Veeraswamy’s of London

Palmer’s Indian restaurant – And the interesting story behind it

During a trip to Gangarams in Bangalore many a decade ago, I found the cookbook, Indian Cookery by E.P. Veerasawmy. Some of the recipes in it were quickly mastered (the concept, that is) and became a staple in our kitchen. I had always believed, that the author was a Tamilian, named EP Veeraswamy. Later on in life, I passed by the Veerasawmy restaurant on many occasions while living in the UK, and believed that the same Veeraswamy once owned that restaurant. Recently, while studying the stories of Indians in the UK, I learned that Veerasawmy was an Anglo-Indian named Edward Palmer. The EP in the name stood for Edward Palmer and Veerasawmy was apparently, his alter ego. Note the spelling of Veerasawmy, for we will get into that later.

Edward Palmer (EP) alludes to the following about his native Indian parentage in his preamble to the cookery book, also telling us about his lifelong interest in watching, trying out and mastering Indian dishes. Quoting him - But more than all, I can remember with love and gratitude my mother - the greatest exponent of Indian cookery - inculcating in me the science and art of the Indian cuisine and explaining the dietetic value of the many spices, seeds, etc., and the nutritive value of various foods.

After some research, I discovered that Edward Palmer was the son of James Edward Palmer, an Anglo Indian, and initially read that his mother was one Annie Vasooramal, an East Indian. Later on, Palmer’s granddaughter, who I got in touch with, informed me that EP’s mother's name was Annie Ponnuswamy, the daughter of a Mr. P Thomas. James and Annie got married in 1850 and Edward was born in 1861, at Hyderabad, where his parents lived.

EP incidentally, belonged to the eminent ‘House of Palmers’ at Hyderabad, which once owned a banking institution that had collapsed decades before his birth.  Now, one could argue at length, about the Palmer bank mishap, if it was a result of the vindictive actions of the English Resident Metcalfe or it was Palmer’s miscalculations and wrongdoings. I will provide brief highlights of that story, if only to provide some perspective and also to debunk a lot of false information, out in the internet about EP and his origins.

The house of the Palmers was started by William Palmer ‘the king’. William Palmer, was incidentally, the Eurasian son of General William Palmer by his second wife, Faizunnissa Begum from the ruling family of the Nawab of Oudh. If one were to disregard the varnished reporting of the EIC residents at Hyderabad, and concentrate on contemporary studies on the Palmer affair, they would get a better understanding of how Charles Metcalfe, an autocratic EIC resident, manipulated rules to his company’s benefit. As such, then current British rules did not permit money lending by Brits in EIC territory or charging an interest rate greater than 12%. However, William Palmer was a Eurasian or Anglo Indian and together with a Gujarati named Benkati Das (and other English partners) advanced very large sums to the Nizam, much to the alarm of the British EIC. Strictly speaking, the action was taking place in Hyderabad, then not part of EIC territory, and Palmer did charge >12% interest.

After a career fighting and winning battles for the Nizam, Palmer settled to trade and banking but found a tough adversary in Metcalfe, who did not like competition to his outfit, the EIC. Another white Mughal Kirkpatrick was a good friend of his, so also William Hastings. Anyway, as matters progressed, the loan balances to the Nizam became too high, and the bank was taken to task and liquidated, and as a consequence, the Nizam had to trade the rich province of Berar, to the British. Metcalfe had hated his secondary position to Palmer in the Nizam’s eyes and was forever envious of the political power Palmer possessed, undermining British EIC overlordship. Anyway, the bank failed from Metcalfe’s manipulations, though the house of Palmers continued on and was eventually cleared off all their debts, with Metcalfe’s departure.

Edward Palmer (Veeraswamy) was the son of William Palmer’s third son, James Edward Palmer, the blind major of Secunderabad, who had married Annie Ponnuswamy. William ‘the king’ Palmer died in 1867.

Palmer tells us how he got to England - I can remember being sent to England to study medicine and, in the intervals of my study, looking down areas and watching bakers at work, staring into shops where sausages and onions were being cooked, and often wishing that I could fry fish and chips in the fish shops. In order to join up for medicine, he should have completed his schooling in Hyderabad, and he must have been around 18 years old, so I would believe that he landed up in London circa 1870. But he never got to study any medicine and I have not been able to figure out that part. We can however see that he got married in 1884 and had six sons, from his first wife. In total, he was apparently survived by 17 children through three wives Lucy, Adelaide and Merry May.

