Travancore, CP and the Monazite sands

Many of you would have seen the Petromax or used one at home or seen it at the many festivals of Kerala on pole tops or ledges. Today its place has been taken by rechargeable lanterns and the such from the gelf, or the esteemed tube light. The gas lamp of these old times had what we know as a hanging gauze mantle. We pump the kerosene which creates a fine mist with air in the lamp, we then set it alight, the gauze catches fire and turns incandescent emitting a bright white light. Around which people sit and did various things, especially in Kerala like indulging in active gossip, creating intrigues and talking ill of others (paradushanam), drinking lots of toddy or other inebriating liquids and exchanging necessary & unnecessary banter, and after a while breaking out into impromptu tribal type dances singing thithitaro thithitai. But well, we are not going to talk about petromax gas lamps or toddy, we are going to get to the mantle, at least the mantles used around the late 19th century. 

As an old explanation goes - Everybody knows the mysterious 'mantle' that in the new lamp turns the long-familiar yellow flame of the gas into a dense, brilliant, white light. The 'mantle,' then, is a sort of stocking, loosely woven of cotton, and having the end tied up with asbestos thread. After being sewn, it is plunged into a bath of liquid the chief component of which is monazite, the leading virtue of which, again, is in the thorium it contains. In itself the skeleton or 'mantle,' as it is now, is infusible, and when placed over a properly prepared burner, instantly makes the gas-flame incandescent. 

So as gas lamps were in vogue and electric light was still a luxury (and still not bright enough), Monazite and Throium were an important commodity. At that time the main patents for mantle manufacture was held by a German scientist Welsbach (student of Bunsen – the Bunsen burner guy) and factories were erected in Europe. USA had Monazite supplies from North Carolina and had some issues with the US mantle patent that had lapsed, so the world monopoly was with the Germans. In addition the Throium was needed for filaments of lamps, an alloy of tungsten and thorium, which again was imported from Germany.

By then radioactivity was discovered and realization dawned that Thorium had destructive uses as well. And well, as things do get confounded and murky, war was soon to break out between the Germans and the others and the new fear of the use of Thorium for nuclear bombs was also foremost in the minds of scientists. With the sources and technology, it was not far from the reach of Germans, they thought. How would one cut off the German connections to Thorium? 

The only known deposits of monazite sand of any commercial importance at that time were those worked on the coast of Brazil and in Travancore, the latter sand being of considerably greater value because of its higher content of Thoria. For several years prior to 1914 the whole output of Travancore, amounting to 1300 tons per annum, and equivalent to 2300 tons of the best grade Brazilian sand, has gone to Germany for treatment. So as you can see one of the biggest suppliers of that period was Travancore, from where the Monazite was shipped out through the ports of Tuticorin.

And thus during the pre Independence days, Travancore rose to much prominence due to this Thorium link. But there was one person who tried to manipulate the situation to his master’s benefit and gain the maximum mileage out of it. The protagonist of that story was none other than the master Shakuni (or Chanakya if one wanted to chose that persona) – Sir CP Ramaswamy Iyer. While this will not be a study of Sir CP, his role in this affair cannot be ignored and he almost played the game to perfection using the twin barbs of Thorium and communism (fear of – during those McCarthy years) with two nations USA and Britain in an attempt at keeping Travancore independent as a kingdom (or at least to get larger share of autonomy as his supporters maintain). The tug of war that followed, involving USA, Britain, India, Germany and the Kingdom of Travancore is very interesting.

First a small introduction to Sir CP Ramaswamy Iyer. He was many things, a brilliant lawyer, administrator, politician and most of all Dewan of Travancore between 1936 and 1947. Ramaswami Iyer as Dewan is credited with having introduced social and administrative reforms as well as doing a lot of good things for the state of Travancore, when he was not quarrelling with others. His main bogey was the rising communist leanings in Kerala which started to shake the foundations of monarchy and entrenched feudalism. When the rebellions started (in 1946 the rebels established a government of their own at Vayalar village and declared independence from Travancore), he ruthlessly put them down (Punnapra Vaylar revolt with over a 1000 dead) and later stood firm in asking for an independent nation of Travancore from the British, to be established and ruled based on an American model.

Why did Travancore become a strategically important state at that time? As the furor over whether Travancore would join the union or not was raging, further fuel was spilled in the fire when a rumor started that Travancore had reached a private agreement with Britain over the Thorium deposits. Nehru was outraged and threatened to send the Indian air force to bomb Travancore. The Travancore rajah represented by Sir CP countered by stating that Travancore would not join India since India had sided with the Soviet Union (recall that the rajah and the CP had a number of issues with the communists at Punnapra Vaylar some months ago and were still shaken by it) and had formally deputed Mme Vijayalaksmi Pandit as Ambassador. Later CP stated that Travancore would become only a part of the United Nations and started secret negotiations with America & Britain. This set the tongues wagging in Delhi and blood pressures soaring.

Let’s for a moment get back to Thorium and Travancore. Before the 2nd world war, the German manufacturers of thorium nitrate exercised as close control over the monazite deposits of Travancore, India, as over those of Brazil. Only a limited quantity of the sand was sold to gas-mantle manufacturers and other consumers in the United Kingdom, and then at a price nine times the price paid by the German consumers. Such a monoply of the supplies of raw material made the German monoply of the thorium nitrate industry almost complete. When German manufacturers of gas mantles were securing the Travancore monazite sands for a price of four pounds a ton, manufacturers in England were paying £36 a ton.

As an old article on Travancore in an Russian trade journal explains - A lease for working the monazite deposits of Travancore was granted a few years ago by the Durbar, with the approval of the Government of India, to the London Consolidated Tin Mining Co., on condition that the concession should be transferred by that company, if at all, only to another British company. After the granting of the lease the Travancore Minerals Company was formed to work the deposits. The Minerals Company entered into a contract to sell the whole output to a German firm. Soon after the war broke out it was found that the whole of the preferred stock of the Minerals Company (the operating company) and 11,000 ordinary shares of the company, were held in trust for the Auer Company of Berlin, which, it is well known, has acted as one of Germany's most powerful and long-branched tentacles in reaching out all over the world for control of the greater metal deposits. 

The India Office acted promptly to change this state of affairs with regard to the Travancore sands. All the contracts with Germany were cancelled. It was required that thereafter all the directors of the Travancore Minerals Co. must be British-born; and that the company should hold itself ready at all times to sell monazite directly and at reasonable prices to British firms.

But we come back to the situation with Sir CP – Quoting Outlook An equally threatening problem was posed by the continuing defiance of the recalcitrant princes. Though relatively smaller, the coastal state of Travancore became more vociferous than others in demanding independence. Its veteran, authoritarian Dewan, Sir C.P. Ramaswami Aiyer, knew that with direct access to the sea (unlike Hyderabad and Kashmir) and a valuable export trade, a source material for the atomic fuel thorium ( and traces of Uranium) heightened his bargaining position. An export agreement with Britain for monazite had been signed.

As Guha says in a Hindu article -He established secret ties with senior Ministers of the British Government, who encouraged him in the hope that he would give them privileged access to monazite, a material Travancore was rich in and which could give the British a lead in the atomic arms race. Also egging on Travancore’s bid for independence was Mohammed Ali Jinnah. On June 20, 1947, Jinnah wired Iyer to say that Pakistan was “ready to establish relationship with Travancore which will be of mutual advantage”. The Dewan replied that since his State was taking steps to “maintain herself as an independent entity”, he proposed that a treaty be signed between the “independent Sovereign State” of Travancore and the Government of Pakistan. To further increase his influence, C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer, allowed the minerals attaché of the US Embassy to survey the region's monazite sands in the hopes of attracting bids from US firms for concessions. 

As Ajit Bhattacharjea puts it - Aiyer rivaled US Senator McCarthy in his obsession with communism. He used it to oppose links with India, as evident from his letter to Attlee on July 14: "Travancore cannot be forced to join a dominion whose leaders have at this critical juncture in world history established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Republic. (Vijaylakshmi Pandit had been posted to Moscow.) This step cannot but be followed by the establishment of Russian embassies and consulates all over India with results that need not be detailed. Within 50 miles of Travancore are the main centres of communist influence in India." Nehru complained to Mountbatten about Aiyer's remarks about India's diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union. The basic problem with C.P., Nehru said, was that he had a very inflated opinion of his own importance. The Viceroy promised to persuade him to accede.

