Sabyasachi Guha was born in Kolkata on May 1, 1953, six years after India’s independence from the British rule. The second of eight siblings (Shikha (sister), Sabyasachi, Anindita, Parthasarthi, Sanghamitra, Falguni, Arindam and Anindam), Guha’s father, Ajit Ranjan Guha, was a respected doctor and mother, Sulekha Devi, was a soft-spoken, pious lady. When Guha was a baby, Kolkata, largest city at that time and former capital of India, was witnessing large-scale communal violence, food shortages, unemployment and a huge influx of refugees from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Guha says, “My parents were refugees from Bangladesh. In those days refugees were relocated in abandoned dwellings vacated by Muslims (after the Partition of India in 1948) and my family was given a house in Howrah.”

Guha was five years old when the family moved to Hindmotor (about 12 km from Howrah station), a small town in Hooghly District situated on the western bank of the river Ganges. The town is so called because Hindustan Motors had a manufacturing plant there since 1948 where India’s first car was made, the now defunct Ambassador. Guha recalls, “In those days the entire area was full of refugees and the government, through a lottery system, was allotting each family a piece of land in Hindmotor. There was a lot of trade union activity going on in that town at the time so my father chose to live there. He was a well-known communist and a social worker and was always involved with political parties and their agendas. Soon local politicians became my dad’s patients.” In 1960 when Guha turned seven the family acquired a plot of land and built a house to accommodate their growing family. That house in Hindmotor is still the family home today.

Young GuhaGuha says, “My conscious life began in Hindmotor. There, during my childhood, while studying in Kotrang Bhupendra Smriti Vidyalaya (KBSV), I used to run away from home and travel ticketless to many places, sleeping in cardboard boxes at night. Many a time I would hoodwink our family help and run away outside in the intense heat to play with friends and swim in the Ganges. Also, I was a soccer-crazy boy; I was only interested in playing soccer and nothing else. As I was showing no interest in my studies at all, at the age of 13 I was sent to a boarding school run by my mother’s guru. Even though my father was a communist, my mom was deeply involved in religious and spiritual activities. Interestingly, my paternal grandmother was a leader of a small religious group and wielded a lot of clout in the community. My mother’s guru’s name was Paramhamsa Durga Prasanna Brahmachari. He was a guru bhai (brother) of Sivananda Saraswati of Rishikesh. They were both disciples of Swami Nigamananda Saraswati of north.”

So now we get a picture of the young Guha who is rebellious, free-spirited, loves soccer but is a lackluster student. What is not known was his keen observation of socio-cultural hierarchies, his sense of justice and equality and sympathy with the underdog even at that tender age.  For instance, he used to watch with puzzlement how his mother behaved with the harijans (outcastes) who cleaned the toilets and bathrooms. While paying them for their work she would do so from a distance and drop the money into their palms so as not to touch them, even accidentally. Guha felt that left behind a divisive conditioning which he could not fathom at that age. Years later, when Guha was older, he would go up to them and hold their hands for a long period of time just to test if it felt any different touching a person who was deemed an “outcaste” or an “untouchable” by the society. Guha says, “I refused to believe that something was wrong with those people. Many times conditioning works deeper than logic. However, the belief structure can crumble in front of burning discrimination.”

Guha always showed respect for women and could not tolerate teasing or any harassment meted out to them. As a teenager while hanging out with his friends, many a time he observed that they would be whistling or making lewd remarks when a pretty girl passed them on the street — unfortunately not an uncommon occurrence in India. Although Guha did not voice his displeasure and never joined them in their “fun”, he always ensured that the situation did not get out of hand and the boys did not infringe on the girl’s freedom, even if it meant (as it did occasionally) intervening and getting into a scuffle.

As mentioned earlier, Guha was sent to a boarding school (1966-67) where he completed grades 8 and 9. The Durga Prasanna Brahmachari High School in Palasi in 24 Paraganas, was located about 100 km from Hindmotor. In those days he had to take three different trains, then a bus and lastly walk for half an hour to reach the school. Guha reminisces, “It was torture for me to get up before sunrise, wear a dhoti, take kushasana and recite prayers and meditate for half an hour every morning. Since there was no time to play during the day, I used to get up at 4 am to practice soccer and only then attend the daily prayers. Every day we prayed to the guru:

Gurudev daya karo deen jane

Gurudev kripa karo gyan hine

(Gurudev have pity on us poor people, Gurudev have mercy on us ignorant people)”