The book goes on to say that EP launched out in the production of food, both Eastern and Western. Indian cookery fascinated him, and for the next forty years, he devoted himself to it; lecturing and teaching in schools of cookery for Councils of Education in public halls for charity, in classrooms, in hotel and restaurant kitchens, at Exhibitions (including Wembley), and even at Aldershot to the military cooks at the request of the late General Lord French. In 1915, the same year his young son Stanley died in battle, he published the cookbook (While other sources mention 1936, I have a copy of a 1915 edition, scanned from the Birchanda library) through Arco Publishers London.

EP proudly informs readers of his book, that should they fail to get any major ingredient, they only needed to contact him at 15, Clarendon Rd for his ‘Nizam’ branded pulses, spices and condiments. In the book, he states that it was being published during the evening of his days (we can see that in 1915, he was 55 years old).

From this point onwards, Palmer’s story of kept changing, sometimes the handiwork of an enthusiastic reporter, sometimes through inputs from future owners of the Veerasawmy’s restaurant. Some books mentioned that he was a retired ex-serviceman from the British Indian army, others mentioned that he was a doctor and some others even went on to highlight his royal connections, e.g., that he was a direct descendant of the Nizam, etc.

Nevertheless, we can observe that Edward Palmer did move around in the guise of EP Veerasawmy from Madras while instructing or educating the public on Indian cooking. The name Edward Palmer would not have suited the image of an Indian chef, and Palmer did have South Asian looks. When you peruse his book, one would find a clear Tamil tilt to the recipes and names in there, with support from Madras linguists and the book is stated to be the effort of Palmer's alter ego - EP Veerasawmy, and there is no mention of any Edward Palmer. In a later edition, EP Veerasawmy is qualified as ‘the world’s foremost Indian Chef, who owns the famous Indian restaurant in London’. By way of qualifications, the following can be seen below his name – Gold Medalist: Indian Catering advisor to the Indian government, British Empire Exhibition, Wembley 1924-25. Founder of Veerasawmy and Co, Indian food specialists 1896, and of Veerasawmy’s India restaurant, 1926-30. There is a mention in the Palmer’s history that Edward served at the Ministry of munitions, but it must have been quite brief, and details are hard to come by.

Let’s get back to EP’s forays into the cooking scene. We see that he was conducting cooking classes for ladies, at Debenhams and Freebody on Wigmore St, in 1898, i.e., after establishing a unit purveying spices and condiments under the Nizam name. He also offered to provide private classes advertising his services as a Ladies’ newspaper put it – Considering India is part of Her Majesty’s dominions, we ought to be keenly interested in, and as ready to adapt Indian as continental!

A report states - Ladies shopping in the West End, who have lunched at Messrs. Debenham & Freebody's in Wigmore Street (where there is a first-class restaurant for the convenience of ladies shopping there), have much commented among themselves on the excellence of the curry supplied. The truth is that these curries are cooked by a first-class Indian chef, Mr.Veerasawmy, of Madras. At the end of January Mr. Veerasawmy gave a demonstration of Indian cookery to which many ladies had sent their cooks, many attending in person. Mr. Veerasawmy cooked a complete menu of Indian dishes, and the audience had the opportunity of tasting the result. The recipes were printed, to assist the audience in following the chef, who, clad in a superb oriental coat of crimson brocade and snowy turban, proceeded deftly with his task. His directions were clear and concise, expressed in excellent English. A more delicious chicken curry I never tasted. Mr. Veerasawmy deprecated the practice of cooking up cold meat and calling it a 'curry'. He insisted that raw, good meat only could produce a genuine curry. Alack! Few English cooks know what a curry is. ('Spinnings in Town', Myra's Journal, 1 March 1898: 11)

In 1906, he is mentioned again (Edwardian England – E Holland, 2014) as conducting a demonstration at the 17th Universal food and cookery exhibition, patronized by Queen Alexandra – where EP Veerasawmy MCA did a demo lecture entitled ‘Fish, flesh, poultry & vegetables! Now the MCA threw me off initially, but I believe it was the ‘Marine cookery assessment certificate’. The Epicure V6 (1888-89) mentions his lectures and daily demonstrations, adding - Mr. Veerasawmy, who is nowadays the most popular exponent of Indian cookery in this country, will, as the program shows, take a prominent part in the Cookery Demonstrations from day to day, while his firm, Veerasawmy and Co., of Madras and London, will make a display of their Nizam Curries and other Indian Culinary Specialties, opportunities for tasting which at their stand will, we believe, be frequently afforded to visitors….

