IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF XUANZANG: TAN YUN-SHAN AND INDIA
As I gather my
thoughts to write this article for the Centennial volume on my father
Prof. Tan Yun-shan, a vast amount of memories and impressions race through
my mind. After much
self-debate as to what to put in black and white, I decided to write about
both of my parents, since my mother was an inalienable partner of my
father in whatever endeavour he undertook.
This article is about both of them from the frame of reference of
their children, as we viewed them and perceived them while we grew up and
matured under their care into adulthood.
I will begin
with a small supernatural event which my father encountered over the South
China Sea which is now being brought out for the first time.
On one of his voyages between India and China, he went to the deck
of the ship at sunrise and saw what he described as the "Heart of
Lord Buddha" floating on the sea.
He went to summon his family, but when they arrived at the deck,
the "heart" had disappeared.
It is this event which probably later dictated what he would
undertake after he retired as the Director of Cheena-Bhavana.
He was going
to take up the momumental task of single-handedly creating the "World
Buddhist Academy" in Bodh-Gaya in his sixties from private donations
alone and without government help. To
any sane person, this was like trying to climb Mt. Everest alone without
oxygen. But no matter. For,
this was the call from a higher authority and must be carried out.
From a physicist's perspective, this was like Einstein's quest for
a Unified Field Theory, which he could never accomplish in his lifetime.
Father was a
very quiet, soft-spoken and humble person, who never became angry at
anyone and always avoided argument. But
he was also a very sensitive individual who was easily wounded by unfair
criticism of him. Instead of
confronting his critics, he withdrew himself to his study in silence and
often refrained from talking or taking food for the rest of the day.
Usually, he would slowly return to normal the following day.
association with Tagore, Gandhi and Nehru is well-known.
But it was the Mahatma who had by far the deepest influence in his
life, surpassing even that of Gurudeva.
In his mind, Gandhiji was the closest human being to God: in fact
he was God in a human body. When
Gandhiji visited Santiniketan, father spent many hours with him seeking
answers to intractable questions and general guidance in life.
To him, Gandhiji seemed to have answers to all the questions he was
observed Wednesday as the weekly day of rest as that was the day the
Mahatma first set foot on Ashram soil.
Following Gandhi, father observed a day of silence on Wednesdays.
Later on, as life became more complicated, and pressure of work
became more intense, he was forced to curtail his silence.
First he ended his silence after lunch on Wednesdays, and later
Gandhi again, he wanted to be a complete vegetarian, but here he had
difficulties. He was the head of a large family with several growing
children, and he understood the importance of a balanced nutrition.
I used to sit closest to him around the dining table and I vividly
remember that every time he was served meat by a family member, he would
let out a gentle groan as if to ask for forgiveness.
One item he relished was eggs, for Gandhiji had given him full
permission to treat eggs as vegetarian food.
Father lived a
saintly life in a family setting. He
woke up every morning and witnessed sunrise as he did yoga commencing with
"Suriya Namaskar". He
would then pick a basketful of flowers and laid them on his prayer table
in his study at Cheena Bhavana. He
would light up incense and pray to Lord Buddha.
He would repeat his prayers at the prayer table in the family
residence. He family often
joined him in his prayers but were also frequently absent.
I often felt that the second prayer was on behalf of the family.
He would repeat his prayers after practising yoga in the evening.
Father was an
avid reader who compiled his own library in his study at Cheena Bhavana. His books were mostly on philosophy, religion and history.
But to my dismay, there was a total dearth of scientific and
technical books in his study. There was only one book on the human body and another on
tropical medicine. He had a
complete set of Encyclopedia Britannica from which we could extract useful
information and hard data. A
large fraction of his books were authored by Swami Sivananda, a prolific
writer from his Ashram in the Himalayas.
Sivananda sent him every book he had written free of cost and
corresponded with him regularly, even though they had never met each other
in person to my knowledge. Publications
from Sri Aurobindo's Ashram and Maha Bodhi Society among others also
Father was an
architect and a landscaper. Besides
Cheena Bhavana, he designed and built several houses around it.
Just as Gurudeva had added and appended rooms, corridors and floors
to Uttarayan over the years, so did father to our residence behind Cheena
Bhavana, albeit on a smaller scale. With
the help of malis, he planted all the shade trees, flower trees and hedges
around Cheena Bhavana which one sees today.
Father was a
man of simple living and high thinking.
He ate little and never smoked in his life.
He had little desire of earthly possessions.
The only luxury items he had was a Rolex watch which he wore
constantly in his pocket and several Parker pens.
In his early years in Singapore, he used to visit to ocean-front
and wrote poems in his pastime. In
his later years at Santiniketan, he practised Chinese calligraphy.
Father was an
optimist and never dwelt in negatives.
He was never afraid of disaster if financial situation was hard or
a family member became sick. And
he never panicked in a crisis. He
always believed that "everything will be all right".
Perhaps that belief stemmed from his own belief in a divine power.
And now about
my mother. If father
dedicated his entire life to the cause of Sino-Indian relations, so did
mother indirectly by standing on his side throughout her life.
Her life was a model study of the silent partner in the shadow. She, like father, came from an educated family in Hunan
Province of China and was the principal of a school in Malaya before she
met father. In addition to
her duties as the principal, she also taught science and mathematics.
My own scientific and mathematical interests must have come from
Mother was a
hard-working parent, who took the brunt of the daily life and successfully
raised seven children besides taking care of father.
A tireless worker, she toiled from dawn to dusk in those days when
daily amenities were hard to come by at Santiniketan.
In later years facilities improved in Bolpur and Santiniketan, but
the number of visitors to our house increased steadily and mother had the
additonal burden in providing food and shelter for them.
She had no break; no vacation that I can remember of.
Yet she still managed to write articles for a Chinese daily in
Singapore. She also attended
the "Mahila Samiti" until it disbanded.
very different from father. Father
was a Gandhian, while mother considered Gurudeva as a better model for the
average person. Whereas
father was an idealist and philosophical, mother was practical and
down-to-Earth. While father
believed in self-healing, mother was a firm believer of modern medicine.
Father believed in prayers but mother believed in practical
solutions to problems. But
different as they might have been, their natures were complimentary to one
another which served the family well.
There was a
general division of labour in the family and the harder part of carrying
out domestic chores fell entirely on the shoulders of mother.
She raised a vegetable garden that was deserving of winning awards.
She gave away her produce to friends and neighbours.
All this she did for others. She
never demanded anything for herself.
"Sacrifice" is one word that characterised her entire
Both of our
parents were loving and caring individuals, who did not exhibit their
feelings in accord with the great tradition of the eastern cultures.
Both wanted the best in their children and both were impartial as
far as practicable. Father
wanted his children to reach lofty heights in whichever profession they
chose. Mother wanted her
children to purpose endeavours which would be useful to mankind.
youngest sons were migrating to America, mother broke down in tears not
knowing when she would see them again.
But to father, they were joyous occasions.
I learned later that when the plane was airborne, father raised his
hand in the air and held it there for a prolonged while as if to send a
blessing for a brighter life! I have carried that blessing with me ever
©1999 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi
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