Guha continues, “During summer vacations, Durga puja time or other school breaks when I came home I used to regularly visit the Dakshineshwar Temple, where the famous saint Sri Ramakrishna Paramhamsa had lived. I would ride on my bicycle, put the bicycle on the boat while crossing the Ganges and then again ride on the bike to the temple from the river. I found the whole thing very appealing, kind of an entertaining drill for me. I liked to experiment on myself. I had heard and read about how Swami Vivekananda was affected when Ramakrishna touched him – so I used to meditate in Ramakrishna’s room to find out for myself if it worked with me. But nothing ever happened (laughs). I had also learnt yoga asanas from my father and in time I became good in yoga, pranayama and meditation. Once you close your eyes, the body gets into a particular rhythm.” After spending two years in the boarding school, Guha came back to Hindmotor and completed his SSLC (secondary school leaving certificate) at the KBSV.

Talking about his time at the boarding school, Guha recalls a couple of incidents: “I was to take part in a soccer tournament while I was home during vacation. However, the tournament got postponed for some reason. It was rescheduled to be played a month later when I would be back to my boarding school. I was very sad that I couldn’t play the match. Anyway, it so happened that back in school while I was doing an experiment in the science laboratory working with some chemicals, I got injured and my fingers got mildly burnt. It wasn’t serious but the school authorities decided to send me home to recuperate. Thus, I returned home just in time to play in the soccer match!

“Another strange incident I recall is about Khokon, an odd soul who lived with our family from a young age. He was deaf and mute and would run errands in the vicinity of the house but never ventured too far because of his handicap. One afternoon I was in my hostel when I suddenly saw Khokon standing in front of me. Till this day it’s a mystery to me as to how he could have reached my school on his own. The school is about 100 km from home and the bus to the school stops every five minutes and you have to know the exact bus stand where to get off, then walk for about half an hour, and then you come to the main bamboo gate. Anyway, he was so happy to see me; he spent about an hour with me. Then I gave him some food and money and sent him back home on the bus.”

Guha recalls he used to have romantic inclinations towards a girl he had been corresponding with for some time. His father came to know about this and to distract Guha from pursuing the romance he presented to him two books – one, a biography of Albert Einstein and another on the teachings of Swami Vivekananda. The ploy worked. “The book on Einstein did some magic on me,” Guha recalls laughingly. He developed passionate interest in physics. From being a soccer-crazy boy and a mediocre student, Guha’s academic aspirations soared; he began to devote long hours to studies so that he could become an eminent scientist. His efforts paid off; he was accepted at the celebrated Presidency College in Kolkata to pursue higher studies.

Guha’s life took a dramatic turn at Presidency College. A year into his studies, the idealist Guha abruptly quit college to join an underground revolutionary movement to fight for the poor peasants and farmers and eradicate poverty. Guha writes in 14 Days in Palm Springs with U.G., “I had left my home and was leading a dangerous life. Every moment death and imprisonment followed me everywhere like a shadow.  With a dream of providing food, clothing and shelter to millions of poor and destitute countrymen, I plunged into revolutionary activities.  Day by day, half-hungry, with hardly any rest, in this weak and suffering body, only the two eyes were shining with the hope turning the seventies into a decade of truth and freedom.”  After many months of living perilously as a fugitive, Guha escaped to Varanasi. Living undercover, Guha whiled away time playing soccer and extensively reading philosophy in the library of the famed Benares Hindu University.

Varanasi ghats
Varanasi ghats

It was in Varanasi that Guha who was then barely 21 began to introspect on the larger theme of life and his “role in the grand scheme of things”.  It was in this frame of mind when one night, sitting on the steps leading to the Ganges, he saw a dead man floating in the river under his feet. Looking closely at the inert body, Guha thought in wonderment, That corpse could have been me! The very thought of his own mortality stunned him and, in a strange way, started a chain of thoughts questioning the life he was leading and the goals he was pursuing. Why am I leading this life fraught with danger where death lurks in every corner? What will I achieve by sacrificing my life in such a manner? Why am I wandering like a vagabond, causing untold misery to my family? These thoughts were now causing him deep frustration and inner conflicts. He started looking for answers in traditional Hindu scriptures such as The Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali as well as western philosophy and Zen Buddhist texts. He also read about the lives of famous sages and saints of India. He was particularly drawn to Sri Ramakrishna after reading Swami Vivekananda’s books.

The Incubation

Leave a Reply