncle, he was government pleader from 1960s or '70s, some twenty years or so.
Did you as a young man, coming to Kolkata, did the Swadeshi period inspire you at all, or reach you, and was -- and how so? The ideas of Swadeshi?
That was a common heritage, I will say. I didn't go to jail. I didn't ... organize processions or other things.
But we were, we were Swadeshiwallahs. Listen, for instance, my father which ... he used to wear khadi, though he became the government pleader, and he was also Major Rai Bahadur, you know. So his friends in Silchar used to say that he was the only Rai Bahadur in khadi. We were Swadeshi in that way but no one directly from my father's family went to jail, but we were connected intellectually ...
Thank you very much.
Help yourself, sir.
Thank you. Great. Ha ... So when you, did you ... when you were a young man, who were the kind of thinkers who were most inspiring to you? Was it a Vivekananda [Swami Vivekananda] or was it a Marx [Karl Marx] or was it a Hume [David Hume]. Who was, who were you reading? ... The plum cake. Thank you. That is good. Theek, achchha. Thank you.
I read a lot about the history of our freedom movement and biographies of the people who led that movement.
Of the Swadeshi --
Of the Swadeshi
Also, also, other intellectuals, not necessarily the Swadeshi ...
Like whom?
Like whom. Would you ... would this be Aswini Kumar Dutta? I mean, these kinds of people?
Yes. Yes. You see ... people laugh, laugh at this, but I, I think it is a good idea. "Teen anna" means three annas. The value of one anna was sixteen annas made a rupee. So, "teen anna" was very cheap. One of the Bengali publishers of College Square, they published about forty biographies, all priced teen anna. Teen anna. I became an avid reader of those. And I would -- selectively I became inspired by them.
And ... but again, not to the extent of ... joining in ... open movement etc. and going to jail. ... But as I said, my father was laughed at that he was the only government pleader and Rai Bahadur in khadi.
Khadi, ha.
In Khadi. ... Our family home was a centre of ... intellectuals of my small town ...
And when you came to Presidency College -- can you now tell me about that world of - I mean, when you ... What was it like to be there?
You want me to talk about the intellectual... Professor of History, Susobhan Sarkar, you probably have come across him, he was a very good scholar, and he was a good teacher. And other teachers of Presidency College also, in all subjects, used to be highly qualified, because this was the government's ... showpiece - Presidency College. And all the teachers there, they had reputation in the Bengali circles of being intellectuals of being ... what should I say ... serious scholars in their own subjects. And Calcutta University and other colleges in Calcutta at that time ... had good scholars, good, good scholars and we were influenced by them. So they would address meetings, memorial meetings for instance, this is a common thing, but on the ... birth anniversary of any of the great men -- I would call them great men without any hesitation -- there would be a meeting, and papers would be read on his life.
Great men, such as?
For instance, all, all the, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and people of that sort. There would be memorial meetings, and you, you get reference to them in Rabindranath's [Rabindranath Tagore] Jivan Smriti [My Reminiscence]. And also, other, other books about that period, and this was one way of, I'd say, Swadeshi, telling the world about our great men ... and sort of saying that though we are ... subject race, we are not worthless.
So the figures of the Bengal Renaissance were the important great men.
But also, of India at large.
At large, as well.
India at large, yes. These teen anna biographies included other -- other Indians.
Kind of the great national leaders -- national figures. Ha. And in terms of other teachers that affected you, Susobhan Sarkar was one.
How about someone like Benoy Kumar Sarkar? Could you -- did you go to any of his lectures, for example, or?
Just to sample because a contemporary of ours wrote a book, Benoy Sarkar'er bai Thake, have you come across it?
Haridas Mukherjee's --
Haridas. Haridas was one year junior to me in college.
I see. Ha.
He, he became a hero-worshipper of the man.
Of Sarkar.
I was not. I was selective.
I was selective, but I used to be -- I became influenced by those biographies that we, we are though ... the beaten race now, we have produced great men. There are shining examples there before us ... and ... most of us them were Congressmen [members of the Indian National Congress]. From time to time, they were -- they would be imprisoned and we would hold meetings perhaps to express our anger.
Was Nehru [Jawaharlal Nehru] one of these? Would someone contemporary like Nehru would also be one of these great men, or he was of the younger generation?
Nehru was a little young, little young, I would say. Nehru came into prominence in the late 1930s. ... But ... myself, I myself, was more influenced by people of the nineteenth century.
Vidyasagar, and Keshab Sen, and these...
