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.
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.
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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May 31, 2018 | Categories: 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, Accolades & Awards, Achievements, Administration, Adventure, Afghanistan, Aristocracy, Assassinations & Attempts, Battle and Conflict, Battle of Singapore, Beliefs & Causes, Bengali, Brahmin, British Indian Army, Civil Partnership, Civil Services, Crime and Illegal, Depression, Detective / Forensic Expert, Documents, Egypt, Elite, English, English Medium, Ethnic Cleansing, Exile, Founders, France, Freedom Fighters, French, Future icons from the Past, German, Germany, Government Jobs, Gunned Down, Hair Styles, Imprisonment, India, Indian Politics, Intelligence and Spies, Inter Caste, Inter Race, Japanese Occupation of Burma, Journalism, Kerala, Konkani, Letters, Literary, London, Love & Romance, Malyali, Massacres, Medal, Men's Clothes, Migration, Missing Persons, Mysterious Circumstances, Name Change, Noteworthy Journeys, Oxford University, Police, Pre-1947 Indian Regions & States, Pre-Independence, Previous, Racism, Relationships, Scholar, Ship, Telegram, United Kingdom, University of London, War Hero, Weapons & Artillery, Western Clothes, Women Empowerment, World War I, World War II, Zamindar | Tags: ACN Nambiar, Afrika Korps, Ambassador, Arathil Kandath Narayanan Nambiar, Azad Hind movement, Berlin, British Intelligence, Chatto, CIA, Communism, European history, Federal Republic of Germany, Gautam Pemmaraju, German Nazis, Ghadar Party, Hitler, Indian Intelligence, Indian Legion, Indian National Congress, Indira Gandhi, Intelligence, Jawahar Lal Nehru, League against Imperialism, Malabar, MI5, Nazi, NF Suntook, POW, Prisoners of War, psychological warfare, RAW, Reichstag fire, Rudolf Hartog, Sarojini Naidu, Security Expert, Soviet Union, Spiegel Gasse, Spies, Subhas Chandra Bose, Suhasini Chattopadhyay, Thalassery, The Indian News Service & Information Bureau, Undercover, USSR, Vappala Balachandran, Vengayil Kunhiraman Nayanar, Virendranath Chattopadhyay, Vladimir Lenin, World War I, World War II, zurich | 2 Comments »
This image is of my wife’s relatives in Kenya as a reference to the narrative below.
In the late 19th century, an enterprising and adventurous Parsi Indian Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee left Karachi (now Pakistan) and sailed to Australia. As a house-to-house hawker, he managed to gain some knowledge of the English language and eventually migrated to East Africa in 1890. There, he established contact with British investors who were looking for some help to manage the planned Uganda Railways. After five years, Jeevanjee was awarded the contract to recruit Indian labourers from Punjab, to build the Uganda Railways in Kenya and the IBEAC (Imperial British East Africa Company) began building the railways construction from Kilindini Harbour, Mombasa.
Beginning 1891, thousands of the Indian ‘coolies‘ (today this word is considered a racial slur in many African countries), mainly Sikhs & Punjabis, were recruited for a three-year-contract to build Kenya Uganda Railways. Almost all of them came alone, leaving their wives in India.
One of the reasons why Indian labourers, instead of locals, were recruited was that the British faced severely hostility from the citizens of that country. The Indians on the other hand were there purely for economical reasons. They were also strong, tough and reliable hard workers and had previous experience with construction of building railways, roads, bridges and canals in India. In Kenya though, they had to face several hardships. Living in huddled groups in tents, they worked tirelessly to clear thick jungles, and break routes through hills and mountain stone with steel hammers and bare hands. Under harsh weathers, mosquitoes, snakebites, wild beast attacks, injuries and fevers were fervent. Hundred were dragged from their tents and eaten by Lions.
Amongst them was my maternal grandfather Makhan Ram Vadvae, a technically savvy man who came from Lahore, (now Pakistan) leaving his wife in India. He was appointed foreman and would check the rail tracks while seated on trolley pushed by fellow workers. His name in the labor force records is signed in Urdu as “Man eater of Tsavo”.
After the completion of railways in 1905, and the end of their contract – 51% of the workforce returned back to India, most in bad health, 8% of the work force died on job, 21% did not take their entitled return tickets and chose to stay in East Africa – setting up businesses along the railway lines, towns and cities. By year 1911, 12,000 Indians mainly Punjabis, Gujaratis, and Parsees (compared to 3,000 Europeans) were living in Kenya. A good number of them married local African women, others married mixed blood women and settled in East Africa giving birth to four generations of people with Indian-Kenyan origin. My maternal grandfather Makhan Ram too married a Kenyan woman, had children with her and settled in Kenya. He never went back to India.
