BULL HOUSE STANDS on the High Street immediately beneath the remain of the castle that dominates the Sussex town of Lewes near Brighton. Its neighbour is an older, half-timbered edifice that now houses The Fifteenth Century Bookshop, a supplier of second-hand books, which was unfortunately closed when we passed it on a Sunday morning.
In the year 1768, the owner of Bull House, a tobacconist named Samuel Ollive, and his wife Esther, took in a lodger, who had arrived in the town. This man was an excise officer aged about 31. His name was Thomas (‘Tom’) Paine (1737-1809). 1n 1771, Paine, already a widower, married Elizabeth Ollive, daughter of Samuel and Esther. At of that time, he became involved in the Ollive’s tobacco business as well as the administrative affairs of the town of Lewes. A year later, as part of a campaign to improve the remuneration of excise officers, he published a pamphlet. “The Case of the Officers of Excise”. Tom enjoyed lively discussions and debates at the town’s ‘Headstrong Club’, which met at the White Hart Inn on the High Street. This hostelry can still be seen today.
The year 1774 found Tom in trouble. He had been accused of being absent without permission from his position as excise officer. Also, his marriage failed, and he separated from his wife Elizabeth. To avoid a spell in a debtors’ prison, he sold all his possessions. He left Lewes and went to London, where he was introduced to the revolutionary Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), who recommended that Tom should emigrate to North America. Tom set sail from England and arrived in Philadelphia in November 1774.
The pamphlet that Paine wrote in Lewes was followed by many more published writings. Amongst these is his best known, “The Rights of Man”, published in 1791, in London, England, where Tom had returned in 1787. This work is described in a guidebook to Lewes as “…the bible of English-speaking radicals.” Whether Tom ever returned to Lewes after his first excursion to what is now the USA, I do not know. If it ever occurred, it is not mentioned in my guidebook, and I have not found any reference to it.
PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY (1792-1822), the poet, was a friend of the literary critic and essayist James Henry Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), who lived at various times in Hampstead, north London. Shelley’s poetry and other writing attracted the attention of radical thinkers including, for example, Karl Marx, who wrote:
“The real difference between Byron and Shelley is this: those who understand them and love them rejoice that Byron died at 36, because if he had lived he would have become a reactionary bourgeois. They grieve that Shelley died at 29, because he was essentially a revolutionist and he would always have been one of the advanced guard of socialism.” (https://www.marxists.org/archive/eleanor-marx/1888/04/shelley-socialism.htm)
Hunt, who knew him well, wrote of the poet:
“Shelley was not only anxious for the good of mankind in general. We have seen what he proposed on the subject of Reform in Parliament, and he was always very desirous of the national welfare.”
I mention this about Shelley because it chimes with what is to follow.
A few months ago, I acquired a copy of Leigh Hunt’s wordy but fascinating autobiography. After being released from a spell in prison in 1815 having libelled the Prince Regent, the future King George IV, Hunt moved to the Vale of Health in Hampstead. Shelley often used to visit Hunt there, sometimes staying at his home for several days. Hunt wrote that Shelley:
“… delighted in the natural broken ground, and in the fresh air of the place … Here also he swam his paper boats on the ponds, and delighted to play with my children…”
Hunt was returning to his home in the Vale of Health one evening after having been to the opera when he heard a woman shrieking and a man’s voice coming from within his house. The woman’s voice was that of a lady, whom Shelley had found lying:
“… near the top of the hill, in fits. It was a fierce winter night, with snow upon the ground; and winter loses nothing of its fierceness in Hampstead. My friend, always the promptest and the most pitying on these occasions, knocked on the first house he could reach, in order to have the woman taken in.”
Shelley’s request was turned down. Hunt continued:
“The poor woman was in convulsions; her son, a young man, lamenting over her. At last my friend sees a carriage driving up to a house at a little distance. The knock is given; the warm door opens; servants and lights pour forth…”
And Shelley asks for help employing the voice:
“… which anybody might recognise for that of the highest gentleman as well as of an interesting individual …”
He relates his story to the elderly gentleman emerging from his carriage and asks whether he will go and see the distressed female. The passenger replies:
“No, sir; there’s no necessity for that sort of thing, depend on it. Impostors swarm everywhere: the thing cannot be done; sir, your conduct is extraordinary.”
To which Shelley replied to the astonishment of the man who refused to provide assistance:
“Sir, I am very sorry to say that your conduct is not extraordinary; and if my own seems to amaze you, I will tell you something that will amaze you a little more, and I hope will frighten you. It is such men as you who madden the spirits and the patience of the poor and wretched; and if ever a convulsion comes in this country (which is very probable), recollect what I tell you: – you will have your house, that you refuse to put the miserable woman into, burnt over your head.”
