Riding the Back Beauty

Those steamy, smoky and sooty days

Sometimes I sit back and think of some of those jolly train rides in the Indian railways. I have always liked them, and even though I could opine like most others that it is desirable that those trains be cleaner, punctual and efficient, they still cast a spell on you, from all the way back to the period when the role of the elephant was usurped by this mechanical beast. Today people are richer, are on their own, zipping through in their cars and bikes and planes, but it was not so long ago that a ride in the train was any day better and safer than on the fully laden Ambassador careening through our potholed roads. Or if you were on two wheels, consider the scene where you are perilously perched at an angle on a rickety ‘hand me down’ Bajaj scooter or hunched over, helmetless, on a roaring Jawa motorbike zigzagging through a mass of humanity and a collection of beasts on their two feet. Yeah! The train ride is in comparison so serene, and a great opportunity to study a cross section of humanity.

All that will soon be long forgotten, and I saw that India had just signed up for a Japanese designed bullet train between Ahmedabad and Bombay (I still prefer to term Bombay as Bombay, not Mumbai and Madras as Madras, not Chennai). I might, at least in my thoughts, still prefer the overnight Baroda express from Bombay Central, but then, I can still recall the steam engines from my childhood, till it was taken over by the trustworthy diesel and broad gauge as I entered high school. By the time I was ready for college, electric trains were becoming the norm. Meter gauge travel and steam engines were already considered dated, and conversions to the American gauge were well underway in the remote routes.

Of recent I have been perusing many interesting books like the ones written by Thoreax and Atiken. Vaidyanathan’s book is already in my collection and Venkatraman’s just at hand. The loud whistle, the whoosh of the cylinders letting steam and the boiler belching out dense coal-smoke in bursts as the engine strained to move forward…and the journeys that evoked romance and freedom in the past, only serve to spark nostalgic memories in most of the people today – Can you beat it?

We are a country of disparities and this is a classic one where a metric system, based on a meter width, the meter gauge was converted country wide to the older foot based system called the Indian broad gauge, where the gauge width is 5’ and 6” or 1.676mts. Ever wondered why? In America, we have this in Texas and San Francisco and is popularly known as Texas gauge.

How did it come about?  At first around 1849, the railways in India were to be built on a four feet, eight and half inches gauge. Lord Dalhousie favored a 6 ft gauge while Simms, the consulting engineer favored the five feet and six inches gauge. The five and half feet gauge argument won and the first train which ran from Bombay to Thane used this so called broad gauge. The main technical reasoning was that this could provide greater stability during high winds and unpredictable weather, while also ensuring greater space between the wheels for bigger inside cylinders (older engine design). This continued for 12 years.

Lord Mayo the viceroy (following on the ideas of his predecessor Sir John Lawrence), however was a great enthusiast of the metric system and proceeded on that track. Of course we had some other widths too in India like the narrow gauge (hilly tracks) and the standard gauge (various metros). But in general India today is moving wider with the Unigauge project.

The advent of the railway in India did not take too much time actually, for it was in February 1804 that Richard Trevithick ran the world's first steam engine successfully on rails. The first goods train ran in 1825 and the one with passengers in 1830, in Britain. While there were some private fright lines in India as early as 1851, the first train ran in November 18, 1852, between Bombay and Thane. The commercial run took place on April 16, 1853, a Saturday, at 3:35 pm between Boree Bunder and Thane, traversing a distance just over 20 miles. The train, hauled by three engines -- Sindh, Sahib and Sultan -- carried as many as 400 passengers in its 14 coaches on its debut run. I had covered all this in an earlier article 

While early steam locomotives were made in Britain, after the Second World War, a number of engines were imported from America and Canada. The WP 4-6-2 locomotive drew heavily from the experience drawn from the straightforward American/Canadian design of locomotives used during the war and was later built locally, totaling to some 755 units. The WPs hauled the most important mail trains in the post war era well into the early eighties chugging up to a speed of 120 kilometers per hour. Many of us would remember these from their unique whistle and the bullet shaped nose (smokebox cover). That was the original bullet train, the black beauty!!

As the risk of boring you over all these arcane technical details is pretty high, I will not get onto the stories of wood fired engines, diesels, electric and so on…Soon everybody will be talking about the bullet train anyway. But I will now get into some fun stuff (which a few railway men might remember) and take you into the days when the railway station was an architectural delight, when railway stations had bars, and as the traveler relaxed, found time to narrate a few tales, some tall, some short…

It was a time when the common got into the train wearing not his best clothes due to the risk of them becoming black by the time they got off, sweaty and smelly, It was a time when the engine driver had to use the spring of the expansion buffers to get started on a gradient, a time when animals were the risk on the rail and a time when engine drivers were considered demi gods. Do you remember how the bogie bathrooms used to run dry and it was only at an important junction that water was filled from the great looking overhead spigots? Today those are gone and you see hoses being hauled up or water pumped in through the side valves.

How many of you know the real meaning of the words shunting and humping? Well, aside from their sexual overtones, Shunting is not well understood, and if you wanted to know it was the method of moving the train into an alternative course. And what is humping? That was more related to freight train bogie sorting, using a man-made hill or hump. A switch engine gets these bogies or cars to the top of the hump, where the cars are uncoupled one at a time and then pushed down into the right track, to create the right goods train.

OK, now an interesting question. You as a passenger can amble up to the toilet and relive yourself, in a train, though there is some discomfort at times what with the neatness. Did you know that there was no toilet in any of the engines? In the old days the hapless driver had to wait till the train reached a station, then go over to the assistant guard’s compartment right behind the engine where a toilet is available. Or well, they had to use their ingenuity and available resources!  I believe that the situation is being taken care of in new engines and also considering that we have women engine drivers these days!

But engine drivers are known to stop engines if they could get away with it. Such was the case of this driver who stopped his train so he could pick up fish (or something else) from his favorite shop on the way!

How many of you remember the VRR’s and NVRR’s (railway restaurants) in train stations? Each person will have a favorite. For me it was the VRR at Trivandrum, the food there was nothing short of excellent, during the 80’s. But before all that they had some very famous dishes which people remember and try to recreate even today. One such curry is the railway mutton curry with coconut milk, very similar to a Kerala moplah mutton curry with coconut milk. The railway omelet is what went on to become the Indian standard omelet with green chilies, tomatoes and onions and it is said that the longer lasting egg biryani was popularized after the railway packets containing them hit the stations.

Know what - while we did see them in some old steam engines plying the forest routes, the trains in the North always had cattle or cow guards (In America they are also known as pilots). Contrary to what you believe it was not invented for the Indian cow, but for the American cattle which roamed the tracks since the tracks were not fenced off. In the old days, the engine driver would run over cattle but after a few trains derailed, the cow catcher was invented and used for the first time in 1833 in the Camden and Amboy railroad (see that? we have ‘railroads’ in America but ‘railways’ everywhere else!) in their engine named John Bull. There was the Babbage plough type and the Dripps type cow catcher. The well specified cow catcher had to throw a 2,000 pound bull (wow! The measly Indian cow would weigh only a quarter of that!) a distance of 30 feet. Older catchers were made of wood but later substituted in iron. Though this heavy (half a ton) appendage weakened the engine, it was used often and continued till owners of cattle wised up or the cattle developed a better sense of avoiding the speeding iron animal.

I cannot help but quote this classic description by Victor Bayley of the usefulness of the cowcatcher- The slow-moving mind of a cow is quite unable to grasp the rapid movement of a train. Its bovine eyes stare uncomprehending at the smoke-spouting object that darts out from a neighboring cutting. In a moment all is over, the cow-catcher has flung the dead body afar. Many cases have also been reported of the cow catcher saving people who were lying on the rails with suicidal intent. But India is India, for there were reports of little boys and even men riding free on the cow catcher in those early days, out of sight of the engine driver!!

