Friday, May 1, 1998

The ‘Nightingale’ of India

Legends and Anecdotes of Hyderabad: 34

The ‘Nightingale’ of India
By Narendra Luther

Sarojini Devi was born on 13th February 1879 at Hyderabad. Her father was Dr.Aghornath Chattopadhyay, the first principal of the Nizam College and a well-known social reformer of the last century in Hyderabad. She was so precocious that she finished matriculation at the age of 12 standing first in the Madras University. She wrote her first poem at 13 while struggling with a problem of Algebra.

At the age of 14, she fell in love with Dr. Govindrajulu Naidu, an army doctor. He was a widower and ten years older than her. Her parents naturally objected to such a match. She was sent to England on a scholarship and the parents hoped that she would overcome her juvenile infatuation.

There poet and critic, Edmund Gosse noticed her talent. However, advised her to abjure ‘western in feeling and in imagery’ and instead adopt the Indian idiom. She took that advice and thenceforth wrote on the variegated sights, sounds and smells of India.

Three years in London and Cambridge did not cure he of her love for Dr. Naidu. She suddenly returned to marry him. The great Andhra social reformer, Kandukuri Veerasalingam, solemnized the marriage in 1898 at Madras. Both the parties declared that hey did not belong to any religion.

The first collections of her poems: ‘The Golden Threshold’ was published in England in1916 and earned rave reviews. She named her house on the Nampally Road ‘The Golden Threshold’ after her first anthology. Six more collections followed.

Sarojini Naidu was fond of dressing elegantly and was a gourmet. Her house became a haunt for what she described as ‘miscellaneous fellows of both sexes’.

She was a devoted social worker and a crusader for the rights of women. She organized relief work in Hyderabad during the great floods in the river Musi in 1908. For that she was awarded the ‘Kaisar-e-Hind’ gold medal by the British Government. She joined the freedom movement in 1915 on the exhortation of Gokhale whom she had met in England. She became a member of the All India Home Rule League, and in 1925, the first Indian woman president of the Congress. In 1930 she was arrested for participating in the Salt Satyagraha. In 1931 she accompanied Mahatma Gandhi to the Second Round Table Conference in London. She was arrested again in 1942 during the ‘Quit India Movement’.

A brilliant orator in public, her wit was irrepressible in any company. She nicknamed Mahatma Gandhi, ‘Mickey Mouse’. Mahatma Gandhi used to travel by third class and stay in the sweepers’ colony in Delhi and elsewhere. The authorities took pains to make the train compartment as well as the colony spick and span. That led Sarojini Naidu to remark that Mahatma Gandhi did not know how much it cost the nation to keep him in poverty!

When C.Rajagopalachari became the first Indian Governor- General of India and moved into the Viceregal Lodge, he showed her the sumptuous furnishings and pointing to a huge ornate bed, remarked, “What will a simple man like me do with this?” Sarojini Devi replied, “Look, Rajajee, I have helped you in many difficult situations earlier. But I am sorry, I can’t help you in this matter”.

She was particularly close to Jawahar Lal Nehru who admired her for infusing ‘artistry and poetry into the national struggle’.

Once the last Nizam, Mir Osman Ali Khan asked her what difference she found between him and his late father. Sarojini Devi replied: “His Highness was ruled by his heart; Your Exalted Highness by your mind.” The Nizam tapped his thigh in appreciation of her apt observation.

When India became independent, she was appointed governor of UP. The Government House in Lucknow was instantly transformed into a cultural centre.

She was a Hyderabadi to the core. When the news of the fall of Hyderabad in the Police Action was conveyed to her, she reacted: “I am sorry for my State, but happy for my country”.

In 1949 she fell ill. The physician came and gave her a sleeping pill and told her reassuringly that it would give her good sleep. Sarojini Naidu smiled mischievously and said, “Not eternal sleep, I hope!” She expired during her sleep that night.

She had four children. The eldest, a son, Jaisoorya was a M.D. in allopathy but became a nationally renowned homeopath. The second son, Ranadhira was an alcoholic and died young. The next two were daughters. The elder, Padmaja, was a social worker. She remained a spinster and served as the Governor of West Bengal for ten years. The last, Leelmani studied at Oxford, taught English in the Nizam and the Women’s College and then joined the External Affairs Ministry. Out of them only one, Jaisoorya married - first a German woman, and after her death, of cancer, Dr. Dwarkabai of Guntur.

After Sarojini’s death, the ‘Golden Threshold’ was rented out to a restaurant called the ‘Neo Mysore Café’. Padmaja Naidu, the sole survivor of the family, bequeathed it to the University of Hyderabad and the dedication was done on 17th November 1975 by Indira Gandhi. Appropriately, the School of Performing Arts, Fine Arts & Communication of the University named after Sarojini have been located in the ‘Golden Threshold’.

There is a road, an Eye Hospital and a Women’s College (Vanita Mahavidyala) named after her in Hyderabad. The Sarojini Naidu Memorial Trust Library and Museum was set up in 1981 in the house in which she was born on the Jawahar Lal Nehru Road. It presents a pitiable sight today. A workshop has allegedly encroached upon a part of the premises. The State Government has not released the annual grant of 100,000 rupees for some years. Properly maintained, it could be a proud monument and a tourist attraction for the city.

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