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185 – The Indian man in the concentration camp

Cancellation of the look-out notice for A.C.N. Nambiar. 25 March 1938. UK

Image courtesy Bombay Special Branch Archives
Narrative points contributed by
Vappala Balachandran, Former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, India
Facilitated by Gautam Pemmaraju, Mumbai

This narrative has been rewritten and reformatted for the purpose of this archive.

During the early 1980s I was posted in a western European station as a diplomatic officer with an added responsibility of covert security intelligence. Under diplomatic cover I had the usual consular duties but my real work was gathering information in a clandestine manner. One day my boss, the chief at RAW (Research & Analysis Wing/ Indian Intelligence) NF Suntook briefed me about an unusual assignment that was requested directly by the Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi. I was to ensure the well-being of a former anti-colonial activist, journalist and a personal friend to Nehru, ACN Nambiar who was based in Zurich. He was 84 and I was 43.

I didn’t really know much about Nambiar, and an assignment with no intelligence agenda provided relief from my regular stressful duties. I met with Nambiar in his modest flat in Spiegel Gasse, two buildings away from Vladimir Lenin’s old residence. He was quiet, humble and a bit of a recluse and I struck a strong friendship with Nambiar. He was a treasure trove of information on European history, governance, security and power play of nations from the 1920s to the 1980s, and mentioned that he knew Subhas Chandra Bose well. Years after he passed away in 1986, in 2001, I happened to read a book by Rudolf Hartog that mentioned a rarely known “Indian Legion”, a small Indian Army in Nazi Germany raised by Subhas Chandra Bose. The Legion comprised of Indian POWs (Prisoners of War) captured by Nazis during their North African Campaign. I was surprised to know that Mr. Nambiar was the main person administering this 4,000-strong army. He had never mentioned anything about that in our meetings and conversations over six years. To challenge all contrarian views, Nambiar was not only a close friend to the Nehru family but he was also the right hand man of Subash Chandra Bose (Netaji) in Berlin.

This discovery set me off on a years-long research to find out who Nambiar really was. To understand what his contributions to the subcontinent were, brief but imperative points of world history in this narrative are important.

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Born in 1896 in Thalassery, Malabar in an intellectual and wealthy family, Arathil Kandath Narayanan Nambiar or ACN Nambiar was the son to the well known Malayalam litterateur Vengayil Kunhiraman Nayanar. Surrounded with the educated and the elite of the subcontinent, in 1919, he fell and love with, and against the wishes of his brother, married Suhasini Chattopadhyay, sister of freedom fighters Virendranath Chattopadhyay (known as Chatto) and Sarojini Naidu.

After the World War I, Berlin had become a center for nationalists associated with India’s freedom movement. Assuming that Germany’s bitter relations with Britain will offer cover, money and political support for their agendas, Indians ranging from students to revolutionaries began to frequent/live in Berlin. Inspired by the Ghadar Party, and support of German authorities,  Chatto along with other freedom fighters had helped form the Indian Independence Committee (Berlin Committee), and Nambiar was right in the middle of it, a witness to all of world’s modern history at once, at one of its most interesting times.

After their marriage, Suhasini attended Oxford, and Nambiar and she later moved to Berlin around 1924, for Nambiar had been asked to administer the Information Bureau of the Indian National Congress – The Indian News Service & Information Bureau co-set up by Chatto, on Nehru’s instructions. Nambiar had also began writing as a correspondent for European and Indian Publications about several issues including unequal treatment of Indians by Europeans. After an extra marital romantic affair, Nambiar’s marriage however did not last –and the couple separated. With funding from Nehru in tight supply, and eventual ideological differences between Chatto, Gandhi and Nehru, the Indian News service also lost its influence.

Circumstances placed Nambiar in a fascinating position to interact with various leaders, activists, conspirators, and revolutionaries from all over the world. British intelligence reports that though acquainted through a number of people including his brother, Nambiar met Nehru in person for the first time in Brussels in 1927, at the anti-imperialist congress and they became very good friends. Nambiar was also meeting with correspondents from different parts of the world that helped him form a excellent network with vast number of political organisations and ideologies. Nambiar on the invitation of USSR also visited Moscow in 1929, but that may have also been to meet Suhasini who was imbibing the values of a chosen political path, Communism. Suhasini  became the first woman communist member in the subcontinent. When she returned to India, the British Special Branch in Bombay began intercepting private correspondence between Nambiar and Suhasini.