A classic story of the cow catcher being used for a slippery rail situation is recounted by Archibald Spens, dating all the way back to 1914 -We left Simla at one o’clock, reaching Kalka about a quarter to seven. For the greater portion of the time I sat on an improvised seat on the engine thus having an absolutely uninterrupted view of the gorgeous scenery, and enjoying all the manifold sensations of a motor run……We glided down mile after mile, through tunnel after tunnel, from our advanced position as smokeless and eerie as the tube from Piccadilly Circus to Trafalgar Square ; hooted advice to wandering sheep and overcurious cattle; till the descent was relieved from monotony by the engine refusing to drag us uphill to the station aforementioned. She was coaxed, fed and cursed in turn, only to retaliate by vibrating your spine and puffing furiously. At last, acknowledging defeat, a coal-black gentleman descended from the tender, climbed down on to the cow-catcher, tied a bucket of sand to a coupling, wound one hand round a stanchion and with the other sprinkled the contents of the pail on to the slippery line. This merely appeared to over-infuriate the mechanical lady, who shook herself into a perfect spasm of rage, until another member of the railway community joined his colleague on the cow-catcher, when both, with fingers all but touching the rails, poured handful after handful of sand upon the wheels and metals. And this, mark you, when we were vibrating with the force of a printing press in Fleet Street. Grunting and ill-humoured, she at last condescended to proceed, while a stoker opened the furnace, heaved shovelfuls of coal into the roaring flames and slammed back the door by jerking a long steel chain connected at the upper end with a cooler portion of her anatomy. And so we started off again, covering mile after mile in giddy crescents and circles and shivering gyrations, till approaching dusk and lowered temperature advised me to return to my toy carriage, soon thereafter to arrive at Kalka, and, later, Umballa, after a perfectly charming trip into the very heart of the Himalayas.

Time to leave the cows and the cowcatchers in peace….Let’s move on and I will not talk too much about tiger proofed windows, for that can be easily understood as a need in the North Eastern terrains…

There was a time when the first class compartment looked different – those early days when the palanquin and coolie, the bullock-cart and pony-post have long been numbered. William Sloane Kennedy explains - As a matter of course the cars are well ventilated, and the conductors rejoice in white jackets and tall pith helmets. On the long trunk lines, such as that between Calcutta and Madras, the first-class cars, which are the only ones that well to-do foreigners ever travel in, are so made that they can be converted into sleeping cars. Each car contains two compartments, and each compartment has a cushioned settee down either side, with a third crosswise along one end; the other end is occupied by a washing closet with shower-bath. Gentlemen always carry with them a counterpane padded with wool, and a small pillow or two. At night the settee is converted into a sleeping berth by the aid of the counterpane and pillows.

Now to the train whistle…So many mimicry artistes still remember that sound of the WP steam whistle, so distinguished, compared to the bleat we hear these days from the electric and diesel engines, so out of character. But did you know that there are formal codes used when the whistle is blown?

For example (see here for details)

3 short toots while running - Guard to apply brakes
4 short toots while running - Train cannot proceed on account of accident, failure or other cause
1 long toot on the run - Acknowledgement of guards signal
1 super long toot while on the run - Approaching level crossing or tunnel area
1 long, 1 short, 1 long, 1 short - Alarm chain pulled

And then again did you know there was something called MST or Madras standard time which was used by all of the Indian railways? IRFCA explains that Madras Time was a time zone established in 1802 by John Goldingham, the first official astronomer of the British East India Company in India when he determined the longitude of Madras as 5 hours, 21 minutes and 14 seconds ahead of Greenwich Mean Time. In the very early days of railways in India, local time was observed at each large city, in common with practice in most other countries at the time. Bombay and Poona, for instance, had their own local times differing by about 7 minutes. There were anomalies too, such as Ahmedabad which strangely observed Madras local time. Madras Time was, by 1905, effectively used for railway timetables over the whole subcontinent, across Lahore, Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras. Timetables for Bombay trains usually had the local times for trains printed alongside the Madras Time schedule, and trains arrived and departed according to the Madras Time schedule. Various stations remained synchronized through a 4PM telegraph signal until 1925 when new techniques came into vogue.

Nevertheless, just imagine, before IST came into being, a district administrator in British India had to deal with railway time, telegraph time, office time, cutcherry time, bazaar time and church time, all in the same locale!

There were incessant problems in adopting it, as the officials (RD Oldham GSI) explain - A more potent cause of resistance to the general adoption of the present standard time lies in the fact that it is Madras time. The citizen of Bombay, proud of being ‘primus in Indis ’ and of Calcutta, equally proud of his city being the Capital of India, and—for a part of the year— the Seat of the Supreme Government, alike look down on Madras, and refuse to change the time they are using, for that of what they regard as a benighted Presidency; while Madras, having for long given the standard time to the rest of India, would resist the adoption of any other Indian standard in its place.

The story of book stalls and pocket books in the railways is intimately connected to Higginbothams and AH Wheeler, and a time when they ruled the roost doling out newspapers and pocket books such as James Bond, James Hadley Chase, Nick Carter, Perry Mason and Enid Blyton!! They were just the kind of books to read, when you are all by yourself on the upper berth.

And there are railway stories, going all the way back to Ruskin Bond and Kipling. More recently, Bill Aitken relates the charming story where the colonial Saab snaps out an order in Hindi for ‘toast and marmalade’ to the turbaned railway waiter who vigorously nods, turns on his heels and arrives back through the gauze grilled doors a little later, with his perpetually large eyes and beaming face, carrying a cold greasy plate and with the announcement ‘toast and armlate’, which he gleefully plonks in front of the horrified saahib!!Oh, there are so many railway stories to tell, there has been an instance when a major railway scam ran its course, with 70 lakhs collected ‘to paint a section of rails’!

Many an English usage came from the railways such as ‘Full steam ahead’, ‘on the track’ and ‘drop the lot’. Remember the cockup story from Britain? Quoting Glen Hopkins - Class 150 multiple units in use in the UK have isolating cocks for doors and suspensions, located under the passenger seats in the saloon. On one occasion a driver, having suffered a burst air suspension bellows, asked a lady passenger, sitting on the seat in question, to open her legs, whilst he got to his cock! Then there was the railway stores guy who sent out a 100 soup plates because he had no ‘fish plates’ in stock, and there was the railway man who said to the hunter – when you were hunting and shooting, I was shunting and hooting!!

But some things happen only in India like the time when porters used monkeys, perhaps following the lead from a Ramayana retelling. Recently, the railway police in Calcutta arrested 25 porters and 28 monkeys after breaking up a train seat reservation scam. The officials explained that porters at Calcutta’s Howrah station had trained monkeys to jump through the windows of long-distance trains and plonk themselves down in any available seat. Passengers then had to pay the porters to have the monkeys removed. Initially porters occupied the seats and then sold the space themselves. Noww this was not legal, and when the porters were harried by the police for the wrongdoings, they resorted to this novel method!!

Time to wind up. It is sad that the children of today with their heads stuck into their Ipads will never hear the WP’s whistle, or recall sights of the engine driver with his kerchiefed head sticking out, the grimy fireman shoveling coal into the boiler or the glum looking guard riding alone in the last compartment, or the little coal breaker hunched over the pile of coals. And they will never experience the railway quarters and those lovely Anglo Indian families, especially the pretty damsels and their beaus on java mobikes….…Ah! Those were some days!!!

I cannot resist quoting this classic observation by Aitken – The journey back from Kerala was one of the most delightful train passages I can remember, with charming company, intelligent conversation and exchanges of genuine regard. But the moment we hit the Devanagari script, of N India, the cultural buoyancy of the south dipped and became progressively more submerged. As we neared Delhi, the compartment became crowded with interlopers, loud and nasally aggressive to prove that Hindi at least on the score of noise can claim to be one of the leading languages in the world. From being a spotlessly clean compartment, the litter and mess of Aryan culture soon asserted itself. The conductor had made himself scarce and the level of verbal abuse rose. Better dressed, better educated but pigmented to no advantage, the Kerala Company went into its shell.

Bravo, Bill…well said!!!

The ride is done with, the whistle still blows in your head, the steam whooshes through your ears as the wind rustles your hair, the bones ache after sleeping on the wooden sleepers, the fan took so many prods and spins with your comb to keep running, you keep one mudka (disposable tea cup made of mud) as keepsake in your luggage and you look like Oliver Twist after a chimney sweep, grime stuck all over, smelling of soot and looking bewildered… you are at the end of your journey, but that it was , a jolly good ride…

Exploring Indian railways - Bill Aitken
A trainload of Indian Jokes – KR Vaidyanathan
Indian Railway Stories -Ruskin Bond
The complete story of Indian Railways - Rajendra Aklekar (dnaindia-2013)
The WP's steam run for those who have no idea what I am talking about...

