The paper trail leaders like Dadabhai Naoroji have left behind offers a rich insight into the lives of early Indian nationalists and our understanding of them

The spring of 1901 was a moment of despair for Dadabhai Naoroji, then in residence in London. While struggling to secure a new constituency from where he could attempt to re-enter the British Parliament, the Grand Old Man had to contend with increasingly retrogressive Tory policies toward India and flagging spirits within the Indian National Congress. But on 24 April, Naoroji received news of a different yet equally troubling variety: his toilet was malfunctioning. “The plumber has done what he can to rectify the defects of the water waste preventer, & we regret that it is not now satisfactory,” FW Ellis, builder and estate agent in Upper Norwood, London, grimly informed him by post.

Detailed picture

Amidst the reams of important correspondence in the Dadabhai Naoroji Papers — a collection of some 30,000 documents held at the National Archives of India in Delhi — one regularly comes across unexpected material such as Ellis’ note. The Naoroji Papers, which I have consulted for over the past 20 months, provide stunning new insight into early Indian nationalism. Additionally, they paint an extraordinarily detailed picture of the life of one of India’s greatest leaders in the pre-independence era. Naoroji, it appears, decided to keep all of his correspondence for posterity. As a result, letters from Indian and British political luminaries jostle alongside everyday receipts, prescriptions, random newspaper clippings, and the 19th century equivalent of junk mail. Such minutiae are easy to dismiss at first. Yet, taken together, they help us reconstruct the careers of Naoroji and other Indians who lived and worked in the United Kingdom, telling us how they navigated life in a strange and foreign society.

From the Papers, we know a smattering of what is, on the surface, completely trivial information about the Grand Old Man. A receipt, for example, indicates that on 9 January 1897 he purchased hand-made boots from a cobbler in southwest London that cost him precisely one pound and one shilling. We know that his family servant in Bombay was named Baloo. Naoroji might have invested in a company developing the tram system in Buenos Aires, Argentina, as well as the first garden city in England: I located share fliers for both ventures early in my research. A newspaper cutting from the early 1900s suggests he took an interest in the llama, the resourceful South American pack animal. And several months ago, I stumbled across his eyeglass prescription from 1894 (a friend of mine, a doctor at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, diagnoses Naoroji as being far-sighted).

Digging a little deeper, it is possible to piece together greater significance from such random and bizarre information. Investments in South America, the United Kingdom, and India show that Naoroji adopted a very international outlook in his personal finances — finances that he put to productive use by funding nationalist activity. Even his malfunctioning toilet tells us that Naoroji was privy to some of the latest available technology: the waste water preventer was a relatively new invention that was revolutionising sanitation in Victorian England.

Since Naoroji was the senior-most Indian resident in the United Kingdom, he was regularly consulted by his countrymen who travelled to the imperial metropole for study, work, or pleasure. There are literally thousands of letters in the Naoroji Papers from such Indians — documenting incidents of racism, financial trouble, or plain homesickness — and nearly all of them received a prompt and detailed reply from the Grand Old Man. Naoroji functioned as a guardian of sorts for many Indians in Britain. Around 1 am on 2 January 1891, for example, he was awakened by a telegram from a London police constable informing him that a ‘Mr. CK Desai’ was under arrest for public drunkenness and wanted Naoroji to bail him out of jail. Aside from such correspondence, there are reams of letters from concerned parents in India who asked Naoroji to keep tabs on their sons (and, increasingly, daughters), making sure that they were being financially prudent and not consorting with Englishwomen.

The Papers also provide an insight into how Naoroji and his fellow nationalists in London adapted and reacted to life abroad. In addition to collaborating on the formulation of various economic critiques of the Raj, Romesh Chunder Dutt used Naoroji as a character reference for securing his flat in Forest Hill in 1898. While Dutt eventually returned to India in 1903, his fellow Bengali, W.C. Bonnerji, the first president of the Congress, took to London so much that he and his family put down permanent roots there, purchasing a house in Croydon that they christened Kidderpore. The extent of their Anglicisation was evident when Naoroji in January 1893 invited the Bonnerjis to attend, in Indian attire, a function held in Central Finsbury to celebrate his election to the House of Commons. “I am extremely sorry to say that we have not an Indian dress in the house,” a family member responded.

