When Two Worlds Collided

This piece is in response to the feature on Swami Vivekandanda’s visit to Shillong titled, ‘When the Monk Visited Shillong’, dated January 10, 2021.

The author of the write up, on Swami Vivekananda’s visit, wrote about how the reply of Swamiji to Sir Henry Cotton was not known to the author. Fortunately, I know the subject through my study. Which I would like to mention here. 

During Swami Vivekananda’s visit to Shillong, Mr. Henry John Stedman Cotton, the then Chief Commissioner of Assam, 1901, first greeted Swamiji with a very warm hand shake and said, “Swamiji, I have invited you to come and stay here in Shillong, but I am afraid, after visiting so many advanced countries of Europe and America, you won’t find anything thrilling or exciting in this distant highland of ours” …

Swamiji smilingly replied, “Mr Cotton, each and every place, hill or river of my country is equally pleasant and sacred to me! Moreover, Shillong is a very beautiful place, your people named it as, ‘Scotland of the East’, is not it’? But I have come to Shillong for another reason.” 

Mr. Cotton asked in Bengali, Aar ekta ki kaaron Swamiji? (Translation: What is the other reason, Swamiji?) Swamiji was amazed and asked, “Do you know Bengali?” Mr. Cotton with a smile, said, “Yes Swamiji, I learnt Bengali while I was posted at Rangpur (East Bengal) as District Commissioner”.

Swamiji looked at him in praise and said, “Another reason of my coming here is to visit a great holy personality like you Mr. Cotton; I have heard much about you and your concern towards the welfare of my fellow Indians. While in Gauhati. I have heard of your extra ordinary enthusiasm to establish a college there, which will be a great help to the students’ community. The Assamese, Bengali, and the Tribal students of this region have no other alternative than to go to Calcutta, Dacca or Sylhet for higher education; you have done a great!”

Hearing his own appreciation from Swamiji, Sir Henry felt embarrassed and with all humility said, “No, no Swamiji, I could do nothing in comparison to your vast deeds! You have sacrificed your life for the welfare of the world!”

Stopping him, Swamiji said, “Mr. Cotton, I had many things to do for my Countrymen, but I could not do anything!” Tears rolled from him eyes, and he said, “Mr. Cotton, just think of the worst condition of my Countrymen! Plague outbreak in Maharashtra; famine in South and Central India! How helplessly my brethren, my mothers are being victims! Whereas, the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, is trying his best to snatch away the minimum democratic rights of the people from Calcutta Corporation. I have read in the ‘Statesman’ (Journal), Mr. Curzon, very proudly and scornfully did comment that Indians are not fit for any administrative service” …

While talking, he became excited, his face turned red, but he continued, “You will see! One day, I may not be alive, but my countrymen will awake, and administrators like Curzon will be swept away by the flood of Patriotism!” His voice was choked with strong emotion and he felt breathless! Mr. Henry stood there and very carefully stopped Swamiji; medicine was applied to him by his disciple. 

Being a bit relieved, Swamiji said, “I am sorry, Mr Cotton, please excuse me! I cannot control myself, when I think of my Country and Countrymen!” Sir Henry Cotton was spellbound to see such a burning example of patriotism!

This is, in brief, the incident of the first meeting and conversation between Sir Henry Cotton and Swami Vivekananda during Swamiji’s visit to Shillong, in April, 1901. The venue was the house of Roy Saheb Kailash Chandra Das Laban, near Battibazar, where Swamiji was lodged.

(For this piece, the author has referred to “Shillong Pahare Swami Vivekananda” by late Prof. Shyamadas Bhattacharyya)

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