Commemorating 100 years of the death of Dadabhai Naoroji — observed on 30 June — we take stock of a collection of letters the Grand Old Man of India exchanged with his contemporaries
“…It is a mistake his not giving his Parsee names at large. I took him for an Englishman until I saw he was K.D Cooper…I always denounce this as a snobby defamation of their medical degrees & diplomas; & I dont [sic] like to see Parsees screening their noble nationality behind the English masks of ‘Cooper’ — ‘Ashburner’ &c…A Wadia I understand is trying to name himself Wady!!!”
This is an excerpt from a letter written by George Birdwood (1832-1917) on 27 February 1904 from London, addressed to one of the early influential nationalists and a prominent figure in the formation of the Indian National Congress, Dadabhai Naoroji (1825-1917), expressing his disdain at the Parsi implementation of anglicised surnames. The aforementioned K.D. Cooper was a Parsi doctor and a resident medical officer at a hospital in Bradford between 1903 and 1904, and had requested Naoroji to seek Birdwood’s aid in applying for a job at the East Indian Railway Company. The letter is part of the book titled Dadabhai Naoroji: Selected Private Papers (Oxford University Press), published last year — a selection of correspondence between Naoroji and several seminal leaders and intellectuals — edited by S.R Mehrotra and Dinyar Patel. The annotated compilation not only throws light upon facets of Naoroji’s life, but also lends insights into the thoughts and preoccupations of his correspondents and confidantes, and their relationship with Naoroji.
Matters of intrigue
Birdwood, for instance, even opposed the fact that Indians had embraced a ‘Western’ style of dressing. An English civil servant, he resided in Bombay in the 1850s and ‘60s, and during his stay in the city, was appointed as a professor at the Grant Medical College; played a key role in the establishment of the Victoria Gardens and the Victoria and Albert Museum [currently Jijamata Udyan and the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum respectively]; was the registrar at the University of Bombay; and a member of the Royal Asiatic Society. While his friendship with Naoroji spanned almost six decades, it wasn’t without its share of differences, and the letters exchanged between them are a veritable indication of this fact.
A steadfast and unwavering Conservative, Birdwood, contested Naoroji’s arguments about his theory on the ‘drain of wealth’ from India, and was displeased at the establishment of semi-representative Indian political institutions. Nevertheless, Birdwood contributed immensely to the social and intellectual life of Bombay. One of his letters to Naoroji in 1898 makes mention of his unfinished manuscript on Indian art, tentatively titled Arya Silpa Darpana [or ‘The Mirror of Indian Art’], of which he had already written “1200 pages of foolscap MS”. Birdwood was also invited by the London-based Zoroastrian Fund of Europe in 1901 to deliver a commemorative lecture on the history of Zoroastrianism at the Parsi cemetery in suburban Brookwood, an otherwise uncommon honour from the community. Besides letters exchanged with Birdwood, the book reproduces Naoroji’s written communication with some of his contemporaries such as Henry M. Hyndman, Allan Octavian Hume, Erskine Perry, Behramji Malabari, R.M.H Griffith, William Wedderburn, and Gopal Krishna Gokhale, among others.
Reconstructing lost histories
The missives published in this book are however only a soupçon of an exhaustive cache of approximately 25-30,000 letters. Says Patel, assistant professor of history at the University of South Carolina, who has also completed his dissertation of the political thought and career of Naoroji, “The kernel of this volume comes from an unpublished manuscript that R.P Patwardhan [a retired educationalist from Pune] left behind in 1980 when he died. There is another unpublished volume, which we’ll be using as a starting point for a second volume, and I anticipate that at least one further volume can be easily completed with the material collected.” Patwardhan studied Naoroji’s correspondence for close to a decade and published two compilations in 1977, but passed away before he could have two more manuscripts published.
While most of the letters are in English, there is a sizeable number in Gujarati, and a handful in languages like Marathi, Urdu, Hindi, Persian, French, and Bengali. Patel says, “Since the Naoroji Papers are so vast and relatively unexplored, and since thousands of letters have not been catalogued, I still stumble upon interesting finds every time I search. Last August, for example, I was at the National Archives of India [in New Delhi], and found a letter from the 1890s where one of Naoroji’s daughters was talking about how riding bicycles was catching on in Bombay, among both men and women, and among both Hindus and Parsis. She mentioned that she was getting lessons from her husband, who would help her practise in the lanes of Khetwadi after dinner, and told Naoroji not to be worried about her safety!”