Others dearly missed the staples of Indian life while in England. In January 1906, the radical nationalist Madame Bhikaiji Cama — staying with a family member in North Kensington — invited Naoroji and his grandchildren over for a Sunday ‘Parsee lunch,’ an offer the Grand Old Man must have leapt at given the boiled and bland fare otherwise on offer in London. Some cultural adjustments were easier. Although in his sixties and seventies, Naoroji appears to have taken a fancy to English sports. He was the president of the football club in his parliamentary constituency, Central Finsbury, and the vice-president of a north London cricket club. A tantalising clue about Naoroji’s affinity for the gentleman’s game is offered by his campaign secretary, who in 1895 wrote to Naoroji that, “One would really imagine you to be a God of Cricket.”

But there was one great cultural challenge in Britain that Naoroji had great difficulty in surmounting: people just could not spell his name correctly. In newspapers, posters, and his incoming mail, the Grand Old Man was addressed by creative variants such as Dedabhan Naorji, Devan Novoriji, and Dadabhai Nowraggie. Matters improved slightly once his campaign secretary suggested that he simply go by ‘D. Naoroji.’ After he won election to Parliament by a mere five votes, he was frequently referred to as ‘Dadabhai Narrow-Majority,’ which was presumably easier to remember and spell.

Naoroji and his fellow nationalists, however, were guilty of their own spelling bloopers. The Grand Old Man regularly ended his letters with the valediction “Your’s truly,” adding an unnecessary apostrophe. When the Bengali painter, Sasi Kumar Hesh, visited London in 1899, Romesh Chunder Dutt wrote excitedly of the various ‘pourtraits’ the artist intended to undertake. Madame Cama loved semi-colons; her letters to Naoroji are simply replete with them. What is particularly striking is how so many of Naoroji’s correspondents chose to communicate in broken English rather than in languages where they had a shared greater proficiency, such as Gujarati or Hindustani. But English, even bad English, was a status symbol then, as it remains today. The surprisingly few Gujarati letters in the Naoroji Papers are mostly from his family members.

Common headache

While mastery of English was a challenge to some upwardly-mobile Indians, deciphering one another’s handwriting was a headache shared by all. I have probably done serious damage to my own eyesight by trying to make sense of the scribbles found in the Naoroji Papers. Understanding them was evidently a challenge to the original recipients over a century ago. Naoroji occasionally admonished Behramji Malabari, the prominent Parsi journalist and social reformer, to write neatly. William Wedderburn, one of the British stalwarts in the early Congress, grumbled to Naoroji in August 1891 that he could not read letters from Dinsha Wacha, the longtime Congress general secretary (“But you must not tell him this,” he added). And Allan Octavian Hume, while attempting to go through a draft of Naoroji’s presidential address to the 1893 Lahore Congress, confessed to Naoroji that “your handwriting is rather hard to read.” Perhaps it is appropriate that, toward the end of his life, Naoroji helped fund a bright Maharashtrian inventor, Shankar Abaji Bhise, who was working on new models of typewriters.

Encountering such unexpected miscellanea is a treat to the historian, providing a moment of levity while sifting through otherwise heavy and complex matter. But these miscellanea also perform an important role in our understanding of early Indian nationalists. Individuals such as Naoroji, Dutt, Ranade, and Gokhale have — in both scholarship and our popular conceptions of history — too often been cast as staid, unapproachable, and even downright dull people. The paper trail they left behind tells us quite a different story: it exposes us to the particularities of their lives, their complex characters, their foibles, habits, and everyday routines. It humanises these leaders. Maybe this is one reason why Dadabhai Naoroji, while organising his personal papers during his retirement in Versova, chose to preserve his prescriptions, receipts, and correspondence with his London plumber.

(Dinyar Patel is a Ph.D. candidate in History at Harvard University. Some of the material quoted here will be published in the forthcoming volume, The Grand Old Man of India: Selections from the Dadabhai Naoroji Papers (Oxford University Press), which he is co-editing with S.R. Mehrotra.)

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