Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

What I Thought I Knew About India When I was Young

Courtesy: Creative Commons

I had a jigsaw of a map of India but it wasn’t a proper map. It had the names of cities on it but it was covered in pictures too, scenes of ‘typical everyday life’ for people who lived in various parts of the country. This jigsaw introduced me to India. I saw lots of elephants and tigers and women picking tea and men drinking the tea and coconut trees and mountains and a few deserts. The trees, elephants, tigers, women and mountains were all the same size. Sri Lanka was included in the map and because it is a much smaller landmass it only had room to show one elephant and one woman picking tea.

This jigsaw was one of several jigsaws that I had in the same series. They were all the same size too, so that I came away with the mistaken impression that India, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South America were all as large as each other. I have checked just now and I see that these jigsaws were made by Waddingtons and called ‘jig-maps’ and now I also learn that the Indian one didn’t contain Sri Lanka after all. The fallibility of memory! Looking at it for the first time in almost fifty years I discover that Bangalore is represented by a man playing a flute to two cobras in a basket while a wise mongoose looks on. Was Bangalore ever really like that? Was it like that when the jigsaw was made? Clearly a lot has changed in half a century.

The jigsaw was only the starting point of my intellectual discovery of the Indian subcontinent. Films augmented my growing awareness. Films showed me that the meaning of India could be found in elephants, tigers and women picking tea, not to mention men drinking tea, coconut trees, mountains, deserts. The place seemed marvellous. I decided to go there one day. But when? The thing to do was to consult a proper atlas, not a jigsaw, in fact a battered old atlas bound in ripped green cloth that dated from the 1920s and was probably a book once owned by my great-grandfather.

India seemed far away, yes, but not as far as Australia, and because I had cousins in Australia who had come to visit (bringing me a boomerang as a gift), I knew the voyage was feasible. First, I would reach France, that was the first step, and I felt confident I could walk to France. There was the inconvenience of a stretch of open sea between Britain and France, but I believed I could construct a raft from driftwood and sail across without too much trouble. Once I arrived in France the remainder of the journey would look after itself. I equipped myself for the walk. I took a penknife and a flask of orange squash, and I set off. There was woodland near the house where I grew up and I walked for ten minutes or so before meeting a boy I knew who was unsuccessfully trying to climb a tree. He came down with a crash, asked me for a drink and I obliged. Half the squash went down his gullet and I knew I could never hope to reach France on a half empty canteen. I returned home.

But I never abandoned the quest to reach India, I merely postponed it. The country had snakes in baskets! How could I resist that? Where I came from, the only stuff you found in wicker baskets was laundry. Boring in comparison! The snakes in India were musical and loved flute melodies. That also was amazing. It occurred to me that snakes were flute-like themselves and perhaps had even evolved from flutes (or vice versa) which explained the association. What if the strong resemblance led to a flautist accidentally trying to play a snake instead of a flute? The question alarmed me for days.

Maybe the music produced as a result would be the best ever heard by any human ear? Or perhaps it would be the worst! Yet another thing to find out for myself when I got to India. In the meantime, to continue my research, I spent a lot of time with a toy called a ‘View-Master Stereoscope’ that showed images on slides in 3-D. It was a plastic box with two lenses and a lever that rotated a disc on which the images were fixed.

One of the discs in my possession was an arrangement of “spectacular views” from around the globe. It included Banff in Canada, the Golden Horn in Turkey (those are the only other two I remember) and yes, a frontal view of the Taj Mahal. I studied the Taj Mahal carefully. It was vast and white. What clues could I glean from it? I wasn’t sure. Someone told me it was constructed by elephants. I accepted this but wondered what use elephants had for such a grand monument. It wasn’t edible. It wasn’t a bun.

On a school trip I was taken on a bus to Bristol Zoo, which seemed to lie at an extraordinary distance from the small town where I lived. We were shown an elephant and informed by a teacher that it was an Indian elephant, because it had small ears. Those ears looked vast to me and from that moment I had no choice but to regard the teacher as incompetent, a fool who didn’t know the difference between big and small. The incompetence of adults was something I learned the hard way, like most children. For instance, another teacher told us that crude oil was ‘liquid gold’ but I knew he was wrong. Oil was black and gold was golden, they couldn’t be the same. He had neglected to explain it was a metaphor. That might have helped his credibility.

