In the footsteps of a great Indian politician

DURING THE FIRST ‘LOCKDOWN’, we spent a lot of time walking within two miles of our home. Despite having lived in Kensington for about 30 years, we wandered along many streets, which we had never visited until after March 2020. One of these many streets, which we ‘discovered’, is Aldridge Road Villas, a few yards south of Westbourne Park Underground station. On our first walk along this road, we met a man, who was repairing or restoring an old model of a Volkswagen parked near his home. Amongst his collection of old restored cars was an old Chevrolet truck, which we admired. We chatted with him and hoping to meet him again, we revisited Aldridge Road Villas several more times, sometimes meeting whilst he was working on one of his vehicles. Because we tended to walk along this road hoping to meet him, we managed to miss something else of great interest to us. It was only recently, that I spotted what we had been walking past without noticing it.

Statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in Gujarat, India

Aldridge Road Villas is probably named after the Aldridge family, who had owned land beside the Harrow Road at Westbourne Park since 1743 or before. The barrister, member of Lincoln’s Inn, John Clater Aldridge (c1737-1795), who became MP for Queensborough between 1780 and 1790 and then for Shoreham between 1790 and 1795, married Henrietta Tomlinson, widow of William Busby and a wealthy landowner, in 1765 (www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1790-1820/member/aldridge-john-clater-1737-95). Through this marriage, John came into possession of more land around Westbourne as well as some near Bayswater. It is on this land that Aldridge Villas Road was built (www.theundergroundmap.com/article.html?id=10787). The oldest houses on the street date from the middle of Queen Victoria’s reign. A map surveyed in 1865 shows that the road was already lined with houses by that date.

One former resident of Aldridge Villas Road, at number 1, was the surgeon George Borlase Childs (1816-1888), who was born in Liskeard, Cornwall. A biography (https://livesonline.rcseng.ac.uk/) reveals that he was:

“…connected with the Metropolitan Free Hospital for many years, but is perhaps best remembered as Surgeon-in-Chief to the City of London Police, and to the Great Northern Railway. He took, indeed, a large share in organizing the medical departments of these institutions, displaying on a wider field the characteristic forethought and ingenuity of his work as an operator. The sanitary and physical well-being of the City policeman was one of his prime interests. He devoted much thought and care to the process of selection of members of the force, to their housing and their dress. The last-mentioned is, in fact, his creation, for he introduced the helmet as we now know it, the gaiters, and so forth. He also established the City Police Hospital…”

Celebrated as he should be, it is not Childs who was the best-known resident of the short road near Westbourne Park station. Although he did not live for a long time in the street, the most famous inhabitant of Aldridge Road Villas must be Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel (1875-1950). It was the plaque affixed to a five-storey terrace house, number 23, which had avoided our attention the first few times that we walked along the road.  

Like many other Indians living under British rule in India, who became involved in political activity, including Mahatma Gandhi, Shyamji Krishnavarma, Bhimrao Ambedkar, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Patel decided to sail to England to study. Vallabhbhai set sail from Bombay in July 1910. On arrival in London, he stayed briefly at the then luxurious Hotel Cecil in the Strand. After that, he stayed in a series of ‘digs’ in different parts of London while he completed his legal training. One of these was for several months at 23 Aldridge Road Villas, the address that appears in his records following his admission to The Middle Temple to become a barrister on the 14th of October 1910 (https://middletemplelibrary.wordpress.com/2020/04/08/famous-middle-templars-3/), the same year as that in which Jawaharlal Nehru joined Inner Temple. Patel was called to the Bar on the 27th of January 1913 (www.telegraphindia.com/india/alma-mater-honours-iron-man/cid/220801). Incidentally, many years later my wife was also called to the Bar at Middle Temple, as had also been the case, many years earlier, for my wife’s great grandfather and his father-in-law.

Patel was hard up as a student in London:

“After his arrival in England, he joined Middle Temple and allegedly studied at least 11 hours a day. Because he was not able to afford books, he used the services of the Middle Temple Library where he spent most of his days.” (https://middletemplelibrary.wordpress.com/2020/04/08/famous-middle-templars-3/).

This shortage of money might well have been the reason that he walked between his digs and the library every day. His biographer, Rajmohan Gandhi, a grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, wrote in “Patel. A life”:

“His twice daily walk between Aldridge Villas Road, Bayswater and the Middle Temple – 4 ¾ miles each way – took him past parks and edifices of great charm or magnificence, including Kensington Gardens, Buckingham Palace, St James Park, Cleopatra’s Needle and Waterloo Bridge. When he moved digs his walks were as long or longer but not less scenic.”

Gandhi lists Patel’s other London digs as 62 Oxford Terrace, 2 South Hill Park Gardens, 57 Adelaide Road, and 5 Eton Road. With the exception of Oxford Terrace, the other did were near Belsize Park and Swiss Cottage.

Back in India, Patel became involved in the struggle for Indian Independence, joining Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress Party. Like many other freedom fighters Patel served several terms in prison. After WW2, he was significantly associated with negotiations with the British regarding transfer of power to the Indians. In 1947, when India became independent, the country consisted of areas that were directly under British rule and well over 800 Princely States that were allowed some independence providing that their rulers did not do anything to challenge the overriding authority of the British Empire. Sardar Patel oversaw and encouraged the rulers of these Princely States to give up their supposed sovereignty and to become part of a new unified India. This was no easy task because some of the larger states, notably Junagarh, Kashmir, and Hyderabad, wished to become part of the recently created Pakistan instead of India. Some considerable persuasion was required to get these places to merge with India. Patel’s achievement at unifying India must surely rival that of Otto Von Bismarck, who unified the myriad German states to become one country by 1871.

The plaque in Aldridge Road Villas is a modest and almost discreet memorial to the great Patel. If you wish to see a more spectacular monument to this remarkable man, you will need to travel to Gujarat in western India, where an enormous statue of him, almost 600 feet high, was completed in 2018. Called ‘The Statue of Unity’, its bronze plates and cladding were cast in the Peoples Republic of China.

