India and the dreaming spires

Nakul Krishna | Updated on June 13, 2014

Interconnections: The iconic All Souls College, Oxford, where Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was once the Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics. Photo: Anisha Sharma

The Indian-run supermarket Tahmid. Photo: Anisha Sharma

The elephant-shaped weathervane. Photo: Anisha Sharma

The haathi in the facade. Photo: Anisha Sharma

That mysterious ingot with an India map. Photo: Anisha Sharma

Tracing the ambiguous and intertwined histories of India and Britain through the campus of Oxford University and some of its most famous alumni

I have walked this stretch of pavement several hundred times now, but I have never seen this before. As I bend to tie my shoelaces, a round bronze slab embedded in the paving stone stares back at me. Engraved on it is an outline map of India with an odd kind of hat in the centre. In the bottom-right corner of the ingot are the mysterious letters ‘CF’. I raise my eyes from the pavement for some explanation from the surroundings. I see the asymmetric stone architecture of the East Oxford Community Centre towering genially above me.

There are no postcards of the Cowley Road for sale at the corner shop. No, the picture postcards go for the medieval architecture of the city centre, or one of the city’s two rivers, the Cherwell and the Isis (known outside Oxford as the Thames), writhing across the grassy acres of the University’s two largest colleges, Magdalen and Christ Church.

Visitors to Oxford come here to see the University and are puzzled when they are told there is no campus, just dozens of buildings spread across the city. They seldom head too far north, with its sprawling detached houses built for university tutors in the Victorian period but now unaffordable for anyone except the bankers who commute to London every morning. And they virtually never head east across Magdalen Bridge where the High Street trifurcates. With every 100 or so feet east, the buildings get less gothic, the complexions darken and grocers start selling a decidedly un-European range of fruits and vegetables.

The Cowley Road is a nice place to live in, but few people want to visit. My house, a modest former working-class dwelling, sits on one of the many narrow streets on either side of the Cowley Road. I walk past the East Oxford Community Centre almost every day, passing swiftly on to the Cowley Road Methodist Church just ahead, sometimes pausing to note that it advertises a weekly service in Punjabi, a tradition dating back to 1967. There have been Indian students in Oxford since 1871. For a long time, these were mostly the children of well-off professionals or minor royalty who returned to India to take up important positions in the civil service or judiciary, or to squander their fathers’ fortunes on the expensive tastes they cultivated in England. An issue of the student-run Isis magazine from the early 1950s captures the tone of their reception in post-war England with its description of a certain Ramesh Divecha: “This fine specimen of Hindu manhood is equally at home theorising on the secrets of his successes in Vincent’s [a club restricted to University-level sportsmen] or fingering his native chapattis in the Taj…”

Of course, Divecha’s contemporaries at Oxford would have included such figures as the future Nobel laureate VS Naipaul, ambivalent even then about his Indianness as he read keenly about events in India and tried in vain to find a copy of RK Narayan’s latest novel. The social anthropologist MN Srinivas was there, having finished his doctorate, and beginning to develop his pioneering theories of caste in India. The first generations of Indian Rhodes Scholars were present as well, including the metallurgist and yoga exponent TR Anantharaman, whose time at Trinity College was enlivened by his fellow students thinking it an amusing idea to black up, don grass skirts and go canoeing down the river.

However, the wave of immigration to Britain from the Indian subcontinent from 1947 onwards changed the demographics of Oxford’s Indian population. The poet Adil Jussawalla, who studied English in Oxford in the early 1960s, recalls that as against the 66 Indian students at the University in his time, there were around 2,000 Indian workers living and working along Cowley Road, driving buses, running restaurants, and working in the car factory that employed so much of east Oxford’s population. The car factory is not what it used to be, but the Indians have remained. I see women in saris draped in the Gujarati style carrying shopping bags. Every now and then, I hear a snatch of Punjabi conversation. Oxford has no single locality that can serve as its equivalent of the ‘Little Indias’ to be found in so many European and American cities. Instead, it has traces, visible to the attentive observer, of the ambiguous, intertwined histories of the two countries.

None of this quite explains the ingot: why an Indian map on the pavement? I ask around and find that a German friend — doing a doctorate in Sanskrit — knows the answer. The ‘ingot’ is one of 58, part of an art installation commemorating the history of the Cowley Road. There is no guide to the installation; it is meant to encourage curious pedestrians to hunt for themselves. I try again: what could ‘CF’ stand for, and what is that odd headdress inscribed on the map?

I try some fellow students at the University, who promptly justify their reputation for cleverness. A Japanese philosopher with a keen interest in the Church of England informs me that the headdress in question is a “shovel hat”, once worn by missionaries. This is a good start, but it hints that the key to the mystery will take us into politically fraught territory.

