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.

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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)

 

 

Denmark in the tropics

I HAVE WANTED TO VISIT TRANQUEBAR (now called Tharambangadi) since I first heard of the place when I was a teenager in the 1960s. Danish settlers established a fort and their first trading post in India there in 1620. I had already visited the former Danish colony at Serampore (established by 1770) on the River Hooghly, and was keen to see what remains of Tranquebar.

We drove south from Pondicherry for three hours through flat terrain, passing huge rice paddies, negotiating sprawling towns and villages, and crossing numerous rivers and streams.

Tranquebar, a sleepy little place on the wave washed shore of the Bay of Bengal, contains a sizeable collection of buildings constructed by the Danes during their tenure of the town, which finally ended in 1845, when the Danes sold it to the British.

During the Danish era, there were three main churches. One of them built by the seashore was been destroyed by the sea long ago. The Zion Church, the oldest Protestant church in India, was consecrated in 1701. It is now used by the Church of South India. It was founded by a German Bartholomew Ziegenbald (1682-1719). He was educated at the University of Halle, where my great great grandfather received his doctoral degree in the early 19th century, and was sent (with his fellow student Heinrich Plütschau) by the King of Denmark to become the first Lutheran missionary in India.

Ziegenbald was a remarkable man. During the last few years of his life, which were spent in India, he was involved in Lutheran missionary work (countering the activities of Catholic missionaries), literary work, translating the Holy Bible into Tamil, running a printing press, and conducting church services.

The New Jerusalem Church, larger than the nearby Zion and designed with its nave equal in length as its transept, was consecrated in 1717, two years before Ziegenbald died. He was buried in it. The church remains a Lutheran place of worship. Its parish priest, Mr Samson, guided us around its plain interior and told us that about sixty local families worship there regularly. The church is partly surrounded by a small cemetery, some of its gravestones bearing Danish names.

Ziegenbald’s home, now located within the grounds of a school, contains a small museum. The groundfloor contains a portable reed organ, some manuscripts related to Ziegenbald, and two printing presses that were acquired long after Ziegenbald died. One of these presses, made in London in the 19th century, was being demonstrated to a group of Tamil Lutheran visitors.

I watched as Tamil letters were covered with red ink before being covered with a sheet of white paper. The press was then operated manually. When the paper with Tamil letters was removed and shown to the visitors crowding around with cameras poised in readiness, everyone applauded. Then, the demonstration completed, the group sung a hymn in Tamil, praising God for creating such a technological miracle.

The Ziegenbal house museum is currently curated by a German, Jasmine. She encouraged us to see a small bur lovely exhibition of artworks by two German artists from Halle, where Ziegenbald studied long ago. Then, she introduced us to an Indian artist Asma Menon, who is creating a Cabinet of Curiosities similar to a very old one that is kept in Halle and contains objects collected in India long ago. Her creation that will be housed in a cabinet similar to the one in Germany will contain a series of object that captures the ‘essence’ of Germany, as she found it on a recent visit to Halle and other German cities. We spent time talking with Asma and a young volunteer from Germany.

Aaron Hall, next to the former home of Ziegenbald, is named in memory of Reverend C Aaron (1698-1745). A Tamil, he was the first ever non-European to be ordained as a Lutheran pastor. He was ordained in December 1733. He had been baptized earlier by Ziegenbald. Jasmine told us that when Aaron was ordained, there had been massive objections to this back in Germany, but the ordination took place despite these.

The Neemrana “non-hotel” hotel at Tranquebar is housed in the picturesque former British Collector’s Bungalow close to the sea shore. Unfortunately, its restaurant proved to be rather a ‘non-restaurant’: poor food and very poor service. Most of the other diners were late middle-aged Danish tourists nursing cans of Kingfisher beer. Foolishly, I ordered pasta with “aglio olio”. What turned up was penne drowning in an a virulently bright reddish orange coloured sauce that tasted as if it contained tomato ketchup as its main ingredient.

Lunch over, we strolled along the beach passing a monument recording the arrival of Ziegenbald in India. This overlooks a small harbour surrounded by partially ruined stone walls. Men were bathing in its water which was calmer than the sea around it. From where we were walking, we could see row after row of foam crested waves breaking on the shoreline that stretched away to the southern horizon.

The fort built by the Danes under the command of Admiral Ove Gjedde (1594-1660), Fort Dansborg, is still pretty much intact. It contains a small museum with an odd assortment of exhibits – a bit of a jumble. I was intrigued by several fading Maratha paintings and a 12th century Indian stone carving in good condition.

As I stood by the well in the large central open air courtyard of the Fort with the afternoon sun beating down on me at the temperature well in excess of 30 degrees Celsius, I wondered how the Danish settlers and soldiers coped with a climate so different to what they were used to in Denmark. I was able to dive back into our air conditioned taxi after a few minutes in the sun. This option was not available in the centuries when the Danes and Germans spent months and years in Tranquebar. Even the interior of the Fort, with its thick walls, was not greatly cooler than outside.

