Indian Nannies Lost in Queen’s Land

Indian Nannies Lost in Queen’s Land

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In the Fourth feature of Women’s History Month, we take a look back at the ayahs or nannies employed by Victorian Britain who traversed the continents and faced hardships to earn a respectful living.

At 4 King Edward Road in the historic borough of Hackney in London stands a very curious house. Though its façade might not give much away, it once used to be a shelter for nannies who came all the way from the Indian subcontinent to be part of the lavish life of Victorian Britons.

At the start of the 19th century, the idea of domestic help was becoming quite a trend in the Empire. Rich British families were hiring Indian women as nursemaids or nannies to look after their children.

These families were so impressed by the nannies, soon they started taking them all the way to the British Isles. During the time of Queen Victoria’s crowning, the sight of an Indian Ayah on the streets of London was very common.

The ayahs developed deep bonds with the children and were quite efficient in handling them. Their honesty, cleanliness, and courage to travel coupled with low wages made them an attractive proposition.

However, it was not all fun and adventure, language barriers and societal stigma of traveling overseas were ready-made problems. To add to that some employees terminated their services arbitrarily leaving them penniless and stranded on alien soil.

When the numbers of these stranded nannies went into the hundreds, a group of English women came together to form a temporary shelter for them. They named it Ayah’s Home, its first address was 26 King Edward, Hackney.

The shelter not only proved to be a temporary respite but a home away from home. It doubled as a placement agency as well helping the nannies in finding alternative employment if their previous job was terminated. The Ayah’s Home used to care for 90 to 140 ayahs a year.

The cases of abandonment were not to go away, however. The case of Minnie Green, an ayah from Bangalore is particularly interesting. She took her employers to the British court upon her termination and surprisingly won.

In 1921, the Home was shifted to No 4, a more spacious premise on the same road in London. Lady Chelmsford, the wife of a former Viceroy of India was at hand to inaugurate the Home at the new premise.

Some estimates say that around 100 to 150 Indian nannies traveled every year to England during the Victorian era. A certain Mrs. Antony Pareira is said to have made the journey on 54 occasions.

Even though constant efforts are being made to revive their history, these courageous travelers and caregivers mostly remain hidden figures in a world still muddled by the effects of colonial empires.

Recently a blue plaque was placed at the home at 26 King Edward Road, after rigorous efforts by @ayahshome who are trying to bring the stories of the Ahyas into the light.


The Pitch Doctors of Sri Lanka

The Pitch Doctors of Sri Lanka

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To celebrate Women’s History Month, in our third feature, we remember the traditional female pitch doctors of Sri Lanka. Episode 3: a thread on this rare group of women.

Back in 2012, when the Barmy Army of English Cricket entered Colombo’s very own Oval ‘P Saravanamuttu’ stadium, they experienced something unique.

It was a storied country ground indeed, with a beautiful scoreboard – Sri Lanka played their first Test here, registered their first Test Victory here and it also was the only Asian ground where Don Bradman played cricket.

But undoubtedly the biggest stars of the ground were two local elderly women in bright Saris who walked barefoot into the ground with utmost confidence and started dusting the pitch before the game. A scene to remember.

They are the two sisters – Amravati and Saroja Vellai, two unorthodox grandmothers. Amravati famously worked as the pitch curator for 40+ years on this ground. Saroja continued the role for 15 years, even after her sister’s retirement.

But the story originated long back in the 1940s when a swamp in Wanathamulla was converted into the best cricket ground of Ceylon and  became home for Tamil Union Cricket and Athletic Club. A ground with local connections and socialist values.

This is the only cricket ground in Asia where the legendary Donald Bradman played. The south stands of P. Sara Oval still has a huge photo of Bradman walking out to toss with the legendary Mahathevan Sathasivam in 1948.

However, a controversy made the game memorable despite Bradman’s modest score of 20 runs. Australia claimed the pitch was too short, and it was later measured and found to be 20 yards, not the usual 22.

Surprisingly, the pitch for Bradman’s Australia was made by a local lady Arul Mary, who was believed to be the first women pitch curator in history, fondly known as Mariamma. Mariamma worked as a ground lady at P Sara Oval for decades and the tradition continued.

There is a community of women, dubbed as the “Indian Tamils”, who live near the legendary ground in Wanathamulla and have traditionally worked as ground curators. They love the local soil, they love the ground and remain a rare group of women representing the game in a unique profession.

The community remain mostly unrecognized. While in the sporting world causal misogyny is still rampant, the remarkable feat of these ‘one of a kind’ women stands tall in a male-dominated job.


  • Dhaka Tribune
  • John Westerby/The Times
  • By Sharmeegan Sridheran/The Papare

The Bedia Prostitutes

The Bedia Prostitutes

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The Second Feature on our Women’s History Month is the tale of the Bedia Community of Nomads who have been branded as criminals by the British and forced to earn a living as prostitutes over the course of their intriguing history. 

The word Bedia is a corruption of the word ‘behara’ meaning a forest dweller, the community of nomads is believed to have come from the line of Rajputs, the dissimilarity in their fortunes, however, is startling to say the least.

The Bedia community, mostly living in parts of central and northern India, have been traditional folk dancers. It is believed that members of the community used to entertain artisans who had come to build the iconic Taj Mahal during the mid-17th century.

Gradually these people became highly sought after for their various talents by kings and zamindars and even by foreigners in the 18th and 19th centuries. They are also said to have enjoyed patronage of the Mughal Generals as they provided sexual pleasures to their soldiers.

In the mutiny of 1857, the Bedia people were used by rebel rajahs and princesses to aid their armies either as messengers or as spies in their fight against the British , this led them to be branded as criminals when the war got over.

The laws proved to be detrimental for the community, who in order to earn a living started using their talent for different purposes, particularly in the field of prostitution.

Today the birth of a girl child in the Bedia community is celebrated with pomp unlike in many other communities, though the reasons cannot be further away from each other.

As soon as a girl hits puberty, she is considered ready and given two options, either get married or go into prostitution. Though some are not so lucky to be given such choices. They are taught the tricks and nuances of the trade by elder members of the community

After her first menstruation around the age of 16 or 17, a symbolic function titled “Nat Uthari” is celebrated by deflowering the girl by her first client in exchange for a handsome gift in cash or kind.