My grandmother knew a little about India because one of her uncles was a sailor and had been there. He came back full of stories about it. People in India were able to levitate cross-legged, he had told her, after studying a thing called yoga. But yoga was dangerous. Some men had tied themselves in knots doing it and couldn’t be untied. They had spent the rest of their lives as a knot. Only the lightest men could levitate as far as the ceiling. Occasionally one of them would go up the chimney and drift away on the breeze. He had sometimes been far out at sea and watched them drifting over his ship. He had waved to them but if they broke their concentration they would come back down and make a splash, so his cheerful greetings were ignored. No offence taken, he said, he understood their predicament. Well, that was India for you.

In Calcutta he had seen a magician with a rope who had thrown it up high in the air and it had become rigid. Then he climbed it and vanished at the top. It was an impressive trick but he couldn’t see the point of it. He preferred the men who slept on nails instead of mattresses. Had he actually seen any of these chaps himself? No, not exactly. Nails grew on trees in that country and during his stay there had been a drought and a bad harvest and there weren’t enough nails to spare and those magic men had to sleep on porcupines instead. It was better than nothing, he supposed. My grandmother passed these tales onto me, uncritically and with evident approval. She always regretted not being born a man and going to sea herself. She wanted to be a pirate.

My grandmother’s uncle knew all about curries but I didn’t and I waited a long time before I tasted my first. It blew off the roof of my mouth, but looking back, I imagine, it was a very mild curry. Like most British men I soon acquired a taste for spices and eventually I became what is known in common parlance as a ‘chilli head’, going so far as to munch on the spiciest raw chillies available and insisting through a forced grin that they were “nothing special”, but that was later. My first curry was an eye opener. On second thoughts, it was more of an eye shutter, as I squeezed back the tears into my ducts. Yet this experience is a necessary rite of passage for all British males. It is the ‘test of fire’ and no less important than ‘the test of liquid’ (one’s first beer in a pub) and the ‘test of hair’ (the first shaving of the chin). These are the three essential tests, although there might be some others of lesser importance.

It must also be admitted, and I don’t say this cheerfully, that Kipling had a deep influence too on what I thought I knew about ‘India’. He is a problematic author now, one who made too many assumptions about how acceptable it was to work within the rigid structures of an imperialist system and only petitioning for greater humanity within that system. We can look back now and chide him for not opposing the system itself, but as a young British boy, I had no thoughts about systems of any kind. I was unhistorical despite my interest in history. The past was a place of knights bashing each other with maces, the distant past was a place where cavemen bashed each other with clubs. The present could never be history because it wasn’t the past, a simple equation in my head, and when Kipling wrote of his contemporary India, I received his impressions in my own time. Therefore, his India became mine too. ‘Gunga Din’ was exactly the sort of chap one might meet in the streets today. It never occurred to me that Kipling was a relic, an antique, for the reason that his books stood on my bookshelves now, and thus had contemporary relevance.

My sister’s best friend at school was an Indian girl, Joya Ghosh by name, but because we lived in a small town in Wales, I don’t think it registered in my mind that her parents had come from elsewhere. I didn’t think about the matter very much, if at all. She was merely a person with a deep laugh, much deeper than the laugh any child ought to have, thinking back on it now. It rumbled. It was the sort of laugh I later came to associate with hearty men with big beards, Captain Haddock or Taras Bulba types. She didn’t have a big beard or even a small one, at least I don’t recall seeing one.

She once courageously interceded in order to stop a pillow fight between myself and my sister. Her diplomacy in maintaining her neutrality as she did so impressed me considerably. But I never asked her anything about India. Maybe she wouldn’t have known much, but that is beside the point. I never even made the attempt. Nor do I remember meeting her parents or siblings, though I surely must have. She was here and India was elsewhere, so no connection could be logically made. The Jungle Book cartoon film filled in all the gaps anyway. I learned that in India wolves held conferences, that monkeys had kings, and that vultures were willing to join forces with humans to frustrate the machinations of tigers. This seemed perfectly reasonable.

