My Encounter With C.S. Gunning
"I was nonplussed for a moment but suddenly God knows from where, I spontaneously burst forth, “Why, Hitler is getting ready to commit suicide and is digging his own grave, Sir.”
By Benudhar Sharma
Benudhar Sharma (1894-1981) was a noted antiquarian, freedom fighter, journalist and littérateur. During his lifetime, Sharma was famously called the 'Walking Encyclopaedia of Assam' as he possessed immense knowledge about the culture and history of the region. He was also known for his impeccable prose style which has been categorized in Assamese literature as "Benudhari Godyoxoili" . This article first appeared in the popular Assamese magazine 'Ramdhenu' where he began penning down his autobiography under the title 'Mojiyar Pora Mejoloi'. This previously unpublished translation of the piece was most probably done by Sharma himself.
From the time of David Scott and Captain Francis Jenkins when the province of Assam first came under British rule, down to the time of Gurdon and Hailey, of whom the latter was the last English officer to leave after India gained her independence, the number of British officers who served in Assam are legion. They comprised of men of all kinds, good, bad and indifferent; and the less said about the latter two types the better.
Some officers bestowed their favours on certain selected individuals only and their rapid ascendancy from poverty to riches resultant therefrom was indeed remarkable; there are quite a few extremely wealthy and highly educated families in Assam today who have to thank these English officers for their present positions of affluence and influence.
There was no gain saying the fact however, that a number of these Britishers were men of sincereity and integrity and had the welfare of the country at heart such as Sir E.A. Gait, Col. P.R.T. Gurdon, Sir Henry Cotton and Mr. Bentinck, to name a few.There was one particular I.C.S. officer who I shall always remember with near affection though I am still afraid it will evoke a great deal of heart-burn and vehement disagreement among a host of Assamese friends and I daresay their hairs will stand on at the very idea of my temerity in attempting to extol the virtues of this gentleman. I admit he might have been somewhat imperialistic and that there was a certain hauteur in his demeanor but he had his good points too, and as an efficient administrator he was second to none. Most people stood in awe of him as he was stern of visage and abrupt in manner which gave them the impression that he was arrogant and unapproachable. He was undoubtedly a strict disciplinarian and there was not a single district in the whole province where his presence was not left with trepidation. His strictness was tempered with justice however, as this writer can vouch safe for himself from an incident where he was personally concerned, and which will be related presently.
Who was this most extraordinary personage? He was none other than Colvin Stuart Gunning, I.C.S. I first came into contact with him within the constraints of the Sibsagar Court where I was one of the accused and he was the trying magistrate, in the non-cooperation movement days, and he sentenced me to two six months jail. It so happened that Shri J.P. Chaliha and Shri … were also tried for the same offence and the three of us were lodged in the same cell. Mr. Gunning used to visit us regularly and enquire after our health during our period of incarceration, and one particular visit still remains vividly in my mind. On this occasion, he was accompanied by an important personage and head of the administration from Shillong and Mr. Gunning completely put us at our ease by the manner in which he introduced us to this dignitary. First, “Let me introduce you to Mr. J.P. Chaliha, sir. He is the leading tea planter in the district and a graduate of the Calcutta University.” Then this is Mr… a prominent…” and on coming to me, “this gentleman is Mr. Benudhar Sharma, a promising historian of Assam and a forceful writer.” One could not help but admire a man for showing us this consideration, whatever might have been his defects.
I happened to move to Dibrugarh later on when I was given the editorship of the weekly paper “Tarun Assam” in January, 1939, which was founded by Shri Nandeshwar Chakravarty. Mr. Gunning was also in Dibrugarh as the Deputy Commisioner of Lakhimpur District at the time. We used to meet each other fairly often and his usual greeting to me was “Well, Benudhar, how are you today?” delivered in a deep and sonorous drawl.
Benudhar Sharma (1922)
Those were days of World War 2, when Britain was passing through deep travail and tumultuous times, just following the retreat from Dunkirk when Mr. Winston Churchill made his stirring call of ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’. Hitler’s name was anathema to the British and it was but natural that they would never have tolerated anything written to his credit at the time. My Assamese weekly wholeheartedly supported the British in their fight against the Nazi menace. Unfortunately, the heading to a leading article of mine in the paper was misconstrued and very nearly put me in serious trouble with the authorities. A slight digression will first be necessary here to explain the incident properly. As is well known, the Assamese people have always been expert spinners and weavers of silk from time immemorial and the rearing of silk worms is widespread throughout all the villages in the province. In Assamese the words for ‘cocoon’ and ‘spin’ are ‘letta’ and ‘kunda’ respectively and from these two words we get ‘letta kundaise’, or spinning of the cocoon. Everyone is aware that the caterpillar remains enclosed inside the cocoon until its final metamorphosis as a moth. In the course of time the expression ‘letta kundaise’ or ‘spinning of the cocoon’ came to mean the same as ‘making one’s own coffin’, and was applied to any person who tried to overreact himself at the expense of others. After giving the details we can now return to where we left off.