Bedia women are forced to remain single, and they continue to engage in prostitution well into their 30s. Romantic relationships of any kind are strictly prohibited.

The economic freedom however proves anything but beneficial for the Bedia woman, their fate and life remain in a stranglehold of age-old traditions and a patriarchal society that only considers them as mere objects. 

Even though the community is now considered as Scheduled Castes by law in 1950, they receive negligible benefits from government schemes which complicates their predicament even further. 

These days many NGO’s and self-help groups like Samvedna are trying to reach out to the community and spread awareness regarding female education and its benefits.

Though some have been lucky in venturing out, the majority of the community still remain in perpetual struggle between traditions and individual identity.


The Porters

The Porters

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To celebrate Women’s History Month, we will delve into a series – an ode to the women from the subcontinent in unsung professions through the ages. The first feature is on ‘Women as Porters’, the primitive occupation of transporting goods.

Women at the workplace is not exactly a modern concept, rather it dates to the ancient world, even back to the Sumerian civilization. We look back at some interesting slices from the past where Indian women were found working as human transport carrying goods.

Madras, circa the 1920s. The gorgeous photograph shows five ethnic women carrying giant clay vessels on their heads, that greatly resembles the famous Martaban jars.

Martaban jars have a fascinating story around them. They are named after their place of origin – the port town of Mottama in Myanmar, before they travelled to Goa, Madras and other areas across the coasts via Portuguese and Dutch traders.

The earthen vessels were also known as Martauanas in India which were used to store water, oil or rice in most households and to carry goods and materials on ships. Women formed the bulk of the workforce that carried them around.

This view of a marketplace in Goa by Jan Huygen van Linschoten in 1605 demands special interest as one can spot men carrying large Martaban jars while a woman carrying a smaller jar on her head.

Female servants in rich households or women of lower caste mostly had to travel  to wells and riverbanks to fetch water. A group of women of the Bheel tribe from Kathiawar, Saurashtra posed for a photo while carrying water circa the 1880s.

Two Punjabi women carrying vessels on their heads with a rope, on their way to the local well to fetch water. Circa 1950s.

Circa 1968: A woman of the untouchable caste carrying two pots on her head. Safe to assume she had to travel quite a distance to fetch the daily quantity of water her family nneede. Her shadow remained her only companion. Photo: Three Lions/Getty).

2004, Kashmir. On the outskirts of Srinagar, Kashmiri girls carry water pots on their heads. Many people in rural Kashmir still collect water from the rivers using these pots.

Due to lack of piped water, poor tribal women from Rajasthan often need to travel great distances to collect water from natural sources. Three country women were snapped carrying metal pots on their heads, circa 1965. (Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Cut to 1944. WW2. This fascinating image depicts local Indian women in Sari carrying baskets on their heads in an unknown Eastern Indian airbase where a B-29, a mammoth US Air Force bomber waiting before the mission for bombing Japanese town Yawata, takes off.


  • Wikimedia
  • Getty Images
  • Panjab Digital Library

Lata Mangeshkar, the photographer

Lata Mangeshkar, the photographer

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A thread on Lata Mangeshkar, the photographer.

Although it is not widely known, the Nightingale of India was also an avid photographer. She had quite a collection of  state-of-the-art photography equipment, including cameras and lenses.

Her fascination with photography may have begun with her love for painting during her childhood days. She once drew a wound on her face, and pretended to be hurt. She bought a Rolleiflex camera in 1946 for Rs 2000, which became her inseparable companion.

Lataji had a fascination for people and their faces. Most of her photos demonstrate her keen understanding of how to use natural light and shadow. This photograph of her nephew Adinath, taken by her, is a prime example of her brilliant expertise in portraiture.

She had an astounding knowledge of cameras, lenses, films and lighting conditions. While on tours, she would often  take her camera out and capture the everyday life around her. She would frequently go for a photoshoot with coworkers anywhere, anytime.

When Lataji travelled to West Indies, she used to critique photographs with Harish Bhimani and discuss delicate details of photography. Bhimani was awestruck by her expertise in composition, techniques, films, and exposure.

She wasn’t a fan of automatic cameras, where one could not control aperture and shutter speed under different lighting conditions. This photograph of Big Ben was shot by Lataji in wide-aperture and high shutter speed using a fast film, from a running car in London.

While going to Australia for her concert at the Sydney Opera House in 1983, the flight made a stopover at Changi International Airport, Singapore – a shoppers’ paradise. The story goes like this –

When Lataji returned to the aircraft after shopping, she had a large bag with her – a bag full of gifts for every member of her troupe. When someone asked her, “Didi, didn’t you pick up any perfume for yourself?” Lataji slowly brought out a new kind of camera film.

The film was made of the latest technology that can shoot pictures in bright daylight yet can adjust the colour balance to match a candlelight shot using techniques of Chromatic adaptation. She was just not an amateur photographer!

In her own words –
“I learnt it here and there, I like photography, so I took it a bit seriously…
I don’t believe in just clicking at random, what the eyes see must be reproduced faithfully.”

Paperclip pays utmost tribute to the versatile Bharat Ratna Lata Mangeshkar.

(Source: In search of Lata Mangeshkar by Bhimani, Harish and National Herald India)

Man, his best friend and a mercy run to stall an epidemic

Man, his best friend and a mercy run to stall an epidemic

In December, 1924, a remote Alaskan town was facing a deadly outbreak of diphtheria. It was a harsh winter; the sea route to the rest of the world was closed and would not open until July. The town had no supply of diphtheria antitoxin when the epidemic broke out. Without the antitoxin, it was feared, the fatality rate would be 100%. That’s when the heroes stepped in – 20 brave men and 150 of man’s best friends undertook a perilous journey that saved the tiny town from certain disaster.

By Trinanjan Chakraborty

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About two degrees south of the Arctic Circle lies the tiny town of Nome. It was incorporated in 1901, during the heady days of the Gold Rush when the population had swelled to 20,000. Those glory days were long gone and by 1924, Nome was home to around 1500 people of whom 455 were Alaska natives and the rest were of European descent.