By ‘convulsion’ Shelley meant revolution, something that England did not suffer as had France or later Russia and elsewhere. Leigh’s reporting of what Shelley said may help to show that whatever Marx saw in his writings was in harmony with his own ideas.
As for the poor woman, she was:
“… brought to our house, which was at some distance, and down a bleak path (it was in the Vale of Health); and Shelley and her son were obliged to hold her till the doctor could arrive.”
In case you are wondering how the woman got into such a sad state, Hunt informs us:
“It appeared that she had been attending this son in London, on a criminal charge made against him, the agitation of which had thrown her into fits on her return. The doctor said that she would have perished, had she laid there a short time longer.”
Now, I am no reader of poetry. I find that I enjoy it more if it is read to me. Further, I must confess that I am unfamiliar with Shelley’s works, but this story related by Hunt, has begun to endear the poet to me. Shelley not only met Hunt in Hampstead but also in Italy on the 1st of July 1822, where they, along with Lord Byron, made plans to start a new journal “The Liberal”. On the 8th of July, Shelley died at sea when the boat he was travelling in sunk.
KARL MARX, MAHATMA GANDHI, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Ho Chi Minh, Benjamin Franklin, Simon Bolivar, Giuseppe Mazzini, and many other figures, who have caused major changes either in their own countries or in the wider world, have spent time living in London. Now I will introduce you to yet another man who lived in London and is celebrated as a liberator of the country in which he was born.
Despite having spent twelve years studying at University College London, I have not bothered to explore nearby Fitzroy Square until this year, 2021. The only part that I knew about while I was at college was the Indian YMCA, located in a building that was built the 1950s, where one can still enjoy Indian cuisine at below average prices. I shall write about this establishment in the future, as I will about Fitzroy Square. But now I will concentrate on a person, whose statue stands at the south east corner of the square, facing the Indian YMCA at the north end of Fitzroy Street.
The statue, dressed in 18th century attire, depicts Francisco de Miranda (1750-1816), standing with his left leg forward and a scroll in his right hand. Bare headed, his left hand is over his chest above his heart. Born in Caracas in the Venezuela Province of the Spanish colony of New Grenada, his full name was Sebastián Francisco de Miranda y Rodríguez de Espinoza. He was born into a wealthy family and educated at the best schools. Following a clash between his father and the aristocratic elite, Francisco travelled to Spain in 1771. Francisco studied in Madrid and in 1773 his father bought him a captaincy in the Spanish Army. He took part in military actions in North Africa, but his superiors considered that he devoted too much of his attention to reading and was also involved in various abuses of authority (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francisco_de_Miranda).
Miranda was next sent to the Americas and was involved with the Spanish in the American War of Independence. In 1782, he was involved in the Capture of the Bahamas. His superior, Galvez, was upset that this had begun without his permission and arrested Miranda. It might have been this clash with Spanish officialdom that made Miranda begin to consider being involved in the quest for independence of the Spanish colonies in Latin America. With his involvement in the failure of the Spanish invasion of Jamaica in about 1782, the Spanish authorities wanted to arrest Miranda and take him to Spain. Fearing that he would not be tried fairly, he fled to the British colonies in North America in July 1783. In what was to become the USA, he met with, and became acquainted with the ideas of, leaders of the American independence struggle, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Samuel Adams.
Between 1785 and 1780, Miranda stayed in Europe, first landing in London in February 1785. In London, the Spanish authorities kept a close watch on him. Between 1802 and 1810, he lived near to Fitzroy Square at number 58 Grafton Way, to which a commemorative plaque is attached. The building is next door to the current home of the Consulate of Venezuela (“Republica Bolivariana de Venezuela”). It was in number 58 that Miranda met the great liberator of Latin America, Simon Bolivar (1783-1830) in 1810. It was also in 1810 that the Venezuelan patriot, philologist, jurist, and poet, Andres Bello (1781-1865) lived in this house. Bello had arrived in England with Bolivar as part of an expedition to raise funds for revolutionary activities in Latin America.
Miranda travelled around Europe and took an active part in the French Revolution between 1791 and 1798, when, disillusioned with the revolutionary movement, he returned to London. Back in London, at Grafton Street, Miranda had two children, Leandro (1803-1886) and Francisco (1806-1831). Their mother was his housekeeper Sarah Andrews, who became his wife.