Usually, we walk south along Aldridge Road Villas. Until we spotted the plaque commemorating Patel’s residence in the road, we had not realised that we were likely to have been following in the footsteps of one of India’s greatest politicians, which he made when he set out for Middle Temple every morning. And, the idea that one is often walking where famous figures of the past have trod is yet another thing that makes London so wonderful for both residents and visitors alike.

Drowned in India

ON OUR THIRD VISIT to the delightful grounds of Compton Verney House in Warwickshire, we took a close look at the chapel that stands close to the main house. Constructed between 1776 and 1779 in Palladian style, it was designed by someone who was far better known for his skill in landscape planning than for his architectural ability, Lancelot (‘Capability’) Brown (c1715-1783).

The chapel was constructed to replace another older mediaeval one that Brown demolished in order to improve the view of the garden’s lake from the main house. A slender obelisk stands close to the lake, marking the former position of the older chapel. A carved stone notice below it explains:

“This obelisk is an exact model of the Lateran obelisk at Rome. The marble was given by Joseph Thomas Jeffrey Esq of Place in Cornwall”

A man with the same name ordered the building of the Treffry Viaduct in Cornwall in 1839, using granite from his own quarries (https://explorecornwall.org/a-walk-around-luxulyan-valley/). Maybe this is the same person who supplied the granite on which the Compton Verney obelisk stands. Place in Cornwall is near to Fowey, where Jeffrey was based.

 Close to this monument, there are a couple of gravestones lying in the grass. When the old chapel was demolished in 1772, most of its funerary monuments were saved and then transferred to Brown’s new chapel, where they can be seen today.

A fenced off area near the obelisk contains a brick structure from which spring water issues. This is fed to a rectangular stone bath next to the lakeside. This pool is currently being used to grow watercress.

On entering Capability Brown’s chapel, the visitor cannot help immediately noticing the splendid carved monument in the centre of the eastern half of the nave. Carved in 1631 by Nicholas Stone (c1586-1647), sculptor and architect as well as Master Mason to both James I and Charles I, its top bears the carved almost life-sized effigies of Richard (1563-1630) and Margaret Verney (née Margaret Greville, 6th Baroness Willoughby de Broke; c1561-1631) . Various large gravestones form the floor of the raised step where an altar should normally stand. Some of these have been placed so that the heads of the stone slabs face east rather than the usual west. The oldest memorial that we could find in the chapel is dated 1574. It is the gravestone of George Verney (c1543-1574), son of Sir Richard Verney (c1516-1549) and his wife Frances (née Raleigh; c1521-1544).

While I was looking at the stones set in the floor, our friend, who was accompanying us and knows of my interest in India and its history, pointed to a commemorative plaque on the north wall of the chapel. It informs:

“In memory of Henry Verney 2nd Lieutenant VII Hussars. Born June 19th 1870, drowned at Poonah with two of his brother officers June 25th 1893, and of Katharine Verney born July 3rd 1874, died July 28th 1897.”

Henry’s full name was ‘Henry Peyto Verney’. He was the son of Henry Verney, 18th Baron Willoughby de Broke (1844-1902) and Geraldine (née Smith-Barry). Katharine was Henry’s sister.  ‘Poonah’ is an old name for the city of Pune (modern name) in the current State of Maharashtra in India.

The VII Hussars were originally ‘7th Queen’s Own Light Dragoons’. They took on their new name in 1807. This British army unit, which Henry Verney joined, was in existence from 1805 until 1958. The unit served all over the place: in the Peninsular Wars (1808-1809); in England to help quell the Corn Law Riots (1815); at the Battle of Waterloo (1815); in Canada, quelling riots (1838-1842); in India suppressing the Revolt that began in 1857 (1857-1859); South Africa (1881-1882) during the First Anglo-Boer conflict; the Sudan (1884-1885); and again in India (1886-1895)

Henry Verney joined the VII Hussars and went out to India at the age of twenty. According to a history of the VII Hussars (https://www.britishempire.co.uk/forces/armyunits/britishcavalry/7thhussarsverney.htm) :

“Preparations for embarkation to India began in September 1886 when the 7th left Hounslow to go to Shorncliffe. Horses were handed over to the Mounted Infantry and to the 14th Hussars who were returning from India. Extra men were drafted into the regiment from other hussar units so that the strength was now 21 officers, 587 NCOs and privates. They, with 50 women and 47 children proceeded by rail to Portsmouth where they sailed on the ‘Euphrates’ troopship on 26th Nov 1886. They arrived at Bombay on 23rd Dec, taking less than a month, so must have sailed through the Suez Canal. They were stationed at Secunderabad … In Oct 1891 they moved to Mhow…”

They arrived at Mhow (renamed ‘Dr. Ambedkar Nagar’  in Madhya Pradesh State) in the year following that in which Henry Verney joined them:

“He joined the 7th Hussars on 8th Oct 1890 and served with them in India but he was unfortunately drowned in a boating accident at Poona on 25th June 1893. He and two other young officers, Lt Sutton and Lt Crawley were on leave and hired a sailing boat to go on the river, but they lost control of it in the current and were swept over a waterfall. The three of them were seen clinging to the upturned boat in the swirling waters but they succumbed and went under, one of them was last seen swimming towards a bridge but he never made it. Verney’s body was found on 27th and the other two on the next day. They were buried on 28th June with military honours. A firing party was provided by 2nd Yorks LI and a gun carriage by L Battery RHA. The commanding officer Lt-Col J L Hunt attended with 9 officers and 3 warrant officers.”

This plaque in Capability Brown’s chapel is not the only one recalling the drowning of Henry Verney. Another one can be seen in the church at Lighthorne, a village close to Compton Verney. The trapezoid plaque, which I have yet to see, reads:

“TO THE GLORY OF GOD/ AND IN THE MEMORY OF HENRY PEYTO VERNEY/ LIEUT 7TH HUSSARS DROWNED AT POONAH/ IN INDIA 25 JUNE 1893 AGED 23 YEARS” (www.iwm.org.uk/memorials/item/memorial/83855).

