That Man Stuart

Sometimes you wonder, when you see or recall Mandakini under the waterfall in that seductive scene from Ram Teri Ganga Maili or the many other wet sari scenes in Bollywood and other Desi movies - how on earth the very idea came about. The girl in the waterfall or the girl coming out of the pond has been used for ages now as a scene to sell soaps and what not. Well, it must have been in the director’s mind or it may have just happened over the course of time since Forbes first wrote about the Malabar woman in the pond, but there was one person who wrote about the virtues of all this centuries ago. This is about that colorful Irishman who lived in Calcutta in the 18th century and decided that life is not all confined to what was taught at the Blighty.

Major-General Charles Stuart (circa 1758 - 1828) was an officer in the British Army in India and is well known for being one of the few British officers to embrace Hindu culture while stationed in India. In history books he has been titled a mild mannered, kind and benevolent colonel, with a delicate health, but from his obituary and Fisch’s study, it is clear he was promoted to Major General by 1814, commanding regiments of the native infantry. Stuart in the course of his stay adopted several Indian customs, including chewing pan and bathing in the Ganges at Calcutta every morning, as well as amassing a collection of deities and Indian clothes. He encouraged European ladies in India to adopt the sari and allowed Indian sepoys to wear tikha’s and full moustaches while on parade. But interestingly he lived in both worlds, living not only an Indian life (clothes, shoes, spittoons, hookahs) but also making sure that he did not lose the British tastes (sugar tongs, billiard cues, camping tables, map cases, shikar equipment and so on…, travelling in a buggy with his bibi and children’s carriages in tow according to Dalrymple, though Fisch believes he never had an Indian wife & children for he never left anything to such beneficiaries even though he left money for his Indian servants).

Charles must have been exercising not only his physique, but also his mind as he walked daily from his house in Woods street to the banks or bathing Ghats of the Ganges planning the words and sentences of his forthcoming book ‘Vindication of the Hindoos’. Hastings had started the trend, for he had a great respect for the ancient scripture of Hinduism and set the British position on governance as one of looking back to the earliest precedents possible. But Charles Stuart ‘went native’ as the British were to coin a phrase for such events. He was from then on known as Pundit Stuart or General Pundit, the odd fish with an itch, the funny one who earnestly believed that European women had no hope of competing with the beauty of Indian women, often comparing their pallid & sickly hue in comparison to the healthy copper tone on an Indian woman’s face.

Charles was then to suggest that memsahibs throw away their whalebone and iron busks in favor of the sari ‘that so liberally displayed those charms that these bounty of heaven hath bestowed’. He exhorted them to bathe in the sari and emerge from the waters with the drapery clinging to their bodies. He even stated after witnessing the ‘kuli scene’ often at the Ganges Ghats – ‘had I despotic power, our fair ones should soon follow the example being fully persuaded - it would eminently contribute to keep the bridal torch for ever in a blaze’. Interesting man indeed!

As can be imagined, he created a stir in the British circles; all dressed up like a local, once even being refused entry at dusk by a sentry who did not recognize him (CR Jan-Jun 1847). But the, let us get back to the busk.

Stuart and the Busk

First an introduction to the busk (very different from busking which is another act altogether). Well, western women strapped themselves into a busk in those days in order to hold their bellies in, project their breasts out and allow their dresses to balloon grandly up and over towards the floor (remember Scarlett O Hara in ‘Gone with the wind’?). A corset busk therefore consists of two long pieces of steel, one with steel knobs and the other one steel loops/eyes slipped down the front. Stuart hated it.

Stuart published many letters in 1800/1801extolling the virtues of "elegant, simple, sensible, and sensual" Indian saris and provided grand reasoning. Some of the reasons he cited for European women to give up iron busks are:

Firstly wearing iron busks makes women highly susceptible to lighting strikes (exhorting them with sentences such as "This is no laughing matter ladies for I am absolutely serious"). Secondly by discarding iron busks from their wardrobes, European women would immensely enhance the supply of iron in Bengal for farmers who desperately need new wagon wheels.