From 1804 onwards, Miranda became actively involved with freedom struggles against the Spanish in the Caribbean and in what was to become Venezuela. He returned to Venezuela, along with Bello and Bolivar, when the First Venezuelan Republic was proclaimed in April 1810. It was short-lived. Miranda, who was briefly Dictator of Venezuela, was arrested, along with Bolivar, by the Spanish in mid-1812. Bolivar was released, but Miranda was shipped to Spain, where he died in prison in Cadiz in 1816.
Miranda’s statue next to Fitzroy Square was erected in 1990. It is a copy of one made by the Venezuelan sculptor Rafael de la Cova (c1850-c1896) in 1895 (www.londonremembers.com/memorials/francisco-de-miranda-statue). As the statue was erected in 1990, eight years after I finally completed my studies at University College and I had not been near Fitzroy Square since 1982, it was hardly surprising that it was only this year that I first saw it, one of several statues depicting liberators of Latin America, which are dotted around in London.
BY FEBRUARY, daytime temperatures in Pondicherry exceed 30 degrees Celsius. This combined with high humidity levels drive the wild street dogs to sleep a lot in whatever shade they can find. Likewise, sensible people avoid direct exposure to the strong tropical sun.
When you walk along the paths shaded by trees in the centrally located Bharathi Park, you can feel the temperature drop. This park, a peaceful haven, was an unforeseen result of warfare.
In 1709, the French built a fortress, Fort Louis, in the heart of Pondicherry. It was a typical fortress of the type designed by the French engineer Vauban (1633-1707). Pentagonal in plan, it had bastions at each of its five corners. The fort was destroyed by the British in 1761 and not replaced.
The space left after the destruction of the fort remained a wasteland used by the French for military training and celebration of some French national festivals. In 1854, an elegant neoclassical pavilion was erected in the middle of this wasteland. It commemorates a legendary 16th century woman, who discovered a source of water that became very important for the inhabitants of Pondicherry.
In 1946, a tree was planted on the land where Fort Louis once stood. Eventually, the present Bharathi Park was laid out. In its middle, stands the pavilion mentioned already.
One entrance to the park is opposite the entrance to the heavily guarded Raj Nivas (Governor’s Residence), housed in the former French Governor’s House built in 1766.
At the north east corner of the park, there is a statue of a man wearing a dhoti, a long jacket, and a turban. This depicts Chinnaswami Subramania Bharathi (1882-1921), also known as ‘Bharatiyar’. He was a great Tamil poet and independence fighter and opponent of the caste system. He fled to Pondicherry in 1908 to escape from being arrested (for his ‘seditious’ writing in newspapers) by the British and remained there until 1918. In 1906, he edited a newspaper with MPT Acharya, about whom I have written in my book about Indian revolutionaries in London, “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets”. In Pondicherry, Bharatiya met other Indian freedom fighters seeking sanctuary there, including Sri Aurobindo and VVS Aiyar (also in my book), an associate of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar.
In 1918, Bharatiya moved back into British India, where he was promptly arrested. He died in 1921, impoverished.
The Puducherry Government Museum, housed in an 18th century French mansion, is a few metres from the park and well worth a visit. It contains exhibits dating from prehistory until the era of the French colonization. In need of a little bit more care and attention, there is a fascinating range of objects to be seen.
One display that interested me greatly was about the excavations made by a French archaeologist and the British Sir Mortimer Wheeler at Arikamedu, just south of Pondicherry. They were following up discoveries made in that location by French scholars before WW2. It emerged that Arikamedu was the site of a port at which Ancient Romans and Greeks traded with the local Indians.
The museum contains a few artefacts dug up including some Roman and Greek coins. A few years ago, I saw many of these in a museum at Calicut.
The ports where the Mediterranean people traded in India are contained in “The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea”, a navigational manual that was originally composed in the 1st century AD. The port near Arikamedu is most likely to have been ‘Podouke’ as listed in the “Periplus”.
So, it is evident that the area around Pondicherry was visited by Europeans long before the British, French, and Danes estsblished colonies there.
We left the museum, which also has a nice collection of Hindu sculptures, and the lovely park to enjoy some excellent French inspired cooking at the Villa Shanti. At the table next to ours, there was a very serious looking group of French tourists, who were listening earnestly to their Indian guide, who spoke to them in French with an accent that probably caused them to wince internally. Incidentally, apart from people from all over India, most of the rest of the visitors to Pondicherry are French. I wonder how they feel seeing the souvenirs of their former empire, now an episode fading into the swirling mists of time.
I FOUND MY COPY of “A Flight of Pigeons”, a short novel by Ruskin Bond (born 1934), amongst a collection of books about birds in the gift shop at Sanjay Gandhi National Park just north of Bombay. The book has little or nothing that would be of interest to ornithologists and other nature lovers.