The 1901 Kind Edward’s cookery book provides testimony to his ready mixes - Boiled rice is always served with a curry, either handed separately on a folded napkin or forming a border round the dish on which the curry is served. It is essential to use good curry-powder. Veerasawmy's curry-powder, paste and chutney will be found excellent.

Wembley Indian exhibition, the turning point

This was evidently a turning point in EP’s life. We can establish it from the following extract, taken out of the commissioner’s report of 1924. In the agreement signed on behalf of India, the Government of India reserved the right of having Indian curries and other dishes cooked by Indian cooks and Indian tea served possibly by Indian khitmatgars. Under the agreement, India, like the dominions, was to bear the cost of erecting and equipping the restaurant and in return to get 10 per cent, of the gross takings…Under the power reserved in our agreement, Messrs. Lyons were called upon to employ a certain number of Indian cooks ; and to supervise the cooking and the quality of the dishes, and generally to maintain the Indian character of the restaurant, to which the Government of India attached much importance, we appointed Mr. E. Palmer of Messrs. Veeraswami & Co., 11, St. Mary’s Road, Canonbury, London as Indian Adviser at the restaurant. Mr. Palmer comes from Madras, and has established a business in London in Indian curry powder, condiments, chutneys and pickles. His selection was happy, and the success of the Indian cafe was largely due to him. The Indian Cafe was not only appreciated by Indian visitors to Wembley who were able to get their vegetarian food, but was very popular with the British public. Since the close of the Exhibition, Mr. Palmer has had numerous inquiries, and I have myself passed on many to him. The demand for Indian food properly cooked and served is so great that at any future exhibition I should recommend the cafe to be built, at least, twice as large, and to be run as India’s own concern. Mr. Palmer estimates that on the average 500 portions of curry were ordered daily. The total takings at the Cafe were £26,657-11-2 and our share under the agreement came to £1,900.

Readers will take note that the writer of the official report one Mr Vijayaraghava Acharya, who spells the company name as Veeraswami and not Veeraswamy!! I must add here that most Veeraswamy’s in England and France at that time spelled their name as Veerasawmy! That was the way Sawmy was written, just as it is phonetically uttered in Tamil - Sami, not as Swamy!! All the stuff later doled out in various sources as a printing error, a twist to his mother’s name Veera etc were, I believe publicity connotations. Veera was neither his grandmother nor was Sawmy misspelt. Perhaps his mother Annie Ponnusawmy, fondly called him Veerasawmy, or as I feel, his full name may have been Edward Palmer Veerasawmy!! I also felt that it is simply not possible to call oneself Veerasawmy in public and in the press, for 30-40 years without reason or basis. So, the name was perhaps not an alter ego, but what he grew up with.

We read previously that EP taught Indian cooking at hotel and restaurant kitchens, and to military cooks at the request of the late General Lord French. Regarding the lessons at the military messes, we have to resort to conjecture. Lizzy Collingham, in her “Curry – A tale of cooks and conquerors’ mentions - In 1936 Edward Palmer, caterer to the Wembley exhibition of 1924–1925 and founder of Veerasawmy’s Indian restaurant, was invited to lecture to the army cooks at Aldershot on curry making. During the Second World War trainee cooks in the army catering corps were taught how to make curries by adding curry powder to a roux of flour and army stock books show that cooks were allotted supplies of curry powder each month. Slightly sweet yellow curries, dotted with raisins and made with fantastical fruits, were still served in British army messes in the 1970s and 80s…

Veerasawmy’s was finally opened in 1926 and Edward Palmer managed it for 4 to 6 years. It was not the first Indian restaurant, but was indeed the first high-end restaurant, catering to the upper class of Britain. Palmer mentions his disassociation from it around 1930, and we can also see that an MP William Steward acquired it in 1932/34. In 1928, Veerasawmy had extended his restaurant, and in 1933, yet another expansion and facelift were carried out. The reviews were glowing. It was considered to be the place to dine for the higher echelons of London society, as well as ex ICS and army blokes who had once lived in India. Soon it became a place to visit and many Indian events were hosted there.

Steward owned and ran it until 1967. Glowing reports stated - Veerasawmy's, “India in London, "as it is known all over the world, is the Mecca of all Epicures, while the owners exhorted - Don't stop here, carry forward the good will of fellowship and unity by entertaining your friends at Veerasawmy's, perfectly cooked Indian and English foods and irreproachable service in luxurious surroundings. A newspaper announced grandly -Veeraswamy's in Regent Street (London) conjured up a fantasmatic vision of imperial opulence, where there were tiger skins on the wall, where punkahwallahs worked the fans and where Indian doormen held umbrellas as customers returned. Most people agreed that EP retained a colonial atmosphere, with fawning uniformed waiters serving food suiting the palate of the fussy Englishman (The menu also had a few British items, for those queasy about Oriental food).