For those interested in trains and train paintings, look no further and visit Kishore Partim Biswas's site. They are just wonderful....He also conducts exhibitions in various cities....

pics - from Google images, wikipedia - thanks to all uploaders

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and a happy new year......

The Sitar in Norwegian Wood

George Harrison and the sitar, the Beatles

Beatles remain a favorite of mine and I have always liked the perky number Norwegian Wood. The opening chords stayed stuck in my memory and the other day I was wondering about how this instrument got used for the song, assuming naturally that it followed from the much talked about visit of the Beatles to Rishikesh and George’s training sessions with Ravi Shankar.  As I started checking it out, I found that the song predated their visit to India and that it had an interesting story behind it. So for those who like the song and the Beatles, here goes…

1964, The Beatles had a great tour in America, George Harrison the lead guitarist characterized it ‘every bit a knock-out’ and it was a time when they met equals like Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan. Beatlemania spread in America and a second tour was announced for 1965. The last two shows at the Hollywood bowl were smash hits.

Just before they crossed the Atlantic once again, they finished shooting for their second movie tilted Help! It was a kind of comedy film with a crass Indian tilt, replete with multiple armed goddesses and Swamis played by non-Indians. The synopsis reads - An eastern cult (a parody of the Thuggee cult) is about to sacrifice a woman to the goddess Kaili. Just as she is about to be killed, the high priestess of the cult, Ahme, notices that she is not wearing the sacrificial ring. Ringo Starr, drummer of the Beatles, has and is wearing it; it was secretly sent to him by the victim in a fan letter. Determined to retrieve the ring and sacrifice the woman, the great Swami Clang, Ahme, and several cult members including Bhuta, leave for London. After several failed attempts to steal the ring, they confront the Beatles in an Indian restaurant. Ringo learns that if he does not return the ring soon, he will become the next sacrifice. Ringo then discovers that the ring is stuck on his finger.

On April 5th and 6th, The Beatles filmed the Rajahama Indian restaurant scenes for Help! at Twickenham Film Studios. The interior kitchen and dining scenes were filmed on a purpose-built set. What is relevant in this context is the Indian restaurant, where they had Indian looking waiters, people standing on their head and all kinds of silly stuff. The restaurant also had a live Indian band playing Indian instruments such as the tabla and sitar and the song ‘A Hard Day's Night’ is played by them as an instrumental. George Harrison watching the filming, was intrigued by the Sitar played by this Indian performer and took the opportunity to check it out, its sound and balance.

Harrison explains - We were waiting to shoot the scene in the restaurant when the guy gets thrown in the soup and there were a few Indian musicians playing in the background. I remember picking up the sitar and trying to hold it and thinking, 'This is a funny sound.' It was an incidental thing, but somewhere down the line I began to hear Ravi Shankar's name. The third time I heard it, I thought, 'This is an odd coincidence.' And then I talked with David Crosby of The Byrds and he mentioned the name. I went and bought a Ravi record; I put it on and it hit a certain spot in me that I can't explain, but it seemed very familiar to me. The only way I could describe it was: my intellect didn't know what was going on and yet this other part of me identified with it.

And so it was around that time that I bought a cheap Sitar from a shop called India Craft in London and it was lying around, I hadn’t really figured out what to do with it.

The Beatles did not particularly enjoy the filming of the movie (despite the fact that they were high on pot, for Ringo says - A hell of a lot of pot was being smoked while we were making the film. It was great. That helped make it a lot of fun), nor were they pleased with the end product and later in 1970, John Lennon said they had felt like extras in their own movie. Shooting was completed in April and the movie premiered in June 1965.

Actually it was 5 months later that he purchased the sitar and it took another month before he did something with it. It would take yet another before he used it for a song.

The second tour to America in Aug 1965 was also a hit and they returned to Britain a million dollars richer and had six weeks to rest and recuperate. Harrison decided to goof around with his Gibson J-160E guitar by moving its pickup from the neck to the bridge, for he wanted a new sound. Their next LP had to be released before Christmas and so they met again at Abbey road in Oct. to work on a project titled Rubber Soul. After the first song ‘Run for your life’ was recorded, the group started working on Norwegian Wood (This bird has flown).

The concept for the song came from Lennon, who wanted to include a comedy song in the LP, touching the topic of a one night stand experience of his. The real meaning is still being debated and both Lennon and others have professed different meanings and attributes, but it is an intriguing song. 

The lyrics go thus

I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me...
She showed me her room, isn't it good, Norwegian wood?
She asked me to stay and she told me to sit anywhere,
So I looked around and I noticed there wasn't a chair.
I sat on a rug, biding my time, drinking her wine
We talked until two and then she said, "It's time for bed"
She told me she worked in the morning and started to laugh.
I told her I didn't and crawled off to sleep in the bath
And when I awoke, I was alone, this bird had flown
So I lit a fire, isn't it good, Norwegian wood.

As it appears, Lennon meets somebody (purportedly Sonny or Maureen) starts out a one night stand with her (or maybe not, he got miffed when she started to laugh and say she had to go to work in the morning), and went to sleep in the tub, to wake up in the morning and see that the girl had gone away. The bird is a girl, the Norwegian wood supposedly low cost paneling (has also other subtle meanings) and McCartney mentions that he was the one who suggested Lennon imply that he wanted set fire to the room as he left, not just lighting a fire for warmth. It is anyway, one of those unfinished and surreal ballads.

The rehearsals did not quite gel, and Harrison felt it needed something extra. The usual arrangement of two guitars, bass and drums did not give the right feel to this gobbledygook of a song.
He explains – It was quite spontaneous. I just picked up the sitar and kind of found the notes and I just kind of played it. We miked it up and put it on and it seemed to hit the spot. That was how the overdub on Lennon’s guitar riff after 9 days of hard effort made this song so unique with its nasal twang. Harrison had the sitar tuned to western notes.

The structure changed to 4 bars each of A, B and A on Lennon’s guitar followed by Harrison repeating the same on the sitar. It is explained thus – When the listener first hears the AB and then hears the second A, he expects a B to follow but instead this jumps to a third A, creating the complex ABA sequence followed up with the unprecedented sitar routine. After the instrumental opening, the song goes back to the BA chords.

But there is more detail to all this. In fact even though many people mention that this is the first time a Sitar was used for pop music, there is some error in the statement. Though it was the first time it was released in a recording, it was previously used by other musicians, namely Shawn Phillips and Donovan. Philips worked with the sitar as early as 1962 while at Toronto and had heard Ravi Shankar playing there. He was soon hooked to the instrument. His first commercial recording was in Dec 1965, two months after the Beatles had completed Norwegian wood. It then took another two years for ‘Sunny South Kensington’ to be officially released. Guitarist Big Jim Sullivan also played the sitar in the early 1960’s, influenced by Vilayat Khan in 1964 and learning the craft from Nazir Jairazbhoy, a music lecturer at OSAS in London. By 1966, there was a good number of rock Sitarists in London and this was to bring about the invention of the electric Sitar. Jimmy Page - Led Zepplin’s guitarist also played the sitar those days.

Then there was Kinks with their ‘See My friends’ recorded before Norwegian wood, while another group working with a sitar was the Yardbrids, recording their album ‘heart full of soul’.  As it went, the Yardbirds manager Gomelsky approached the manager of their local curry house and were recommended an Indian troupe from Kenya. They decided to record these Indian origin musicians but hit all kinds of rough weather. The musicians could not play to the rock beat (timing of 4/4) and a lot of time was wasted. As the studio had a busy schedule, they decided to do away with the two Indian players and asked Jimmy page who was passing by for help. He concocted a manageable track with similar sounding chords using his mastery over the guitar but in passing purchased the sitar from the perplexed Indian, paying GBP25.00, complete with its cloth cover. Later Beck himself figured out a solution with the guitar and by bending the notes slightly off-key, managed to get his guitar track sound like a sitar. The aborted sitar version did come out many years later. "It was very hard to record [the sitar] because it has a lot of nasty peaks and a very complex wave form," said EMI engineer Norman Smith. "My meter would be going right over into the red, into distortion, without us getting audible value for money (but that was likely due to Harrison’s improper playing of the instrument and perhaps due to the wrong location of the pickup, according to Lavezzoli)

Many others started to use the Sitar for pop music compositions and the Coral electric sitar was developed by Danelecto in 1967, though finding few takers. The first one was gifted to Harrison, but he claims that it was hijacked by Spencer Davis.