When I was 14 years old, a brief article on Buddhism in an encyclopaedia captured my imagination. I wanted to know more about this philosophy. Where should I turn in order to find out more? There were no books on the subject in my local library, which was the only source of reading material in the town, and no adults I asked knew anything about it. The Buddha had found enlightenment under a tree in India. Would I have to travel to India to find enlightenment about his enlightenment? That seemed probable. My grandmother’s uncle hadn’t said anything to her about it, strangely enough, so I had to extrapolate from that one encyclopaedia article. It mentioned reincarnation and I liked this idea. To get an opportunity to be every other animal under the sun! To understand that already I had been many of those animals. Sublime!

The deeper aspects of the philosophy were passed over in that article. But my mind was made up, I would henceforth be a vegetarian, and I have been one ever since. There was familial opposition to my decision, of course. If I was no longer going to eat meat, what would I eat? British food back then was famous for being terrible (some would say it still is) and there was no tradition of tasty vegetarian meals. A vegetarian meal was simply an ordinary meal but without a lump of meat included, in other words a plate of boiled potatoes, boiled carrots, boiled cabbage, sprinkled with salt and pepper. This was years before the Curry Revolution that shook our island nation to the core, threw out our complacency and shattered our culinary blandness.

I now decided that I was a Buddhist and would go to live in a monastery in the mountains when I was older. Unlike my first attempt at walking to India, my second attempt would see me equipped with more than just a penknife and flask of orange squash. I would go equipped with inner tranquillity. That was the idea anyway. If I met with an accident during the journey, savaged by wild beasts or attacked by bandits on mountain slopes, it wouldn’t matter too much because I would be reborn as some other animal, maybe a squirrel or goose, and have an interesting life in a new form. I might even be reborn as an animal with enough strength to turn the tables on my attackers. A rhinoceros or hippopotamus. That would be fun and I regretted that I wouldn’t be there to see what happened, even though in another sense I was there…

But I kept putting off the day of my departure. There were too many other things to do first, such as pass my school exams and save enough pocket money to buy a new bicycle. Also, I didn’t want to shave my head. Time and tide wait for no man, or so they say, and weeks turned into months, months into years, and then I lost interest in walking seven thousand kilometres overland because I had started to go on hiking trips with friends and was learning what distance really meant to legs and feet. My first proper manly hike was 28 Km through forested hills and my feet were blistered on the soles so badly that for the next three days I walked on tiptoes like a conspirator but while making noises that no conspirator would make, “Ouch!” and “Yow!”

I grew up even more than I already had, went to university, graduated and travelled. I had friends who went to India and came back and they told me tales of their adventures. These adventures were suspiciously devoid of canyon rope bridges and cobras swaying to flute music, and equally suspiciously full of ghee-laden sweets and cheap beer. I eventually made it to India, but I went first to Sri Lanka, for reasons too complicated to outline in an article of such a short length. Yes, there were ghee-laden sweets and cheap beer shortly after I landed in Bangalore, but I think that was just coincidence. As for canyon rope bridges I still haven’t encountered any, but I did see an incredibly rickety broken bridge when I went to Coorg, absolutely the sort of thing one finds in old adventure novels or in the films adapted from them.

And now I sit under a magnificent banyan tree and consider how all my current knowledge about India deviates from what I thought I knew about the country in my distant youth. I think I have only really learned one thing, which is that India is simply too large to comprehend. There is too much of it, and it is full of people doing things, and those things are baffling even when explained because the explanations, no matter how lucid they are, are also baffling. This is a complicated way of saying I haven’t found any snakes in my bed yet, no bears in my bathroom, and I still haven’t been eaten by a tiger and reincarnated as a mongoose. But anything at all can happen.

Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.