While things have changed for the better over time, the colour and gene based racism was rampant at the time and with the exception of Parsees, within most other Indians. The mixed blooded children of Indian men who married local African were frowned upon. Rejected and segregated by Indians themselves, they had a terrible time trying to fit into their father’s communities, schools, neighborhoods, work places, temples and Gurudwaras. Some were treated so badly by the father’s families that it forced them to convert to Islam and Christianity – communities where they were received well and given equal place in society. Ironically, visually, majority of mixed blood children were of fair colour and beautiful features – skin-deep characteristics that many Indians preferred over any other.
My father Jagan Nath Nagpal too came to Kenya from Gujranwala, Punjab (now Partly Pakistan territory) around 1912 and began a tea stall at a railway station. Eventually he established a confectionery shop in the capital city, Nairobi. He married my mother, Maya Devi, Makhan Ram’s daughter. Two years after his marriage in 1914, he invited his elder brother from Punjab to Kenya, handed over the shop to him and decided to return to India.
Around 1938, when I was around five years old and my sister Krishna was 10, my father decided to return to Kenya. I remember the four of us sailed to Kenya in an over crowded dhow (carrying 300+ people) from Porbander, Gujarat to Mombasa. It was a perilous journey of three months, during which many people died at sea, sick with typhoid, diarrhea and malnutrition. When we landed ashore in Mombasa, most people due to being crammed on the dhow and sitting in postulate positions for weeks & months had forgotten how to walk – people were falling down, whilst others were walking backwards. Almost all children and some adults had lice in their hair.
Perhaps in India my father had gained more skills and in Kenya he became a skilled Halwai (sweets & dessert maker) who could make all kinds of delicious North Indian sweets. Later my parents had seven more children -Shakuntala, Baldev, Raji, Swarni, Subhash, Sukversha and Ashok.
Years later, my father took a huge loan with a heavy interest to pay his eldest daughter’s marriage dowry, which he was unable to pay. To supplement some family income, as soon as I finished Form 2 (half way into Secondary School), in 1947, I had to start working at the age of 14 as a Crane Driver with East African Railways & Harbours, Mombasa. Four years later at the age of 18, I married a 14-year-old beautiful young mixed blood lady Rampyari Kohli. Born in Kenya, she was the daughter of an African mother and a Kashmiri father.
After my father died in of a heart attack in 1951, I became the only support for the family. My wife and I had two boys and four girls. Then we adopted two more boys from my wife’s side of the family. All were born, bred and well educated in Kenya and overseas. Today most of them are living all over the world living in Australia, England, Germany and America. Some of them hold high positions as Bankers, Chartered Accountant, General Manager, University lecturers and directors.
My daughter and I are still live in Kenya, a country I call my home.
Nov 21, 2016 | Categories: 1900s, 1930s, Adoption, Apartheid, Arrivals & Departures, Christianity, Citizenship, Civil Partnership, Construction, Conversion of Faith, Cotton, Cultural Attire, Development, Dhow, Dressed for an Occasion, East Africa, Education, Factory & Manufacturing Units, Factory/Mill workers, Food & Drink, Gujarat, Gujarati, Hand Painted, Heart Attack, Hinduism, House Wife, India, Inter Race, Islamic, Karachi, Kashmir, Kashmiri, Labour, Lahore, Lion, Love & Romance, Men, Men's Clothes, Migration, Mixed, Mixed Marriages, Mombasa, Nairobi, Pakistan, Parsi, Photo Studio, Polygamy, Porbandar, Pre-1947 Indian Regions & States, Pre-Independence, Previous, Punjabi, Punjabi, Racism, Railway Platform, Railways, Ration Shop, Religious, Relocation, Shikar (Game Hunt), Shopkeeper, Sikh, Sikhism, Stations & Junctions, Studio Portraits, Travel, Urdu, Weapons & Artillery, Weather, Women, Women's Clothes | Tags: 1905, Africa, Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee, Australia, British Empire, Christianity, Coolie, dessert, Dhow, Dileep Nagpal, Dowry, East Africa, Gujarat, India, Islam, Jagan Nath Nagpal, Karachi, Kashmir, Kenya, Kenya Uganda Railways, Kilindini Harbour, Krishan Lal Nagpal, Lahore, Makhan Ram Vadvae, Man eater of Tsavo, Migration, Mixed Marriages, Mombasa, Nairobi, Pakistan, Population, Racial Slur, racism, Railways, Ration Shop, Religion, Sons, Uganda, Uganda Railways, Urdu | 3 Comments »
Image and Text contributed by Sir Mohinder Dhillon, Kenya
The following text is a summarised and edited version of excerpts from an unpublished Autobiography of the contributor.