Aiyer sounded firm but less pugnacious after the British Parliament adopted the India Independence Bill. "In law as well as in fact, Travancore will become an independent country from (August 15)," he announced. But he was willing to "work in cooperation with the rest of India" on common facilities. However, Travancore would issue its own currency. 

Travancore's importance was underlined in a Cabinet note by Earl Listowel, secretary of state for India. He said its economic and geographical position enabled it to assert independence. It had a range of exportable products and its own ports. Listowel advised against Britain doing anything that could help Travancore assert independence. However, if the state was able to do so on its own, British policy could be reconsidered. 

The minister for supply, John Wilmot, differed. He noted that the richest deposit of monazite was in Travancore. And thorium was comparable to uranium as a source material for atomic energy. It would only be to Britain's advantage, therefore, for Travancore to be independent. "Our chances of getting monazite from Travancore," he concluded, "ultimately depend on the goodwill of the state government, and the dewan in particular." 

Now the interesting part in all this was the British request to USA for atomic bombs in the 40’s. USA refused stating that if indeed there was a need, it would be to protect itself against USSR, which case was already taken care of by USA. Well, as matters would have it and as you may have gleaned in one of the earlier paras, the Thorium shipments out of Travancore to USA had been stopped by Britain.

A columnist Marquis W Childs stated (quoting this Times article) - Childs also disclosed—"although it may have been no more than a coincidence"—that shipments of thorium to the U.S. from the state of Travancore, in southern India, had been stopped. Travancore, one of India's least backward states, used to supply three-fourths of the world's thorium (for gaslight mantles, radio tubes, carbon terminals, luminous watch dials). Was the stoppage of thorium shipments from Travancore to the U.S. a sign of British displeasure? Possibly. But the British pointed out that they could not give orders to Travancore's Maharaja, an independent ruler. The handsome, enlightened, 34-year-old Maharaja, who in 1937 established a university for technological research, has now said that he wants to build thorium refining plants, and perhaps even experiment with nuclear fission, in Travancore. That was a reminder that the great powers had no permanent monopoly on the atom.

Well as matters would go, the Dewan was summoned by the Viceroy, had his meeting with Mountbatten on 21st July, the famous one where he salaciously attacked Gandhiji’s morality and brought files of reports in support. Mountbatten after a patient listening, deputed VP Menon to try and wrangle an accession settlement with CP. VP and CP did not agree, and CP stated that he would discuss accession only with India and not Britain.

On 27th July, Aiyer went for the Swati Tirunal centenary celebrations at Trivandrum. Shri Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer was singing and Hindu reported thusIt was the 39th birthday of Semmangudi, then the principal of the Swati Tirunal Academy. The year 1947 was observed as the death centenary year of the composer king and by a coincidence, the celebrations commenced on July 25, Semmangudi’s birthday. After the Maharajah had inaugurated the proceedings and left, Semmangudi commenced his concert. He must have excelled himself given the grandeur of the occasion. Shortly before the concert ended, Sir CP got up to leave. As he walked out, an assailant lying in wait attacked him with a sword-stick. The Dewan, a practitioner of yoga, was not an easy target and successfully parried most of the blows but suffered seven severe injuries on the face, the scalp and fingers. The lights suddenly went out and in the darkness the assailant vanished. There was little to be done when the lights came on. Sir CP was rushed to hospital and treated. Not many noticed what had happened and the concert ended smoothly. 

It turned out that Sir CP was knifed by one KCS Mani Iyer of the RSP party, knifed CP on his face and body (An interesting story – it appears CP in extreme arrogance even went and sat on the maharaja’s throne after the Raja had left). CP was carried off for emergency surgery, the Indian government turned on the heat soon after at the Maharajah of Travancore and CP advised him from his hospital bed ‘to follow a path of conciliation and compromise’. CP admitted that he himself had not followed it as he was in his own words ‘autocratic and over decisive’. On 30th the Maharajah sent a note to the viceroy confirming his agreement to join the Indian union.

CP Ramaswami Iyer after recovering resigned from his position on August 19th and left Kerala to retire and recuperate in Ooty and later travel extensively on various world tours. He returned his KCSI and KCIE to Mountbatten in Britain, went to Latin America, then toured USA, giving talks at Berkley, and met President Roosevelt in Washington DC. Later he served as VC at Annamalai and Benares universities. CP died in 1966 while talking to a reporter in the UK.

Travancore – Cochin then amalgamated with Malabar and Kasargode to form the Kerala state, the details of which I will recount another day.

To end it all, Defense minister AK Anthony unveiled the bust of KCS Mani in 2008. As the Hindu reports stated - A bust of K.C.S. Mani, who hacked Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer at the height of the movement for a free Travancore, will be unveiled by Union Minister for Defense A.K. Antony at the K.C.S. Mani Smarakam, Ambalapuzha, near here, on March 2. Admitting that several brave leaders of the RSP, including N. Srikandan Nair and K.C.S. Mani, did not have proper memorials in the State, Mr. Baby John said his party was setting right mistakes committed in the past by honoring these leaders. Thus unveiling the bust at Mr. Mani’s residence, near Thakazhi, Mr. Antony said Mr. Mani was one among those who could be counted along with Bhagat Singh as one of the great revolutionary leaders of the country.

To me this is ironic, for CP was certainly autocratic and heavy handed in many matters, irritating more people than earning friends, but he was not different from many of the others we consider great on the contrary, these days. He did a very large number of good things as well for Travancore compared to the many rajas and residents we had who did little or nothing for the common good. But that’s life.

Today Gas lamps are no longer in vogue and the heavy mineral is used mainly for nuclear purposes. As for the Monazite & thorium, the Indian rare earths Ltd IREL and KMML processes Thorium from Monazite and it is used in India’s domestic programs and hardly exported. The Kerala coastline, boasts of 31 per cent of the world's thorium, usable for applications like fast-breeder reactors. Travancore thus continues to have large strategic importance, in the scheme of things.

Political and commercial geology and the world's mineral resources - Josiah Edward Spurr
The Making of the Indian Atomic Bomb - Itty Abraham
Time, Hindu and Outlook articles hyperlinked above
India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy- Ramachandra Guha
Russia: a journal of Russian-American trade, Volume 1


Dear Friends & Readers –

Thank you for your patient reading of all the lengthy prose I doled out the last year.

 I will certainly continue in the same vein in 2011 and so for now, let me sign off for 2010 and wish you all a great year ahead, hoping it will be joyous and prosperous for you and your families.

VP Menon – The Architect of Modern India

Bringing order from the nightmare of Chaos
Introducing - Rao Bahadur Vapal Pangunni Menon.

While perusing the stories of Nehru, Krishna Menon and many others I had covered in these blogs, I came across VP’s name now and then. And like the man he was, he and his character were such that they remained largely hidden in those niches and corners. It took me much effort to prise open some of that persona behind them. It could be so that VP wanted to remain hidden, for it is certainly curious that a person of such greatness has not a single biography or major biographical article written about him.  In fact even in encyclopedias, his private life is given a couple of paragraphs of space, though much is written about the actions he took and his work. So this article tries to keep the long narrative connected to the person while only gleaning over his majestic work

I am happy that Vijay my friend prodded me to check his story out. VP belonged to to a place I know reasonably well, for at Ottapalam, we have many a relative and friend. So that is where we have to go to start the story. Like Krishna Menon, VP as he was called, had his friends and detractors and during various periods of his career, also powerful sponsors. Long ago I had learned that for one to go up and up in life, it helps to have such a powerful sponsor. But only some are lucky in such matters.

I pass by Ottapalam often, for it is on the way to many places, especially if you are from Palakkad. It is a place made famous by writers like our great MT Vasudevan Nair and needless to remind the reader that before MT many a luminary hailed from the banks of the Bhratapuzha or the Nila valley. So as we start, once upon a time, there lived in those terrains a poor man, who toiled and rose to become the most trusted Indians amongst the ruling British. Later, he turned out to be the master negotiator for the Indians and the Congress, with the British. On one side was Mountbatten, and on the other Sardar Patel, Nehru, Krishna Menon and a multitude of other heavy duty and seasoned politicians including Gandhiji. In between them was our man from Ottapalam, and his name was Pangunni. Strange name actually, it probably means the person born in the month of Panguni or possibly after the lame Sage of the Himalayas. Maybe it means something else, I don’t know. Today the name is hardly heard in Kerala, and like the Indian independence struggle, it sounds rather ancient.

