28. New Points of View
It was a cold, foggy evening in late October when Nivedita arrived in London with Dr. and Mrs. Bose. The Boses were tired, and could scarcely breathe in the heavy dampness. Nivedita herself shivered. Yet it was precisely in the cab, traversing the dark streets, that she remembered an exquisite parable of Sri Ramakrishna:
“When the star Svati is in the ascendant, the pearl oyster, which has risen to the surface of the waters, Boats there with its shell wide open, until a drop of rain falls into it. Then it plunges down and hides itself in the deep, until it has made of that drop of rain a marvelous pearl”
Nivedita said to herself: “This fog and wet will now enclose me. It is a symbol. I shall be alone with myself, living inside my tightly closed shell. O blessed dew of Svati, work within me, transform me! A day will come when I shall understand everything better’
She had hoped to invite the Boses to her mother’s house, but found Mary Noble not strong enough now to entertain guests. Her brother Richmond, meanwhile, had joined forces with Octavius Beatty in the pursuit of a political career, taking an active part in the general controversy which was then raging over the Boer War, and was not in the least afraid of attacking the government. Nivedita, too, soon found herself in active debate with a responsible government official in carrying out what became, instinctively, her London program: “I do for India,*’ as she put it in a letter, “everything that comes my way.*
And although she could not offer Dr. Bose a haven in her mother’s home, she could and did replace Mrs. Bull, who had not yet reached London, in helping him with his work and in surrounding him, insofar as was possible, with an atmosphere of peace and quiet. He was to present his experiments to the Royal Society. He had two assistants working with him. He was ill, and knew that he would soon have to undergo an operation. He was tyrannical, and when a day of work passed without result he was apt to fall into a mood of irritation. He was depressed and harassed by the sense of a constant struggle dictated by race prejudice. Every lecture he gave represented a cruel effort, and hours would be spent in drawing and redrawing scientific diagrams and verifying calculations. “My paper will probably come next week,” he wrote in November to Mrs. Bull, who was to come for the day: “Then, too, I feel some restraint, as some of the important things which I recently did with crude, homely apparatus are capable of much improvement and far-reaching development with proper apparatus. If I give out the idea of my method, and do not continue the work myself, better results will be brought forward, and my work will appear ridiculously crude.”
The presentation before the Royal Society passed off successfully. When it was over, Bose went into a nursing home, and the necessary operation was performed in December. Nive-dita took turns with his wife in looking after the sick man during his convalescence, and now she could offer him the hospitality of her mother’s house, since Mary Noble had gone to the country. Meanwhile, however, she had had her brush with authority, on behalf of Indian scholarship in general and Jagadis Bose’s work in particular.
This was when Jamsetji Naraswanji Tata, celebrated Parsee industrialist, merchant, and philanthropist, arrived in London from Bombay to press his plan for the founding of an independent university for Indians, with Indian funds, and to find out why his project had, so far, been blocked. He was anxious to meet Sir George Birdwood, who was in charge of educational affairs in the India Office; and in order to bring this about under the most favorable conditions Mrs. Bull, who kept open house, gave a luncheon at which Nivedita was the fourth guest.
In the course of a conversation which was being carried on brilliantly from all sides, she asked Sir George whether there was any hope that account would be taken solely of the applicants’ scientific qualifications when state appointments were made in the future. He replied that this was impossible.
“And do you not think that such a state of tilings involves the gravest dangers?” she asked.
“It ought to do so,” the government official admitted, “but I do not tor one moment believe that it does. The people oi India will never rise against us. They are all vegetarians!”
“I was thinking of dangers to India, not to ourselves,” Nivedita said.
“Oh, I hadn’t thought of that,” Sir George responded. “True, that point of view would be very interesting.”
The coffee had arrived before Mr. Tata had had an opportunity of broaching the subject which lay so heavily on his own mind. And then it was Nivedita who opened fire.
“What form of regulation would you propose, Sir George,” she asked, “in order to secure the appointment of Hindus of outstanding merit to the professional chairs in an Indian university as planned by Mr. Tata?”
Mr. Tata’s plan was, in fact, that an equal number of Parsee, Moslem, Hindu, and Christian professors should constitute the Administrative Committee of such a university. Now Sir George stared at Nivedita.
“I would propose nothing!” he said. “It would be suicidal to the interests of science to do anything of the sort. That is a world question, not an Indian problem at all!”
No further discussion was possible. “Write me an open letter in The Times “ Sir George said to Mr. Tata. “I will reply officially. I assure you, your point of view is very interesting.”
Nivedita, listening, was planning her own campaign. “What Sir George refuses to do, I shall do instead,” she was saying to herself. “And, through the efforts of thousands of Hindu intellectuals, an India will be bom with which England will not be associated.”
That same evening she sent the Boses a note, describing what had happened. “My dearest Two, send me immediately a list of the first-class Indians who are groveling in English universities,” she wrote. “Choose scientists, lawyers, doctors, linguists. I am adopting them. I don’t know yet what I can do for them, but I shall spare no effort on their behalf.”
This was a long distance from that early point of view which had heralded Swami Vivekananda’s work as an aid to Britain’s peaceful domination of India! But it was characteristic of Margaret Noble’s mind that she was never afraid of growth or change. And during this stay in London she found herself receptive to a new philosophical attitude, as well.
Recovering from his illness, Jagadis Bose spent hours reading with Nivedita. In the rigid puritan atmosphere of her mother’s home, Nivedita became his pupil and, under his tutelage, assimilated the entire Brahmo-Samaj philosophy, and even its tradition. It seemed to her that this was a necessary step.