Looking back over the 80 years, I wonder how, as a simple village boy from Punjab who never even finished school, did I end up in Africa, dodging bullets to make a living from shooting hundreds of kilometres of film in some of the world’s most dangerous regions.
I come from the proud martial family of the Sikhs. I do not know the exact date of my birth, although my passport says 25 October 1931, Baburpur, Punjab. At the time, births were not registered, and parents habitually exaggerated the ages of their children in order to get them into school early and so have their own hands free during the day. Baburpur, formerly called Retla (the place of sand), was renamed after Mughal Emperor Babur who had reportedly camped near our village for a few weeks.
My father, Tek Singh-
My father, Tek Singh, was the first person in our village to get an education. He was an adventurous man, and in 1918 at the age of 17, he responded with enthusiasm to the recruiting posters for workers on the Uganda Railway in British East Africa. Believing that there was safety in numbers, he was joined by friends and former classmates from nearby villages and the determined young men collectively took up the challenge of seeking a better life abroad.
This grandiose project of Uganda Railways would change the lives of the tens of thousands of Indians who left home for a new life in an unknown land, most of them never to return. The so-called Lunatic Line laid between 1896 and 1901 from Mombasa into the interior of then-British East Africa to Lake Victoria and subsequently extended into what is now Uganda, opened up the East African hinterland to the outside world. The founding of towns, and their later development into cities, would go on to transform the economies of the region.
When Tek Singh announced his decision to go to East Africa, it upset my grandparents immensely. Their only son was going to ‘darkest Africa’, the prevalent view of Africa at the time (still the perception of many people today). The money for my father’s first train ticket to Bombay, and for the dhow that would carry him from there to Mombasa, was borrowed from a moneylender in the village at a steep interest rate.
For the young Tek Singh leaving the village was more than just an adventure. A great deal rested on how he would fare in distant East Africa. Back at home in India, his family would be depending on him for remittances. He also had young wife to think of. His marriage had taken place six years earlier, when Tek was just 11, and his betrothed, Kartar Kaur, was nine years old.
The railway journey from Babarpur to Bombay took two days and one night. And then it took another two days to find the Uganda Railway’s recruiting agent. His shopping list for the journey – then the cheapest way of crossing the Indian Ocean – included a charcoal stove, two bags of charcoal, all the rations needed for the journey, a sleeping mat, blankets, washing powder, bath soap, tea leaves, and fresh water.
Tek Singh – or Bau Ji, as he was fondly called at home – arrived in Mombasa with almost no money in his pockets. He found refuge at a nearby Sikh temple (Gurudwara), where he slept on the veranda braving the ravenous mosquitoes, exactly like how the thousands freshly arrived on the coast spent their first few nights. After a week, Bau Ji was provided a bachelor accommodation by the Uganda Railways. Later, he and two other young Sikhs shared a small railway house that had the luxury of a tiny garden. The trio of bachelors remained life-long friends.
Bau Ji had promptly written home, informing his parents of his safe arrival. The mail though travelled first by sea, and then by rail and horse-drawn carriage and by foot, and took as long as 12 weeks to arrive. By then, his parents had feared the worst. His wife, Kartar Kaur, for her part, was obliged to don widow’s attire (the customary white dress), and was forbidden to use cosmetics. She complied for form’s sake but Kartar refused to believe that her husband was not alive. Amid the uncertainty of my father’s absence, my grandfather Natha Singh lived long enough to hear that his son had indeed reached East Africa safely, but the suspense evidently proved too much for his health. When Bau Ji’s letter finally arrived, the family was overjoyed and distributed sweets to everybody, but my grandfather died shortly after that.
Bau Ji found himself working for a soon-to-be expanded colonial rail (and shipping) network, one that would come to be known, first as Kenya & Uganda Railways and Harbours, and then eventually (in 1948) as the East African Railways and Harbours Corporation. Almost 30 years would elapse before he felt he was ready to bring the rest of his family over to Kenya. Through the 30 years, Bau Ji had to be content with getting to see his family during periods of extended overseas leave. He was entitled, once in every five years, a ‘six month home leave’ in India. All but one of the rest of us seven siblings were conceived during successive home-leave visits from our father. My youngest brother Balbir was born in Kenya. Bau Ji was able to save money for the education of all six of his sons, including me. Later, Bau Ji sent money to build a primary school in our home village.
