By Benudhar Sharma
"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.”
Those were days of the Second World War, when Britain was passing through deep travail and tumultuous times, 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 the Brits would never have tolerated anything written to his credit at the time. My Assamese weekly, Tarun Asom 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 nearly put me in serious trouble with the authorities. A slight digression will 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 Asom for daring to print that Hitler would conquer the world, and which 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 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.
Benudhar Sharma (1922)
During those days, 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 Asom 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!
Benudhar Sharma (1894-1981) is arguably Assam's most famous antiquarian, Sahitya Akademi Award winning author and former President of Assam's premier literary body, Assam Sahitya Sabha. This passage from his memoir ; Mojiyar Pora Mejoloi was translated into English by Avinibesh Sharma.