Thursday, November 21, 2013

Boshi Sen, the Link between Pandit Nehru and Swami Vivekananda

It is not just in the King’s diaries, history also lies embedded in the lives of ordinary men and women who serve the King. For example, a few pages devoted to Swami Vivekananda in Discovery of India, hardly reveals much about Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s connection to Swami and his mentors.[1] Swami Vivekananda and Jawaharlal’s father, Motilal Nehru were Freemasons,[2] even this fact is inadequate to understand Swami’s influence on Nehru. 

However, Swami direct impact on Nehru’s life comes out more clearly after a thorough reading of - Grish N Mehra (2007), Nearer Heaven than Earth: The Life and Times of Boshi Sen and Gertrude Emerson Sen - and Pravrajika Prabuddhaprana (1990), Tantine, the Life of Josephine MacLeod: a friend of Swami Vivekananda.

The two biographies take us through the life of a little known Indian agricultural scientist Boshi Sen and his American wife Gertrude Emerson and their transnational links. Much like the Swami Vivekananda, Boshi’s magnetic personality drew people from politics and high society towards him. The major difference between the two was that their common mentors in the West projected Swami as a leader and Boshi as a loyal worker.

Boshi and Gertrude were ‘among Nehru's many nonofficial friends.’ The Sens saw Nehru ‘with steady affection, clearly, with a sort of unclouded and imperturbable loyalty.’[3] (Sheean. 1960: 254)

For Pandit Nehru, Boshi was more than a friend and a philosopher. Once in the beginning of January 1952, Nehru’s sister, Vijay Lakshmi Pandit, worried about her workaholic brother’s health, wrote to Boshi: 

‘Mathai (MO) and I put our heads together and thought if we could persuade you to come here for few days - ostensibly on important work of your own and give Bhai a massage while you are here, it would do wonders for him…you would really be doing India a great service.’ [4] (Mehra. 2007: 387)

Boshi’s proximity to Nehru can be gauged from his access to independent India’s nuclear thought and the contentious Indo-China border. In 1955, Boshi, a plant physiologist, was selected as one of the two Indian scientists to attend the course opened to foreigners in the peaceful use of atomic energy held at National Atomic Establishment, Oak Ridge, Tennessee USA. 

In November 1956, Boshi and Gertrude were invited by the ministry of external affairs (then headed by Pandit Nehru) to visit NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh) to study the plants in the region. A part of the Sens journey to NEFA was done in a special place in which Indira Gandhi was traveling to Assam for Congress Party work. Boshi was awarded Padma Bhusan by the government of India in 1957. 

Sens’ first met Nehru in 1934, at Calcutta. The relationship began with Boshi Sen’s wife Gertrude Emerson interviewing Nehru for her American magazine, Asia. Later, Nehru’s letters to Indira and also his articles were published in Asia till 1942. In 1934, when Nehru was imprisoned at Almora, Boshi and Gertrude used to visit him regularly in jail. The privileged jail visits, in non-visiting hours, were facilitated by the acting civil surgeon who used to take them along during his routine rounds to examine the prison inmates. Incidentally, in mid-1945, it was at Almora that Nehru served his last prison sentence. Immediately on his release, Nehru was at Sens Kundan House residence for hot lunch (Sheean. 1960: 254).

Swami Vivekananda and Boshi Sen 

Nehru was not the only one to benefit from Boshi’s devotion. Rabindranath Tagore, JC Bose, and many from Anglo- American royalty too had the opportunity to be massaged by Boshi. 

Boshi Sen, the pupil of a famous scientist, Sir JC Bose was also a close associate of the Ramakrishna Order. Boshi had a lot in common with Swami Vivekananda. Swami was a spiritualist with scientific temper; Boshi was a scientist with spiritual sensibilities. Both were patronized by American millionaires and their ladies. The three Anglo-American ladies - Josephine MacLeod, Margaret Elizabeth Noble (Sister Nivedita), and Christine Greenstidel - extremely close to Swami Vivekananda were also intimately connected to Boshi’s life.

In 1909, when Boshi was a student at Calcutta University, Sister Nivedita (Margaret Elizabeth Noble) - Vivekanand’s Irish English disciple - entrusted Boshi to look after his ill and infirm guru Swami Sadananda of Belur Math. Boshi and his younger brother along with Swami Sadananda moved into 8 Bosepara Lane, Calcutta that was hired at a monthly rent of Rs 20. This house was later bought by Boshi for Rs. 8000 gifted to him by his American friends. 