Map of Nome

Map of Nome

The town was dependent on the sea link with the port of Seward in the southern peninsula for mails and provisions. However, from November to July, the Bering Sea route was icebound with the Nome harbor iced up. The only connection for the inhabitants of Nome with the rest of the world was the 674 km long and torturous trail which started from Seward port, traversed multiple mountain ranges, the vast span of the Alaska Interior before arriving at the Nome region.


Iditarod Trail (US Bureau of Land Management)

In December, 1924, the town of Nome had only one serving doctor, Dr. Curtis Welch who helmed the local hospital and was assisted by four nurses. The hospital had 25 beds. Much earlier, when the sea link was functional, the hospital’s entire stock of Diphtheria antitoxin was past its expiry date. Dr. Welch, on noticing this, placed an urgent order for replenishment. Unfortunately the replacements did not arrive by November when the sea route closed down for nearly nine months. Dr. Welch may have been a tad concerned but there is little to suggest that he had any idea of the impending peril that was to engulf the tiny town and its inhabitants.

That December, Dr. Welch received a few young patients with complaints of a sore throat. He diagnosed them to be cases of tonsillitis and treated them accordingly. However, over the next few weeks, the cases grew at a rapid pace. And then, news came that four children with symptoms had succumbed to the disease. Dr Welch was by now stricken with fear. He was nearly certain that the worst had come true: an outbreak of diphtheria had hit the town when it had no medicine for the disease. His doubts were confirmed when in the middle of January 1925, he definitely diagnosed diphtheria in a three-year-old boy who sadly died within a couple of weeks. In desperation, Welch tried the expired batch of antitoxins on his next patient, a seven-year-old girl. The girl died a few hours later.

Dr. Welch now knew that they were facing impending doom. He informed the town’s mayor and an urgent city council meeting was convened which announced a strict quarantine/lockdown in the town on January 21, 1925. The very next day, the town’s mayor, Major Maynard sent out a telegram to the US Public Health Service in Washington DC requesting immediate succor. His message read:


Despite the quarantine being put in place, by the last days of the month, the number of confirmed cases of diphtheria in the town touched 20 with another 50 suspected cases in Dr. Welch’s estimation. The region surrounding Nome was estimated to have a population of close to 10, 000. Without antitoxin, this entire population was vulnerable to succumb to this deadly pandemic.

The situation was as bleak as it gets. The sea route was out of bounds. Those were nascent days of commercial aviation. But there were only three planes available in the region and these were vintage Standard J biplanes which were of “open-cockpit” type and had water-cooled engines. In the freezing temperatures and harsh winds of the Alaskan winter, they were rendered unusable. The Alaskan Railroad route didn’t reach anywhere in the vicinity of Nome. The closest railroad was Nenana – nearly 700 miles away. Traversing that distance in the Alaskan outback was daunting even in the best of weather. In those severe winter months, it was near suicidal.


Nenana to Nome

The distraught mayor, Major Maynard, pushed for flying in the antitoxin but this idea was quickly vetoed by the Public Health Service. The breakthrough idea came from Mark Summers of the Hammon Consolidated Gold Fields. Summers proposed the use of two dog-sled relay teams. One team was to travel from Nome and the other from Nenana and meet about mid-way at Nulato. The normal running time for the Nenana to Nome trip was 30 days while the record time ever achieved was 9 days. According to Dr. Welch, in the brutal conditions of the trail, the antitoxins were unlikely to last more than 6 days at best so the record had to be broken if the plan was to succeed. 

Just when things couldn’t get any worse, they did. A high pressure system in the Arctic resulted in 20-year record low temperatures in the Interior. In addition, another system had formed in southeast Alaska and was burying the region in 10-foot snow. Across the Alaskan Interior, most forms of transport were suspended. At the end of January, Fairbanks registered a temperature of -46 °C.

It is said that the human spirit finds a way when all seems lost. Something like that happened then with a hero stepping up. Leonhard Seppala, a Norwegian sled dog breeder and a former gold chaser[1], was an employee of the Hammon Consolidated Gold Fields. He held the record for the sled run from Nome to Nulato (4 days) and had won the all-Alaska Sweepstakes thrice. His rapport with his Siberian huskies, especially his lead – the 12-year old Togo, had become something of a legend. Seppala was now selected to lead this audacious plan. 

The immediate supply available in the region of diphtheria antitoxin was 300,000 vials with the Anchorage Railroad Hospital. This first supply was expected to help ward off the initial wave of the pandemic till larger supplies arrived from Seattle by sea. The supplies arrived at Nenana on January 27 1925. The governor of Alaska, Scott Bone, ordered the best mushers[2] and sled dogs available in the region be tasked for the job. Many mail carriers, best adept at handling the treacherous route, were selected. The first of the drivers was “Wild” Bill Shannon who covered the first leg of the journey losing around four of his dogs and had his face blackened by frostbite when he completed the 52 miles mostly in temperatures lower than – 40 °C. He had started the great run on the night of January 27.

Seppala was initially chosen to anchor the final leg but then the authorities decided to put him in charge of the most treacherous section of the run. At 91 miles, it was nearly twice the distance of any other carrier. But he had a deep personal stake as well. His family, including his eight-year-old daughter, was in Nome and at great risk. Seppala with his trusted dog Togo leading the pack covered the stretch between January 27  and 31, handling some of the worst weather and travel conditions imaginable. The weather was decent when we started from r  Nome (−29 °C) but would turn  harsh touching  −65 °C. 

The supply reached Nome at 5 A.M. Alaska Time on February 2. Anchoring the final leg was Gunnar Kassen. His journey was nearly destabilized by a ferocious blizzard but Kassen and his dogs held firm. It is said that the first words Kassen spoke to his welcoming committee were “Damn fine dog” in reference to his lead, Balto, before he collapsed into unconsciousness from fatigue.