Well, I do not think the memsahibs listened to him then for these were relatively lame arguments, but then again remember that they were aimed at the average intellect of the memsahib population in Calcutta then.

He concluded aptly - "I shall, perhaps, be called an impudent fellow for recommending to their [the European ladies'] imitation of a dress they deem so indecent: but, indecency is a term whose bounds are merely relative; and, influenced by custom, its degrees insensibly give way, till it no longer assumes the name”.

Stuart and Hinduism

In his book Vindication of the Hindoos (1808), he criticized the work of European missionaries in India, claiming that: "Hinduism little needs the meliorating hand of Christianity to render its votaries a sufficiently correct and moral people for all the useful purposes of a civilized society". Wherever I look around me, in the vast ocean of Hindu mythology, I discover Piety....Morality...and as far as I can rely on my judgment, it appears the most complete and ample system of Moral Allegory that the world has ever produced." Stuart warns of the dangers of the "obnoxious" missionaries and of attempts to convert Indians to Christianity, a process he describes as "impolitic, inexpedient, dangerous, unwise and insane." He asks "If their religion is insulted what confidence can we repose in the fidelity of our Hindu soldiers?" presaging, it is said, some of the causes of the Mutiny of 1857.

"Hindoo" Stuart firmly believed he had become a Hindu (though it was technically impossible to convert to Hinduism at that time) and acted like one, to the astonishment of at least one memsahib recently arrived from England: "There was here an Englishman, born and educated in a Christian land," wrote Elizabeth Fenton in her journal, "who has become the wretched and degraded partaker of this heathen worship, a General S - who has for some years adopted the habits and religion, if religion it be named, of these people; and he is generally believed to be in a sane mind."

Till his death he was one of the bitterest opponents of the missionaries of his day. He was also aghast at the false reporting and missionary rhetoric of his times about uncommon rituals like sati and human sacrifices, wrong attribution of idols and their purpose (for example it was even reported then that the Shiva-linga was used by Brahmin women to deflower themselves) which was total falsehood and news blown out of proportion (Cox Pg 128).

His life
Stuart started off as a cadet in the Bengal army in 1777 and rose through to become a general by 1814 without any battle experience, but at the same time without any ‘connections’. He was certainly considered an eccentric, constructing a temple in Sagar Island, acquiring an Indian bibi (I am not certain of this) and being formally certified as ‘gone native’. In 1798 he wrote his first article about military clothing and professed the use of Indian clothing and articles in India, as they are convenient and appropriate and states by attacking European prejudices: "We are very ready to condemn the prejudices of this people [the Indians], and their blind attachment to ancient customs; but, I wish we would examine ourselves, and see whether our superior lights of reason leave us altogether inexcusable. . . . Perhaps, we have too long persisted in many inconvenient and unbecoming modes, because they are European not reflecting, how naturally manners change with climes, or that modes and customs, however arbitrary, should ever give way, when good sense submitteth better to the operation of our judgment". He also writes extensively about the treatment of an Indian soldier and the aspect of discipline, and here is where it becomes amply clear that this man had studied the Indian psyche in great detail, on matters of pride, position, custom and tradition.

But though he admitted to be anti-Christian, he stated that he had not converted to Hinduism, for he would have had to leave the army as well. He later built up a huge collection of idols and statues, some rare and old, and of high artistic merit. His method of collection was not altogether honorable; for some rumors of taking them away at night or by force have been mentioned. Later he turned his home at Chowringhee into a museum employing two local Brahmins to usher visitors and solicit donations. Upon his death, several of these were interred into the tomb. Most of his collection went to England after his death and were eventually auctioned off by Christies. Some went to the British museum and some to private hands for a pittance.