As an Indian express article mentioned –Few small towns in the country could claim as many movers and shakers in the top bureaucracy as this pastoral municipality of barely 50,000 people. Ottappalam, clearly, has got too used to its men making news to notice. A few minutes down the dusty and narrow bone-shaker of a road winding away from Shankaran Nair’s original home here was the house of the wily V P Menon, Std VII dropout and one-time coolie-turned-secretary of state who more than helped Sardar Vallabhai Patel annex the many princely states to Independent India - more land and more people, in fact, than even Bismarck did in Germany.

Pangunni or VP as he was known moved back and forth negotiating the paperwork of English withdrawal from India and as secretary of state the creation of most of the states that we know today, wresting them away from some 564 princes and kings, sultans and nawabs. He created together with Sardar Patel the union or statehood we know today and swear by, though he has sadly been forgotten by all. That is the incredible story of V.P.Menon, an eminent administrator and diplomat.

For it was VP himself who reminded us many years ago that “A nation that forgets its history or its geography does so at its peril”. Poignant isn’t it, that we forgot not only the history but also the creators of such history?

If you go into the incorporation certificate of many an Indian state today, you will see this at the end - In confirmation whereof Mr. Vapal Pangunni Menon, Adviser to the Government of India in the Ministry of States, has appended his signature on behalf and with the authority of the Governor General of India and His Highness…………..There lies imprinted his name, forever, for those who come across it perchance.

A lot of people have some knowledge about the freedom struggle and many of the players in that game, for that is what it was in hindsight. Nehru and VKK Menon on one side, Patel and VP Menon on the other side…Those were heady days when Nehru ruled the roost and more visible people like Krishna Menon, Patel, Gandhiji and many others made the scenes at Delhi hectic and turbulent to say the least. The Raj was slowly disbanding, the farewell parties were in full swing in Delhi and the ships and the goras were heading back to the Blighty. The P&B liners were sagging with the weight of the looters and the booty, as some snide remarks suggest, for the last time. In the melee, there was one person who was steadfast in his beliefs standing firmly behind Sardar Patel. His name was VP Menon. There is no authoritative biography written about him, so the information penned here is gleaned from a number of sources.

VP was not highly educated, in fact many a write up mentions that he finished 7th standard at the Ottapalam High school. He was born on 30th Sept 1894, a son to a school headmaster with 12 siblings. As the story goes, VP overheard his father discussing the unbearable cost of educating the young boys. VP decided to be a burden no more and left home, like many others, in a train bound for the North. He worked in a gold mine (some other mentions of coal mines as well) and as a day laborer in Mysore to start with and continued at a Tobacco firm in Bangalore. The days in Mysore & Bangalore never left his memory, for when he retired, Bangalore was his destination, and probably the place reminded him of his days in cool Simla. Vappalakalam was where he came from; though he himself shortened it to Vapal and others like KM Panikkar called him Vepali (Vappalakalam is near Panamanna, a mile north of Ottapalam town). The tharavad house still exists and you can see it as well as the family pond, marked in the map.
To trace his path and the distances he traveled and reached, I peruse through some pages devoted to VP Menon by HG Hodson in his charming autobiography.

Brought up in a matriarchal extended family in that part of Madras province which is now Mysore (?) state, VP did well at school, learning English as all secondary pupils did in Madras; but when he overheard a family conversation about the cost of his further education he decided not to be a burden, but to leave home and make his own way in the world. An Englishman gave him a clerical job in Bangalore, where, he told me, he sat under a crimson gulmohor tree and pondered his future. He decided to move towards the centre of government of India. On his way north, he was offered a job teaching English in a small Muslim-ruled state. “There is one little condition,” they said; “you will have to become a Mussulman.” The agnostic young Menon thought this no fatal obstacle, until he learnt that virtually the only requirement for conversion was circumcision: permanent amputation for a temporary job he thought too high a price. 

As we see from Hodson’s notes, VP reached Simla in the 1914 time frame, aged 20, connected somehow with the Madrasi crowd there and joined the British bureaucracy as a lowly clerk or steno typist. (Please see corrections regarding the years at Delhi, below)

In Simla the “Madras connection” helped him to a post in a government office. Thence his ability and industry alone took him up the ladder of promotion to become deputy to my predecessor as Reforms Commissioner, Sir Hawthorne Lewis. Menon was lucky to be drafted to the Reforms office, for merit could shine more effectively there than in a large hierarchical department manned in all its upper ranks by ICS men. He had the opportunity to show his brains, assiduity and sound sense in the arduous work of serving the Round Table Conferences on Indian constitutional reform (for which the Reforms Office had indeed been created) and implementing the new constitution, the Government of India Act 1935.

My friend Premanth provided me with some detail of the early years in Delhi. Menon reached Delhi and connected up with some very helpful and well played Malayalis. One of them, the eminent Mr CK Kunhiraman from the Viceroys secretariat helped him in his time of need and provided him the necessary recommendations for a job there.  Another well wisher and supporter was Mr Anandan. Mr Kunhiraman later moved to Sri Lanka and worked to start the Ceylon Congress.

Even though we have the faded, grainy photograph of him, Menon was described as bespectacled, bald and cheerful but engaging man with snaggled teeth. Was he a jovial guy? Was he a serious chap, a nerd perhaps? Was he timid or outspoken? I would think from all I read that he was the serious and meticulous type, very firm in manner and speech. This firmness was to stand in good stead when he later worked with political stalwarts like Gandhi, Krishna Menon, Nehru, Patel, various pompous Englishmen and of course the many hundred egoistic kings and princes during the formation of states. But in those early days, it also resulted in him getting bullied terribly by a junior ICS officer named Lancaster. Another interesting story tells it all, as accounted by Hodosn.

On his first visit to England as part of the secretariat of the first Round Table Conference he had an unforgettable experience. When he had just joined the government service and was under training in his home province he was horribly bullied by a junior ICS officer, Lancaster by name. Later, when working in the Home Department he had to deal with the file on this same man’s compulsory retirement for arbitrary behaviour and general unsuitability. Arriving in London with very few personal contacts, and somewhat bewildered, he was agreeably surprised when an Englishman came up to him on Victoria station and asked did he not come from Madras, whereabouts, and so on, explaining that he himself was a former Madras civilian. He turned out to be none other than Mr Lancaster, unrecognisable with a beard. He insisted that for the rest of Menon’s stay in England he should spend every weekend in his house. When their friendship had become close enough to allow it, VP asked Lancaster why he had behaved as he had. He replied: “Imagine a young man of 23, without much training or background, suddenly finding himself with almost absolute power over a large number of subject people. Can you wonder that he forgets his discretion, his balance, his manners? People exclaim at the wickedness of some rajahs: I am surprised that any of them are good.” He had realised how wrong he had been and was trying to make amends for his misbehaviour by befriending lonely Indians. That encounter was one of the foundations of VP’s undying affection and loyalty towards the British—sentiments which in no way trammelled his Indian-ness or his aspirations for his country’s freedom.

For 11 years Menon toiled, and steadily impressed his superiors and rose up the ranks. It appears that he married Smt Kanakamma around 1941 at the late age of 46 and fathered three children, two sons and a daughter. His greatest abilities as stated by his peers was that he knew how to get things done and had both the knowledge and abilities to go with it. Pangunni Menon was by temperament a conservative, with no time for the social radicalism of Nehru or Gandhi. By 1942 (when quit India started) he had risen to become the constitutional secretary to the Viceroy. As Fernando writes - When the post of Reforms Commissioner became vacant in 1942 following the departure of H V Hodson, there was some reluctance to appoint an Indian to a position of such intimate trust on political and constitutional matters. However, the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, had been so impressed by Menon’s loyalty, judgement and technical knowledge that he was appointed to the post.

Hodson continues

To me he was the best of friends and colleagues. It must have been a wretched disappointment to him not to move up to the Reforms Commissionership when Lewis became Governor of Orissa, but he never showed the slightest sign of jealousy or coolness towards the young ignorant Englishman who had been appointed instead. I think he craved the post as much because it had been a job for the ICS, who had looked down on him as an uncovenanted civil servant, as for its rank and emoluments. There was a natural reluctance to appoint an Indian, however well qualified, to a position of intimate trust on political and constitutional affairs, but Lord Linlithgow had been impressed by Menon’s loyalty as well as his judgment and technical knowledge, and he duly succeeded me as constitutional adviser.