Gunnar Kaasen with Balto (Brown Brothers)

Together, all the drivers had covered the 674 miles in 127  and a half hours, considered a world record. The entire journey was done in extreme subzero temperatures with near-blizzard conditions and hurricane-force winds. Several of the dogs died during the trip. It was a classic demonstration of the saying “nothing is impossible.” The incredible relay came to be known as the Great Serum Run.

The sled drivers who took part in the relay would soon become famous, thanks to the growing popularity of radio in the USA. The desperate race was covered in almost real-time by newspapers and radio with New York Times running the famous headline “Serum relief near for stricken Nome. And blizzard delays Nome relief dogs in the final dash.” All of the mushers received letters of recommendation from President Calvin Coolidge. The Senate stopped work as a mark of respect to the men and their pets who had literally braved hell to save the lives of thousands. Gunnar Kassen, who worked under Seppala in the gold mine, toured the west coast for over a year with his dogs. His lead dog Balto became a celebrity in his own right with a bronze statue of him unveiled in New York in December 1925. Kassen repeatedly alluded to Balto’s heroics in his interviews to the press. But the animals which probably gave it maximum were Seppala’s pride possessions: Togo and team. In comparison to the 55 miles run by Balto and his team, Togo and team ran an incredible 260 miles[3].


Leonhard Seppala with his dogs (Carrie-McLain Museum)

When the first consignment, good enough for treating 30 patients, reached Nome, the active case count was 28. Soon, a larger consignment arrived, again brought over by sled relay involving many of the drivers and dogs involved in the first one. By the end of February, life had returned to near normalcy in Nome and the quarantine was also lifted. 

Many heroes: man and dog, saved the lives of thousands of men, women and children through an unbelievable act of courage. Today, as the entire world is recovering from the onslaught of a terrible pandemic, it is an apt time to remember and pay homage to them.


  1. Prospector in search of mines/deposits of gold or other precious minerals 
  2. Mushing is a sport or transport method powered by dogs. It includes carting, pulka, dog scootering, sled dog racing, skijoring, freighting, and weight pulling. The drivers of these transports were known as “mushers.” 
  3. While the allotted relay distance of Seppala and his team was 91 miles, they had to travel 170 miles from Nome to arrive at their starting point. 



  • Wertheim, Jon. “A Century Ago: Another Epidemic-and an Improbable, Furry Solution.” Sports Illustrated, Sports Illustrated, 13 Jan. 2021,
  • Earth, B., 2016. BBC One – Planet Earth II. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 23 October 2021].

The blasphemous literature that shook Hindustan

The blasphemous literature that shook Hindustan

Amidst India’s struggle for independence, a group of young firebrand writers came out with a book of nine short stories and one play. The events that were to follow would shake and shape the Indian literary scene for generations to come.

By Abhinaba Maitra

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In 1908, a collection of short stories titled  Soz-e-Watan (The Dirge of the Nation), was published by an author named Nawab Rai. It was a time when literature was becoming a bit too seditious for Westminster’s liking. Soz-e-Watan was precise, hard-hitting, and defiant right down to its every letter. The British government wanted it banned; the problem for them, however, was that they couldn’t find any author named  Nawab Rai. It was a pseudonym. When they did manage to track down the actual author, it turned out to be a government employee by the name of Dhanpat Rai Shrivastava. He was subsequently banned from publishing any kind of literature without the prior permission of the authorities.

More than defiance, when Soz-e-Watan got published, it was the first time the Urdu literary scene got a taste of the short-story genre.

Fast forward to February 1933. While in most parts of the country the Civil Disobedience movement was raging on, in Lucknow, there was chaos in the small office of the Nizami press. Victoria Street near the chowk was swarming with police — a raid was underway.   A raid for publishing blasphemous literature.

The press owner, seeing the mayhem outside, agreed to give away all the unsold copies of the supposedly profane book to the authorities. But if history has taught us something, it is that banning a piece of literature has rarely ever served the desired objective of restricting counter views and opinions

The book, which was ironically called Angaare, loosely translating to ‘Burning Embers’, spread like wildfire. As if it was in its nature to scorch age-old orthodoxy and patriarchy in its wake while paving way for a literary movement unlike any of its kind before.

Angaare was an outpouring of emotions much like Soz-e-Watan that preceded it. Those unbridled emotions had slowly built over time, waiting for the opportune moment to erupt. In the years following the great war, buoyed by a nationalist fervour, Urdu literature in India had become more flamboyant, bold, and quite radical. As the cries of Inquilab Zindabad pierced the skies, some of the subcontinent’s young and gifted were trying to break away from the shackles of their own imprisoned mind.

Who were these people?

In 1931, the Lady Dufferin Hospital in Lucknow had a new doctor in their ranks — Rashid Jahan. Her father, Dr. Sheikh Abdullah, a prominent member of the Aligarh movement, was the founder of the Women’s school in Aligarh, a precursor to the women’s college. A young Rashid was drawn to the writings of Jane Austen, Charles Garvice and Rashid ul Khairi, a  prominent Urdu writer of his time. In 1922, while studying at Isabella Thoburn College in Lucknow, she came out with her first piece of writing, Salma, a short story in the college journal. Writing wasn’t her only passion though, her work as a medical practitioner and as a proponent in the theatre circle was important in equal measure.

During her graduation years in Delhi, in the corridors of the Lady Hardinge College, she was swayed by the worker’s movement. Returning to Lucknow with a degree in M.B.B.S, she got introduced to Awadh’s ever-evolving Urdu Literary stage. There she came across a group of young thinkers just like her — Sajjad Zaheer, Ahmed Ali and Mahmood-uz-Zafar.

Sajjad was like the poster boy of Lucknow — smart, young, studying at Oxford and son of the High Court judge; he could have easily indulged in a life of luxury and grandeur, but he chose to wield the power of the pen. At Oxford, Sajjad rubbed shoulders with the likes of Krishna Menon, Mulkraj Anand and communist ideologues such as Shapurji Saklatvala, who influenced him a great deal. Returning to Lucknow in 1931 after completing his degree in law, he started his own newspaper. Sajjad’s strong ideals and modern world views won him many admirers.