I had just previously written an article under the heading ,”Hitlere letta kundaise” when two police constables suddenly appeared at my office one day and unceremoniously ordered me to accompany them back to the Deputy Commissioner Mr. Gunning’s residence at once. From what I could gather from them it appeared that a C.I.D. Inspector (who was not well conversant with the Assamese language) had advised that stringent measures should be taken against the Editor of the Tarun Assam for daring to print that Hitler would conquer the world, and which was what, according to the Inspector, the heading implied. Knowing what a stern officer Mr. Gunning was, I will frankly admit that I was in an acute state of nervousness when I approached his bungalow with the constables in tow.
I would add that whenever I had called on him on my former visits he had invariably called me upstairs on being handed my visiting card and welcomed me with his familiar drawn out greeting, “Good morning, B-e-n-u-d-h-o-r”. I got no such greeting when I reached his bungalow this time and saw him standing on the verandah with his hands behind his back and leaning on his walking stick, with a fierce scowl on his face. Without giving me an opportunity to wish him he straight away roared at me like an angry lion, “ Benudhar, what do you mean by Hitlere letta kundaise?” I was nonplussed for a moment but suddenly God knows from where, I spontaneously burst forth, “Why, Hitler is getting ready to commit suicide and is digging his own grave, Sir.” “How”, he questioned brusquely, imperiously beckoning me upstairs to explain myself. When I went upstairs I saw a mass of Assamese dictionaries and reference books piled up on high on his office table which made me even more afraid as to what was to be the outcome of this affair. At the same time, I thanked my lucky stars that by a fortuitous coincidence, I happened to read a few chapters of Robinson’s “History of Assam” the previous evening where mention had been made of Silk making in Assam. Their particulars were still fresh in my memory so I gave Mr. Gunning the entire process from beginning to end. "This very cocoon spinning is called “Letta Kundaise”, I emphasized and continued, “and now Hitler is doing the same thing. The cocoon will be his coffin in which he will entomb himself and die.” My meaning was that Hitler was making his own grave and preparing to commit suicide. My answer evidently convinced Mr. Gunning because he then smiled in relief and in the manner of a Prime Minister commending a favourite protégé he benignly replied in the old familiar manner, “ That’s quite alright, B-e-n-u-d-h-o-r, don’t worry about it anymore.” My relief can also well be imagined that the matter ended as it did. A lot of our people used to say that Mr. Gunning was extremely reluctant to shake hands with Indians and that on rare occasions when he was constrained to do so; he would immediately thereafter give his hands a good scrubbing with soap and water. Whether this was actually true or not I am unable to say, but I do know that I did not see him hurrying away to do so after he shook hands with me that day! No doubt he had some peculiar ways and was inclined to hold strongly to his views, yet if someone was able to convince him logically, he would readily hold himself corrected, so, he could by no means be called obstinate or pigheaded.
During those days during the Second World War, Mr. Gunning always went about by car and on the exceedingly rare instances he was seen out on foot, the whole of the town would be on tenterhooks. I was living round Chiring Chapri side at that time and one evening while I was standing near my gate, I was surprised to notice Mr. Gunning accompanied by Mr. Reid, the Superintendent of Police, strolling towards my way. As I was bare bodied except for a dhoti, I quickly stepped indoors and slipped on a vest. My heart was going pitter-pat by the time they reached my gate but I managed to stammer out a greeting to them to which they duly replied: Mr. Gunning in his usual drawling manner “Good evening, B-e-n-u-d-h-o-r”, and after saying a few words they went back the way they had come. The very fact that the two highest officials in the district had condescended to visit the humble abode of Benudhar Sharma was something totally out of the ordinary to all people of the locality, although the brief meeting could not have lasted longer than one or two minutes. This little event in itself gave rise to such wide publicity that the whole of Dibrugarh came to learn the same night that the two most important officers had visited the house of the “Tarun Assam” Editor. And what was even more inconceivable to them was the fact that they went on foot!!
I was amazed at the sudden spate of visitors who came to see me, one after the other, from about 9 o’ clock that night. Nearly all of them were officers of various degrees and all came with gifts for me! Some with biscuits, some with condensed milk and others with tins of costly cigarettes, which they insisted I accept, much to my embarrassment. Goodness only knew whether they were troubled by their conscience or were guilty of certain peccadilloes, but something definitely seemed to have been on their minds as they all were fervent in their requests that I keep them in good books of the Deputy Commissioner. I had all along been living in Chiring Chapri as quite a non-entity as no one had ever bothered calling me. After this visit however, I was treated with utmost respect and servility by everyone. My suddenly elevated status forcibly recalled to mind that my situation resembled that of the goat in the Assamese folk tale which goes, “A hungry tiger came to devour a billy goat one day but before doing so enquired, “Well, Billy goat, I am going to eat you for my dinner so tell me what relation you have to enable me to inform them of your untimely demise.” “Oh! Mr. Tiger, both my parents are dead and the only relative I now have is my uncle, Mr. Lion.” The tiger was considerably upset when he heard this as he thought that if he gobbled up Billy goat he would himself then be killed by the lion, who was the king of the beasts. He immediately allowed the goat to depart in peace and treated him with every mark of respect ever after.” Similarly, Mr. Gunning’s subordinates acted likewise towards me afterwards!