Monday, October 31, 2011


Buenos Aires the bustling capital of Argentina, spread over the south bank of the Rio de la Plata, is a city of contrasts – of rich superhighways and narrow crooked streets, of plush apartments and suburban shanty towns, of wealth and poverty, of the famous and infamous.

Rapid suburban growth has changed the face of the city. Many historic structures have crumbled with age or demolished. Searching the suburbs of San Isidro to find Villa Milario is quite an adventure. It was the trysting place of Argentina’s distinguished writer Victoria Ocampo and the ageing Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. For two months (November and December) in 1924 an old man of 63 years and a young lady of 34 mutually fuelled their creativity in each other’s company.

After Tagore won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Victoria took a great interest in his works. Her knowledge of English, Spanish and French gave her access to the best of literary works. She read Tagore’s “Gitanjali” and felt she could relate to the mystical yearnings and deep emotions expressed in his poems, and even said that she derived spiritual comfort from them.

Victoria was born into a rich family belonging to the high society of Buenos Aires. She was brought up in a very conservative atmosphere where women were not allowed to have a formal education. She was tutored by a French governess. But as a young girl, she travelled to Rome with her family and was allowed to attend lectures at the Sorbonne and the College de France, in the company of a chaperone. It made her eager to get better acquainted with the literary world.

By now, Tagore was a famous poet. He was invited to speak in different countries. On his travels to Latin America he fell severely ill on board the ship and had to disembark at Buenos Aires. He checked into the Hotel Plaza with his secretary and traveling companion Leonard Elmhurst. But because of Victoria’s great admiration for the poet, she offered to host them at Villa Milario in San Isidro, very close to her residence Villa Ocampo. It was situated in the middle of a beautiful compound with a cactus garden in the backyard, and a shady Tipa tree in the forecourt, under which Tagore met his visitors. From his balcony he had a view of the river. Victoria sold some of her jewellery to pay the rent for Villa Milario. Her personal servants attended Tagore’s every need.
Victoria herself spent the best part of the day with him. They even had their meals together. Leonard acted as the facilitator of their friendship as Victoria was rather shy. It was a rare friendship that stimulated the creative juices in both of them. Tagore cut short his visits to Peru and Mexico to bask in the ministrations of this lovely, intelligent muse.

Tagore had been a widower since the age of 41. However he had any number of women friends in Europe for his inspiration. But for the last seventeen years of his life Victoria became his muse. He considered her the most distinguished and attractive among all his female friends.

They parted in January 1925 when Tagore returned to Europe. Their epistolary romance was to continue until his death, except for two silent years from 1926 – 1928, when Victoria battled with her own private demons.

Their correspondence which was in English, revealed her devotion to him and his feelings for her. The letters were poignant with longing for emotional fulfilment. He taught her one word in Bengali ‘balobashi’ meaning love. Tagore immortalized her through his poems, never once mentioning her by name but by the Indian name ‘Vijaya’ which means victory. His book of poems ‘Purabi’ was dedicated to her. Yet though he idolized her, he refused to recognize her as an intellectual equal. This was truly frustrating for her.

They met for the last time in Paris in 1930, where she organized his first Art exhibition. He hoped that she would follow him to Shanthiniketan in India. But Victoria could not leave her lover Julian Martinez a diplomat, with whom she had a long standing relationship. Tagore had to be content with the arm chair she had presented him, which he had used in Milario. It had travelled with him through Europe and finally to Shanthiniketan. Many were the poems he was inspired to write from that arm chair.

On Tagore’s death in 1941, Victoria wrote his Obit essay.
“I guard everything I learnt from him,” she wrote, “So that I might live with it as long as my strength permits me.”

Victoria moved on from strength to strength. She was admired by musicians, writers and essayists. Many of them had visited her in San Isidro.
She aired her opinions fearlessly through her writing and essays. During World War II she supported and edited an anti-Nazi magazine ‘Lettres Francaises.’
In 1946, she was the only Argentinean to attend the Nuremberg trials.
In 1953, she was imprisoned for opposing the regime of Juan Domino Peron.
In 1961, on the birth centenary of Tagore, she organized a grand celebration in Buenos Aires. Her book “Tagore in the ravines of San Isidro” was well received.

Though Victoria lacked formal education, she established herself in the world of literature. She became a member of the Argentine Academy of Letters in 1976. Her home Villa Ocampo was used for cultural dialogues under the auspices of UNESCO. Most of her inherited wealth was spent on promoting Argentine’s culture.

