The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project is a university-chartered research center associated with the Department of History of The George Washington University
India And The Awakening East (Excerpts)
New York: Harper & Bros., 1953
The Changing India
From Bombay we headed south for Trivandrum, the capital of the state of Travancore-Cochin. This is the south-west tip of India, and luxuriantly tropical country. As we flew down the coast I noticed what looked like a long lagoon or kind of inland waterway, such as the one that runs down our Florida coast. The water was dotted with numbers of fishing craft with huge nets hanging form the masts and little copra-filled boats covered with matting in the stern, propelled by a stern oar and a man with a pole at the bow. I decided then it would be fun to see something of the canal life, so when I learned on reaching Government House that there was no fixed program for the afternoon, I joyfully said I should like to drive through the country and go out on the canal in one of the little boats.
Trivandrum is charming, small, very clean and tidy, and its roads are bordered with tropical trees and shrubs. It is densely populated, however, so that driving anywhere has one unpleasant feature: you are obliged to honk your horn incessantly to clear a way through the crowded streets and roads. Very little attention is paid to the honks, but they do help to open up a path now and then. It makes things most disagreeable as far as conversation is concerned and you have an uncomfortable feeling that you must be making anything but a pleasant impression on the people you are shoving aside so that you may pass more quickly. However, nobody seems to mind.
We ended up finally at what seemed to be some kind of boat club. There were many interesting-looking river boats about, and I should have liked to go aboard one, but a rowboat and a motorboat were waiting at the dock for us. As we were getting out of the car, our local Indian escort suddenly said: "Madame is expected at a reception this afternoon."
I looked a little surprised and said: "Is there a reception? There is nothing on my schedule." Then, deciding it must be simply a social affair, I said: "It will not matter if I am a little late," and stepped into the boat.
The natives evidently were not accustomed to rowing, so Mr. Atal, my Foreign Office escort throughout the trip, and Dr. Gurewisch took over the oars. We were out for about half an hour. Along the shore were little huts and swarms of children, with the peculiarly fat little bellies that tell of undernourishment. We saw more of the small copra boats and many odd varieties of birds and fish. I was enjoying it all thoroughly, but still I had an uneasy feeling, so as son as we got back to shore I hopped out, told the others to have a good time and do anything they wanted to, and made my way immediately to my now frantic guide and said I was ready for the reception. Then haltingly he told me that this was a formal reception of welcome, given by the governor of the state. Again I had to consider whether I should go back to Government House and change into my formal clothes, having already kept people waiting, or go as I was. I decided not to take the time to change; but even so everyone had been waiting nearly half an hour by the time I arrivedfar longer than I had kept the people waiting in Bombay. I am sure they were annoyed, and I really suffered, but they were very kind and I felt forgiven after I had made my apologies. It was obvious that they had made elaborate preparations. Two children sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" and then the Indian national anthem I was formally greeted and after I made my speech in return, I received the freedom of the city, written on a scroll contained within a beautifully carved ivory box. With each new attention I felt increasingly guilty.
That evening we dined with His Highness, the Rajpramukh of Travancore-Cochin. Travancore had seemed to me such a prosperous and tropically lush countryits very name means "Where the Goddess of Prosperity Dwells"that I could hardly believe it when I was told that here too food was a serious problem. The arable land does not raise more than 40 per cent of the food they need and in the past few years they have suffered a serious drought. Coconut trees are their most valuable crop, furnishing not only copra, the dried meat from which coconut oil is pressed, but fiber for rope, while the inner shell of the coconut can be burned for fuel. Even the leaves of the tree are used to thatch roofs or are woven into mats or the brad-brimmed hats so many of the people wear.
They explained to us at dinner the unique and curious system of succession in the royal families of Travancore and Cochin. It has elements of a matriarchy in that, though a man is always the ruler, the succession is through the male side of the family. The Maharaja is followed on the throne not by his son, but by his brothers in order of their age. When there are no more brothers, succession passes to the sons of their mother's sistersthat is, the oldest male cousin. When these are exhausted, the sons of the next female generation take up the succession. Under this system a woman remains in her own home when she marries, and her children are supported by her family; her husband lives in her home or not, as he chooses.
We were entertained that evening with some of the most superb dancing and acting we saw on the entire trip. Wonderfully costumed and masked, the performers enacted an old folk talesomething like an early morality playdealing with the sin of personal pride and its inevitable downfall. As in all Indian dancing and acting, every least gesture and movement has a special meaning and is carefully learned. We were told that no dancer, as the actors are all called, is allowed to appear in a play until he has had at least eight years of training.
