For South Asians living in Britain, 1939 was a torrid year. The war was about to reach Britain’s shores, shipping was disrupted, and travel had become dangerous. Many South Asians were scrambling in this tumult to get home to safety – but not Venu Dattatreya Chitale.

A student at Oxford in her late 20s, Chitale first volunteered for the local air raid precaution unit, warning citizens of imminent bombings and helping them with subsequent rescue-and-aid missions. She then moved to London to work with the BBC’s Indian Section, where she read news, presented other programmes and assisted the writer-broadcaster George Orwell.

Her unique life is the subject of a chapter in scholar Vijaya Deo’s Marathi book Sakhe Soyare and of a Marathi video produced by the BBC in 2017. Hers is the story of a woman who defied the times with her unconventional choices and went on to become a spokesperson for India’s freedom movement.

Photo courtesy: Nandini Apte, from the album of Ganesh and Leela Khare.

Early life

Born in Shirole, Kolhapur, Chitale was the sixth of seven siblings. According to her daughter Nandini Apte, Chitale lost her parents early, and her older siblings and other relatives helped bring up the younger children. There is some confusion over the year of her birth – while records of her student years at Oxford and a journey back to India available on state her birth year as 1910, a 1961 Sahitya Akademi publication on writers in India puts it at 1912.

Chitale first studied at Huzurpaga, one of Pune’s oldest girls’ schools, and later at St Columba School for Girls in Bombay’s Gamdevi area. At Wilson College, where Chitale was a student boarder, she met a teacher who would become her mentor: Johanna Adriana Quinta Du Preez. Du Preez, who was of Afrikaaner origin, was impressed by the young woman’s love for theatre, effervescence and expressive ways. She took Chitale under her wing and became a frequent visitor to her student’s home.

An astrologer’s dire prediction that her marriage could lead to friction with other relatives prompted Chitale to accompany Du Preez to England. In 1934, Chitale began studying Montessori methods of education at London’s University College. An record shows that in late 1930s, she and Du Preez were both at Oxford – while Du Preez was studying journalism, Chitale was an external student.

Photo courtesy: Nandini Apte, from the album of Ganesh and Leela Khare.

Chitale provided a vivid description of her time in England in an article that she wrote in 1963, long after her return to India.

“I was young and impressionable, full of enthusiasm about English literature, and actually almost lapped up books as a cat laps up cream. I was very lucky in my guardians. They were English and Dutch ladies who put the best books in my way. They guided me in my reading and in seeing plays staged in London, in Edinburgh, in Oxford and in Stratford on Avon.

…I was in England for fourteen years, fourteen precious young healthy years of my life. I lived in a cottage full of dainty flowers, and more full of wonderful books... I dined on nuts and fruit and on the most luscious greens and vegetables that any fastidious naturopath could prescribe. And I did this in company of English friends who lived for ideals, whether they were humble or elevated did not matter (p 118).”

Whirlwind of change

When World War II arrived, it made new demands of Chitale and people like writer Mulk Raj Anand, who was in London. They were spokespersons for their country’s freedom, seeking an end to British domination, and yet it was equally urgent for them to resist the forces of fascism and authoritarianism.

As records show, Chitale joined the Indian Section of BBC’s Eastern Service in 1940, a division that would attract powerhouses like Mulk Raj Anand, Princess Indira Devi of Kapurthala, actor Balraj Sahni and his wife Damayanti, political activist Ayana Deva Angadi, Sri Lankan poet JM Tambimuttu and Anglo-Indian biologist-poet Cedric Dover.

Chitale’s association with the Indian Section came about somewhat propitiously. As Deo writes, Chitale had authored a piece – perhaps in translation – for the government, which got her recommended to the BBC. Another possibility is that she came to work there for Du Preez, who, according to her death certificate issued in Cape Town in 1948, was a BBC announcer already.

Photo courtesy: Nandini Apte, from the album of Ganesh and Leela Khare.