After Angaare was published, the backlash was severe. Sajjad and Rashid bore most of the brunt — Sajjad for being the main instigator and the book’s chief editor and Rashid for just being a woman of her time who dared to write. Rashid had written two short stories among the nine that made up the book: ‘Dilli ki Sair’ (Trip to Delhi) and ‘Pardey Ke Peechey’ (Behind the Veil). Her narratives were scathing and it showed how women were surrounded by different layers of patriarchy and how it strangled every inch of their body and mind.

At one point, one of her protagonists from ‘Pardey Ke Peechey’, tired of the number of children she bore and miscarriages she had,  said to the doctor who had come to check on her aliments –

As far as I am concerned, who cares if I go to hell or heaven! All that they care about is their pleasure and enjoyment. The wretched wife may live or die, all that men hunger after is their own lust’[4]

In the summer of 1931, Sajjad, having just returned from England met Ahmed Ali at a party. Ali was fascinated by the western world and  Sajjad was like an oasis in a desert to him.

“Sajjad Zaheer was coming from that world, bringing with him news of it firsthand. And we found our tastes were common, a love of art, literature, music”[1]

Ali’s lineage was a stuff of legends. His family was one among five invited to India from Persia by the Mughal ruler Shah Jahan, each to perform some unique trade in the kingdom. Ali earned his laurels from Aligarh University where he crossed paths with a young Raja Rao. Rao had his eyes set on conquering the world while Ali on the other hand had to be more content with his local surroundings. In Aligarh, Ali was also acquainted with the Abdullahs (Rashid Jahan’s family) through one of the younger siblings, Mohsan.

Ali knew exactly what Sajjad intended to do with Angaare. The words were scandalous, the narrative fixated on bashing age-old dogmas and the writers themselves undaunted and ready to shock the world.

While working on the book, Rashid met Mahmood-uz-Zafar,  a descendant of the Rohillah Pathan Najib ad-Dawlah from the princely state of Rampur. He was an active member of the nationalist activities while studying in Oxford. When Mahmood returned to India, he forsook his European clothes and started wearing only Khadi, the mark of rebellion.

His story Jawãnmardi (Masculinity) was an account of a male protagonist with a massive ego that could dive into any limitless chasm to satisfy itself in a society unmoving and grotesque. If you held up a mirror against it, it might have cracked.

In March of 1933, Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code was slapped upon Angaare, banning the book for good. A law which continues to be used even today and quite frequently.

We move on to November of 1934. On a cold Saturday morning, a group of people were making their way through Denmark Street in central London. Music lovers might recognize Denmark Street as London’s version of the Tin Pan Alley. In the 1930’s however, this little thoroughfare between St Giles High Street and Charing Cross Road was bustling with Chinese and Japanese food joints. The group stopped at number 4 ‘The Nanking’, their usual place. Led by Sajjad Zaheer and Mulkraj Anand, the group was greeted with muted applause as they made their way to Nanking’s cellar. Surrounded by the aroma of exotic cuisine and among a group of young eager listeners, the first drafted manifesto of Progressive Writers Association (PWA) was read out.

“Radical changes are taking place in the Indian society…We believe that the new literature of India must deal with the basic problems of our existence today – the problems of hunger and poverty, social backwardness, and political subjection. All that drags us down to passivity, inaction, and un-reason we reject as reactionary. All that arouses in us the critical spirit, which examines institutions and customs in the light of reason, which helps us to act, to organize ourselves, to transform, we accept as progressive”[3]

A year later, the PWA convened their first official meeting inside the Rifa-e-Aam Club in Lucknow, a few blocks away from Victoria Street. Dhanpat Rai, who by now was going by his other pen name, Premchand, presided as the Association’s first president.

Where ‘The Nanking’ once stood now stands Regent Sounds, a music studio where the Rolling Stones put together their first album back in 1964.

Andrew Whitehead, a historian and a former BBC correspondent says:

‘When I last walked along Denmark Street, the basement of number 4 was empty. It would be such a pity if this historic location was lost.’

The Rifa-e-Aam Club has also lost its charm. Once a nationalist den, now it will hardly give you any sense of its fabled past. The last time I visited, its outer facade was crumbling. Its hall, which bore witness to historic pacts and some rousing speeches, now stays stoically dormant.

Did the progressives fare any better though?

Writers like Ismat Chughtai, Krishan Chander, Sadat Hasan Manto all joined the movement from time-to-time adding fuel to an already raging fire but the people who sparked it never got back together.

A bitterness had already grown between Ahmed Ali and Sajjad Zaheer by the time of the PWA’s first meeting in Lucknow. By Ali’s own admission the very idea of progress was what drew a line between the former friends!

“For Sajjad Zaheer, progress meant standing still, looking at things only from one very orthodox, narrow point of view. You cannot narrow progress”[1]

As for Rashid and Mahmood, they got married and joined the communist party. Though they kept on writing for some time, party and political work eventually became more important to them.

To a large extent, the PWA by itself and also through some of its offshoots did succeed in achieving its goal in introducing a new kind of literature. Various actors of the movement made their names particularly in the early post-independent decades of the Bombay film industry. Sahir Ludhianvi, Asrar ul Hassan Khan a.k.a Majrooh Sultanpuri and Kaifi Azmi were household figures and their work in films like Naya Daur, Teesri Manzil, Apna Haath Jagannath proudly carried the tag of the progressives. In Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s Saat Hindustani starring Utpal Dutt, A.K Hangal and a certain debutant Amitabh Bacchan, Kaifi wrote

Zulm hadd se badhyega toh ghatt jayega 

Apni talwar se aap kat jayega

(If oppression rises beyond limit, it will fall. By it’s sword, it will bleed.)

The film won the national award for best lyrics.

The flame ignited by a group of young daring writers way back in 1932 still lingers on, even in our times. In different quarters of society, universities, cafes, libraries, books shops, you might hear whispers or animated discourses on  them as their inflammable words continue to inspire people.

Like an ember that burns in perpetuity.

Sincere gratitude to Mr Andrew Whitehead for answering our queries regarding ‘The Nanking’ which played a very pivotal part in the formation of the PWA.