Quoting Dalrymple - Stuart was not just an admirer of the Indian religions, he was also an enthusiastic devotee of Indian fashions, and in the early years of the 19th century he wrote a series of improbable articles in the Calcutta Telegraph in which he tried to persuade the European women of Calcutta to adopt the sari on the grounds that it was so much more attractive than contemporary European fashions. Perhaps inevitably, the articles did not impress the Calcutta memsahibs, who wrote a series of angry letters to the editor denouncing Stuart as "an immoral libertine" with "enervated Oriental ideas". Later Stuart got into more serious trouble when he encouraged his seypoys to appear on parade with their brightly painted caste marks and full moustaches. The issue was taken up as high as the Commander in Chief who criticized Stuart for allowing his men to effect a "preposterous overgrowth of facial hair of Cheek Moustaches and immoderately large whiskers" which, he maintained, undermined discipline and multiplied the religious prejudices of the seypoys, "already numerous enough and sufficiently embarrassing to the Publick service." (For allowing natives to grow moustaches & wear tikha’s Stuart was suspended in 1813, but strangely promoted in 1814!!)

His house was filled with furniture, idols (over 180) and books (several thousand). The sale of all of them after death fetched his heirs less than the Rs30,000 insurance. Today my guess is that they would have fetched in excess of Rs30 crores!!

Stuart died on 31 March 1828, aged 70 and is buried at the South Park Street cemetery in Calcutta, a Christian cemetery, although the grave takes the form of a Hindu temple and Stuart is buried with a number of idols. Even his burial has an interesting story attached to it. The British would not allow a cremation as Stuart wanted since he was a Colonial officer in the British army, but allowed for the tomb to be constructed like a temple.

His collection of sculptures forms the basis of the British Museum's Oriental Collection.

A solitary vindicator of Hindus – Jorg Fisch
The Search for the Buddha: The Men Who Discovered India's Lost Religion-Charles Allen (Pgs 55, 56)
Lives of Indian Images - Richard H. Davis
White Mughals: love and betrayal in eighteenth-century India -William Dalrymple
The British missionary enterprise since 1700 - Jeffrey Cox
The history of medieval Vaishnavism in Orissa -Prabhat Mukherjee ( Pages 32,33)

Pics – Hindu Stuart’s tomb – Hceebee

The Primus stove & Gandhiji

It was Maaji’s nostalgic article on the Janata Stove that took me back to our bachelor days and some connections between Gandhiji and the Primus stove.

I remember that mom had the same green and red Janata stove and as a kid I used to play with the lever that raised the wick up and down - up and down till I got a sharp whack on the back of the head and was shooed away from the kitchen. But it was a big relief for the women from the smoky adupu’s (even though the sawdust ones we had in Calicut were virtually smokeless) or fireplaces and the ‘kozhal’ that was used to stoke the flames. I used to blow (plooom – that was the sound) and blow through it when I passed the kitchen, for the fun of it and as usual got a crack on the head from any elder in attendance in the kitchen for destroying the peace and getting on her already strained nerves. Back to the Janata - If I remember right, there was a circular thing that you had to lower from the top to shut down the flame, by pressing on the wick from the top.

And then came the lovely natural gas or propane/butane stove. But what a pain it was to get one of those things – many years waiting list, ration card and special influential connections were needed, especially in large cities. Then the wait for the cylinder, when it was finished was a major frustration, for we could have only one in a family in the early days. That was the time when only Indane made the cylinders.

But when we started communal living in Bombay, my brother, cousins, Venkat & me, in a small one room kitchen flat, we had to cook. And well, we could buy kerosene from shops, so the pumping stove was the only source of fire.

That was great, and one efficient piece of equipment. The stove was made of brass and when kept polished, looked sleek and, well, like a real solid possession, something that could be cared for. Pump! Pump! Pump! and the kerosene started as a jet jet through the nozzle and hit the plate on top. You then set it alight and turned the air valve to adjust the mixture till the flame caught on with a noticeable hiss and it finally turned into an even blue hissing flame. Once it was going strong, the ever dependable Janata was no match in cooking speed to the Primus, even though it finished off the kerosene stock much faster (or so they said – On the contrary it was probably more efficient)..

