Dr Hiranmoy Ghoshal was born into a renowned zamindar family in Bengal. His father, Raibahadur Kali Saday Ghoshal, was a high ranking police officer in erstwhile Calcutta. His cousin, Panchanan Ghoshal, was also an Indian police officer who later became a pioneering crime fiction writer on the advice of Asia’s first Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore.
The multi-faceted Dr Hiranmoy Ghoshal was a writer, journalist, polyglot, diplomat, professor and the first known Indian to set foot in Poland. Dr Ghoshal was a multilingual genius who could speak 26 languages, the first-ever Indian authority on the Slavic group of languages, and the author of nine books in Bengali and two in English. He translated Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol into Bengali and accomplished a PhD on Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. Dr Ghoshal was also probably the only Indian to write a book on first-hand experiences of the catastrophic World War II in Poland.
Despite having such an erudite personality, internationally-acknowledged fame, and an illustrious career as a scholar, Dr Ghoshal remains an inconspicuous name not only in his home state of West Bengal but also his birth country of India. It was the World War II-ravaged Poland that not only gave him a prestigious job as a professor in the Indology Department of Warsaw University but also significantly acknowledged his scholarship.
Why was this Indian man of letters forgotten? Mira S Ghoshal, Dr Ghoshal’s daughter, who was born to his second wife Halina Kosinkiewicz, says, “Believe it or not, my father was actually disowned by his own country. The Indian government had thrown him out of the job after he served as the First Secretary, Culture, at the Indian Embassy in Moscow.” “We still don’t know why a renowned scholar like him was thrown out of the foreign service… I really want to know: What was his crime?” Warsaw-born Mira asks.
Dr Ghoshal was initially appointed as a cultural attaché in the Indian Embassy in Moscow in 1947. The then ambassador in the erstwhile Soviet Union was Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit. Her disdain for Ghoshal was evident in an extract from a “confidential demi-official letter” she wrote to the foreign ministry on March 29, 1948.
‘SHALL BE GLAD TO SEE HIM GO’
The letter says, “My real headache is Ghoshal. He came here as official interpreter but I have never been able to use him for this purpose because I do not trust him he is inclined to wander around making what he terms ‘cultural contacts’ in preference to sitting at his desk.” Pandit added, ” Ghoshal delights in surrounding himself with an aura of false humility which irritates me exceedingly and results in making me despise him — for which I am rather shamed. Later on, if you have another job for him I shall be glad to see him go.”
Pandit’s brother Jawaharlal Nehru too displayed a similar attitude towards Ghoshal. In an earlier correspondence with his diplomat sister on August 26, 1947 (later published in Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru) the then Indian prime minister clearly highlighted some issues about the language expert from Kolkata.
“He may have some leisure to study, but he must not do this at the cost of his official work. If he is not prepared to function as we want him to function, then he will have to return and seek some other job,” a seemingly miffed Nehru wrote. Nehru was replying to a previous mail by ambassador Pandit, who had complained to her brother about Dr Ghoshal saying that he “had refused to work as an interpreter as he thought this was not part of his duties and preferred to undertake research for which he wished to purchase books and journals and also wished his wife to join him in Moscow”.
In his stinging reply and while showing the utmost disdain for the Indian scholar, Jawaharlal Nehru said, “Research is rather a high-sounding word. What one expects from Dr Ghoshal is to study cultural trends in Russia, especially literary developments. He may buy a few books, but we cannot provide a library for him. If he wants to consult books he should go to the existing libraries there.” Evidently, the brother-sister duo didn’t quite like Ghoshal’s proactive “research” and “cultural contacts”.
Dr Ghoshal survived Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit’s tenure in Moscow and was promoted as first secretary at the Moscow embassy in September 1950 after Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan replaced Pandit as the new ambassador of India in the Soviet Union. But, he was mysteriously and quite inexplicably dumped from the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) within months.
His termination letter in February 1951 stated: “In view of pressing need for economy Government have decided to abolish a number of posts in the Foreign Service. In the circumstances we regret offer of appointment to you in the Foreign Service has to be withdrawn. You should relinquish your appointment in Moscow and return to India immediately [sic]”
“After he was dismissed from the diplomatic service, my heartbroken father headed to London to pursue a new life, but the British government didn’t do any favour to him. He couldn’t find any suitable full-time jobs and that prompted my father’s return to his homeland of India,” says his daughter Mira.
Dr Ghoshal, who had graduated in French and philosophy from the Presidency College (now a full-fledged university) in Calcutta, returned to India in 1956 and devoted himself, quite mysteriously, to studying the languages of the tribes living in the border zone between India, China and Burma (now Myanmar). This was the region that saw the entry of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army (INA) into British India.
