Deben Bhattacharya interviewed by Kevin - Part 1: Childhood

To me, Benares is one of the cities which still is closest to my heart; as a city, where people live one on top of the other. I like being in a city when I can be near people without being involved with them. Like in a village: when you are living in a village you are involved with them, but you are not near, because the distances and the spaces are far away from one another. And one of the strongest points in favour of Benares, as far as I am concerned, that when you were little kids, you could jump from one roof to the other for probably half a kilometre, from roof to roof, jumping. And flying kites is one of the regular features of the boy’s life and it happened always on the rooftops. The roofs are flat, it’s very different from European roofs, and this memory of the city life has remained constant in my life, because when I came to Europe, the reason why I love Paris and Montmartre is because the houses are so close to one another, and flat roofs also. Although I don’t fly kites here, or jump from roof to roof!

You were not trained – like a school that happens in Europe – for the religious part of life, but you’re brought up in it; you are never conscious of the air you breathe in, or breathe out, nor are you conscious of the space you live in. The religion I was brought up with is like that; you are never – I can’t say you are never because there is a great theoretical tradition involved with it – but without that theory you are brought up as a child in the atmosphere of religion in such a way that you don’t even have to think about it, because you are born a Hindu, you die a Hindu. You can’t become a Hindu by conversion. Similarly, if you can’t be converted, you can’t also get out of it. So that is how the religious education of a Hindu child begins, with really, you can say, almost like in a folk tradition, although there is a very strong scholastic tradition in Sanskrit, it sort of goes side by side sometimes; sometimes it doesn’t go side by side, because even if you take a villager in India, in a country where seventy to seventy-five percent of the population are illiterate, you can’t call them uneducated or uninformed about their religion. I think in many ways they’re much better informed than in the West, where people are literate but uninformed about their own religion, about their own tradition.

My memories of my parents and the family are full of affection, and they’re very affectionate people. Most of my father’s family were scholars, his eldest brother was a professor of Sanskrit literature and cosmology at Benares University, and my father was a doctor of Hindu medicine, and the family had very little to do with the English colonial education system. There was no interest in national politics; the family simply didn’t want to know that the British existed, so they ignored it. I was given a Sanskrit education – there was no question of anything else. 

But I had in me a kind of strange desire to rebel against the family traditions. I suppose partly because I felt a little bit isolated from the other boys of my age, because they were having the usual, conventional education at that moment, like, you go into an English school, playing football. I distinctly remember how I wanted to wear short trousers, but in our family European clothes were not allowed – you had to wear a dhoti. Possibly it was this sort of rigidity that made me want to rebel, so – I started to run away from the family at the age of sixteen, seventeen – coming back, and so on, and travelled all over India, completely like, almost like a vagabond. It was a kind of peculiar restlessness, plus a curiosity about other people that developed as I travelled. Already I was dreaming of getting out of India.

Read Part 2: War Years »

Text taken from Kevin Daly’s taped interviews with Deben Bhattacharya
Interviews recorded 23rd and 24th February 1982, Rue Lepic, Montmartre, Paris
Transcribed and edited by Michael Daly
© 2010 Michael Daly