It had an interesting décor, which got copied later in many other Indian restaurants in the UK, with bright wallpaper, plates of Indian scenery on the walls, real Indian punkahs (manual fans) and punkah wallahs. The Indian waiters were attractively clothed in white with turbans and red sashes, serving up an Oriental dream, to the diners who came in.

In 1930 - 34, after it was sold to William Steward, Edward got down to academic pursuits, researching about his ancestry, writing about the Sanad given to his great grandmother Faiz Baksh, studying the collapse of his grandfather’s banking empire and what not. The Palmer family after William Palmer’s death were still apparently owed £250,000 plus interest by the Nizam and Edward Palmer, his grandson, our protagonist, tried to recover all or some of it with his sister Emma, but it was to no avail.

So, that was the story of the dining haven which EP created, and we are not going to go on with the subsequent owners of the restaurant, suffice to state that it continues to this day as a pricey, high-end destination in Central London, replete with a Michelin star - for those desiring to munch on something Indian and relive some of India’s colonial past.

Now for some interesting trivia - I don’t think many of you will know that an ex-president of Pakistan, Iskandar Mirza apparently worked as an accountant at Veeraswamy, after fleeing Pakistan following a failed coup.  Crime beat readers on the other hand may recall the Veeraswamy knife case, where the murderer Backary Manneh who once worked at the hotel was caught by Scotland yard, after he used a distinctive knife stolen from Veeraswamy, to stab Joseph Aku in 1951. After the murder, Backary Manneh ran off and was not found until after he went to the hospital with a wound caused during the struggle. Clinching evidence was the ‘Veeraswamy knife’! Many a dignitary graced the dining room at Veeraswamy’s and owners reel off names such as Gandhi, Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Krishna Menon, The prince of Wales, Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin Marlon Brando, Laurence Olivier, Vivian Leigh, and the list can be replete with many of today’s stars.

These days, the restaurant scene in the UK is mediocre, and most eating houses serve quickly conjured up concoctions based on standard curry pastes supplied by third parties, boiled with a protein of your choice, dressed up, garnished, and paired with rice or bread. Dals, Vindaloos, Kormas and Balti curries rule the roost, while Chicken tikka masala reigns supreme. Thanks to a tale about a Danish prince, beer got matched to Indian curries and so instead of wines, you have choice Indian lagers to accompany curry!

That my friend was the story of an Anglo Indian with Tamil origins, who left Indian shores to make his name in England, of his efforts at establishing Indian cooking in London, of his pioneering cookery book and of the establishment of Veerasawmy’s, a hotel which is one London’s premium culinary establishments, to this day.

On a personal note, I must add that Veeraswamy’s egg curry (Undah ka Salun) featured on page 80 of that 1915 book, has graced our dining table for over three decades, though slightly modified by yours faithfully. My wife, children and many guests would testify to its fine quality!!  

Thank you, Edward Palmer, or Veerasawmy, as you called yourself, so also your grandma Annie Ponnuswamy, for that. Rest in peace…

Indian Cookery – EP Veerasawmy
The Palmers of Hyderabad – Edward Palmer
Palmer and Company: An Indian Banking Firm in Hyderabad State - Karen Leonard (ModernAsianStudies 47, 4 (2013) pp. 1157–1184.© CambridgeUniversity Press 2013, doi:10.1017/S0026749X12000236 First published online 16 January 2013)
London 1900: The Imperial Metropolis - Jonathan Schneer
Armorial Families: A Directory of Gentlemen of Coat-armour - Arthur Charles Fox-Davies
Globalising Housework: Domestic Labour in Middle-class London Homes,1850-1914 - Laura Humphreys
Curry – A tale of cooks and conquerors – Lizzy Collingham
Report by the Commissioner for India for the British empire Exhibition – 1924
Star of India: The Spicy Adventures of Curry - Jo Monroe
Cannabis Nation: Control and Consumption in Britain, 1928-2008 - James H. Mills
Eating for Britain - Simon Majumdar

My thanks to Max Knudsen and Cilla (EP’s granddaughter) for their valuable inputs, also to Dr Karen Isaksen Leonard, historian and anthropologist, at the University of California, Irvine - the author of the referenced paper on the Palmer bank, for putting me in touch with the Palmer family.