The history of India’s links with Oxford is, perforce, a history of the British imperial project, and missionaries had their part to play in this project along with traders, soldiers and civil servants. Oxford provided generous numbers of all three. It is worth noting that the activities of Christian missionaries in India — unlike in much of Africa, for example — never stood in a simple relationship with the empire, for colonial administrators thought it simplest to keep off Indian religions and often found missionaries a nuisance. And some of the missionaries Britain sent to India had the exasperating habit of going native on arrival. None did so more spectacularly than Verrier Elwin (1902-64), the lapsed missionary who went on to become one of the foremost scholarly authorities on India’s tribal peoples.

Yet another Christian figure, central to the cultural history of modern India, set sail from England for Sawyerpuram, located in Tamil Nadu. The Canadian-born George Uglow Pope started his education in the Tamil language, on some accounts, as a 19-year-old boy on the ship bound for India in 1839. He stayed on for decades, producing book after book on Tamil grammar, an influential English translation of the Tirukkural, and innumerable commentaries on Indian philosophy.

He returned to England late in his life to become Chaplain at Balliol College, the Oxford college with the longest history of support for Indian students. Balliol was the college of George Nathaniel Curzon, Viceroy of India during the years of the great 1899 famine. But it was also the college of Benjamin Jowett, the Master of the College who keenly championed the academic aspirations of Cornelia Sorabji — the first woman of any nationality to read law at Oxford, and later India’s first female advocate. Balliol was closely connected to the Indian Institute, a building since used for a variety of purposes but whose elephant-shaped weathervane remains as the single visible sign of its original purpose of “arousing [in Britain] an interest in Oriental subjects and in making England and India better acquainted with each other”.

Oxford had been home, in the 19th century, to prominent Sanskritist Max Mueller, but Pope and Elwin were examples of Oxford men who took an interest in Indian traditions other than that of Sanskrit. Pope died in 1908, having preached his last sermon, which happened to be about the concept of liberation as it is articulated in various Indian philosophies. He is buried in St Sepulchre’s Cemetery in north-west Oxford, not far from Jowett’s grave.

Indians have long entertained a suspicion of foreign scholars, particularly those with evangelical intentions. But Pope continues to inspire affection among all Tamils. An impressive statue marks his memory in Chennai’s Triplicane neighbourhood. His grave is modest and bears a touching inscription: “This stone has been placed here by his family, and by his Tamil friends in S. India, in loving admiration of his life-long labours in the cause of oriental literature and philosophy.”

I wonder if the ingot is a general allusion to Cowley’s missionary connections with India, when a historian friend writes to me suggesting that ‘CF’ must be a reference to the Mission Priests of St John the Evangelist, popularly known as the ‘Cowley Fathers’. The Cowley Fathers were an Anglican religious order formed in the 19th century, the first since the English Reformation. Fr Richard Meux Benson, one of the founders of the order, had wanted desperately to do missionary work in India but was prevented from doing so by his Bishop, who insisted he was needed in Cowley. The order did eventually found a mission in India, but it was a certain Fr O’Neill who dedicated his life to it, living in rural areas of what are now the States of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh and engaging in the traditional combination of social service and evangelism. His letters reveal a figure both loved and mocked, in particular for his inability to sit cross-legged.

In India, Fr O’Neill formed a close association with the fascinating and ultimately tragic figure of Nehemiah Goreh. Born Nilakantha Shastri, Goreh was a formidably intelligent but tortured Brahmin from Bundelkhand who spent his youth afflicted by every kind of doubt — shocking his father, a pious and learned Shaiva, by first declaring himself a Vaishnava, and then, to everyone’s horror, by converting to Christianity. But even his conversion could not quell his proliferating doubts. He was ever fearful that he had made a mistake, constantly returning to the Hindu fold, then finding a new appeal in the gospel.

He wrote tortured letters to Fr Benson in England, declaring “with sorrow that, however I try constantly to persuade myself about the truth of Christianity, my mind does not come to the state of certainty... Is not the state of my mind very curious?” He went to England and lived in the Cowley Fathers’ Mission House but, predictably, came to regret even that decision: “Oh, those cold cells, in which one has no privacy! That horrid English food, and then Fr Benson told me to wash the floor of my cell. I told him at once I could not do it, and to send someone else. Those fathers do menial work. I have seen the fathers washing the mission-house stairs. Oh, how I hate the life!” In English religiosity he found the same unreflective ritualism that he had loathed in his past life. He died, as one observer put it, “very saintly, but utterly joyless.”

I’d like to think the ingot is there to commemorate Goreh and his sufferings. The last time I walked past it, I was on my way home from the Indian-run supermarket Tahmid. My shopping bag was weighed down with a kilogram of ladies’ fingers, a glass jar of red chilli pickle, and a packet of desiccated coconut. I was comforted a little by the thought that a latter-day Goreh would have one thing less to worry about.

( Nakul Krishna is doing a doctorate in Philosophy at the University of Oxford)

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Published on June 13, 2014
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