But then for us, it was a must – with some 20 minutes of water supply, we were five who had to finish our baths and cook something and so time was a premium if we had to catch the 738 limited stop train to the Victoria terminus.

I always thought it was British, and only recently did I find out that it was a Swedish design. And if you recall from my Ivar Krueger blog, even the WIMCO matches in India were of Swedish origin. So without any of us knowing, Swedish technology was helping us eat hot cooked food, in a jiffy.

We used to even get a horse shoe shaped starter which was a cotton wick inside a metal mesh soldered to a handle. You dipped it in kerosene or spirit to light and heat the nozzle & top plate of the Primus before you pumped up the kerosene & lit it. If you did not have a hot top plate, the stove would smoke and smoke and burst into flames and everything would stink of kerosene. Alas, today all these things are unknown to the youth, they are in tune with the hot plate and the gas stove and the microwave…I am not saying it was great fun, but it was a time…

The Primus stove, the first pressurized-burner kerosene stove, was developed in 1892 by Frans Wilhelm Lindqvist, a factory mechanic in Stockholm, Sweden. The stove was based on the design of the hand-held blowtorch; Lindqvist’s patent covered the burner, which was turned upward on the stove instead of outward as on the blowtorch. It became a camper’s necessity and even accompanied Tensing & Hilary to Everest.

But as I wax and wane about the stove, I have to bring to the fore one person who hated it and spent much of his time decrying it and telling people especially women not to use it. It was not anything to do with technology or its foriegn origins but the fact that the Indian women wore clothes inappropriate for open flame cooking. The person who hated it was none other than Mahatma Gandhi. His hatred started when his colleague & friend Prof Trivedi lost his sister in law to an accident related to the Primus stove. Let us now move on to the days of Gandhiji and what he had to say. The sermon Gandhiji always used to give to women was to forget & throw away the Primus stove. In his works, it is pretty clear that the fear of fire and the safety of the illiterate Indian woman were paramount in Gandhiji’s mind. It brought out repeated warnings, and angry statements from Gandhiji, and it would be fair to say it was often preying on his mind in the 1930’s.

Here are some extracts from his many letters

TO THE HEARTLESS MEN - The heartless Gujarati’s do not appear to be concerned about Gujarati women being killed every day by Primus stoves. I have just been informed of the death of two women. During the present pilgrimage, I have had first-hand experience of the dangers involved in using these stoves. Even one of my experienced and skilled colleagues has had two narrow escapes. As a result of this, I have prohibited the use of such stoves altogether. Women do not know how to use a Primus stove, for it does require some skill. And our women cannot put it on a table. Hence, it is the duty of men to boycott it. So long as they do not do so, the deaths of the young girls and women from the use of this stove will be on their heads. Even Primus stoves which have been bought should be discarded. It is an illusion that the Primus saves time. We must also consider all the attention it needs when it goes out of order.

