To many of us, this was a unidimensional personality. Based on our Amar Chithra Katha readings, she was Margaret Noble, who gave up a comfortable life somewhere in the west and followed Swami Vivekananda to India, becoming Sister Nivedita. Thereafter, our history books have dealt even more cursorily with her, and as is obligatory with them, managed to make her life a most boring one. The sole mental image I have of her is from the stamp that the Government of India released sometime in the 1980s.
Margot, Sister Nivedita of Swami Vivekananda, by Reba Som (Penguin Random House India Pvt Limited, 2017) sets right this imbalance. Som traces the life of Margaret Noble from her time in the UK and ends with her death in Darjeeling in 1911, at the age of 44. What emerges is a complex personality who was prone to all the emotions that we have. Her relationship with Swami Vivekananda was nothing short of difficult and it took time for both of them to adjust. Her arrival in India was unacceptable to many – the British establishment and the orthodox Hindu elements. It was left to her to see her way through. Next – Sister was not a docile acceptor of everything that Vivekananda stood for or espoused. She befriended the Tagores even though the Swami warned her that the entire family was typical of the effete rich that according to him had weakened India by preferring poetry and art to direct action that he was fond of. But Nivedita became a close friend of Rabindranath and as he acknowledged much later, was the first translator of his works to English.
There were other facets to Nivedita’s personality. She supported India’s struggle for freedom. In this she came into contact with fiery revolutionaries such as Aurobindo Ghosh, his brother Barindrakumar Ghosh and the Swami’s brother Bhupendranath Datta. She also was acquainted with Tagore’s kinswoman Sarala Debi Chaudhurani. Nivedita also kept a close watch on the activities of the Congress and greatly supported it. Braving official wrath and surveillance by Government spies, she dared criticise the autocratic regime of Lord Curzon and would have nothing to do with his successor Lord Minto, though the latter’s wife did strike up a personal friendship with Nivedita.
Nivedita was a woman who, as Vivekananda noted, forever chased some obsession or the other. In that capacity, she also championed Indian art and greatly encouraged artists such as Abanindranath Tagore and it was at her prodding that he did the first ever depiction of Bharata Mata – with four hands wielding a rosary, a palm manuscript, a sheaf of paddy and a woven cloth. Nivedita’s love for Indian art, combined with her fascination for Indian weaves, saw her design the country’s first flag – it had a red background with Indira’s vajra embroidered on it. It also bore the legend Vande Mataram in Bengali script.
In the midst of all this, there was much work to be done – plenty of writing, including the translations of Swami Vivekananda’s works, running a girls’ school at Bosepara Lane, conducting relief works when plague, famine or floods struck and fending off the arduous advances of the Japanese scholar Kakuzo Okakura! Nivedita herself was ambivalent about her true feelings for him, just as she never ever got to down to realising what was the nature of her devotion to Swami Vivekananda. (He on the other hand was quite clear and treated her harshly when he realised that he had to distance himself on occasion).
Nivedita also emerged as a guide to (later Sir) Jagadish Chandra Bose, the scientist and his wife, Abala. JC Bose suffered much racial discrimination from the largely European-dominated science community and it is doubtful that he would have been able to reach the heights of recognition that he did were it not for Nivedita.
All these and more emerge from this wonderful book. There are several photographs and a couple of sketches by Rathin Mitra, my childhood idol. In the 1980s he did a series of sketches for the Telegraph’s Sunday magazine, each instalment featuring a historic building of Calcutta with a brief note on its significance. We also have a range of characters who will be familiar to any follower of the Ramakrishna Math – Gopal Ma, Sarada Devi, Girish Chandra Ghosh, Josephine Macleod and several others. In sum, the work brings to light a bright, intelligent, passionate and tenacious personality who within a short span of 44 years achieved much.
You may also want to read about the other westerner – Laura Glenn, an American who became Sister Devamatha and following the Ramakrishna Mission, came to Madras.
This book review, is also part of a series on books that I have read and enjoyed. You can read the earlier ones in this link