In the early 1920s, Lawrence of Arabia took time off in Kerala at Trichur. The author digs up some interesting details of his visit
For most of us who have seen David Lean’s classic Lawrence of Arabia, Thomas Edward Lawrence, immortalised by Peter O’Toole, is the dashing British leader dressed in white and gold Arab robes. But the real Lawrence was not exactly the heroic character of the 1962 film. He was certainly one of the most colourful figures of the First World War, but Lawrence was also controversial with strange fetishes on whom studies continue even today, on whom reams are still being written.
The Kerala journey
Libraries across the world house comprehensive research and archival materials on Lawrence and much of his story is well known. What is not known and what the shelves in the libraries may not tell you is the record of a personal journey Lawrence undertook to Kerala sometime in 1920-21.
This trip was immediately after the War. Lawrence who played a leading role as adviser to Emir Feisal during the Arab revolt against Turkish rule (1916–1918) was clearly torn between his British and Arab sympathies. He suffered a huge setback, a stinging humiliation that plunged him into a phase of depression. To recover from this he accepted an invitation from K. Govinda Menon (Conservator of Forests, Cochin State), his classmate at Oxford, to travel to Trichur.
“He stayed for 21 days in Trichur for an elaborate Ayurveda treatment which was supervised by the famous Thaikkattu Moos. He went on his mandatory evening walks, ate home-made food and left a cheerful man. This must have been Lawrence’s only visit to India,” says V. N. Venugopal, grandson of Govinda Menon and the inheritor of those memories, rare photographs and an autographed book. They remain the only surviving link between ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and Kerala.
Venugopal first came to know about Lawrence when he was studying for his Intermediate at Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam. “We had an essay on ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ by Winston Churchill from his book Great Contemporaries. When I read this essay aloud at home my father (P. Narayana Menon) who was listening asked me what I was reading. He showed me a book that was autographed by the same ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and the other memorabilia connected with the man. I was stunned because I was reading about an icon and I come to know that my father knew this man, accompanied him on his evening walks when he came to stay at our ancestral home at Trichur. It was so surreal.”
It was Venugopal’s grandmother (Ammu Amma) who told him a lot about Lawrence’s Trichur visit. “She used to narrate stories graphically. One of them was about Lawrence. About how she and my grandfather travelled by the Boat Mail train from Trichur to Dhanushkodi and took a boat to Colombo to pick up Lawrence. He had reached there and the three of them travelled back to Trichur.”
Trichur was a small village in those days. A few Europeans had settled here, most of them planters. “There were rubber plantations at Pudukkad and Amballur managed by Europeans who used to stay at Trichur. They even had an English Club. So, Lawrence was not looked upon as a stranger here.”
On his return to England, Lawrence sent Govinda Menon an autographed copy of Letters of Lawrence. The book has a photograph of Lawrence with his four brothers and on one of the pages, yellowed by time, has the words, ‘In memory of happy days.’
Later, Lawrence gave up his colonial title, joined the Royal Air Force as a messenger boy and changed his name to T.E. Shaw. It was an effort to disguise his celebrityhood, an attempt at anonymity. Still hounded by the limelight, he planned to retire to his dream home, Clouds Hill, when he died in a motorcycle accident.
Venugopal treasures photographs of his grandfather and Lawrence shot during their Oxford days (1910-1913). “My grandfather was very close to the Lawrence family. He was almost like a member of the family. After Lawrence’s death his mother sent my grandfather the Bible she had probably gifted to her son, and his brother Montague sent him a copy of Lawrence’s seminal work Seven Pillars of Wisdom. They remain my most treasured possessions.”