She died at the ripe old age of 88, on January 27th 1979. Her remains were interred at La Recoleta, the largest cemetery in Buenos Aires.

Monday, September 5, 2011


.Manila on the eastern shore of the Manila Bay is the largest and most densely populated city in the Philippines. It was the scene of the bloodiest battle in the Pacific theatre during World War II, and was occupied by the Japanese from 1942-1945. The Philippine Guerilla Movement sabotaged Japanese communication lines, and assisted the American forces by providing information about secret tunnels and air raid shelters.

Among the members of the Resistance, was a young Filipino woman disfigured by leprosy, who shuffled through the streets of Manila. She carried on her ‘cloak and dagger’ activities in favour of the American forces, and was totally ignored by the unsuspecting Japanese.

Josefina Geurrero was once a pretty vivacious belle of Manila society. She was married to a wealthy medical student at St. Tomas University. Their daughter was two years old when Josefina contracted leprosy in 1941, and had to be confined to a leprosarium for treatment.

With the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, men were forced into labour camps, women were sent off to brothels, and the leprosariums were closed. Josefina used her disease as a secret weapon against the enemy. She was an outcaste and an untouchable, isolated from society. The Japanese were repulsed by her appearance and did not suspect her activities. Ragged and ugly, disease did not hamper her activities, and she had the run of the streets. She became a conduit for food, clothing and medicines to the American prisoners of war. As a member of the Resistance Movement, she was responsible for preparing maps of Japanese installations, aircraft batteries and fortifications on the waterfront. From her drawings, American planes were able to pinpoint targets and blast them to smithereens.

When the American troops arrived at Leyte, Joey (as she was fondly called by the Americans) carried a map of Japanese-held territory, showing locations of land mines on the planned route of the invasion. The map was taped to her back between her shoulder blades. Over this, she carried her back pack. Trudging 56 miles through Japanese encampments, Joey reached the 37th Infantry Division of the US army. This enabled them to avoid the mines as they marched towards Manila. She was awarded the Philippine Medal of Freedom for her courage. The US government bestowed on her the highest award given to a civilian – The Medal of Freedom with a silver palm.

Though leprosariums were reopened after the war, the Philippine government had no funds to run them. The US Attorney General Thomas Clarke waived immigration rules to bring Joey to a leprosarium in Carville, La. She was only thirty years old when she arrived in San Francisco. She was greeted by army officials, dignitaries and about 300 war veterans. The veterans’ band played the Philippine national anthem. Joey was overwhelmed by this display of gratitude. Her arms laden with flowers she smiled and said, “This is much more than I expected.”

Then an Air Force plane bore her away to Carville.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


The Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery overlooking the Hudson River in the heart of New York is a beautiful place to visit. Great men and women have been laid to rest in this tranquil atmosphere, with its artistically laid out gardens and monuments. Here in Lot 216-A stands an upright rectangular stone adjacent to the plot belonging to an old family – the Carpenters. It is simple and devoid of ornamentation, under which is interred the ashes of the first Indian female Hindu doctor, Dr. Anandibai Joshi, who received her medical education abroad. Why her ashes were transported from India to New York, is a story worth telling.

Born into a wealthy Brahmin family in Kalyan (near Bombay) on March 31st 1865, this little girl was married off at the age of nine, to a widower who was twenty years her senior. Gopal Rao Joshi was a postal clerk. But he was a progressive thinker who supported widow marriage and the education of women. Her name was promptly changed from Yamuna to Anandibai, and he made it his life’s vocation to educate her. He was transferred from Kalyan to Alibagh to Calcutta. He sent her to mission schools whenever possible, but took it on himself to teach her English. Gopal would take his young wife for long walks during which his teaching sessions continued. He was convinced that learning English was more important than learning Sanskrit. But Anandibai confessed that learning from her husband was not easy. He would hit her with pieces of wood or chairs or books. Later, in her correspondence with him from USA, she had the courage to complain against his tyranny.

“I had no recourse but to allow you to hit me with chairs, and bear it with equanimity.”

