Click here to buy The Brass Notebook: A Memoir Chapter Five: The Era that Shaped my Life
I like to call myself and those of us who were young adults in India in the 1950s, the before midnight’s children. Unlike Salman Rushdie’s protagonists who were born at the very midnight hour of August 15, 1947, the moment that India was declared free from British rule, I was born in 1933 and was a teenager at the time of Independence,and a young adult as we threw ourselves into the work of a new and free India. I would say that we experienced an India which we still fantasize about, and which also shaped our politics profoundly. I would go further and suggest that we got deeply attached to some ideas, ideologies and aspirations that were born of that experience that we are not able to shed, even today, in our eighties.
I was fourteen years old when India declared independence on the fifteenth of August, 1947. I was living in the city of Gwalior in North India, where my father was the Dewan of the Gwalior state—the chief minister, in today’s parlance. We, his family, were somewhat screened from the turmoil, the agonies as well as celebrations that were going on, especially in New Delhi. But like a new arrow, the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi pierced through our household.
As my father has written in his memoir, Of the Raj, Maharajas and Me, a few days prior to the assassination of Gandhi, the assassins had been in his drawing room, angry with him for restricting the activities of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS, and also for not including its party members in his cabinet. They had abused Gandhi and amongst others, my father, for supporting the Muslims and made death threats against Gandhi and my father.
My father’s term as the Dewan of Gwalior ended with the integration of the states into the Republic of India. A Chamber of Princes had been formed, mandated with the task of forging an agreement with the princes to join the republic. He was engaged as the member secretary of this chamber. That task was also done, so he was getting ready to return to Mysore State. He was commended for having done the job successfully.
Gandhi had heard from Sardar Vallabhai Patel, then the home minister, that my father had done well with that task and perhaps wanted to commend him for another governmentposting. So he had sent for my father and given him an appointment, ironically for January 29, 1948—the day before he was assassinated, January 30.
My father recalls how Gandhi asked him to stay on after the meeting, and pointing to a few people who were agitating outside his chamber, said:‘You see those poor people standing there? They are from Bannu. They have come all the way to see me. One of them was quite angry with me today. He told me, “Gandhiji, you should die”. I said I will not die until my inner voice says I should. And do you know, Sreenivasan, what he said?’
Gandhiji raised his hand in a characteristic gesture and said, ‘He said“my inner voice says you should die”.’
Thus, the very next day when my father heard that Gandhi was shot dead, he was devastated. His conversation with Gandhi on that evening is full of portent and left him and all of us, his family, not only deeply shocked, but politicised.
Chapter Six: Experiencing True Freedom
My first opportunity to step out of the kind of sheltered, cocooned life that girls in families like mine led in those days, was provided by my father in 1955. In the years before Independence, he had served the princely states in various capacities as a civil servant. After he retired, he was invited, as retired administrators often are, to serve as a directoron the boards of various companies. One such position came to him when he was nominated by the Indian government to serve as the government’s representative on the board of Air India International—as it was then called—India’s only international airline. Once a year, the board met in London and the directors were all flown there at the company’s expense. They could bring one companion.
Each year he took one of us from “the nest”—first my mother, then my aunt, then my elder sister. It was my turn next. He also had another motive, the possibility of my meeting ‘a suitable boy’, a young man of the right caste, cultured, educated and well-spoken who was doing a PhD in Paris. The meeting, when it happened, was delightful, but I had an uncontrollable desire to go in for higher studies, and experience freedom. I was reluctant to go further with this arrangement. These were not things I could tell my father so bluntly. So when he was due to fly to the US for further engagement, I asked him if I could stay on in London for another week. To my slight surprise, he agreed. He left me money to cover my expenses for a fortnight and introduced me to his friends in the city.
I stayed in a boarding house run by Militza Zernov, a Russian émigré. Her husband, Nicolas, was a scholar of Eastern Orthodox Culture attached to Keble College, Oxford, whom she saw mostly at weekends.
I felt comfortable and happy in London. Notting Hill Gate was the nearest tube station and the area was known for theatre and art. One day, I saw a board announcing a training school for ballet run by Madame Rambert, the legendary Polish woman who came to be known as the Mother of English ballet. I walked in and asked if I could join her class. She made me go through a few stretches, said my body was supple, so I could join. But the fees: ten pounds per lesson! Alas out of my range, otherwise my life may have taken a different trail.
Sreedhar had lived in London before I came there, staying in High Wycombe. At that time, Krishna Menon, who later became Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s key advisor, was a towering presence among Indians in London, having founded the India League to campaign for the country’s independence. It had a small office on the Strand.
