Compassion for poor children is something that Swedish proletarian writer Harry Martinson developed very early. Born in 1904 in a Sweden that was anything but the welfare state and “humanitarian superpower” that it is now, Martinson witnessed childhood deprivation and suffering at a young age. By the time he was six, his father had died, and his mother had abandoned him and his six sisters and moved to the United States. For the next 10 years, Martinson would live in the southern Swedish countryside under foster care. Describing his childhood in his semi-autobiographical novel Nässlorna blomma (Flowering Nettle), Martinson wrote, “I grew cold at my childhood hearth.” He attempted to run away several times from foster homes and schools before finally succeeding at the age of 16 to work on ships as a deckhand, stoker, coaltrimmer and labourer.

In January 1924, Martinson was hired to work on the SS Fernmoor, a 5,810-tonne steamship that sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to Cape Town and Port Sudan. He worked as a stoker, shovelling coal into the boiler’s firebox to power the engine of the ship. Bombay was also a port of call for the Fernmoor.

His book Kap farväl (Cape Farewell, 1933) has an entire chapter dedicated to India.

A copy of Martinson’s ‘Kap farväl’ (Cape Farewell).

First impressions

“Here I go, in the enormous Bombay; (I am) a tiny piece of Europe, a mosquito among temples and cows,” Martinson wrote. “Sometimes my whole being shudders at the inconceivability of the throng, at the unimaginability of the multitude of sights.”

He was overwhelmed with the attack on his senses, with the roaring crowds and hot sun when he walked out of Alexandra Dock (now Indira Dock) and into Ballard Estate. The Swedish sailor was astonished to see buffalo carts transporting goods that came to the city by ship.

Martinson documented a funeral procession on the street: “There go the coolies. They carry a naked dead man on an open stretcher. They sing a heated, fanatical song with hoarse voices and they walk fast. One of the millions here is dead.”

Throughout his writing about India, there is a sense of love and compassion for children. The Swede compared a baby he saw on the streets to one of renaissance painter Raphael’s “little angels”. Martinson, however, was critical of the state of the city in 1924, making very sharp observations.

“India seems to lack elder women,” he wrote. “Whenever I have free time, I go to observe, search and look out for an old woman. India’s old woman; she does not seem to exist. She is probably dead since long. Women die young here. They succumb under the tyranny that lays over them in five layers: prejudices, maharajas, England, the ritual tyranny of their own husbands and the constant pregnancies.”

Martinson was also aware of his limited views and ideas about India. He wrote, “But if I should be honest and not hide my ignorance about India under a self-rational genre chatter, then wherever I go, the tangle of thousand inconceivabilities say one and the same thing – that I know nothing.” He added, “And that it means nothing if I happen to drown this evening in the Alexandra Dock or be murdered by a dagger of a xenophobe.”

Dancing girls

While he was in Bombay, the Swedish sailor wandered across the city and shared his impressions from places such as Grant Road. He was particularly pained when he saw groups of girls dancing on the streets.

“Small groups of dancers, the youngest of the dancing girls not more than five years old at the most, wild, tormented, ecstatic, most of the time commanded by an old man, continuously shouting and threatening, ugly and repulsive: a sensational and upsetting contrast to the slender beauty of the whirling little dancers,” Martinson wrote. “Bells are ringing wildly on the ankles of the tiny ballet dancers. He, the ugly one, shouts when the dance shall go over into acrobatics, and the tiny ones go backwards on their hands and feet, their bellies pointing up towards the sky. He shouts, as if he wanted to kill them, and they throw their legs up as they dance on, standing on their hands while he, with a murderous expression, plays on a monotonously humming string instrument; with the form of a fish and the appearance of a museum specimen, prehistorically evil.”

Martinson went on 14 long voyages between 1920 and 1927, but was forced to give up sailing due to health reasons. Credit: Petrus Pramm/Nordic Museum/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication]

Upset at seeing the way the exhausted girls were being exploited, Martinson paid the old man one rupee to make them stop. “That is as much as 16 annas; normally he does not get more than 2 annas at the most in each block,” Martinson wrote, adding that the girls then sat down on their dirty performing carpet, breathing heavily. “Now, I can enjoy their stillness. Their childish skin. Their clear eyes,” he added.

Martinson said he wanted to kill the old man or at least head-butt him but decided not to as he would later take it out on the girls. “I could never be that cruel, not even if I was so angry with both the entire Brahminism and the vast constipation of the English lord system,” he wrote.

The sailor then gave one rupee to a dancing girl who had simili stones on her nose ring. Martinson said the girl smiled so vaguely that her mouth did not even curl, adding that it was her eyes that smiled. In the most touching prose in his India chapter, Martinson wrote: “If only I could do something for you, you lovely little being, living little child. But I am just a ship stoker from west Europe, where the ice-hearted technicians live. Oh, if you knew, child, they do not pass anything on before it has passed through their machines.”

He continued with his scepticism of development in the western world, writing, “You see, child, supporters of development and efficient plebeians have turned everything upside down over there. It is said that nothing can stop it; everything must take its course till it breaks and becomes something else.” The Swedish writer felt those who pushing greater technology were “stupid” and “greedy”.

Martinson connected India’s plight in the 1920s with the demands of the industrial age in Europe. “This history lay heavy also upon India. If it had not been like this over there, but in some other way, then maybe I could have helped you today,” he wrote. “Maybe I could have taken you, little friend, as well as the whole carpet with dancers with me on the ship, in the name of humanity, as they say. Or if you had chosen to stay here. Well, maybe then you would have listened to carpenters all day long, busy building a truer India, where you would not have to dance this humiliating up-and-down dance on a dirty carpet that is not even worth six annas.”

After the girls rested for a while, the old man asked them to get up and move to a new neighbourhood. Bidding them goodbye, Martinson said “all kinds of lies of the East” were calling for them. The fact that the young girls were going to continue to live a life of suffering pained Martinson, who thought of the beautiful and iconic illustrations of Swedish fairy tales by John Bauer. He wrote, while thinking of the girl with the simili stone nose ring, “What if John Bauer had seen you, dear little heart. How happy he would have been. John Bauer was our great fairy tale painter. He drowned in a long, spool-shaped lake called Vättern. He would have painted a dark picture of you, deep as a fairy tale. You would be sitting on an enormous lingonberry tuft within the woods of Holaved, blinking with your eyes, as dark as a wood-mere, so that the mere itself would rumble like thunder down in its mud, rumble out of envy.”

The girls and the old man disappeared into the crowd and Martinson described the street as having “grotesque cupboard houses, over which three distant minarets stuck up like a white trident”. He stood and watched the girls (especially the one with the nose ring) until there was no trace of them anymore. “Even the view towards the crowd in which she had vanished was soon hidden by a round pump pavilion, with projections and colours like a carrousel, forever still. Through the streets came the heavy twilight smell of India.”

Martinson went on 14 long voyages between 1920 and 1927. He was forced to give up sailing due to health reasons and turned to writing. In 1929 his collection of poems Spökskepp (Ghost Ship) was published. His first novel Resor utan mål (Journeys Without Destination, 1932) and Cape Farewell were both about his time as a sailor and his experiences from places around the world.

He went on to have a prolific writing career that lasted more than 45 years. In 1974, he was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature (with Eywind Johnson) for what the Nobel committee described as “writings that catch the dewdrop and reflect the cosmos”.

An English translation of Cape Farewell by Naomi Walford was published in the UK in 1934. It has been out of print for several decades.

Note: This writer is grateful to Björn Eklund for his help in translating several passages from Cape Farewell from the original Swedish.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer and independent journalist, based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2022.