Had Henry not been killed so young, he might have become involved in the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) or even WW1, by which time he would have been 44 years old. During that war, the VII Hussars lost 224 of their members in Mesopotamia during 1917.  They had been sent to the Middle East from Bangalore (India), where they had been stationed since 1911.

Even if your interest in India is minimal or non-existent, it is well worth making a visit  to Compton Verney to see its art collections, house, chapel, its lake with fine stone bridges, its wonderful trees, and its beautifully landscaped grounds.

Umbrella of memory

BUILT BETWEEN 1787 AND 1820, BRIGHTON PAVILION looks less like a hospital than most other buildings. Yet, during the First World War (‘WW1’), this decorative seaside retreat for British royalty was converted into a hospital to treat Indian troops. They had been wounded whilst fighting for the for the British Empire in the battlefields of Flanders. On the 14th of December 1914, the Pavilion was opened as a hospital with 724 beds. According to George Morton-Jack in his book “The Indian Army on the Western Front”, 14,185 wounded Indian troops were brought to Brighton on six “state-of-the-art” hospital ships. They were treated in the Pavilion and other hospitals specially established for the Indian wounded in Brighton and elsewhere. Over 2,300 Indians were treated in the converted Pavilion.

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The Chattri

A few of the Indians did not survive their injuries. Of those treated at the Pavilion, 18 died, 10 of whom were cremated. Those who died, were given last rites according to their religious beliefs. Moslem corpses were buried in a purpose-built cemetery near the Shah Jehan Mosque at Woking (in Surrey). This mosque was completed in 1889 to the design of Gottlieb William Leitner (1840-1899), an orientalist of Hungarian Jewish heritage. The Hindus and Sikhs who succumbed to their injuries in the hospitals in Brighton were cremated on traditional funeral pyres. Between the 31st of December 1914 and the 30th of December 1915, 53 Sikh and Hindu soldiers were cremated at a specially demarcated spot on Holt Hill (near Patcham) in the South Downs, 500 feet above sea-level and then their ashes were scattered in the sea according to their rites.

Years ago, we used to meet the late General Misra (of the Indian Army) once a year for dinner when he came from India to the UK on his annual visits. He was a jovial gentleman, who seemed to enjoy life. All that we knew about his visits was that during them, he used to make a trip to Sussex to pay his respects to those Indian soldiers who had died during WW1. Apart from knowing him as a pleasant dining companion, we knew nothing else about him apart from the fact that he was related to some close friends of ours. We were not sure exactly why he used to go to Sussex in particular. Also, we were then unaware that our affable old friend had had a formidable military career.

During WW2, the General was attached to the 6th Rajputana Rifle regiment. A report (https://opus.lib.uts.edu.au/bitstream/10453/28086/4/MANIS002.txt) written during the British Indian campaign against the Japanese in Burma noted:

“Expediting the Jap withdrawl from the TENGNOOPAL Ridge and converting his retreat into a rout, the capture of a prominent hill to the east of Sibong, know(n) as Battle Hill, by a battalion of the 6th. Rajputana Rifles enabled us to have a grand-stand view of the retreating Japa on their LOC. The Rajputs singing and shouting made merry here as they sent MAG bursts on the jap LOC. In this battle and from the attack on Lone Tree Hill near Shenam, the Rajrifs [sic] have been commanded by Lt. Col. Dinesh Chandra Misra of Agra and a graduate of the Indian Military Academy.”

On the 5th of October 1944, the London Gazette announced that the then Captain (temporary Major) Misra had been awarded the prestigious Military Cross for his services in Burma. His distinguished military career (with the British before Indian independence) is summarised on the Imperial War Museum website (https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80017253):

“Indian cadet at Indian Military College, Dehra Dum, India, 1933-1935; officer attached to North Staffordshire Regiment in India, 1935-1936; served with 5th Bn Rajputan Rifles in India and Hong Kong, 1937-1941; served with British Army Aid Group Indian Section, China, 1942-1943, served with Rajputan Rifles in India and Burma 1943-1944; student attended Staff College at Camberley, GB, 1944-1945.”

From what my wife and I remember of this affable general, he never mentioned his brave exploits or even hinted at them.

Recently, a friend posted a photograph of a monument that he runs past whilst taking exercise on the South Downs near Hove. This small structure, which looks Indian in design, is what General Misra used to visit on his annual trips to the UK. A few days ago, we visited our friends in Hove and after eating a delicious lunch with them, we drove up on to the Downs near Patcham and walked through a field of well-fed grazing cows to reach a small enclosure containing the Chattri and a monument listing the names of the Hindu and Sikh soldiers who were cremated at this place during WW1.

‘Chattri’ is the Hindustani and Punjabi word for ‘umbrella’. The monument on Holt Hill consists of a small white marble dome supported on eight pillars made of the same material. This stone Chattri stands on a podium with stairs leading up to it from a lower platform on which there are three low granite slabs. The three granite slabs cover the spots where originally there had been three concrete slabs on which the funeral pyres were built and then ignited according to religious tradition. The ‘umbrella’ or ‘chattri’ symbolises, according to a plaque nearby, “the protection offered to the memory of the dead”.

Funded partly by the India Office and Brighton Borough Council, the monument was unveiled by the Prince of Wales in 1921. It was built to the designs of EC Henriques (died 1940, aged 51) a young Indian architect from Bombay. His work was supervised by Sir Samuel Swinton Jacob (1841-1917), an expert in the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture. I have eaten dinner at one of Jacob’s other buildings: Bikaner House, a palace he designed in Mount Abu (Rajasthan), constructed in 1893. Built as a summer palace for a maharajah of Bikaner, it is now a hotel. In January 2020, we ate a poor-quality meal there. We and the other diners sat dressed in padded jackets because the dining room was unheated, and the outside temperature was close to freezing point.

The bases of the eight columns of the Chattri interested me because they bear the same decorative motif seen on the bases of pillars in Hindu temples constructed well before the era of Moslem invasions of India began. The early mosques built in the 15th century in Gujarat (e.g. in Ahmedabad and Champaner), which borrow many structural features of Hindu temples, also contain pillars whose bases are decorated with the same motif seen on the Chattri. The same is true of the capitals of the pillars that support the dome of the Chattri. Also, the domes in those ancient Hindu temples and mediaeval mosques are always supported on eight pillars arranged in an octagon, as is the case at the Chattri.  In brief, the small but elegant Chattri, which looks a little incongruous in West Sussex, would look very much at home in many parts of India.