The people of southern India are much darker than they are in other parts of the country. They are descendants of the Dravidian tribes who were living in India even before the Aryans from the north made their way down through the Khyber Pass about four thousand years ago. It is here in south India too that almost half of the country's six million Christians are concentrated. St. Thomasthe "doubting Thomas" of the Bibleis believed by many to have been the first Christian to come to India; it is said he landed on the coast of Travancore, converted many Brahmans to Christianity and built a number of churches. According to the same tradition, he died in India a martyr on this return from a trip to China and is buried not far from Madras.
Among her other distinctions, Travancore has the highest literacy rate in India50 per cent compared to an average of 10 per cent for the rest of the country. More than 60 per cent of her children now attend school. Elementary education is free up to the fifth grade; after that one rupee a monthabout twenty centsis charged for each child in what they call the secondary schools...
Hyderabad is one of the former princely states which enjoyed a treaty relationship with Great Britain, whom it recognized as the paramount power. It is governed by the Nizam of Hyderabad (now the Rajpramukh), or to give him his full title: His Exalted Highness mir Osman Ali Khan, Asaf Jah VII, Nizam of Hyderabad and Berar. A legendary figure of enormous wealth and parsimonious habits, he had ruled Hyderabad almost as an Oriental potentate with vast powers over his subjects. I was told that he had an eye for the ladies, and when visiting would frequently suggest that he would like to take one of his host's daughtersusually a particularly attractive oneunder his protection, and ask that she be sent to the palace. This often meant that the young lady was never seen again.
At the time India became independent, and the princely states were, in effect, given the choice of joining either India or Pakistan, the Nizam stalled and dillydallied. A devout Moslem, and a direct descendant of the Mogul Emperor's Viceroy, he had no desire to come under the control of Hindu Indiaeven though 86 per cent of his subjects were Hindus. Actually he wanted to an independent monarch, with Hyderabad as his private and separate domain. However, anyone who studies the situation of Hyderabad, in the very heart of India, can see how impossible this was. Its geographical position, its overwhelming Hindu population, the fact that, though one of the largest and richest states in the country, it was by no means self sustaining, meant that its interests and its very life were inextricably bound up with India's. Nevertheless the Nizam continued to procrastinate for a year, while relations between Hyderabad and India grew steadily more tense. Not until September, 1948, after a show of power and a "police action" on the part of India, did he finally give in and bring Hyderabad into the Indian union.
Mr. Vellodi, our host while we were there, is an adviser to the Chief Minister of the state. His wife, an active member of the All-India Women's Conference, is, as I quickly found, keenly alive to the social and economic problems of India and one of the many women I was fortunate in meeting who recognized that they must assume a share of the responsibility for solving them.
The first day we spent in Hyderabad was the beginning of the Holi carnival, an ancient Indian festival when people gather in the streets and throw brightly colored dyes at one another. I understand that the dyes are made of talc tinted with a color and mixed with crushed mica; whatever their composition they are most effective: the streets, people's clothes and hair and skin are brilliantly stained for several days. This first day of Holi the fun seemed fairly mild and most of the participants were young people. Nevertheless, having no spare clothes to throw away, we took no chances and tried to stay out of the way of the revelers.
We drove through different parts of the city, and occasionally got out and walked, taking pictures and looking into shop windows. This I discovered later was an unheard of procedure for a lady; she is supposed to stay in her car or carriage and have the shopkeeper bring out to her whatever she wishes to see. We strolled down the street of the silversmiths, looking at their wares, down a street where all the lovely tinsel ornaments are made, and along another street where beautiful silk embroidery is done. I was told that the people who do this exquisite work never use a pattern; they know the designs so well they do not need to trace them on the material.
Hyderabad is a walled city with, I believe, eight gates. Toward the end of the day we visited one part of the fortifications surrounding the old capital. The light as the sun set and the moon rose on the walls gave the scene a fairyland look, and we climbed up inside the fort and stood on the top of a wall that looked over the great plains. The next day we went back and saw the main gate whose heavy doors are studded with iron spikes. In the days when the fort was built, back in the sixteenth century, elephants were often used in battle, and during an attack acted as battering rams to break down the doors of a fort. The purpose of the iron spikes was to discourage them from making this kind of charge.
As you come through the doors, there is a kind of archway leading both to the right and to the left; either way takes you eventually to the top of the hill and the last fortress inside the outer walls. Any horse or even person passing through the arch creates an echo which can be heard on top of the hill; this in the old days served to warn the emperor or his generals of the approach of either friend of foe.