Naoroji considered Robert Morgan Holt Griffith — the proprietor of the Weekly News and Clerkenwell Chronicle published from north London — as ‘one of my best friends and supporters’, especially during his election campaigns for standing for Parliament from Central Finsbury, London. Griffith served as Naoroji’s trustworthy election agent in 1892 and 1895, and their correspondence, amounting to around 2,000 letters, is probably the largest collection in the Naoroji Papers.
An augmented repository
The Naoroji Papers have been housed in the National Archives of India (NAI), and apart from correspondence on weighty issues, also include miscellanea such as a hand-drawn map providing directions to Naoroji’s house in Anerley Park in London; Parsi wedding invitations and Navroze greeting cards; floor plans for the family house in Bombay; a map of the Buenos Aires tram network; and several newspaper cuttings and drafts of speeches.
All of the letters, however, were at one point, kept in Bombay — in Versova [present-day Seven Bungalows] at Naoroji’s house during his retirement, or perhaps in a godown somewhere in the city thereafter, as property of the Dadabhai Naoroji Prize Trust. Patel began working at the NAI with the intention of not only researching the Naoroji Papers but also evaluating them from the perspective of preservation, and providing any help that he could in identifying material that needed repair. “After Patwardhan was done working with them in Pune, he arranged for them to be sent to the NAI in Delhi. It is probably best that they were sent to Delhi, because they were kept much better than they would have at any facility in Bombay. Runs of numerous non-English newspapers simply do not exist anymore. Bombay is still in need of a proper, enclosed, temperature-controlled archival facility which uses archival best practices,” says Patel.
Deciphering the written word
In 1854, while still in his late-twenties, Naoroji became a professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at Bombay’s Elphinstone College, the first Indian to attain such a position. An enthusiastic pedagogue, he made great efforts to inculcate within his students a sense of curiosity by organising visits to the docks as well as the observatory that once operated in present-day Colaba. His role as a tutor can perhaps be extended to comprehend his style of writing. The letters he drafted were infused with unique characteristics, and provide a glimpse into his preference of syntax. “Naoroji’s English handwriting was not too bad, actually; it was relatively easy to pick up, though his Gujarati handwriting still eludes me in places. His Hindi writing was impeccable. But others, such as Malabari or Birdwood, were extremely difficult to decipher! Both, quite obviously, wrote letters in great haste. On more than one instance, Naoroji or Wedderburn would complain about not being able to read Malabari’s handwriting. Naoroji wrote in the typical late 19th century-style of English (some words would be capitalised, which we would not today, such as “Election,” or “Campaign”; frequent abbreviations of first names, such as “Wm” for “William”; people were referred to very formally, so George Birdwood was always “Sir George” and William Wedderburn “Sir William”, in spite of the fact that they were very close friends) but there were a few common spelling eccentricities. He always signed off as “Your’s truly”, for example,” shares Patel.
Letters that Naoroji wrote himself were very brief and succinct, and came across as rather formulaic. This, according to Patel, is perhaps a hint of how busy he was. “Naoroji kept to a standard format and wrote as briefly as possible. His letters were not meant to be eloquent, quotable documents, such as Nehru’s — he simply wanted to get his point across. Even Dinshaw Wacha, one of Naoroji’s closest confidantes, acknowledged that he could only expect one brief letter from Naoroji in response to several long outward letters,” he adds.
However, there were a few exceptions “His letters to Malabari are very personal (Malabari referred to Naoroji as “Dad”), since Malabari was not only a working colleague, but someone who was close to Naoroji’s children and helped look after their affairs while Naoroji was in London. Naoroji was a fixture in the letter-writing room of the National Liberal Club in London — he probably wrote a few thousands of pages here (when I visited in 2013, I couldn’t resist writing off a few letters from the same room, using the same stationery with the same letterhead),” explains Patel.
The ‘epistolary’ as a literary form plays a vital role to help understand the construction of academic and historical research. According to Patel, numerous historians that had previously looked at Naoroji’s life only examined a few of his published works, and thus painted a very incomplete portrait of the man and his ideas. Strangely, they did not seek out his private papers. Many Indian/South Asian historians are especially guilty of relying too much on theory and too little on actual archival evidence, especially personal correspondence.
As Patel puts it, “Much of the theory-driven scholarship on early Indian nationalism, or the Anglophone Indian political and economic elite, falls to pieces once one actually reads Indians’ private correspondence rather than selective reading of a handful of their English-language publications. Certain archival collections in India — again, especially the case for personal papers — are strangely neglected. We need more historians to take these collections seriously; there is a lot of exciting, unexplored material that helps add to, and even change, our narrative of how Indians responded to colonialism.”
Dadabhai Naoroji: Selected Private Papers available on Amazon India for Rs 1289