  1. Ali, Ahmed, and JSAL. “INTERVIEW : AHMED ALI: 3 AUGUST 1975 ROCHESTER, MICHIGAN.” Journal of South Asian Literature 33/34, no. 1/2 (1998): 117-94. Accessed September 7, 2021.
  2. Alam, M. (2020, July 31). The ‘DEMISE’ of Nawab Rai and the birth OF Munshi Premchand. The Wire. Retrieved September 17, 2021, from
  3. Ahmed, T. (2018). Literature and Politics in the Age of Nationalism: The Progressive Writers’ Movement in South Asia, 1932-1956. (dissertation). ProQuest. Retrieved September 11, 2021, from
  4. Chauhan, V. S., & Dalvi , K. (Trans.). (n.d.). Buy angarey: Nine stories and a play book online at low prices in India: ANGAREY: Nine stories and a Play reviews & ratings. Buy Angarey: Nine Stories and a Play Book Online at Low Prices in India | Angarey: Nine Stories and a Play Reviews & Ratings – Retrieved September 11, 2021, from
  5. SAIDUZZAFAR, HAMIDA. “JSAL Interviews DR. HAMIDA SAIDUZZAFAR: A Conversation with Rashid Jahan’s Sister-in-law, Aligarh, 1973.” Journal of South Asian Literature 22, no. 1 (1987): 158-65. Accessed September 7, 2021.
  6. Whitehead, A. (2016). Downstairs at the NANKING restaurant. ANDREW WHITEHEAD. Retrieved September 11, 2021, from

Miss Dior: The rebel who inspired a perfume

Miss Dior

The rebel who inspired a perfume

The infamous backdrop of the Second World War has numerous nerve-wracking, influential incidents but there’s only one of them that inspired the invention of one of the most iconic perfumes of the world that continues to amaze fashionistas around the globe.

By Subhajit Sengupta

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In the World of fashion, Christian Dior is a name enlisted amongst the elites. Known for his artistic vision that revolutionized women’s fashion, post the Second World War. There’s hardly anybody who’s not familiar with Christian Dior’s fashion house but very few know that behind this successful brand, there’s a hidden tale of a lady whose courage and sacrifice is unparalleled in history.

When asked about Christian Dior’s work, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, who was Dior’s predecessor in women’s fashion and one of the leading  critics in the industry, said, “Dior doesn’t dress women, he upholsters them.[1] However, Coco too was unaware of the woman who was the source of inspiration behind Dior’s creations. To commemorate the inspirational woman behind his work, in 1947, he debuted into the world of fragrances with one of the most iconic perfumes ever created, “Miss Dior”. As far as the folklore goes, the name came accidentally but as one gets to know more about Miss Catherine Dior, the name would hardly seem accidental.

Born on 2nd August 1917, Ginette Dior (who later changed her name to Catherine), was the younger sister of Christian Dior and the youngest family member in the Dior household at Callian, near Grasse in Provence. Although Catherine had four siblings, she was closest to Christian. So much so that it is rumored that since Christian’s favorite day of the year was St Catherine’s Day, Ginette changed her name to Catherine.

Shakespeare once wrote –

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.[2]

Catherine Dior, though fairly justifies her name in most if not all aspects. She took the name from St Catherine of Alexandria, who once counselled Joan of Arc, and as far as the comparison goes, Catherine was not far behind in terms of the strength of character.

During  November of 1941, a 24-year-old Catherine was out to buy a good radio at Cannes’ market. As she was scouting through different shops, she accidentally bumped into Hervé des Charbonneries, one of the founding members of the “French Resistance”, the Polish intelligence unit based in France. It was love at first sight for her. Hervé, who was 36 at that time and already a father of three children, quickly realized that Catherine was no ordinary girl. She had a strong personality and there was a strange stubbornness about her that could be channelled to achieve great things. He influenced her heavily and made her realize the importance of the intelligence unit during the war and thus a month later, Catherine became an official member of the French Resistance.

Catherine was put in charge of the “Massif Central” section of the F2 network, a British-funded Resistance intelligence unit which was originally set up by the Polish government-in-exile to operate in France. Her primary responsibility was to transmit covert information regarding German movements and artillery to the British government in London. She was on top of her job and to expand her network, she used to chair secret meetings at Christian’s apartment in Paris. However, she never involved her dear brother or any of her family members into her business as their safety was also of paramount importance to her. Besides, Christian was already a revered fashion designer by then and had received threats from the Nazis to shut down his business altogether.

Her stint in the intelligence agency came to an end on 6th July 1944 when she was arrested by the Gestapo along with 26 fellow comrades. Catherine was in the Gestapo’s radar for a long time as her network was considered to be the most dynamic in entire Europe. As a result of that, she was interrogated and tortured repeatedly by the notorious security-service unit. Despite their best efforts, the Gestapo officers failed to extract any information from her. Back in Paris, Christian was trying his best to arrange her release with the help of the Nazi contacts he had made during his business tours. When that didn’t work, he reached out to his good friend Raoul Nordling, the Swedish consul-general for help. Nordling pulled some strings inside the Nazi offices and somehow managed to persuade them to place Catherine under the supervision of the Swedish state. But it was too little too late for her as by the time the letter had reached its intended recipient, she was already deported along with 1,654 men and 542 women on a prison train leaving Paris towards the women concentration camp at Ravensbrück, 50 miles north of Belin under the supervision of SS leader Heinrich Himmler, one of the main architects of the Holocaust.

From there, it was a one-way road to suffering for Catherine. She along with her fellow comrades were identified as political prisoners hence their verdict would be extermination through work which, in simple terms, meant slave labour. It was the start of her suffering; she was stripped of her clothes, given grimy rags to wear, beaten regularly throughout her working hours, and was not allowed to sleep. Soon she was transferred to the military prison of Torgau and posted to the all-female “Anton Kommando” to work on the production of explosives in a disused potassium mine. The Nazis denied all her human dignities and yet they failed to break her stubbornness. Going above and beyond all her debility, she tried to disrupt the weapon manufacturing; first at Torgau then at Abberode, a satellite camp inside one of Buchenwald concentration camps. As the winter came closer, Catherine’s head was shaved, and she was severely beaten after being stripped of her remaining clothes and then transferred to an aviation factory at Leipzig-Markkleeberg in a train. The journey from Abberode to Leipzig took several days and during this time she was inside a freezing cattle truck without any supply of food or water. Catherine was suffering from pneumonia, dysentery, tuberculosis, and malnutrition. As she reached the factory in Leipzig, the exhausting workload made her increasingly weak.

