Until my family moved north to Gwalior, I had little knowledge of the political turmoil in India.
“British bootlicker,” my classmate once shouted at me. We were both schoolgirls, the only two non-Christians in our class at the Sacred Heart Convent in Bangalore. The year was 1942. Our school was at the centre of an area of Bangalore called the Cantonment. It had been built to house British soldiers and other colonial officials.
But other communities lived there too – Anglo-Indians, products of mixed marriages, usually between British men and Indian women, converts to Christianity, and Tamil-speaking migrants from the nearby state of Tamil Nadu, brought to the Kannada-speaking city of Bangalore in part so that the British ruling class needn’t depend on the local labour supply.
The school was large and had several buildings, mostly made of the famous grey sandstone of the Deccan plateau on which Bangalore stands. Over time, the grey stone had turned a dignified, muddy brown. The house I grew up in too, was built with this stone; it was the most popular building material at the time, easy to maintain because it didn’t demand regular painting, and calming in the way it blended with the local flora.
A ‘brown and gold’ life
While most of the other students, largely Anglo-Indian or Goan Christians, would walk or cycle from their nearby homes, my younger sister and I came to school every day, to our great embarrassment, in a coach drawn by a beautiful chestnut brown horse. There were no buses or any form of public transport from where we lived, to the Cantonment. It was like two different cities.
We wore the standard school uniform: a blue serge pleated skirt with a white shirt, tucked neatly in, and a brown-and-gold tie with diagonal stripes. We all sang the school anthem – “Brown and Gold” – with great fervour, every morning at assembly.
I loved the various prayers and litanies that were part of the Roman Catholic tradition of the school. I would go to the chapel, make the sign of the cross, sing all the hymns, “do” the rosary (a friend gave me one to pray with). The rosary had to be hidden when I was at home, and my private devotions restricted to the bathroom.
Like so many girls who feel the aesthetic appeal of Catholicism, I wanted more than anything to be a nun. Of course, I breathed nothing of these thoughts to my family at home, upper-caste Hindus who would have been shocked at one of their children abandoning both her family’s religion and hopes of a happy domestic life.
As it was, we were not allowed to enter the house proper without first shedding our uniforms, bathing and changing in the bathroom, which we were to enter by the back door. We had two very orthodox grandmothers living with us who regarded close proximity to Christians as polluting.
Stirrings of freedom
Out on the streets, nationalist sentiment was growing. The anti-colonial struggle was at its peak. Mahatma Gandhi’s call, in 1942, was for the British to “Quit India”. But almost nothing of that movement resonated inside the house; we were not avid newspaper readers. My father was a civil servant who served the Princely State of Mysore: the State had, since the early nineteenth century, retained a certain measure of independence but at the cost of ceding much of its former power to the British.
The Princely States were somewhat cocooned from the nationalist tumult, though in Mysore State, this insulation from politics allowed for a policy of successful industrialisation by a succession of progressively minded rulers guided by extremely competent and far-seeing dewans. Moreover, civil servants in those years tended to stay aloof from the political struggles on the street.
My friend at school came from a business family deeply involved in politics, for it was the commercial (rather than professional) class that was more supportive of the freedom movement. She had grown up in quite a different atmosphere. Politics for her had been the air she breathed. Of course, my family, relatively uninvolved with the freedom struggle, would seem to her like sycophants of the British. To my class fellow, my father’s position in the colonial bureaucracy was enough to expose me as a ‘toady’. The sense of hurt and humiliation was strong when she taunted me. I wasn’t sure what a bootlicker or a toady was, and why I was being accused of betraying my country.
Meeting the Quakers
Another experience, which took me deeply into the ethos of India’s freedom movement, while I was still cocooned in the orthodox family, was a student seminar in Bangalore in 1953. This was convened by the Quakers, in this case the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). Normally I would not be allowed to go to such workshops and conferences, but as I have mentioned earlier in this memoir, my brother Sreedhar had me invited. He was studying in the US and was drawn to the spirit and culture of the Quakers.
At the seminar, I was gripped by the simple attire and eclectic ideas of two young men, aged twenty-one and nineteen, who had come all the way from Gandhi’s ashram in Wardha – one British, David Hoggett, and the other Indian, Vasant Palshikar. I was fascinated by their attitude, behaviour, clothing and ideas. They were living in Wardha at the Sarva Seva Sangh Ashram. They dressed like Gandhi – that is, dhotis made of khadi, tucked high up between their legs, a light sleeveless banyan, vest, also made of khadi, and coarse handmade leather chappals. They were very calm, friendly and totally at ease with the mixed bag of people that we were.
They spoke about simplicity and identification with the poor. They represented the spirit, the yearning and the effort to usher in Gandhi’s idea of the “second freedom” – freedom from deprivation through sharing with the poor.
But looking back, the headiness I felt at the seminar was more than just that of a young romance – it was equally about the new ideas that I had been exposed to. This seminar started me on the road, of not only an interest in Gandhi and the Gandhian ways – but what was to become my political life.
Excerpted with permission from The Brass Notebook, Devaki Jain, Speaking Tiger Books.