And I learned two new words – Alack and fantasmatic!! The former means ‘an expression of regret or dismay’ whereas the latter means ‘an illusory likeness of something’.


Mohan Singh, the Enigma

The first Indian airman – Licensed to fly in 1912

It is not often that a story grips you, and this was one. We had all been brought up on reports that JRD Tata was the first Indian pilot, that he possessed the #1 license, and so on. But in reality, there was another pioneer from India who was licensed some 17 years before JRD! As you will see, Mohan Singh, that pilot, was an incredible character, his life every bit adventurous. Now you may wonder why I used the word enigma, and soon you will see that not only did he arrive into the limelight unannounced, but just like his arrival, his departure was abrupt, he simply vanished one fine day. Along the way, he recreated himself so many times, he was a daredevil pilot, doing stints as a butler and chauffeur, dabbling in real estate, and ending up as a Yogi. In between, he spent years fighting the US administration who had granted him citizenship but stripped him off it, reasoning that he was not a white man. What follows, is his remarkable story.

I am reasonably sure that many a quizmaster would expect the answer JRD Tata to the question about India’s first pilot, but from now on, state vehemently that it was Mohan Singh, licensed in 1912, just 9 years after the Wright brothers flew their aircraft and that this Mohan Singh, was a pioneer and a famous barnstormer of that period. Barnstorming was a form of entertainment in which stunt pilots from flying circuses flew throughout the US selling airplane rides and performing stunts. Now how on earth did a Punjabi Sardar end up in that mix?

Mohan Singh, born March 13, 1885, hailed from Himmatpura in the Moga district of Punjab province, British India. Just as the 20th century dawned, the agricultural revolution in Punjab which had started before Mohan was born, had taken shape and the region had suddenly become a huge and profitable agricultural colony. However, it was not very good for the rural Punjabi farmer, who ended up heavily indebted, especially after a number of famines and bouts of plague. New taxes and tough British acts alienated the common man. Thus, a huge emigration took place, towards US and Canada, and between 1903-08 some 3,000 Punjabis had landed up in the US (plus about 6,000 in Canada).

Though there was general unrest around this time in Punjab, perhaps poverty (Nihal Singh mentions – After taking a discharge from the Indian army, having heard from an American settled there, a rosy account of the wealth awaiting any man who had the enterprise to go there) must have been the reason for this young 18-year-old teenager to boarding a ship bound for the West. As we can gather, Mohan arrived in Cuba in 1903 and then boarded a vessel named Oratava bound for the mainland, arriving in the US in Feb 1904. He settled first in Chicago, where he worked as a domestic servant. Life was not so good for these early Punjabi’s and they faced a good amount of racism and discrimination. As the vast majority of them worked in California, most of them drifted towards CA (Sacramento and Imperial Valley) where other Sikhs had congregated. Sometime in 1910, Mohan Singh finally arrived in California with his meager savings. The tall, grim-looking, gaunt Sikh, now 25 years old, it appears, saw an advertisement in the newspapers that changed his life.

Act 1 – Taming the skies

Powered flight in America was pioneered by the Wright Brothers in North Carolina, and by the end of the first decade, they had brought flying to the mainstream. Glen Curtiss, who had been toying around with bicycles and motorcycles (dubbed the fastest man on earth – driving a bike at 236kmph!), got into the act and started making engines for planes. On June 8, 1911, Curtiss received U.S. Pilot's License #1 and commenced airplane manufacture, though regularly involved in litigations with the Wright brothers. Curtiss arrived in San Diego on January 1911, searching for a site for a training school to teach Army and Navy flyers. It was here that he developed his biplane, later the hydroplane, to become the father of naval aviation. He supplemented his income with a flight training school on North Island, near San Diego.

The Curtiss School of Aviation at North Island remained open for three short but fruitful years. During that brief period, Curtiss conducted remarkable experiments and produced equally remarkable students. Graduates, flying his reliable biplanes, set world records and became some of the most illustrious flyers in the world. Capitalizing on this success, Curtiss embarked on an advertising campaign to ensure a larger enrollment at the San Diego winter facilities. Curtiss charged $600 for the hydro aeroplane course and $500 for the regular class, which could be adjusted towards a purchase of a plane. In addition to military aspirants, civilian applicants were welcomed. And it was to one of these classes that our man Mohan Singh applied and got selected. The tall, brooding pilot to be, never smiled, talked little, and hardly ate or drank, making him stand apart. 