In 1957, the country of his in-laws, Poland, enticed Dr Ghoshal back and he took the position of a reader, going on to become a professor. A year after returning to Warsaw, the Indian widower married Mira’s mother, and she was born the following year, in 1959. Interestingly, Ghoshal’s first wife was also Polish and had shared the same name of Halina with his second.
In 1963, Dr Ghoshal made a family trip to Russia, a decade after his inglorious exit as a “dumped” diplomat. In Moscow, he stayed at the official residence of an old friend from the diplomatic circle –Triloki Nath Kaul, an early Indian diplomacy stalwart and a Kashmiri Pandit like the Nehrus, who was heading the Indian mission in Moscow at that time. “TN Kaul was a perfect host for us but after meeting his old friend, my father told us, quite surprisingly, that Kaul has ‘changed’,” says Mira.
There would be a significant twist to India’s history a few years later that saw Kaul’s ‘unusual’ presence. Kaul was the incumbent Indian ambassador to the Soviet Union when Lal Bahadur Shastri passed away under mysterious circumstances while he was still the prime minister of India. Kaul was with the prime minister in Tashkent and was staying in the same villa that hosted Shastri in the capital of modern-day Uzbekistan.
Soon after the prime minister’s death on January 11, 1966, Kaul, one of the first Indian officials to reach the deceased Shastri’s bedside, ensured the body was flown back to India without any autopsy. Several unverified reports connect Shastri’s death with the 1945 disappearance of Netaji. Attributing forensic studies and face mapping, some of these reports claim to have found a resemblance between Netaji and an unidentified man seen accompanying then PM Shastri in Tashkent.
Kaul’s role during Shastri’s death always remained suspicious for a group of Indians who believed in foul-play behind the prime minister’s death at a crucial juncture in South Asia’s history — Shastri had signed the Tashkent Declaration, which formally ended the 1965 India-Pakistan war, just a day before.
On September 24, 1969, with the dust of the curious case of Shastri’s demise having almost settled, Dr Ghoshal breathed his last in Warsaw. A few years later, Kaul would make a dramatic re-entry in the Ghoshal family.
THE MOTHER-DAUGHTER’S FLIGHT
Currently based in the Polish village of Teresin near the Polish capital Warsaw, musicologist Mira was just 10 when her father passed away. She relocated to New York along with her mother a year after Dr Ghoshal’s death. But that trans-continental immigration underwent a series of dramatic events.
Poland was then grappling with a shipyard workers’ rebellion against the Stalinist regime over a sudden increase in prices of food and everyday essentials in the port city of Gdansk, resulting in several deaths. Against this backdrop, Mira’s mother fled Poland along with her in February 1971 after transiting from the Baltic port city of Gdansk to Hamburg in northern Germany.
The mother and daughter declared themselves as refugees and were shifted to a camp in a village near Nuremberg. A month later, for reasons still unknown to Mira, they were taken to Munich and placed under the surveillance of the US spy agency Central Intelligence Agency inside a compound where the American soldiers and secret service officials were living.
“Although I was very young, I still remember that my mother used to tell me that she was asked to ‘testify’ against my father,” claims Mira. That continued for a few weeks before the CIA officials drove the émigré mother and daughter from Munich to Colon and then flew them to New York City. There, a new life began for Mira in the world’s business capital.
RE-ENTRY OF MR KAUL
A few years later, Mira dramatically bumped into Triloki Nath Kaul in the Big Apple. A grown-up Mira was orphaned by then after her mother’s untimely death. At that point in time, she started making several rounds of the Indian consulate in New York City, searching for her paternal family back in India. She didn’t have any contact or correspondence with her father’s family members and was desperately looking for her blood relations.
One day in 1975, Mira had a chance meeting with Kaul at the consulate who, as the then Indian ambassador to the United States, was visiting New York City on official work. “Kaul was the Indian ambassador in [US capital] Washington DC, but by sheer coincidence, he was there at the NY consulate when I landed up there to ask them once again to find my relatives in Kolkata. Both Kaul uncle, as I used to address him, and his daughter readily recognised me,” Mira recalls.
“Since then, Kaul uncle invited me to his residence a few times, and I still remember his great hospitality,” Mira adds, “But despite myself asking him many times about my father’s family address and the whereabouts of his extended family in Kolkata during those interactions, he never shared any contact details or any other information with me. He always stonewalled my relentless and rather restless pursuit of my Indian family history and search for my beloved father’s roots.”
