logo image Tracing the identity & history of the Indian Subcontinent via family archives

Zamindar

187 – My grandmother, the landowner

My paternal grandmother, Damyanti Thakur. Nitther, Kullu district, Himachal Pradesh. Circa 1978

Image and narrative points contributed by Mehak Thakur, Mumbai

This photograph is of my grandmother Damyanti dancing on the occasion of her youngest brother’s marriage on the porch of our ancestral house designed in traditional Himalayan Kath Kuni architecture in Nitther, a small village in Kullu District, Himachal Pradesh.

My grandmother says she was dancing the Pahadi Nati, a folk Pahari Dance. The traditional dress of Kullu is Reesta, an attire that was inspired by the British gown, a combination of a long kameez (shirt) tucked inside a long heavily pleated skirt accompanied with a Sluka (Jacket). Alternately, it is also made in a tunic form with woolen fabric to be worn over in winters, which my grandmother wears in this picture.

Ancestrally, my family were Zamindars (land owners) and like many land owners of the time cultivated Opium up until the early 20th century for the British until its prohibition and drop in trade. Opium consumption in the subcontinent was common and was (in some places still is) also fed in small quantities to babies, mixed in milk, and while they slept their mothers do the house chores and work in the farms. After Opium was dropped, landowners began cultivating other crops and ours grew Basmati Rice and formed Apples and Cherry Orchards.

My grandmother Damyanti Goswami Pandit (later Thakur) was born in 1947. She was the second child to a family of two sisters and three brothers. However as unspoken tradition was within several families in the subcontinent, she was offered for adoption to relatives within the family who had no children of their own. My grandmother was deeply loved and pampered, so much so that she did no house chores. As an adult and after her adopted parents passed, regional hereditary laws favoured my grandmother, because unlike much of the subcontinent at the time, daughters in our custom could inherit property and assets of their parents. Right after high school, my grandmother got married at the age of 16. I wonder about the generational irony though – she had enough sources to have gone abroad and continue her education, yet she chose a life of a wife and delivered her first child at a young age, my dad, at the age of 17. She was still a young girl herself, and there were stories of how she would be off to play with her friends while her mother took care of her grandchild, her daughter’s first born. In a following years my grandparents had four children, two sons and two daughters.

My grandfather came from a Rajput family in the same village. He was educated and the only one in the entire village to have graduated and work with government services. Interestingly unlike most women, my grandmother didn’t adapt to traditional roles of motherhood, and their four children were mostly taken care of by my grandfather while he was posted in Simla, because good education was only available in bigger towns. My grandmother, on the other hand, chose to live in the village and actively take care of her lands and farming businesses with frequent visits to Simla. The children grew up to be in the Armed Forces, Farming land and in Government services.

This photograph literally symbolizes my grandmother. I remember her dressing up like a bride whenever she got a chance and dance. My father inherited the same love for dressing well and would spend his entire pocket money on having the latest fashion copied for himself. Needless to say, their love and quest for dressing up well has been passed on to me.

Both my grandparents now stay on and off between Simla and the farm land. My grandmother is now 71, she is still immensely loved and adored by everyone in the village. She continues to actively looks after her lands and she still loves to dress up and dance like she is 16.


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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141 – Portrait of a debutante

Monica-1925-Sepia_low

My maternal grandmother, Monica Guha (née Roy Chowdhury). Calcutta, West Bengal. 1925

Image and Text contributed by Aparna Datta, Bangalore

This is a picture of my maternal grandmother, Monica Guha, (née Roy Chowdhury). The photograph was recently gifted to me by my aunt, my mother’s first-cousin. My aunt had found this classic studio portrait, complete with potted plants and painted canvas backdrop, amongst a collection of photographs belonging to her late father, Monica’s brother.

On the reverse of the photograph is a rubber stamp with a date ‘3.11.25’, with ink that hasn’t yet faded. The photograph had been taken at Dass Studio, P 21/A Russa Road North, Calcutta. The rubber stamp stated “Copy can be obtain at any time. Please quote the number.” Endearingly, there is also a name “Monu”, her family nick name, hand-written in Bengali.

While looking at the photograph I noticed she wore no bindi and no sindoor – symbols that a married woman would wear. Laden with jewellery, top to bottom, this simply had to be a rite-of-passage ‘portrait of a debutante’, a matrimonial image, intended to be shown to prospective grooms and their families. As a time-honoured ritual in arranged marriages, the significance of such a photograph, as a cultural artefact, was inescapable. 

I call this picture the ‘Barefoot Princess’.

The picture and the date-stamp had a rabbit-hole effect on me, drawing me in, coaxing me to contextualise the image. My mother had passed away, so I dredged the recesses of my mind, trying to recall bits of family history she had shared with me over the years. I spent weeks tracking down near and distant relatives all over India, picking up strands to weave into a narrative.

Monica was born in July of 1912, at Lucknow, United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh). Her father, Nirupam Roy Chowdhury, was the son of the Zamindar of Ghalghallia, Taki, located in the North 24 Parganas, a District of West Bengal. Taki is a town on the banks of the Ichhamati River, that borders Bangladesh. The Roy Chowdhurys were descendants of Raja Basanta Roy of Jessore, uncle of Raja Pratapaditya, one of the twelve ‘bhuiyans‘ or enlightened chieftains who ruled the Sultanate of Bengal (1336–1576 C.E.). Raja Pratapaditya had fought against the Mughal imperial army during its attempts to make inroads into Bengal in the early 16th century. By 1574 he had declared his independence from the Mughals and established an independent Hindu state in Bengal.

Nirupam Roy Chowdhury was a civil engineer and served with the Government of the then undivided Bengal. His postings took him all over the province.

 Monica’s mother was Kanak Lata, daughter of Rai Bahadur Dr. Mohendra Nath Ohdedar, the first Indian Civil Surgeon of the United Provinces.

During early 20th century (and for some, even until now), it was customary for women to go to their mamabari (mother’s home) to give birth, and so all Kanak Lata’s ten children – six sons and four daughters, were born in Lucknow, at the home of their maternal grandfather.

As the eldest girl, Monica was destined for an early marriage. Education would have certainly featured in her life, however I am not so sure if they formally attended school or were home schooled, and much of their young lives were spent travelling between their paternal and maternal grandparents’ homes.

Indeed, at the age of 13, in 1926, just months after this photograph sitting, Monica did find a suitable husband, a doctor, Dr. Ajit Kumar Guha. She along with her husband (my grandfather) moved to her husband’s and in-laws’ home at Motihari, Bihar. Soon after, my mother was born in 1929, the eldest of five children, four daughters and one son. Monica and Dr. Ajit and the whole family moved to Patna around 1935 and settled there.

Monica, my grandmother’s life was serene and was spent as an efficient home maker. She passed away peacefully in January 1993, in the same house where she ran her own world, her sansar and where she had lived for 58 years.  The grace and poise I see in the portrait characterised her all her life.


126 – Foxtrotting at the Blue Fox

My Grandparents, Shobhendra Nath and Gouri Tagore. Calcutta. West Bengal. Circa 1950

My Grandparents, Shobhendra Nath and Gouri Tagore. Calcutta. West Bengal. Circa 1950

Image and Text contributed by Somdev Thakur, Kolkata

My grandfather, Shobhendra Nath Tagore, had a very charismatic personality. He was a lawyer in the High Court, a theatrecian, an adventurer and a government employed hunter (to hunt animals that had turned rogue and attacked villages).

Shobhendra Nath was a descendant of the well known Tagore lineage. His great-grandfather Ramanath and Dwarakanath Tagore were twins, and Dwarkanath was Rabindranath Tagore‘s grandfather.
In the several albums that document my grandparent’s life I recently found a number of images titled “Dancing” that show an active nightlife my grandparents led. Mostly they danced the Foxtrot and the Cha Cha Cha, as my grandmother recalls at the Blue Fox, one of Calcutta’s first bar/restaurants that had famous and popular live bands, meant specifically to play music for people to dance. It is an entertaining record of Calcutta’s night life from the 50s and the 60s. The Blue Fox was situated at Calcutta’s famous road – Park Street, a kilometer long stretch that had several amazing eateries, throbbing with joy, laughter and lights, it hosted some of the best of Indian Parties one had ever seen. Some then even called Calcutta, the best place to party in the world. During the day the carefree young would rush to Park Street and by sun down, shiny expensive cars would swoop down the street, and out would come beautifully dressed men and women.
Calcutta was once upon a time, truly a city of joy.


77 – The Forest Ranger of Jeypore, Orissa

My father, Shankar Alva (right) with Game, a wild Bull. Jeypore, Koraput (now Orissa) 1928

Image and Text contributed by Jayakar Alva, Bangalore

My father Shankar Alva graduated in B.Sc from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1923. He then returned to India and took on the role of the Chief Forest Officer and Assistant to the Dewan of Koraput, from 1928-1941. He was based at the outskirts of Jeypore, a city south of Vishakhapatnam (now Vizag) in Orissa.

This image of my father hunting for Game, with his staff was probably taken in 1929. The Wild bull was shot by my father, as there was permissions at the time to hunt wild animals, albeit selectively, and especially if they were on a rampage. Animals would roam around freely and you can even see a wild elephant in the background of the image. I was a little boy then, and I lived in the forest with my father for only about 5 years.

After the death of one brother due to a cerebral malaria epidemic in the village in 1941, my father quit his job. He then returned and retired to his native place, Shiruvagim, a village he owned.

My mother Kamla Alva was a well known social worker and worked with many institutions, in Mangalore as well as Jeypore, with organisations focusing on women’s health care and rights. I worked in marketing & research industry for the defense sector for many years and then I became a teacher. I now live in a senior citizen’s home in Bangalore.