Anandibai delivered a child at fourteen. The boy lived for only ten days as both of them did not receive proper medical care, because the only doctor available was a Christian. This was the beginning of her ill-health. It made her determined to become a doctor so that she could help other Hindu women. In this, she was fully supported by her husband. Gopal wanted to send her abroad for medical studies, even though they had no money. But here was a woman who believed that whatever the circumstances, nothing or nobody could stand in the way of her achieving her dreams. Her determination coupled with her husband’s encouragement was the first step towards achievement.

Gopal wrote to a missionary friend Royal Wilder in the US, asking for help to admit Anandibai to a medical school, and also find a job for himself. The missionary was willing to help on one condition, that they convert to Christianity. This was unacceptable to the couple. However, Wilder was good enough to publish Gopal’s letter in the Princeton Missionary Review. A woman named Theodosia Carpenter was touched by the earnestness of the letter. She offered to accommodate Anandibai when she came to the US. She struck up a correspondence with the girl, and they became good friends through their epistolary exchanges. They discussed Hindu culture and religion. They exchanged views on early marriages and the effect this had on women’s health, of the status of women in society and various other women’s issues. Anandibai’s clarity of thought on such issues was very mature. She was a feminist and believed that she had a right to live and grow and follow her heart. Theodosia brought out the best in her.

But Anandibai’s health began to deteriorate. While in Calcutta she suffered from fever, breathlessness and general debility. The medicines that Theodosia sent did not do much good. Gopal however, was determined to send her to USA for her medical studies.

There was much opposition from the conservative Hindu community. They were insulted, ostracized and sometimes physically attacked. In a letter to Theodosia she wrote,

“My designs meet with approbation of a few, say one or two thousands. They are probably youth, reformists and patriots. I am not discouraged. I must not fear but show all, what Indian ladies are.”

Anandibai addressed the opponents in her community about the urgent need for female Hindu doctors. She talked convincingly about her son’s death and her own ill-health because there was no Hindu doctor to care for her. She also promised that she would never convert to Christianity. Her speech made an impact on the community. Donations began to pour in. Even the Viceroy made a donation of two hundred rupees.

So in June 1883 at the age of nineteen, a weak but determined Anandibai sailed to USA, chaperoned by two friends of Theodosia. She got admission to the first Women’s Medical Programme offered by the University of Pennsylvania. She even won a scholarship of $ 600/- for three years. Her dissertation was on “Obstetrics among the Hindu Aryans.”

Anandibai in her 9-yard Maharastrian sari must have been something of an oddity. With her arms and calves exposed, the cold was unbearable. In this weak state, she contracted Tuberculosis. But in spite of ill health, she persevered with her studies. She graduated on 11th March 1886. Her husband and a social reformer Pandita Ramabai were present at this function. Even Queen Victoria sent her a congratulatory message. The Philadelphia Post wrote, “Little Mrs. Joshee who graduated with high honours in her class, received quite an ovation.”

Anandibai sailed back to India on October 9, 1886, and received a rousing welcome on arrival. She was made physician in charge of the female ward in Albert Edward Hospital, Kohlapur. But her professional life was short lived. Illness claimed her on February 26th, 1887, at the early age of 22. Gopal sent her ashes back to USA to be laid to rest in Theodosia Carpenter’s family plot at the Poughkeepsie Cemetery.

Here was a brave child woman whose determination empowered her, but her frail body gave out prematurely. Her last words were “I did all that I could.”

Thursday, June 9, 2011


 Sigiriya is Sri Lanka’s most famous Lion Rock. From Kandy, it takes about two hours to reach there. The giant rock towering over the surrounding forests and looming into the skies at a height of 200 metres, can be seen from a distance.

In the 5th Century A.D. the rock resembled a recumbent lion with an artificial head built of bricks, resting on two enormous lion paws hewn out of the rock. Between these paws was a steep stairway that led to the magnificent palace of King Kassapa. Today, all that this left on the flat top are the ruins of this palace.

Sigiriya was later handed over to the Buddhist clergy, who used it as a monastery up till the 14th century. Then it fell into disuse until rediscovered by the British in the 19th Century.

The picturesque road leading to the base of the rock is through well laid out gardens, fountains, pools covered with lotuses and birds of bright plumage that dart in and out of the trees.