After Guru and Sister Nivedita's death in 1911, Boshi Sen’s friend Christine Greenstidel moved into his house. Christine was another American disciple of Vivekananda, who ran a school in Calcutta for Indian girls and young widows together with sister Nivedita. Christine had first heard Swami Vivekananda in 1894 at Detroit. She had later accompanied the Swami to Thousand Island Park in New York State. 

The most crucial link in the chain was Josephine MacLeod, fondly called ‘Yum’ by her friends. In the mid-1890s, Josephine Macleod had organized, funded, and accompanied Swami Vivekanand’s trips across the globe and also within India. She belonged to the “elite cultured circles” of London, Paris, and New York. 

Josephine and her sister Betty had lost their parents when they were in their teens.[5] The two sisters first smelt big money in 1876, when Betty married Willam Sturges of a Chicago, a rich man twice her age. William died in 1893 and Betty got engaged to Frank Leggett. Frank was another big business magnate whose reach and range-extended into most parts of the transatlantic world. In 1895, Swami Vivekananda along with Josephine MacLeod attended Betty and Frank’s marriage in Paris. 

Frank Leggett was the owner of ‘Ridgely Manor’, an opulent mansion where Swami Vivekananda was hosted thrice during his visits abroad. For Josephine MacLeod Vivekananda was “new Buddha”, and a “spiritual aristocrat”, she ensured that her sister’s family always remained involved in funding Swami and the Ramakrishna mission and order. 

In November 1900, Josephine Macleod and Swami Vivekananda went to Egypt. The touring party also included Jules Bois (an occult philosopher, and author of the book, The Next world and Unknown Forces), Pere Hyacinthe (a former monk of a strict Roman Catholic order who at the age of 40 gave up his wows to marry an American woman - and was therefore called Monsieur Loyson) and Madame Calve (rags to riches story). The trip was organized and facilitated by Hiram Maxim, the inventor of the Maxim machine gun and the business partner of Rothschild (Prabuddhaprana.1990: 104). Since the trip had all the celebrity elements and ingredients, it was well-publicized too. 

On 11 November 1900, the Paris correspondent of The New York World wrote a full-page story: “Trip of the Century”. 

‘In the center of the page was a drawing of the beautiful Clave, mounted on a haughty, ornamentally bedecked camel led across the desert by a Bedouin, with pyramids and sphinx of Egypt in the background. On the same page, in the lower-left corner was a photograph of Vivekananda in a decorated frame. The caption read “Strangest of pilgrimages - Calve’s flight for health to Mystic East.’ (Prabuddhaprana.1990: 105) 

Boshi Sen used to call Josephine, Tantine (aunty). Tantine was relevant to the younger generation because she continued to be the main link between the Ramakrishna order and their sponsors in America and elsewhere in Europe. It was on Tantine’s and Sister Nivedita’s recommendation that Professor JC Bose had employed Boshi as a research assistant in his institute.

Boshi in America

After working for twelve years, Boshi Sen got a break. In 1923, Glen Overton and his wife Marguerite poached him from JC Bose’s lab and took him to America, where he was promised first-class facilities to study at the universities. On reaching the USA, Glen Overton discovered that his entire business of manufacturing dairy machinery had floundered and he was in a tight financial state to support Boshi’s stay. This situation led Boshi to seek Patrick Geddes’s assistance. 

Patrick Geddes, the famous sociologist, and urban planner was a close friend and mentor of Sister Nivedita. He had also taught at Bombay University from 1919 to 1924. However, he is more famous for designing the master plan for Tel Aviv city in 1925. Geddes died in 1932, but his plan was adopted to form the core of Israeli city.

Patrick sent Boshi to Leonard Elmhirst with a recommendation that read, “This is to introduce Boshi Sen, a live wire.”

Leonard Elmhirst, a graduate of Cornell University had joined as secretary to Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore in 1921. He traveled with Tagore, to USA Europe, China, and Argentina. 