The Fort is separate from the former British Collector’s Bungalow and the former Danish Governor’s House by a spacious sandy maidan. The Danish Governor’s House neighbours a smaller and more recent edifice named “Danish Indian Cultural Centre”. This contains a library and a small museum. Amongst the exhibits, there are several drawings and paintings by the former Danish Governor Peter Anker (lived 1744-1833; governed 1788-1806). All of his attractive artworks on display are of Indian subjects.

The former Danish Colony of Tranquebar is in Tamil Nadu. About ten kilometres or less the coastal road leading south from Tranquebar leaves the state of Tamil Nadu and enters a part of the Union Territory of Pondicherry separated from the city of that name by over a hundred kilometres of Tamil Nadu. Like Mahe, a tiny part of Pondicherry on the coast of the Arabian Sea and Chandernagore in West Bengal, this southern territory, containing the town of Karaikal, was a French colony. Yanaon, surrounded by Andhra Pradesh, was yet another French colony and is now part of the Union Territory of Pondicherry.

Karaikal became a French colony in 1674 and remained as such until about 1954. At first sight, it looks like a typical, unexceptional modern Tamil urban area with a few decaying old buildings stuck within a mass of architecturally unexceptional buildings. However, our driver, a Tamil named Pierre, drove us to see what little remains of French colonial Karaikal.

The most notable souvenir is the former French Governor’s mansion. Well conserved, the Governor lived on the first floor and his administration used the ground floor. This building, which is well over 200 years old, is now the Collector’s Office of Karaikal. Nearby, there is a French war memorial commemorating those who died in the two World Wars. The monuments single out campaigns in Algeria and Indo-China. Near this, there are a few architectural details that might have existed during the French era, but little else.

Unlike Pondicherry, which has retained its colonial charm and attracts many tourists, there is little to attract the average tourist to Karaikal. I am glad we went there because I find places like this, which hint at their largely forgotten history, very evocative and fascinating.

While I would not reccomend a visit to Karaikal, a few hours or more spent in Tranquebar will be very rewarding both to those interested in history and to lovers of the seaside.

Black and white

HAVING PARENTS WHO WERE BROUGHT UP IN RACIALLY conscious South Africa, I feel easier calling the two parts of old Pondicherry by their French names, ‘Ville noire’ and ‘Ville blanche’, rather than their English names, ‘Black Town’ and ‘White Town’. The English names are redolent of the sad days of racial segregation in apartheid South Africa.

While Pondicherry was a French colony, most Europeans lived in White Town, and people of local Indian origin lived in Black Town. This kind of racial separation was not unique to the French in India. The British were also keen to keep races separate. Bangalore, for example, was divided into the Cantonment (European area) and the City (local Indian area).

A rather malodorous partially covered canal or drain separates White Town from Black Town (now called ‘Heritage Town’). White Town lies between Black Town and the shore of the Bay of Bengal.

Today, more than 60 years after the French ceased to Govern Pondicherry, the White Town continues to retain its appearance as a French colonial town. Many of the buildings were built by the French and are distinctly European in architectural style. The streets are neatly laid out, tree lined, and wide. There is none of the hustle and bustle associated with most Indian towns and villages. This might be because there is little commercial activity apart from tourist related facilities (accommodation and eateries). You can enjoy a good but costly meal in White Town, but buying a newspaper or fruit and vegetables is hardly, if at all, possible.

Since our last visit to Pondicherry five years ago (just before the great storm that flooded Chennai in late 2015), the city’s authorities have placed plaques along the streets of White Town. Written both in Tamil and English (not French!), they provide short informative histories of the streets’ names.

Cross the covered drain into what used to be called ‘Black Town’, and familiar Indian urban life is flourishing. The streets are crowded; there are shops aplenty; the area is full of traffic: two, three ,four (and more) wheeled vehicles; and there are Hindu temples (as well as churches). Apart from tiny roadside Hindu shrines, the only places of worship in White Town are churches.

In contrast to White Town, the architecture in the old Black Town is not so fine. There are a few traditional Tamil style buildings, but much of the architecture is relatively new and generally lacking in visual appeal.

Apart from being a very pleasant place to visit, Pondicherry and its well preserved historical layout offer an interesting reminder of colonial life and its less savoury racist aspects. That said, the place and its beautiful seaside promenade is a joy for all visitors whether or not they have any interest in history.

Revolution in north London

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Between 1965 and 1970, I studied at Highgate School (founded 1565). Its main Victorian gothic building perches on the summit of Highgate Hill. About two fifths of a mile south east of the school, an architecturally unexceptional late Victorian residential building stands on Cromwell Avenue (number 65). Although this brick edifice may not look special, it harbours the ghosts of a lesser-known episode in the history of India’s struggle for independence from the British Empire. The only thing that hints at the interesting history of number 65 is a blue plaque commemorating the fact that the Indian patriot and philosopher Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, a father of Hindu nationalism, lived there once.