You are late with your remarks about the primus stove. It was banished from the Ashram now some two months ago. I ought to have written to you then. On learning of the death of Prof. Trivedi’s brother’s wife from the primus-lighting, I wrote to Narandas that the best way to mourn the event was to banish the stove altogether from the Ashram. It was a hard job to convince some of the women. But they all realized the necessity. The banishment was not made compulsory.
Did I not sign somewhere in a corner the letter in which I wrote about the primus stove? If I forgot to sign it and if you want my signature on it, return the last page. If you need a stove very much, you may use in place of the primus stove the kerosene stove which is available [in the market]. Mahadev tells me that these stoves are very good, and are also cheap at present. Why not try this stove? It is also very easy to light.
You will take care not to burn yourself with the primus. You know how Gujarati women have burnt themselves over the use of the primus. The loose saris lend themselves to the wick especially at the time of lighting it. As it is kept on the floor, they have to bend and the rising flame easily catches a fold or a loose end of the sari. It may be wise for you, therefore, to keep it on a metal mounted stool. Then too there is precious little room in your little dormitory. Anyway, you have my warning. You will now take what precautions you may think right.
I felt that we should either banish the primus stove from the Ashram or the women should resolve never to light it. I enforced this rule today in the case of Ba. We have got a primus here at present. Ba went to light it. I stopped her and Mahadev went instead. The dress of our women is such that there is every danger of its catching fire. If the women must use a primus stove, they should ask a man every time to light it. Really speaking, it is not at all necessary.
If, by way of shraddha for Taragouri, you banish the primus stove from your family, that will not be too great a sacrifice, and probably it will save other women from this monster.Apart from that, we should overcome our love of the primus stove, and everybody should also learn what to do when his or her clothes accidentally catch fire.
I saw your list of primus stoves. It took me aback. We certainly live in no ordinary style. However, it will be enough now if the women agree that only men may light these stoves. If they don’t they should be ready to sacrifice one victim at least on the altar of this demon god. The Ashram has no licence of exemption from such accident. In this age of freedom, I should be satisfied with this warning.I have written to Jamna a long sermon on the primus stove. Ask the other women also to read it, and then they may do as they like. Their renouncing the use of the primus stove will benefit them only if they do so willingly.


It is true that the Primus stove has enslaved the minds of Gujarati women. I also believe that this stove is not as necessary as it is generally believed to be. It is undoubtedly true that a Gujarati woman’s sari lends grace to her, but it does cause great inconvenience to the working women. It seems to be a fact that the sari is responsible for the accidents through the Primus stove in which Gujarati women have been involved. If I could persuade these women, I would rid them of their fascination for this stove and have them imitate the tucked-up sari worn by the brave women of Bardoli. In my opinion, the sari draped in that manner is no less graceful. It also gives full freedom of movement while working and, looking at the matter more deeply, we see that it affords better protection to women inasmuch as they are more fully clad in this dress. Those who have seen the women of Bardoli at work would testify that they could do no work in the field if they wore the sari with one end of it hanging in front of them.
One could dwell on these dire threats and warnings from this great man and wonder why the death of some two or three women created such a fear in his mind at a time when malnutrition and childbirth killed scores if not many thousands of people especially women.

Our new home, Moving in…

And so, finally, after some 30 years of travelling, we moved into what we can now call our own home. That was the reason for my silence the last three weeks as it was back breaking work, literally and physically, getting all the stuff into the new house, with no time to spare. The garage is still littered with boxes, some containing stuff that we held on to and which had remained unopened for many years now. As we moved from continent to continent, country to country, they followed, in silent tow, filled with items that triggered memories, but not much else. Now the task of finding them resting places or disposing them is yet another arduous one.

It was fun actually, locating the place to live and finding a home that we liked. The construction phase in this lagging market took a while, and as we eagerly waited for the building to take shape, frequently checking up on the progress, we learnt some of the nuances in the American way of building a home as opposed to the Indian one which is mortar and concrete and tiles. Here it is hardboard, drywall and frames. New terminologies like sidings, shingles and drywall were quickly learned and absorbed and we watched the contractors come and do their stuff, efficiently. Some of the Mexicans who were around doing the work agreed that the brick and mortar way is what they were used to too, but well, they had by now mastered the gringo technology, and it well, good or bad, paid them daily wages. An desi pal at our office, one of the others who had recently purchased his pad gave me valuable tips of what’s and what not’s as the construction period chugged along merrily through the winter and snow. Finally the home was ready and we quickly completed the various financial and legal formalities to arrive at the closing event, a legal ceremony of sorts. The lawyer made sure we had our signatures in the right places on the many documents and with a final flourish the copies and a gleaming set of keys were handed over.

And with that we were the owners of a new home in Raleigh.