Bellman explains the lead up - Harrison had recently bought a sitar along with Ravi Shankar’s albums Portrait of Genius and Sound of the Sitar. Harrison’s conversations with David Crosby about Shankar while they were tripping last August had inspired him. Also, when they arrived back to the UK from the States, the Kinks were at No. 10 on the charts with the Indian-influenced “See My Friends.” When the Kinks had toured Australia and Asia at the beginning of the year, they had a stopover in Bombay. Ray Davies said, “I remember getting up, going to the beach and seeing all these fishermen coming along. I heard chanting to start with, and gradually the chanting came a bit closer, and I could see it was fishermen carrying their nets out.”

Ian MacDonald adds - The Kinks’ song had no Indian instruments, but the band’s guitar imitated a tambura while Ray’s vocal whine and drone lent his singing an Indian quality. Author/jazz musician Barry Ernest Fantoni recalled hanging with the Beatles one night when they heard the Kinks’ song. Realizing Davies’ guitar sounded like a sitar, they discussed getting one for their next record

Back to the surreal Norwegian wood and now quoting Damian Fanelli writing at Guitar World   - The
October 12 version of the song, then called simply "This Bird Has Flown," features the sitar in the intro and in the middle eight, as Harrison, sometimes clumsily, mimics Paul McCartney's harmony vocal. Also notable about the October 12 recording is that Ringo Starr is playing drums. Unhappy with the first version, the band attempted the song nine days later, when, on the fourth take, they nailed it. Lennon's acoustic guitar opens the track, and Starr, as he did for "And I Love Her," eschews drums completely, in favor of other percussive instruments, in this case finger cymbals and a tambourine. The first listeners of Norwegian wood equated the sitar sound to a guitar with a cold. As they say, that western tuning and playing in the diatonic scale did it, emphasizing the mark of a genius (as you can see, it matters less what you know than what you do with what you know).

In a Playboy Interview in 1980 Lennon states that the song was completely his and was suitably vague because he did not want his wife Cyan to know he was having an affair, and thus undertook a sophisticated attempt at writing Norwegian wood, through a smoke screen. Though he mentions that he does not recall who the woman was, others in the know allude to Sonny Freeman (she did have a wood paneled flat below John’s) while biographer Coleman sates that it was a prominent journalist Maureen Cleave.

Quoting Rolling Stone magazine - Lennon put it bluntly, "I was trying to write about an affair without letting me wife know I was writing about an affair. I was writing from my experiences, girl’s flats, things like that. As McCartney later explained, it was popular for Swinging London girls to decorate their homes with Norwegian pine. "So it was a little parody really on those kinds of girls who when you'd go to their flat there would be a lot of Norwegian wood," he told biographer Barry Miles. "It was pine really, cheap pine. But it's not as good a title, 'Cheap Pine,' baby." Lennon had however admitted to Rolling Stone earlier that "Paul helped with the middle eight, to give credit where it's due." But according to McCartney, Lennon came to him with just a first verse: "That was all he had, no title, no nothing."

Looking back in the 1990s, Harrison described the sitar on "Norwegian Wood" as "very rudimentary. I didn't know how to tune it properly, and it was a very cheap sitar to begin with." But "that was the environment in the band," he pointed out, "everybody was very open to bringing in new ideas. We were listening to all sorts of things, Stockhausen, avant-garde - and most of it made its way onto our records."

There is also the incident of the broken string while Harrison practiced after the Western tuning. It appears that George Martin suggested he contact Ayana Angadi, the co-founder of the Asian Music Circle (AMC). Shankara Angadi, Ayana's son, recalls, "As luck would have it, we did have some sitar strings in the house, and the whole family went down to the studio at Abbey Road and watched them record, from behind the glass."  (Quoting Cepcani – Biographer).

Ravi Shankar had by this time become a well-known exponent of the Sitar, after a stint with dancing together with his brother Uday. He later became an expert with the Sitar and Hindustani after sporadic training by Alaudin Khan, founded the Kinara music school in Bombay and his fame reached Harrison through the American group Byrds.

A report states that Harrison was introduced to Ravi Shankar by David Crosby of the Byrds at a 1965 party - Roger McGuinn, the founder of the Byrds, told the Telegraph how he had introduced the late George Harrison to Ravi Shankar's sitar music at a party at Zsa Zsa Gabor's Bel Air mansion in 1965. They were both on LSD at the time, he said, but the sound inspired Harrison and the Beatles to travel to India where they met Pt Shankar and took sitar lessons from him.

George continues – It (the sitar) just called on me ... a few months elapsed and then I met this guy from the Asian Music Circle organisation who said, 'Oh, Ravi Shankar's gonna come to my house for dinner. Do you want to come too?' That was how they met for the first time in June 1966.

In July 1966 the Beatles made an unscheduled stop over in Delhi and were stranded there for a week (after getting a rough sendoff following a Manila concert - due to not paying their respects to Imelda Marcos at Philippines). So they hung around at the Oberoi, and went to Riki Ram and sons to purchase new sitars and other Indian instruments, to take back to Britain. Harrison fell in love with sitar and India.

Following the group’s last live concert performance at Candlestick Park, San Francisco in August 1966, he travelled to Mumbai to study the sitar with Ravi Shankar.

George states - "I went to India for about six weeks. Ravi would give me lessons, and he’d also have one of his students sit with me. My hips were killing me from sitting on the floor, and so Ravi brought a yoga teacher to start showing me the physical yoga exercises. It was a fantastic time...," Harrison once recalled.

Ravi Shankar says - The down-to-earth quality in George was something I could relate to with such joy. He would crack up when I told him all my jokes; we had such fun! We always competed with each other in punning. When I told him that I was known as a "pundit" because of my punning, he said something hilarious, connecting the old Hindu scriptures of the four Vedas (Rigveda, Samveda, Atharvaveda and Yajurveda). He said: "Do you know the four Wether brothers? They are Ric, Sam, Arthur and George Wethers."

What did the master Ravi Shankar think of Norwegian wood? Shankar in a 1999 NPR ‘Fresh air’ interview with Terry Gross said - I never heard it before. And it was only much later on, my nephew and nieces, they played it for me and I thought it was terrible, in the sense - in the sound that was produced on the sitar. The song was nice. I liked the song very much but it was a peculiar sound. It didn't sound like sitar even. So he had had little lesson from a person in London who's a student of a student of mine, who is to be in London at that time. And I told him frankly that it's fine. People like it and you are happy but I didn't find it interesting enough because the very sound of sitar, it is something which we have developed since last 750 years. And - but I - he understood and that's why he wanted to learn.

George Harrison continued to be fascinated by India for the rest of his life, became a Hindu and remained good friends with Ravi Shankar, often collaborating with him musically. Later in 1968 the Beatles went to Rishikesh, spent time with the Mahesh Yogi learning meditation and so on but left after (getting bored or disgusted at the Yogi’s materialism?) and following a spat involving their use of hard drugs coupled with the Guru’s supposed act of impropriety with Mia Farrow.
Later on, many other Beatles songs were to feature Indian instruments and other Indian embellishments.

And that was how the Beatles ended up lapping up much of the credit with using a Sitar, eclipsing the works of Kinks and Yardbirds. But that does not really matter, does it? And, if you were to ask who was first to take Hindustani music and the sitar out west, look at my article on the femme fatale Mata Hari – It was Inayat Khan, the father of the princess spy Madeline – Noor Inayat khan. But Carnatic music had reached Europe even earlier, see my article on the Bayaderes who traveled west in 1838

And as I conclude, I wonder how many of the people I research individually, go on and get connected somehow or the other. As they say, a small world indeed…

Beatles Gear:  By Andy Babiuk, Mark Levisohn, Tony Bacon, The Beatles
The dawn of Indian music in the West – Peter Lavezzoli
Strange Sounds: Offbeat Instruments and Sonic Experiments in Pop - Mark Brend
The Songs of John Lennon: The Beatles Years - John Lennon
John Lennon: The Life - Philip Norman
Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties Ian MacDonald
The Exotic in Western Music - Jonathan Bellman
Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of the Beatles - Kenneth Womack
Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now - Barry Miles
If you want to read all those interesting takes on what could have happened in the room, read this

pics - google images - thanks to all the uploaders....

