Frontlist | When an Indian writer’s visit caused a stir in the US
Sarath Ghosh was celebrated in early 20th century as the ‘first Hindu writer in English’. Was this fact, or like so much else in his life, fiction?
With his long robe, elaborate turban, fine embroidered shawl and string of pearls, Sarath Ghosh cut a dramatic figure when he arrived in San Francisco on February 23, 1912, on board the liner Siberia.
Newspapers could not shower enough praises on him. In lavish introductory accounts, they raved about the Indian writer’s impressive appearance and well-established credentials. His novel, The Prince of Destiny, published when he was in his twenties, had impressed the British royalty. He had studied at Oxford and Cambridge, and was a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. Some accounts referred to him as the “first Hindu writer in English” to be recognised in London. The absence of detail implies some exaggeration, but Ghosh, whom newspapers were soon referring to as Prince – he claimed descent from a royal house (Ghoshpara near Calcutta) – was quite a novelty, and his lectures received wide attention.
A prominent Los Angeles paper resorted to verse to record his time in the city:
There’s a preening of fine feathers and a running in and out,
For the nephew of a raja is sojourning hereabout
And all the social highlights have little artless ways
To attract the royal presence and enjoy the royal gaze.
— ‘The Record’, Los Angeles, March 27, 1912.
Ghosh’s first lectures were about the royal Durbar, the impressive welcome ceremony staged in 1911 in Delhi for Britain’s King George V and Queen Mary. The lectures were accompanied by Charles Urban’s kinemacolor film ‘Durbar’, made with a new colour motion filtered process. Ghosh claimed he thought of the Delhi Durbar – and its colourful pageantry meant to reemphasise loyalty and check resistance – as a lecture subject while writing his novel The Prince of Destiny, which was published in London in 1909.
Another subject of his lectures was Indian women. Several Californian newspapers at the time reported his talks that discussed Indian women’s low levels of education and yet how fortunate they were compared to their western counterparts, for the Indian tradition honoured women and accorded them respect within the family and home. In the years before World War I, as he travelled across the US – from Seattle to Chicago and then New York – his was a sought-after voice as newspapers and lecture audiences evinced a curiosity about India and its role in world events.
‘Prince’ Ghosh, in effect, became the first of a string of Indians – travellers, scholars, writers and members of Ghadar Party – who made a second career as lecturer, travelling across America to speak about India. That success made Ghosh loftily claim that he was “the only Indian writer on social and economic subjects who has been accepted in India and England”.
In his early years in the US, he spoke for increasing American trade in India. Soon after World War I broke out in August 1914, and officials began worrying about the loyalty of Indians in the British-Indian army, Ghosh dismissed as rumours the possibility of Muslim soldiers rebelling in support of the Caliphate. He described the fears as the work of the “Kipling Gang” – a reference to Rudyard Kipling, a writer he sneered at. As he said in November 1914, “All of his books on India have been false. His falseness is due to ignorance or malice. The only book he ever wrote that was not false was Kim and there are many bad chapters in that.”
A lecture Ghosh often delivered, entitled “Marvels of India”, used slides and illustrations to describe “ancient Hindu engineering marvels”, such as temples built out of mountains with elaborate wall carvings and paintings (a reference to the Ajanta and Ellora). He ended the lecture with details about the 17th century Taj Mahal that took “17 years and involved 40,000 artisans” in its construction.
Apart from authoring well-regarded novels, Ghosh published several pieces of fiction in American journals like Adventure and Pearson’s. His writings in Pearson’s often featured Rajah, a royal personage of Indian origin who went about resolving the ills of American life. “The Rajah’s Knight Move”, for instance, tells the story of a greedy industrialist who continued playing chess while the women and children working in his factory perished in a blaze for lack of a fire escape. The Rajah saw himself as a modern-day Haroun al-Rashid, the legendary Caliph of Baghdad. Assisting him in his quest was his American butler or vazir, Ralph Chatterton. Over many stories, the Rajah’s entourage picked up characters like Ram Pershad, an Indian juggler and magician, and Ralph’s wife, Helen.