The Chattri stands high on the South Downs in a pleasingly landscaped garden. It overlooks the surrounding hills and the ribbon of coastal towns including Brighton and Hove, and beyond them the sea. Part of the monument complex is a more recently (2010) erected concrete wall on which are carved the names of the 53 Hindu and Sikh men who were cremated at this spot, as well as their ranks and regiments.

To reach the Chattri, we walked along a path through a field in which cattle were grazing. As I looked at the cows, I thought that most of the Indian men whose lives ended in Brighton and were cremated on the Downs must have often walked amongst cattle in India before they left it to fight in Flanders  for the Empire, which did their fellow countrymen few favours.

During our brief visit to the Chattri, there were a couple of families relaxing around it. Their children were playing cheerfully around the pillars and on its steps, blissfully unaware of what it represented. This did not bother us. We felt that their joy would have been appreciated by the men who sacrificed their lives for the future of families such as these and many others. The wide horizons, the lovely landscape, and the fresh air enveloping the monument, gave the place and its surroundings a special, maybe spiritual, atmosphere, a feeling of the continuum of life and beyond. Who knows, but any of us at the Chattri might possibly be reincarnations of some of the soldiers cremated there.

POSTSCRIPT: INDIAN SOLDIERS ON THE WESTERN FRONT

Many Indian soldiers fought for the British because they believed, or hoped, that by supporting the Empire in its struggle for survival, India would gain at least some autonomy, if not a generous dose of self-rule. In the last years of WW1, even the pacifist Mahatma Gandhi roamed around India encouraging Indians to enrol to fight for the British. Joseph Lelyveld wrote of Gandhi in his book “Great Soul. Mahatma Gandhi and his Struggle with India”:

“He implores wives to send their husbands to sacrifice themselves on behalf of the empire, blithely promising, ‘They will be yours in the next incarnation.’ Fighting for the empire, he now argues, is ‘the straightest way to swaraj’”

The Indian soldiers fought for the empire. Some were killed, others injured, but India did not reach swaraj (i.e. self-government) at the end of WW1. Remember, less than a year after the Great War ended, soldiers commanded by a British general killed at least 379 and wounded over 1000 unarmed Indian civilians in Amritsar in the Punjab, the district of India that supplied many troops to the Western Front and other battlefields. Even Winston Churchill, no lover of India, was genuinely outraged by the horrific nature of this murderous event.

India would have to endure many upheavals and another world war before independence was won.

Clive in India

I AM NOW IN CALCUTTA. Last time I came here, for miles and miles along the railway lines and at stations, there were starving people. Now there is not a sign of famine – it has been organised with the ability of genius…” 

Thus, wrote Clive Branson (1907-1944) from Bengal on the 11th of November 1944. Later in the same letter, this British soldier in India added:

“… it is reported that in the week ending November 5th, 267 deaths occurred in Chandpur town and in the 53 unions (groups of villages), on an average more than 200 in each. The report states ‘Almost all the dead bodies were thrown into the ‘khal’ and paddy fields – to be devoured by dogs, jackals and vultures – as there was no man available to bury or burn those corpses.”

A few lines later, he adds:

The point is that out in the villages people can starve to death without anyone knowing about it, while on the basis of the falling mortality rate in Calcutta Amery will no doubt claim that the famine is over.”

‘Amery’ to whom Branson referred was Leo Amery (1873-1955), who was Secretary of State for India during WW2. The famine was that which decimated many Indians in Bengal and other parts of India.

clive

Writing on the 28th of August 1943, Branson suggested that the famine was to some large extent man-made rather than the result of natural disasters:

But the fact is there is enough food in India now …”

A major cause of the famine he suggested it was:

“… the hoarders, the big grain merchants, the landlords and the bureaucrats who have engineered the famine …”

And, on the 14th September 1943, Branson wrote:

The thing that stands out a mile is that the Government showed no signs of weakness when it came to the arrest of the Congress in glaring contrast  to its utter helplessness (??) (or should we call it co-operation, tie-up) in the face of the grain profiteers (and in a similar situation – the cloth merchants – the coalowners, re employment of women underground).”

These quotes, damning indictments of the situation Clive Branson observed whilst serving in India come from a book, “British Soldier in India”. It contains the letters that Clive wrote from India to his wife in England and was published in 1944 by ‘The Communist Party, London’. The slender volume contains an introduction written by Harry Pollitt (1890-1960), who was General Secretary of The Communist Party of Great Britain from 1941 to 1956. I came across the book while reading an excellent book about the 1943 Bengal famine, “Churchill’s Secret War” by Madhusree Mukherjee, and ordered a copy.

Clive was born in Ahmednagar (India), son of an army officer. Ironically, most of his time in India during WW2 was spent in the town where he was born. He trained to be a painter at The Slade School of Art (part of University College London) and became a prolific and talented artist. Some of his works are housed in London’s Tate Gallery. From the age of 20, Clive became interested in Communism and joined the Communist Party in 1932. Pollitt wrote of him:

He was one of those who endear themselves to all who came in contact with them … he was able to inspire others to hate poverty and fight to remove it, to hate ugliness and see beauty … He was not only a brilliant speaker and organiser, but also did more than his share of what is sometimes called “the donkey work”. Nothing was too much for him …”

During the Spanish Civil War, Clive both recruited for, and from 1938 fought with, The International Brigade. In March 1938, he was taken prisoner by Franco’s Nationalist forces and interned in San Pedro de Cardeña concentration camp, where he painted and sketched the camp and many of its inmates. These artworks are currently stored in the Marx Memorial Library in London’s Clerkenwell Square. Pollitt reports that a fellow prisoner said of Clive:

In any difficult time, Clive was always cheery, putting forward what we should do … He was one of the most popular and most respected among the British prisoners.”