Although the India Bau Ji had left behind was riven by class divisions, the world to which he now belonged bore even sharper lines of demarcation. The less educated Sikhs, those who were good with their hands, became mechanics, masons and carpenters. Only well-educated Sikhs could expect to land responsible office jobs. Most of the Railway accountants and clerks were Goans, who also ran the catering department. The people from Goa, who had lived under Portuguese rule for more than 500 years, did not mix much with other Indians. They classified themselves as Portuguese. And they already had their own sports club, known as the Railway Goan Institute. There were very few Gujarati-speaking Indians working on the Railway. Some Sikhs left the Railways to venture into business, but it was rare.
Bau Ji, for his part, had very little time for any kind of life beyond the Railway. He would walk the 10 kms to work from his Railway quarters. He and his two friends Kishen Mangat and Basant Bindra were encouraged by the British Administration to form a Sikh hockey team so a hockey field and a modest clubhouse were duly built. It went on to become the Railway Asian Institute Sports Club. After work, he would walk back home, have his tea, then change into his running-shorts and pick up his Indian-made hockey stick to hone his hockey playing skills.
Our lives in Baburpur –
I spent my early childhood in much the same way as my father. We never travelled outside our district in Punjab. There were no road or rail connections nearby. The Television was yet to be invented and I did not even know that radios existed. I first saw a camera when we all travelled to Ludhiana in 1947 to have our passport pictures taken. The camera was one of those contraptions with a black shroud underneath which the photographer’s head would momentarily disappear. There were no newspapers or magazines from which to learn about the world outside Babarpur. While in India, I had never heard of Mahatma Gandhi. Not until 1948, when I was in Kenya, would I hear about Gandhi for the first time – and that was only because he had just been assassinated.
Some of my friends are shocked when I tell them that my main hobby in the village was cock-fighting. I was the proud owner of a champion white cockerel named Raja, or ‘king’. Raja was fed on almonds and garlic, which made him a formidable fighter. We couldn’t afford the luxury of eating almonds. But for Raja, I would settle for nothing less. Before Raja went into battle, I would fit needle-sharp steel caps over his fighting-spurs – the talons on the inner side of a cock’s leg. In their natural state, a cock’s spurs are sharp enough. But kitted out in steel spikes, Raja could strike deep into an opponent’s belly, killing that poor bird almost instantly. Talking about this makes me wonder how I could have been so cruel. Back then, however, as a 12-year-old, I got a great kick out of all this. Raja slept next to my bed, I was so proud of him. My other passion was kite-flying. Together, brother Joginder and I won the championship for both of our last two years in the village.
Leaving India –
Things began to change for us in April 1947 the announcement of our impending departure had come in a letter from Bau Ji, received in September 1946. Leaving for Africa just weeks before India got its independence did at least spare us the carnage of Partition. When we left, India was still a peaceful place. Yet, within just a few months of our departure, some two million Indians were to lose their lives.
The first time I stepped on to a train was in 1947, at the age of 16, when we were leaving India. It was in the same year that I first travelled by bus. This was a time when, for the first time ever, Indian national election campaigns were canvassing the villages. The year 1947 was thus a significant one in my life. Until then, I had passed my entire childhood without ever having seen either a car or a motorcycle. I saw a flush toilet for the first time only after we travelled to a nearby town to be immunised against smallpox and to receive our yellow-fever vaccinations.
First, we travelled by ox-cart to Malaudh, the small town nearest to Babarpur where I had been going to school. With Partition looming, electioneering was under way in earnest, new buses were being used to mobilise political support among rural populations. From Malaudh, we took a bus to Ludhiana. This was only the second bus I had ever travelled in..From there, we boarded the train for Bombay.
In Bombay, we found a cheap hotel, where – in order to cut costs – the whole family shared one large room, with the males in one corner and the women in another. In the floor of the room there were holes through which, peeping down, we could see parts of the room beneath. Like all Indian travellers in those days, we carried all our own bedding in a sturdy canvas roll, complete with thick leather straps, a leather handle and a special pillow compartment. The bustle of Bombay – the first big city I had ever seen – was overwhelming. On reaching a street, I’d just stand there, transfixed, sometimes for at least three minutes, not daring to cross if there were a car approaching, even from afar. Bombay was simply awe-inspiring.