It is a long climb to the top over boulders linked by limestone stairs. Protective handrails make the ascent easier. But half way up, one encounters a fabulous sheltered gallery covered by rock paintings of beautiful sensuous women, reminiscent of the Ajanta frescoes in India. They are of graceful bare-breasted women with slender necks encased in dangling chains, narrow hips and coiffs decked with flowers. They seem to rise from the clouds in colours of red and gold, singly or in pairs, with expressions that reflect a variety of moods. These figures which are painted on the open surface of the rock were once more than 550 in number. Today, only 23 have survived the onslaught of time.

Beyond the fresco gallery, there are steps clinging to the sides of the rock. They are protected from the elements by a wall three metres high, which is glazed on the inside, and has retained its shine over the last 1000 years. It is called the Mirror Wall and graffiti scribbled on its surface describe the impressions of visitors about these gorgeous damsels painted in the gallery. Only about 685 of these have been deciphered. They are written in Singhalese or Tamil. But for those curious to know what they mean, English translations can be found in any tourist guide book.
“The ladies who wear golden chains on their breasts beckon me. As I have seen these ladies, heaven appears to me not so good.”

“Hail golden coloured one on the mountainside, whose resplendent rosy hand bore a blue water lily, bewitched my heart and tore it from another.”

One from a jealous female scribbler says, “A dew-eyed female from the mountainside arouses anger in my mind. In her hand she has taken a string of pearls and in her looks she has assumed rivalry of us.”

Who were these ‘cloud maidens’ of Sigiriya? Archeologists and historians have voiced their own views. Some suggested that they represent ‘Lightening’ and ‘Clouds.’ Others believe that they are ladies from King Kassapa’s court in a devotional procession to the shrine of Pidurangala. Some call them ‘apsaras’ and others say these are artistic depictions of court life and its expressions of royal shenanigans.

But as Sigiriya was used as a Buddhist monastery, the common belief is that these frescoes are representation of the Goddess Tara, who is worshipped in many centres of Mahayana Buddhism. She is a heavily jewelled deity who dresses in colours of red, yellow, green or blue and holds a water lily or lotus in her hand.

Whoever these frescoes depict and however old they may be, they cast a magic spell on viewers who climb the Sigiriya rock all the way to the top.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


In summer, a trip to the Lake District is reviving. Wordsworth called it the place where ‘God and Nature commune.’ Its rolling hills and placid blue lakes under clouds tinted with empyrean light, give it an ‘other worldly’ ambience. Beatrix Potter author, illustrator and environmentalist lived here for most of her adult life. Though her books – Tales of Peter Rabbit, Tailor of Gloucester, Benjamin Bunny and other stories are now overshadowed by Harry Potter and his exciting antics, there was a time when children who read them were fascinated by her animal characters and even thought they lived with her, especially the much loved Peter Rabbit. People of the district thought of her as a neat and tidy ‘blue eyed bonny woman,’ just like her animal character Mrs. Twiggy Winkle.

Beatrix Potter was born on 28th July 1866, and spent the first 24 years of her life at 2, Bolton Place, London. She was tutored at home by governesses, in a claustrophobic school room on the top floor of her house. Her loneliness led her to create her own indoor animal farm by smuggling in her muffs and voluminous pockets, rabbits, mice and hedgehogs.

But for three months in summer every year, the family moved to Windermere in the Lake District, where she loved to roam over those green open spaces and breathe in the fresh air of the fells. Though Wray Castle where they stayed was a monstrosity, it overlooked the lakes and enjoyed the gentle refreshing breeze that blew inland.

The Reverend Drummond Rawnsley, Vicar of Windermere became her friend and guide, He showed keen interest in the animals which travelled with her in small cages or boxes, and encouraged her to make sketches of them or paint scenes from the countryside. He also stirred up in her a deep concern for preserving the natural beauty of the region. Her activities however were considerably hampered by an autocratic father and the responsibility of caring for her parents.

The royalties from her first book were used to purchase her beloved Hill Top Farm in Sawry. She could only make brief visits to the farm from London. But she used them well. John Cannon her tenant farmer taught her how to plant, hoe and use the farm implements. She also used this time to make sketches of houses, gardens, animals and the countryside, which she later incorporated into her books.

Beatrix’s obsession with preservation of the area in its natural splendour, prompted her to buy pieces of land and property when ever they came up for sale. This was to save them from demolition and commercial enterprise. Her only regret was that she could not spend enough time on her property, as her filial duties kept her in London for the better part of the year.

Beatrix was rescued from boredom and spinsterhood by William Heelis a solicitor, who belonged to the firm which managed her estates. Though her parents opposed her marriage, Bertram her brother argued that at 47, she had the right to marry whom she wanted.