Other tidbits
Bob Dylan is supposed to have made a dig at Norwegian wood with his ‘4th time around’ which his fans state was made after Dylan thought Lennon had copied his writing style.

It is probable, listening to Ravi Shankar’s comments, that Harrison got his first sitar lesson from that grand disciple of Ravi Shankar who was performing for the AMC guys in the Help! Film. That person’s identity is alas not known!

Annu Malik’s Tumko sirf tumko- from Kuch Khatti Kuch Meethi was inspired by 'Norwegian Wood'
Dil Se Kya Sahi (Imaan) - In this R.D. Burman song, the line “Aaj Jhoomen Zara…” is an adaptation of the line “I Once Had A Girl…” from Norwegian Wood. Humne Kabhi Socha Nahi (Jeevan Mukti, 1977) is another adaptation.

That the movie Help! helped swing the Beatles towards mystic India is shown by another incident. While filming an outdoor scene on bicycles one day, the Beatles stopped for a short break. A Krishna devotee walked up to each Beatle and handed them a book on Hatha yoga. This was perhaps a precursor to their Maharishi Mahesh Yogi trip to Rishikesh.

Indian Music – How did an Englishman get so hung up an Indian music? When asked in a Detroit free press interview in 1966, George said

"A whole lot of things got me interested," he said. "The more I heard it, the more I liked it. It's very involved music. So involved. That's why the average listener doesn't understand. They listen to Western music all their lives. Eastern music is a different concept. "The main hang-up for me is Indian classical music. Really groovy, to pardon the expression, as opposed to the hip things in Western music which are opposed to Western classical music... Indian music is hip, yet 8,000 years old. "I find it hard to get much of a kick out of Western music. Even out of Western music I used to be interested in a year ago. Most music is still only surface, not very subtle compared to Indian music... Music in general, us included, is still on the surface."

"On 'Norwegian Wood' on the Rubber Soul album I used the sitar like a guitar. On the new album I developed it a little bit. But I'm far from the goal I want to achieve. It will take me 40 years to get there. I'd like to be able to play Indian music as Indian music instead of using Indian music in pop... It takes years of studying, but I'm willing to do that."

The Cochin Jews in Israel

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Pardesi and the Malabari Jews around Cochin were a reasonably content lot. But as days went by and as the only country which never persecuted the Jews, became independent from the British, the entire Jewish community of the region started to leave on their Aliyah or calling. Today there is less than a handful left. Books have been written about them, anthropologist studies have been completed and films have been made. People who arrived in Israel wrote books of their past in Kerala and their present, while others wrote about them and a few still trickle back to see their old homes in India and satisfy their last longings before they move on to the next world. Why did this all happen? Whatever happened to the people who left? We track regularly the stories of Indians who moved to USA, Europe and the Middle East Arab countries, but there are so few references about these Malayalees in Israel. Are we upset with them, perhaps the Malayali ego is still hurt? I decided to do a little study, armed with Ruby’s, Edna’s and Jussay’s books as well as scholarly articles from Nathan Katz and Ellen Goldberg.

First the reader should realize that there were two types of Cochin Jews, historically divided: the Black Jews, or Malabaris, the descendants of the original settlers, and the White Jews, or Paradesis, the fairer descendants of immigrants from various Middle East and European countries. There are also a few Brown Jews, or Meshuhurarum (orumakars), descended from emancipated slaves. That they all had problems with each other during their lives in Cochin goes without saying, and discrimination was rife. But it was something they lived with and somewhat minor in the larger context. (I must clarify now that when I use the term Cochin Jews, I encompass the Jews of Ernakulum, Mattanchery, Parur, Chendamangalam and Mala).

Cochin was their little Jerusalem, but it was clear that they did think about the bigger Jerusalem even though they lived a life of harmony, ensconced among the other subjects of benevolent Cochin raja. The British entrenched themselves and made sweeping changes implementing, a standard education system where all children studied. The Pardesi Jews soon found that the chasm between them and the poorer Malabari Jews was reducing, a sort of equality was creeping up and the caste distinction was being slowly broken up, with the imparted education. Also, Pardesi Jews, who had lucrative agency contracts with the Dutch lost out as the British directly took over trade and its administration. Within a few decades, the fortunes had reversed with the Pardesi Jews remaining where they were and many of the hardworking Malabari Jews becoming wealthier.

Also gone was the time when Malabar and Cochin were very important for the European settlers like the Dutch and the Portuguese as the trade once concentrated on spices and wood changed to other commodities. As the new metropolises of Madras, Bombay and Calcutta as well as Rangoon came up, the economic centers shifted to these cities and some of the first movers to these places were the Jews of Cochin, for they not only understood the trading systems, but also the languages, much more than the traditional Chettys and Gujaratis.

Those who migrated north to metropolises found easy employment amongst well-heeled Jewish businesses in those cities. But what is interesting is the observation by a few families that they no longer enjoyed the special favors which they used to get in businesses from the Dutch, and they found that the natives had started to get involved in general business, competing with them, after the fall of the feudalistic society. Both the Malabari and the Paradesi Jews suffered and interestingly the Malabari Jews proved to be more religious and interested in a potential Aliya to Israel. The petty traders faced difficulties, and all the affluent families had moved on. The community lacked intellectuals and entrepreneurs except for the Koders who created the first department stores, ran the Cochin electric company as well as the local ferry, and of course they provided employment to many members of their community. As this was a temporary situation of stability, the Malabari Jews started studying the possibility of lesser servitude and better entrepreneurship if they moved to Israel, now oft mentioned by their university educated offspring.

Interestingly the Cochin Electric Company, of which the Cochin royal family was the major shareholder, was the power suppliers to the Mattancherry and Fort Cochin areas up to Palluruthy, and was maintained quite well, with hardly a failure in distribution. If indeed power supply to a house or office was disrupted, the consumer could call Samuel Koder, the director of the company, directly and he made sure that power was promptly restored. Koder’s management was very liberal and none of the employees ever wanted for money, with the organization hiring some 130 people.

The Indian government’s nationalization drive did not help either when they took over the ferry service as well as the Cochin electric company run by the Koder’s. Land ceiling acts coming from the latter day communist governments led to loss of coconut and other farms held by these families. It soon became an islanded community though still capable and funded, if so required, by the more affluent. But the pride in their life had gone away and that was the crux of the whole matter. While there was the problem of shortage of offspring and the difficulties faced by families in finding spouses for their children, you would also hear about the curse. There was talk of this mysterious curse on the community, the Thekumbhagam synagogue curse is oft mentioned, but I won’t go too much into that other than state that the destruction of that synagogue in 1964 is attributed to a lot of problems among the Cochin Jewish populace. Was it because of the quarrels between the black and white Jews? Was it gods curse because of the silly discrimination the community followed, for decades?

Starting from the early 40’s import restrictions were tightened in India and the situation continued in 1947 with the imports and exports control act since the trade deficit needed strict control. The luxury goods import business conducted by the Cochin Jews were severely affected. Then came the Second World War, the devastating Jewish holocaust and the ideology created by the new state of Israel in 1948. The migrations which occurred after those periods and into the 70’s took away more than 90% of the Cochin Jewish population. Today less than a handful remain. The need to rebuild the Promised Land was primary in many of the departing minds, but was that really it? In India, they could do what they wanted, without fear of any form of persecution, why go on Aliyah to a land fraught with all kinds of danger? Was it also because of other hardships?

Leaders of the Cochin community had started to take notice of the Zionist movements early in the 20th century, as evidenced by the enthusiastic letters of people such as NE Roby. He spread the word around to relatives in the metropolises too. Many of them felt the Zionist pull and took the decision to leave and join their brethren in Israel stressing that it had always been part of their daily prayers, so, it was but natural. Smaller problems such as lack of Jewish holidays and lack of possibilities in raising observant children were cited by some. Insecurity among the members of the community increased as their numbers continued to fall and as the more affluent Jews were the first to leave taking the figure down from 16,000 in the 19th century to 1,100 in the 20th and perhaps under 10 in the 21st.