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Sea Days, Sea Flowers

Mike Smith uncovers the wonders of the world of H.E Bates

H.E. Bates (1905-1974), photo taken by his wife, Majorie Bates. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Waiting for the computer to load I turned to the bookshelf and noticed my set of The Saturday Book. Thirty-five of the eclectic annual volumes were published between 1941 and 1975, with a ‘Best of’ following in the early 80s.

I needed a reading project and decided to start at the beginning of volume one. I accumulated the set over many years having been given two as birthday or perhaps Christmas presents in 1959 and 1960, but I’d never read them all from cover to cover. Long after discovering one of my favourite short stories (H.E.BatesThe Little Farm), I found I’d had for years it in Volume One of The Saturday Book. What I hadn’t found was a second piece by Bates in the same volume, or rather, a first piece by him, for it opens the book and the whole series.

Sea Days, Sea Flowers’ begins with recollections of summer trips to the Sussex and Kentish coast ‘as far as the white dunes of Sandwich bay’, and to ‘the flat wide shores beyond the Dymchurch sea-wall’ or to ‘Hastings and Rye’. I assumed at first that I was reading the opening to another short story, though it did cross my mind as odd that he should get two in the same volume. There are many short stories that start with such descriptions of rural England. Du Maurier’s ‘The Old Man’, Coppard’s ‘Weep Not My Wanton’, and Gallico’s ‘The Snow Goose’, all play heavily on the landscape in which their tales are played out.

But here Bates’ description seemed to go on for so long and was in such detail. It was a journey such as that Kipling took in his opening to ‘They’: a drive through England, to England rather than a mere setting for a tale. As that journey entered its second page the penny began to drop that I was reading what we would now call, I suppose, a piece of creative non-fiction.

The detail is astonishing: about the landscape, the topography, the architecture of the towns and villages, the working lives of the fish-hawkers and the fishermen, and the tourists who drive down for the summer to buy their fish; of the “smoke-stacks of ships steaming up the Channel as they come in close at Dungeness”; of the “coast that is full of Napoleonic memories”; of “the toy passenger train that peeps and shrieks across the flat marsh”. And, throughout it all, those flowers: “the tall mauve-pink marshmallows, like delicate wild hollyhocks…the clusters of reed and willow-herb and purple loosestrife…”

It’s a luscious, artist’s eyeful of this southern corner of England, and it goes on for pages. How can you make such a tour, packed as it is with such detailed description, and no narrative, and the only real character a fish-seller with whom Bates’ reminiscing narrator banters, how can you make it work, and over some thirteen pages of text? For it does work.

Scotland has always been a foreign country to me, but I know most of it far better than I know any of the so-called Home Counties, and the country that Bates describes in this piece is totally alien to me. Yet it made me want to visit, to see it, to see how much of that 1941 landscape still lives and shines under his summer sky. Of course, Bates is a superlative writer, but there’s more to it than that. And he knows a lot: about the flowers, about those childhood holidays, about the lives of working people. The piece is jam-packed with detail and keen observation. But there’s more to it than that as well.

The clue is in the date, and in the three words that open the piece, which, at eighty years’ distance you might have missed: ‘IN PEACE TIME’, and yes, they are in capitals too. For this lush description, redolent with nostalgia, elegiac for a lost world, was published in 1941, when World War Two, for England, was already two years old, and the beaches were sealed off to casual visitors, barbed wired and mined for defence, prepared for an invasion that never came. A couple of pages in, Bates gives us a reminding nudge, repeating the phrase, this time in lower case: “it was always so easy, in peace time, to find a light excuse [to make the coast journeys]”.

By 1941 Bates was already at the top of his game. Stories like ‘The Mill, The Kimono, and The Boxer’, had been written, stories that by his own account were more fully developed than those prompted by what he called ‘the facile devil inside’. And he was a master of the descriptive. The sense of heat that pervades the deserted farmyard and surrounding farmland in the story ‘A Great Day for Bonzo’is palpable, and that same intensity is present in many others of his rural tales, not least the often dubbed ‘bucolic’ Kent of The Darling Buds of May (1958). He was already putting those talents to the National Service, most famously in the stories of Flying Officer X. And this piece too, no doubt, had its propaganda purpose, for Britain, like other nations, was fighting for the survival not only of its lives and infra-structures nor merely for its political systems, but for the narratives of its physical homelands. This was one of the notional as well as real England that the majority of the British were fighting for, and here Bates is summoning a sense of loss that could already be felt as war took that landscape, albeit temporarily, away from the people.