We stopped at a large bathing pool which is the water supply for the people of the villages inside the walls, and where they also immerse themselves before performing their religious rites. If you give a shout at the entrance to the pool, here too an echo comes back three times from the top of the hill.
At the end of the morning we lunched with the Prince of Berar, the Nizam's heir. He is a youngish man and rather stout. His wife spends much of her time in England with their two sons, who are being educated there. The Prince seems pleasant but not particularly interested in anything beyond his own affairs and surroundings. I rather doubt whether he will develop into one of India's liberal leaders, but it is always difficult to be sure until a man has had an opportunity to give expression to his own interests. I suspect that under his father the Prince is not a position to do much on his own.
During lunch I had to leave the table for a press conference, which was quite a nuisance. However, this seemed to mean a great deal to the newspaper people everywhere I stopped, so I always tried to give them an opportunity to question me...
We arrived in Agra early enough in the afternoon to drive out to an interesting, old sixteenth-century fort that was built by Akbar, the grandson of Baber, the Asian prince who established the first Moslem dynasty in India. Akbar was probably the best and the wisest of Mogul emperors, a daring and resourceful general who conquered large parts of India, a tolerant and humane ruler who had the trust of both Moslems and Hindus, and as nearly as possible in that day unified the country. His courts at Agra and Delhi were centers of learning where musicians, writers and artists of all sorts congregated. He was also the grandfather of Shah Jehan, who came to power about the time Louis XIV was king of France and the Massachusetts Bay Company was being established in America. And it was Shah Jehan who built the Taj Mahal.
I must own that by the time we got to Agra I was beginning to feel we had seen a great many forts and palaces and temples and mosques. I realized that I was no longer viewing them with the same freshness of interests and appreciation that I had felt during the early part of my visit. I think the others felt much the same way, which may have been one reason why we had all been talking more and more about the fact that no letters from home were reaching us. I had even cabled for news of my family. Therefore when we got back to Government House after our visit to Akbar's fort, though we knew we should leave immediately to get our first glimpse of the Taj Mahal at sunset, we all pounced on the letters we found waiting for us, and could not tear ourselves away until the last one had been read. Then, to our dismay, we found we had delayed too long; by the time we got to the Tajabout six-thirtythe light was beginning to fade.
What I have just said about feeling jaded cannot apply to the Taj. As we came through the entrance gallery into the walled garden and looked down the long series of oblong pools in which the Taj and the dark cypresses are reflected, I held my breath, unable to speak in the face of so much beauty. The white marble walls, inlaid with semi-precious stones, seemed to take on a mauve tinge with the coming night, and about halfway along I asked to be allowed to sit down on one of the stone benches and just look at it. The others walked on around, but I felt that this first time I wanted to drink in hits beauty from a distance. One does not want to talk and one cannot glibly say this is a beautiful thing, but one's silence, I think, says this is a beauty that enters the soul. With its minarets rising at each corner, its dome and tapering spire, it creates as sense of airy, almost floating lightness; looking at it, I decided I had never known what perfect proportions were before.
Everyone, I imagine, knows the story of the Taj: how Shah Jehan, who raised many beautiful palaces and tombs and mosques, built this, the most perfect of all, as a tomb for his lovely Persian wife, Mumtaz Mahal, so that in keeping with the promise he had made her, her name might be known forever. It is said he hoped sometime to build a tomb for himself of black marble on the other side of the river, to be connected to the Taj Mahal by a bridge. Before this dream was ever realized, however, he was deposed by his youngest son, Aurangzeb, and imprisoned in a wing of the palace. During his last days, so the story goes, he had his bed carried out to one of the courts from where he could look across at the tomb of the beautiful Mumtaz.
The white marble of the Taj symbolizes the purity of real love; and somehow love and beauty seem close together in this creation.
We returned in the evening to see it in the full moonlight, as everyone says you should, and though each time I saw it was breath-taking, perhaps it was most beautiful by moonlight. We could hardly force ourselves to leave, and looked at it from every side, unable to make up our minds which was the most beautiful. I think though I liked my view from the bench halfway down the reflecting pools, possibly because water is so precious in India that it enhances everything.
Early the next morningat seven-thirty to be exactwe visited the Taj again to see it in the clear daylight. It was still impressive and overwhelmingly lovely, but in a different way; and the marble looked slightly pinkish, as though it was being warmed by the sun.