To some extent, yes. To some extent.
Are there other professors that you can remember by name that particularly inspired you?
All of them were great, Benoy Sarkar was one. And then, Benoy Sarkar taught at -- He was, he was teaching at the university post-graduate classes.
Right. Right.
In Economics. And ... all the all the people who were in, who were teaching in colleges. University had three posts. These posts had been taken by the Bengali scholars. They were good scholars. They were influential. And see that it doesn't get cold. You have a passive role. You just listen.
Yeah, I know. I should be able to at least drink. Yeah.
But you're actually listening attentively so that you can't drink it.
Right. And your fellow students, what were -- was it differentiated according to wealth?
Yes. Yes. We -- they were cleverer than I am. Three, Subimal Mukherjee --Benoy Sarkar'er bai Thake was a book produced by, what did you say?
Haridas Mukherjee.
Haridas, and other book was produced, Subimal Mukherjee and ... who else, two other persons,
they collaborated in producing a book. And Subimal later on, he went to the States and married a .... I think she - he married an American, and settled down there. So we lost Subimal. But ... other people, other people, they, they mostly came to teach in colleges in Calcutta ... One or two, went into journalism ... and ... by and large, these were the intellectuals, who influenced young people like us at that time. ...
What was your experience like at Oxford?
What was your experience like at Oxford, once you got your Rhodes fellowship and moved to... was? ...
Experience in what sense?
Well, what was it like being of the subject race, but now studying in -- amongst the white men? I mean, was this a strange experience? Difficult experience?
I was lucky, I, I considered that I was lucky in the sense that by the time I arrived in Oxford, our country had become free. 1947, August, we became free, and I started my career in Oxford in October '47.
Right after independence.
Right after that, but I, I felt that it was good luck. Otherwise I am sure that at the back of their minds, they would have this notion that here is a colored man from a subject country. A colored man I remained, but not a subject. And also you see, I was ... like anyone else ... we were influenced by the scholarship of the dons there and ...
I went to the debates in Oxford Society two or three times. But then I found that it was -- unless you have the ambition of becoming a debater yourself, it's no use for me to go to listen to these debates ... But I was impressed by what the -- libraries, particularly the open access libraries. Even the Oxford Union Society, Debating Society, they had a good, good library. And my interest was in, mostly in biographies, great men of my country, great men of Western world of that time. I didn't learn any of the Eastern languages, or even French. So I didn't go deep into any of the ... but English intellectuals, English public men, men like Gladstone [William Gladstone] and Disraeli [Benjamin Disraeli], I would be interested in their biographies and ... what ... also, in small sense like the jokes that they would tell, and how they would handle big problems with humor and understanding ... that sort of thing.
Did you remain -- was there a group of Presidency College alumni or maybe a group of Indian students at Oxford that you remained in touch with over the course of your later life?
Yes, yes, yes, yes. We were in a sense, in a sense, we drifted to a small group of Indians, and not that the Englishmen would not mix with us, but by our interest, particularly, I would say that at the back of mind of each one of us was the idea that we should, we had, have this wonderful opportunity of studying in Oxford. We should go back and help our country, our people to -- in such way that we can ...
Do you remember -- Sorry. Do you remember any of the name -- I know it's all very -- I am asking for you to remember so much which I wouldn't remember if somebody asked me, but do you remember any of the names of your Indian friends at Oxford that you spent time with? If anything pops in your mind, if not, don't worry. But I'm just wondering.
... No, no, they were all clever people otherwise they would not have had this chance ... They, they -- neither the family, nor the society, they would not have --
Okay, ya. Ya.
They would not have received any scholarship or grant.
No, thank you. Fine, fine.
Unless they were. This was allright?
Oh, very good. Strong. It is a nice kick.
Achchha. They, some of them joined the Indian Administrative Service, some of them became teachers in colleges and universities, some became lawyers. And ... you know, it was a select people who went to Oxford and Cambridge and all of them were very fond of saying that we are the cream of Indian society, and this became a joke, "look, the cream of Indian society". Similar people went to Cambridge, and similar, similar success. They came back as lawyers, or administrators, or teachers. Some with a form of PhD. At that time, we did not feel it necessary to have a PhD at that time. None of us tried for that, but later on, I realized that and I did not finish 'til very late in life. But we, we recognized that it is a necessary equipment.
What did you do your dissertation on? What did you do your PhD on?