In India, there were – even then – bribe agents or ‘facilitators’ everywhere to smooth your passage through the formalities of customs and immigration and to find suitable accommodation for you. At the Bombay seaport, a bribe had to be paid for every service that was rendered. We even had to bribe someone in order to establish who else needed to be bribed. Our bribe agent then made sure that we bribed all the right officials.
The ship, named the Khandala, was dirty and worn. Originally a coal carrier, it had been converted to service as a passenger liner. The journey took 14 days. We docked briefly at two ports along the way, Porbunder in Gujarat and Mahe in the Seychelles. Then one day we saw the lighthouse of Mombasa. A tugboat came out to meet us and escorted our ship through a narrow bay into the port. The Africa I arrived in was green and lush. Palm trees swayed in the breeze against a clear blue sky. What a marked contrast this was to the flat and dusty Punjab we had left behind.
As we approached the shore, I knew I had come to a wondrous land. There were large engineering cranes at work in the harbour. The first human beings who caught my eye on the shore – two white men wearing shorts and a white woman in a loose skirt – were doing something curious. They were swinging sticks up and down. Later I found out it was golf. There were Africans, Arabs, Swahilis and even a few Indians and Europeans. We were astonished by how cheerful and laid-back everybody seemed to be. Most of the people we had seen on the streets of Bombay, by contrast, had looked tense and miserable, as they rushed about from place to place.
After Babarpur, our modest Railway house in Nairobi had the look of a palace. Gurdev, my elder brother soon found a job as a Railway fireman. For two years, he fed coal into the burners of the steam-engines and he would come home with soot all over his face and on his overalls. After a two-year apprenticeship, he became a locomotive driver.
In India, we had been punished for everything in school – for poor grades, for failing to complete our homework, for showing up a few minutes late, even for laughing aloud in class. For a village boy used to squatting on a coarse jute mat on a hard, uneven cement floor, this was a luxurious learning environment. Most of the teachers in Nairobi were surprisingly lenient, moreover, they did not punish for failure, or for lagging behind, but only for behaving badly in class.
Outside of school, life was filled with excitement. We drank sticky soda pop and we begged for turns to ride the bicycles of our friends. I played billiards, snooker and skittles at the Railway Club. At school, we played hockey and table-tennis. Indeed, we became such dab hands at table-tennis that my brother Manjeet and I went on, in 1954 and again in 1955, to contest the final of the Kenya National Table Tennis Championship. I won the first encounter, but Manjeet took the second.
Bau Ji was himself an avid sportsman. His love of hockey in particular was to infect my younger brother, Joginder (Jindi), who went on to be selected as part of the national hockey team that represented Kenya at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.
Joginder was sent to the prestigious St Thomas’s Teaching Hospital in London, where he eventually qualified as a doctor. Having then just represented Kenya at the Olympics, Joginder had easily found a place at the teaching hospital. Inderjeet went back to India, to a boarding college in Ludhiana, as Bau Ji could not afford to send him to a school in England. Later, upon returning to Kenya, Inderjeet became a popular radio and TV personality with the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, and was for a while a heartthrob among the teenage set in Nairobi. Manjeet initially took up a job in Nairobi as a clerk in the Kenya Ministry of Works, before going into business. While at school, he received a shield from Queen Elizabeth’s sister, Princess Margaret. He was also awarded the Lord Mountbatten Boy Scouts’ Belt. All five of my brothers passed their ‘O’ level examinations. I was the sole exception, failing the exam.
A career in images –
One day Bau Ji gave me a basic, second-hand Box Brownie camera. Bought at a stock-clearance sale, it had cost him 25 shillings – the equivalent, then, of about US$ 3.50. This was the ‘poor man’s Rolleiflex’, with a fixed speed and fixed aperture. Neither he nor I knew it at the time, but this simple gift marked the beginning of a 60-year-long career in photography.
In the 1950s, in a prestigious international photographic magazine, I came across a photo essay by the Indian photographer, I.S Johar. His were pictures taken with a Box Brownie of landscapes featuring dramatic skies. Of course, all Johar’s images were in black-and-white, as colour film had yet to appear. His images, though, were a revelation to me. Taking my cue from Johar, I started using a yellow filter for all my outdoor pictures, and an orange one at times, for special effects.