The novel is about some English ladies during the First War of Indian Independence (‘Indian Mutiny’; 1857-58). They are some of the only survivors of an attack by Pathan forces on the town of Shahjahanpur.
The ladies are first given refuge by a Kayasth family, and then by various Pathan families. Having some Indian ancestry and a knowledge of Urdu, these English refugees were more or less successfully accepted into the Muslim Pathan families.
The young daughter, Ruth, becomes the object of the amorous intentions of one of the Pathans, who wants to marry her. Ruth’s mother has to try to prevent this from happening. I will not reveal what happens because I do not want to spoil the enjoyment of the reader of this simply told, compelling short book.
This is the first book I have read by Ruskin Bond. If it is typical of his writing, then I want to read more. Like the Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare, Bond skilfully manages to pack much into his book with great economy of words.
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)
TWO YEARS AGO, we first visited Kranthi Teerth close to Mandvi in Kutch, once an independent kingdom and now a part of the Indian state of Gujarat. Kranthi Teerth is a memorial to Shyamji Krishnavarma (1857-1930) who was born in Mandvi. A brilliant Sanskrit scholar and a barrister, Shyamji became disillusioned with the British and by 1905 was advocating that India should become completely independent of the British Empire.
In 1905, Shyamji bought a large house in Highgate (North London). He converted this into a centre and hostel for Indians studying in London, a place where they could eat Indian food, meet fellow countrymen, and discuss affairs related to India. He called the place ‘India House’. The house still exists in Highgate but is now divided into flats.
Shyamji’s India House in Highate, not to be confused with the building with the same name in the Aldwych, rapidly became a centre for anti-British, anti-colonial activity until its demise by the end of 1909.
In 2009/10, a monument was created near Mandvi to commemorate the long forgotten pioneer of the Indian independence movement, Shyamji Krishnavarma. The monument includes a life size replica of the house in Highgate, which was once ‘India House’. The interior of the replica makes no attempt to copy whatever was inside India House back in the time of Shyamji. Instead, it contains portraits of numerous freedom fighters including some of those who either visited or lived in the house in Highgate when it existed as India House. There is also a collection of portraits of some of the heroes of the Great Rebellion, or First War of Indian Independence, that occurred between 1857 and ’58. One might question one or two omissions amongst the portraits (eg Jawaharlal Nehru and Gokhale), but there is a large selection of freedom fighters remembered here. Apart from the feisty Madame Bhikaiji Cama and Shyamji’s wife Bhanumati, there are no other ladies commemorated.
When I first saw the replica at Kranthi Teerth, which looks very incongruous standing tall in the flat sandy semi desert landscape, I became fascinated by its history. When we returned to London, I began researching the story of India House and its exciting contribution to the independence of India. Last year, I published a book about it: “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets”. The title encapsulates what happened in India House: ideas were discussed; experiments in bomb making were undertaken; and guns were packed ready to be smuggled into British India.
It was interesting to revisit the portraits on display in the replica of India House after having researched my book. At our first visit, most of the persons portrayed meant nothing to me. However, seeing them again, having learnt about them while writing my book, felt rather like meeting old friends!
Yesterday, we revisited Kranthi Teerth and met Hriji Karali, whose ideas led to Narendra Modi’s encouragement of its construction. I presented the senior officials at Kranthi Teerth with a copy of my book. They appeared to be very pleased because until then they had not seen anything in English about Kranthi Teerth and the person it commemorates. My wife and I were given a warm welcome.
Apart from the replica of house in Highgate, there is a simple but spacious gallery where the irns carrying the ashes of Shyamji and his wife are reverentially displayed. These were brought to India from Geneva, where Mr and Mrs Krishnavarma died in the 1930s, by Narendra Modi in 2003 while he was Chief Minister of Gujarat.
I always enjoy visiting places more than once because each successive visit I discover more about them and thereby appreciate them with greater keenness. This was certainly true of our second visit to Kranthi Teerth.
“Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets” by Adam Yamey is available from: Lulu.com Pothi.com (best for purchasers in India) Amazon Bookdepository.com Kindle
Picture shows setting of the replica of India House at Kranthi Teerth
Number 140 Sinclair Road in west London, not far from Shepherds Bush Green, looks like an ordinary Victorian terraced house, which it is. However, in the first decade of the twentieth century it was home to a few Indian freedom fighters. When the seventeen year old David Garnett, the writer and a future member of the Bloomsbury Group, visited the house in 1909, he met Bipin Chandra Pal (1858-1932) the Bengali nationalist and a father of the Swadeshi movement, which promoted Indian economic independence. He shared the house with his son Niranjan Pal (1889-1959), a young Indian freedom fighter who was to become a founder of the Bombay Talkies film company. Sukhsagar Dutt (1890-1967), a young Indian revolutionary and brother of Ullaskar Dutt who was involved in the use of bombs in Bengal and Bihar and tried at Alipore (Calcutta), also lived at number 140.
