Reminiscences of Sister Nivedita
By Novalis in the 'Tribune,' Lahore .
Out of the silence of months I emerge to pay a tribute of memory to one who has just crossed the borderland and passed on to the beyond from whence comes neither whisper nor message to the land of the living. Margaret Noble —Sister Nivedita—is dead and her work has been accomplished. When it comes to be put together that work may not amount to much because the time vouchsafed unto her was so short and she had perhaps no premonition of the angel-wings that had been beating about her summoning her silently to where her Master had gone before her.
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The qualities that she brought to bear on the work she did, deserve to be remembered for seldom did a truer or more generous nature throw in its lot with a cause so hopeless as that of India and with so much enthusiasm and hopefulness. One Anglo-Indian paper has called her love for India ' a craze ' and that is how other people will call it, for how many of them can fathom the depth of her nature or the passion that burned in her as a holy flame ? To the shallow critic and the casual observer she was only a crank —gifted beyond doubt but only a crank.
It is not for me however to attempt an appreciation of her work in this place. Mine as I have said is a tribute of memory, recalling her as I knew her in life. I saw her many times and talked with her for hours at a stretch and I shall here relate only incidents of actual happening, things and words as they may recur to the memory.
It was at Srinagar , Kashmir , that I first met her. I was living in a house-boat close to a donga occupied by Swami Vivekananda and we used to pass much of our time together. Our boats were moored close to the guest-house of the Maharaja. Some way up the river beyond the Residency was a boat in which there were three lady disciples of Swami Vivekananda, Nivedita being one of them. One morning as I came back from a stroll I stepped into Vivekananda's boat and found the three ladies there and introductions followed. Nivedita looked quite young and handsome. She had a full figure and a high colour and though her -eyes were very bright and vivacious she did not appear like a bluestocking or a very intellectual woman. But first appearences are frequently deceptive.
The Jhelum was flowing rippling below the keel of the boat. A cool, fresh morning breeze stirred the water into little wavelets flecked with fleeting foam. Over away in the distance towered Takht Suleman with the pillar on the top. On the bank were poplars and chinars and apple and pear trees laden with fruit. And so, half observant and half oblivious of the glorious nature outside, we fell into animated conversation. Sister Nivedita had a musical voice and spoke with the earnestness of an enthusiast. She wanted information on a hundred subjects. Swami Viveknanda pointed his finger towards me and smiled, " Yes, yes, peck his brains. He will give you all the information you want. " When leaving, one of the elderly ladies asked me to come and have tea with them the following afternoon.
After they had gone Swami Viveknanda told me a great deal about Sister Nivedita—her great accomplishments and range of knowledge, her passionate devotion to India . Then he told a little story. They had just returned from Amarnath, the famous shrine among the snows. Vivekananda had walked with the other pilgrims. As a young ascetic he had tramped over the greater part of India . Sister Nivedita had a dandy. When they had proceeded only a few stages she noticed an old woman among the pilgrims and saw that she was walking painfully and laboriously with the help of a stick. Nivedita promptly got out of her dandy, put the old woman in it and walked all the way out and back from the shrine. When I asked her afterwards about it she said she had two blankets, slept on the ground and had never felt better in her life.
But I never saw her in Srinagar again. I received a letter which necessitated my immediate return to Lahore and I left the next morning asking Swami Vive-kananda to make my excuses at the tea party.
a few days later I met her at Lahore . She was staying with the other two ladies at Nedou's hotel and we met almost every day. Sometimes we would keep on talking till late at night, one of the other ladies quietly sitting by and listening to the bewildering range of our conversation. There was hardly a thing relating to India tnat we did not discuss. She frequently praised the judicial balance of the cultured Indian mind and the passionlessness ot its outlook. Everything about her was sincere, frank and pure while her unaffected modesty was as charming as it was admirable. And I saw that she was a woman with an extraordinary intellect, of extensive and accurate reading. She was intensely impulsive, but eveiy impulse was generous and her earnestness ol purpose was consuming.
She wanted me to show her the city. Would she like to drive through the city ? No, she preferred to walk. A little slumming, I suggested, and she smilingly assented. So ope fine morning we entered the city by the Lohari Gate and tramped for over two hours, passing through every street and lane in the city. She was greatly interested in everything she saw—the children who started at her open-mouthed, the women veiled and unveiled, the men who lounged at street corners, the Brahminy bulls lapping the rock salt exposed for their use on the market stalls, the crowded houses. She took in everything and asked questions about everything. On coming out of the city we took a carriage and I drove her to the hotel.
There were other experiences. The Ram Lila was going on. We drove out to see it. The other ladies stayed in the carriage but Sister Nivedita got down and wanted to go into the crowd, As I accompanied her a policeman on duty seeing an Englishwoman began hustling the people and thrusting them aside to make a passage for her. In an instant Sister Nivedita's smiling demeanour changed. The blood rushed to her face, her eyes flashed indignant fire ; going up to the policeman she exclaimed, " What right have you to push these people ? You ought to be run in for assault." She spoke in English because she did not know the language of the country. The policeman did not understand her words but there was no mistaking her gesture and look. The man turned to me helplessly for an explanation and when he got it he slunk away looking sheepish and crestfallen. When we came out of the crowd I burst out laughing. Sister Nivedita turned to me saying, "Why "are you laughing at me ?" I explained to her that the sight of a policeman pushing people or even assaulting them was not a'.rare thing in India . She would not beleive it at first and became very indignant when I told her a few facts.t*
I met her next in Calcutta and was startled by the change that had taken place in her appearance. All the high colour of her complexion had disappeared. She had grown pale and thin and her face looked both intellectual and spiritual. She wore round her neck a slender chain of rudraksha. Sne looked quite the Brahmacharini she was. For several weeks she had been living on a plantain and a slice of bread. She had taken a small house in the heart of northern Calcutta and was teaching a few Bengali girls on the Kindergarten system. Would not some Indian women dedicate themselves to the service of India as she had dedicated herself ? That was why she had undertaken the instruction of Indian girls. She looked on everything Indian with the eyes of sympathy and love.
Her interests were as varied as they were wide. She was deeply interested in Dr. J. C. Bose's scientific researches. I met her at the house of the American Consul General in Calcutta in earnest conversation with a well known Japanese thinker and writer. I heard her speaking in public. She was a most eloquent and fascinating speaker but her thoughts and language were far too high pitched for the common audience. As a writer the charm of her style abides in her books. But I am thinking of the individual and not the writer—the clear, strenuous purpose, the fervour of faith, the human sympathy, the transparent sincerity, the selfless devotion to work.
On one occasion accompanied by a friend I went to see her in her house in Calcutta . We were told by another lady staying in the house that Sister Nivedita was seriously ill, suffering from meningitis. She was being treated by Dr. Nil Ratan Sircar, the famous Calcutta Physician. After several anxious days the crisis passed and the patient was pronounced out of clanger. Her time had not yet come. On recovery she went to England to recruit her health.
I saw her once again at Benares for a few minutes while the Indian National Congress was sitting in that city We were both pressed for time and there was not much conversation. And now she has gone to her rest, to peace everlasting, but those who had the privilege of kowing her will never forget her—her sweet yet forceful personality, her wonderfully pure life, white and fragrant as a lily.
- www.vivekananda.net edited by Frank Parlato Jr.