Haroun al-Rashid appeared in a story Ghosh wrote for Adventure, along with a shikari or hunter named Moolraj. In an introductory note, Ghosh described a childhood spent in a royal palace. He said he travelled often between Europe and Asia and began writing after being persuaded to send a story to an English magazine about an adventure with a tiger (“Some Real Tiger Stories”, Cornhill Magazine, 1898). This was accepted as fiction, although Ghosh insisted that all his stories were factual. He had often been in the jungle in the company of a shikari, and the hunter Moolraj was someone he had known in real life. At 15, Ghosh wrote, Moolraj was an “apprentice forest ranger” and by 25, he was an expert snake charmer and a full-time shikari who knew woodcraft and jungle lore.
Haroun al-Rashid and Moolraj had also appeared in Ghosh’s magnum opus, The Prince of Destiny, which was published in London to a lot of interest. The novel featured Bharat, an England-educated prince rooted in tradition, who is determined to lead his small kingdom peacefully to independence. It was described as the first novel to talk of the East-West encounter.
His other books included the two volumes of Wonders of the Jungle and 1001 Indian Nights: The Trials of Narayan Lal (1906), the story of a royal servant sentenced to death for daring to love a princess. To save himself, Lal has to face numerous challenges over 21 days, including battling a venomous snake, fighting off the notorious Thugs, walking over fire and consuming lethal poisons.
Among Ghosh’s early published works were his notes that accompanied Edmund Warren Russell’s The Arts of India in 1901. Russell, a poet and actor in California, had visited India in 1900-1901 and played Hamlet on stage. Russell dressed flamboyantly, complete with an elaborate turban and striking jewellery, and it is likely that Ghosh, in his later avatar as lecturer, drew on Russell as inspiration.
The Last Mystery
Although he found early success in England, Ghosh did not stay there for long. He had probably moved to London in the early 20th century, where he found a patron in Alice Meynell, a poet and suffragette who spoke up against British imperialism. By 1912, he had made US his home after travelling there from Calcutta, via Hong Kong, at the invitation of Harriet Soley-Morle, an actor and performer with her own literary salon.
From 1914, Ghosh lived mainly in New York, putting up at a boarding house in Gramercy Park. He gave the occasional lecture and remained greatly sought after by salon ladies. He spoke on varied subjects, such as “America’s role in the world” and the “attainment of Nirvana”, but was also drawn into popular fads, such as “spirit writing”. Pearl Lenore Curran, a writer favoured by one of his patrons, claimed she wrote her poems while in contact with a spirit who had died around 300 years ago.
Quite inexplicably, shortly before his death, Ghosh served as the western representative of the anti-Bolshevik government in Siberia. Set up around 1918 and led by Admiral Vasilyevich Kolchak, the government had been propped up with western help. It lasted only till 1920, and Ghosh’s role is relatively unclear, though he did deliver the odd lecture entitled ‘Siberia and Asiatic Russia; Marvels of its Natural Resources’.
Ghosh died in February 1920, one of the millions of victims of the Spanish flu raging around the world. Some years later, in 1924, an undertaker in New York issued an advertisement, searching for a claimant to Ghosh’s ashes stored in an urn in a mortuary. Several women came forward with their stories. Irene Marcellus, a dancer on Broadway and occasional sculptor, revealed that Ghosh had once proposed to her, only to be turned down. Ghosh had apparently left his fortune – later revealed to five thousand dollars – to Irene and her sister Violet. A poet in Chicago, Nahami Krupp, also claimed that Ghosh had sent her love letters. One of his patrons, Mrs. Behr, stepped forward, wishing to travel to India to scatter Ghosh’s ashes in the river Ganga, as he had desired. Then, there was Nona Smith Gould, a physician and suffragette, who pressed her right to the ashes as the executor of Ghosh’s will.
Like much of Ghosh’s life, the fate of the ashes remain shrouded in mystery. It is likely the ashes remained unclaimed and was eventually buried by the undertaker. It is just as possible that Ghosh was never really who he claimed to be. A contemporary of his from Calcutta, who shared his name, had visited England before joining the Indian Civil Service. It may have been that Ghosh did little to clear the air when newspapers confused the two, but this too remains a matter of conjecture.