In 1905, a wealthy barrister and scholar of Sanskrit, Shyamji Krishnavarma, bought number 65 Cromwell Avenue and named it ‘India House’. He intended it to be a home away from home for Indian students studying in England. However, it became more than that. It became a centre where Indian politics was discussed and acted upon.

Very soon, India House became the nucleus for Indians who wanted India to break free from the British Empire by any means possible. These included: sending propaganda and literature (including bomb-making manuals) regarded as ‘subversive’ and ‘treasonable’ by the British to India; smuggling weapons and ammunition into India; and political assassinations both in England and India. Valentine Chirol, the Foreign Editor of the Times newspaper wrote that India House was “…the most dangerous organisation outside India…”. As such, India House was under the constant vigilance of Scotland Yard, but despite this, its members were able to carry out real-life exploits that rivalled the derring-do of characters in John Buchan’s fiction.

Apart from Krishnavarma, those who congregated or lived at India House included well-known Indian patriots and freedom fighters, such as Madame Bhikaiji Cama, VVS Aiyar, VD Savarkar, Lala Lajpat Rai, Madan Lal Dhingra, and Har Dayal. The place was also visited by MK Gandhi (the future ‘Mahatma’), Charlotte Despard, David Garnett, Dadabhai Naoroji, and VI Lenin.

India House thrived until late 1909. During that year, one of its members carried out an assassination in London. After that deadly deed, activities at India House declined rapidly, and it was closed for ever by the beginning of 1910.

My new book, “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets”, describes the history of Highgate’s India House and the activities that originated there. In addition, it explores the ideas that led Krishnavarma to ‘create’ India House and the lives led by people who lived in, or congregated, at the place. Also, it contains the background to the replica of 65 Cromwell Road that can now be viewed and entered by visitors to Kutch, an arid part of the western Indian state of Gujarat.

Until I visited Kutch in 2018, forty-eight years after leaving Highgate School, I had not known that my alma-mater is situated so close to the site of such an exciting short episode in the history of anti-colonialism. Boldly, I suggest that this story is also unknown to most pupils, who have attended Highgate School since 1905. Furthermore, Highgate’s India House and Shyamji Krishnavarma are practically unknown amongst many educated Indians, with whom I have spoken. I hope that “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets” will help to make the exploits and aspirations of the members of India House more widely known.

 

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Thrown out of a library

When she was about two years old, our daughter dressed in a unisex romper outfit, rushed into the Men’s Bar at the Bangalore Club. An elderly gentleman conducted her back to the entrance of the bar, saying: “You can’t come in here yet, young man. You’ll have to wait until you’re twenty one.”

My wife explained that our child is a girl. The gentleman replied: “In that case, my dear, you will never be able to enter the Men’s Bar.”

The Bangalore Club was founded by British officers in 1868 at the time when Mahatma Gandhi was born in faraway Gujarat. Until after about 1945, women were not allowed into the main Club House. There was a separate annexe reserved for women. And until 1947, with the exception of servants and a very few high ranking military officers, no Indians were permitted to enter any part of the Club.

The Bangalore Club and many other similar still existing colonial era clubs in India maintain many of the old-fashioned rules that applied in elite clubs in the UK. For many years, men could only enter the Club House at the Bangalore Club wearing ‘proper’ shoes, not sports shoes or sandals. Now, sandals are allowed providing they have a back strap around the ankle.

Once, I stayed at the Kodaikanal Club deep in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Dress code seemed to be non-existent there until I stepped into the club’s small library. Within a few seconds, a member of the library staff escorted me out of the library. I was wearing sandals. I was told that one could only enter the library if formal leather shoes were being worn.

Well, if you join a club, you should respect its rules however idiotic they might seem. Vide the UK and the EU.

As time moves on, rules change. A couple of years ago , for reasons best not explored here and they were nothing to do with gender equality, women were permitted to enter and use the Men’s Bar at the Bangalore Club. Since that date, the formerly masculine sanctuary has been renamed “The Bar”.

The old gentlemen who evicted our daughter from the Men’s Bar is probably no longer alive. I wonder what he would have thought when his prediction proved to be wrong. Let’s finish by raising a glass to his memory.

African Art Fair 2018

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“The Contemporary African Art Fair (1 – 54)” is held annually at London’s Somerset House. This year it was a very exciting show full of vibrant, creative artworks mainly, but not exclusively, created by Africans with little or no European ancestry.

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Many of the works use recycled waste materials such as bits of paper, engine parts, spent bullets and retired armaments, electronic components, and so on. Almost every art work is a fine aesthetic object when seen as a whole. Looking into any of these works in detail is like beginning to explore Africa, its troubled past and challenging present.

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Africa is beginning to emerge from its colonial past. Africans are taking control of their destinies. Yet, at this exhibition, which is where a series of galleries display thier wares, mot of the dealers, who earn considerable commissions are ‘White’ Europeans. Maybe colonialism is not quite dead yet!

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