Wednesday, 5 June 2013

In memory of Reeves Calkins

   ॐ वीरेश्वराय विद्महे विवेकानन्दाय धीमहि । तन्नो वीर: प्रचोदयात् ।

MY first impression of the Swami was not happy one. He had come to the World's Fair as India's representative at the Chicago Parliament of Religions, and I, a young preacher fresh from the University, did not greatly admire the magnificent ease with which he waved aside Christian history and announced a new Star in the East. I think it was his lordly manner that disturbed, somewhat, my American sense of democracy. He did not argue that he was a superior person, he admitted it. Afterwards, when I learnt that several cities, notably Boston, had formed Vivekananda Clubs, I was prepared to credit the report that, not his ideals, but his eyes, were leading captive silly American women, which was manifestly unfair. Then, for several years, I heard nothing further of him.
 

I reached India in December 1900, embarking at Naples on the "Rubattino" of the old Italian Line. It chanced that my seat in the saloon was at the end of one of the centre tables — which has considerable to do with my story. Mr. Drake Brockman, I.C.S., of the Central Provinces, occupied the first seat on the right, and another English Civilian whose name has escaped my memory sat opposite him. At Suez there was a shift at table, some of the passengers having left the vessel, and our first meal in the Red Sea saw a strange gentleman, in Indian habit, seated next to Mr. Drake Brockman. He was silent at that first meal, taking only a ship's biscuit and soda water, and leaving before the meal was finished. There was some question up and down the board as to the identity of the distinguished stranger, for, as was quite evident, he was no mean personage; whereupon a rough and ready traveller, disdaining delicacy, called to the chief steward to bring him the wine orders. Ostensibly looking for his own wine card, he drew forth a modest soda water slip which was handed round the table. "Vivekananda", in pencil, was what passed across my plate. In a moment I remembered the furore he had created at the Parliament of Religions, and looked forward with some interest to the coming days at sea.
 

My earlier impression of the Swami was still strong upon me, so I did not immediately seek his acquaintance; a bow at table answered every requirement. But I chanced to overhear one of the passengers speak his name, and add, "We'll draw him!" I suppose my instinct for fair play pulled me toward Vivekananda as his unconscious ally in the intellectual recounters of the next ten days. Perhaps he discerned my unspoken friendliness, for almost immediately, he sought me out.
 

"You are an American?"
"Yes."

"A missionary?"

"Yes."

 

"Why do you teach religion in my country?" he demanded.
"Why do you teach religion in my country?" I countered.

 

The least quiver of an eyelash was enough to throw down our guards. We both burst out laughing, and were friends.
 

For a day or two, at table, one or other of the passengers proceeded to "draw" the Swami — only he refused to be drawn! His answers were ready and usually sufficient; but, more than that, they were brilliant. They sparkled with epigrams and apt quotations. Presently the lesser wits learnt the valour of putting up their swords, all excepting Mr. Drake Brockman; his keen and analytic mind constantly cut across Vivekananda's epigrams and held him close to the logic of admitted facts. It worried the Swami a lot! The rest of the company soon lost interest and permitted our little group at the end of the table to hold uninterrupted forum, breakfast. tiffin, and dinner.