The 1911-12 season attracted a few foreign students. Among them were Mohan Singh from India, Motohisa Kondo and Kono Takeishi from Japan, and George Capistini of the Greek army. The third lady pilot to be, “Bird Girl” Julia Clark also enrolled, so also two married couples. Attired in leather caps and goggles, these fifteen students went out to the flat fields of North Island to learn the science of flying. Unfortunately for the instructors, teaching foreigners was not as easy, they had to give lessons in sign language which, as you can imagine was a hairy situation, high up in the air!

After nearly eight months of instruction, catching seagulls, and practicing flying, the winter training camp came to a close. In May, the Class of 1912 received their pilots’ licenses and became professional aviators. Mohan Singh, the “Flying Hindu” with license # 123 dated May 8th, 1912, of British Indian nationality, was one among them. That incidentally, was 17 years before Tata got his license in Feb 1929, and by that time, Mohan Singh was already into his final act!

During his stay in San Diego, he spoke sparingly, avoided meat and alcohol, but the newspapers tracking the ‘Hindoo pilot’ spun tales of his being a Hindu prince, a lieutenant, major or Captain from the Indian army on furlough and hailing from Bombay or Delhi. The aura of mystique, as well as his arresting personality, resulted in a number of press reports about the ‘World’s first Hindoo Pilot’.  

One news article said -The list of new aviators who have within the past week taken their licenses at the Curtiss Aviation Camp, here, reads like an Oriental city directory. They are: M. Kondo, Tokyo; J. Kaminski, Poland; Mohan Singh, Bombay, India; K. Takeishi, Yokohama. These are the newest flock of fledglings who have preened their wings at the San Diego aviary and who will return home to show their respective peoples the latest thing in the "Beachey flipflap" and the "Madman's Whirl," as practiced in America. Kondo has the distinction of being the first licensed aviator of his nationality, while Mohan Singh can make a similar boast as the only qualified flying man in all India. The San Diego Camp is the most cosmopolitan gathering of flyers and pupils ever assembled in this or any other country. Kondo and Takeishi will take Curtiss aeroplanes home with them, and Singh expects to do likewise. Kaminski likes America and will remain to thrill the county fair crowds in exhibitions.

In those early years, many of Curtiss’s students suffered crashes and a few died, including Julia Clark, the Bird Girl. The San Diego School of Aviation continued for one more winter until Curtiss’ lease expired in 1913. The U.S. Government then took over the hangars and landing field and established the Rockwell Field. Curtiss moved on to Florida. In fact, Mohan Singh was also injured and during one of his interviews with the press clarified that he was not deputed by the British Indian government, but was on his own and that he planned to fly a Curtiss machine to Ceylon and train some of his countrymen.

But contrary to that report, Mohan Singh did not return to India with his biplane, he moved to New York in January 1914, where he worked for Curtiss’s unit. He took to flying biplanes, participating as a daredevil barnstorming stunt pilot, in flying circuses and even accompanying Curtiss to Europe in 1914 to conduct hydroplane demonstrations. We also see that he was employed in Chicago briefly, by ER Hibbard who had purchased a flying boat and had employed Mohan Singh, one of the few licensed to fly it, as his pilot, to race about the Lake Michigan! In 1916, he was listed as a flier available during the war, but of Chinese nationality!!

A news article in 1913 states - Glenn H. Curtiss is sailing again for Europe, and expects to be there for several months, His immediate destination is the Paris show, but most of the winter probably will be spent in Italy. With Mr. Curtiss will be Mohan Singh, a Hindu from the Punjaub. Singh has been in America for the past three years. He became interested in aviation in 1910, joined the Curtiss training camp at San Diego, and few a Curtiss land machine for a year or more. With the development of the hydro aeroplane he took up water-flying and in due course qualified as a flying boat pilot. He is one of the few licensed pilots operating three types of machines. Singh's present intention is to make his way to India by easy stages. There he hopes to take some part in the development of aviation in his country. En route he will make a short stop in London. Singh's real ambition is to find among the wealthy Indian visitors of the metropolis some multimillionaire rajah who would like to navigate the Indus at a speed of a mile a minute in a Curtiss flying boat. Well, nothing came out of it as far as I know and Mohan did not go to India.