But his greatest associations came first with Mountbatten and later with Sardar Patel.

He had the full confidence of Lord Wavell, though he was not at one with the Viceroy over the conduct of the Simla conference in 1945 (his memorandum on the alternatives open after the failure of the conference, printed in an appendix to the last volume of the Transfer of Power documents, is a monument of good sense); but in the earlier weeks of the last viceroyalty he was neglected by Mountbatten, who had brought eminent advisers from England to reinforce the Viceroy’s private secretariat and who no doubt felt that an Indian, a Hindu, could not avoid being partisan in the tense inter-party and inter-communal negotiations for independence.

However, Mountbatten realised before long what an invaluable counsellor he had in Menon, who brought not only unrivalled knowledge of Indian constitutional matters but also confidential personal contacts with important Indian figures, including top civil servants like Mahomed Ali, administrative architect of Pakistan and BN Rao, draftsman of the new Indian constitution. And at the moment of crisis, when Nehru spurned Mountbatten’s first plan for the transfer of power, it was to Menon that the Viceroy turned. In a matter of hours Menon devised, and secretly negotiated with Patel, the plan for an early demission of power to two Dominions under the existing constitution, altered to eliminate British control, which proved the key to the whole problem. It was a masterly effort, drawing upon the deep thought that VP had given over many years to India’s constitutional progress, which he and his predecessors in the Reforms Office believed could be best advanced on the historical pattern already set in the British Commonwealth. In all this, Menon was the devoted servant both of the regime to which he had given his working life, and to his own country whose constitutional freedom he had perceived as his ultimate professional goal.

VP Menon and Indian independence
It is not a good idea to cover this part of his life in this blog, for Menon himself has covered it all in a voluminous book called ‘The Transfer of Power’. An avid student of politics or history may refer to it, but needless to say that Menon after working with the British during their times took the lead together with Wavell and Mountbatten in clearing the way towards freedom. The interesting stories like how he and Edwina persuaded the disappointed Dickie from not abandoning the efforts, how VP in a matter of hours, typing with his two fingers as he did all his life, completed the famous plan that decided Indian independence and partition and reached an agreement with Nehru and Jinnah are legendary. He himself says in “The Transfer of Power”: “I had only two or three hours in which to prepare an alternative draft plan and I sat to work on it at once”.

Sardar Patel & the formation of states
Once the British had gone, it was VP’s decision to quit and retire to his favorite Bangalore, but that was not to be so for there was one final master stroke left in his pen. India just before the Independence was not a union but a conglomeration of some 564 kingdoms, and the potential for a right royal mess was looming. Sardar Patel decided to get VP on his side in the accession and formation of states. Between them, they cajoled, persuaded, and even threatened the difficult kings and nawabs to join the Indian union. As it happened, they succeeded admirably, barring Junagad, Kashmir and Hyderabad. These facts and events are also well documented, in Menon’s ‘The story of the integration of Indian states’ (which I have not been able to get a hold of, unfortunately). Many interesting and some controversial stories are still quoted today, like the Kashmir signatures, the Travancore, Junagad and Hyderabad accessions. The Kashmir story is fascinating and I will get to it in a separate blog. The story of how another ruler (Jodhpur ruler who pulled out his pistol pen) drew a pistol at him and how Manekshaw went with him to Kashmir are all fascinating caricatures of this largely invisible man, a stalwart who shaped Indian history and the India we see today. Whatever happened to the pen? The rajah gifted it (or as other stories say was confiscated) to Mountbatten!!

One writer says - The partnership between Patel and Menon was of a rare kind. Almost every Indian politician was allergic to civil servants, owing to their participation in the British Raj. Many Congressmen had demanded stripping the service of its privileges or disbanding it all together, owing to the role of British-era officers in imprisoning Congress leaders. Nehru himself was reluctant to listen to the civil servants who worked under him.

The Patel Menon understanding started in August 1946, was key to the transfer of power, division of India and the merger of the princely states into India. Their relationship is famous and many a time, Menon was singled out by Patel to broach things to difficult people and secure their agreement. One example is the famous case of the early princely integration efforts that Gandiji did not think will succeed.

The iron man Patel used tough methods to coerce the princes, but the question was what would Bapuji say? Suppose he called it coercion, a breach of his principle of non-violence? Patel did not like to face Gandhi, and left the job of convincing Gandhi to Menon. Menon met Gandhi in Birla House and told him that it was all done in the interest of the concerned Princes themselves. Gandhi finally agreed and accepted that it was like administering ‘castor oil to resisting children'.

Quoting Menon to sum up the relationship ‘The Sardar was endowed with the art of getting things done, and we established an ideal team spirit between the political head and the officials working under him. When once a policy was agreed upon, the Sardar never interfered or bothered about details. It was as if I was the driver and he trusted me to get him to the agreed destination: he never indulged in ‘back seat’ driving. I kept him informed, morning and evening, and often late at night, of the progress made, and, if specially important or difficult decision had to be made, I consulted him. Otherwise he was content to leave everything to me. When he had his unfortunate heart attack in 1948 I realized the necessity of hurrying through the process of integration, for without him at the head of the Ministry, I doubt whether the job would ever have been completed. I therefore redoubled the speed with which I worked, and fortunately it was brought to a conclusion while he was still in charge.’

When Patel died, the funeral in Bombay was a tame affair at a public crematorium. Many of the Princes whose states Patel had taken away took special planes to reach Bombay for the event. V. P. Menon was there, isolated and forlorn. Nehru was among the mourners but left the funeral oration to Rajaji, as Nehru said that he was emotionally disturbed. Rajendra Prasad, now President of India, broke protocol (to Nehru's annoyance) and attended the funeral.

Menon, Nehru and Orissa
At this point of time, all that was left was to conclude with a position commensurate with his experience and brilliance. Menon upon Mountbatten’s recommendation to Nehru, was appointed acting governor of Orissa but was never promoted as a full governor. With that Menon bitterly bid adieu from Delhi, bureaucracy and politics.

Hodson concludes
Yet he died, in retirement in Bangalore, where I spent many hours with him recording on tape his recollections both of the run-up to independence and of the integration of the princely states, a disappointed man; for Nehru, who was not temperamentally in tune with him, denied him the promotion to a provincial governorship which was his final ambition and which his great services before and after independence had made his due. I salute his memory.

Retirement in Bangalore
Menon resigned from the service in 1951 to settle in Bangalore. And thus he came back to his beloved Bangalore, moved to his house in Cooks town and the old timers of Banagalore still mention the big car and the presence of Menon in august functions and as the fighter for civic rights in Bangalore & Mysore. Here he sat and wrote the two great and oft quoted books, The transfer of Power and The formation of states. In addition he contributed frequently to newspapers and magazines, also writing great euologies about people he had difficulties with such as CP Ramaswamy Iyer who had once fought long with him on the accession of the kingdom of Travancore.

Menon was a serious Bangalore resident, mentioning many a time of his having owned a house there for thirty years and having lived there for 10 years. Well, it was in his house that he sat to write the two great memoirs on the request of Patel. But once Patel was gone, Menon had hardly the great drive he possessed once before.

But there is another even better anecdote related to this great man, occurring as he was wandering around in search of work.

As a young man newly arrived in Delhi enroute Simla to seek his first job in government, all his possessions, including money, were stolen. In desperation he turned to an elderly Sikh at the station, described his plight, and asked for a loan of 15 rupees to continue on to Simla. The Sikh gave him the money, but when V.P. asked for his address so that he might repay the loan, the Sikh said that he owed the debt to any stranger who came to him in need, as long as he lived. The help which came from a stranger was to be repaid to a stranger. He never forgot that debt, even on his death bed. At that unfortunate time a beggar came to the family home in Bangalore asking for help to buy sandals as his feet were covered with sores, V.P. asked his daughter to take 15 rupees from his wallet and give it to the beggar. That was his last conscious act.