You can sense a similar message in wartime films like Tawny Pipit (1944) and Went the Day Well (1942), and some of the Powell Pressburger films, notably, A Canterbury Tale (1944).

Towards the end of his piece Bates makes this context more explicit. “It is a year since I was down on the coast.” And he lets the war intrude more specifically: “A mine was tossing a little out to seaward…”, where the fish-hawkers “would talk to you of the dead Nazi airmen that were washed up every day…”. Not for nothing did the Kent coast, in the days of the Battle of Britain, become known as ‘Hell’s Corner’.

Bates does not end on the war though, but returns us to nostalgia, to the seashore, “the scream of gulls”, and the “toy train, penny plaices, sea-flowers, peace-time world”. He ends on a reflective note, and one, I think, that carries a whiff of English comic irony: “But it’s no use getting sentimental now.” There was, after all, still a war to fight.


Mike Smith lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays, usually on the short story form in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at 




At Home in the World: Tagore, Gandhi and the Quest for Alternative Masculinities

By Meenakshi Malhotra


In exploring the question of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and alternative masculinities, it is important to keep in mind the multiple contexts and registers in which this question can be explored. One is obviously Tagore’s critique of and take on man-woman relationships in his books and stories throughout his life, which he had observed at close quarters in an extended/joint family context. Many of his short stories, like “The Exercise-Book”, and novels like, Chokhher Bali (A Grain of Sand), show a keen sympathy for women’s aspirations and the situation of that unaccommodated woman, the young widow. Tagore demonstrates his sympathy, even empathy, with the young widow, Binodini, while recognizing that she might pose a threat to social stability within the household of Mahendra and Asha, his girl-wife. The second register is the intertwining of creative writing and androgyny (the latter being a necessary attribute for an author, according to Virginia Woolf), and how Tagore in his capacity as a creative writer had qualities of empathy and sensitivity, which he drew upon to forge unusually close emotional bonds with women. This theme  has been discussed by writers and critics under the rubric of Tagore and the feminine or Tagore and women. However, this article seeks not just to explore Tagore’s views on women but his search for a calibrated and balanced way of being in the world without falling into the binaries of imperial and colonized masculinities, and to shape the contours of a self which makes the world its home and is at home in the world.

In his novel Ghare Baire (The Home and the World), we come across a criticism of extremist politics and jingoistic nationalism. A tripartite narrative about the growing political consciousness of Bimala, her failure to understand her liberal husband, Nikhilesh, a landlord and his friend Sandip, a fiery nationalist and a turbulent petrel, who storms the bastions of their household and marriage. Sandip’s brand of militant nationalism appeals to Bimala, who had once harboured feelings of inferiority because of her birth in an ordinary family, and who feels elevated and special under Sandip’s scrutiny. Sandip singles her out for special attention and calls her the “Queen Bee’’ and his muse and inspiration leading her to ignore Nikhilesh’s more mature and balanced views. Early in the novel, Nikhilesh who often functions as a mouthpiece for Tagore’s views in the novel, says that though he loves his country/nation, he cannot place nationalism over humanity. Reflecting Tagore’s views, which espouses internationalism and humanitarianism, Nikhilesh is not understood by his politically immature wife and ignored by his self-serving and unscrupulous friend.