Elmhirst was the second husband of Dorothy Whitney Straight. Dorothy was the daughter of the multi-millionaire William C. Whitney, and was related by family marriage to the Vanderbilts”.[6]

The Whitneys’ were one of the richest American families that had stakes in Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust in the early 1900s. Dorothy was the mother of Michael Straight of the Cambridge Spy Ring fame. Dorothy Straight was the owner of Asia magazine and boss of Boshi Sen’s American wife Gertrude Emerson. 

Elmhirst gave Boshi a lump sum of Rs. 25000 to set up a science and agriculture project at Surur under the aegis of Tagore’s Shantinekatn University. In addition, Boshi was also given a monthly salary of Rs. 1000. Boshi was keener on starting his own laboratory. He convinced Elmhirst to let him use the money for is an independent project. 

On 4 July 1924 Boshi setup his research facilities and named it Vivekananda Laboratory. Soon he got donations from unexpected quarters that included, Glen Overton, Russian artist Nicholas Roerich, Josephine Macleod, and from Earl of Sandwich, even the Royal Society in England gave him a grant of 70 pounds. In 1926, Vivekananda Laboratory was shifted to Almora from Calcutta.

These high society connections with the world’s richest families opened new vistas for Boshi. It is in these circles that he met his American wife, Gertrude Emerson, and was plunged into the “world of Protocol and formality.” 

Josephine Macleod, the lady monitoring the entire Ramakrishna Order in India and abroad since Swami Vivekanand’s days, introduced Boshi Sen to George Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich and ALbertta Sturges (Josephine MacLeod’s niece). The Earl of Sandwich organized a special dinner for Boshi Sen in his palace; it is here that Boshi got an opportunity to chaperon the wife of the owner of London’s Selfridges store to dinner. 

‘India First’

In 1932, Boshi Sen was 45 years old when he got married to 42-year-old, Gertrude Emerson at the American consulate in Calcutta. Gertrude Emerson was the author of “Voiceless India” for which the foreword was written, Pearl S Buck. 

Nobel laureate, Pearl S Buck was directly connected to India affairs through her husband, Richard Walsh, head of the India League in America. Louis Fischer and Dorothy Norman were part of the same group that enjoyed the blessing of Henry Luce (the owner of Time and Fortune magazine) through the direct involvement of his wife in campaigning for an end to British rule in India. Incidentally, it is this group of people who helped Vijya Lakshmi Pandit’s daughter, Nayantara Sahgal to secure the Mayling Sung Scholarship to study at Wellesley in 1942. 

Gertrude and Boshi Sens connections to India League is also established by the fact in the mid 1940s when the Sens were little hard-pressed for money, it was Watumull foundation that had come to their rescue. Watumull Foundation was an adjunct of the Indian National Congress Association of America, California, whose apparent objective was to mobilize Indians on the West Coast, much in the same way as the Indian League of America had done on the East Coast. The two organizations were closely associated. Boshi Sen also received the Watumull Award in 1962. 

Boshi died in 1970. His wife Gertrude Emerson continued with social and political work. The pre and post-emergency chaos in India made her float “India First Society” to infuse a sense of sanity and hope in India. She launched a “non-political, non-communal, and non-aligned and non-governmental organization. In August 1980, the pioneer unit of “India First Society” came up at Almora. According to Gertrude:

India first does not mean India ahead of any other country. It means that we in India should put the interest, integrity, and unity of the country above every other objective. (Prabuddhaprana.1990: 669)

Incidentally, the echoes of “India First” are once again reverberating in India. However, it is not from Congress but BJP's Narendra Modi who has made “India First” as his election mantra. It was first enunciated by Modi while speaking at a video conference of the Indian-American community organized by the Overseas Friends of BJP. 

[1] Nehru, Jawaharlal. 1946. Discovery of India, Oxford Press, New York. 335-339 
[2]see the official website of the Grand Lodge of the AF & AM of India (accessed on 10 October, 2013)
[3] Sheean, Vincent. 1960. Nehru: The Years of Power, Random House , New York 
[4] Mehra, N. Grish. 2007. Nearer Heaven than Earth: The Life and Times of Boshi Sen and Gertrude Emerson Sen, Rupa & Co. New Delhi 
[5] Prabuddhaprana, Pravrajika. 1990. Tantine, the Life of Josephine MacLeod: friend of Swami Vivekananda, Sri Sarada Math, Dakshineshwar, Calcutta
[6] The Story of the Founders, (accessed on 23, September 2013) 

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