In mid to late 1909, VD (‘Veer’) Savarkar (1883-1966) also lived at 140 Sinclair Road as a lodger of Bipin Chandra Pal. Savarkar, who was studying law at the time, was deeply involved in activities aimed at attempting to cause the British to leave India in order that the country became a sovereign nation. Savarkar is now best known for his contributions to the encouragement of Hindu nationalism. His book “Essentials of Hindutva”, published in 1923, is considered a seminal work by promoters of Hindu nationalism.
Savarkar moved from India House in Highgate, a centre of revolutionary Indian independence activists, to 140 Sinclair Road sometime in 1909 before the assassination in London’s Kensington of a senior Indian administrative figure, Sir WH Curzon Wyllie, in July 1909. The victim was shot at close range by Madan Lal Dhingra, a close associate of Savarkar. Savarkar was suspected of having some involvement in the plotting of Curzon Wyllie’s demise. Savarkar’s host in Sinclair Road, Bipin Chandra Pal, was firmly against what Dhingra had done, but accommodated Savarkar, who was pleased that the assassination had been successful until, as I wrote in my book “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets”:
“… an angry crowd gathered outside, the house, Pal had to tell them that apart from being a paying guest, Veer had no other association with him. Another resident at this address, Pal’s son Niranjan, was a close friend of Veer’s and a regular visitor to India House. Niranjan’s association with India House worried Bipin greatly…”
Soon after this, Savarkar shifted his home in London to a flat above an Indian restaurant in a now non-existent alleyway in Holborn.
From what I have described, the seemingly ordinary terrace house at 140 Sinclair Road has played a small role in the history of India’s struggle for freedom from the British, which was eventually gained in August 1947.
For much more information about Indian patriots in Edwardian London, I invite you to read my recently published book, “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets”, which focusses on the Indian patriots who congregated at India House in Highgate between 1905 and 1910.
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.
BUY a paperback version of IDEAS, BOMBS, and BULLETS here:
Inside a house on a quiet tree-lined residential street in north London’s Highgate, a young Indian held a revolver in one hand and repeated a solemn oath promising to give liberating India from the British greater importance than his own life…
Pandit Shyamji Krishnavarma (1857-1930) was born in Mandvi in Kutch. He earned his title of ‘Pandit’ because of his very great knowledge of Sanskrit. In the 1880s, he travelled to England where he became an assistant to Professor Monier Williams at the University of Oxford. Krishnavarma’s studies of Sanskrit at Oxford earned him great fame amongst the Indologists all over the world. He also became a barrister. On hisreturn to India, Krishnavarma served as ‘Diwan’ in various princely states, before returning to England in 1897.
By 1905, Krishnavarma had become deeply involved in the movement to free India from the grips of the British Empire. That year, he purchased a house in the north London suburb of Highgate. He named it ‘India House’ and it served as both a hostel for Indian students and a centre for plotting the liberation of India from the British.
Between 1905 and 1910, when India House was closed and sold, this place became known as a ‘centre of sedition’ and the ‘most dangerous organisation in the British Empire’. I have almost finished writing a book, to be called “IDEAS, BOMBS, and BULLETS” about Highgate’s India House and the people associated with it.
Here is a brief introduction to my forthcoming book:
“This is about a little known part of the history of India’s struggle for independence. It concerns events centred on a house in Edwardian London. It is a tale of bombs, guns, lawyers, patriots, philosophers, revolutionaries, and scholars.
A large Victorian house stands in a residential street in the north London suburb of Highgate. Between 1905 and 1910, it was known as ‘India House’, and was a meeting place and hostel for Indian students, many of whom wished to help liberate India from centuries of British domination.
In the 19th and 20th centuries before India’s independence, many young Indians came to England to be educated. This is the story of a few of them, who came to Britain in the early 20th century, and then risked sacrificing their freedom, prospects, and lives by becoming involved in India’s freedom struggle.
This book describes the true adventurous exploits of members of Highgate’s India House (including VD Savarkar, Madan Lal Dhingra, and VVS Aiyar) and its history.“
I will give you more news about my book soon, I hope!