Central to the formation of Tagore’s political views and suspicion about nationalism was his ideological debate with his own niece, his sister, the novelist Swarnalata Debi’s daughter, Sarala Debi Chaudhurani. A keen and fiery nationalist and patriot, Sarala was deeply impressed by the physical culture of imperial masculinities. She was particularly enthused/motivated by the concept of uplifting the nation through encouraging the growth of a physical culture. A statement that resonated with her was the idea of national character and she quotes lines from the ‘Educationist’:

“Physical weakness is a crime-against yourself and those who depend on you. Weaklings are despised and a weakling nation is doomed. The decline of ancient Greece and Rome which fell rapidly from the pinnacle of supreme civilization was due to physical neglect and abuse of the inflexible laws of nature. A physically weak nation is drained out mentally, its feet are on the downward path and it will end upon the scrap-heap if it does not act before it is too late.”

She also quotes a proverb which pronounces that the “battles of England are fought and won in the fields of Eton” (Chapter 18,129).  Her interest in and involvement with the politics of the freedom movement led her to initiate the celebration of Birashtami (festival of heroes to celebrate martial prowess, bravery and courage)) to mark courage and martial valour. Her belief in developing a physical culture and strengthening the national character made her revive certain traditions, re-invent rituals in order to paint a glorious version of India’s past. In doing so, she encouraged celebrations of Birashtami and invoked and revived the ‘braveheart’, Pratapditya, a landlord with questionable antecedents since he was also guilty of killing his father. In elevating such a figure to a status of a nationalist war-hero, she elicited mixed responses, particularly from her Brahmo family and her uncle, Rabindranath Tagore.

Rabindranath Tagore, among others, strongly objected to Sarala’s invocation of the figure of a parricide as a martial hero. Such a figure could act as a dangerous precedent since it would seem to encourage untrammeled and uncontrolled aggression and blur moral boundaries and ethical codes. This blunting of all moral and ethical codes and boundaries, the danger lurking in a militant and violent nationalism was, as indicated above, represented by Tagore in his novel, Ghare Baire but also in his essays on nationalism. In the novel, the conflict between a rational civic and humanitarian nationalism which eschews violence is embodied by the idealized figure of Nikhil and the primordial reactionary chauvinistic version of nationalism which endorses violence by his ‘friend’, Sandip. After casting a spell (metaphorically speaking) over the impressionable Bimala, whose affection he then misuses to drive a wedge between the couple and then to extract money from her to fund his terrorist activities.

The Scattred Leaves of my Life By Saraladebi Chaudhurani

Rabindranath’s indictment of Sandip could be viewed as his response, a sort of extended debate and dialogue with an ideological viewpoint diametrically different from his own, which was represented by his niece.  The increasing rift and estrangement between the two — Rabindranath and Sarala — might explain the wistfulness and occasionally melancholic and autumnal tone of Jibaner Jharapata (The Scattered Leaves of My Life) Saraladebi’s autobiography. A proud and self-respecting person, Sarala was probably conscious of the slur or aspersion of effeminacy that the British had cast on the Bengali character. She felt the humiliation and indignity too keenly to accept such descriptions and attributions quietly.

Gandhi and the Crafting of Political Masculinity

One common threadthat runs through the work and writings both these towering personalities of Tagore and Gandhi, is a critique of existing, culturally prescribed and sanctioned models of masculinity as they prevailed in the eastern (Tagore) and western (Gandhi) extremities of India. Both these great men, as public personages, were conscious that they were thought leaders and role models and that examples set by them would be emulated.

In the case of M.K. Gandhi(1869-1948), a great national leader who was instrumental in India’s throwing off the yoke of colonialism in 1947, there is a conscious experimentation with the “truth’’, presumably of one’s inner self, to oppose certain culturally sanctioned models of masculinity. Interestingly, his great-niece, Manu Gandhi referred to the ageing Gandhi as “Gandhiji, my mother” in her diaries, which were translated into English in 2019. When we focus on his corporeal politics, we see in Gandhi’s “experiments with truth” a series of experiments to do with the body which express both a consciously crafted gender ambivalence and throws a challenge to the concept of the manly body of the colonizer. Here my point is that Gandhi was consciously deploying his self, his body identity/ies and attendant subjectivities, in order to make a political point. He used his body and body-politics to establish his difference from the colonially attributed native body and also to mark his distance from colonial models of masculinity. While in one sense, this fluid body seems almost gender ambivalent, it is also an invitation to re-imagine and revision stereotypical notions of gender which circulate in cultures.