In 1933, when the Germany came under the Nazi regime, Nambiar and Chatto took an anti-Nazi stand, and were arrested for an alleged involvement in the burning of the Reichstag building in Berlin. Hitler’s people (SA) caught him and kept him under arrest for four weeks in Berlin. He was then expelled from Germany and he fled to Prague, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic and Slovakia) and from there in hiding to France. In 1934, when a tall German approached him in a café, he says he thought- “This is the end”, but it turned out to be a representative of Netaji Bose who wanted to meet him. Bose was aware of Nambiar’s network and though both differed on the relations with Nazis, a friendship blossomed. Nambiar agreed albeit reluctantly to help Bose, aware that they shared the same goal – an Independent India.

When Bose was incarcerated in India from 1940, he escaped and resurfaced in Berlin in 1941. He finally got an appointment to meet with Hitler in 1943, and after tracking down Nambiar again in France, much to the chagrin of the Nazis, insisted that he came along as an interpreter. Bose wanted Hitler’s support in defeating the British in India, and insisted on the Indian POWs they had captured during the North African operations against UK & Commmonwealth troops. In winter of 1941, Nambiar became Bose’s deputy and they both jointly established Free India Centre, a division under the Azad Hind movement, working to rally support or India’s independence, use psychological propaganda warfare via radio & print material,  and train the POW army known as Indian Legion – IR 950, into an assault group that would form a pathfinder to a German–Indian joint invasion of India via Afghanistan. In 1943, Bose left for the far east to puncture Britain from the East with his already established Indian National Army (INA), leaving Nambiar to handle all his European operations. Despite Nambiar’s efforts, not much of the Indian Legion was put to use eventually.

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After the surrender of Germany in the World War II in 1945, the remaining soldiers left with the Indian Legion were either shot to death or shipped back to India to face charges of treason. Nambiar again went into hiding in a village in Germany, but was caught by the British intelligence, interrogated as a Nazi collaborator and was for a year, ironically placed in a concentration camp with several other Nazis. Nambiar may have also provided intelligence to the British spies posing as a representative of the Gestapo during his arrest but there is no evidence that he was an active asset for any agency. British Intelligence Records opened in 2014 state that Nambiar was a Soviet spy, but I don’t think it is confirmed statement – more a usual ‘suspected Soviet spy’ reference often put on doubted persons. Having said that, I have no doubt that he knew a lot more and operated behind the scenes in many matters than we will ever know. The British government did not want him in Europe, nor did they want him to go to India where he would have become a hero but against the wishes of Britain,  Nehru’s interim government gave him an Indian passport. It is noteworthy that Nehru considered Nambiar to be family despite knowing that Nambiar was associated with Bose. Letters between them show how Nehru taught him how to cook good eggs and he was instructed by Nehru not to miss physical exercise; and that “one could pursue such activity even while shaving, by just raising one’s legs.”

After independence, Nambiar was assigned diplomatic assignments in Europe by Jawaharlal Nehru, including an ambassadorship to Scandanavia, and in 1951 as the first Indian Ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany and helped forge European alliances for the Indian Governmnent. With German ex-officers of the Indian Legion he even founded an Indo-German Society in 1950. But he didn’t quite enjoy the diplomatic profile and became a European correspondent of the ‘Hindustan Times’ though some suggest his last post was a cover for industrial intelligence collection. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1958.

Contrary to what Indians think, the Nehru and Bose rivalry was a creation by later political groups. Yes, they had different opinions, but they deeply respected each other and looked out for the others’ well being. Bose ensured Kamala Nehru was well cared for during her medical treatment in Switzerland, while Nehru was in prison. After Bose went missing in 1945, Nehru insisted on financial compensation to his family in Germany, that was facilitated by Nambiar. Nambiar’s account of Nehru and Bose does not reveal any personal grudges or tensions between the two. Yes, Nehru held certain assumptions of Bose, but didn’t doubt his patriotism. Bose too recognised Nehru’s influence in India although he did not agree with Nehru’s pro-British attitude. This is a reminder for current generations that we can maintain good relationships despite differences.

Over time Nambiar became a guardian and god-fatherly figure to Indira Gandhi —a friend and a confidante, politically and personally. He even advised her on the selection of officers for India’s Intelligence & the RAW head. In 1984, with concerns for his health, Indira Gandhi insisted that he return to Delhi, and he reluctantly agreed, however a few weeks after he returned, she was assassinated causing him severe trauma, and depression. Nambiar and I had come to form a wonderful warm friendship, and he considered me to be almost like his own son. To help him, I suggested he write his memoirs, instead he agreed to dictate his memoirs to a tape recorder. In January of 1986, the man who knew too much, and whom no one knew too much about, passed away at his residence in New Delhi.