Menon’s books
Menon has left behind for us two most important publications. As  KZ Islam stated succintly, ‘The Transfer of Power in India’ is a remarkably calm and impartial review of the events leading to the partition and independence and ‘The Integration of the Indian States’ is a colorful tragi-comic story of the end of the princely system in India. Both these books were written virtually as text-books and they are presently prescribed in the reading of history in the Indian Universities. He wrote a number of other books as well such as An Outline of Indian Constitutional History. The books, especially the former is very interesting and stories such as how Jinnah desperately tried to get Calcutta and the whole of Bengal during the partition make interesting reading.

LK Advani states - Menon’s two books The Story of the Integration of Indian States and Transfer of Power are classics, indispensable for anybody who wishes to study the triumphs and tragedies in that important era in India’s history.

Menon and Mountbatten
Menon was regarded highly by Mountbatten as his predecessors. Their relationships were cordial and friendly and there are stories of Menon rushing in waking Mountbatten in his bedroom once during a crisis, Quoting KZ Islam from

It is doubtful if any Indian official or non-official saw the workings of the British Indian Government more closely than V.P. Menon. V.P. attended the Round Table conferences in 1932-33. He was one of the two Secretaries of the Simla Conference called by Wavell in August 1945. Among the Indian Officials who assisted the Cabinet Mission Delegation in 1946 was V.P. Menon. And the grand finale was his single-handed drafting of the Partition Plan as directed by Mountbatten.

Imagine, the liberty being given to V.P. It was left to Menon to change and chop the (Transfer of power) Plan as he thought fit. Menon's draft was circulated a few days later to the Governors of India's eleven provinces who had been summoned to Delhi for a conference with the Viceroy. The moment they read it, they realized that their days were numbered. 'The blighter's pulled it off,' one of them said. 'What is he - a swami or something?'

Mountbatten says ‘When I arrived in India in March 1947, I was indeed fortunate to find V P Menon as the Reforms Commissioner on the Governor-General’s staff. I had never previously met him but I found immediately that his encyclopaedic knowledge of the Indian problem and his close contacts with the major Indian leaders especially Sardar Patel were invaluable to me - indeed it is fair to say that without the constant help and advice of V P Menon, the transfer of power as early as August 1947 would not have been possible’. George Abell the viceroy’s private secretary for example was the first to admit that Mountbatten’s vision and good sense in bringing V.P. right into the policy-making fold had been perhaps the biggest single personal factor in his success. Mountbatten wanted to award Menon a knighthood but Menon felt that as the servant of the new Government, it would be inappropriate. Hence he was given just a certificate.

Menon’s critics
Some people mention the relationship Menon had with Mountbatten, how he was considered a kind of ear, eye and mouthpiece of Mountbatten. But here others counter stating that he was actually the planner & negotiator who first proposed it to tehd ecider Mountbatten, then got Nehru and Patel to accept the plans and finally managed to get Gandhiji’s approval. Both Menon’s, Krishna and Pangunni were mentioned in this snide comment Mountabtten made many years later in his life. Others even remark that Menon painted himself in a better light than actual in his two books. And finally much is made into Menon’s recalling Mountbatten to a riot struck Delhi to take charge stating that Patel and Nehru had requested so, when Nehru had not actually done it. And I would say - yeah right ‘in hindsight everybody has 20/20 vision’.

Swatantra party
For a while possibly because he had nothing better to do, he joined the managing committee of the Swatantra party as joint secretary. Between this period, and his death in 1966, he was also involved in many negotiations with various princely rulers, though he had become very ill towards his last days. His presence in the Swatantra party resulted in the induction of many senior distinguished members into the party like Hegde, Lobo and Sreenivasan. Menon did however belong to the old school for he once stood up to oppose abolition of hereditary village officers in Mysore, stating that “the efficiency of the hereditary cadre can never be equaled by men recruited on miserable salaries from other families”. Menon however had an aversion for mass politics and supported conservatism.

Menon and Travancore
One of the states that proved difficult to accession was Travancore. Menon had a tough adversary in Dewan CP Ramaswamy Iyer. It took a good amount of coercion, persuasion and luck to get Travancore to accept, following CP’s unfortunate stabbing at a rally. In the end the Maharani just wanted her daughter Lakshmi Bayi to get a higher privy purse than Princess Lalithamba bayi.

The story of how the Cochin ruler just wanted free copies of the Almanac (Panchangam) and a hand fan in return to joining the Indian union is another interesting story.

As KM Panikkar was to write later, VP a Malayali would finally prove to be the next sword of Parusurama and decimate the Kerala kingdoms once created by Parasurama.

VP Menon’s family
His daughter is mentioned often in books. She is married to of Maj Gen DC Misra. Not much mention is found about his wife Kanakam or children in the public media.

Vapal Pangunni Menon after all the furor, wrote of Britain: "They left of their own will; there was no war, there was no treaty - an act without parallel in history." Sixty years after the event, Clarke establishes that, after all, nothing became the British in India so much as the leaving of it.

As somebody said there is not a word said, not a train named, not a road named, not a building named after the architect of the negotiation and the creation of the Republic of India, Vapal Pangunni Menon. From what I know, there is only one minor recognition for this great man - V. P. Menon Award for environmental initiatives.

But as I said before, history is unkind to some, kind to others - that is how it was and that is how it will always be….

Harry Hodson -“Autobiography”
The Man Who Divided India - Rafiq Zakaria
The Transfer of Power in India – VP Menon
The Swatantra Party and Indian Conservatism - H. L. Erdman
Jawaharlal Nehru, a biography - Sankar Ghose
At the turn of the tide - Lakshmi Raghunandan
Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire -Alex Von Tunzelmann
Great Administrators of India - M.L. Ahuja

Pics – Hand sketch from Ahuja’s article with thanks. Nawab with Menon from Rajbhavan Bhopal ( though Menon looks somewhat different here) , Simla conference from ‘Transfer of Power’

The Story of Babul Mora

The other day we all listened to a sonorous recital of the famed ‘Babul Mora’ in the Saigal style by our good friend Subash, during our music Samaroh session. As I had the responsibility to introduce the song, I did a little digging and come up with the brief background. The song took us back many decades, and as we watched the emotions play on Subash’s face and the mournful words came out of his mouth all the watching eyes and faces were rapt in attention. The song played over and over in my mind for a long time since then, taking me back to memories of many more favorites by Saigal and Mukesh. Many others have written about this story, but well, I thought, I will provide it some more depth and make an article of it.

I used to visit Lucknow often in the mid 80’s. At that time, I was neither interested in history nor did I have the slightest interest in Nawabs or kebabs. But I loved to stay at the not so popular hotel called Hotel Carlton which was a converted palace, somewhat musty and with no AC but presenting an opulent ambience of what once was resplendent Lucknow. One could see tiger heads on the wall and tiger skin rugs on the floor. The décor was antique and so were the rooms and furniture. It was a stately place, and my guess is that the some lowly prince once stayed there with his retinue of servants and begums. I distinctly remember that the food I ate there was lovely. Unfortunately during those quick trips, history was not my interest, but I was more interested in working out a working relationship with a key client, UPSEB or Uttar Pradesh State electricity board. It was while on those travels that I chanced through Azamgarh, Sultanpur, Benares, Amethi and many such interesting locales. I also visited the markets often to pick up Lucknow Chicken Churidars for my wife and then, I had my hair all stand up once while inside  a 400kV substation, but those are all unrelated to this so let me stop rambling and get on with it, and cut to the chase, as my second son Arun says…

The locale and the background

Lucknow as you may all know was the 19th century capital of Awadh, the ‘once upon a time’ kingdom of Lord Rama. Sadat Khan laid the foundations of the Awad dynasty at Faizabad, and the kingdom rose to great importance as it was since then considered the granary of India. In the 18th century, the 3rd Nawab - Shuja Ud Daula paid a heavy price for supporting a fugitive prince from Bengal named Mir Qasim. The EIC attacked Lucknow and defeated Shuja who had to cede the reins to the British. The EIC retained the Nawab in titular power, but established indirect control through a resident stationed in the Luckow to where the capital had moved by then. The British had annexed much of the kingdom under the treaty of 1801, and had impoverished Oudh by imposing a hugely expensive, British-run army and repeated demands for loans. The independence of Oudh in name was tolerated by the British only because they still needed a buffer state between their presence in the East and South, and the remnants of the Mughal Empire to the North. Wajid Ali Shah was most unfortunate to have ascended the throne of Oudh at a time when (as somebody else wrote) the British East India Company was determined to grab the coveted throne of prosperous Oudh, which was "the garden, granary, and queen-province of India", though before Britain came into full control, his predecessors and successors were one of the major threats to the Mughal Empire.