Menon was known for encouraging young Indians who came to London. He befriended my brother, who was outgoing and intelligent, and also introduced him to Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, who was the high commissioner of India in London. Sreedhar wrote to Krishna Menon about my desire for higher studies and asked me to call on him. I visited Menon at the office of the India Leagueon the Strand.Menon was friendly and quite unencumbered with the fact that he was such a prominent figure in India’s politics. He tried to help me; he spoke to the officer in charge of education at the Indian high commission, a MrKashyap, to seek a place for me in any university in the UK.
Mr Kashyap could not find a place for me, the admissions were all over by August, but he invited me to his home for a Sunday lunch where I met Harindranath Chattopdhyay, the famous poet and actor-brother of Sarojini Naidu, one of the most prominent figures of the Indian freedom struggle. It was not a pleasant afternoon, as Harindranath was a predator, holding me close to him as we stood to take a photograph, letting his hands play over my back, all entirely new experiences for me. This aspect of his character has been confirmed in anecdotes about him in various biographies, including that of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay who was married to him for a short while.
Sreedhar also wrote to Mrs Pandit. When he told her that I was in London, she invited me to an official reception that she was hosting in her house. Triloki Nath Kaul, known as Tikki Kaul, was at that time the deputy high commissioner . He received me when I walked into the reception and led me to a graceful woman with a big warm smile and well-groomed white hair. She first shook my hand and then embraced me. She asked me what I was doing, where I was staying, what were my plans in London.
Happy to have the attention, I told her everything, including my problems and challenges. She laughed and said, “Would you like to come and stay with me for a few days?”I was stunned but quite happy to do that. I moved in with Mrs Pandit.
One day, she asked me if I had a good portrait of myself—I could not understand why but when I said no,she decided I should be photographed. She called one of her secretaries and the next thing I knew, I was being driven in a car belonging to the high commissioner to perhaps one of the best photographic studios in London. While I much enjoyed staying in the luxury of the Indian high commissioner’s house, I chose to move back to my boarding house soon after.
While in London, I had been told of a two-week seminar, once again organized by the Quakers, which was to take place in Saarbrücken, Germany. Those selected would not have to bear any costs. I decided to go for it and took the ferry across the English Channel and a train followed by a bus to the site. The last lap, on the bus, was the first time I felt any fear. The bus was full of miners on their way home. I was in a sari and a long plait and must have looked as helpless and frightened as I felt, clutching my small attaché. The men stared and laughed. Nothing happened, nobody hurt me, but for much of the journey I was convinced I was in serious danger.
I got off the bus, following the instructions, and walked for about two kilometers to the house in which the camp was to be held. The camp, which had both men and women living under the same roof, was perhaps my first strike at freedom. During the day we met to discuss many topics, sharing our life histories and ambitions. But in the evenings after supper, in a natural kind of way, the girls and boys began to pair off, taking walks in the woods alongside the house. My partner was a Yugoslav, Vojin Dmitrivitch, and the woods were just right for passion—I fell in love with Vojin.
At that camp I also met a young Dane, nineteen years old, and planning to be a veterinarian, who taught me to hitchhike. When he heard that I was going back to England he said: ‘Why don’t you come with me? I am also going to England but will be hitchhiking. I will go from here up north through Germany and up to my home which is in Copenhagen and then I will be going back all the way to England, via Sweden. It will cost you nothing.’I promptly agreed and had my first most wonderful experience of Scandinavian beaches and hitchhiking.
When the seminar was done, we hitchhiked on to Frankfurt. He knew all about the free youth hostels that were dotted all across Europe and we would stay there for the night and get on to the main road and hitchhike the next day. We went to the beaches in Denmark and Sweden as it was summertime. I can never forget my first experience of coming out in a bathing suit on to a beach. Girls were given cubicles where they could change. I found it unbearably hard to emerge from the cubicle with nothing but a bathing suit. To this day that young man, who is now a retired veterinarian, teases me for my extreme inhibition. So, for one month we were on the road. Finally, we hitchhiked back to London.
I did not want to go back to India yet. But how should I negotiate my stay?One of the boarders at the “house”advised me to go to the employment exchange in London. It was the 1950s and citizens of countries in the Commonwealth were eligible to work in the UK with none of the restrictions they have to face today. The exchange found me a clerical job at five pounds ten per week. The boarding house charged three pounds per week without breakfast, so the rest went for the tube and some food.
Looking back, it is surprising how little my father resisted when I said I’d like to stay on in England and try to enter a university. He notonlytook it very well but even spoke to a friend of his—a diplomat at the Indian high commission—to ask if he could help me find admission in a suitable course.