Clive, a true patriot and ardent anti-fascist, joined the Royal Armoured Corps during WW2 and was posted to India where he arrived in May 1942, the month that he sent his first letter published in the book. Pollitt accurately notes that Clive’s letters from India:

“… will make you angry and they will make you sad. They will make you see new colours and shades, an unimaginable suffering and a truly heroic grandeur, extraordinary nobility and equally extraordinary bestiality. It is a vivid and many-sided picture which Clive wanted to record in painting, and which we may be sure he would have executed with feeling and sincerity...”

Reading Clive’s letters today, 76 years after they were composed, still evoked a sense of anger because of the awful things he saw as well as a sense of wonder because of his very evident love and admiration of India and its people.

Whenever he was able, Clive mixed with Indians from all strata of society and delighted in their company.  While in Ahmednagar, Clive was introduced to an Indian artist. At this person’s house, he:

“… did a drawing for 1½ hours of his little niece aged 10. I did it in indelible pencil and ink – this is the medium I shall do most of my work in as it is more lasting – does not smudge – than ordinary pencil. But how difficult are Indian clothes – I shall have to do a lot of careful observation and drawing before I shall know what to do technically’ The Indian just sat and watched me working. He speaks English quite well, and knows a number of famous Indian painters – he himself went to the Bombay School of Art…”

This was noted in a letter dated 13th of April 1943. Several months later, in mid-September, Clive was invited to lunch with his artist friend. I loved his description of the occasion, which was new to him but typically Indian:

We sat on wooden seats about 2 ins. off the ground. The meal was in a room just off the kitchen. Of course we had taken off our boots etc. Each had a large silver plate with the various ingredients put around the edge. A small bowl of what they call butter-milk took the place of water. A pattern, done with vermilion and white powder had been drawn on the ground. In front of me was placed a little silver stand in which a stick of incense burned. Nana’s elder daughter also ate with us. The whole affair was very civilised and friendly.”

In general, Clive was enamoured of all of the Indians he encountered, both those from sophisticated and also humble backgrounds. He was horrified at the way that the British and their government treated them. This is a significant feature of what he conveyed in his letters. Also, the failure and apparent unwillingness of the British to address the terrible famine concerned and upset him greatly. He communicates this eloquently and powerfully in his writing.

One of Clive’s many observations struck a personal chord. It concerns the bookshops that Clive visited in India in search of reading material. In a letter written from Bombay in September 1942, he noted:

I have said a lot about going to bookshops, but I have never mentioned something which hits you in the face about the general trend of literature: 1. Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ is on sale prominently at every bookstall …”

Seeing copies of “Mein Kampf” openly on sale in most bookshops in India is something that has always surprised me since my first visit to India in 1994.

As a Communist, Clive’s political views are not concealed in his letters. He showed little or no sympathy for the policies of Gandhi and the All India Congress. On the 10th of March 1943, he wrote:

How stupid Gandhi’s fast looks compared to the grandeur of a handful of Indian peasants and workers uniting to demand their human rights!  No wonder the Viceroy corresponds with Gandhi and sends the police after the people.”

As for the Muslim League in Bengal:

The net result of the League’s scheme is to launch the peasants against the little men and leave the big bastards to control the famine via the black market – such is the first practical application of the policy of Jinnah.” (letter dated 19th June 1943)

Also, as a staunch anti-fascist, he regarded Subhas Chandra Bose as contemptible because he had chosen to fight alongside the Japanese, who were allies of fascist Germany. During his stay in India, Clive met and discussed matters with members of the Indian Communist Party. This is described in the letters and was not removed by the censors. In addition, his harsh but justifiable criticism of Britain’s mishandling of the famine in India passed the censors’ scrutiny and reached his wife’s letter box intact.

Clive was constantly upset by seeing examples of British racism in India. He mentions this often in his letters. The most eloquent example appears in a letter written on the 29th of November 1943:

I am sitting on the grass outside a long army hut. Not far away is an African negro … reading a book. Five minutes ago a B.O.R. [British other rank] came up, stopped, and said to him, ‘Can you read?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘What’s the book? Miss Blandish?’ ‘No, Pygmalion.’ I had to record this – whole books could not present the present world situation better.”

(I imagine that the B.O.R. was referring to “ No Orchids for Miss Blandish”, a  raunchy thriller by James Hadley Chase)

In the same letter, Clive noted that the British Conservative MP, Ferris:

“… has made a study of Indian affairs, and has delivered himself of the profound judgement that India is not ready for self-government. I wonder how many whiskies and sodas it took to produce such an original conclusion.”

Sadly, Clive did not live long enough to see India becoming independent in 1947. He was killed in action early in 1944 “…commanding an M3 Lee tank of B Squadron, 25th Dragoons. He was hit a glancing but fatal blow on the back of the head by a Japanese anti-tank shell near Point 315 at the end of the Battle of the Admin Box.” (source: Wikipedia).

Clive’s letters provide a moving collection of well-described observations of India, a country in which many of its citizens were enduring a plight at least as bad as that of people suffering in Nazi occupied Europe. They were under the control of the British, who were fighting to defeat Nazi tyranny. The British were under the leadership of Winston Churchill, who is reported (by his close colleague Leo Amery) to have said:

I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”

Here are two short videos well worth watching in connection with what I have written:

https://youtu.be/QI6qg1ERmGE

(Pathé Newsreel with scenes of the famine. Commentary in Punjabi, but images are very powerful)

https://youtu.be/fUjtxHFGUrg

(An Indian historian/author/politician gives a fresh view of Churchill)

 

 

Richmond, Russell, and India

DID THE YOUNG BERTRAND RUSSELL ever rush up King Henry’s Mound in Richmond Park and enjoy the famous view of St Pauls Cathedral ten miles away? We might never know the answer to this, but there is a good chance that he did (on days with clear sky) because this small hillock (184 feet above sea level) that might once have been a Neolithic burial ground is only about 330 yards from Pembroke Lodge. This Georgian mansion in Richmond Park was built in the mid-18th century. In between 1788 and 1796, it was extended according to plans by the famous architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837). In 1847, Queen Victoria granted the lodge to her then prime minister, John Russell (1792-1878).