You will laugh at it. Have you been to Puri, have you seen any picture of the triads in Puri, Jagannatha, Balarama, Subhadra?
I have heard of that. I've heard of it, but I have not been there.
They, they are three, very ugly, carved figures. Carved in wood. But the Puri temple is a very famous temple. Several hundred thousand people go there every year. So, Puri is a very easy place to holiday for people in Calcutta. It's on the sea, and it's a night's journey, and people from there, people there, they are of the same, same, similar communities, Bengalis and Oriyas, etc. So I became interested in the mythology connected with the triad, that why, why should Sanskritic Hindus worship such ugly images?
Not that we don't have any ugly images, our Kali, she ... she is a nude figure. But, why is it that, or how, how did the triad became that famous, that popular? And then, there there is the legend in Bengali verse ... and what did you ask about Puri to me? ... And, I wrote about the, the mystery connected with it, and how can it be linked up with Sanskritic Hinduism, and the inner significance, and the phenomenon of a tribal -- of a set of tribal icons being adopted in Hindu orthodox society like that. That was the inquiry I had made.
I just have couple more question, then I will
Yes sir.
let you ... to take you off the recording list. Oh, I am so full. But I will take a piece of this. This looks very good. I will have some of that, but I was wondering when you mentioned, when you were at Oxford, there was a sense of one should return to India to uplift, help the uplift of, help the new nation in its growth.
I think it was in the back of our minds, that we have had this wonderful opportunity. You see, for a family to send someone to Oxford, or put any person to try for a scholarship grant, it meant a huge amount of money ... huge amount of money ...
and we, we, I think serious persons like us, realized that we have had this opportunity and the country, the society should receive back the value of this. I think it was there, and even if -yes?
No, you were going to say, even...
And even if it formally did not do that. In fact, it became -- because these people became automatically leaders of the society. Any England-returned man, even just a plain barrister from England, from London, all, with degree from Oxford, Cambridge, London ... But he would automatically become a leader of the society. Otherwise it's all wasted.
It's -- if he is in a free -- free in the sense, law, -- if he joined government service, that, then he was, would not have, would not be free to express opinion and ... But his conduct would be valued to a huge -- his utterances would be valued and in government service, he would automatically go to the top.
So what did you ... think then of ... maybe a younger generation of ... elite Indian intellectuals who tended to stay abroad? I mean, there is, there is a gener --
Who, who stayed on in --
Who would go to England, or would go to America, to do their work and then would stay there. That somehow became a trend, I think ... after your generation. So what was your --
Not, not merely after. Even in my generation .... Yes, even before my time, there were people who stayed on in England ... married ... an English woman there... and ... they maintained connection with Indian aspirations, but at the same time, they were no longer part of the Indian society.
Did you think this was a --
Did you think this was unfortunate or is there -- was it bad?
I would not criticize it, because everyone should have his own ... right to choose what career he wants, what society he wants to live in, what sort of woman he wants to marry. He should have that liberty. But there -- particularly Bengali doctors, quite a number of them remained behind in England and they, they were, because they were very successful. They were, for some reason or other ... the English society had great faith in Bengali doctors.
So, a number of them stayed on there and many of them would have British wives. This is it. It was difficult for an Indian to become a university teacher in England. The competition was, was high, and also in many, in many societies. See, colleges in Oxford, many, many of them, the expectation was -- or even the mandatory rule was that a teacher becomes a member of the Church of England. So ... it was difficult for an Indian or anybody to become a college teacher in England. ... But some of the doctors, they were very successful there ...
And when you -- what was your position at Jadavpur University again?
My life history is not really worth recounting. I practiced law here for about five years, and then the Jadavpur University was founded and they were starting a new faculty, two new faculties, Faculty of Arts and Faculty of Science. Jadavpur was well-known as an engineering school, but when it became a university, people there were limited and socially I knew those who ran the engineering college, and they called me in on small committees when they were planning what courses they would have in the new faculties, what additional facilities they should create. So I was drawn into that circle. And then, the top man who brought about this exercise in that engineering college, he invited me, "would you like to come and join us?" This is their side of it. And my side, I, I ... the time had not come for anyone to pronounce whether I was a success at the bar or not. But I found one thing: the income in cash that I was making was very small. Everyone said that "don't worry, that is what happens in the beginning. There is a lot of space at the top."