My first photographs were of the Indian hockey team’s first to visit Kenya, early in 1948. In the team was the maestro Dhyan Chand, winner of three Olympic gold medals. Other great players I remember from that team were K S Babu, Manna Singh, the barefooted Peerumal and the South Indian Raju, as well as the two Anglo-Indians, R S Gentle and Claudius. For players with such an awesome reputation, all were astonishingly unassuming and gracious. None so much as batted an eyelid on being ambushed by me before a match with requests for their portraits. “Dhyan Chand,” I’d say, “Just stand there a minute, would you?” And the great man would duly oblige.
I could not afford to take my film off to a photographic studio for processing, so I learned to process film myself, in a small, makeshift dark room that I improvised in the windowless storeroom at our Railways house. I purchased developer powder and other chemicals from a studio in town. From that studio, I also borrowed a thin handbook, published I think by Britain’s Royal Photographic Society, entitled Photography Made Easy for Learners, which had detailed instructions on how to set up a home-processing lab.
I did not have an enlarger, so the photographs I produced were tiny, measuring just 2.25 by 3.25 inches. With no electric drum-dryer either, I would dry the wet pictures by slapping them on to the window panes in the kitchen, after washing down the glass with Lifebuoy soap. “Mohindri, that’s expensive soap,’ my mother or my sister would chide me. There was some friction, in that kitchen, between the cooks in the family and me, over my encroaching photographic activities. “A kitchen,” I was roundly informed, “is for cooking in – not for making pictures.”
My new-found joy at having discovered the wonders of photography did little to calm the guilt feelings that by now were haunting me. Here I was, a grown man of 20 without a job, still sponging off his parents at home. Having flunked my ‘O’ Level exams, I was beginning to feel anxious I might never find a meaningful job.
So one morning I plucked up enough courage to respond to one of the newspaper advertisements. The vacancy in question was for ‘a junior accounts clerk in an established pharmacy practice’. To my surprise, I received a notification that I was to come in for an interview. At the appointed time, I was shown into the office of the proprietor, an elderly Jewish woman called Edith Haller. I had heard of Ms. Haller, as she also owned one of the photographic studios in the town. Indeed, in those days most retail chemists operated a photographic service as well –where customers could hand in their exposed film and later collect the developed prints.
My formal interview with Ms Haller was mercifully brief. In short, my candidacy for the post of accounts clerk at the pharmacy was rejected almost at once. “What we need is a qualified bookkeeper,” Ms Haller explained. I was not unduly surprised but this time my frustration got the better of me and I nearly broke down in tears. In the doorway, as I was leaving Ms Haller’s office, I spun around suddenly. “Halle Studio,” I blurted out. “What about Halle Studio? Isn’t there something I can do there?” I told her about the little dark room I had established at home. I offered to bring in and to show her some of my photographs. I pleaded with Ms. Haller to be given a chance. She must have been utterly taken aback by my torrent of broken English, by my gangly appearance, by my ill-fitting, lop-sided turban. This was the first time I had ever addressed a white person at any length.
Ms Haller’s eyes lit up while I was talking. There and then, once I had said my piece, she told me she would put me on one month’s probation, starting immediately. From the moment I reported for duty, I was determined to show I was both capable and eager to learn. That job meant everything to me. My trainer Peter Howlett, although he did not say so, left me in no doubt that my brown skin might present a bit of a problem. Ms. Haller nevertheless confirmed me in my post at the end of the month-long probation period, for which I was paid 150 shillings (the equivalent, then, of about US$ 21). She also raised my monthly salary to 250 shillings (roughly US$ 35). I was mightily relieved and grateful; for now, at last, I had a proper job.
At the time, Kenya’s only daily newspaper, the East African Standard, did not have any staff photographers of its own. Instead, the paper relied on photographers hired from Halle Studio for its pictures of all events. Peter Howlett, the man who had been given the responsibility of training me – was Halle’s principal photographer and handled most of the commissions.
One line of work that kept Halle Studio very busy was photographing babies at their parents’ homes. Peter specialised in taking informal portraits of the babies using a single flash and it was my job to hold the flash unit. The unit was a very large, heavy box, separate from but wired up to the camera. I had to lug this box around, directing the flash at different angles so as to avoid casting an ugly shadow while Peter clicked away. Peter and I made a very successful team. We got many requests from proud young parents, while also going from door to door around some of the more affluent Nairobi suburbs, promoting our ‘Home Photography’. The response we received was generally enthusiastic, and before long we had an extensive customer base – and an impressive album of sample baby pictures.
