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Renegades fighting the Raj in a foreign land

In his latest book, ‘Rebels Against The Raj’, historian Ramachandra Guha tells the stories of seven foreigners in India who opposed British rule.

Mirabehn in Chennai.
Mirabehn in Chennai. (Getty Images)

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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 Ramachandra Guha tells the story of seven such foreigners—Annie Besant, B.G. Horniman, Stokes, Mirabehn (Madeline Slade), Philip Spratt, Saralabehn (Catherine Mary Heilman) and Ralph Richard Keithahn—whose dedication to India transcended all borders and rewrites the definition of nationalism. They lived and worked as Indians with an open-mindedness that crossed national, social and geographic boundaries, and just led very interesting lives. 

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While the broad strokes of Annie Besant’s and Mirabehn’s stories are fairly well documented elsewhere, the lives of the other fare less known. Horniman—who lends his name to the circle in south Mumbai—was a fiery 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 become individuals who question as much as they contribute and appreciate. As Guha tells Lounge, “they followed a critical rather than an unthinking nationalism.” Edited excerpts from an interview:

You’ve chosen to weave the seven lives together instead of write separate biographical chapters? Was it because their time in India overlapped, was it to explain the larger context of the social, political and cultural life of the time, or some other reason altogether?

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. It takes the reader to different parts of India, from the Himalaya to Tamil Nadu to Bombay and beyond, and helps you see the range of their lives and experiences. 

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 went to prison or were deported, but didn’t give up. They lived difficult, arduous lives, much like the Indian nationalists of the time. … I would like readers to draw their own lessons, but one very broad lesson is that xenophobia and inwardness does not help a culture. And this xenophobia is not just about us in India; it’s about everyone, the Turks, the Russians, the British, the Americans. There’s a different lesson to take from each person. In Horniman’s case, his life tells you not just about the freedom of the press but also about the role of the editor. He fought the battle against censorship 100 years ago and lost, and now you can’t even begin to fight that battle. Mira, Spratt, Sarala and Keithahn are all early environmentalists, talking about the dangers of consumerism, and the destruction of the natural and social fabric that follows. It’s a century of Indian history told through their eyes. Their voices are contemporary. These are questions that India and Indians have been grappling with for a century—social, political, cultural, environmental and economic questions.

Cover of Rebels Against The Raj by Ramachandra Guha; published by Penguin Random House India; 496 pages;  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>799
Cover of Rebels Against The Raj by Ramachandra Guha; published by Penguin Random House India; 496 pages; 799

The women—Madeline Slade and Catherine Mary—took Indian names, Mirabehn and Saralabehn, wore Indian clothing, adapted customs, stayed single, worked on the ground with people. 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 that period, 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. One hundred years ago, things were much more difficult for women in India—not that they’re particularly easy now. 

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 to Bihar from village to village to set up a khadi centre; going to Odisha at the time of the Quit India movement. And of course, Sarala, living and working in Uttarakhand, but by the end, she was writing books in Hindi. Mirabehn was a restless spirit, moving from one ashram to the other, inspiring many. Saralabehn was more grounded, starting a school, creating a legacy for an environmental movement. Simply remarkable.

You haven’t focussed 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 humanises people. If you are only writing on the basis of colonial records, it’s a more detached, even disembodied perspective. But we hear their own voice in their letters and articles. Seven very different lives, so much variety, where they lived, what they did, what their personal journeys were like, their romantic entanglements, apart from their politics. 

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Spratt said in his book on Gandhi that “a biographer must study his subject from within as well as without”. So, this book gave you a chance to do that? 

Yes, definitely. Possibly some early efforts were more from without and now I’ve moved to within… the balance is important. Often a biographer is constrained by the material: For instance, if you are writing on Patel, it will only be from without, nothing on his emotional life. Even Ambedkar had friends and relations but there’s very little in the public domain. Sometimes, there may be too much on the personal side, the within, like personal diaries. Finding that balance of within and without for a subject comes from years of experience.

This is probably a biography in which you've spent so much time on the personal lives of your subjects. What prompted you to do this and did it change your approach to the writing? 

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, why he’s marrying an Indian, what he feels about the war and so on. Of course, it was a great source for me, that he wrote weekly letters (laughs).

Some of these were interracial relationships, most of them unconventional…

An interracial relationship is different for a really elite Indian, for example Sonia Gandhi marrying Rajiv Gandhi or JRD Tata marrying Simone Tata. There’s no problem of adjustment, assimilation, censure. Here, these were basically middle-class people marrying across racial boundaries. When Philip Spratt went to prison during the freedom struggle, the British offered to free him if he returned to England for good. Seetha (his Indian fiancé and later, wife) tells Philip in a letter to take the deal. He refuses, he very sensitively points out that she’d never be accepted in England. It must have been very tough for her. It was a very daring act to fall in love across racial boundaries at that time. And Horniman, being homosexual is still difficult in India, can you imagine what it was like in 1922? 

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Just to go back a bit, did spending more time on the intimate details change your approach to biography 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—Bombay, 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.

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