Act 2 – Taking on the Constitution

The money was perhaps not very good or Mohan was bored, by 1916, he settled down in Los Angeles to work again, as a butler and chauffeur for a wealthy family.  He also decided to settle down for good in the US and applied for naturalization, but in those days when color was paramount, his application was turned down with the notation ‘not a white man’. He appealed together with his lawyer SG Pandit, citing the cases of the Parsi Balsara and a Sardar Bhagwat Singh, and the federal court judge reversed the decision two years later, on the conviction that high caste Hindus of Aryan stock, were Caucasians! The judgment from District Judge Bledsoe mentions - In the absence of an authoritative declaration or requirement to that effect, it would seem a travesty of justice that a refined and enlightened high caste Hindu should be denied admission on the ground that his skin is dark, and therefore he is not a 'white person’….

Mohan Singh decided to change his name in March 1922 to Harry Mohan (His full name was apparently Hari Mohan Singh) and dropped the Singh since it was often confused with the Chinese surname Sing. Seven years passed by, Harry Mohan was still in California but embroiled in some sleazy land dealings (buying plots of land in burial grounds) and as we note, was swindled out of his savings.

Making matters worse, the Thind case outcome in 1923, hounded him. One Bhagat Singh Thind was denied citizenship in a landmark case, also affecting others who had previously attained US citizenship. Harry Mohan was one of them, his citizenship was canceled in 1924. Ironically the judge who decided this was the very same judge who had granted him citizenship earlier!! The definition of Caucasian had been modified and Hindus would not any longer qualify as Caucasians.

In Feb 1924, Bledsoe ruled, based on the fact that Mohan Singh had testified as a Hindu - In each case the right to a cancellation of the naturalization of the defendant is based upon the allegation, admitted by the motion to dismiss, that defendant is and was a high-caste Hindoo of full Indian blood, and as such not admissible to citizenship in the United States of America under the provisions of section 2169 of the Revised Statutes (Comp. Stat. § 4358). That such an individual is not admissible to citizenship may not now be questioned in this court. United States v. Thind, 261 U. S. 204, 43 Sup. Ct. 338, 67 L. Ed. 616.Where, however, the case is that the person presenting himself as an applicant for citizenship admits that he belongs to a particular race, members of which are not eligible for naturalization, then no question of conflict of evidence arises, and upon the applicant's own petition or testimony, or both, naturalization must be denied.

"Free white persons” within the meaning of section 2169 of the Revised Statutes (Act of June 29, 1906, 34 Stat. at L. 596) was construed to mean Caucasians in the popular and not in the ethnological sense. The instant case overrules a previous decision. In re Mohan Singh (1919, S. D. Calif.) 257 Fed. 209.

To this day Mohan Singh’s case is studied and quoted by immigration lawyers and law schools, read together with Thind’s ruling. In those dark days where color and race were paramount, the Punjabis in America led a tough life, not able to bring in their families or cohabit with white people, many marrying Mexican immigrants to raise alter families. As far as I could gather, Harry Mohan remained single.

Act 3 – Yogi Hari Ram

What would you think our man Harry Mohan did? I don’t know very much about the mental state of the slighted Sardar, but it was a period in America when the mysterious East was becoming popular. And so, Harry Mohan simply reinvented and launched himself as Dr Hari Mohan - Yogi Hari Ram, the master of levitation, the disciple of the absolute, and a metaphysician, from India! Donning Ochre robes, and sporting a beatific smile, Yogi Hari Ram was prepared, he had been studying yoga books and attended training classes with Paramahamsa Yogananda.

Already well versed with the way things were done in the US, he had a clear business plan. It was to go big, advertise all over with buzz phrases (miracle man, secrets never revealed before, free, last chance, money-back guarantee, only chance, practical demo - not theory, once in a lifetime, he will never return) and launch lecture sessions across the country. Perhaps he had a chip on his shoulder after the citizenship fiasco, perhaps it was an act of revenge, I don’t know, but he decided to gup and grab some money from the gullible, and in return, he would give them ‘9 keys’ to life improvement. Dr A Lewis Allen his manager would have helped him fine-tune the package.

He had to differentiate his package and so it was called ‘Super Yoga Science’ coupled with levitation classes (that got a lot of people going!) yogic exercises and breathing demonstrations, and all kinds of other esoteric stuff mixed in. Classes were announced and from the beginning, it was clear that the Yogi’s presence would be short-lived, that he would be gone by 1928.

People, get ready to take the classes before the Yogi goes away!!

Thomas Masson, the famous Anthropologist noted - I suppose the best teacher from India who ever came to this country was Yogi Hari Rama. I am told that his birth was registered in his native place in 1828. He is therefore over one hundred and looks from his picture like a man of thirty-five, with wonderful penetrating eyes. Of course, that was incorrect and he heard wrong, Mohan Singh was born in 1885 and was 40 in 1925.

