17 Apr 2014

Sri Aurobindo’s Accident in November 1938 ― by Krish Patwardhan

In the paragraph below from the Lives of Sri Aurobindo (pp. 381-82), Peter Heehs not only misrepresents Sri Aurobindo’s relation with the Mother but gets one of the most basic facts wrong in the life of Sri Aurobindo, namely, the fracture of his right leg in the early hours of 24 November, 1938. Heehs, disregarding the factual accounts of Nirodbaran and Champaklal (the two disciples who personally served Sri Aurobindo during his last twelve years), writes that it was “a fracture of the left thigh close to the knee”! I wonder how he got his facts so wrong despite all the hagiographic fanfare about his 40 years of research on Sri Aurobindo. Either he must have got some fresh evidence (perhaps the lost X ray plates that Nirodbaran mentions in his account), in which case he should have given a clear reference to it in his endnotes. But endnote 94 of this portion refers to two sources, A.B. Purani’s introduction to his Evening Talks of Sri Aurobindo and Nirodbaran’s Twelve Years with Sri Aurobindo, both of which don’t corroborate Heehs’s remarkable discovery. Nirodbaran writes of “a fracture of the right femur above the knee” and there are at least half a dozen references to the right leg from the day of the fracture to Sri Aurobindo’s recovery a couple of months later. Champaklal, the closest attendant of Sri Aurobindo during this period, also recounts the incident in detail and describes how Sri Aurobindo “slipped on the leopard skin on the threshold and his right knee hit the leopard's head”. How did Heehs confuse the right leg with the left leg and how did this mysterious switch take place? My guess is that he got it wrong because he presumes (as he himself says in his Preface) that the version of the disciples should be necessarily doubted. So he naturally went overboard by questioning even the facts narrated by them as first-hand witnesses and replaced them with his own version of events. This is what happens when so-called historians lose their common sense!

I reproduce below the paragraph relating to Sri Aurobindo’s accident in the Lives of Sri Aurobindo by Peter Heehs on pages 381-82, followed by extracts from the first chapter of Nirodbaran’s Twelve Years with Sri Aurobindo and ending with an extract from Champaklal Speaks on p 101.

Peter Heehs, Lives of Sri Aurobindo, pp 381-82

Around two o'clock that morning, while crossing to the bathroom, Sri Aurobindo stumbled over the tiger skin and fell. There was a sudden flash of pain. After years of practice he had developed the ability to transform most types of discomfort into ananda or bliss, but the pain he was feeling went beyond his threshold. He tried to get up and failed, then lay back quietly. After a short while, the Mother entered. Attuned inwardly to her partner, she had felt in her sleep that something was wrong. Seeing him on the floor, she went quickly to her room and rang the emergency bell. A.B. Purani rushed up and met her at the head of the stairs. "Sri Aurobindo has fallen down," she told him. "Go and fetch Dr. Manilal." Manilal Parekh, a distinguished physician of Baroda, had come to Pondicherry for the darshan. Within a few minutes he was at the patient's side. Each time the doctor turned the injured leg, Sri Aurobindo uttered a short "Ah!" The diagnosis was not long in coming: a fracture of the left thigh close to the knee. Sri Aurobindo heard the verdict in silence. [emphasis added]

(Peter Heehs, Lives of Sri Aurobindo, pp 381-82)

Endnote Reference on page 458:
94. A. Purani, ed. Evening Talks, 12-13; Nirodbaran, Twelve Years, 1-5.

Twelve Years with Sri Aurobindo by Nirodbaran

Breaking the profound silence the emergency bell rang from the Mother's room. Purani rushed up and found the Mother at the top of the staircase. She said, "Sri Aurobindo has fallen down. Go and fetch Dr. Manilal." Fortunately, he had come for the Darshan from Gujarat. Soon he arrived and saw that Sri Aurobindo was lying on the floor in his bedroom. On his way to the bathroom he had stumbled over a tiger skin. The doctor made a preliminary examination and suspected a fracture of the right thigh bone; he asked the Mother to send for assistants. It appears that Sri Aurobindo while passing from his sitting-room to the bathroom (probably revolving some lines of Savitri) fell with his right knee striking the head of a tiger. (p 3)

When we other doctors came up, we saw Dr. Manilal examining Sri Aurobindo's injured leg. The Mother was sitting by Sri Aurobindo's side, fanning him gently. I could not believe what I saw: on the one hand Sri Aurobindo lying helplessly, on the other, a deep divine sorrow on the Mother's face. But I soon regained my composure and helped the doctor in the examination. My medical eye could not help taking in at a glance Sri Aurobindo's entire body and appreciating the robust manly frame. His right knee was flexed, his face bore a perplexed smile as if he did not know what was wrong with him; the chest was bare, well-developed and the finely pressed snow-white dhoti drawn up contrasted with the shining golden thighs, round and marble- smooth, reminiscent of Yeats's line, "World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras". A sudden fugitive vision of the Golden Purusha of the Vedas! (pp 3-4)

The radiologist arrived with his X-ray machine at about 11 p.m. and stirred us into action. He was quite a smart young man carrying a confident air and went about his business in a formal manner. He took a few films and developed them at once which was a great relief to us. But the diagnosis came like a stunning blow. The Mother was shown the pictures revealing an impacted fracture of the right femur above the knee, two fragments firmly locked together. (p 9)

Then there was the right foot that drew our attention. It had shrunk and shrivelled up, due to impeded circulation and inactivity, to almost half its size. The skin of the sole had become dry like parchment. The Mother brought some fine white cream and asked me to apply it, Sri Aurobindo sat up, his right leg extended and the Mother stood by, watching the application. (p 22)

The first day he got up to use the crutches was a memorable one for us. In the presence of the Mother we made him stand up, handed him the crutches and showed him how to use them. He fumbled and remarked, "Yes, it is easy to say." Two or three different pairs were tried out, but as he could not handle them properly, the Mother proposed that he had better walk leaning on two persons – one on either side; It was certainly a bright suggestion, for Sri Aurobindo walking on crutches would have reminded us of his own phrase about Hephaestus' "lame omnipotent motion", – an insult to his shining majestic figure. Purani and Satyendra were selected by Dr. Manilal as his human supports, much less incongruous than the ungainly wooden instruments! That was how the re-education started. The paradox of the Divine seeking frail human aid gave food to my sense of humour. However, both men proved unequal in stature; the Mother made Champaklal replace Satyendra on the left side. Now the arrangement was just and perfect and Champaklal had his aspiration fulfilled. His was the last support Sri Aurobindo was to give up. For, as his steps gained in strength and firmness, he used a stick in the right hand, and Champaklal on the left. Finally he too was dropped. (p 24)

(Nirodbaran, Twelve Years with Sri Aurobindo, pp 3-24)

Champaklal Speaks, p 101

     In the salon, often till late in the night, Mother and Sri Aurobindo replied to letters from sadhaks. Then Mother retired and Sri Aurobindo went for his bath. Before retiring Mother would keep his dinner ready in that corner room. At the same time I would bring tea, milk and soup from my room and keep them also there for Sri Aurobindo's dinner. After his bath Sri Aurobindo went there for his dinner. While he ate, I cleaned and wiped the bathroom; and after he finished I carried the dishes to my room in Library House for cleaning.

     The accident to his leg took place immediately after I had gone to my room. The Mother had retired to her salon and Sri Aurobindo was alone. While going back to his room he slipped on the leopard skin on the threshold and his right knee hit the leopard's head.

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