IN the year 1893 while I was a student reading in the Presidency College, Madras, I had the good fortune of coming into personal contact with Swami Vivekananda. It was shortly before he left for America to attend the Parliament of Religions at Chicago. He was then unknown to fame but his unique personality attracted a considerable number of people — a good proportion among them being students — to his informal talks. I do not recollect seeing at these meetings any of the leaders of Hindu society in Madras then, but there were students, teachers, second grade officials and vakils. It was after the Swami returned from America in 1897 with a name and a world-wide fame that the leaders and high grade officials and people used to flock in hundreds to listen to his talks and lectures. He was residing then (1893) with Mr. Bhattacharya (a Bengali gentleman, then Deputy Accountant General at Madras) in a house situated at a short distance from the southern end of the Marina. I used to go to this house in the evenings with some fellow students to listen to the Swami. We used to squat in the orthodox fashion very near the Swami on carpets spread on the floor. Vivekananda would smoke while talking. His talk touched on a large variety of subjects. And it was delightful to listen to him.
In those days a knowledge of the ancient Hindu philosophy and doctrines was far less spread among the English-educated Hindus in Madras than now; and there were also far fewer popular writings on the subject. Our great gods in those days were Mill, Herbert Spencer, Huxley, Leslie Stephen, and Haekel. To us theirs was the last word in philosophy, politics, and sociology. And so, Vivekananda's expositions — logical and trenchant as they were — came as wonderful surprises. We had however, no proper grounding to appreciate his expositions at their true worth. And the prejudices of some of us students in favour of the above-named European writers were hard to break through.
Once Vivekananda explained to us how the modern doctrine of evolution had been anticipated by our sage Kapila. On another occasion speaking of a Personal God and Impersonal God, he tried to show how the position of an agnostic or even atheist was really not one of negation, as they had to believe in continuity — a continuous Principle running through all eternity. The position of the orthodox Christians, he said, was illogical and untenable. An arbitrary and sudden creation of a soul and then its eternal damnation or salvation — it was like "a stick with only one end."
There was plenty of talk on lighter subjects. His own college days and the pranks that he and his fellow students played on some of their professors; how once they struck work and "went away and smoked". The stories of "the marvellous" which he told us I distinctly remember. One of these was of a blind man whose memory and sense of hearing were exceptionally acute. When the Swami was quite a young boy, this blind man had once heard him talk and sing. Years afterwards he came one night to a house where Vivekananda was staying. On hearing the Swami sing he at once recognized the voice and asked whether he was not the boy whom he had heard in such and such a year at such and such a place. This blind man while walking in the streets would clap his hands and listening to the sound would say, "Here on my right is a vacant space", or "There on my left is tall building", and so on. The other story was of a "magician", a man (a Mussulman, if I recollect correctly) who had acquired certain siddhis or (so-called) supernatural powers. A European wanted to test his powers, and one evening they drove together in an open carriage of the European to a street in Calcutta. While they were driving the "magician" said to the European, "Now ask for anything you want and I shall give you". The European thought for a moment and then said, "Give me a bottle of champagne", knowing that no such thing was in the carriage or anywhere near at hand. The "magician" stretched out his arm clutched at something in the air and brought in a bottle of champagne. Then saying "Now look", he waved his hand towards the right row of shops in the street and all the lights in that row were put out; while the lights in the opposite row were burning as before. Before the people in the street and shops could quite recover from their surprise, he waved his hand again and the lights in the right row were relit.
I am reminded of another story he told us while on the subject of the rude and at times insulting behaviour of Europeans in India to "Natives". Naturally, he spoke with much feeling on the subject as every self-respecting Indian would. Once, it seems, a solicitor in Calcutta was rude and insulting to an Indian barrister. The leading Indian clients and lawyers held a meeting and resolved to boycott that particular solicitor. "And from the next day", said Vivekananda, with an expressive gesture tilting his thumb towards his lips, "the solicitor had to suck his thumb."