Just when it seemed that death would be a mercy, she took one last leap of faith. On 13th April 1945, all the prisoners were assembled and asked to leave the camp. The journey was later referred to as “The Death March”[3]. Everyone was ordered to keep walking barefoot in freezing temperatures, without any food or water, under the supervision of SS officers who would shoot to kill anyone who would attempt to flee. Catherine did though. She managed to slip away as the march reached the destroyed city of Dresden. She stayed hidden amidst the chaos and ruins for several days, waiting for a miracle to happen.

Back in Paris, Christian had no clue about his dear sister’s whereabouts. He made several futile attempts to seek information on her. Even his mentor and guide Madame Delahaye[4] who helped Christian establish himself in the fashion industry was of little help. Finally, on 19th April 1945, the Allied force captured the camp in Leipzig, and Christian was informed that his sister’s name was found in the list of the prisoners. However, amongst thousands of prisoners, it was impossible to identify if she was alive at all. Eight days later, he received a phone call from Leipzig that his sister had been deported in a train bound for Paris along with other prisoners and would reach the next day. When he finally met his sister, the graceful lady was barely recognizable. She continued to suffer from trauma, panic attacks and anxiety issues long after returning home.

But, who could possibly cherish the beauty of life more than the one who has lived the horror of war? Catherine, who now had a second life, realized it better than most. She sought solace and found it in flowers. She worked for 12 years as a flower commissioner at the Halles de Paris, trading flowers from the south of France and the French colonies. Her passion for flowers influenced Christian deeply and thus the World was gifted with one of the finest fragrances ever created – “Miss Dior”.

The story behind the perfume’s name was found inside the Dior’s archive in a written account by one of Dior’s close friends. It says that Christian Dior, along with Dior House’s director Mitzah Bricard, were brainstorming on Dior’s debut perfume when Catherine suddenly entered the room unannounced. “Ah, here’s Miss Dior![6] – Bricard said welcoming her presence; “Miss Dior: now there’s a name for my perfume![7] – replied Christian. His own version of the inspiration behind the perfume also reveals his desire to cherish his sister – “I created this perfume to wrap each woman in exquisite femininity, as if each of my designs were emerging from the bottle, one by one[8] – he announced during the unveiling of the perfume. Christian Dior also framed his sister’s love for flowers in his 1949 Summer/Spring collection of Miss Dior gown which was decorated with 1000 elegantly embroidered silk flowers.


Seven years after her release, in 1952, Catherine testified against 14 Nazi officers who were running the Gestapo office in Paris. The justice was delayed but not denied. For her bravery and heroics, Catherine Dior was awarded the Croix de Guerre (A medal that’s reserved for armed forces), the Combatant’s Cross, the Combatant Volunteer Cross of the Resistance, the King’s Medal for Courage in the Cause of Freedom, and later named a Chevalière of the Legion of Honour. Her final reward came eight years after her death, not in the form of any silverware though, but as an act that would have made her proud to think how she became a role model for the generations to come. On 24th June 2016, a public school[5] was renamed after her in Normandy, Dior’s hometown, where the legend of Catherine Dior continues to live on as an inspiration.

It is said that a perfume not only holds a combination of signature aromatic notes but also reveals the character of the person who wore it. If that is to be believed, then Miss Catherine Dior remains an epitome of grit, resilience and indomitable power.


[1] Vernose, Vienna. “The History of the Chanel Tweed Suit – The rich history behind what made one of the most legendary fashion pieces of all-time” from crfashionbook. CR Fashion Book. Accessed January 5, 2020.

[2] Levenson, Jill L. Romeo and Juliet. The Oxford Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000

[3][8] Picardie, Justine. “THE SECRET MISS DIOR Justine Picardie uncovers the remarkable story of Christian Dior’s sister Catherine, a French Resistance agent and concentration-camp survivor” from Harper’s Bazar (UK). pressreader. Accessed March 1, 2019.

[4] Spencer, Mimosa. “Dior Milestone: Christian Dior’s Mystical Leanings” from WWD. Women’s Wear Daily. Accessed September 26, 2017.

[5] “L’école publique devient l’école Catherine Dior”. Ouest France. Accessed June 23, 2016.

[6][7] Pithers, Ellie. “Who was the original Miss Dior?” from Telegraph Beauty (UK). Telegraph UK. Accessed November 12, 2013.

The Little Blue House by the river Jalongi

The Little Blue House by the Jalongi River

A mere two hour drive from Kolkata lies Maheshganj. The center of attraction of this sleepy little town is Balakhana, a heritage home stay which had once served as an indigo house. This is a small account about its curious and puzzling history.

By Abhinaba Maitra

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“Ah! There it is,” said our host as he pointed to an odd looking plant a few steps away. I had not seen anything like it before.

As I watched, my mind wandered. How such a seemingly harmless thing could have once been a medium of immense oppression and tyranny?

 It was an indigofera tinctoria  commonly known as neel (indigo) in these areas.

“The Plants are leguminous in nature so it increases nitrogen levels in the soil thus improving subsequent crop yields, that’s the science behind it” explained our host while still pointing to the indigo plant in front of us. The painful fact however was that between the 18th and 19th century when the natural dye was still the rage and was produced in large quantities across parts of America and South Asia, cultivators were forced to grow it. Indigo has a notorious history of association with slavery and forced labour and there came a time when things rather came to the boil.

In 1858, months after the Company (East India Company) ruthlessly crushed the sepoy mutiny[1], their control over the Indian subcontinent was snatched away and gobbled up by Her Majesty’s ever expanding empire. Company Raj became the British Raj and with it came some administrative changes though the subjugation mostly stayed the same. Another rebellion was just around the corner.


