On a warm morning in Madras in November 1915, theosophist Annie Besant saw a new employee enter the office of her fledgling newspaper New India. The 43-year-old Irishman, who had just arrived in India to work as the paper’s literary sub-editor, was dripping in sweat. It was his fourth day on the job and on each of those days, he had decided to travel the 14.5 kilometres from his house to the office in his “well-worn bicycle from Birkenhead”.

James Henry Cousins described the moment that ended his “career as a cyclist” in India. “I arrived at the office with the daily lather of perspiration overlaid by a shining surface of shower,” he recounted in We Two Together, an autobiography co-written with his activist wife Margaret. “When I made my salutation to the Editor, she sent her light blue eyes up and down me with the look of an art critic at an offensive portrait. ‘You look wet,’ she said. I could not deny the obvious. My brow was wet with fairly honest sweat. My clothes stuck to me closer than a brother. My eyes glistened, though not with tears. The Chief ordered me to be taken somewhere and wrung out.”

Cousins would never again cycle to work. Starting afresh in his early 40s, he dedicated himself to cultural and educational activities in India, a country where he lived for the most of the next four decades.

Unconventional writer

Born in 1873 in Belfast to a family of modest means, Cousins entered a school system set up by the British in which English was the language of instruction. He didn’t formally begin to learn Irish until age 19. But years before, at age 13, he entered the workforce as an errand boy for a pawnbroker. Several clerical jobs followed in Belfast, while he meticulously followed his passion for writing.

In 1892, Cousins started a monthly shorthand journal, which he edited and wrote most articles for. Named the Irish Phonographic Bulletin, it remained in circulation for almost two years. In 1894, his first collection of poems, titled Ben Madighan and Other Poems, was published.

Cousins’ literary career, which included more than 100 books, began to take off after he moved to Dublin in 1897. It was there that he began to write plays.

One of his priorities as a writer was to involve Irish and Celtic folklore. In 1902, his drama The Sleep of the King premiered before an audience that included members of the Dublin literati. About the staging, Cousins later wrote, “The Fairy Chorus of invisible children, singing to an archaic Irish medley, greatly heightened the effect of the play. I had my first experience of a curtain-call and felt rather a fraud for receiving so much applause for so small a contribution to so great a cause.”

Cousins and his style weren’t widely accepted by the great Irish writers of the day. Among his strong critics was James Joyce. Cousins also had an uneasy friendship (that eventually turned bitter) with William Butler Yeats, who was in the audience at the premiere of The Sleep of the King. “W.B. Yeats lifted his hand and uttered solemn words in his minor-canon voice: ‘Splendid, my boy, Splendid. Beautiful verse, spoken beautifully by native actors. Just what we wanted,’” Cousins wrote. “The suggestion that we were contributory to him, and not he to us, gave a twinge to some of the company who were within hearing: the first sign, I think, of the tendency to fission that had haunted Irish history, and was destined to do so some years later.”

It was also in Dublin that James met his wife Margaret (Gretta as she preferred to be called), a key figure in the women’s suffrage movement in Ireland. The two embraced and propagated vegetarianism and became involved in Helena Blavatsky’s Theosophical Foundation. Around the time of the beginning of the First World War, they decided to make the life-changing move to India.

Margaret Cousins. Credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

Profound love

Starting off at Annie Besant’s newspaper, Cousins took up jobs in different parts of India. Besant also offered him a lectureship at the Theosophical College in Madanapalle, Andhra Pradesh, of which he would go on to become the principal.

“With the exception of visits to Europe and America, and a visiting professorship at Keio University, Japan (1919), Cousins remained in India for the rest of his life,” Irish academic Frances Clarke wrote in the Dictionary of Irish Biography. “He was responsible for the opening of the first public art gallery in India, at Mysore in 1924; a second was opened at Travancore in 1935, and in 1938 he began a ten-year appointment as full-time art adviser to the government of Travancore.”

It is clear from his writing that Cousins developed a profound love for India almost immediately after he moved to the country. “I had thought of her philosophical certainties as of a house of rock in which the fuss and speculation of the West would find understanding and repose,” he wrote in his 1918 book The Renaissance in India. “Instead, I came upon the spirit of the child Krishna, and the energy of the dancing Siva, and in less than six months I was upto the eyes in signs and tokens of a new life in literature, the arts, religion and national aspiration, movements that throw me back a quarter of a century in spirit, and leave me with the merest spectacular interest is grey hairs, and no shadow of the sentiment and superiority that are the rewards of middle age.”

Cousins added that India was already “awake” at that time. “She never was more wide awake then when she, with three hundred million souls in her keeping, graciously permitted a handful of my race to turn their foreheads as wrinkled as the stem of a palmyra by shouldering the ‘White Man’s Burden,’ while she goes peacefully on, repeating history by taking her creator captive by the infusion of the magic of an ancient culture in such utterances of a supreme spirituality as come through so perfect an instrument as Rabindranath Tagore.” Cousins and his wife came across the works of Tagore in Ireland, thanks to Yeats. It was Margaret who helped set the tune for Tagore’s Jana Gana Mana.

In 1937, Cousins formally embraced Hinduism.

Impressions of India

Cousins cultivated relationships with people from all corners of India. From being a friend of the Travancore Royal Family, Tagore and Sri Aurobindo to mentoring students from weaker sections of society, he immersed himself in Indian life. His 800-page-plus autobiography documented journeys to different corners of India, including a stay with his close friends, the Roerich family, in Naggar, Kulu Valley.

“Sunrise was early in the latitude of Naggar, and we were up at 5:30 for our first day in a natural and artistic paradise,” Cousins wrote. “We tried to read and write: but one eye on work and another on white ranges did not collaborate, and we succumbed to the snows.”

What is not in Cousins’ writings is his impact on the life of the great Kannada writer Kuvempu. Bengaluru-based academic Chandan Gowda writes that Kuvempu (KV Putappa), at age 18, approached Cousins with a small collection of his poems in English in 1924. The Irish writer encouraged Kuvempu to write poetry in Kannada instead.

Kuvempu at the time believed that Kannada did not possess the diversity of metrical forms as seen in English, according to Gowda, who translated the writer’s 1980 autobiography Nenapina Doniyalli. When reasoning with Kuvempu, Cousins took the example of Tagore who wrote in new ways and created new metrical forms in Bengali and ended up winning the Nobel Prize in literature. This advice eventually had abig impact on the poet who began to prioritise writing in Kannada, before switching entirely to the language.

Cousins and Margaret stayed back in India after the country attained independence from the British in 1947. Margaret, who suffered a stroke in 1944, remained paralysed until her death in 1954. Cousins passed away two years later in Madanapalle, which had become his main home in India since the days he was the principal of the Theosophical College.

James Cousins had an interesting take on what India was: “When you have put the Indian nation into a string of figures, you are eternities away from the real nation, unless you have reckoned up the contents of the counted heads.” he wrote. “The real India hovers over India’s heads: it is the totality of all that lives in the region of the imagination. It lives through Indian minds and bodies on Indian soil, but it is far greater than they: it includes them, as the soul includes the senses: but it is not included in any or all of them, as the soul cannot be included in any or all of the senses.”

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