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History

Freedom Was Won, Yes, But it Was Written Too

How homegrown Sulekha Ink, named by Rabindranath Tagore and commissioned by Gandhi, became a sign, literally, of self-sufficiency in the days of the struggle for India’s independence. 

Sulekha Ink is the brand after which I was named ‘Sreelekha’.

The pre-independence Swadeshi ink conceived by my grandfather whom we fondly called Nani Dadu (Nani Gopal Maitra) from Rajshahi in 1934. The place, now in Bangladesh, is where I would have been likely to be born if India was not partitioned. 

The story goes that Mahatma Gandhi – Gandhiji – was faced with the tough situation of not having an indigenous ink to sign freedom petitions. All inks were manufactured overseas and Gandhiji refused to sign using any of them. It was at that point two brothers from Rajshahi took up the challenge. Nani Gopal and Shankacharya Maitra decided to create a homegrown ink to match Gandhiji’s vision. It is said that this is the ink that was used to sign the Constitution of India in 1950. 

I have read of this creation story in my Thakuma’s (grandma’s) diaries. She was a diligent diary writer and the diary that I am currently reading dates back to 1952. Her writings cover incidents spanning the years around 1930 to 1950.

It is like entering a time machine. It was the thick of Swadeshi Movement that had encouraged the boycotting of foreign goods and the promotion of indigenous industries. It fostered nationalism in India. Gandhiji had addressed his followers regarding the boycott of foreign goods in everyday life.

He went much beyond salt and khadi and had pointedly spoken about ink. But all inks were manufactured overseas and Gandhiji refused to sign using any of them. 

Noni Gopal Maitra, with others. Photo: By arrangement.

A Revolution

Every time I read Thakuma’s writings on Gandhiji, I pinch myself. Is this the Gandhiji of history books? Before Gandhiji was arrested in 1932 by the Commissionerate of Bombay and taken to the Yerawada Central Jail in Pune, he had assigned Satish Chandra Dasgupta, chief chemist at Bengal Chemical, with the task of creating a homegrown ink. And Dasgupta in turn had Nani Gopal Maitra in mind. Nani Dadu was then a physics teacher at Rajshahi University and was running an underground Swadeshi chapter of the Rajshahi Mukti Sabha.

Rajshahi back then was a hub of education, trade and culture with a major focus on silk production. The British invariably had an eye on the prosperous zones and strategically established the Administrative District in 1772 and The Rajshahi Municipal Corporation in 1876.  

Thakuma’s pages also mention that Gandhiji used reed pens, instead of foreign-made fountain pens and that he was a prolific writer. This is entirely believable, since Gandhiji’s letter collection itself runs into thousands of pages. Influenced by this, Thakuma, too, tried writing her diary with a reed pen which resulted in illegible handwriting for quite a few pages! Evidently the Swadeshi movement was raging through her head and heart. And this was clear from her mentions of what she wore and what she read.

In her diary, she writes about Nani Dadu being released from the jail. “Aj khushir din (today is a happy day).”

Sulekha Ink bottles. Photo: By arrangement.

He was behind bars for taking part in ‘Satyagraha Andolan’ the non-violence revolution started by Gandhiji. On being released, he was accompanied by Satish Chandra Dasgupta (then chief chemist of Bengal Chemical) to meet Gandhiji.  And the seed of a swadeshi ink was planted in his head. 

Freshly designated with the responsibility of creating a homegrown ink, my grandfather managed a makeshift laboratory in the Maitra residence in Rajshahi and spent hours creating the first batch of ink. This ink was to write the freedom of India.

 As one of my earliest memories, I remember this scene being enacted to me by Nani Dadu. He would mimic tiptoeing down the stairs and entering his lab. He told me that when everybody was asleep, he would unbox his secret formula, and create a magic potion called ink. 

My Thakuma’s diary says that it was 1934 when the black ink was born at the Maitra residence in Rajshahi. The family had spent all their jewellery and savings to make this dream come true. By July 1934, a box of ink was ready to leave for Gandhiji to use. 

A Sulekha Ink advertisement. Photo: By arrangement.

When a big name gets to name it 

As the story goes, on August 5, 1934, Gandhiji was in Wardha after completing his Harijan Tour. Jamnalal Bajaj had hosted him in his house where a box of ink arrived at the Bajaj residence. It is said that Gandhiji inaugurated the ink by writing a note to Rabindranath Tagore, asking him to name it. And it was Tagore who named it Sulekha, a portmanteau for the Bengali phrase for ‘beautiful writing.’

Such moments in the diary are extraordinary. They are big as historical event and as a reader, it took me a while to let it sink in.

I remember Thakuma telling me many times over that Rajshahi was synonymous with Sulekha. It is because of this that when the country was divided and we came to Calcutta, that a new name – not the same one – was given to me. 

I don’t have all of her diaries and there are indeed time lapses. But she does mention that Tagore dedicated Sulekha Ink to the nation as a symbol of Indian independence. He himself was so charmed by the black ink that he used it to write some of the most memorable literature of all time.

The moment India was waiting for

Diaries are a reflection of the times. The pages talk about the legendary success of Sulekha over the decades and becoming a household name in Bengal. The Maitra brothers moved the ink manufacturing facility to Bowbazar in Calcutta in 1938.

 Two or more diaries later, I arrived at August 14, 1947. Thakuma wrote, “Swadhin holam.” We become independent. The bondage of colonial slavery was at last broken, and we were no longer subjects of the Crown. 

Forever etched in memory

Both Nani Dadu and Thakuma have long left us. I moved to Bombay. But her diaries have found a new life with me. Who visited when, who stayed with us, what they ate that day, which doctor they went to, every detail was chalked down. But ever since I have been reading her diary and every time I sit to write on it, I tend to enter a time capsule.

Today I feel happy that she instilled the habit of writing in a diary in me. I too write regularly, if not daily. Always with my fountain pens, and this goes without saying, always with Sulekha Ink.

Sreelekha Maitra is a creative marketing professional.