There has been a tremendous resolution on his side to overcome, for he felt that honor would never permit my hearing his views from him [she wrote to Miss MacLeod]. But, at last, I think I am getting it all. And I am throwing myself into it completely, as I think Sri Ramakrishna would wish me to do, and am trying, if that might be, to reach God that way. You will remember that I did not love even Shiva and Kali at first. Even Sri Ramakrishna cannot have loved all religions equally. . . . And sometimes I am quite clear that the call and the effort come straight from Sri Ramakrishna himself. And at other times I think of Swami and shudder – for I do not think he would understand or approve. And to be disapproved of by him is still the uttermost depth to me. . . . Moreover, I seem to be casting away all that I have lived for, all that it has been Freedom to
The Sunday after she wrote this ktter, Nivedita spoke from the pulpit of a church in Tunbridge Wells; and there, as she wrote, an “extraordinary thing” came to her.
I found myself taking the highest part of everything Swami has ever given us. Then I understood in a flash that my notion about Brahmoism had a kind of call to me to do this . . . which I should never have done, perhaps, without that invitation from another’s need. So I am able to realize that I really may have been using Images to thwart and blind my vision of the One . . . and that until I have achieved that vision I may not go Backto the Image. I cannot tell you the peace of this discovery. And is it not a wonderful proof of the truth of Advaita [the knowledge of the Divine without form] that Swami is so tremendous, that every path means faithfulness to him? He is so large that as long as you are faithful to Truth and to yourself, you cannot be in antagonism to him.
Jagadis Bose was also enjoying a harvest of achievement at this time. A regular correspondence had been established between him and the Curies, and he exchanged regular visits with Thomas Huxley. Nivedita commented, in a letter:
It is extraordinary to see Dr. Bose: how the old idea of Advaita behind him saves him from errors that other men of science walk into blindfold. … He is now like one who walks on air. Discovery succeeds discovery, one instrument follows another, and the brilliant intuition becomes the measured fact. It is with breathless awe that one watches. How can the Divine Mother pour out Her spirit so abundantly?
Nivedita herself was tom between the wish to return to work in India and the execution of a full program of work in London. On the one hand, there was news every week from Miss MacLeod, who had rejoined Swami Vivekananda; and in March, Sri Sarada Devi sent such an urgent summons to return that Nivedita looked up sailings. On the other hand, she was accomplishing a great deal where she was. She lectured three times a week, to raise money for her school, and she wrote many articles, which were accepted by widely read magazines. In
February she had gone for a fortnight’s lecture tour to Scotland, where she had visited Patrick Geddes; and he offered her the lectureship of the Indian section of the Glasgow Exposition. In Scotland, too, she collected more than twelve hundred pounds for her work in India, and this, to her great regret, aroused the envy of the Christian Missionary Societies. Through the medium of the Westminster Gazette they engaged in a brief controversy, but Nivedita’s essay, “Lambs among Wolves,” a reluctant and painful survey of the intolerance shown by Christian missionaries toward followers of another religion, was the only episode in a conflict which she abandoned at once.
When she returned from Scotland she found another sphere of useful activity, through the advice and with the co-operation of Romesh Chunder Dutt, a member of the faculty of history at the University of London, a friend of Dr. Bose, a poet and translator who had brought out abridged versions of the Rama–yana and Nahabharata in English verse. After twenty-five years in the Civil Service, Dr. Dutt had made London the headquarters for his work for India. Now Nivedita came to him and said:
“Tell me about the India which you teach your pupils, with its economic and financial core. Show me the parallel developments of East and West.”
Soon some ten or more Indians, Dr. Dutt’s students, were coming regularly to study with Nivedita; and she herself found this the best means of becoming really acquainted with them. She learned of their mad hopes and bitter disappointments, and she felt how alike they all were: on guard against themselves, ashamed of feeling the ill effects of the cold climate, humbled in the other students’ eyes by the respect they paid to their own customs, faithfully imitating the Kipling characters which formed the image of India to the English. Nivedita listened as they talked and discussed with them the problem, which was so important to them, of the industrialization of India.
At the suggestion of Romesh Chunder Dutt she also began work on a book, The Web of Indian Life, which was to group together the delightful stories she told in her lectures, and in which, also, she recognized the influence of Patrick Geddes. “To understand a little of Europe indirectly gave me a method by which to interpret my Hindu experience/* she wrote. Early chapters treated of the Hindu woman as wife, and discussed the castes of India. When she spoke of going Backto India, Dr. Dutt insisted that she stay to finish the book. Believing that the length of her European sojourn depended upon Swami Vivekananda, he also wrote to the Swami (to whom he was distandy related): “For the good of India you must postpone Nivedita’s return.” But every mail brought more urgent demands. Miss MacLeod, who was now in Japan, even threatened to accuse her of unfaithfulness.
Finally Nivedita wrote to Sri Sarada Devi that she was coming back, but she could fix no definite date of departure. It was May now, and she was more tom by uncertainty than ever. She wanted to go. Yes, she wanted desperately to go – but not to India She needed space and solitude to make a decision. But where was she to go for that?
It was again Mrs. Bull who came to the rescue, with the suggestion of Norway and the wilderness retreat built by her musician husband on the rocks by the seashore. Here was the solution! Nivedita left for Bergen in the middle of the month. She went alone, but friends were to join her later.
She felt that, as in the parable, the moment had come for her, to open the oyster shell and look within at the pearl bom of a raindrop.