Now she had more freedom to plunge into farming. She moved into larger quarters, and also worked tirelessly in the fields. Her one big obsession was to preserve the environment. She became an active member of Cannon Rawnsley’s National Trust. Acquiring property was not for any personal wealth but to prevent destruction of Nature by new constructions and tarred roads.

The villagers had no idea that she was an author, though her little books were on sale at the “Ginger and Pickles’ store in the village. To them she was an eccentric lady farmer, who wore rough clothes and stomped around in wooden clogs. Anyone who wanted to sell their property for shops, pubs and fancy houses, received a tongue lashing from her.

But she was generous to a fault with newly weds who couldn’t find accommodation or to widows who couldn’t support themselves. She even arranged for a district nurse to make herself available, and gave her a rent free cottage and a car. This was the beginning of the Hawkshead District Nursing Association. Her sympathy for those in need and her frugal life style endeared her to the people. When electricity came to the district in 1934, Beatrix preferred to stay with oil lamps and candles.

Beatrix died on December 22nd, 1943 at the age of 72. She bequeathed her extensive property to the National Trust of Lake District. Her shepherd of twenty years Tom Storey scattered her ashes on the Hill Top pastures, where her presence hovers benevolently over the quiet dales.

Beatrix’s books and personal effects are exhibited at Hill Top Farm. At the Beatrix Potter Gallery in Hawkshead, one can see her original drawings, story books and some of her endearing animal characters. Her whole life was devoted to green cause of the ‘most pleasant countryside in the world.’

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


Varmland in western Sweden is not on the usual tourist itinerary. Yet this is a beautiful region extending towards the Norwegian frontier. Driving through this quiet scenic countryside, its green rolling planes, its serene uplands and its placid lakes, makes a traveler feel one with nature. History records that Christianity spread from Norway to Sweden via Varmland.

The little town of Marbacka in this region was the home of Selma Lagerlof, a Swedish author. She was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Born on November 26th 1858 at Oster Emterwick, she grew up in Marbacka. Folklore, legends and traditions of this area became an inseparable part of her life. After her father’s illness, the family home had to be sold. Selma was loath to move away, and as soon as she could afford to, she bought it back and lived there till her death. In her book “The Story of the Manor” which was published in 1922, she describes this home at length.

Today Marbacka Manor belongs to a Foundation and is open to visitors in summer. As one wanders through those rooms and looks through her memorabilia, it is easy to visualize her life and times.

Selma was a teacher. She trained at the reputed Teachers’ Training College in Stockholm. She worked as a teacher for ten years. Though she started writing poetry at an early age, she did not get into print until 1890. Her novel Gosta Berlings Saga received wide acclaim especially after it was translated into Danish in 1891. It was the story of a clergyman who was dismissed from his job for his drunkenness.

This novel was followed by Osynliga Lanker (Invisible Links) in 1894. With her success, she decided to quit teaching and become a full time writer. It helped that the Royal family and the Swedish Academy offered to support her financially. She could also afford to travel extensively and visited Italy, Greece, Egypt and Palestine. She used some of these places as backdrops to her stories. Some were romantic; others were religious or touched on the supernatural. In Sicily, she saw a statue of Jesus which seemed more like a caricature of him. It prompted her to write “Miracles of the Antichrist” in 1897. One cannot ignore the blending of social and moral values in her writing.

In 1894, Selma became a friend of Sophie Elkan, another writer. They were fast friends till the end of her life. From their correspondence it was assumed that theirs was a homosexual relationship. Sophie showed signs of jealousy when Selma grew friendly with Valborg Ohlander, who was also her literary agent.

Selma’s knowledge of legends and folklore made her a good writer of children’s stories too. “The Wonderful World of Nils” became a children’s classic.

In 1900, Selma travelled to Jerusalem. This visit inspired her to write her major work “Jerusalem” in two volumes. It was a novel about Swedish peasants who migrated to the Holy Land.

By now the world had recognized her as an excellent writer. In 1904, the Swedish Academy presented her with a gold medal. In 1907, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for her voluminous body of work. She was the first woman to be so honoured.

Selma died in her Manor on March 16th 1940, at the ripe old age of 82. Marbacke’s famous author was buried in the churchyard of Ostra Amterwick, about four miles away for her home.