Swami Vivekananda, another prodigious son of Kolkata spent his whole childhood and youth in the lanes and bylanes of this city which shaped him for his future calling. Not unlike Tagore he was born in an affluent family in north Calcutta. Despite his wanderings across India and forays to the West, the city remained close to his heart and welcomed him back with open arms when he returned home after winning over the West. The people led off the horses and drew the carriage carrying him from Sealdah. Familiar with the living conditions of native quarters he asked his brother monks and Sister Nivedita to visit the slums of north Kolkata where people lived in unhygienic condition during the plague of 1898, writes Tarun Goswami.
The house at Simla, in one of the oldest neighbourhoods in north Kolkata where Swami Vivekananda was born as Narendra Nath Dutta (his pre-monastic name), had a thakur dalan and Durga Puja was held there every year. It also had a stable and Naren’s father, Biswanath Dutta, a well-established attorney presented him with a pony on his fourteenth birthday.
The neighbourhood had middle and upper middle class people living in the area. There were also houses of rich aristocrats like barrister, PN Mitra. The locality also had important institutions such as Scottish Church College and Bethune College. There was a tank at Hedua where Naren would often go swimming. The Star Theatre, Adi Bramho Samaj temple were situated close by. Naren, an accomplished singer often sang songs at the Adi Bramho Samaj temple on College Street. In 1881 he sang a song “Satya mangalo premamoyo tumi” composed by Rabindranath Tagore for Maghotsav. Later Swami Vivekananda became a friend of the famous opera singer Madame Ema Calve and even sang in French. A little distance away from Naren’s house there were neighbourhoods where lower classes resided including washer men. Here often yatra shows were held and children from elite families also came to watch the shows because of the limited source of entertainment available at that time, wrote Mahendranath Dutta, Swamiji’s younger sibling.
Narendranath grew up in a liberal atmosphere since his father, was an illustrious man and a connoisseur of Persian and Arabic culture. He could read and write Persian language and had engaged Muslim cooks to prepare Moghlai food even though the family had a Shiva temple inside the house. The liberal training at home made Naren a jovial and adventurous youth. He joined the gymnasium of Ambika Charan Goho and got a silver butterfly for displaying his fitness on horizontal bar at Hindu Mela which was held in 1876. A student of Scottish Church College, he often requested the college authorities to waive the tuition fees of poor, meritorious students. Satish Chandra Mukherjee, the founder of Dawn Society remembered that Naren, the class-mate of his uncle, was dear to his friends for his jovial attitude and adda sessions remained incomplete in his absence. He also showed his flair for debating. He played cricket at Town Club and once took seven wickets for 76 runs in a match in 1880.
The city was dear to Swamiji. In an article on Bengali language he remarked that the colloquial Bengali which the Kolkatans use for speaking and writing will be the language of the future. His prediction has come true. When he came back from the West, he was given a reception at the house of Pasupati Bose in north Kolkata. Swamiji said “East or West home is best,” adding “I am a boy from Kolkata and grew up playing on its streets.” Even later he would make trips to the city from Belur Math and on one such occasion his disciple, Sarat Chandra Chakraborty saw him walking down the street off Aheeritola Ghat with a packet of “chanachur” in his hand. He was enjoying the snack thoroughly and offered it to his disciple.
Following the death of his father Bhubaneshwari, his mother along with her five children would often stay at her parental house on Ramtanu Basu Lane, situated close to Naren’s ancestral house. Swamiji’s brother, Mahendranath Dutta, a scholar who penned several books on various issues of his times has given a description of the room where Naren had put up while studying for BA examination. There was a separate staircase to reach the room which Naren named as “tong er ghar” (room on the top). There were two tanpuras, a pair of tabla and a harmonium. There were also a few hookahs which Naren and his friends used to smoke along with a small cot, some mats for his visitors and an almirah to keep his books. From morning till evening his friends came to see him; he always complied with their request to sing songs.
Once, even Sri Ramakrishna came to see Naren when he did not turn up at Dakshineshwar for quite a few days. He waited outside and Naren came down running. Ramakrishna left a few minutes later after ascertaining he was well. Various festivals like Dol Purnima, Janmasthami were held almost in every household in the neighbourhood. Horse driven carriages and horse driven trams were the modes of transport and he often took boats to go to Dakshineshwar. After the death of his Guru, Swamiji had set up the Ramakrishna Mission at the house of Balaram Bose. The primary work of the mission also started from this city. During plague which took the form of an epidemic, the brother monks of Swamiji were seen distributing pamphlets to create awareness. Swamiji often mentioned to his Western disciples that his liberal family and the city which opened its arms to multicultural elements shaped his personality. Swamiji was overwhelmed by the warmth which Kolkata generated. In one of his letters he wrote, “I am carrying a fire in me.” He refers to the fire of love, cooperation and mutual respect which make the city so different from other cities in the country. Mumbai and Delhi are the business and political capitals of the country but Kolkata is not only the cultural capital but also secular in character; a city which had always hailed openness and still maintains its uniqueness.