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THOSE WERE THE DAYS: GA Natesan, the metaphoric mirror to Indian nationalism

In this series, we take a trip down memory lane, back to the Madras of the 1900s, as we unravel tales and secrets of the city through its most iconic personalities and episodes

THOSE WERE THE DAYS: GA Natesan, the metaphoric mirror to Indian nationalism
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Chennai

In the first half of the 20th century, there were few Indians who could be considered truly apolitical. The land was filled with people who were curious about aspects of politics and nationhood. For two generations of Indians, publisher GA Natesan’s books were the introduction to nationalism. Once Indira Gandhi had recalled her childhood memories of how his low priced books peppered her father (and grandfather’s) collections in the Anand Bhavan. Natesan was born in Tanjore district. Growing in a financially deprived situation, Natesan’s thirst for learning culminated in him reaching Madras.

He studied at Presidency College. He had a flair for organisational skills and became the secretary of the literary association. He emboldened even the ‘serious’ students to speak and debate. CP Ramasamy Iyer the Diwan of Travancore recalled that his debut in public speaking was only because of Natesan’s urging.

After his studies, 21-year-old Natesan visited the Madras Times newspaper office to meet its legendary editor Glyn Barlow (who wrote the famous The Story of Madras). When the editor said the company was overstaffed, Natesan even offered to work for free. Barlow hired him and Natesan spent two gruelling years under him and learned enough for a lifetime of publishing. During his newspaper days, Natesan brought a friend from South Africa to meet his boss. Barlow thought that the lawyer Gandhi “was an insignificant-looking little man but there was a gleam in his eyes and a firmness about his mouth.”

Natesan had befriended the Mahatma when he was relatively unknown mainly because of his interest in South African Indians. Gandhi was fascinated with languages and his early clients in South Africa being Tamils, he learned to write and speak in Tamil. And when he was confident enough to write his first letter in Tamil it was to GA Natesan.

Gandhi stayed with Natesan in his Thambu Chetty street house on his first visit after returning from South Africa. Incidentally, Gandhi came by the Delhi Express in a third-class compartment from Haridwar while Natesan was waiting in the first-class area. A crowd of 2,000 people followed them all the way even in the crowded George Town area as an embarrassed Natesan took the Gandhi couple home.

The Mahatma’s meteoric career sidelined many of his old friends. Gandhi moving into direct action perturbed Natesan who was liberal and moderate. He believed in a gradual evolution, negotiation with the rulers and shunned revolution. The Mahatma was in a hurry and the two drifted apart.

After his initial job with Barlow, an ambitious Natesan became a prolific publisher and his affordable books reached many. His organisational skills continued onto his publishing as well and he cast his journalistic net far and wide. An ace brain picker, Natesan had the right people in a wide-ranging panel to write for him. He had the Governor of Madras, Lord Ampthill to record an introduction to a book on Gandhi (still a record though it was a decade before he turned against the British). Natesan even had the future British prime minister Ramsay Macdonald write for his Indian Review. In 60 years of uninterrupted publishing, Natesan printed 1,000 titles, 200 of them for low priced biographies. His books pervaded private and public libraries. With his book publishing being a success, Natesan wanted to try something new. Natesan was influenced by British journalist WT Stread, who initially showed ways of how the press could be used to sway public opinion and government strategy and advocated “government by journalism”. (Stread incidentally went down with the Titanic). Stread’s Review Of Reviews which was intended to bind the empire together by synthesising all its best journalism was a highly successful non-partisan monthly with a global audience. Natesan wanted to do something similar in Madras. His resourceful mind conceived a monthly journal which would reflect Indian thinking on all aspects of national progress. Natesan advertised on the front page that his Indian Review publication was “devoted to the discussion of all topics of interest”.

Natesan acquired a large bungalow in Luz behind Nageswara Rao Park which was a huge pond at that time. Calling it Mangala Vilas after his wife, he encouraged the space to become a hub of nationalist activity. Natesan never let the divergence of views with other politicians affect his friendship.

Gandhi and Natesan moved apart as early as the 20s but the former always held Natesan close to his heart. Viceroy Irwin used the good offices of Natesan to persuade a jailed Gandhi to attend the roundtable conference. Gandhi agreed but initially said, “I might give it a try.”

Amid quelling the partition riots in 1947, Gandhi heard that Natesan was ill and wrote an ‘angry’ letter. “I am told you are ill and bedridden. You have no business to be ill. Your work is not finished. Who is older, you or I?

But the ways of fate are undecipherable. Gandhi passed away in 1948 and his friend Natesan followed suit a year later.

— The writer is a historian and author

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