“The seasoned diplomat and the family friend, quite mysteriously, either feigned ignorance, dillydallied, or bypassed that topic every time I asked him about my father’s immediate relatives or his ancestral home in Kolkata.”
Since Dr Ghoshal was a former diplomat with the government of India and his family had a good reputation back home, it would have been quite easy for a top diplomat and the Indian foreign ministry to trace the permanent address of an ex-government employee who was from a metro like Calcutta. But Kaul, who had earlier served as foreign secretary and was one of India’s most influential diplomats of that era, was evidently not paying any heed to the repeated requests of the orphaned teenager despite being her father’s former colleague.
A waif Mira’s soul-stirring search finally ended when she found her only surviving immediate family member, brother Bogdan (his Indian name was Devdan), through one of Dr Ghoshal’s friends. That paved the way for her discovery of other immediate members of the Ghoshal clan, predominantly based in their ancestral home in Tollygunge in Kolkata. At that time, Dr Hiranmoy Ghoshal’s closest brother Shantimoy and his partially hearing-impaired daughter were still living in their family house on Golf Club Road in Kolkata.
“When I visited them, I became emotional. It was a sort of homecoming for me,” says Mira, for whom the trip turned out to be a revelation about her father’s extraordinary life. “My aunt and Shantimoy’s wife, Basanti Ghoshal, told me that my unabashedly patriotic father used to spy for Netaji when the he escaped from India via Afghanistan and Soviet Union using different guises, subsequently staying in Germany before returning to Asia with the help of the Japanese.”
Dr Ghoshal’s hand-written personal diary, currently in possession of Mira, corroborates the fact that he was in regular touch with Netaji Shubhash Chandra Bose when he was in Austria, and there was regular communication on different aspects of the freedom movement, including Nehru’s call to Bose to join the Congress youth brigade and Netaji’s plan to take support from foreign powers through Dr Ghoshal to free India. Besides, Bose visited the Polish capital in 1933-34, around the same time when Dr Ghoshal was working as a lecturer at the Warsaw University.
And there’s one more ‘link’. Dr Ghoshal was at the Indian Embassy in Moscow when Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (who would go on to be India’s 2nd President) became the ambassador of India to the Soviet Union. And, there are unverified reports of Dr Radhakrishnan meeting Netaji at a prison near Moscow soon after taking charge at the embassy in 1949 (Netaji had disappeared by then). This was just a couple of years before the Bengali diplomat had to leave the mission in rather unceremonious circumstances after being jettisoned from the foreign service.
Recently declassified foreign ministry documents throw up dubious questions about how Dr Ghoshal lost his job from the service. Correspondences among different departments involving the man’s stint at Moscow show that Ghoshal’s Russian language and interpretation skills were questioned, his insistence to get his first wife Halina and son Bogdan to be with him in Moscow was rejected, he was denied any pay hike for more than three years, and his attitude and behaviour were also condemned. But in that era, it was almost unheard of for a high-ranked Indian diplomat to be laid off from government service.
‘DID MY FATHER SEE NETAJI IN RUSSIA?’
Still unaware of the real reason behind her father’s fall from grace in the service books of the Indian foreign ministry, Mira wonders, “I have many questions because of the many sheer coincidences and presence of a few people like Kaul during key happenstances at different points of time. For example, did my father see Netaji in Russia, or did he discover something about Netaji’s death mystery? My father had talent when it came to talking to Slavs. It was a cakewalk for him to charm some Russian officials by even drinking with them as he had native-level proficiency in Slavic languages, and he imbibed their culture quite well since his marriages to two Polish women. [sic]”
Dr Hiranmoy Ghoshal ultimately settled in Poland, where he taught Sanskrit, Bengali language, literature, the history of India, as well as Indian geography and ethnography. His name was wiped out from the Indian government’s official records even as his in-laws’ land enriched itself with the linguist’s scholarship and gave him his respect. A hall at the Warsaw University has been named after Dr Ghoshal while the Polish government made a documentary titled Borne by Two Rivers on the incredible trans-continental life of the Indian and his daughter Mira a few years back.
The maverick man from Bengal died at the age of 61 and was buried at Warsaw’s famous Powzki Cemetery. His daughter feels that Dr Ghoshal “lived with a lot of stress because he was pushed out of the diplomatic service, and he could never digest that humiliation for the rest of his life”. “Maybe he was the man who knew too much, and his proximity to Netaji might have made him a scapegoat. I still don’t know why my father was so outrightly disowned by his own country,” an emotionally charged Mira says, seeking the much-needed “closure” half a century after her father’s death.
“Once I know the truth, I will be in peace.”
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