The story starts here

I have not been to Kaiserbag palace, but that was where later Nawabs lived. The Kaiserbagh Palace in Lucknow was built between 1848 and 1850. Wajid Ali Shah succeeded to the throne of Oudh when its glory days were at its peak and passing. Wajid Ali Shah the pompous and portly Nawab, expected the palace to be regarded as the eighth wonder of the world. This was where Wajid Ali Shah penned the lyrics of the song, as he was about to leave his abode.


Wajid Ali Shah

Abul Mansoor Sikandar Jah Padsha-E-Adil Qaiser-E-Zaman Sultan-E-Alam – Just imagine how the courtier reeled through this to announce his arrival to the durbar...

Between 1801 and 1856 the Nawabs wallowed in pomp & show and all kinds of excesses. When the British finally took over Oudh completely and conquered Lucknow in 1856, Wajid Ali Shah was in power. Wajid Ali Shah was widely regarded as a debauched and detached ruler, but some of his notoriety seems to have been misplaced due to mis-reporting by  the British Resident of Lucknow, General Sleeman. This proved to be the trigger the British were looking for, and formed the official basis for their annexation.

A large number of composers who thrived under the lavish patronage of the Nawab rulers of Lucknow enriched the light classical form of thumri; most prominent among these was Wajid Ali Shah. He was not only a munificent patron of music, dance, drama, and poetry, but was himself a gifted composer. He had received vocal training under great Ustads like Basit Khan, Pyar Khan and Jaffar Khan. Although his pen-name was Qaisar, he used the pseudonym "Akhtarpiya" for his numerous compositions. Under this pen name, he wrote over forty works - poems, prose and Thumris. "Diwani-Akhtar", "Husn-i-Akhtar" contain his Ghazals. He is said to have composed many new ragas and named them Jogi, Juhi, Shah-Pasand, etc. He was a poet, playwright, dancer and great patron of the arts. He is widely credited with the revival of Kathak as a major form of classical Indian dance. After the British took over, Wajid Ali Shah was promptly exiled to Calcutta
The Nawab was exiled to Garden Reach in Metiabruz, then a suburb of Kolkata, where he lived out the rest of his life off a generous pension and with not a care and continued splendor (See Satranj Ke Khiladi if you want that part of the story) except for his longing for Lucknow.

The poem, a thumri

When Wajid Ali Shah was expelled to Calcutta, he wrote the parting song Babul Mora,picturing the mind of a heart broken man. He expressed his pain of parting in the lyrics of ‘Babul mora naihar chhuto jaye’, thus

babul moraa naihar chooto hi jaaye
baabul moraa naihar chooto jaaye
mora naihar chooto hi jaaye
chaar kahaar mile
mori doliya sajaawen
mora apna begaana chooto jaaye
mora naihar aa
chooto hi jaaye
angana to parbat bhaya
aur dehri bhayi bidesh
ye ghar baabul aapno
main chali piya ke desh
baabul mora naihar chooto jaaye
mora naihar chooto hi jaaye

The lyrics mean roughly - The rough translation (the song can be a metaphor for a wedding as well as funeral procession)

My father! I'm leaving home.
The four bearers lift my doli (palanquin) (here it can also mean the four coffin bearers). I'm leaving those who were my own.
Your courtyard is now like a mountain, and the threshold, a foreign country.
The singer and the song

Shambhuji Maharaj of Lucknow, the well known musicologist trained a large number of singers of his time. One day, a young man of about 30 years of age came to Shambhuji Maharaj to learn the singing of ‘Babul Mora’. The maestro taught him within three days. The boy was Kundan lal Saigal (story narrated by music director Jagmohan)

The most famous version of Wajid Ali Khan’s Babul Mora was sung by Kundan Lal Saigal in the movie Street Singer in 1938. The music was composed by Rai Chand Boral, who is considered as a father figure amongst cine-music composers.  

The song was recorded live on camera, not in a studio because Saigal did it so well on the sets. Many takes were done, each better than the other. Although Boral had introduced playback singing for the first time in Indian cinema in Dhoop Chaon (1935), Saigal insisted on rendering it live along with the picturisation, as a street singer, with the orchestra consisting of a plain sarangi and a tabla following him outside of the camera’s range, as he did the walking act. 

K. L Saigal worked as a time keeper with Punjab railways, then as a hotel manager and also a typrewriter salesman with Remington (going around Connaught Circus in Delhi with a typewriter on his bicycle carrier) before he chose music as a vocation.

The other versions

Famous versions exist, one in the movie Avishkaar by Jagjit & Chitra Singh, and of course the heavy duty version by Bhimsen Joshi. And many more versions are talked about such as Kanan Devi’s, the golden melodious voice of yester years. She sang a sketch of this song in the film for little over a minute’s time. Because of the short duration, no recording of this master-piece was made on a gramophone record and it is only available on the sound track of the film-‘Street singer’.   Incidentally, in the movie Saigal teaches Kanan the song who sings it in a wrong tune and they break up on that account after Saigal is furious.

The list of luminaries who sang ‘Babul Mora’ includes-  Bhim Sen Joshi, Kesarbai Kerkar, Siddheshwari Devi, Rasoolan Bai, Khadim  Hussain Khan, Mushatq Hussain Khan, Girija Devi, Kishori Amonkar, Jagmohan, Padma Talwalkar, Shanti Vaidyanathan Sharma, Mahender Chopra (son-in-law of K.L.Saigal) and none other than ghazal queen Begum Akhtar.

Musical aspects

This is a thumri though the particular number is neither sensual nor romantic. Thumri’s are usually romantic or devotional in nature, and usually revolves around a girl's love for Krishna. Thumri is characterized by its sensuality, and by a greater flexibility with the raga. Thumri arose in popularity during the 19th century in the Lucknow court of nawab Wajid Ali Shah. At that time it used to be a song sung by courtesans accompanied by dance. Shringar Rasa, the emotion of romantic love, is the essence of Thumri and its allied forms. Thumri is a short piece of semi-classical rendition usually sung at the conclusion of a classical music concert. The words are strictly adhered to, and the singer attempts to interpret them with his/her melodic improvisations. It is quite usual for a singer to deviate from the rendered Raga, but momentarily.

The Saigal version is set in Raag Bhairavi – Bhairavi had traditionally been performed in the early morning hours.  However, due to the fact that performances lasted all night, it has now become common to consider Bhairavi to be the finale.  Today this rag is performed at any time provided it is the concluding piece. "Jyot Se Jyot Jagate Chalo", and "Laga Chunari Me Dag Chupaun Kaise" are other examples of Bhairavi.

Of course there are many other rumored stories around this Saigal version. Saigal who was working hard on this bandish was far from perfection. One story goes that he heard the present version while he was taking an early morning walk along tram tracks near Metia Burj of Kolkata (where Wajid ali lived?). Interesting...

Enjoy the various versions linked here

Saigal version
Avishkaar clip 
Nihar Ranjan Banerjee version

Thanks to many others who came up with the bits and pieces that help link up this story

A Story from Appenzel

The story of Heiden’s Room 12…

You’d have also felt sometimes that some people believe that they are always very correct and well, I’ve come across some Germans who belong to that category. Like the other day (well actually it was many years ago) I was flying Lufthansa from Zurich. I had settled down in the cattle class (as Shashi Tharoor tweeted to the delight of his detractors a month or so ago and created a furor) and occupied the arm rest before my neighbor did, for it was going to be a long flight. A few minutes later, the blond and axe face stewardess approached, walking ramrod stiff (not looking at all like the petite German Claudia Schiffer, unfortunately) and asked me what I would like to drink.

Remember that this was at a time in the 90’s when Europe had in general a dim view of the Asian population. It was well before the IT boom, well before the acceptance of Indian expertise and before they started serving Desi food in airlines like Lufthansa (as they ‘proudly’ do these days - I saw in an advertisement on Zee TV the other day, exhorting Indians to fly and hog Indian food and perhaps watch Desi movies on the in-flight entertainment!!). Now I had been travelling around quite a bit and knew much of the ways of the firangi, well enough to appreciate some things like a small aperitif before lunch. So I said, to answer the question, with a gleam in my eyes, looking at axe face squarely in her eyes, ‘I will have a shot of Appenzeller’.

