Sunday, October 21, 2012

India's Grand Old Man In Britain

This, I hope, is the last of my current blogs on East-West encounters as viewed from an eastern perspective.  Each time I put the idea out of my mind, something crops up to remind me of it.  In this instance, it was an editorial article in the Hindu yesterday, titled 'The Grand Old Man and his miscellanea', by Dinyar Patel.

The Grand Old Man refers to Dadabhai Naoroji (1825-1917), a multifaceted man - a Parsi priest, professor, businessman, politician, founder member of the East India Association, founder of the London Indian Society, London Zoroastrian Association and the Indian National Congress.  He travelled to London in 1855 to establish the first Indian company in England and once there, involved himself in trying to get the voice of India heard in Britain.  He was the first to express his views on how Britain was draining India's resources at a time when industrial, legal and civil reforms were essential for the country.  He was the first Asian to become a British Member of Parliament in the House of Commons (1892-1895) and the first Indian to claim self government for his country.

The article reconstructs a segment of his life in Britain based on his correspondence.  The complete article can be viewed at
I quote from it:

"The spring of 1901 was a moment of despair for Dadabhai Naoroji, then in residence in London. While struggling to secure a new constituency from where he could attempt to re-enter the British Parliament, the Grand Old Man had to contend with increasingly retrogressive Tory policies toward India and flagging spirits within the Indian National Congress. But on 24 April, Naoroji received news of a different yet equally troubling variety: his toilet was malfunctioning. “The plumber has done what he can to rectify the defects of the water waste preventer, & we regret that it is not now satisfactory,” FW Ellis, builder and estate agent in Upper Norwood, London, grimly informed him by post...

...Since Naoroji was the senior-most Indian resident in the United Kingdom, he was regularly consulted by his countrymen who travelled to the imperial metropole for study, work, or pleasure. There are literally thousands of letters in the Naoroji Papers from such Indians — documenting incidents of racism, financial trouble, or plain homesickness — and nearly all of them received a prompt and detailed reply from the Grand Old Man. Naoroji functioned as a guardian of sorts for many Indians in Britain. Around 1 am on 2 January 1891, for example, he was awakened by a telegram from a London police constable informing him that a ‘Mr. CK Desai’ was under arrest for public drunkenness and wanted Naoroji to bail him out of jail. Aside from such correspondence, there are reams of letters from concerned parents in India who asked Naoroji to keep tabs on their sons (and, increasingly, daughters), making sure that they were being financially prudent and not consorting with Englishwomen.

The Papers also provide an insight into how Naoroji and his fellow nationalists in London adapted and reacted to life abroad. In addition to collaborating on the formulation of various economic critiques of the Raj, Romesh Chunder Dutt used Naoroji as a character reference for securing his flat in Forest Hill in 1898. While Dutt eventually returned to India in 1903, his fellow Bengali, W.C. Bonnerji, the first president of the Congress, took to London so much that he and his family put down permanent roots there, purchasing a house in Croydon that they christened Kidderpore. The extent of their Anglicisation was evident when Naoroji in January 1893 invited the Bonnerjis to attend, in Indian attire, a function held in Central Finsbury to celebrate his election to the House of Commons. “I am extremely sorry to say that we have not an Indian dress in the house,” a family member responded.

Others dearly missed the staples of Indian life while in England. In January 1906, the radical nationalist Madame Bhikaiji Cama — staying with a family member in North Kensington — invited Naoroji and his grandchildren over for a Sunday ‘Parsee lunch,’ an offer the Grand Old Man must have leapt at given the boiled and bland fare otherwise on offer in London. Some cultural adjustments were easier. Although in his sixties and seventies, Naoroji appears to have taken a fancy to English sports. He was the president of the football club in his parliamentary constituency, Central Finsbury, and the vice-president of a north London cricket club. A tantalising clue about Naoroji’s affinity for the gentleman’s game is offered by his campaign secretary, who in 1895 wrote to Naoroji that, “One would really imagine you to be a God of Cricket.”
But there was one great cultural challenge in Britain that Naoroji had great difficulty in surmounting: people just could not spell his name correctly. In newspapers, posters, and his incoming mail, the Grand Old Man was addressed by creative variants such as Dedabhan Naorji, Devan Novoriji, and Dadabhai Nowraggie. Matters improved slightly once his campaign secretary suggested that he simply go by ‘D. Naoroji.’ After he won election to Parliament by a mere five votes, he was frequently referred to as ‘Dadabhai Narrow-Majority,’ which was presumably easier to remember and spell.
While mastery of English was a challenge to some upwardly-mobile Indians, deciphering one another’s handwriting was a headache shared by all. I have probably done serious damage to my own eyesight by trying to make sense of the scribbles found in the Naoroji Papers. Understanding them was evidently a challenge to the original recipients over a century ago. Naoroji occasionally admonished Behramji Malabari, the prominent Parsi journalist and social reformer, to write neatly. William Wedderburn, one of the British stalwarts in the early Congress, grumbled to Naoroji in August 1891 that he could not read letters from Dinsha Wacha, the longtime Congress general secretary (“But you must not tell him this,” he added). And Allan Octavian Hume, while attempting to go through a draft of Naoroji’s presidential address to the 1893 Lahore Congress, confessed to Naoroji that “your handwriting is rather hard to read.” Perhaps it is appropriate that, toward the end of his life, Naoroji helped fund a bright Maharashtrian inventor, Shankar Abaji Bhise, who was working on new models of typewriters."

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