We were also hired to take pictures of horse races, dog shows and other social events. As a colonial newspaper, the East African Standard – which commissioned most of these photographs – catered exclusively to the tastes of Kenya’s ruling British elite. One day, while Peter was away on holiday, the newspaper’s social editor, Lesley Clay, rang the Studio, requesting the services of a photographer. I took the call and offered to stand in for Peter. Ms Clay readily agreed to take a chance on me. “In a worst-case scenario,” she added, encouragingly, “we can probably do without a picture.” It turned out that Lesley wanted me to cover a horse show.
Ms. Clay was delighted with my photographs. Even I, when I processed and developed the pictures, was pleasantly surprised by how well they came out. This time the picture taken by Rolleiflex camera, and a 8×10 inch size was a magical thrill. This was the beginning of a long relationship with the Standard newspaper. Two dynamic white women – Ms. Haller and Ms. Clay – were thus responsible for both of the early breakthroughs in my career as a professional photographer.
With Lesley I attended countless society functions at which she would introduce her paper’s turbaned Sikh photographer to individual party guests. All were white, of course, and many would simply turn away on being introduced to me, shunning my presence.
The newspaper work kept me busy for years, until eventually the Standard employed a staff photographer, John Parry from England. In those days, the paper paid us peanuts for our photographs. The going rate was just five ten shillings (the equivalent at the time of about $ 1.20 60 US cents) per column-inch.
When the British declared a State of Emergency in Kenya in 1952, the Mau Mau struggle became the big news story. We took photographs of the brutal ‘screening’ of Africans in the streets; of detainees in the Manyani Camp; of British troops and supplies arriving at the Eastleigh Airport. I was not mature enough then to take in fully what was going on around me, even though this period was one of the most politically charged in the country’s history. The awakening of my political consciousness would come later, when I took photographs of the Hola Camp Massacre in 1959. It was when the real horrors of this conflict start to hit me.
Halle Studio –
In 1954, Ms. Halle fell ill, and her brother Arthur Haller, who was then the Government Maize Controller, persuaded me to buy the business from her. He even went so far as to find me a partner, in the person of Oded Katzler, a wholesaler of cardboard packaging. Katzler raised all the capital – amounting to the then formidable sum of 20,000 shillings. At first, Oded remained a sleeping partner in the business, but after 10 months I was able to buy him out. Upon acquiring Halle Studio, I immediately relocated the company to a rented first-floor office suite in central Nairobi. This was in Nairobi House, the historic building then located on the corner of Delamere Avenue and Government Road (now Kenyatta Avenue and Moi Avenue). The work was exciting, and although it did not pay well I was happy enough at the time, as I had developed a taste for photo journalism and news reporting. As time went by, my professional photographic assignments started taking me further afield. Increasingly, I was called upon to cover safaris and expeditions in remote parts of the country.
One evening in May 1958, my father – after coming home from work as usual – told me that he had some “wonderful news” for me. “Mohinder,” he said, “you are getting married.” Just like that.
Amarjeet Kaur Sandhu, known throughout her life as Ambi , was born in Kisumu, on the Kenyan shores of Lake Victoria, on September 20, 1940. She was educated at Kisumu Girls School, although, like me, she did not progress beyond ‘O’ Level. Bau Ji, for his part, was pleased to learn that Ambi had played tennis at school – at a time when Sikh girls were, for the first time, being allowed to play sports – was a strong point in her favour.
After our marriage, Ambi was not only conversant with all the studio’s day-to-day functions; she was also taking most of the passport, driver’s licence and ID photographs herself. This left me free to take on newspaper assignments at a moment’s notice. The result was that business at the studio picked up dramatically.
In those pre-Independence days, our bread-and-butter income came from a deal we had with the British Army to take ID photographs of its soldiers serving in Kenya, many of them then trying to suppress the Mau Mau uprising. On at least six days every month, whole lorry-loads of British soldiers would be dropped off to have their pictures taken. Sometimes, the queue would extend down the stairs on to the ground floor of Nairobi House and out into the street. Ambi would sometimes take pictures of more than 300 British soldiers in a single day.
Ambi loved working at the studio. She loved the busy days especially, when streams of people would walk in to have their pictures taken or to collect their prints. She made friends with other tenants in the building, whom she spoilt with her home-made samosas, earning her the nickname ‘Samosa Lady’. The work set Ambi apart from former school friends of hers, some of whom were now also newly married and living in Nairobi, but who – as housewives, most of them – had only limited interaction with the wider Nairobi public. Ambi never criticised her married former school friends openly, but she did, in private, after meeting up with them at weekends, “I am far too busy,” she used to say, “for all this idle chatter” finding the closed world of their incessant society gossip exasperating.
