Monday, 4 May 2015

Sink or Swim: The Bimal Kumar Chandra Story

“Ever heard of Bimal Kumar Chandra?” asked my friend Krishanu. I confessed I hadn’t. “Who was the first Indian to cross the English Channel”? Every Bengali child knows the answer to this question, for it was a Bengali, Mihir Sen. “Well, Bimal Kumar Chandra was the second. I can take you to his house if you like”. And just like that, we set off on a Sunday morning, to meet his younger brother, Amal Kumar Chandra.

Amal Kumar Chandra

The first thing I notice about Amal Kumar Chandra is his smile. It is the smile of a man who has been there, done that, and experienced everything that life has to offer. It is warm, welcoming, and perhaps a little embarrassed. There is no unseemly pride, nothing he does or says ever gives away the fact that he has walked with giants, and is a champion himself. I am warmly welcomed into the family’s North Calcutta residence. The neighbourhood is bursting at its seams with history. “Have you heard of Kanan Devi”? I nod. Kanan Devi was a singer and actress whose career began in the 1920’s. She would dominate the screen for the next three decades and her rags-to-riches story is legendary. “You see that hotel there?” Amal babu points to a humble establishment outside his window, “she used to work there as a child”. The neighbourhood was also home to the famous bodybuilder Manotosh Ray, the blind music composer Krishna Chandra Dey and his nephew, the recently deceased Manna Dey, as well as wrestler Jatindra Charan “Gobar” Guha. But we are here to talk about Amal babu’s elder brother, champion swimmer Bimal Kumar Chandra, the second Indian to cross the English Channel. Amal babu begins at the very beginning.

Dr. Bimal Kumar Chandra during the Channel crossing
He traces his family’s history back to Kidderpore, long before the docks existed there. When the East India Company requisitioned land to set up the docks, several villages had to be moved. Among those displaced were the Chandras, who came and settled in the Ahiritola neighbourhood of North Calcutta (Kolkata). Bhuvan Mohan Chandra had four sons, and many properties around Calcutta. His eldest, Suresh Chandra, he disinherited for marrying a foreigner. Suresh’s younger brother, Jogendralal Chandra inherited the property on Ram Dulal Sarkar Street. Jogendralal was a doctor, and was the classmate of Dr. Radha Gobinda Kar, after whom the R.G. Kar Medical College is named. A famous man in his time, he had written four medical books which were widely read. He worked as a ship’s doctor for a while, which allowed him to tour the world some 5 times. Among his collection of photographs are many monuments and buildings in Germany that were completely obliterated by Allied bombing during WWII. Jogendralal had two sons, Jugal Kishore Chandra (1900 - 1994), Gorachand Chandra (1909 - 1935) and an adopted daughter, Mrinalini Sen (1897- 1985). Jugal Kishore followed in his father’s footsteps and trained in medicine. His four sons were, Bimal Kumar Chandra (1926 -1998), Nirmal Kumar Chandra (1931 - 1997), Amal Kumar Chandra (1934 - present) and Parimal Kumar Chandra (1947 - present).

Jugal Kishore would visit Gangasagar as part of his work with the St. John’s Ambulance Service. The journey was by launch, and on one occasion he missed the launch due to a miscommunication. He happened to be at the wrong ghat and watched helplessly as the launch sailed away with his colleagues. Irritated and angry Jugal Kishore came home, only to hear on the radio later that evening, that the launch had sunk, and since none of the doctors on board knew how to swim, they had all drowned. This accident convinced Jugal Kishore that swimming was an essential skill that his sons should all know. The brothers started learning swimming under famous swimmer Shyamapada Goswami. Along with this there was more physical exercise at the “akhara” of Gobar Guha. This was just prior to India’s independence, and Amal babu remembers well the gruesome violence of the communal riots of the time. He also fondly recalls the family’s 1928 Morris Cowley in which the family visited the Nakhoda Masjid once the riots had stopped and how they were welcomed by the Muslim community.

With Dr. Bidhan Chandra Ray, Chief Minister, West Bengal
While all four Chandra brothers had trained as swimmers, it was the eldest brother, Bimal Kumar Chandra who was the unquestioned champion among them. In 1944 he represented Calcutta University in the All India University Swimming Championship and won. From 1948 to 1956, he dominated the national championships. But the defining moment came in 1958. Mihir Sen had just become the first Indian to cross the English Channel, and was giving a talk about his experience in Calcutta. Bimal Kumar Chandra happened to be present. Mihir Sen, says Amal babu, boasted that no Bengali would ever be able to break his record. Bimal Kumar was stung by the man’s arrogance, and decided to take up the challenge. 14 long hours of practice in the Ganges everyday would prepare him physically, but there was a financial hurdle as well. The passage money for a trip to England was Rs. 3000, rather a large sum at the time. Bimal Kumar Chandra appealed to the then Chief Minister of West Bengal, the legendary Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy. The Chief Minster agreed to help him out, but on one condition. “If you fail in your attempt, you have to return the money” he said. But such an eventuality did not arise, because on the 10 of September, 1959, Bimal Kumar Chandra successfully crossed the English Channel in 13 hours and 50 minutes. He was the second Indian, after Mihir Sen, to accomplish this feat, and the first Indian to cross from the French side.

Map of the route taken by Bimal Kr. Chandra
They say no one remembers the second man to land on the moon. That is not entirely correct because many can remember Edwin Aldrin, but in the case of Bimal Kumar Chandra, he was denied his due because of the support he had once received from Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy. With a change in government in West Bengal, the Chandras found themselves neglected. They were passed over for government honours and other awards. Stories are told in Bengal about how Mihir Sen’s opposition to Communism led to his complete financial ruin. Nothing of that sort, thankfully, happened to the Chandras. Bimal Kumar Chandra, like his father before him, had trained in medicine, and began practising as a doctor upon his return to Calcutta. His two sons are alive today, and it was his granddaughter who showed me around the house. I stare, amazed at a display case containing medals and trophies won by the Chandra brother. The upper shelves are dedicated solely to those won by Bimal Kumar Chandra, and there are simply too many there to count. Amal Babu says he is not bitter about his family being denied honours by the government. “We have never complained about it”, he says with a smile.

Trophies and medals won by the Chandra brothers
We climb up to the terrace to look at another historic building of the neighbourhood. Across the lane, is the sprawling house of W.C. Bonnerjee. Womesh Chunder Bonnerjee (Umesh Chandra Banerjee as per current spelling norms) was the first president of the Indian National Congress, and presided over its first session in Bombay (Mumbai) in 1885. He was also the first Indian to contest in the elections for the British House of Commons. I wonder how many members of the party he once headed have ever seen his house. Like the story of Dr. Bimal Kumar Chandra, of the little hotel where a famous singer once worked, of the blind music composer with a superstar nephew, this is yet another page in the story of Bengal’s past glory, which is gently fading away.

- by Deepanjan Ghosh


I am thankful to Krishanu Dutta and all members of the Chandra family for their support and encouragement.

No comments: