From revolutionary to saint

On Sunday morning it was Republic Day, the 26th January 2020. The streets in Baroda were quite. Several of the few vehicles we saw carried Indian national flags that fluttered proudly as they sped past us.

It was also quieter than usual at the Sri Aurobindo Nivas, the home where Sri Aurobindo lived while he was an official in the government of the princely state of Baroda and both professor and vice chancellor of what is now Baroda University. Aurobindo lived with his wife, Mrinalini in this house donated by the Gaekwad. After Baroda, Aurobindo and his wife moved to Calcutta. Later, he moved to the French colony of Pondicherry. After he arrived there, his wife followed him but during the journey to join him, she died suddenly of an infection (https://www.boloji.com/articles/13683/mrinalini-sri-aurobindos-forgotten-wife). I have written a bit about Aurobindo in Baroda in my book “Travels through Gujarat, Daman, and Diu” (published in India by pothi.com as “Gujarat Unwrapped). Here is what I wrote:

“Today, Sri Aurobindo is associated with ‘peace and love’ by many people, especially the crowds of Europeans who seek spiritual solace at his ashram in Pondicherry. While Aurobindo was working as a teacher in Baroda in the early 20th century, he was involved in Indian independence movements. Although he espoused peaceful methods, he was not averse to the use of violence. Jyotirmaya Sharma wrote in his book, Hindutva: Exploring the Idea of Hindu Nationalism, wrote: “It was at Baroda that Aurobindo took the first decisive steps into political life … Aurobindo clearly believed in the efficacy of violent revolution and worked towards organizing secret revolutionary activity as a preparatory stage for open revolt and insurrection…” In a biography, Sri Aurobindo for All Ages, its author Nirodbaran, who worked in close contact with the great man for twelve years, wrote: “When we asked him once how he could even conceive of an armed insurrection against the well-equipped British garrisons, he answered: ‘At that time, warfare and weapons had not become so lethal in their effect. Rifles were the main weapons, machine guns were not so effective. India was disarmed, but with foreign help and proper organisation, the difficulty could be overcome; and in view of the vastness of the country and the smallness of the regular British armies, even guerrilla warfare might be effective…”

After a year’s spell in Alipore prison in connection with his alleged involvement with some politically motivated murders in Bengal, Aurobindo settled in Pondicherry, and from then began espousing a spiritual approach to life. While living in that French colony, he continued to contemplate contemporary Indian issues, including that of the relationship between Hindus and Muslims. In late 1909, Aurobindo wrote: “Our ideal therefore is an Indian Nationalism, largely Hindu in its spirit and traditions, because the Hindu made the land and the people and persists, by the greatness of his past, his civilisation and his culture and his invincible virility, in holding it, but wide enough also to include the Moslem and his culture and traditions and absorb them into itself.” Jyotirmaya Sharma wrote: “Savarkar legitimately claimed paternity for the idea of Hindutva; but Hindutva could lay to an equally formidable patrimony in the thought of Dayananda, Vivekananda, and Aurobindo. What binds these four thinkers together is the systematic marshalling of a Hindu identity in the service of Indian nationalism.” Sharma quotes the following passage, written in 1923, from Aurobindo’s India’s Rebirth (a collection of writings): “It is no use ignoring facts; some day the Hindus may have to fight the Muslims and they must prepare for it. Hindu-Muslim unity should not mean the subjection of the Hindus. Every time the mildness of the Hindus has given way. The best solution would be to allow the Hindus to organize themselves and the Hindu-Muslim unity would take care of itself, it would automatically solve the problem.” And, in 1934, Aurobindo wrote: “As for the Hindu-Muslim affair, I saw no reason why the greatness of India’s past or her spirituality should be thrown into the waste paper basket in order to conciliate the Muslims who would not at all be conciliated by such a stupidity.”

The Sri Aurobindo Nivas, where Aurobindo lived until 1906 while he was an esteemed teacher and state official in Baroda, is a two-storey grand, mainly brick bungalow with European-style wooden window shutters. In 1971, the Government of Gujarat handed it over to Baroda’s Sri Aurobindo Society, which promotes the peaceful aspects of Aurobindo’s teachings and philosophy. The house is surrounded by a well-maintained garden. This contains an outdoor stone shrine, a flat marble table with a bas-relief of a lotus flower in its centre. The lotus was surrounded by a flower arrangement consisting of a circle surrounding a six-pointed star. The star with centrally enclosed lotus is a symbol of Sri Aurobindo, whereas the circle is the symbol of his spiritual partner, the Mother, who settled in Pondicherry in 1920. She was born Mira Alfassa (1878-1973) in Paris, of Turkish and Egyptian Jewish parentage. She became the founder of Aurobindo’s ashram in Pondicherry.

The ground floor of this typical colonial-style bungalow contains offices and a library, which was full of people reading at tables. The upper floor has carpeted rooms decorated with relics and portraits of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. These two people are often depicted in their old age, but here at Aurobindo Nivas we saw a couple of portraits, hung side-by-side, showing both as young people. The rooms on the upper floor are used for silent meditation. People sit cross-legged on the floor and occasionally prostrate themselves, their foreheads touching the floor. Also, they stand up and touch the paintings and photographs of Aurobindo and the Mother in the same way as Hindu worshippers touch idols in temples.

There is a large well-tended lawn behind the bungalow. About twenty-five people were sitting on the grass on rugs, meditating and doing yoga. They were facing a boundary wall on which there is a large outline map of India as it was before Partition in 1947 (including what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh). In the centre of what is now India, there is the circular symbol of the Mother.”

(end of extract).

After spending a pleasant hour in Aurobindo’s former residence, we took refreshments including south Indian filter coffee and dahi vada in the nearby three storey Canara Coffee House (founded 1950). Then we continued our exploration of the Sursagar Lake and looked for picturesque old buildings in the city. Many of the older structures, mostly residential usage, are rich in finely carved wooden decorative features.

By the time we had seen sufficient, the temperature was approaching 30 degrees Celsius – a contrast to the near zero conditions we had encountered earlier on our trip in places like Darjeeling and Mount Abu.

TRAVELS THROUGH GUJARAT DAMAN AND DIU is available from Amazon, lulu.com, and Bookdepository.com

GUJARAT UNWRAPPED , an Indian edition of the above is available from pothi.com (only in India)

AN INDIAN HERO: Savarkar

WHILE I WAS WRITING my book about Indian freedom fighters in Edwardian London, “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets”, I was aware that Vikram Sampath was preparing to publish a book about one of those freedom fighters, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966). Until I attended the Bangalore Litfest in November 2019, I had no idea that Vaibhav Purandare had also recently published a biography of Savarkar. I have just finished reading this interesting survey of the life of Savarkar, a controversial figure in the history of twentieth century India. What made Savarkar controversial is well elucidated in the very readable book by Purandare.

Savarkar, a father, or maybe THE father, of Hindu Nationalism and the author of an influential book on the concept of ‘Hindutva’, led a vividly colourful life, much of it behind prison bars.

Purandare describes Savarkar’s life as a law student and ‘revolutionary’ in London between 1906 and 1910 in some detail. I must take issue on one fact, namely that the house in London where he carried out much anti-British activity was number 65, not 63, Cromwell Avenue. This is only a minor criticism of an otherwise good book. Whether or not Savarkar was involved in various bombings and assassinations in India and the murder of Sir Curzon Wyllie in London was never proved, yet suspicions that he was led to his arrest in London and subsequent imprisonment in the horrendous Cellular Jail in the Andaman Islands.

Mr Purandare details Savarkar’s years of incarceration interestingly at some length. That a barrister trained in London could endure the torments that Savarkar underwent is a measure of his impressive character. The author deals with the prisoner’s appeals for clemency fairly. Many of Savarkar’s critics still accuse him of cowardice, but Purandare makes it clear, over and over again, that many other well known and obscure political prisoners made attempts to gain early release from the living hell that was the Cellular Jail.

After being released from the Cellular Jail, Savarkar, by now an Indian national hero, was confined to the district of Ratnagiri on condition that he did not carry out any political activity. To some extent, he conformed to this condition, but not as much as the British would have preferred.

By the time his period of confinement to Ratnagiri was over, much had changed in India and Europe. The Muslims, who were gradually adopting Jinnah as their leader, were demanding ever more political representation and then political autonomy within or separate from the rest of India. The Indian National Congress was far from free of internal conflict. Other forces including the Hindu Mahasabha, which Savarkar led for some years, all had their own ideas on how India’s future should be. Purandare skilfully guides his readers through this tangled time.

As India approached independence and Savarkar aged and became increasingly unhealthy, his influence on India’s political struggles decreased.

Savarkar was associated with exciting developments both during his student days in both India and then London and also in his old age. Following the assassination of Gandhi in 1948, Savarkar, who was very unhappy with the Partition of India in 1947, was arrested, being charged with conspiracy to kill the Mahatma. Purandare deals fairly and quite objectively with the controversy about Savarkar’s possible involvement in a plot to assassinate Gandhi. In connection with this, he mentions Vallabhai Patel, who suggested that although Savarkar might have been morally culpable, he was not necessarily criminally culpable.

Purandare presents Savarkar as an honourable and brave man but does not hesitate to point out his failings and weaknesses. His biography is a worthwhile and compelling introduction to the life of one of India’s most intriguing freedom fighters.

Now I am looking forward to reading how Vikram Sampath deals with the life of Savarkar in the first volume of his large biography, which deals with Savarkar’s life only up to 1924.

Identity crisis

Don’t worry! This is not really a crisis. I used the word ‘crisis’ in the title to catch your attention! And, now that I have caught your attention, you might as well read on for a fewminutes because what I am about to tell you has a good chance of being interesting for you.

ALDWYCH

Since marrying a lady born in India, I have had many opportunities to visit India House on the western arm of the Aldwych in central London. Built 1928-30 and designed by Herbert Baker (1862-1946) with AT Scott, this stone building is profusely decorated with Ashoka lions and many circular, coloured emblems, which were those of the pre-Independence (and pre-Partition) colonial provinces (e.g. ‘Baluchistan’, ‘United Provinces’, ‘Burma’, ‘Madras’ and ‘North West Frontier’).

ALDWYCH 2

Looking upwards, there are two elaborate crests each topped with heraldic lions and including the mottos: “Honi soit qui mal y pense” and “Dieu et mon droit”. These are ‘souvenirs’ of the era when India was a British colony. Just as in post-Independence India there are still some statues of Queen Victoria standing– there is a fine example in Bangalore, these reminders of British imperialism remain attached to the building.

One side of India House faces India Place, which contains a bust of the Indian leader Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), who became a barrister at the nearby Inner Temple. Close to a side entrance of India House, there is a monument to an off-duty policeman Jim Morrison, who was stabbed in December 1991 whilst chasing a handbag thief, who has never been caught. A ‘Friendship Tree’ was planted nearby in 1994 to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi.

The India House, which now stands in the Aldwych, was NOT the first ‘India House’ in London. It had a predecessor in the north London suburb of Highgate. The earlier India House  stood at 65 Cromwell Avenue was a Victorian house that still exists. The Victorian house was named India House between 1905 and 1910 when it  was owned by Shyamji Krishnavarma who made it a hostel for Indian students and other Indians staying in London. The north London India House had a brief existence because it was under constant police surveillance on account of the anti-imperialist activities that went on within its walls (including producing anti-British propaganda, anti-British meetings, bomb-making, and arms smuggling).

Many Indian patriots, who wanted to force Britain to give its then colony India freedom, lived and congregated in Highgate’s India House. Their activities and often daring deeds are described in my new book about a lesser-known period in the history of India’s independence struggle: “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets”.

 

“IDEAS, BOMBS, and BULLETS”

by Adam Yamey is available from on-line stores including:

Amazon, Bookfinder.com, Bookdepository.com, Kindle, and Lulu.com