With Ambi at the studio, I could devote myself almost exclusively to news photography, initially for the East African Standard, and then – increasingly – for UPI and other international press agencies as well. Come 1959, I was spending less and less of my time in the studio, as assignments would call on me to leave Nairobi to cover events elsewhere in Kenya and throughout East Africa. When, in 1960, I began covering events across the whole of Africa, I would be away for lengthy periods, leaving Ambi to ‘hold the fort’ at Halle Studio. Having acquired a passion for photo-journalism, I had become ambitious. So, in 1959, I wrote to Planet News Photos (subsequently taken over by United Press International, UPI) asking if this international agency might consider taking my pictures. The reply I received was surprisingly short and to the point: ‘Yes, Please’ – just the two words; no further explanation required; no demands; no doubts even over whether I could deliver photographs of the desired standard. This stunning breakthrough would prove the making of my company Africapix Media Limited.
Mohinder Dhillon (Founder and CEO of Africapix Media Ltd.) was the first photo and TV journalist to capture the plight of Iranian Kurds behind Khomeini’s lines. His first pictures shocked the world generating a lot for sympathy of Kurdish sufferance. He was knighted by the Order of Saint Mary of Zion during a ceremony at the Royal Artillery Headquarters in Woolwich, U.K. on November 12th 2005. “The honors were conferred upon those who had made significant contribution to the society.
His films of Ethiopian famine finally moved the world into action resulting in one of the biggest famine relief operations in history. Relief planes from dozens of countries descended on little dirt air strips of Ethiopian countryside round the clock as if they were Heathrow or JFK airports. The very first pictures of the terrible Ethiopian famine was the combined effort of Mohinder Dhillon and Michael Buerk of BBC TV to gain entry into tightly controlled military ruled Ethiopia in 1984 opening the door for rest of the media and rest of the world.
May 21, 2013 | Categories: 1910s, 1947 India Bangladesh Partition, 1960s, Accolades & Awards, Achievements, Adventure, Apartheid, Arranged Marriage, Boat, Books, British Reign, Bus, Child Marriage, Cock Fowl, Commerce, East Africa, Education, English, Ethnicity, First of a kind, Food & Drink, Friendships, Future icons from the Past, Halle Studio, Hockey, House of their dreams, Kite flying, Knighthood, Men's Clothes, Migration, Most Popular, Noteworthy Journeys, Photo Studio, Photographer, Photography, Pre-Independence, Previous, Punjabi, Punjabi, Punjabi, Racism, Rags to Riches, Railways, Relocation, Ship, Sikhism, Smallpox, Urdu, Vehicles & Transportation, Violence, Wartime Separation, Western Clothes, Widower, Women Empowerment | Tags: 1960s, Africapix Media Limited, Babarpur, BBC, Bombay to Africa, Bribery, British East Africa, Brownie Box, Dhyan Chand, East Africa, Edith Haller, Ethiopia, Famine, Halle Studio, Hockey, Hola Camp Massacre, ID photographs, Immunisation, Indian hockey team, Indian national election campaigns, Iranian Kurds, Kenya, Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, Kenya National Table Tennis Championship, Khandala, Kite Flying, Knighthood, Manyani Camp, Mau Mau, Michael Buerk, Mombasa, Nairobi, Olympic gold medals, Olympics, Punjab, Rolleiflex camera, Royal Photographic Society, Sam Dhillon, Ship, Sir Mohinder Dhillon, Small pox, Uganda Railway, yellow Fever | 10 Comments »
Image contributed by Minal Hajratwala
This image was photographed when my second cousin, Dalpat Kapitan and his family were at the airport, en route to a family vacation in India. This was also at the height of “petty apartheid” in South Africa, when all public places were being segregated. Kapitan and his family owned a restaurant in Durban, South Africa, and his father and my Great great uncle, G.C. Kapitan is credited with inventing the fava-bean version of the “bunny chow.” The bunny chow, a loaf of bread filled with curry, is considered by some to be South Africa’s national dish.
For more images of my family, please click here
Oct 08, 2010 | Categories: 1960s, Airport, Apartheid, Curry, Food & Drink, Migration, Racism, South Africa, Travel | Tags: 1960s, Airport, Apartheid, Bread, Bunny Chow, Cousin, Curry, Durban, Food & Drink, Kapitan, Migration, Minal Hajratwala, National Dish, Non white, racism, Restaurant, Segregation, South Africa, Travel, Vacation | 2 Comments »