But, it was sort of ... insulting for me ... to be dependent on my brother here. So, my, my, middle brother, second brother, he was also in Presidency College, and he was in business. And he ran this establishment. He repeated: "Don't worry. Don't worry. You try there." But I felt it a shame that financially I would be dependent on him. I had to be partially. And then, Calcutta bar had a really odd sort of practice that for about five years, ten years, they would, they would not expect young people to earn much. They'll say, "oh, you wait, you will learn." But for me, my father had retired from practice by the time I came here. My brother who ran this establishment, he was, he was, he had some reverses. And for me, it was a matter of shame. I felt that here is a person who had been supported with, even with English university education, and look, he doesn't contribute anything to the family coffers. Because I was not earning half enough to support my .... And, and, contribute something.
So, when the invitation came, that "would you not like to join this, we'll make you the head of the Arts side," I felt this is a good opportunity to quit and start anew, and that's, that's how it happened.
My last question.
Yes sir. If you think it worthwhile, otherwise put it off.
No, it's very, very useful. I am wondering about when you returned to India, who or what was your -- how do you say -- what was your philosophical mooring? Was it --
What was your philosophical mooring? Was it Gandhi [Mohandas Gandhi]? There was obviously -- this is -- 1950s was the beginning of Marxist wave of -- in Kolkata. Was it at all the Marxist intellectuals? Was -- so in other words, what, you know, what was the -- your ideals were attached to which great thinker, or which great movement would you characterize it as?
The Marxists, I would say that we hated them.
Hated the Marxists?
Yes. They had started in the 1940s. 1942 movement [Quit India Movement] was largely, you know ... from behind a ... it... The Marxists helped the British. They, they would supply information to the police. And they would organize processions and other things to say that the '42 movement and the movement of the Congress people were all useless, worthless. And they would try to preach their ideology, their, their notions of international organization. And this, this was started in 1942.
So by the time -- I came back in 1940s -- '50,'50. 1st of January in 1950, I landed in Bombay. We ... we were very sick and tired of the Marxists. I, I for one, I for one was a very strong anti-Marxist. I used to hate them. And, for instance, Susobhan Sarkar, the great intellectual, he was a Marxist, but in his teaching, people like me with fat heads did not find any Marxism. He would make an honest effort to be a good teacher of the subject that he had been assigned. But ... I, I, I was known as one of the great anti-, anti-Marxists.
Did that make you a Gandhian then?
No, not anything positive, but I would say more a Nehruvian, more a Nehruvian. By that time, Nehru had come to fore and ... you see, Gandhism, there there were certain archaic things about Gandhism: the spinning wheel, etc. Whereas Nehru ... that, that was intellectualism and internationalism acceptable to us, Nehru's internationalism. Thanks to that, we could easily discard the Marxist brand of internationalism.
Did --
Nehru was - I'm sorry.
No, go ahead.
Nehru was our great ideal.
... And did religion play at all a part in your life? I mean, did you remain --
Oh, yes. You should see when ... I never became any committed practitioner of any religion, but I used to study religion at Oxford and Oxford was a good place,
the, the English clergymen in various colleges in Oxford and even if they were not clergymen in the sense of being attached to the Church of England. But as, as scholars ... Christianity was the basis of their ... I think that in a sense Oxford represented the best that English church and intellectuals produced together, and values in life, etc. So, and I would go to many of their sermons, but I never became a complete Christian. But I found that Church of England in combination with intellectualism of Oxford or Cambridge, that they represented certain values which were acceptable to us, not merely acceptable, but which naturally came to us. So -- and this, this, when I came back, I remained within the Hindu fold, but I used to go to their sermons. I used to go to the sermons of the Brahmo Samaj. And eventually, my wife, she comes from a, from a converted Brahmo family, three-generation Brahmo family. But my values became more Brahmo. I would, I would say that my maternal uncles used to laugh at the Brahmos.
If anyone analyzed their values, they were Brahmo values. My father too, my father continued with all the rituals that one was expected to follow, but never in a, in a, in such an overt way as to proclaim that here is a Hinduwallah, or something, no. And I think value-wise, value-wise, in my small town, in Silchar, in our circle in Calcutta, the white ... Hindu family all over India. I don't know much about South India, but North India, the Hindustani speaking people. We, we, well, picked up a set of values strongly based on Christianity, not, not the, rituals are another side of it, not the committed things, but generally speaking. That is all that I have to say. Very foolish, perhaps.
Thank you.
To him. Rabindranath Tagore was important to him. Jawaharlal became great supporter of Visva Bharati. Have you been to Visva Bharati?
So ... Jawaharlal, his, his values, his attitude, that influenced me.