In 1948, the first wave started as a number of members approached authorities in Bombay stating their intention of selling off everything they had and emigration to Israel, enmasse, utilizing their own funds. Dr. Immanuel Olswanger, an emissary from Israel, visited these places in 1950 and met with the Jewish communities of Cochin, Ernakulam, Mala, Parur and Chennamangalam offering them the opportunity to help realize the Zionist dream. The Malabari’s were apparently more enthusiastic than the Paradesi Jews, the latter being the richer and owners of landed property which they were reluctant to leave behind or sell at low prices. The new Indian government had restricted the amount of money that could be repatriated from such a sale. A Cochin Aliyah fund was started money was collected and it finally took over 7 years for the 3,000 or so people to move to Israel from Cochin. A small complication rose when the Israel government restricted the number citing an incidence of filariasis amongst the émigré’s. It took a good amount of persuasive arguments from their emissary and representative AB Salem with Israeli Prime Minister Ben Gurion to secure their passage.

Dr Reitler was asked to formulate the appropriate medical treatment and the government made steps to ensure that these Malabari’s were settled in cooler and dry areas so that the disease would not be ‘perpetuated’ and that they would not become a financial burden to the fledgling Israeli government.

A 1969 newspaper report reveals a quote from Nappy and Elais Koder- Nappy who had by then become a engineer said – We want to say thank you to India and then Goodbye – Elias added that he was not happy in India, that they were taking too much taxes and that they would not let him expatriate his proceeds to Israel, restricting the total outflow to $5000. The youngsters interviewed by the newspaper complained of too few suitors and pointed out that the community was already too much intermarried and somehow related to each other. While the Bene Israel and the Cochin Jews moved to Israel, the richer Baghdadi Jews mainly migrated to Britain and America.

Now we move to Israel to track the stories of those who migrated. Starting from the 40’s some 25-30,000 Jews migrated from India. A vast majority, close to 20,000 were the Bene Israelis from Maharashtra. Some 3,500 were said to have come from Cochin. When they first reached the Promised Land, they came across communities run on the terms of the Ashkenazi Jews from Europe and struggled to make their own niche amongst them. Ruby’s accounts about these early days are quite poignant and by most accounts most of the Cochin Jews took to farming and horticulture. In 1954, the first 27 Jewish families from Cochin arrived in Israel. Majority of the Cochin Jews were settled at Yuval. House, animals and farming equipment were provided to the families to begin life afresh. This was the first contingent of the 620 people who today call the Nevatim moshav, home. These new arrivals now had a roof over their heads, but finding work presented a more difficult challenge. The men all started as day laborers for the Jewish National Fund; one day there was work, the next day there might not be. At one point, they had to remove rocks and the snakes that lived beneath them. Those years, until 1960, were the most difficult ones.

So as we see, their reception was not rewarding.  The Indian Jews were among the darkest of all the new immigrants and experienced a kind of racism. Reuben Raymond, a Bene Israel community leader, explained (New Statesman 9-10-04) that the reality of life in Israel differed from what they imagined it to be. ‘In India, we never had to fight for our rights but in Israel we did, and this was something new for us,’ he says. ‘In the early '50s, people had a problem because of their color. They were subjected to differential treatment in everything. In employment, they got bad jobs and had less money’.

The Malabari Jews are known as the Cochinim and the Pardesi Jews the Cochinites and identified themselves with the Mirzachi or oriental Jews. The Cochinim were mostly settled in the cooperative farms or Moshavim. Five of them, where over 75% of the Cochinim can be found, are Nevatim in the Negev, Mesillat Zion, Taloz and Aviezer in the Jerusalem corridor and Kfar Yuval in the Northern border with Lebanon. Today the total community totals to some 4,000 people and many have moved to urban neighborhoods for different and better prospects. The Paradesi Jews on the other hand settled in small groups in Binyamina and Petah Tikva. Some Cochin Jews who emigrated from the village of Chendamangalam live at Givat Koach, near the Ben-Gurion airport.

The story of Eliahu Bezalel, 82, (quoting from the Hindu article) a widely recognized horticulturist, decorated by the Israeli government on various occasions, explains those early days where his life started after he got married to Batzion, from Mattancherry, who had arrived a year earlier. Initially Bezalel worked in road maintenance, forestry and as a shepherd, with both husband and wife taking turns to graze the 500 to 600 sheep while their child was sequestered in an inverted stool. The next stage, in 1962, was a turn to agriculture. Community members had to fight the bureaucracy to get the necessary allowances to enable them to grow vegetables, fruit and flowers.

Bezalel as his story continues, became part of Prime Minister Ben Gurion's farming vison and was allotted land in a village in Negev Desert, south of Israel where he started a rose farm. When he was conscripted in the army, his wife took over the responsibility of running the farm, looking after the children and paying the taxes. Later Bezalel studied techniques of growing flowering plants in greenhouses and set up Israel's first modern greenhouse, along with two other Indian Jewish partners, signaling the start of a virtual revolution in the field of horticulture. He mastered the technique called ‘fertigation', where every drop of water provided to a plant is supplemented with a proportional percentage of fertilizers. In 1964 he was awarded the Israeli PM's award for best exporter of flowers to Europe; in 1994, he was conferred with the prestigious Kaplan Prize for contribution to horticulture, and in 2006 India honored Bezalel with the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman.

If you travel to Moshav Nevatim, the dust-blown, palm-tree studded community on the northern edge of Israel’s Negev desert, you can now see a humble little synagogue with that enormous past. The Kerala Synagogue, as it is known by, was built in the style of the synagogues of India’s Cochini Jews. And they made sure of one thing, no more intercommunity marriages, they all married outside linking up with Ashkenazi, Moroccan, or other Jews. The Bene Israel Jews, the bigger community, once liberated by their Cochin brethren in India, did not fare that well in comparison.

Some who remember their old abode mention a desire to live their last days in Kerala, still remembering lines from the Indian national anthem and a few old Malayalam film songs. It is said that most Cochin Jew houses have a curry leaf tree and other tropical trees, like mango and papaya. Some are proud to state that they are different in tradition, in food, ways of worship, in a few rituals and in the ‘look' of course. In the early days, they would regularly eat what is termed “traditional nadan food,”- like kootans, appam and add ‘vepala' in the curries. Among the other distinctions of the community is their wearing ‘white' at funerals as against ‘black' worn by the other Jews from elsewhere. Their lyrics and the music in their prayers are more Indian. Some of the earlier arrivals continued to wear ‘mundus' and saris but now women sometimes wears the ‘Salwar kameez’. Sometimes they celebrate festivals like Onam and of course, remember to popularize the food - Matamey Cochin (“Cochin delicacies”) is a business operated by eight local women between the ages of 55 and 65 who host Cochin-style meals in their homes or in the local hospitality tent. For more about this read the fine article linked here 

And they meet once a year, in March, when they get together near the Dead Sea. They sing, narrate stories of their ‘motherland' Kochi, and share memories. Even though they are now a mixed race, Bezalel continues – “The trend is that no Cochin Jew marries another from the same group. None of us talk Malayalam at home so my children don't know the language at all. We are united by one language, Hebrew. It is mandatory for any emigrant in Israel to learn Hebrew for which the government even provides an allowance.” Sometimes they think back of the land they left, of the serene backwaters and the freedom they enjoyed. A place where planes don’t scream through overhead or rockets blow up, where they perhaps lacked the excitement, but where they were equals.
Ruby will always have the last word in this article – She said – Some people write that the Cochin Community of Jews is dying. They don’t realize that a root from that tree is shooting up in Israel and starting to blossom. As long as we keep up some of our traditions, I hope that this community will never die…

Ruby of Cochin – Ruby Daniel
Leaving Mother India – Ellen Goldberg, Nathan Katz
The Sephardi Diaspora in Cochin India - Ellen Goldberg, Nathan Katz
Daytona Beach morning journal – Jan 19, 1969
The Last Jews of Kochi by Joshua Newton - Jewish Journal
Women sing, men listen - Malayalam folksongs of the Cochini, the Jewish Community of Kerala, in India and in Israel - Martine Chemana
He made deserts bloom – Hindu article Jan 18th 2012
Kerala’s Cochini Jews Meld into Israel - Debra Kamin 
Encyclopedia of the Jewish Diaspora: Origins, Experiences, and Culture, Volume 1  By Mark Avrum Ehrlich
The Cochin community in Israel video 1, video 2


Because what you read matters…

Allen Lane, Pelican, Penguin and Krishna Menon

Was Allen Lane responsible for the animosity Krishna Menon had against Britain and for that matter against other Western countries?  What exactly was their relationship and for that matter the exact involvement of Menon with the paperback empire of Allen Lane? This had intrigued me for some time, so I got to work unearthing the details. It was an interesting journey, to say the least.

