IN THE SEASON OF ANNIVERSARIES, Sarojini Naidu’s is likely to be forgotten. Born on February 13, 1879, she came into this world 10 years after Mahatma Gandhi and 10 years before Jawaharlal Nehru. Though closely connected to both, she is hardly thought of today as one of the makers of modern India. When India@75 celebrates its ‘Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav’, few will remember that March 2, 2023, is also the 74th anniversary of Sarojini’s passing.
Sarojini, who must be celebrated in the Indian way by her own, rather than her husband’s, name, was the first Indian woman to become the president of the Indian National Congress in 1925. A founding member of the All India Women’s Conference in 1927, she also went on to become the first governor after the independence of India’s largest state, United Provinces (UP). Quite facetiously, for she had a great sense of humour, she called herself the “governess” of the state.
Sarojini led a rich, varied, hectic, and satisfying life, dying in 1949 at the age of 70, not long after Gandhi’s assassination on January 30, 1949. Longevity was not the least of her achievements because she was plagued by ill health nearly all her life and suffered a variety of ailments, including heart disease, rheumatism, lumbago, malaria, nervous disorders, broken limbs, spinal injury, fevers, headaches, and so on. But Sarojini was aware that her own unusual zest for life would triumph over all illnesses. In a letter on October 5, 1911, to her publisher William Heinemann, she says:
“You’ll be sorry to hear that I am rather seriously ill…. Govind, my husband, is very anxious and very cross with me. But I cannot unless I am really dangerously ill, lie abed and ‘cease activities’. He says I shall truly die young, but I don’t believe it: I have far too much vital energy of the soul and can stand, without making a sign, any amount of pain—and besides, good God—how can I die—I who love life and all humanity?”
(Paranjape, Sarojini Naidu: Selected Letters p 70)
Sick or healthy, Sarojini made the most of what she got from life. She was a personality full of energy and laughter, someone who in spite of tremendous suffering, retained a comic view of life. As she wrote to the youngest of her children, Ranadheera, soon after her 64th birthday, “One is not so concerned with a long life as with a ‘merry one’—merry as the sum of worthwhile, rich, full, interesting, and who can say that mine has not been and is not in that sense ‘merry’ as well as long?” (ibid 308).
The letter, incidentally, was written from the Yervada Jail. In another letter written to her daughter, Padmaja, over 10 years earlier, also from the Yervada Jail, she had declared: “In the course of a long and most variegated life I have learned one superlative truth…that the true measure of life and oneself lies not in the circumstances and events that fill its map but in one’s approach and attitude and acceptance of those things.” (ibid 278). She certainly lived by these words till the end of her days.
SAROJINI NAIDU’S IS the life that I came closest to but did not—have not—yet been able to write. It began in my mind as a compelling image of a young girl on a swing. The swing hangs from a tall and stately mango tree in the backyard of her leafy home. But the young girl’s dreams are far from modest. As her motto and stationary seal, ‘Excelsior ad Astra’ later reveals, she aimed to excel all the way to the stars.
A prodigy who passed the Madras matriculation at 12, and composed 1,000-line poems at 13, she was equally quick to fall in love at 14. She spent three years in England at Girton College, Cambridge University, returning to India before she was out of her teens. She contracted an inter-caste marriage under the Special Marriages Act with Dr M Govindarajulu Naidu when she was 19 and went on to have four children by the age of 25.
It began in my mind as a compelling image of a young girl on a swing. The swing hangs from a tall and stately mango tree in the backyard of her leafy home. But the young girl’s dreams are far from modest. As her motto and stationary seal, ‘excelsior ad astra’ later reveals, she aimed to excel all the way to the stars
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When she was 26, her first major collection of poems, The Golden Threshold (1905), was published. Before her mid-30s, she left the sequestered comfort of her home in Hyderabad, to become a national leader, international poet-celebrity, and one of the most sought-after public speakers of her time. By 46, she was the president of the Indian National Congress and among the foremost Indian woman of her time. She achieved all this without being especially privileged by birth or upbringing.
The house, if not the swing on which I visualise young Sarojini, still exists and is just behind the General Post Office, bang in the middle of Hyderabad in an area called Abids. The name, I discovered, is all that remains of an impressive department store, owned by a Baghdadi Jew by the name of Abid on whose erstwhile premises stands the present GPO. If you face the GPO, the road forks into two. On the left is Bank Street and on the right, Jawaharlal Nehru Road. On this street, named after India’s first prime minister, who was also a friend of Sarojini’s, stands what used to be the home of Aghorenath Chattopadhyay, her father.
Her own favourite home, which she built with loving attention and named after her first book of poems, ‘The Golden Threshold’, is a stone’s throw away, on Nampally Station Road. It is now the city centre of the University of Hyderabad (Central University). Sarojini had four children—Jaisoorya, Padmaja, Leilamani, and Ranadheera. The last three did not marry. Padmaja, it is said, was close enough to Nehru to live on the estate of his home, Teen Murti, in a cottage still known as Padmaja Kutir after she retired as the governor of West Bengal. I don’t know of any other mother-daughter duo with the distinction of having been governors of major states in India.
Jaisoorya was a homoeopath. He ran, with his German wife, the Jaisoorya Clinic at the back of the main house. When I joined the University of Hyderabad in 1986, it housed the university library. I had a study in that building, spending many an evening there, mulling over what its walls and environs might have witnessed during the freedom struggle. That is how I came in contact with the remarkable life and times of Sarojini Naidu.
This once beautiful house, now much altered and spoiled by the needs of its new occupants, still retains traces of its old grace and charm. It has had a chequered history. It was donated to the nation by Padmaja Naidu, the last surviving heir of the Naidu family. Indira Gandhi, one of the executors of Padmaja’s will and India’s then prime minister, gave it to the newly started University of Hyderabad.
Writing a biography, the only form that I have not attempted, requires a special kind of courage. Or, perhaps, the temerity to take liberties. With truth, not just with facts as we understand them. But without such leaps, if not of faith at least of imagination, wouldn’t we be much the poorer, not knowing how great and not so great lived? Memorable biographies are co-creations of those that are written about and those that write them. As Patrick French, VS Naipaul’s foremost biographer, said to me, “You know some things. The rest you must make up. Sort of like filling in the blanks.”
Though I couldn’t quite fill in the blanks of Sarojini’s biography, I did edit two books on Sarojini Naidu: Selected Poetry and Prose and Sarojini Naidu: Selected Letters. The former is still in print in its third revised edition, while the latter, published by the now-defunct Kali for Women, is out of print. A companion volume, with selections from her extensive correspondence with Padmaja, one of the biggest troves of any prominent mother-daughter duo in modern India, was a PhD project under my supervision. Unfortunately, it has not seen the light of day.
But, perhaps, it is time at least to begin my biography regardless of whether I shall ever complete it:
With each swing, young Sarojini rose higher in languid and sultry mid-afternoon Deccan summer. Dreaming of a glorious future for herself, she thought, “I shall be a poet, a writer, and… yes, famous all over the country, even abroad….”