Vappala Balachandran’s Book A Life in Shadow: The Secret Story of A.C.N. Nambiar is available here


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150 – Wilhelmina and her cookbook from India

My ancestors Joseph and Wilhelmina. South Parade, Bangalore. Circa 1860

My great, great, great grandparents, Joseph and Wilhelmina. South Parade, Bangalore. Circa 1860


Image and Text contributed by Jenny Mallin, Berkshire, England.

“Rai, jeera, huldi..” she would whisper under her breath whilst counting the ingredients on her fingers. Cooking came naturally to my mother, but occasionally she would open the pantry door and out would come a huge ledger book (image link), whereupon she would leaf through the pages until she found the recipe she was looking for. With no title on the cover to distinguish it from the other cookbooks, the only distinctive thing I can recall is that each page was so delicate and fragile that it would snap like a popaddam (indian crisp made of gram flour) and therefore it was out of bounds for us children – this book was just too precious to lose.

When I did manage to get my hands on the book officially, this most unglamorous book with its ochre, faded pages bespattered with sauces and flavours revealed several recipes handwritten in copperplate script by my great, great, great grandmother Wilhelmina dating back to 1850. Turning the pages one could see the handwriting style change over time, and evidence of how over five generations, each one of my grandmothers passed the book on to their next generation, offering us a chance to have a glimpse into a fascinating time in history, “the days of the Raj”, when the Indian subcontinent was under British rule.

My family’s connection to India began six generations earlier in 1775, in Yorkshire, England. My great, great, great, great grandfather Benjamin Hardy, was born into a weaving family in Mirfield, a small but important industrial town with a population of 2000 people. The area was called the Heavy Woollen District of West Yorkshire.
In 1794, Britain declared war on France and a 19-year-old Benjamin Hardy enrolled as Private No. 77 with the newly formed 1st Battalion of the 84th Foot regiment of the British Army. One year later, Benjamin married Frances Sheard in Mirfield and he and his regiment dutifully sailed to the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa).

Sailing to the Indian coastline in 1798, Benjamin and his regiment would stay on in India for the next 25 years with postings in Madras, Bombay, Goa, Kathiawar, and Kutch. There were also detachments sent to the Island of Perim in the Red Sea, Aden and Mauritius where they participated in the capture of the island from the French.

Benjamin’s last posting was to be in Bangalore. His regiment had been stationed there for four years and it seems that he also decided to bring his wife Frances over from England, for in 1816 she bore him a son Joseph (my great, great, great grandfather in the image above). Three years later, Benjamin’s regiment was disbanded and asked to return home to England, but instead Benjamin chose to stay in India and was discharged from the British Army due to ill health. He was only 44 years old and suffering chronic rheumatism.

Benjamin, his wife Frances and young son Joseph, settled down to live the rest of their lives out in India. However, Benjamin passed away four years later, on December 23, 1823 and Frances and her son Joseph continued to live in Bangalore. Joseph became a schoolmaster by profession in Mysore, in 1833, when an English School was opened for the first time in Mysore. At the age of 28, Joseph married Wilhelmina Sausman, in St. Mark’s Church in Bangalore.

Wilhelmina was only sixteen when she got married. She was born in Vellore, Madras on September 12, 1829 and records suggest that she was Anglo-Portuguese because her mother’s name was Louisa Dias, a common Portuguese name used in the Portuguese colonies of Goa and the west coast of India.

This photograph of my great, great, great, grandparents, schoolmaster Joseph and his wife Wilhelmina was taken in the early 1860s (in their mid 30s/early 40s) by studio photographers Orr & Barton, who were based in South Parade, Bangalore. It is the oldest photograph in our family collection.

During their marriage, Wilhelmina gave birth to eight children, but as often was the case those days, only three survived. The others were lost as babies and infants to the widespread pandemic of cholera that had killed around 15 million people by the 1860s. Their three surviving daughters were named Ophelia, Florence and Topsy. Ophelia, their eldest child was born in 1855 and is my great, great grandmother.

Wilhelmina’s notes and my own research suggests that for any memsahib settling in India was an overwhelming, even exciting experience but also thwarted with difficulties. Aside from the unrelenting heat, the major problem was in the hiring of servants, and in finding a cook who would be willing to touch the different meats that wouldn’t conflict with their religious beliefs. A Muslim servant for instance, would not touch pork, nor serve wine, or remove dirty plates from the table or wash them. Hiring a Hindu was also not easy, as they would not handle beef, fish, poultry, eggs or alcohol and the very strict practitioners would also refrain from onions and garlic.

It’s quite possible that Wilhelmina, like hundreds of other European wives and brides followed Mrs. Isabella Beeton ‘s bestselling victorian guide, the Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, as well as another publication that gave detailed instructions to European women on effective household management in India. She must have felt it good sense to write all her recipes in one book which could then be given to the cook to follow and perhaps even improve upon. Her Christmas cake recipe shown here, is also annotated by my grandmothers and cooks after.

