Uncle Robin revisited

Uncle Robin revisited

Robin Banerjee was an 85-year-old bachelor full of joie de vivre when I met him.

It was in 1993 that I first met Robin Banerjee at Golagat, Assam. We all called him Uncle Robin because that is what he liked to be called! He was then an 85-year-old bachelor so full of joie de vivre that it was almost infectious!

Dr Robin Banerjee completed his MBBS from Edinburg and joined the British Navy during the II WW. He saw action towards the end of the war and even saw some of the German concentration camps. He once told us of seeing a lamp shade made from an infant’s scalp! After the war he moved to England and settled down assisting a British doctor in his practice. But destiny had other plans. The doctor had a son in India, also a doctor, working in the tea estates in Assam. He asked Robin to relieve his son for a few months, and so Robin came to India in 1951.

He visited Kaziranga in 1952 and it was love at first sight! Later, he went around the forest with a Paillard-Bolex movie camera and the result was the  documentary “Kaziranga“. He had even managed to photograph a charging rhino – in the days before zoom cameras – and as he said the rhino stopped short of him and just walked away! The documentary was shown to much acclaim in Germany and the world was introduced to “The King of the Marshes,” the Indian one-horned rhino. Later Dr Robin Bannerjee was largely instrumental in getting Kaziranga on the wildlife sanctuary maps of India and the world.

I was stationed in Dimapur in ‘93, and having heard of Robin, we decided to visit him. We rang up and three of us went over to his house with our families, one fine afternoon. His house was a veritable museum (which it is now – “The Uncle Robin Museum“ Golagat, Assam). He received us with warmth and walked us around his garden. It had exotic plants from all over the world, collected from his travels and sent by admirers and friends. He even had a python as a pet! As he walked, he touched a plant here and tapped a tree there, tenderly, and spoke to them too!

Later, he settled down in his favourite easy-chair on the drawing room. We sat on the other chairs and the children on the carpet, and on our request, Robin spoke of some of his experiences. He had spent a few years photographing and writing for the National Geographic, as it satisfied both his hobbies – travel and photography – and had seen the most exotic places. My daughter Rina asked him “Uncle what all places have you visited?” He replied with a twinkle in his eye, “Little girl, ask me what places I have not visited, and the list will be shorter!” He had partaken of seal meat with the Arctic Eskimos, and the horse meat in the Andes!

On one of his visits to Denmark, he was asked to photograph their national bird, a rare white-breasted falcon found only in Greenland. He spent over a week in Greenland in the bitter autumn cold, atop a windy mountain, with no luck. He then decided to give it one last day and as a luck would have it, the falcon descended on a rock nearby with a hare in its beak! Robin got a perfect shot. The government of Denmark later made the picture into a stamp! We had the good fortune of seeing a large blow-up of the stamp in an elegant frame in his drawing room.

All good things have to come to an end and so did our visit. We left the 85-year-old ‘young man’ smiling and waving to us, holding on to his gate. In a letter to me almost 10 years later (dictated to a secretary), he said his 95th birthday celebrations went on for three days, with a lot of visitors, and filled with song and laughter. 95th birthday! What more can one say?

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