What happened next was a little surprising and somewhat humiliating. The pert nose on the axe face tiled upwards, a sneer was apparent and a shadow of disgust flitted across the glum face and she said loudly for everyone to hear “Appenzeller? One does not drink Appenzeller, you eat it, and so can I get you something else?” I was flummoxed, for I knew I was right in asking what I asked, but feeling quite angry and foolish (for my neighbors – many of them Germans of superior intellect (so they thought), were looking at this brown little fella with grins & scowls on their faces, probably thinking I was a stupid moron or something returning to Turkey after a year of had labor working the toilets and gutters of Germany). Sheepishly I changed my order to Heineken beer (at least I did not order German beer!) which she plonked on my seat tray primly before strutting off, swinging her trim behind in rhythmic pendulous oscillations. I was seething internally as I sipped the pale yellow liquid, at 30,000 ft, somewhere over Europe by then. Somewhat like Gandhiji felt after he was evicted off his 1st class train compartment.

The person next to me was a pleasant man as it turned out and he struck up a quick conversation, first asking me if I was Turkish and I said no, Indian. Then we introduced ourselves and once he knew that we were pretty much equals in the business place, he asked me why I ordered Appenzeller to drink, explaining that maybe I did not know Appenzeller for Germans meant a kind of Swiss cheese. ‘Of course I knew’, I said, but I also knew it was a popular Swiss bitter served a few miles across the German border and a drink proudly touted by the Swiss. As I explained this to the German engineer, I could see confusion spreading on his face as he could not quite figure out how a cheese and bitter could have the same name and how he had missed it. Well, it is simple really, as I know, in hindsight; all it meant was ‘from appenzel’. The cheese was more famous compared to the drink, that’s all and the German stewardess and my neighbors were not know-all’s.

Now you see, it was only a few weeks before this flight that I was in Switzerland and my friend DeCouto had introduced me to Appenzeller, the fine stiff Swiss bitter for a cold and biting Swiss evening. I had quite a few swigs over the next few days and it was with fond memories of the trip that I left Switzerland, boarding the Lufthansa flight from Zurich, an airport where Appenzeller was sold in the duty free shops.

Anyway the flight ended without further event and I was left without the Appenzeller bitters in me, but only a bitter taste from that Lufthansa flight.

Now some of you, if not most must still be wondering what on earth I am talking about, meandering on about cheese and bitters and Switzerland, and Germany and Turkey and all that. So some education is in order. You never know, Amitabh Bachchanji may ask this question for 5 Crores in KBC -10. (Reminds me – any of you know where the surname Bachchan came from? Story for another day – perhaps over an Appenzeller)

Apenzell is both a canton (actually two half-cantons) and a town of 5,000 living mortals plus a lot of cows, in Eastern Switzerland, less than two hours from Zürich by train. For centuries the farmers here lived off their famed Appenzeller cheese and a bitter liqueur that most, except fervent admirers (like me), say tastes like cough medicine gone bad. For me, it’s like a bracing gust of mountain air. Appenzeller cheese is a cow’s milk cheese from the Appenzel area of Switzerland. As a cheese company describes it, Appenzeller is a classic Swiss "alpage" cheese that receives its unique flavors from the herbs, liquors and wines that comprise the solution in which the cheese wheels are bathed. The wheels are washed frequently and aged for a minimum of four months until they develop an herbaceous, nutty flavor and a smooth, milky finish. But then, Appenzeller is also the brand name given to an herbal tasting alcoholic drink (Alpen bitter) belonging to the bitters family from the Appenzel area of Switzerland. As a German translator put it (I have to guffaw now for the fine German English) Extract and distillates of 42 herbs and spices (among others noble distillates like junipers and gentian), Sugar types, refine with French brandy and sweet wines, Caramel. He is drunk as apéritif or digestif, either pure, on the rocks or splashed with mineral water. This Appenzeller has a flavor similar to Jagermeister but much more smooth and gentle. It has been valued as a digestive for over 100 years and is often enjoyed on-the-rocks after a heavy Swiss meal.

So as you saw, I would enjoy a bitter, especially on a cold day. Thus the other day as you may have read, we were driving around the Blue Ridge parkway and found a tiny place called Little Switzerland. We thought there would be more to the place than the hotel, which was indeed very nice, but the entire town consisted of some 4 buildings plus the hotel and their own post office and some breathtaking scenery (see pics from previous blog)!!

In vain, I hoped for a quick intake of Appenzeller, but they did not of course have the faintest clue about that strange sounding drink. So I made do with a swig of Jaegermeister, its close cousin from across Germany. It served the purpose anyway with all the 56 herbs it contained.

But this is not about the Alpenbitter or Lufthansa or Jaegermeister, the story becomes bigger, understandably, after this nostalgic lead. The story I will narrate takes you again to the cantons of Appenzeller in Switzerland, locales where Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol pranced around with Karan Johar and Yash Chopra leading them on…This was much before Bollywood invaded Switzerland. I would not tell you this story, if it were not curious and if it did not strike a chord in my heart. Sometimes I wonder why things happen as they do, but well they do and become nice stories for a wintery evening…

And so, I will now introduce you to a famous but reclusive personality, though much too late, for he expired many years ago. He lived his last days in a place called Heiden in Appenzel, and was a Nobel Prize winner. His name was Jean Henry Dunant. This thus, is the story of Jean Henri Dunant, a rich banker, whose interest centered on his business but perchance blundered into the chaos of a battlefield. From then on, he became obsessed with the idea of doing everything humanely possible to prevent the inhuman horrors of war.

This is the story of Henri Dunant, who created the Red Cross, continued on with his business, lost it all, became bankrupt, got hounded by his enemies, vanished from public life to lead the life of a beggar for 15 years, turned up in public hospital in Heiden, was rediscovered, won the first Nobel prize, but would not use any of the winnings and died a pauper. Why so?

Henri Dunant
As it turns out, the young banker turned businessman Dunant was trying establishing some farm land and flour mills in Algeria. His Genovese friends had provided ample finance, for his was a dependable family. Some100 million Swiss francs were raised from family and friends to make his farm a reality but Dunant had forgotten one key ingredient, water that must be piped from government-owned land, into his calculations. Too late, his appeal to Algerian officials went unanswered, and Dunant decided to obtain a direct answer from Emperor Napoleon III of France, and as you probably recall, Algeria was under French rule since 1830.

There was a war on at that point of time - Victor Emmanuel II and his 50,000 Piedmontians were aligned against the Franz Joseph of Austria and his 160,000 troops, in a move to evict the Austrians from Italy. Emperor Napoleon was on Victor’s side, against Austria, with his 100,000 troops. Dunant was there trying to get an audience from Napoleon to secure the water rights, as the story goes.

He was at Castiglione, behind the French lines where the massacre occurred, which he witnessed with his own eyes. Many thousand were killed many injured, with the total running at 45,000 in 15 hours. The medical services of both sides had collapsed. Seeing nobody do anything, the 31 year old Dunant assumed command, working day & night to help the survivors and the sick, shepherding assistance from the local populace and some 300 army men. With the assistance of Don Lorenzo Barzizza, priest of Castiglione, Dunant gathered several hundred women who were willing to act as nurses, cooks, and laundresses to help the wounded - regardless of their background or nationality. Tutti fratelli (all brothers) became the slogan that helped save hundreds of lives.

As relief supplies and doctors finally came, Dunant quietly slipped away and got back to Geneva. Disappointed, he settled down to write his memories of the tragedy in Solferino, which caught the eyes of many a person in Europe. The book soon became a hit. I will no paraphrase the important part of the next years from the introduction provided in Dunant’s ‘A memory from Solferino’.

The publication of A Memory of Solferino marked the beginning of a brief period in which Dunant reached the pinnacle of his career. His proposal that societies of trained volunteers be organized in all countries for the purpose of helping to care for wounded combatants in time of war was enthusiastically endorsed by many persons. Furthermore, his concept of an international treaty among nations to assure more humane care of the wounded aroused considerable interest. Dunant traveled to many of the capitals of Europe. All doors were open to him, and he was able to talk directly to many influential persons. Royalty and commoners alike listened respectfully to Dunant as he explained his proposals. If some of his audience doubted the feasibility of what he urged, nevertheless they listened. It was an exhilarating experience for this young man who had come without warning from obscurity to touch the heart and stir the conscience of Europe.