 

RUS 6

Eric Gill’s cover for the book in which Bertrand Russell wrote the preface

John Russell had a son, John Russell (Viscount Amberley), who was born in 1842. He died in 1876, four years after his son, Bertrand Arthur William Russell, was born (in Monmouthshire, Wales). Bertrand’s mother died in 1874. Bertrand and his brother were placed in the care of their grandparents, who were living at Pembroke Lodge. Had Bertrand’s parents lived longer, they would have been pleased to have learnt that their son was awarded a scholarship to study mathematics at Trinity College Cambridge in 1890.

Bertrand Russell was one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century, but I am not qualified to describe his contributions to that field. In his autobiographical book “Unended Quest”, the famous Karl Popper (1902-1994) wrote of Russell that he was:

“… perhaps the greatest philosopher since Kant.”

That was praise indeed.

When I visit places for the first time, they often ignite new interests. Pembroke Lodge was  no exception, and visiting it sparked my interest in its former inhabitant Bertrand Russell. It appears that he was interested in a huge range of things. One of these, which also interests me, was the Indian freedom struggle that culminated in the country becoming independent in August 1947. Wikipedia reveals:

“During the 1930s, Russell became a close friend and collaborator of V. K. Krishna Menon, then President of the India League, the foremost lobby in the United Kingdom for Indian self-rule Russell was Chair of the India League from 1932-1939.”

Krishna Menon (1896-1974), born in Telicherry (now in Kerala, India) came to study at the London School of Economics (‘LSE’) in 1925, then at University College London. He became a keen promoter of the idea of independence for his native land. He was founder and president of the India League from 1928 to 1947.  The League was Britain’s foremost and most influential organisation fighting against the continuation of British imperialism. During the 1930s, Bertrand Russell was one of its its leading supporters and its Chairman for a while.

In 1932, the League decided to send a delegation to India to investigate conditions there. The group, which included Menon, spent 83 days travelling the length and breadth of the country, interviewing people, Indians and Britishers, in all walks of life. After the delegation returned to the UK, they prepared a damning report, “Condition of India”, which was banned by the Government of India but published in England in 1932. Its cover was designed by the artist Eric Gill (1882-1940) and Bertrand Russell wrote its preface. Bertrand Russell began the preface with the following words

“… TO obtain a true picture of the present state of affairs in India is as important as it is difficult. Many English people content themselves with the remark that India does not interest them. If India were independent, they would perhaps be justified in this attitude, but so long as the British insist upon governing India, they have no right to ignore what is done in their name by the Government which they have elected. There has been no lack of interest in the misdeeds of the Nazis in Germany; they have been fully reported in the Press, and have been commented on with self-righteous indignation. Few people in England realise that misdeeds quite as serious are being perpetrated by the British in India. Large numbers of men and women, including many of the highest idealism, have been imprisoned under horrible conditions, often without any charge having been made against them and without any hope of being brought to trial…”

Later in the same piece Russell wrote:

“In India, the peasants are powerless against the landlords and the Government combined, so that no economic lesson is learned from their hardships, and they are expected to ‘Starve quietly without making a fuss’. Only people with political power have a right to make a fuss ; this is one of the great lessons of history, and, lest history should not sufficiently impress the Indians, we are teaching it by the lathi and the gaol. Our ruling classes have lost their former skill, and I fear the ultimate result of their folly In India must be disaster. For in India, also, if the new regime is ushered in by bloodshed the result will not be so good as if it came peacefully. Statesmanship is dead in the post-war world, and India, like other countries, suffers in consequence.”

Like the philosopher Richard Congreve (1818-1899) many years earlier (in 1857), Russell was clearly convinced that the British should leave India. By 1938, Russell, who had dedicated a substantial part of his political activity to matters regarding the future of India, began to concentrate more on philosophy and academia. In the late 1950s, he re-entered political activity, becoming one of the founder members of CND, which opposed the atomic bomb and other nuclear weaponry.

Incidentally, after India became independent, Russell’s former collaborator in Indian affairs, Krishna Menon, then India’s High Commissioner to the UK, and others including Jawaharlal Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten founded the India Club in 1951. In the mid-1950s, its premises shifted to 145 The Strand, near the LSE and India House, where it still stands today. Its shabby looking second floor restaurant preserves its original 1950s look and houses a portrait of Krishna Menon. It has a nice old-fashioned bar on the floor below. A few years ago, before the India Club got a licence to serve alcohol in its restaurant, alcohol could only be served to members of the Club. The only requirement for joining it was to pay an annual subscription of 50 pence.

Returning Pembroke Lodge, we enjoyed hot drinks with our friends in its tranquil garden. It was then that one of our friends pointed out its links with the great philosopher, who spent his childhood there (from 1876 to 1894). After returning home, I looked up Bertrand Russell on the Internet and that is when I found that he had a connection with the history of India. It is wonderful that someone brought up in such fine surroundings as Pembroke Lodge should have felt moved to fight for the people of India, very few of whom would have enjoyed such a luxurious childhood as Russell did.

A hidden gem

SOMETIMES, IT PAYS TO BE “ECONOMICAL WITH THE TRUTH”, to rephrase the words used by Edmund Burke in his book “Letters on a Regicide Peace”, published in 1796, in which he wrote:

“Falsehood and delusion are allowed in no case whatever: But, as in the exercise of all the virtues, there is an œconomy of truth.”

HYD 4 real

The Residency in Hyderabad was built for the British Resident (for the Princely State of Hyderabad) James Achilles Kirkpatrick (1764-1805) in the style of a Palladian villa in about 1798. As described in an excellent book, the “White Mughals” by William Dalrymple, Kirkpatrick, like many other pre-Victorian Europeans in India, adopted local Indian ways of life. This Resident went so far as to marry (not too publicly) a local aristocratic woman from Hyderabad, Khair-un-Nissa (1786-1813). She remained in purdah and lived in a zenana, a ladies’ quarter, in the garden of the Residency but quite separate from it.  

