The man was Arathil Candoth Narayanan Nambiar (Nanu to friends and admirers), journalist, freedom-fighter, close friend and associate of Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose. He had been living in various parts of Europe for over half a century at the time of our meeting. Little did I know then of his profound entanglements with the dramatic events of the past – the Second World War, the rise of Nazism, the turmoil of Europe, the grand political movements of Russia and China, the anti-colonial movements within India and abroad; his life was inextricably linked to these events. Little did I know of his own political journey, of his struggles, vicissitudes, and the personal turbulence that remained hidden from me for a long time.

There was something else that I did not know at the time. ACN Nambiar was a “shadowy figure” to many. His activities, movements and political affiliations were obscured by secrecy. As were his personal peccadilloes and dalliances.

To some, it may have appeared, that Nanu was a spy.

ACN Nambiar (second from right) at dinner with Indira Gandhi at the Indian consulate in Geneva

At around 7 PM on 27 February 1933, six Nazi stormtroopers, Brown Shirts, raided ACN Nambiar’s flat.

They abruptly asked him to accompany them, pointing loaded revolvers raised to his face, with threats of being shot in case of resistance. No policeman in uniform or in civil dress accompanied them and no warrant of arrest was shown. No order to institute a house search was produced. He was given no opportunity to communicate with anyone.

While he was escorted to the car, four stormtroopers stayed back, and well over fifteen minutes later came down with many bundles of papers. Among the things removed was his typewriter. He was not told what they had seized. No list was made, nothing sealed or even properly packed.

He was driven to a SA Station. On the staircase leading up to it on the third floor of the building, he was savagely assaulted by two stormtroopers with leather whips. At the SA Station which consisted of two rooms, one leading to the other Nambiar spotted a number of stormtroopers, about twenty, and the bundles removed from his flat piled with others “confiscated” from elsewhere. He discovered that valuable material essential for his work, an almost complete manuscript for a book on India involving two years labour and newspaper cuttings were removed from his flat along with his pocket books, files and private correspondence.

Among the papers removed were Indian newspapers and copies of a Calcutta financial weekly, Capital, which the SA thought was Karl Marx’s Das Capital and hence subversive literature. While he was being interrogated, their leader made some contemptuous remarks about India’s struggle for self-determination.

Ten minutes later the adjutant was ordered to take him to a police branch station. From the doorway to the lorry the SA men led him holding him in jiu-jitsu grips as though he was a criminal. As he recalled later, in his characteristic wry tone: “The whole thing looked at once theatrical and brutal.” He spent the night in a dark cell with just sitting accommodation.

Early next morning he was taken to police headquarters in Berlin at Alexanderplatz, popularly referred to as “Alex”, where he was subjected to an intense interrogation by a police official. A colleague of the interrogator gleefully told Nambiar that gallows were being raised for the arrested political prisoners. He was then led to a common cell, where he found good company, amongst whom was also Dr Friedberger, an acquaintance of his who had held an important government post.

To Nambiar’s disappointment Freidberger pretended to not recognise him. Friedberger was also arrested and was being “registered” since he was a Jew and a Social Democrat. Eventually Friedberger managed to escape to Paris, then to New York, only to return to Germany after the war. He would later become the deputy minister of health in the German Democratic Republic, in which capacity he visited India.

ACN Nambiar at Hotel Kaiserhof, Berlin

There was turbulence all around.

It was a time of momentous change, and for Nambiar and his associates, the years following the Brussels Congress of 1927 moved at blistering pace, as each day witnessed unprecedented changes. In India, at the very same time, several shifts were underway and the nationalists had gathered great momentum. Prominent Indian nationalist leaders made trips abroad to garner support and Nambiar, alongside Chatto [Virendranath Chattopadhyay], had become the point man in Germany.

It was during this turbulent period, years prior to Nambiar’s dramatic arrest and the rapid changes in Germany, that Nambiar first met Jawaharlal Nehru, the charismatic nationalist leader and India’s first prime minister, at the Brussels Congress. Little did he know then that they were to form a lifelong bond, and the baton of deep personal friendship and affection would carry forward one generation, as would the prime ministership.

“In Berlin, Motilal also wanted to make some purchases, for the new house he was building in Allahabad. One day he told Chattopadhyaya: ‘I might as well buy these things and have them put up before Jawaharlal becomes a full socialist.’ They in main were electric lamps and fittings for them.”

