“The end of an era” is an overworked phrase. However, it seems an appropriate way to describe the passing, on the 17th of July, of Nirodbaran at the age of 102.
Nirod, as he was affectionately known in Auroville, was the longest-lived of those almost legendary sadhaks – Nolini, Champaklal etc. – who attended upon Sri Aurobindo after he fractured his leg in 1938. Nirod's Twelve Years with Sri Aurobindo is a record of those years and in his descriptions of how Sri Aurobindo spent the day – outwardly, at least – the book did much to ‘humanise' Sri Aurobindo. It also gives an insight into Sri Aurobindo's manner of composing Savitri (when Sri Aurobindo's eyesight failed in the final years, Nirod became his amanuensis). Nirod also made notes on the evening conversations between Sri Aurobindo and his attendants. Nirod's Talks with Sri Aurobindo reveal that, far from working exclusively upon the most rarified levels of consciousness, Sri Aurobindo was very aware of and engaged in world events. But perhaps the greatest revelation, for many sadhaks, was that Sri Aurobindo had a rare sense of humour.
This was no surprise to Nirod who, since February 1933, had been corresponding with Sri Aurobindo. That correspondence is unique in that Nirod, far from treating Sri Aurobindo as a forbidding Olympian presence, often challenged “the Lord” to make his work understandable to mere mortals. Sri Aurobindo responded with affection, humour and lovingly-directed blows. Nirod was the ‘wooden-head' who wanted the Divine to correspond to his own logic, he was ‘Doghead', ‘Mr. Gloom'. For Nirod had the tendency, noted Sri Aurobindo, to open himself to the influence of “the confounded Man of Sorrows”. “Knock him off, man, knock him off” was Sri Aurobindo's robust advice, “for cheerfulness is the salt of existence.” Through the correspondence Sri Aurobindo ‘doctored the doctor' (Nirod was a medical practitioner), developing in Nirod, among other things, a remarkable vein of ‘mystic-surrealist' poetry. Above all, in these letters Sri Aurobindo gave Nirod a wonderfully detailed and practically-based explanation of his yoga. “The total effect of the entire correspondence,” wrote Nirod later, “can be summed up in Sri Aurobindo's luminous sentence ‘But within there is a soul and above there is the Grace'.”
After getting Nirod to read the correspondence to her, Mother was to remark that Sri Aurobindo “has given you everything”. In fact, the letters revealed new aspects of Sri Aurobindo even to her. “I thought I knew him well, and then when I hear this I realize that ....”(makes gesture as if to indicate a breaking of bounds). Among other things, Sri Aurobindo revealed to Nirod as early as 1935 that Mother's body was more capable of transformation than his. And a few years before he died Sri Aurobindo confided that “I may take a fancy to leave my body before the supramental realisation”.
Nirod often visited the Matrimandir: it had a special place in his heart. As he put it, “The world has been presented with two divine epics. One is Sri Aurobindo's Savitri, which is already in our midst. The other is the Mother's epic still under construction, the Matrimandir.” He was later to recall that Mother had mentioned that “the completion of Matrimandir will be commensurate with the establishment of peace and harmony in the world”.
However, when he first started visiting the Matrimandir site in the 1980s the mood in the community was far from relaxed: there was dissension amongst Aurovilians and tension between Auroville and the Ashram. Perhaps the critical breakthrough in that latter relationship came on 14th August, 1993, when Nirod was invited to give a talk in Pitanga Hall on ‘Sri Aurobindo as I knew Him'. That afternoon the Hall was packed with Aurovilians of diverse ages and outlooks. Nirod walked in, very upright, sat down at a simple table under portraits of Sri Aurobindo and Mother, placed his stick carefully beside him and then, for one hour, in a very simple, unassuming way, (“simple English,” he once wrote, “is direct and consequently powerful”) spoke of his contact with Sri Aurobindo and Mother.
He ended: Friends, brothers and sisters, you are indeed very lucky, I must say, to have come here to do Their work. Through Their force, through Their blessing, Matrimandir and Auroville are going to be something unique. There are many wonders, but I think this wonder will surpass all others – vital, physical, mental wonders: it will be spiritual. And you are the instruments. Somehow you have come; it must be the Force that has brought you here, and you are extremely fortunate to be aware that you are doing your work, sacrificing yourselves, your labour, all your goodwill, for the success of Mother's work....
If you want to know his (Sri Aurobindo's) spiritual content, his avatarhood, read Savitri. Read particularly about Aswapati's yoga. Aswapati is none but Sri Aurobindo...all his own experiences he had given there in the name of Aswapati.
Namaste, brothers and sisters, till we meet again. You are making a bridge between West and East.
At that moment an Aurovilian spontaneously called out, to great applause, “Nirod-da today you have been the bridge between the Ashram and Auroville.”
“He was very insistent that Aurovilians read Sri Aurobindo,” says Franz, an Aurovilian who had a close contact with Nirod over the last ten years. “So Nirod was delighted to hear about a proposal to build in Auroville a place to study Savitri and all his other works, and he gave his complete support to the Savitri Bhavan project.” Nirod laid the first foundation stone on November 24th, 1995, saying “This Savitri Bhavan project, now in its infant stage, is, if I may say so, a twin to the Matrimandir. The Matrimandir is much further developed and already showing some of its future glory; this new project has a great potential and will be growing up to an extent we cannot easily foresee.”
As the Savitri Bhavan buildings came up, he was to visit frequently. He also visited many Aurovilians in their homes and workplaces. “He was interested in everything that was going on here,” says Franz. “If anybody invited him, he would come.” And he, in turn, once confided, after laying the foundation stone for Arka, (Nirod was much in demand as a foundation-stone layer) that he would never forget the love and devotion he had just experienced.
In spite of his somewhat forbidding exterior – it was said that when he practised as a doctor in the Ashram, some would-be patients stayed away because they were afraid of him – he was among the most modest of men. Once he wondered why Sri Aurobindo had chosen him as his amanuensis for Savitri rather than more accomplished poets like K.D. Sethna or Dilip Kumar Roy. He concluded it was because Sri Aurobindo knew that Nirod, unlike the others, would never argue with him over his choice of words!
Even after all these years, the magic of that afternoon in Pitanga remains with me. It wasn't so much what he said – most of that had already been covered in his books – as the power of that presence; very solid, as if founded on rock, yet very sweet. He used to say, “I have a magnet inside me.” “He always brought an atmosphere of peace,” says Franz, “something that suddenly changed the atmosphere and relaxed everybody, taking away tensions and bringing something very subtle.”
I suspect that his popularity in Auroville was also due to his refusal to act the grand sadhak or conform to the image of a senior Ashramite. He had little time for people who wanted to touch his feet (a somewhat unlikely occurrence in Auroville anyway) and he could be refreshingly unpredictable. At a recent memorial meeting in Savitri Bhavan one of his relations remembered asking him why he was so kind to others and so stern with his own relatives. “We're frightened of you,” she admitted. “Good”, he retorted.