  Both of these thinkers were probably conscious of the import of the political masculinities espoused by them, particularly under the yoke of imperialism, at a specific historical conjuncture. This conjuncture is the first two decades of the twentieth century, when the models of masculinity available can be broadly conceptualized as imperial, colonial and ascetic masculinities.

The imperial masculinity model is based on the white imperial ‘master’, the civil servant, the ‘pukka saheb’, the kind extolled by Kipling and criticized by E. M.Forster. Coincidentally, this Kiplingesque masculinity, often caricatured, found its takers in people who extolled the muscular, strong masculinity of imperial cultures, like Sarala Debi, Tagore’s niece. The Forsterian view that the English public school culture shaped “well developed bodies, under-developed minds and undeveloped hearts’’ was not known to her, nor would it have found favour. This model also made its way into Indian discourses where it becomes linked with questions of national character and patriotism. In his book, The Intimate Enemy (1983) Ashis Nandy proffers the view that the Indian elite in the 19th century perceived the British as agents of progressive change and accepted the ethos of aggressive imperial masculinities.

According to historians and critics like Indira Chowdhury, Mrinalini Sinha and Chandrima Chakraborty, there was a developing discourse of de-masculinization and emasculation among the British, where they denigrated the Indian middle class and particularly the Bengali men as weak and effeminate and this also led some political leaders to move in the direction of defining and conscious crafting of alternative masculinities.    

Four Chapters by Tagore

The third or ascetic model is available in Ananda Math by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Char Adhay ( Four Chapters, 1933), the last and thirteenth novel by Tagore along with real life characters such as Swami Vivekanand (1863-1902) and Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), albeit delineated with some ambivalence. Chandrima Chakraborty in her book on Masculinity, Asceticism, Hinduism: Past and Present Imaginings of India (2011), highlights the “conjunctural alignment of asceticism and masculinity in Indian political history,” in order for its transformation into a strident symbol of Indian nationalism.

Interestingly, there is a further dimension and  addition to this narrative. Jibaner Jharapata is not the only source of Sarala’s life story. She is described in Rajmohan Gandhi’s biography as Gandhi’s “spiritual wife”, because he felt strongly drawn to her, seeing in her a woman who possessed a unique combination of education and emotional strength. To Gandhi, she was a woman whose love for the nation was equally strong as his, although it followed and developed along different trajectories. In a peculiar role-reversal, we find Sarala Debi, who spent her formative years in Tagore family mansion at Jorashanko, inverts the models of “colonized masculinity” to promote and propagate militant nationalism. Tagore and Gandhi, whose spheres of influence she existed in, do not seem to have brought about much of a change in her. The great men eschewed and turned away from existing models of masculinity and moved towards the crafting of new masculinities, drawing on asceticism and spiritualism to do so.


Chakraborty, Chandrima(2011)Masculinity, Asceticism, Hinduism: Past and Present Imaginings of India. Delhi: Permanent Black

Chattopadhyay, Bankimchandra, Anandamath or The Sacred Brotherhood.Trana Julius Lipner, New DelhiOUP

Chaudhurani, Sarala Debi(2007)Jibaner Jharapata, Calcutta, Dey’s Publishing.(Bengali) All references in the text are to this edition,with translations by the author of this paper

Gandhi, Rajmohan (2006) Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, his People and an Empire. New Delhi:Penguin/Viking.

Kumar, Radha (1993) The History of Doing: An Illustrated History of Doing. New Delhi, Kali for Women

Malhotra, Meenakshi (2018) A Dark Goddess for a Fallen World: Mapping Apocalypse in Some of Bankim C.Chatterjee’s Novels in Unveiling Desire: Fallen Women in Literature, Culture and Films of the East eds Devaleena das and Colette Morrow. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press

Ray, Sangeeta (2000) En-Gendering the Nation: Women and nation in Colonial and Postcolonial Narratives Duke UP

Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development at several universities. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender and/in literature and feminist theory.