The story actually starts in Britain, during the second decade of the 20th century, with two high school going brothers Richard and Allen Williams, the latter being the older one by 3 years. The elder who had some aversion to sports, got involved in various kinds of mischief as the younger took to cricket. They were nephews of John Lane Senior who owned a reputed book firm named Bodley Head (named after Sir Thomas Bodley), which had been publishing among others, Oscar Wilde since 1887.

John Lane had a falling out with his partner Elkin Mathew and after the split, retained the name Bodley Head and moved to Piccadilly. In 1918, Allen was asked if he wanted to join his ageing 63 year old uncle in the book business. Allen was not sure if chasing and bedding girls were his passion or books. As the legend goes, he chose the latter and became Lane’s apprentice, office boy and dogsbody (a person who is given boring, menial tasks to do). There was one condition attached, that Allen had to change his surname to Lane from Williams which he did and soon after, and the 16 year old boy was at work at the Vigo St in London.

Richard moved to Australia to learn fruit drying and later joined the British armed forces there. By now, it was 1921 and Allen was not too enthusiastic with the way his life was going though he found opportunities to hobnob with high society, cultivating relationships with a large number of high level dignitaries and popular writers. Soon enough, he leapt up the ranks to become a member of the Bodley Head board and not much later, the company secretary.

But matters were however, soon to go south in the publishing scene. His uncle John Lane died of pneumonia in 1925 and in 1926, and Richard Lane came back from Australia. Publishing and financial problems occurred one after the other and Allen was in no end of trouble. But Allen’s desire to become big in the book world remained paramount, Richard became an editor in the family firm as Allen became the CEO as the third brother John joined to look after overseas exports.

But how did Krishna Menon from Calicut land up in the midst of these hyperactive brothers? Menon, after attending schools in Calicut, continued at the Zamorin’s college and then the Presidency College - Madras majoring in History and economics. Madras Law College was next, during which he got involved with the Theosophical movement of Annie Besant. In 1924, she sponsored his trip to Britain, for six months of further studies and to secure a teaching diploma. That 6 month plan extended for all of 26 years after Menon completed a teaching assignment at Hertfordshire. Menon then applied to the LSE and as fate would dictate, met Harold Laski. Laski would go on to introduce him to many labor party leaders in Britain as well as eminent writers and intellectuals. Menon also started to work in right earnest for the India league. He continued with his LSE studies obtaining a bachelors (studying at night) and two master’s degrees (his PhD application was not accepted as he was considered a disruptive student) and attended the Middle temple bar. Influenced by the freedom movement, he published numerous articles and leaflets and spoke at length at many meetings distinguishing himself as a fiery orator. He also got involved in British domestic politics as a labor party member.

Sheila Grant Duff the eminent journalist found him an impressive and rather frightening figure. She remarked in her memoirs that the Menon of those days appeared as if he had stepped out of the tomb of Tutankhamen, saturnine, emaciated and limping heavily on a tall walking stick. Other accounts show that he also had this disconcerting habit of announcing his own imminent death.

From here on, we start to notice an inconsistency in the various accounts relating to Menon’s association with the Lane brothers. We will see that Lane first admitted to a working partnership with the bookish Menon, but later changed his stance deciding to corner all glory for himself and scoff at Menon’s involvement in his business. Anyway let us find out how the matters actually progressed.

Lane biographer Jeremy Lewis records – When Lane got to meet Menon, he was a penniless agitator
and pamphleteer living off tea, potatoes and two-penny buns in a garret off Gray’s inn at near St Pancras. Menon was dallying around with India league matters but also had to earn a living and that is how he secured an editor’s position at Bodely Head. Ronald Boswell, Bodley Head’s director hired the serious minded, socialist leaning and serious looking V.K. Krishna Menon to work on a nonfiction series. Menon was what they called a ‘lightning fast reader’, who could finish a detective book in under an hour (In comparison his then colleague Allen Lane hardly read any book, but then Lane was the one who had the family connections).

From 1932 to 1936, V. K. Krishna Menon worked as an editor at the Bodley Head, launching a series called the Twentieth Century Library, which in the words of The Times, still provides ‘an intellectual thrill’, included authors like Eric Gill, J. A. Hobson, Noel Carrington, Norman Bentwich, Raymond W. Postgate, Naomi Mitchison, H. L. Beales, J. H. Drieberg, Theodore Komisarjevsky, David Glass, M. A. Abrahams, Ralph Fox and Winifred Holtby. He also edited another list named Topical Books working for Walter Hutchinson at Selwyn Blount which listed authors like Michael Foot, George Lansbury and Ellen Wilkinson.

It was during the Bodley Head phase and with Duff’s support that Menon’s path crossed with somebody who was to become a great player in world affairs and Independent India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru (they had casual meetings twice before). Nehru had just completed his autobiography while in a British jail and was looking to get it published in Britain.

In November 1935 Nehru met Menon the then Secretary of the India League in London and found him to be able and earnest, but with the virtues and failings of an intellectual. Menon was highly thought of in left-wing labor circles of London and Menon, assisted by Duff, took care of much of Nehru’s arrangements during that visit. 

Nehru had originally planned to get his book published by Unwin based on CF Andrew’s recommendation, but was very unhappy with the protracted discussions, the amount of editing done and the meagre terms offered. Menon dissuaded him from working with Unwin and persuaded Lane at Bodley Head to publish it. Stanley Wolpert explains that Lane quickly agreed to publish Nehru after meeting him in 1935 over a lunch and after reading the draft over a week’s period. Nehru was quite wary about presentation of his book for publication and had a lengthy correspondence with Menon before it came out to a resounding success.

Late in 1935, Bodley Head went into liquidation, and the following year it was bought by a consortium of the publishers George Allen & Unwin Ltd, Jonathan Cape, and J. M. Dent. Nehru who had not been paid his royalty in full, was recommended by Menon and others to sue Lane and the new owners, but he did not and finally a part of the remaining royalties as per British bankruptcy law (a solatium) was eventually paid by Unwin. Unwin says that he was originally a little wary about publishing Nehru’s book as he was not sure if the British Government would approve it, but later noted the irony saying that his deal would have proved better, financially.  

In the literary world, the market was getting tough and book prices were falling, Seven shillings and sixpence for a hardbound was too much for most people. With a new business plan of mass publishing of 20,000 copies per book to break even, the Lane’s decided on publishing a set of reprints as paperbacks priced at 6 pennies per book and to build a stock of 200,000 books. After toying with names like Dolphin Books and Porpoise Books, the team settled on Penguin Books and a young Bodley Head artist called Edward Young was sent off to London Zoo to sketch the birds and came up with the engaging logo. Ten out-of-copyright novels, short stories, and poetry collections were released simultaneously and sold at the low cost of six pence each, which is the equivalent of around $1 to $2 in modern currency.

By 1936, Penguin was incorporated on its own. There were three types of Penguin’s: novels, in orange and white jackets; detective stories, in green and white; and popular biographies, in blue and white. Booksellers were initially alarmed, and the brothers struggled to get an order for 70,000 copies against the budget of 200,000.

After a slow and agonizing start, buyers soon got to like what they saw and the order books swelled. In no time, sales soared and a Penguin got sold every 10 seconds. The brothers stockpiled books in the crypt of the nearby Holy Trinity church to deal with the deliveries! Within a year they had sold 6 million books and new authors were added to the list. George Orwell wryly commented, "The Penguin Books are splendid value for sixpence, so splendid that if other publishers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress them." George Bernard Shaw said, "If a book is any good, the cheaper the better." The successful brothers purchased a yacht. Allen’s book empire foundations had been laid.

It was in 1936 that Lane got the idea of starting the non-fiction Pelican series. Menon suggested that not only do the Lane’s do reprints, but also publish original works of famous authors. Krishna Menon lined up an impressive number of contacts, not only in the political but also in the educational world with his contacts. He was the one who introduced some of his influential acquaintances and friends to the Lanes.

Among these were the broadcaster and secretary of the British Institute of Adult Education, W. E. Williams, and H. L. Beales, LSE faculty member. They agreed that the books envisioned by Krishna Menon would be useful, promising their support. This is how the Pelican series came into existence. Krishna Menon became its general editor. The first title released was GB Shaw’s Intelligent Woman’s guide to socialism, capitalism, Sovietism and fascism, with Menon’s support. According to Madhavan Kutty, Shaw’s book never left Menon’s side till his death.