Motilal Nehru, a wealthy lawyer, Indian nationalist who twice held the post of party president of the Indian National Congress, and the patriarch of the Nehru–Gandhi dynasty which till date has a profound influence on the course of mainstream Indian politics, accepted an invitation from the Soviet authorities to visit Moscow in November 1927 in order to attend the nation’s tenth anniversary celebrations. He was joined by his family members which included his son, Jawaharlal Nehru.

Nambiar and Chatto had firmed up their logistical arrangements from Berlin. This second encounter, not long after the important Brussels Congress, further cemented the budding friendship between Nambiar and Jawaharlal.

“I passed much time with the Nehru family in the famous Adlon Hotel. Motilal was known personally to the owner of the hotel, Adlon, an important figure in Germany’s public life.”

On return to New Delhi, Motilal Nehru mentioned his successful visit to Sreenivasa Iyengar, his colleague and rival in the Indian National Congress, who also was a very successful lawyer.

Thereafter Nambiar was pressured by Sreenivasa Iyengar to accompany him to Moscow in September 1928 to coincide with the Sixth Congress of the Communist International. They knew one another from Madras and while Nambiar thought him to be of “great intelligence and good erudition”, he also considered the man who lived a fairly Spartan life to have “a somewhat cantankerous disposition”.

Iyengar, it seems, made no bones about his competitive streak and explained that his Moscow trip “was much influenced by the wish to match a prominence of Motilal Nehru” – he desired to be known and acclaimed abroad. He pitched his aim high and demanded an interview with Stalin which Motilal could not arrange. So Nambiar set out to Moscow from Berlin late in the evening, accompanying the fastidious Iyengar.

“Unused to modern Western dress, he got ready a good collection of it for use in Europe with the aid of three selected experts Asaf Ali, TG Goswami and Chaman Lal. The collection carried numerous labels with markings meant to be helpful for avoiding mistakes and wrong mixtures. The reference to clothing is made as it caused an amusing incident during Iyengar’s journey from Berlin to Moscow.”

“Mr Iyengar, Mr Iyengar!”

A voice shouted out at the travellers. Nambiar and Iyengar

were abruptly woken up by a Polish non-commissioned officer. They were at the Polish frontier, and were alarmed by this abrupt awakening. Iyengar appeared both “confused and frightened” and asked Nambiar what was going on. The uniformed officer said that they were to be produced before his Commissar immediately. This further fuelled Iyengar’s misgivings.

Iyengar hurriedly dressed in Western clothes with Nambiar’s assistance asking him repeatedly whether he had studied the different labels and markings, “not having great confidence in my sartorial accomplishment.” They were soon led to the Commissar who knew English.

Before the Commissar could explain why he wished to meet him, Iyengar, under the impression that the interview was on account of his high standing among the Indian leadership, “started eloquently a harangue, giving out the important positions he held in India, citing the fervour India extended to Poland’s fight for independence, stating the expectation of like fervour from Poland for India’s struggle for national existence, and showing no sign of ending soon his speech.” The Commissar interrupted Iyengar’s grand speech midway, much to his disappointment.

His intention was only to see the individual whose photo he had seen on the passport “with a cloth covering his legs up to the waist, with a resplendent shawl drawn over his body and an elegant cap with trimming on the head”. The Commissar was disappointed to see Iyengar in Western clothes.

More fun awaited Nambiar in Moscow, as he accompanied Iyengar. Nikolai Bukharin, Chairman of Communist International (which also published Pravda), asked Iyengar how the revolutionary movement was proceeding in India. He received an astounding reply from Iyengar: “Grass eating Brahmin coming to Moscow. There you are.”

The reply puzzled Bukharin and other Soviet officials and it was left to the ingenuity of Nambiar and Soumendranath Tagore, nephew of Rabindranath Tagore who was in Moscow, to interpret that this was meant to say that India was prepared to go to any length to win independence. Nambiar says that Iyengar finally achieved his ambition of meeting Stalin who was otherwise very busy with the Sixth Congress and his conflict with Trotsky.

Excerpted with permission from A Life in Shadow: The Secret Story of A.C.N. Nambiar, Vappala Balachandran, Roli Books.