Dunant joined a group of four others to start the Red Cross. It was thus that he crossed the roads of fate with another person who was to later decide the course of Dunant’s life named Gustave Moynier. The period was the 1860’s. The idea of a Geneva Convention was later floated. But as you can imagine, when egos clash, terrible things can happen.

Quoting Wikipedia - Differences between Moynier and Dunant developed early over the reach of the organization's authority and its legal and organizational formation. The key point of dispute was Dunant's idea to grant neutrality to wounded soldiers and medical staff in order to protect them. Moynier was a determined opponent of this plan, which he did not consider realistic and thought its insistence risked the collapse of the project. Dunant, however, was able to persuade powerful political and military figures in Europe of his ideas, and with the first Geneva Convention in 1864 had some success toward their implementation. In that same year however, Moynier took over the position of President of the International Committee.

The relationship between the two declined to a level where Moynier worked hard to oust Dunant from the Red Cross and for that matter even get all references to Dunant and the Red Cross removed.

As all this was going on, Dunant’s business plans in Algeria were heading towards disaster. Napoleon refused to get involved in the enterprise and that sealed the fate of Dunant’s private enterprise. His monetary situation was grim as all his travels and Red Cross efforts were financed out of his own funds. Nothing was left in his coffers. Soon he was declared bankrupt and the business class of Switzerland all but blacklisted him.

In April 1867, the bankruptcy of the financial firm Crédit Genevois led to a scandal involving Dunant. He was forced to declare bankruptcy and was condemned by the Geneva Trade Court on August 17, 1868 for deceptive practices in the bankruptcies. Due to their investments in the firm, his family and many of his friends were also heavily affected by the downfall of the company. The social outcry in Geneva, a city deeply rooted in Calvinist traditions, also led to calls for him to separate himself from the International Committee. On August 25, 1868, he resigned as Secretary and, on September 8, he was fully removed from the Committee. Moynier, who had become President of the Committee in 1864, played a major role in his expulsion.

Dunant and Moynier
The increasing tensions between the pragmatist Moynier and the idealist Dunant led to Dunant's expulsion, led by Moynier, after Dunant's bankruptcy in 1867. While not proven, it is probable that Moynier used his influence to prevent Dunant, who from then on lived in rather poor conditions, from receiving financial assistance from his various supporters in Europe. The prize money was also not awarded to Dunant but given to the International Committee itself. An offer from Napoleon III to settle half of Dunant's debt if the other half would be taken over by Dunant's friends was thwarted by Moynier's efforts.

As he was chased by his creditors and harassed and since he saw no recognition for his Red Cross efforts which had in his mind been hijacked by Moynier, Dunant fled to the slums of Paris to lead a life of obscurity, living the life of a beggar, with no means of support. He surfaced briefly now & then to lead some humanitarian effort or other, but went back finding the Moynier front still thwarting his steps. By now his mind was a mess and he feared rejection, was a recluse with no confidence and lost from the living world. Dunant was a beaten man, he had delusions of persecution, he simply did not want to live ‘normally’, always worrying that there were enemies & creditors after him and even trying to poison him. He traveled in Europe, taking odd jobs offered to him by old friends, living on their generosity and a small annual pension of 1,200 Swiss francs provided by his family in Geneva.

He wandered around in Switzerland & Europe after Paris, for 15 or more years, surviving as a beggar, straying from village to village. Finally, sick with eczema and depression and with no means of support, he reached the village of Heiden in Switzerland. Although he was only 59 years of age, two decades of disappointment and want had aged him prematurely. While Dunant continued his horrible existence, Moynier in Switzerland was erasing all connections that Dunant had with the Red Cross, step by step.

As all this was going on, Alfred Nobel read his own premature obituary (when his brother died, the French press mistakenly thinking it was Alfred wrote that the Merchant of death was finally dead). No wanting such a horrible legacy, and disillusioned with his inventions and wealth, Alfred Nobel bequeathed his 32Million SEK legacy to institute the Nobel Prize. Nobel died in 1886.

Heiden - Appenzel
And so it was in 1889 or 1890 that William Sondregger, a school teacher in Heiden heard from his young students about the man with a beard until his knees, dressed in black wearing a black silk cap on his head. Sondregger hastened to check on this stranger (living in hotel Paradise with the Stahelin family at 3 francs per day) was and found to his amazement that it was none other than the person lost to the world or Henry Dunant. Interestingly the Geneva papers had declared him dead earlier.

Room 12

By this time, Dunant’s illness necessitated a move to Room 12 of the hospice for poor in Heiden. Unknown to Dunant Sondregger appealed on his behalf for help. Offers poured into Heiden, Dunant coins were struck around Europe. Pope Leo XIII sent him his signed portrait, on which was inscribed with his own hand the words "Fiat pax in virtute tua Deus." ["By Thy power, let there be peace, O God."]. Dunant made it clear, however, that he did not need help; his few simple needs were more than adequately met by the hospital and his neighbors in Heiden. Moyneir continued to try & block the efforts of support. Reclusive and prone to bouts of depression and paranoia, Dunant still felt that somebody was poisoning his food and opening his mail

Award after award was bestowed on him, finally the Nobel peace Prize, ironically from the legacy of the person the French called the Merchant of death, was his. The first of the Nobel Prizes went to Dunant. Thus in 1901 the Nobel committee awarded him its first Peace Prize, shared jointly with the Frenchman Frederic Passy. Since Dunant was too feeble to make the long journey to Christiana, the prize and, later, the medal were sent to him with the message “Without you, the Red Cross, the supreme humanitarian achievement of the nineteenth century, would probably have never been undertaken”. Dunant had his prize money administered from Norway so his creditors couldn't get it. Finally he had been formally credited with the establishment of the Red Cross which was until then accorded to Moynier.

As the Nobel Prize site introduces him, Dunant was a study of contradictions. We know also that while Dunant spent his last years in Heiden, he couldn't stand Heiden people and they in turn thought he was arrogant. He refused to speak German, while most Haedler - as Heiden people are called couldn't speak a word of French. During all his years in Heiden he made only a handful of friends. He spent the rest of his life there, the hospital and nursing home led by Dr. Hermann Altherr which is now the Dunant museum. Not everybody in Heiden though, cherish Dunant's memory. Perhaps they know that Dunant ended up here reluctantly, after a shocking reversal of fortune.

Heiden Museum - Room 12 is on 2nd floor
Dunant's second-floor room looked out on Heiden's clock tower, a landmark he grew to hate as its bell tolled away his final hours. "How tiresome it is to die so slowly," he told Altherr. The old man in Heiden continued his life in Room 12, looking often at the church clock opposite his window. The clock ticked on, second after second, day after day, days after days, like all Swiss machines do, faithfully and tirelessly, till Dunant died in 1910, aged 82.

His last words were ‘how dark it is’. But he did not forgive the world which was bitter to him and made him a bitter man; he willed that he shall be carried like a dog to his grave, without celebrations.

The clock continues to tick on, as the Red Cross does. Dunant’s birthday on 8th May is world Red Cross day. Little was he to know that the warfare he dreaded would become deadlier and the Geneva Convention would be disused and misused and corrupted by politicians and lawyers, with scant regard to the underlying purpose.

All his money from these various awards were to provide free beds to those in need.

However, unlike Dunant who was awarded the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901 together with Frédéric Passy, Moynier never received the prize. He died in 1910 two months before Dunant, without any sort of reconciliation between the two. Having been President of the Committee until his death, Moynier was the Committee's longest-serving President in its history. In closing it must however be admitted that it was Moynier who translated Dunant's ideas into real large scale action, though wanting all the credit.

The current president of the ICRC, Jakob Kellenberger, was also born in Heiden.

As for me, I am still here, reading about all these great people, meeting them in the libraries and amongst the musty books lined up or residing serenely in the bits and bytes of many an article or book stored in the digital world.

As for you, my friendly reader, I thank you for reading this and hope it struck a chord.

A memory of Solferino – Henry Dunant
The Rotarian - Sep 1944 – Evangelist of Mercy
Dunant By Martin Gumpert