Established in 1940, the Indian Section was expanding quickly. To its initial Hindustani broadcasts were added broadcasts in Tamil in May 1941, Bengali in October 1941, Gujarati in March 1942 and Marathi around the same time.

Orwell officially joined the Indian Section in August 1943. Peter Davison, the editor of The Complete Works of George Orwell, mentions that the famous British writer had a part in a radio play written by Chitale, sometime before he joined the BBC. The play was about the British Parliament’s abolition of slavery in 1833. Other parts were read by staffers like AL Bakaya, Balraj Sahni and the Jamaican feminist-writer Una Marson. Orwell’s part, Davison writes, as a slave owner was brief, but had some memorable lines like, “You low animal. We’ll have the cows answering back next.”

Photo courtesy: Nandini Apte, from the album of Ganesh and Leela Khare.

Sejal Sutaria of Grinnell College in Indiana has written about Chitale’s work for the BBC. Her story links to recordings of Chitale’s broadcasts for the weekly BBC Marathi magazine programme Radio Jhankar. In one broadcast, The Kitchen in Wartime: Some Suggestions for Doing Without Meat, Chitale shared with her British listeners some Indian vegetarian recipes – including one for mashed potatoes and beans – to help them tide over wartime austerities. In another piece, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, Chitale described how several of her British women friends had given up their privileged lifestyle to work during the war – either in canteens or as mechanics and volunteers.

The Children’s Exhibition, another of her broadcasts, appeared in Talking to India, a series produced by Orwell. In it, she described her visit to an art show by refugee children from 15 countries in a London suburb that had been bombed. The paintings, she said, showed pluck and resilience, despite the all-round preoccupation with war. Landscapes were popular as a subject, as were animals, such as “fat cows, funny-looking bears and ridiculously amusing monkeys”. Chitale concluded by writing that children from a devastated Europe could find refuge in Britain, where they were also given a chance to develop their talents.

The Women's Land Army in Britain during the Second World War. Photo credit: Ministry of Information Second World War Press Agency Print Collection/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

Around 1944, Chitale began working for Krishna Menon’s India League, and became an elected member of the Asiatic Society. In December 1946, at an All India Women’s Conference meet in Hyderabad presided over by Sarojini Naidu, Chitale made a short speech introducing herself as an Indian woman who had come “5,000 miles from England”. It was a land where there was little public interest in India, and the only question she was often asked related to the “Hindu-Muslim problem”. To get over its many divides, Chitale suggested in her speech that Indians should learn as many of their own languages as possible, to understand one another.

Passage to India

In December 1947, Chitale returned to Bombay. Deo writes that Chitale started helping Vijayalakshmi Pandit in her work with women and children in the refugee camps set up in Delhi following the Partition.

Chitale’s first novel, In Transit, was published in 1950. Some excerpts are available in Women’s Voices, a book edited by Eunice de Souza and Lindsay Pereira. That same year, she married Ganesh Khare, a chartered accountant, and from then on, she was known as Leela Ganesh Khare.

BBC News Marathi/YouTube.

In Transit is centred on a Brahmin family living in a wada (a community-based neighbourhood) in Pune. The book, for which Mulk Raj Anand wrote the preface, depicts three generations of a family, and how they were impacted by the growing nationalism from 1915 to 1935. It details a certain way of life, its customs and rituals, and how with time, the younger generation found those conventions meaningless.

Later in life, Chitale wrote articles in various newspapers, such as the Marathi daily Navashakti, occasionally broadcast on All India Radio, and was involved with several grassroots women’s groups in Bombay. She wrote another novel, Incognito, in 1993, this time under the pseudonym Weenoo. As Pereira and de Souza write, the book follows Shesha, one of the characters from her first novel, as she travels around Europe.

Chitale died in 1995. The BBC video in 2017 has rightly brought Chitale’s forgotten achievements back into public consciousness. Its archives have more of Chitale’s work that could yield further insights into her fascinating life, one in which she braved the vagaries of war to chart her chosen path.

Photo courtesy: Nandini Apte, from the album of Ganesh and Leela Khare.

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