(London East End, July 1931)
An Oxford bullnose car stopped in the middle of the tarmacked road, engine rumbling still, as though its driver is undecided which way to go. A strangely dressed man climbed out, ‘please wait for me, I shall be back in an hour,’ he requested the driver as he opened his umbrella. For a moment he stood there adjusting to the chilly morning drizzle. The driver’s hand jutted out pointing to a narrow cobbled lane. ‘Thank you,’ he nodded and began walking briskly in that direction with a thick bundle of papers stuck securely under his arm.
Rachel’s, a sooty grey board announced the café. He stood at the entrance hesitating for a moment, ‘May I come in?’
‘Surely, Welcome to the Rachel’s,’ a lady in long-skirt and headscarf appeared. ‘The place is empty, rather early you know, you may choose any table,’ she said trying not to stare at his attire – homespun dhoti and a crisp white shirt tucked in, combined with a woolen coat and a tilted side cap – unusual for a customer of a café in predominantly a Jewish neighborhood.
‘It’s not as empty as you think, Rachel,’ a thin young man in his late twenties shouted from behind a copy of ‘Labour Leader’ he was reading. ‘Of course you’ve stopped noticing me nowadays.’ He folded the paper and rose from the table.
‘Put on some weight, Eric, for anyone to take notice of you.’ She said without turning and asked the new customer, ‘Something to drink?’
‘Yes ma’am, a hot cup of tea should do for the moment, please’
‘I see you are from India,’ the young man proffered his hand, ‘I’m Blair, Eric Blair, also from India, in a way… I was born in Bengal, you know… and let me guess… you’re from Madras, aren’t you?’
‘Yes sir, I am from Guntur in the northern districts. My name is Satyanarayana Chaudary.’ They shook hands. ‘I have come here to meet Mister Brockway.’
‘Oh! That makes us two. Let’s sit there and wait for the old boy Fenner, meanwhile I may catch up on some news from India,’ he propelled Chaudary to a corner table. ‘And, what brings you here, sir?’
‘I am a plaintiff in a case, sir, coming up at the Privy Council,’ Chaudary replied.
‘A court bird, eh?’ a smirk appeared on Blair’s face. It was no secret that more than two thirds of the cases at the queen’s council are property disputes from India.
‘Nooossir,’ Chaudary raised his voice defensively. ‘I am an activist and it is the case of the Gandhi Cap.’
‘Oh so sorry,’ his apology was genuine.
‘You see sir,’ Chaudary removed the cap and turned his head to show a livid scar on his forehead stretching all the way to his left ear. ‘It is a gift from a policeman for wearing the cap.’ A subtle blush on Blair’s face had come and gone unnoticed. ‘I had fought in every court in India to lift the ban and I was turned down. Your imperial government has given me no choice but to come to the capital. And… to cap it all, none of your so called representatives of the people is ready to listen to the Indian question… except Mister Brockway.’ Chaudary let out his steam.
‘Satyam Gaaroo,’ Fenner Brockway announced himself with a loud bellow as he pulled a chair next to Chaudary, ‘Looks like you had spilled all the beans to this policeman here,’ he said lightheartedly while shaking hands with Blair. ‘This man is an officer of the Indian Police, you know?’
‘Not anymore, old boy, dengue did me in. Now I’m just an unemployed hop picker, thanks to your government,’ Blair said nonchalantly. Eric Blair had left the Indian Imperial Police Service due to ill health and was now pursuing a career in writing which wasn’t taking off. Archibald Fenner Brockway was the Member of Parliament from Leyton East and the secretary of the India League, known for his strong pro-independence position. His recent monograph on ‘Indian Crisis’ had drawn Chaudary close to him. Chaudary had made the Gandhi Cap issue his personal campaign and requested Brockway to take it up with the Prime Minister, Ramsay McDonald.
Tea and biscuits made many rounds while Chaudary pleaded his case vociferously.
‘But your cap has become a symbol of disobedience to the crown,’ Blair, who was a silent spectator until then, butted in.
‘Yes, it’s an instrument of protest. We are subjects of the crown and the ban on Gandhi Cap curtails our right to protest, peacefully, doesn’t it? Where is your so called British fair-play?’ Chaudary retorted.
‘Fair play, eh?’ Brockway lit a cigar blowing out a cloud of smoke, ‘yes, the issue has appeal but the timing is wrong. Wage cuts, pension cuts, employment cuts… Ramsay’s government has become a barber shop, thanks to Wall Street. They may not even allow me to raise the India Question, forget debate.’ Brockway got up abruptly ending the meeting.
It’s a dead end, Chaudary was disheartened. He stood up as politeness dictated and… the Member of Parliament noticed his dhoti for the first time, hidden until then by the table cloth, ‘New fashion for the summer?’
The question elicited a response, ‘It is pure homespun as Gandhiji had prescribed. More than fashion it is a statement.’
‘Ah! A statement without a single word spoken… there lays the answer to your problem, Satyam garoo,’ Brockway guffawed clapping his hands. ‘Do you have a Gandhi Cap to spare? I think I must wear one for the next session of the house.’
When Fenner Brockway raised the India Question wearing a Gandhi Cap, the House of Commons had erupted with protests coming from within the Labour Party, splitting it in the middle. Brockway was named and suspended from the house, whose days anyways were numbered. Gandhi Cap made headline news from Canada to Australia in every provincial tabloid.
Public opinion had forced the Privy Council to award in favor of Kolli Satyanarayana Chaudary’s plaint, lifting the ban on the greatest symbol of civil disobedience, ever.
It became legal to wear the Gandhi Cap.
Archibald Fenner Brockway was a leader of the Independent Labour Party and served as Member of Parliament for many terms. He was renowned as the editor of Labour Leader an official mouthpiece of ILP. He was knighted in 1969 and came to be known as Baron Brockway. He was born in Calcutta and had remained a true friend of India until he died in 1988. Government of India has awarded Padma Bhushan to him posthumously in 1989.
Eric Blair was born in a middle lower class English family – in his own words – at Motihari, Bengal (Now Bihar). From a budding author trying to discover himself in East End, London, he had later attained phenomenal fame under his pen name, George Orwell.
Kolli Satyanarayana Chaudary Born a farmer from Guntur, he had campaigned against the ban on Gandhi Cap and fought cases in the lowest magisterial courts at Guntur to the High Court in Madras. After having turned down in every provincial court he had taken the fight to the Privy Council in London to successfully set free the greatest symbol of India’s Independence struggle. But he remains today, unsung in the history books.