Although Kanji Dwarkadas, an Indian writer, social reformer and politician is not especially well known today, his papers (Ms. Coll. 1239) offer a fascinating insight into the personal lives of some of the most important public figures in India’s twentieth century history. Dwarkadas was born in Mumbai (then Bombay) in 1892 and became involved in local and national politics by his early twenties. As a member of the Indian Home Rule movement and as general secretary of the 1918 Indian National Congress, Dwarkadas was closely acquainted with Annie Besant, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Jawaharlal Nehru and other important politicians and activists of his time. The Dwarkadas papers reveal nuances of character in these individuals through ample correspondence, notes, transcribed conversations or interviews, and diary entries, which Dwarkadas referred to as his “personal observations.”
The material in this collection that relates to public figures owes some of its insightfulness to the fact that Dwarkadas maintained close friendships with many of his peers in politics. This was certainly true of his relationship with writer and activist Annie Besant. The two seem to have been in agreement over nearly all matters of politics, and both shared (mostly in private correspondence) frustration over the actions of Mahatma Gandhi. In a letter dated February 5, 1922, Besant complained that “Gandhi always flinches at the critical moment. His bold words are mere bluff.” In an undated letter, she claimed “things are very bad here, thanks to Gandhi, who spreads disregard of law, and causes much trouble.” This somewhat unpopular opinion was one voiced by Dwarkadas as well: a brief biography of him written around 1960 notes that his “critical book” published on Gandhi was “the only one of its kind.” Indeed, Dwarkadas’ political identity and involvement seems to have been so integrated with Besant’s that after her death in 1933 he retired from politics and focused his energies on social activism and labor reform.
Besant and Dwarkadas’ relationship, however, extended considerably beyond matters of politics. Dwarkadas considered Besant his adoptive mother, and she in turn treated him and his brother, Jamnadas, as sons. In her letters to Kanji, Besant addresses him as “my dear son” and usually signs off, “with love, Mother.” Though they contain a good deal of business information, Besant’s letters to Dwarkadas are supportive and thoughtful. So much so, perhaps, that in a letter to Kanji and Jamnadas written in 1919, Besant exclaimed, “I fear that I pour out on you all a great deal too much affection!”
It may have simply been Besant’s nature to take on a somewhat maternal role towards her younger friends and acquaintances. Around 1910, Besant, a devout theosophist, adopted Jiddu Krishnamurti, a teenager whom she and others believed to be the new World Teacher of the religion (Krishnamurti renounced this role two decades later). Besant’s impulse to care for others, even near strangers, is illustrated in a letter she sent to Dwarkadas in 1929. In this note, she asks Dwarkadas to secure a ticket on a steamer from Bombay to Trieste “for a young Hungarian who has been wandering about India.” She explains that she would do so herself, but for the fact that “he is a fruitarian and only seems to eat cocoanuts, almonds and bananas” and she would be unable to “supply him with fruit enough for such a journey” from her current location in Chennai.
This kind and generous quality of Besant’s is interesting in its own right, but especially so in light of events earlier in her life. Married to Frank Besant in 1867 when she was twenty years old, Annie had two children, but was unhappy in her marriage and legally separated from her husband in 1873. She was able to maintain custody over her daughter for some time, but had to give up the right to see her children after she was prosecuted in 1877 for publishing a book on birth control. One may wonder, then, if Besant’s motherly attitude towards Dwarkadas and others was influenced by her separation from her biological children decades prior.
A confluence of factors makes the Dwarkadas papers particularly revealing of the personalities of the individuals mentioned therein. On the one hand, Dwarkadas was amicable with most of his colleagues in the government, and very close with a handful; his letters strike a tone of friendship more than professional collaboration. In addition, the very nature of the types of materials present –private correspondence, journal entries, confidential reports- is more intimate than, for example, a newspaper profile. As a result, these documents provide a perspective on some Indian political figures of the last century, which is different from that found in their published works or public speeches.