On that recent visit to Tranquebar that I wrote about a few weeks ago (Miscellany, November 28), I was told that it was from in and around the town that hundreds of people had gone to South Africa in the early 20th Century both as indentured and free labour. Several of them had been deported back after that first Satyagraha movement Gandhiji had launched while in South Africa. After he returned to India, on January 9, 1915, one of the first places he visited on his South Indian tour was Tranquebar where he wanted to visit some of those who had been sent back from South Africa.

When he arrived in Tranquebar on April 30, 1915, among the crowd waiting for his arrival from Mayavaram were over a hundred persons who had participated in the South African satyagraha. But one whose face he missed there was a person who would never return; she had passed away in South Africa, worn out by the struggle, when she was just 16 years old (Miscellany, August 31, 2009).

Thillaiyadi Valliammai, a satyagrahi Gandhiji had much admired in South Africa, was from one of the villages near Tranquebar, Thillaiyadi. On June 1, Gandhiji visited the village; it was the first village he had visited in South India, it was later recorded. There he was moved by the plight of its Dalits and legend has it that this was what made him commit himself to the uplift of the Dalits in the country.

The struggle by the Indians for a place in the South African sun was to go on for many years after the launch of that first Satyagraha movement. But from a hundred years ago this year they were not to be joined by newcomers from India. On July 1, 1911, indentured labour from India to South Africa was banned by the Government of India.

The first indentured labour from India, mostly Tamil and Telugu peasantry, left from Madras 151 years ago aboard the s.s Truro. The last ship to bring Indian labour to the sugarcane plantations of Natal was the s.s. Umlazi in 1911. That is a history that has recently been remembered in South Africa with a series of commemorative stamps.

A biography in a bottle

Biography as history is something I've written about before in this column as something I wished everyone would record. At a recent Madras Book Club meeting, however, a member handed me a book saying that it was an example of something I had talked about often enough, but it was also an example that dated to World War II and told the story of a couple of decades preceding it. Someone had my idea, it would seem, but long pre-dating my talking about it. And why shouldn't that be! It's an idea as old as time, man over the ages leaving many a record of what he had done. Only not enough such recording had been done, and I have been urging everyone I know to leave behind a record of his or her life.

The book that was given to me to read was, thus, in this context, not particularly out of the ordinary. But the history of the book certainly was.

Robert Browne, popularly known as ‘Quintus', saw service in the Great War during his late teens and, after being demobbed, joined Trinity College, Dublin, in 1920. An advertisement for recruits to the officer ranks of the Indian Forest Service saw him as one among a few hundred applicants. He, however, was one of only 30 successful candidates. Two years of training in Britain later, he arrived in Madras and headed for Salem for further training. Over the next twenty years he was to serve in Madras, Ooty, Coimbatore and Nilambur.

When World War II broke out, he, despite his age, volunteered for military service — and Major Browne was sent out to Malaya with the 16th Punjab. Retreating from Malaya, he, like thousands of others, was trapped in Singapore and became a prisoner-of-war of the Japanese. He was sent to work on the Death Railway (remember that film classic, The Bridge on the River Kwai?) — but survived. After the War, he returned to India and served as Conservator of Forests, Nilgiris, and, then, Working Plans Officer, Salem. In 1947, he resigned from the Service and returned to the U.K. He died in 1973 and in 1981 his daughter made an amazing discovery — a bundle of paper scraps and some small, homemade notebooks, the discoloured paper covered with a fine scrawl. Reading through them she discovered they were her father's autobiography. They had been returned to him by the War Graves Commission after the war; they had been found in medicine bottles in some of the graves in the Death Railway cemetery in Thailand!

Because of his age, Browne had been spared ‘coolie work' on the railway and put in charge of the cemetery. Stealing scraps of paper and pencil stubs he not only kept a list of the dead, but he also began writing his autobiography. Hiding in the latrine, he would scribble on scraps of paper in tiny script his story and then ‘bind' them into notebooks with stolen paper clips. These he stuffed into bottles pilfered from the dispensary and hid them in whatever grave he was digging. The position of each grave with a bottle he marked on a scrap of paper that he kept hidden in his bed. He was taking a tremendous risk; if he had been caught he would have been executed. But what he left for posterity was a splendid record of forestry in the Madras Presidency of the 1920s and 1930s. It was not about his war or prison camp experience that he wrote, but of his life in the IFS!

The scraps of paper were virtually “a manual of forestry with details of how he grew sandalwood, teak, cashew. There was even a chapter on how to catch a wild elephant”, wrote his daughter who after her husband's death had, as therapy, transcribed the entire text which was then published as a book by the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum in 2004. The book reveals the significant contribution Browne he made to the development of the Nilambur Teak Reserve and for the Working Plans he drew up for modern forest conservation in the Madras Presidency after the War. For this work he was awarded the O.B.E — while he was on war service. He almost did not live to receive it — and when he did, he was a shadow of the jovial, extrovert he had been.

Tailpiece: Browne eventually became fluent in Tamil, but when he first started learning the language as he had to — it was compulsory — on first arriving in Madras, he was quite light-hearted about it. He and a fellow-learner would tease their munshi at every opportunity. Once, they asked him whether he kissed his wife goodbye when he left home for work and learnt, “No, we only kiss young children. We are not so familiar with the females.” They had burst out laughing, knowing as they did that he had several children. Recalling the incident the more mature Browne recorded, “In our youthful ignorance of eastern customs, this struck us as a very amusing answer.”

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MetroplusJune 28, 2012