As Lengyl records - The early titles of the Pelicans reflected Krishna Menon's eclectic tastes. They included a reprint of one of his favorite books by Elie Halevy, A History of the English People; Julian Huxley's Essays in Popular Science; Vision and Design, by the English painter and critic Roger Eliot Fry; Social Life in the Insect World, by Jean-Henri Fabre, the French entomologist; The Mysterious Universe, by Sir James Jeans; Literary Taste, by Arnold Bennett; and Civilization, by Clive Bell, the art and literary critic. Subsequent volumes included works by Harold Laski, Krishna Menon's idol; the unbelievably prolific H. G. Wells; Harold Nicolson, famed as a diplomat and author; Sir Norman Angell, Nobel Prize laureate; and Wickham Steed.

By this time the Axis powers were throwing their weight around in the world Hitler's Germany, Mussolini's Italy, and the war lords' Japan. Krishna Menon waged his own cold war against them as the editor of the Pelicans. He published reprints of Blackmail or War?, by the "French Cassandra," Genevieve Tabouis, and Edgar Ansel Mowrer's Germany Puts the Clock Back.

Towards the fall of 1938, we see turbulence in the relationship between Lane and Menon and both seem to be complaining about each other. Lane arguing that Menon had not updated him on the progress with second list of books and Menon stating that Lane had not updated him on contractual negotiations with the authors. Lengyl opines – The unbusinesslike Krishna Menon had no contract with the businesslike Lanes, and so their cooperation faded into a dense cloud of misunderstandings.

There was perhaps another matter troubling Lane, as the British government had by that time started tracking Menon and labeled him as a communist sympathizer. We get a hint of it from Ethel Mannin’s later outburst to Lane that two of Lane’s editors John Lehmann and Krishna Menon ‘were communist’ and therefore Lane was also one by association. Perhaps the businessman in Lane was alarmed, even though he was also considered to be often leaning to the left.

What happened next was a confrontation in a Soho restaurant. Lewis narrates the event that took place, thus – The truth of the matter was that Lane, mercurial and easily bored found the austere and unconvivial Menon a far from kindred spirit and was happy to freeze him out. Menon lectured him for an hour in a Soho restaurant and Lane who could neither hear nor understand what Menon was trying to say, finally lost patience and called him a bottleneck, at which Menon stormed out in a rage. Menon, ill, undernourished and overworked, felt bruised and isolated. As Morpurgo emphasizes, there was no overt act of dismissal, instead he was eliminated by being ignored, his note unanswered, his editorial suggestions disdained.

As Menon was still continuing to spar with the Lane’s through his lawyer complaining about delays in replies and Lane’s inaction, Lane himself went away on a pleasure tour to India while his attorney Dick formally terminated Menon’s relationship with Pelican, paying him just GBP 125. Ironically Menon’s lawyer walked away with that money and characteristically, Menon forgave him stating that the man after all, had a wife and child, so perhaps had a greater need for the money. Lane on the other hand hobnobbed with Nehru in Delhi, spent a lot of money meeting bigwigs and maharajas and professed (or appeared to) shock at the bad conditions in India. Williams, the person Menon had brought in, took the ‘Allen’s favorite ‘position from then on and soon enough he and Lane became thick friends.

Thus ended the relationship between Lane and Menon. They did not part friends and Lane remained one among Menon’s bitter enemies. While Lane always remembered Menon with great animosity, Menon graduated to higher ground stating years later that he was always the first to read every Pelican released, even after leaving the firm. In the case of Lane, it was not so, Tony Godwin states that the mere mention of Menon’s name made Lane’s voice seethe with venom and that it gave him goose pimples just to see ‘that amount of animosity’ in another! Perhaps there was more to the enmity, we may find out some day….

When Lane visited India in 1938, he discovered that the Pelicans outsold Penguins in India, understanding that escapist literature was not fodder for the poor Indian student and he preferred to spend it on solid books which would help him secure a better life. Did Menon know this small fact? Perhaps not, but it would have gladdened him, for that was his always mission.

Lane’s biographer Stuart Kells on the other hand believes that Menon famously came to dislike anybody who reminded him of Allen, after this event: and that included English publishers, Englishmen, English speakers, Europeans and whites. Anyway as Lane’s fortunes surged, so did Menon’s. After the event, Menon wanted to start a publishing house and printing press at Calicut as well as a Malayalam newspaper according to Janaki Ram, but the idea never took off. He of course, went on to become the Indian High commissioner in London, a confidante of Nehru, a cabinet minister and all that…

Lane did well for a time, his decision to publish Lady Chatterley's Lover brought him acclaim and riches, as well as paving the way for a permissive society. On 1st July 2013 Penguin and Random House officially united to create Penguin Random House, the world's first truly global trade book publisher. The penguin series flourished and the Pelican series continued on till 1990 after which it was disbanded. It was revitalized, to take flight again in 2014.


Penguin and the Lane Brothers: The Untold Story of a Publishing Revolution - Stuart Kells
Allen lane – King Penguin – J E Morpurgo
An eventful chapter in Anglo US Publishing history – Victor Wheybright
Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: The Story of Indians in Britain 1700-1947 - Rozina Visram
The Business of Books: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing - André Schiffrin
Penguin Special: The Life and Times of Allen Lane - Jeremy Lewis
Krishna Menon - Emil Lengyel
A History of Cultural Studies - John Hartley
Nehru – A tryst with destiny – Stanley Wolpert

  1. The spin of Lane dreaming up the Penguin idea - The story goes that in 1934 Lane was returning by train from a weekend visit to Agatha Christie in Devon. He found himself on the platform of Exeter station and was not able to find any book worth reading. While travelling back to London he had the idea of producing good quality literature which could be cheap enough for a larger public to be able to buy, and could, perhaps be sold from a vending machine. He thought sixpence (the cost of a packet of ten cigarettes at the time) would be the right price at which to pitch the books. He broached this subject to his brothers and they agreed. This is a corporate story which people who have studied and written about tend to disbelieve since lane was not much of a reader. As they say the lie uttered often becomes a truth, for Lane many years later, when scoffing at Menon mentions vaguely of seeing a girl at Exeter or San Pancras station asking for Pelican books instead of using the term Penguin and that was how Pelicans were born!
  2.  R K Laxman states in 2004 - ‎Particular mention here must be made of Morarji Desai and V.K. Krishna Menon for sparing no effort to help me gain some modest success and popularity in my career – That was a surprise I got during all this research.
  3.  Menon and Freudian slip – The 1938 Pelican book advertisement on Freud’s book Psychopathology of Everyday life asks – Why do you forget things you ought to remember? Make slips of the tongue, of the pen? Do things you didn’t mean?.. It was perhaps this advertisement that brought in the usage Freudian slip to everyday conversation. One could attribute it to Pelican, Allen Lane or…for that matter Krishna Menon…You decide
  4. Wheybright who later suffered in similar fashion under Lane, recounts an event when Menon came rushing into the crypt stating that he had secured GB Shaw’s approval in publishing Shaw’s book as a Penguin. Lane who had a brainwave of starting the Pelican series after hearing the aforesaid woman’s mis-remark, decided to publish Shaw’s book as a Pelican instead (after arguments with Menon who said it may not be quite sound legally).
  5. It is also believed that Lane fought with Menon after Menon tricked him into publishing EM Forster’s ‘Passage to India’. But that does not sound right for ‘A Passage to India’ was published on 4 June 1924 by the British imprint Edward Arnold, and then on 14 August in New York by Harcourt, Brace and Co. Even if indeed a Penguin classics reprint was made in the late 30’s or early 40’s, the content of the book was well known to the public already!


Who achieved greatness, Menon or Lane?

Krishna Menon, the idealist, fared badly in the fickle public’s eyes– as the Times obituary said – A remarkable but unlikeable man who worked untiringly all his life for his country, yet never received a nation’s gratitude.

Allen Lane – Like most great leaders, Allen was a myth maker. Many of his myths were about himself, some were almost true, some close to being downright lies, and not a few half-truths made entirely because he had come to believe them. (JE Morpurgo- The King and I - Blackwoods magazine 1979).

Allen lane – courtesy Guardian UK, most others Wikipedia and Google images…thanks to the photographers and with due acknowledgment