As long as I live I shall carry in my mind the beauty of the Taj, and at last I know why my father felt it was the one unforgettable thing he had seen in India. He always said it was the one thing he wanted us to see together.
Our interlude of private sight-seeing over, we went on to Jaipur, which is now the capital of Rajasthan, an immense state in northern India formed by the union of the former princely Rajput states. In the age scale of India's cities, Jaipur is fairly modern, for it was founded in the eighteenth century by Jai Singh who made it the capital of his state. This was about the time the great Mogul empire was beginning to fall apart, following the death of Aurangzeb, and India was entering some dark years. But Jai Singh was a remarkable ruler: as a statesman he managed to keep his territory intact; as a mathematician, scientist and astronomer he was familiar wit the latest Western developments in his fields and established a number of fine observatories. As a city planner he combined both taste and wisdom. The city of Jaipur, which he designed, is surrounded by a high, crenelated wall; its wide regular streets are laid out in a kind of gridiron pattern, and all the buildings are painted pink, sometimes with ornamentation in white. It is really a delightful city, with a pleasant residential district and a lovely palace whose grounds must cover fully a seventh of the city area. The present Maharajah, who now governs all Rajasthan as its Rajpramukh, is a progressive, well-traveled and highly Westernized young man who keeps very busy with his government duties. Holi, a harvest festival, was still being celebrated when we were there, and the Mharajah's clothes and skin, like those of everyone else we saw, were thoroughly stained with many colors. He told us they would simply have to wear off, for the could not be washed away.
Mr. Atal, our Foreign Office guide, who seemed to have relatives in many parts of India, told us that his father lived in Jaipur and that his little boy was with him, attending school. His wife we were to meet later in Allahabad, where she was visiting her mother.
Mr. Atal's father, we discovered, had a charming house with many rooms, courts, and running water and above all a wonderful rose garden. He makes a specialty of importing roses from all over the world, and was importing some for the gardens of the Government House, which we saw later and which are really spectacular.
Our Mr. Atal was trained in the Indian Civil Service under the British; he was thoroughly familiar with the Western customs and Western ways of thinking, but he also had a deep knowledge of his own country and his own people. It was a combination that made him and excellent escort for our trip and I felt very fortunate in having him with us. The day we were in Jaipur he was as excited as any young father might be to see his small son, and kept him with us as much as he could during our brief visit.
The boy and his father had an accident the morning we were there when their car was run into by a truck at a cross street. It might easily have proved very serious, but for a wonder neither was badly hurt, though both were shaken up and suffered a considerable shock and reaction. However, when they first told us about it, they made it sound as though nothing important at all had happened.
We stayed wit the Maharajah and his very charming wife at Government House; and in the late afternoon drove out about five miles to see the fine old palace in the deserted city of Amber, which had been the capital before Jaipur was built. Now, they told us, it is inhabited only by snakes and tigers.
We had in Jaipur our only chance to ride on an elephant. Miss Corr and Dr. Gurewitsch took it, and said it was quite comfortable, but felt rather strange to move so slowly and majestically high up in the air above everyone else. I have been annoyed with myself ever since that I let myself be kept from trying it.
In the days when the Indian principalities were more or less independent, the prince of Jaipur used to hold magnificent parades three times a year for the people. On these occasions the elephants and horses and camels were decked out in unbelievably gorgeous trappings, so elaborate and so heavily ornament that it took, I believe they said, ten men to carry the caparison that went on an elephant under the howdah or seat in which one rides. To my delight they brought out all this equipment and put it on the animals so we could see how they had looked in on the animals so we could see how they had looked in the parades. I must say it is a pity that it is no longer used.
The last day we were there it was suggested, among the possible choices, that we go out to see an old temple in the woods near the city, inhabited by swarms and swarms of monkeys who are attracted to it by the food they are given by visitors. It was always difficult when we were given alternatives, but I was glad we elected to see the monkeys. Though they infest India, we had not so far happened to see them in great numbers, and I found them extremely amusing. Some of them behaved like naughty children and their mothers cuffed them with resounding whacks which would not have been approved of in modern education but which seemed acceptable and decisive in the monkey world.
We were back at Government House in time for lunch, after stopping for a moment to see a school for poor children in which the Maharani was interested. Luncheon was served in a charming summer house on a lawn surrounded by high hedges. At the end of the garden a big tree shaded an extremely modern California outdoor grill, which they had recently imported from Hollywood. The Maharani was distressed because it did not work well, so I tried to look professional as I examined it, but it was so much more elaborate than anything I have at home I could only tell her that she would have a Californian explain it to her.