May the 8th

SIXTY-NINE YEARS ago on the 8th of May 1952, a lecturer in economics at the London School of Economics was sitting anxiously in the ante-chamber of an operating theatre in the Royal Free Hospital, which was at that time in London’s Grays Inn Road. It is now part of the Eastman Dental Hospital, the post-graduate dental school of University College London, where I have attended courses.

The lecturer looked up from what he was trying to read to distract himself when the gloved surgeon came out of the operating theatre, and talking to himself, but loud enough to be heard, said:

“Shall I use the Simpsons or the Kiellands?”

He was referring to forceps used to deliver babies. My father, who thought that the question had been addressed to him, replied:

“I am sorry I can’t help you with that. I am only an economist.”

The surgeon gave him a withering look, and returned to the operating theatre, where the economist’s wife was lying, deeply anaesthetised. In the end, the surgeon decided to deliver the baby with a Caesarian section.

That baby was me. The economist was my father. That I am writing this today is at the very least a minor miracle, as I will explain.

Back in the early 1950s, one did not argue with medical practitioners; they always knew best. My mother had informed her physician when I had been conceived, but he did not believe what she had said. I can imagine the doctor thinking: “what would she know? Only a woman.” So, when my mother did not give birth when she expected, at about nine months after conception, the doctor told her to be patient as he thought she had another month to go

After I had been ‘in utero’ for ten months, my mother began getting worryingly ill. Eventually, those who claimed to know best admitted her to hospital and I was delivered. Both my mother and me had developed symptoms of toxaemia. It was touch and go as to whether we would both survive, but we did.

Because I had been inside the womb for a month longer than I should have, I was born with several problems. One of these was a cerebral haematoma, which I hope has resolved itself by now. Years later, my mother told the school that I should not play rugby for fear of disturbing this. The other thing was that my neck was bent over to one side; I had a torticollis. The medics told my mother that it was incurable and that she should get used to the idea that I would just have to live with the distortion.

If I am not misrepresenting my late mother, I am certain that she would not have been happy living with a distorted child. She was a sculptor and decided that the doctors were wrong about being certain that my neck condition was incurable. Every day, she stretched my neck gently and gradually it began to grow in the normal way. I am incredibly grateful that she did this.

Getting back to my first days on earth, I had to spend the first fortnight in an incubator. In those far-off days, visiting babies in incubators was limited if it was allowed at all. My mother was exhausted after the traumatic birth and, given that she would not have been able to see me much whilst I was in the incubator, she and my father took a holiday in Cornwall. I only learnt about this a few years ago, Had I known about it when I was younger, who knows but I might have had a rejection complex. My behaviour might be considered unusual at times, but I feel it would be unfair to blame that on my spell in the incubator in London while my parents relaxed in Cornwall.

Well, there you have it: the story of the first few days of my life. Of course, I cannot remember any of it, but what I have told you was related to me by people who were around at the time.


GUJARAT IS THE BIRTHPLACE of several great politicians of India: Mahatma Gandhi, Vallabhbhai Patel, Morarji Desai, and Narendra Modi, to name but a few. Kutch, which until soon after 1947 was an independent princely state, is now part of the State of Gujarat. It was the birthplace of an important, but now largely forgotten, ‘father’ of Indian Independence, Shyamji Krishnavarma (1857-1930).

The house in which Shyamji was born is the heart of the jumble of narrow streets in the old centre of Kutch Mandvi. Unlike the large house in Porbandar where Gandhi was born Shyamji’s birthplace is a very modest dwelling. Shyamji was the son of a poor man, who spent his working life struggling to make a living in Bombay.

We were shown around Shyamji’s birth house by Hriji Karani, who has not only founded a fine school in Mandvi but also instigated the creation of a monument to Shyamji at Kranthi Teerth.

The birthplace is now a museum, which is looked after by an elderly lady. In addition to caring fir the museum she helps her grandson and some of his friends with their schoolwork. Her grandson, aged only three, was able to speak a few words pf English as well as draw the Roman numerals on his slate.

The birthplace is devoid of household effects. Their pace is taken with exhibits, mainly photographs and paintings, relating to Shyamji’s fascinating life. Amongst the photos, there is one of the Middlesex Land Registry document relating to Shyamji’s purchase of a property in London’s Highgate, the building that was known as ‘India House’ between 1905 and 1910. This was the house where Shyamji and his ‘disciples’ including VD Savarkar plotted the downfall of the British in India. There was also a photograph of the block of flats in Geneva on which Shyamji spent the last few years of his life.

Shyamji and his wife died in Geneva. In his will, he had stipulated that his ashes were to remain in Switzerland and not to return to India until the land of his birth, India, became independent of the British.

Although India became independent, free of British domination, in 1947, it was not until 2003 that the ashes of Mr and Mrs Krishnavarma were brought to India. They were collected from Geneva by Narendra Modi, then the Chief Minister of Gujarat, and brought to India. I knew that from 2010, the black marble casks containing the ashes were put on display in a specially built pavilion at Kranthi Teerth, but I had no idea where they were kept before that.

Mr Karani showed us the small room in the birth house where the ashes were kept from 2003 until 2010. This little chamber, like the inner sanctum of a Hindu temple, now contains several photographs and a reproduction of an early flag designed for India by Shyamji’s feisty revolutionary colleague Madame Bhikaiji Cama and VD Savarkar during the brief existence of India House in north London.

A large oil painting depicts Shyamji with Henry Hyndman (1842- 1921), the British socialist whose anti-colonialist ideas strongly influenced Shyamji and his followers. Hyndman delivered a speech at the opening of India House in 1905. In the background of the painting there is a portrait of BG Tilak (1865-1929), one of the most revolutionary of the earliest members of the Indian National Congress and can well described as ‘the father of Indian independence’.
Like many other traditional houses I have visited in Kutch and Gujarat, the wooden staircase leading to the upper storey is incredibly steep, almost a ladder. The upper storey of Shyamji’s birthplace was a single room with more photographs and a tiny balcony that provides a view of backs of the houses on the street below.

Shyamji left Mandvi to study in Bhuj and then Bombay before setting off for England where he became a barrister in London and a world expert in Sanskrit based at Oxford. It is unlikely that he visited Mandvi much after beginning his impressive career. I have described the remarkable life of this son of Mandvi and esrly advocate of Indian independence in my book, “IDEAS, BOMBS, and BULLETS”

Although I knew that Shyamji was born in Mandvi in a far from well off family, and I had already visited the town once before, seeing his actual birthplace, viewing its surroundings, and entering his childhood home helped me appreciate the ‘rags to riches’ aspect of his life.

IDEAS BOMBS AND BULLETS by Adam Yamey describes the life of Shyamji Krishnavarma and the centre for Indian freedom fighters that he created in North London. It is available from:
Amazon (best place to purchase it if in India)