Generations after, this ‘more than 150 year old’ recipe book now lies with me, and I ponder over it ever so often with great personal as well as academic interest.

The contributor of this image and narrative is researching Anglo-Indian recipe names & cooking terms, and would appreciate any leads on the subject. She is also due to publish a book on Wilhelmina “A Grandmother’s Legacy – a memoir of five generations who lived through the days of the Raj”.


105 – “A friend from my childhood I had never met”

My Letter to Jean Christophes. Bombay. August 10, 1972.

My Letter to Jean Christophes. Bombay. August 10, 1972.

Letter & Text contributed by Denzil Smith, Bombay

This letter carries with it an amazing story that always has me grin ear to ear with joy.

My family are Anglo Indians and until a few years ago lived in a family bungalow in Ville Parle in Bombay. My father Benjamin John Smith was a Customs officer in Bombay and perhaps one of the few honest black sheep amongst the white embroiled in dishonest deeds. To get relief from tough days at the office, my father would find release with music. He was adept at both reading and writing music, played several instruments and when opportunity called he even travelled with the famed Paranjoti Choir all over the world.

At one such opportunity he travelled to Tours in France with the choir in 1966. The members of the choir were usually put up by local classical music aficionados at their homes in each city; and a certain Dr. Boulard and his family were to be my father’s kind hosts in Tours.
The day my father reached the Doctor’s mansion, eagerly awaiting him at the gate was the Doctor’s son, a 6 year old French boy, Jean, who had waited for my father in anticipation of seeing an Indian for three whole days. 
At first sight and to his shock the boy ran inside and wept copiously to his father, complaining “Where are his feathers!?” Clearly my brown father in a suit and tie was not the “Indian” he was expecting.

Despite the initial disappointment, my father and Jean became very fond of each other and when he returned to India, dad told me that Jean reminded him of me, that I would really get along with him, and Jean would write to me and I should reply. Jean and I soon embarked on establishing a pen-pal relationship writing letters to each other. I was curious about France and he about India and our lives. He would write me in French and I in English. Finding a french translator in Bombay at the time not an easy task but I had one at home, my father. Later Jean began writing in English which he was learning while studying to become a Doctor.

Over the years we wrote several letters to each other. In some letters I would find that Jean had packed in half used pencils and I always wondered why he would send me those as presents. As time passed, somewhere through those years our letters became infrequent and we lost touch.

Many years later in early 2011, I was travelling with a theatrical production all over Europe and also to Tours. I remembered Jean and pestered my manager to trace his whereabouts. All I knew about him was that he had become a Doctor and his parent’s address that was well etched in my memory.

Before our performance in Tours, my manager took me aside to say he had a surprise. Back stage was not Jean as you would expect but his mother, Mrs. Boulard who spoke with me in French via a translator. I could tell she was cautious about me and wasn’t about to start believing my stories about some letters and my friendship with Jean until I mentioned a family fact that very few people knew about. Astounded, she suddenly broke into English, albeit still a little cautious. She wouldn’t reveal her son’s whereabouts; instead she insisted that I leave my number with her, for her son to return the call.

With no news from Jean, and ready to leave to perform the play in Le Mans, a city 200 Kms away from Paris, I finally received a phone call and was completely overjoyed to hear a voice that said it was Jean. For two whole hours we chatted away excitedly, catching up on our lives and he was going to drive down to Aulnay-Sous-Bois, a suburb of Paris where I was performing two days later, with his girlfriend to meet with me.

It was one the most emotional and joyful moments of my life, to meet a close friend from my childhood I had never met, in our conversations we also discussed our letters and I asked him the question I had wanted to for years. “Why the half used pencils?” His answer was that he was told that India was a very poor country and he sent me the pencils because he assumed I couldn’t afford them! We laughed a lot and recollected much of our childhood and news of our families. It was simply a great great day.

A few months ago, Jean sent me this letter that I had written to him when my father passed away. It immediately reminded me of the time that was indeed very vulnerable, and the person I knew whom I could express it with was Jean.
The personalised letter-head this letter and many others were written on, was an earned luxury. It was a marketing promotion of a very popular chewing gum brand called A1, whose exchange offer was – personalised stationary for filling up an album with their wrappers that had images of country flags, cars, ships and aircrafts. It was a huge rage at the time for children my age in Bombay.

It is incredible how life is dotted with amazing presents, be it with a great father, incredible music, theatre, half used pencils, personalised letter-heads, chewing gums, and most magnificently an unexpected reunion of a grand friendship with Dr. Jean Christophes Boulard; with whom I am in touch yet again, on email.