– Shalini Umachandran
In his latest book, ‘Rebels Against the Raj’, historian Ramachandra Guha tells the stories of seven foreigners in India who opposed British rule
Foreigners who ‘find themselves’ in India are the subject of many books and films, the people who discover a deeper meaning after spending time in the country. After 24 years in India, one such American Samuel stokes, who took the name Satyananda, wrote in the early 20th century that he’d developed a view that was neither eastern nor western, nor even a mixture of the two, “rather it is the result of the impact of the two… a new philosophy of life”. It’s the kind of line that could bring on an eyeroll except for the fact that Stokes was part of the freedom struggle and imprisoned, immersed himself completely in life in India, and eventually introduced apple farming in Himachal Pradesh.
In his new book, Rebels Against the Raj: Western Fighters for India’s Freedom, historian Ram achandra Guha tells the story of seven such for eigners-Annie Besant, B.G. Horniman, Stokes, Mirabehn (Madeline Slade), Philip Spratt, Saralabehn (Catherine Mary Heilman) and Ralph Richard Keithahn-who lived and worked as Indians, and led very interesting lives. While the broad strokes of Annie Besant’s and Mirabehn’s stories are documented elsewhere, the lives of the other five are less known. Horniman was an editor who was deported for his support of the freedom struggle, Philip Spratt arrived in India as a communist but eventually became a free market thinker and journalist in Karnataka, Saralabehn set up schools for girls in Uttarakhand and sowed the seeds of the environment movement, and Keithahn was a missionary in Tamil Nadu who felt the Church was insulating itself from the problems of real Indians and chose to find his own way. They were influenced by Gandhi and may have arrived in India as followers but over decades of engaging with the country and its people became individuals who questioned as much as they contributed. Edited excerpts from an interview with Guha:
Why did you choose to weave the seven lives together instead of writing separate biographical chapters?
I wanted to interweave their lives in a way that makes the history of India clearer. I wanted to go back and forth between their lives so that the larger picture of the freedom struggle, the Second World War, Independence, the postcolonial state, Nehru’s India, Indo-British relations, all that comes out through their lives. This is a group portrait of the times through seven lives; it’s not strictly chronological but it does you give you a sense of that period.
Some of the events seem to have parallels to the present. Was contemporary relevance one of the reasons to pick the seven?
These are seven renegades in a foreign land. They rebelled against imperialism, against their governments and were imprisoned or deported, but didn’t give up…. Their voices are contemporary and the questions they tackle are ones India and Indians have been grappling with for a century-social, political, cultural, environmental and economic questions.
The women-Madeline Slade and Catherine Mary-took Indian names, wore Indian clothing, adapted customs, stayed single. Annie Besant didn’t, but she had the sanction that comes with being leader of a spiritual order. It seems like the women had to work harder than the men to overcome racial, caste and patriarchal barriers and be accepted. Would that be accurate?
Absolutely. I think that’s generally the case not just in India, but in all societies, particularly in the early 20th century. In some progressive societies in western Europe and New Zealand, things may be different now, but in general, I think it’s still true, women have to work harder.
Annie Besant had an aura of grandeur-she was called Badi Memsahib-but Mira and Sarala really had to rough it out. Think of Mira in the 1920s going from village to village in Bihar to set up khadi centers; going to Odisha at the time of the Quit India movement, inspiring many. Sarala lived and worked in Uttarakhand, started a school, created a legacy for an environmental movement. Simply remarkable.
You haven’t focused on women before in your biographies, have you?
The challenge for me was that I’ve never written seriously about women before. It’s always been male, and the women, though important, have been in the background. What united Mira, Sarala and Annie Besant, apart from living in India, was that they all wrote. They were actors as well as observers and commentators. You have their writing to grapple with, not just their actions. You have their direct, unmediated views of what they were seeing. Even for Horniman and Spratt, reading their articles or editorials, apart from personal letters, gave me that. It humanizes people.
This is probably a biography in which you’ve spent so much time on the personal lives of subjects. What prompted this?
In my past biographies, I wrote about [Verrier] Elwin’s marriages and Gandhi, of course, you can’t write about him without Kasturba, his wife, but their public life overwhelms their private lives. So, the balance in those biographies is tilted towards their public life. In this case, there were three things: I was able to find a lot of personal correspondence; second, except for Annie Besant and Saralabehn, they all had relationships which were interesting or complicated. Stokes married an Indian, Mirabehn was in love with an Indian, Keithahn ended up divorced, Horniman had gay lovers. And finally, all seven were dislocated individuals and had to grapple with being in a foreign country, unsure of how they are received. Some had families back home, and worried about their disapproval. Stokes, for instance, had to keep explaining in his weekly letters to his mother what he’s doing. Of course, it was a great source for me, that he wrote weekly letters (laughs).
Did it change your approach to writing?
The older you get, the more experienced you become, and writing a biography is a craft. If I was a novelist writing a biography, I might have probed emotions sooner. On the other hand, I may not have had a clear understanding of the wider social and historical forces, which I have as a sociologist. Whatever the source tells me, I use and interpret it. I never speculate. Essentially, these were people who were dislocated so I think how they were coping is relevant. Without losing sight of the broader picture, personal details definitely add richness to the story. As a biographer, when you’re with one person for many years, it’s too much of an engagement. That’s the attractiveness of doing a group portrait. The research was very exciting and took me all over-Mumbai, Coimbatore, Madurai and Odanchatiram in Tamil Nadu, Kasauli in Uttarakhand, Delhi, London. This may be the book I have most enjoyed writing-the diversity of characters, the richness of their inner lives, their commitment and resolve, and the sheer scale of their achievement.
(With gratitude from Mint – Newspaper)