The Residency was used for its original purpose by British Residents of Hyderabad until India became independent in 1947. In 1949, it became a building within the confines of the Osmania University College for Women (founded 1924).

Having read Dalrymple’s book back in 2011 just before visiting Hyderabad, I was keen to see the Palladian style Residency. With great difficulty our driver (from Bangalore) managed to discover the whereabouts of the Osmania university. We drove up to the gate and were stopped by a security guard, who would not admit us until we revealed (somewhat deviously) that the Director was expecting us. We entered the grounds and found the Director’s office. We suggested to her that I might be a relative of Dalrymple’s and that I was keen to see the building he had written about.

 

The Director assigned a member of her office team to take us to the old building, adding that it was not wise to enter it as it was in a perilous condition. What we saw, although in a very poor state of repair, was a magnificent, elegant neo-classical building. If it had been in the UK and restored considerably, it would have outshined many of the great houses built in the same era, which are open to the public. Ignoring the advice of the Director, we entered the crumbling structure and viewed its wonderful twin curving staircases and glamorous rooms. Although the place was in a parlous condition, its former glory was still very evident.

We left the former Residency without any of it collapsing on to our heads and feeling very pleased that we had ‘blagged’ our way into seeing this gem hidden from the public.

Died in vain

THE FOCAL POINT OF GOLDERS GREEN (in north west London) is where Finchley Road meets Golders Green Road and North End Road. Here, there stands a monument to those inhabitants of Golders Green who lost their lives in the two World Wars.

The monument’s basic design is typical of many British war memorials erected all over the British Empire during the 1920s. Standing on a square base, this type of memorial resembles a tall obelisk, truncated by not rising to a point. The monument, which doubles up as a clock tower, in Golders Green, was erected in 1923. It includes lists of the names of those who were killed during each of the two World Wars.

A similarly designed memorial (but without clocks) was erected in Bangalore in 1928. It stands on a triangular traffic island at the intersection of Residency and Brigade Roads. It commemorates members of various battalions and regiments of the Madras Pioneers, who fell in the following campaigns: East Africa 1914-18; Mesopotamia 1916-18; The Great War; and The North West Frontier 1915.

The monument in Bangalore bears no names, but only numbers. For example, in Mesopotamia the following fell: 1 British officer, 3 Indian Officers, and 69 “NCOs and Pioneers”. For each campaign the statistics are given in both English and Tamil scripts.

Most of those men of Golders Green, whose names appear on the memorial there, were most likely volunteers, who believed that the British Empire had to be defended. I wonder if the same could be said for the Indian soldiers who are commemorated on the monument close to one of the busy shopping streets in central Bangalore.

Many Indians sacrificed their lives for the British Empire during the two World Wars and other military campaigns designed to maintain British dominance in the world. Unlike the men of Golders Green, many of the Indian victims were fighting for a cause in which they had no interest and from which they could expect little or no benefit, especially during First World War.

A great tragedy, which accounts for much loss of Indian life during WW1, was the belief amongst many Indian leaders (including MK Gandhi during the last months of the War) that by helping Britain to fight they would be rewarded with reforms that would bring India closer to self government. Indians had been as good as promised increased freedoms in exchange for fighting in the First World War. Although, many Indian lives were lost in WW1, these sacrifices were not considered by the British to merit any loosening of their grip on India, the jewel in the crown. Indeed, the opposite occurred. One needs only remember the Jalianwalla Bagh massacre of 1919 to see what I mean.

I found it sad that whereas in Golders Green, the dead are remembered by their names, in Bangalore the monument only records statistics. In 1928, the individual Pioneers were, apparently, not important enough to be remembered as individuals, members of families like those in Golders Green.

An Indian hero or villain?

VINAYAK DAMODAR SAVARKAR (1883-1966) has been dead for over half a century. Yet, his ideas continue to influence political thinking in India today. A controversial freedom fighter, writer, and politician, he is either admired uncritically by his biographers or damned by them. Vikram Sampath’s recently published book “Savarkar:Echoes from a Forgotten Past 1883-1924″ provides a reasonably balanced story that is neither over critical (as is, for example, AG Noorani) or hagiographic (as are D Keer and J Joglekar).

The period covered in the book by Sampath, 1883 to 1924, is the most important part of his life as far as the present is concerned.

From an early age, Savarkar, who was much influenced by Giuseppe Mazzini, was involved with secret societies and conspiracies, all connected with his desire to rid India of its British imperialist rulers.

In 1906, Savarkar travelled to London to study to become a barrister. He was funded by a scholarship granted by Shyamji Krishnavarma and his wealthy supporters. For most of his stay in London, he resided at India House in Highgate, founded by Krishnavarma (and described in my book “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets).

Savarkar’s years in London (1906-10) were productive in several ways. He wrote a biography of Mazzini and a history of the First Indian War of Independence (1857-58). Both works reflected his aim of expelling the British from India. In addition to writing, he became deeply involved in: what the British authorities might have called ‘terrorism’; bomb making; smuggling ‘seditious’ literature and weaponry into India; assassinations; and so on. This is all described well and interestingly by Sampath.

The British police and their counterparts in India became desperate to put Savarkar behind bars. He left for France in late 1909 and his freedom fighting friends there, including Krishnavarma and Madam Cama, tried to persuade him not to return to England. However, he did and was arrested.

Savarkar was kept in custody in Brixton prison for months whilst a lengthy case for his extradition to face charges in India, was fought. In the end, he lost and began his long journey to India as a political prisoner.

At Marseilles, Savarkar escaped from the ship and was rearrested on French soil by British police, who had been accompanying him. This arrest on foreign, not British, soil gave rise to an international tribunal in the Hague. However, by the time when the legality of this irregular arrest was decided, Savarkar was in prison in Bombay, being tried without a jury. He was condemned to two terms of life imprisonment (50 years) in the Cellular Jail, a hellhole on the almost inhospitable Andaman Islands. Interestingly, it was the terrible years he spent there that were to lead to his development of important ideas about Hindu Nationalism.

