My favourite stories from: “Journeys to Independence: India, Pakistan and Bangladesh”

I’ve just launched an exhibition at LSE Library called “Journeys to Independence: India, Pakistan and Bangladesh”, which is open until December 2017.

Here are a couple of my favourite stories from the exhibition, which I thought might be worth sharing here in case you’re interested in the contents but can’t make it to the exhibition. There’s also a 20 minute podcast where we talk through some of the items on display.

  1. Read, Realise, Act

The exhibition begins with a story of the extraordinary woman Mirabehn (or “Madeline Slade”, as she was born). Mirabehn is pictured here second from the right, leaning against a pillar.

From the Women’s Library at LSE

Mirabehn led a fascinating life, and was a controversial figure in Britain for various reasons. She was born into the British elite in 1892. Her father was an admiral posted in India, and she spent some of her childhood there.

At the age of 15, something life-changing happened. She heard the following Beethoven sonata

It sparked a life-long fascination with Beethoven. She writes in her diary (which I found in the book “Mahatma Gandhi and his apostles”)

I was finding something far beyond the music as such; I was contacting the spirit speaking through sound, the spirit of Beethoven…I threw myself down on my knees in the seclusion of my room and prayed, really prayed to God for the first time in my life: “Why have I been born over a century too late?”

From researching the composer, she came across a biography of Beethoven by French writer Romain Rolland. She wanted to meet Rolland to discuss the book with him, but before doing so she wanted to go to French to master the language so that she could read the book in the original. Which is exactly what she did.

Through Rolland she heard about Gandhi,the leader of the independence movement in India. Rolland had also written a biography about him.

“Gandhi conversing with a deaf visitior”

Mirabehn’s fascination for Beethoven was effectively replaced by Gandhi. After working the hayfields of Switzerland to prepare herself for a potential move to India, she wrote to Gandhi asking if she could come work with him at his Ashram in India. Gandhi accepted.

Mirabehn pictured on the far right, with Gandhi on the far left, from the Women’s Library at LSE

And so, shortly before her 33rd birthday, Mirabehn said goodbye to her parents (it was apparently the last time she ever saw them) and moved to India. For the next 20 or so years she was by Gandhi’s side and assisted him in his cause for an independent India. The pair wrote many letters to each other, some of which can be read in the fascinating book Beloved Bapu: The Gandhi-Mirabehn Correspondance

One of the documents authored by Mirabehn on display at the exhibition is called “Read, Realise, Act”, which Mirabehn wrote shortly before being imprisoned in India in 1932. The document ends with the following:

“There is one golden rule for resisting an evil, in which one and all can cooperate, rich and poor, young and old, and that is complete boycott of all things tainted with that evil. We should not touch a single thing which supports this British Raj. That will bring this system to an end quicker than anything else. And then, and only then can we lift from our heads the shame which is at present ours”.

2. “Does Mr. Gandhi know women?”

Next in the exhibition is a group of archives I found by accident. When I first started searching for documents to include in the exhibition, I took the rather obvious step of searching for material that was authored by Gandhi. The first thing I found was this rather unusual letter by Gandhi, addressed to someone called “E. H. M.”, who I later found out was Edith How-Martyn.

Letter to Edith How-Martyn from Gandhi, 1932, from LSE Library archives

When I first read this, I wasn’t really sure what the context of the letter was. After doing some digging, it seems we had a whole collection of diaries, correspondence and other material from Edith How-Martyn (as it turns out, an LSE graduate), as well as a person called Eileen Palmer.

Both these women worked for an organisation called the Birth Control International Information Centre (BCIIC), which was founded in London in 1928. It was an activist organisation which campaigned for birth control methods, published pamphlets and organised conferences. It seems the organisation eventually merged with various other ones and became what is today the Family Planning Association.

Edith How-Martyn (far left) c. 1914

The work of the women in the BCIIC took them to India, and at the Library we have Eileen Palmer’s diaries of her travels there. They met Gandhi and talked to him about birth control, which perhaps might seem like a strange topic for them to be approaching Gandhi about. But as Edith explains:

“The opinions of a man who almost singlehandedly has challenged the imperial power of Britain as it holds power in India are considered well worth having”

Gandhi did not agree with artificial birth control methods. Edith writes:

“Mr. Gandhi will have nothing to do with birth control, he regards it as a sin, as a temptation to mankind to pander to his lower nature, as an invention of the devil to lure men and women from the path of renunciation”.

The exhibition is open until December 18th, 2017. Visitor information can be found on the exhibition webpages.