The next step proved to be the most interesting part. We had decided to do a Ganapathi homam as is traditional in South India. The neighborhood Desi grocery shop gave us references to the right Pujari, who was contacted and an appointment set up. The Poojari or Acharya as he was termed, quickly set an auspicious date and time, a Poornima day it was and on that appointed day we were to come with a long list of items for the Pooja and Homam. Now we in Kerala usually subcontracted these and had little idea of the various items involved, but here we had to go about collecting it, which we managed with some difficulty. The list that was provided for example listed twigs, sugarcane and so on. Now I wondered if that meant I pick up a few twigs & sticks from the yard, but the Poojarai was quick to correct me on the phone. I had to go and get a pooja bunch imported from India for the very purpose and he explained where I could find it. Turned out there was another desi shop and here the Ambi Pattar who assisted in the shop came to our rescue and provided us all the tricky things like some special thread, the kalasam and so on ( things we had no clue about until then). Armed with all the paraphernalia, we were in our apartment mulling over the next step during the penultimate day. Panchamritham, Modakam and some similar items were to be made. The better half fretted a bit but made all the required things early in the morning and we moved on to the new house, awaiting the Acharya.

His arrival was in regal style, dressed in traditional Poojari garb. I watched him as he parked his car. He was bare bodied behind the wheel, and I wondered what the state trooper who may have passed him or others on the street in other cars would have thought. With a big mu-gopi on his forehead and a smart tuft or Kudumi, he was exactly like any other poojari outside Kerala. As he parked, the effects of technolgy came to view. The GPS was switched off, the Iphone was taken off the docket and the blue tooth removed from his ears. With that he stepped out in regal fashion much to the amazement of the Mexican crew working next doors. I could see their eyes literally pop seeing the priest in his red and green bordered dhothi worn the traditional Telugu Iyengar fashion, and the poonool across his chest. He walked in cheerily waving to the gaping Mexicans with a distinct Carolinian twang ‘ hey guys, how’re ya doing??

I could only smile, seeing all this and thinking about the life of an Indian abroad. Most of you may not be able to visualize all this and I am not really doing justice to telling the story, but well, I hope I gave you at least a hazy picture of the events taking place.

Soon our man set about his task, keeping the vigraham at the right place, as we conversed in Tamil, dressing the idol & did the cleaning up of the area. The pooja and homam went on for all of 3 hours, the priest turned out to be very competent & knowledgeable, occasionally checking up on the stanzas with the e reader on his iphone and explaining some meanings to us. The smoke wafted by, and I had based on a friendly tip from the desi friend I previously mentioned, removed all the smoke detectors off their mounting well before the event to avoid a police visit, and finally the home smelt right. Gone were the chemical fumes, replaced by the smell of burnt coconut and ghee and incense sticks. The interesting thing was that we had to do most of the pooja based on running instructions from the Pandit, which was again was a big difference from Kerala.

The next day was tough and back breaking; but fortunately my elder son had arrived and then came the movers, who got the stuff across from one place to the other. Cable TV, dish and all the other things were quickly connected and the home was ready for the living in.

With that the various landlords I dealt with in our nomadic existence thus far became fond memories. I still recall the Mysore clerk who owned the home in Bangalore where we first lived, then the KEB executive engineer, whose basement area we inhabited, the Arab businessman who owned our apartment in Riyadh, the multi-millionaire shipping magnate at Istanbul who would personally come to collect his rent or follow up for it with phone calls, the Sardar who operated through his home manager in California and so on…and the many well managed apartment complexes along the way, not to forget of course the Ambika Nivas at Madras which I have written about.

And thus we sit these days, when time permits, in the porch to listen to crickets and birds, the train that goes by infrequently with the typical horn, not the whistle, taking in the white noise of the road hum from the nearby highway….as we inhale the smell of the grass and become one among the many happy home owners of America…

I promise to be more regular from now on and look forward to your interaction with pithy comments for they are what keep it all going. I know there are many readers, but those comments from a few always tell you if you are in the right direction or not and if you are addressing the matter right or wrong. I hope for more...