But any old course would not do. I had set my heart on Oxford. It is an extraordinary thing to admit, but Oxford meant nothing to me when my landlady in London, Militza Zernov, first mentioned it. I could not remember anyone mentioning these famous universities —Cambridge and Oxford—when I was growing up, neither at home nor in my college. My landlady was shocked when she found that the name and place meant nothing to me. So she took me with her when she was driving to Oxford to attend the annual reception at Keble College, a garden party hosted by the Alliance Française.
The first sight of that city just enthralled me. I was stunned by the architecture, the Gothic towers, and the students cycling down the streets with bags full of books and black coats flying. It was seductive. I was seized with a determination that I must get here.
On completing the three-month assignment with Minoo Masani, I started looking for another job. I was particularly interested in a job that would involve me with the cooperative movement. The cooperative was an alternative to both the state and the private sector, and seemed like a promising place to carve out an ideological space that was neither capitalist nor (in the Soviet sense) socialist. In the course of my research, I learnt that the Indian Cooperative Union (ICU) in Delhi was setting up a research division, and was looking for a research assistant. I applied, and was interviewed for the position. I was offered the job which I accepted without hesitation. I would now be moving to Delhi.
To my delight, shortly after, Dharma and Lovi also moved to Delhi, and we kept up our friendship. They would often invite me to dinner at their house on Pandara Road. Their drawing room was a remarkable place. On any given evening, the best scholars, intellectuals, journalists and writers of the age could be found there, discussing books and the current political scenario.
Dharma was at the centre of it all. She was a voracious reader and always had something to say, about novels and poetry as well as about her own intellectual specialism, economics and the social sciences. She had already acquired a reputation as a formidable conversationalist in Cambridge: quick-witted, engaging and impossible to patronise. A widely circulated anecdote from her Cambridge years captures something of this quality. Apparently a Cambridge don at a party had said, quite unaware of the ridiculousness of the remark, that ‘time is just a device to stop everything from happening simultaneously.’ To which she replied, quick as a flash, ‘Then I suppose space is just a device to stop everything from happening in Cambridge.’
Her conversations in Delhi had the same quick-silver quality. Surrounded by other people who were close to being her intellectual equals, she came into her own as a hostess, thriving on the clever, intense engagement with intelligent men and women. There were scenes straight out of Simone de Beauvoir’s novel about French intellectuals after the war, The Mandarins.
I can remember some of the figures who used to frequent that drawing room. Romesh and Raj Thapar (who managed the influential journal, Seminar). My brother Sreedhar, representing a steel industry consultancy, and Pitambar Pant, then in the Planning Commission, would often be there too. Some of the regulars lived on Pandara Road and some in Chanakyapuri: my brother used to call them the Panchampali group. There were others too in the circle: V.K. Ramaswamy, Aparna Basu (then Aparna Mehta), and Andre Beteille—all from Cambridge.
The heroine of the group, I think, was the luminous scholar Sita Narasimhan. She had studied English at Cambridge and the others regarded her as the most impressive intellect of them all. She did not live in Delhi, for she had stayed on in Cambridge and when she was in India, she tended to be with her family in Madras. But on her trips to Delhi, she was lionised by the others. Dharma in particular adored and revered her.
One episode from those years has stayed in my mind in particular, perhaps because it revealed something of my own place in the group. I had a similar Oxbridge background and had an academic position, but I did not regard myself as equal to them in sophistication. One evening, I can remember all of us sitting on a carpeted floor with our backs to the wall in V.K. Ramaswamy’s father’s house. His father had the rank of a minister, being deputy chairman of the Planning Commission to which Nehru was the chair.Someone said, with considerable excitement, that Amartya Sen would be joining us.
Even to those who didn’t know him personally, Amartya Sen, even as a young man in his twenties, was a charismatic figure. It was clear to everyone, even those who had only known him as an undergraduate, that he was one of the great minds of his generation. Great things were expected of him, and when he won the Nobel Prize for Economics several decades later, none of us was in the least bit surprised. Sen was also known to be a Marxist.
Amartya walked indressed in the Bengali style, in a dhoti, kurta and a shawl. He wasa beautiful man. The conversation turned very quickly to ideas like Marxism. The room was full of people who were not themselves card-carrying Marxists butprogressives. I was a little frustrated with the direction of the conversation, unsure exactly what it was that Amartya was supposed to be. Quite innocently, I decided to ask him: ‘Amartya, what is Marxism?’There was shocked silence in the room but I was too raw then to notice the effect I had had. Amartya, to his credit, took the question entirely in his stride, and answered it in his characteristic way: erudite and clear. Later in the evening, Amartya asked if I ever visited Kolkata, where he was living at the time, and said I should let him know if I did. We became friends—a friendship that has lasted all these years.