Savarkar underwent unbelievably horrendous experiences in the Cellular Jail. Regarded as highly dangerous by the British, he was singled out for particularly harsh treatment. Despite often being so unwell that he was close to dying, Savarkar survived his prison ordeals. As the years passed, he was able to educate his fellow prisoners and to develop his ideas on the shape of a future India free of British domination. It was while in the Andamans that his views on who could be counted as a ‘true Indian’ began to form in earnest.

Many of Savarkar’s detractors brand him as a coward for having written many petitions for clemency to the British authorities. Sampath shows, as does another recent biographer (V Purandare) that Savarkar was far from being alone amongst the political prisoners in trying to cut short his prison sentence. He made promises to abstain from political activity if his sentence was shortened. In addition to wanting to save himself from future torments, Savarkar believed that a politician behind bars was far less use to his country than outside prison. Sampath shows that both he and the British officials believed that his promises of good behaviour were of questionable value.

Sampath’s description of Savarkar’s time in the Andamans is heavily dependent on Savarkar’s own detailed account of it, which was published a few years after his release. I have read parts of this fascinating story (available in English on savarkar.org). However, one should be a little cautious about its accuracy because I felt that although much of what Savarkar described was probably accurate, he wrote it not only as a piece of personal history but also with political intentions, as was the case with his earlier history of the so-called ‘Indian Mutiny’. That said, any biographer of Savarkar needs to depend heavily on Savarkar’s own story of his imprisonment.

Eventually, Savarkar was moved from the Andamans to prisons on the Indian mainland, and then later was released but confined to living within one district without being allowed to engage in politics. It was in the period following his release from the Andamans and before 1924, when Sampath ends his biography, that Savarkar wrote and published (using a pseudonym) his highly influential book on Hindutva, the ‘highway code’ or ‘road map’ for Hindu nationalism and Hindu nationalists. The ideas contained within the book, which Sampath discusses with clarity, have had great importance in recent Indian politics.

Even though a lengthy volume, I have enjoyed reading Sampath’s detailed, informative, and exciting account of the first part of the life of Savarkar. It is a well written and engaging book, almost a ‘page turner’.

Most importantly, in this age of uncritical damning of people whose political views do not chime with one’s own, Sampath has written a balanced account of a man who until recently has either been described as being purely a hero or a total villain.

I Read Sampath’s book and discovered a man, Savarkar, who, with all fairness, cannot be easily characterised as either good or evil. Instead, Sampath reveals him as being intriguing and multi-faceted: a man who played a not insignificant role in India’s struggle for independence.

I recommend this book by Sampath to all who take an interest in the current Indian political scene and/or the fascinating story of the India’s difficult road to independence.

RUDYARD KIPLING IN BOMBAY

KIPLING WAS BORN IN BOMBAY

IN 1857, THE YEAR OF THE FIRST INDIAN War of Independence, the British opened the first school of art in Bombay. It was named the ‘JJ SCHOOL OF ART’ after Sir Jamsethjee Jeejeebhoy, who donated much money towards its establishment.

We were very fortunate that a friend arranged a private tour of the campus for us. It began after we had eaten Yemeni food at the Hotel Stars on Chakala Street near Mohammed Ali Road.

We were shown the workshops and studios, many of which were built at the time of the School’s founding. The standard of work done by the students is high. We visited workshops for printing, textile weaving and printing, sculpture, metalwork, and ceramics. The walls of the largest part of the sculpture department are lined with models of great works by both western and Indian classical sculptors. This large room reminded me of images of how the Royal Academy in London looked long ago. Our guide explained that the JJ was modelled on the Royal College of Art in London.

We ended our tour at a building resembling a large English country house built in the Arts and Crafts Movement style of the late 19th century/early 20th century. This rustic looking edifice, which was built by 1865 long before the Movement flourished, used to be the residence for the deans of the School.

In 1865, Lockwood Kipling(1837-1911) and his new bride arrived in Bombay. Lockwood, an artist who created works in wrought iron, had been appointed Professor of Architectural Sculpture at the JJ. Soon after this, he was appointed Principal of the JJ and took up residence in the house already described. It was in this house that his son, the eminent author Rudyard Kipling(1865-1936), was born. The house is currently being restored beautifully.

The JJ also has a noted School of Architecture. This was founded by the British to train Indians to become architectural draughtsmen rather than architects. Their role was to draught the detailed plans of designs for buildings conceived by British architects. Likewise, the original colonial idea behind the JJ was to train Indians to carry out the ideas formulated by British artists. Today, the JJ no longer trains its students to be technicians to execute the plans of others, but educates them to enhance the creative life of India.

Finally, we learnt that many of the great buildings of British Imperial India were designed by architects in Great Britain, who never ever set foot in India. For example, the Deans’ house, where Rudyard Kipling was born, was built from a plan that was originally drawn up in England for a house that was never built in its intended location. Kipling’s birthplace was built from plans for a caretaker’s lodge for the Viceregal residence in Shimla, which never got built.

Now that I have seen where Rudyard Kipling was born, I feel that it is high tome that I read something he wrote!

DINNER WITH THE NIZAM

During a recent visit to the Chowmahalla Palace in Hyderabad (India), I saw a sepia photograph taken at a dinner party held by the ruling Nizam during the era when India was part of the British Empire.

Some of diners were Indian and others sitting beside them at the table were Europeans, most probably British. All of them have their faces turned towards the camera, but what was going through their minds?

The British at the table, who were probably high ranking colonial officials, and their wives probably believed, as many Europeans did in the past, that they were superior to the Indians. They were most probably outwardly polite to their Indian hosts and fellow diners, but inwardly contemptuous.

The Indians at the table were probably also outwardly civil to their fellow European diners because not only are Indians hospitable by nature but also they knew that the high positions they held in the State of Hyderabad were dependent on being respectful and loyal to the British. However, inwardly I am sure that they regarded the British as inferiors, worthy only of contempt. They felt, I imagine, an innate sense of superiority over their European guests, who unlike them were not members of a royal house.

I wonder whether, apart from the superior British military ability, it was this mutual contempt that ensured an albeit uneasy harmony between the British imperialists and the royal families that ruled the princely states that made up a sizeable portion of the British Indian Empire.