Dr Hari Mohan thus taught Hindu and yoga Philosophy traveling across California. In 1926, he was popularly known as Yogi Hari Rama and hit various US cities giving classes on ‘Super Yoga Sciences’. His book detailing all this was already published i.e., Yoga System of Study: Philosophy, Breathing, Foods and Exercises (H. Mohan, 1926). By 1927, reports stated that he had many thousand followers, with some even claiming that he was able to walk on water, but only in an emergency. The book which he published is available online, so you can take a look, fairly harmless and complete with yogic recipes!

Several hundred students gathered for his lectures and classes, and 12 (six men and six women) were initiated as apostolic disciples to further spread the ‘yoga science’ - which concentrated on the three mental states of sub-consciousness, consciousness and super-consciousness. This would he said, awaken latent powers through strict living and eating habits and various exercises. Anyway, it was all wildly popular during its time. He gave lectures on consciousness, vibrating from conscious to super consciousness, the seven seals, path of truth, spirituality, Christ and the Hindu, mystic and occult power, mantra chanting, reincarnation and what not!

He resorted to some hocus pocus and mumbo jumbo as well, like breathing noisily through his ears, with his nose and mouth closed, lifting three fat men on his tummy, talking in what people believed was Sanskrit (most people said it was unintelligible, must have been Punjabi) interspersed with American slang, showing color slides of Indian monuments etc. A 1926 news report quoted Hari Rama stating that sending prana to affected areas could cure most diseases, that he had received his teaching in ancient Sanskrit, and that he was more than 100 years old, expecting to live to a 200!

Though not emphasized by him, the Benares League of America which was an offshoot of this program, was quickly the most widespread organization (50 chapters) of its kind in the United States, by 1928. Some researchers even believe that there was a guild of some kind, working to maximize Yoga business in USA and that Mohan Singh had been drawn into such a caper.

Was he also somehow associated with the Ghadr movement? Circumstantial evidence points to such a link since Surendra Mohan Bose who was arrested in India in 1914 had a photo of Mohan Singh, the pilot as well as his Chicago address, in his pocketbook.

Act 4 Samadhi – Vanishing act

In August 1928, as advertised in advance and reemphasized, a supposedly rich Yogi Hari Ram, a.k.a. Harry Mohan, a.k.a. Hari Mohan Singh, vanished from the surface of this earth, never to be seen or heard of, again.

Some chapters of the Benares League survived for a few more decades, and by the 1960s hardly any trace of Yogi Hari Rama or his League remained. He and his yoga movement vanished without a ripple, without complaints from people getting bilked out of their life’s savings, or women getting groped or assaulted. Nor were there any mentions of psychedelic drug usage, or of the guru enriching himself or flitting about in Rolls Royce cars, leading a high life in mansions replete with orgies, or the such.

Was it so that he had an immigration deadline to depart US in 1928 and left as he should have? It is rumored that he went to India, but that would be interesting – he had no US citizenship or passport and his British Indian Citizenship may have been rescinded, so how did he travel back? Researchers opine that his appearance fees could have resulted in huge collections, perhaps totaling to millions, but I wonder how Mohan could have got all that money across to India, during those pre-war years!

If anybody can help me complete Acts 5 – Hari Mohan Singh’s days after leaving US, I’d be obliged…

As I mentioned at the outset, he was indeed India’s first pilot but well, very much the enigma.

The many lives of Mohan Singh, a pioneering aviator who conned America as a yoga guru - Philip Deslippe ( Many thanks for helping me lead my studies, with his succinct article.
Yoga system of study – Yogi Hari Rama (H Mohan)
The Benares League of America (1928-1930) – Franklin Merrell Wolff fellowship site
Franklin Merrell-Wolff: An American Philosopher and Mystic: A Personal Memoir - Doroethy B. Leonard
Benares League of Portland, Oregon records, Berkley online record (date of arrival etc)
Aerial Age, Volume 1, Issue 1 (advertisement picture)
Aero and Hydro, Volume 4
Aeronautics: The American Magazine of Aerial Locomotion, Volumes 12-13, Volumes 13-14
Hundreds of news clippings from US newspapers – Yogi Hari Rama

Note: Do not confuse Hari Mohan Singh with Manmohan Singh, another aviator who trained later in the UK, flew a Pussy Moth and was a contemporary of JRD Tata.