Indigo and opium were the main profit makers for the company, thus, the Empire had no notion of changing it. Areas around undivided Nadia, Murshidabad, parts of Malda, Nabadwip, Kulberia, Jessore (now in Bangladesh) in the undivided Bengal province served as important bases for indigo cultivation.

The ryoti system had prevailed in these areas for a very long time and cultivators were not only forced to grow indigo but were paid very little for it incurring numerous debts along the way. The finished product sold almost at the rate of gold thus christening it as the blue gold.

‘নীলকরের কি অত্যাচার,

এই নীলে সকল নিলে এদের নিলে বোঝা ভার।’

(Oh how torturous are the indigo planters, tis the burden of the indigo among all other things that is the heaviest) – Poem by Ishwar Chandra Gupta on the agonizing effect of indigo cultivation. [3]

An indigo factory in Bengal in the 19th century (Image courtesy – Wikimedia Commons)

After years of deprivation of rights, in 1859, these areas became a hotbed of a peasant uprising. Cultivators not only refused to grow indigo but attacked indigo factories and planters who were mainly European at the time. Villages across rural bengal were up in arms– handmade bows and arrows, slingshots, spears were used as weapons.

The revolt became quite popular though the British government moved swiftly to crush it. A Large contingent of armed police was sent to aid the planters and zamindars. Whoever was found to have even the faintest of connections to the uprising were mercilessly killed and their entire families were wiped out. Peasant leaders like Biswanath Sardar were caught, given a farcical trial and publicly hanged, while many others went into hiding. The revolt and its subsequent suppression left an indomitable mark on Indian and Bengali history, some historians even call it a precursor to the freedom movement that was to come. A year later, as Bengal was still simmering, Dinabandhu Mitra added more fuel to the fire by writing what is still considered to be one of the most important pieces of literature on indigo oppression ‘Nil Darpan’. With its publication ‘Nil Darpan’ instantly caught the attention of both the oppressors and the oppressed and also many native sympathizers among them Harish Chandra Mukherjee, Editor and owner of the newspaper ‘Hindoo Patriot’ and also the Reverend James Long. Mitra, a former student of Long, had sent a copy of the play to the Reverend which left him impressed.

When he mentioned the play to the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal Sir John Peter Grant, Grant told Long to arrange for an English translation of the play. Long eventually did bring out an English translation with his own introduction with the help of Michael Madhusudan Dutt and it made more heads turn than was originally intended. It angered the pro-planters community so much that they dragged the Reverend to court where he was found guilty, sentenced to one month in jail and fined Rs 1,000.

‘My conscience convicts me however of no moral offence or of any offence deserving the language used in the charge to the jury. But I dread the effects of this precedent. This work being a lible, then the exposure of any social evil of caste, of polygamy, of kulin Brahminism, of the opium trade and of many others evils which are supported by the interests of men may be treated as libels too, and thus the great work of moral, social and religious reformation may be checked’ – from the address of the Reverend James Long to the court before passing of the sentence. [4]

As I stood there just outside the house at Moisgunj (actual name – Maheshgunj, corrupted over the years) in the misty cold morning trying to appreciate its charming surroundings it suddenly struck me that words like ‘Neel Bidroho’ felt a little out of place here.

The Moisgunj Mansion (Image courtesy – Balakhana)

The mansion at the heart of the estate has a dominant French style to it yet its long standing decorated pillars are carefully made to look like a very traditional Bengali zamindar bari. Its teak finished fireplace which has stood since the house was built along with the estate’s beautifully manicured gardens will betray very little of the past where it had served as a neel kuthi.

The Plantation on the banks of the Jalongi River (a branch of Ganges which flows in Nadia) at its peak had almost 200 hectares of land under it cultivating indigo. However, the mansion’s inception is shrouded in mystery. The popular belief as reiterated by Mr Ronodhir Palchoudhury the current owner, is that a Frenchman by the name of John Angelo Savi had built the house sometime in the beginning of the 19th century. Monsieur Savi was an interesting character. Born in Tuscany, trained to be a surgeon, it is said that he had served as doctor to Tipu Sultan, the tiger of Mysore when there were talks of an alliance with the French. His father in law was a certain Marine-General André-François Corderan who had served under the great Napoleon.

The plantation came about as Savi’s need to settle and try their fortune in what was a very booming business at the time.

Indigo plantation was thriving, it was nothing short of a gold rush.

Bengal along with Bihar made up the bulk of indigo production that was exported from British India. However, by the time the second generation of the Savi family came along, the natural dye was starting to fade away.

The Bidroho couldn’t have been very far away from the distinctive red pillars that stand at the main entrance to the estate.

It is said that the word of the rebellion crawled all the way up to her Majesty’s ears. Eventually, after recommendations from its own commission the British government decided to bring laws against forced cultivation.

“Not a chest of indigo reached England without being stained with human blood” – E.De-Latour, former magistrate of the Faridpur (now in Bangladesh) while speaking to the neel commission in 1860. [4]

It was around the same time that William Perkin accidentally discovered the synthetic dye while experimenting with aniline and quinine. Some years later, German chemist Adolf von Baeyer would go on to perfect the process and make a fully synthetic replacement of natural indigo dye.

The American Indigo industry also came to a halt in 1865 after the civil war, when laws were made to end slave labour. 

It is not clear what really prompted the Savi family to sell the house but with the fortunes of the natural indigo now slowly dwindling, it was probably at that time that they decided to head back to Europe.

What is left as a reminder of that era is that one plant which Mr. Palchoudhury keeps to humour his guests and some cakes of indigo dye which are kept in a closet along with other little treasures, occasionally brought out for curious guests.

The Palchoudhury family bought the place from one of Angelo Savi’s many grandchildren, Henry Nesvitt Savi.

 “It was my grandfather,” said Mr. Palchoudhury.

Bipradas Palchoudhury saw an advertisement in the year 1875 while residing in England about the sale of this house and told his brother Nafarchandra Palchoudhuri who was a very prominent landowner at the time to buy it.

Bipradas was born into a very wealthy zamindar family from undivided Nadia. “My grandfather’s relationship with his family was not a very savoury one. When he came back to India after studying in England, he was asked to purify himself or to remain outside. Being a staunch atheist, he chose the latter unsurprisingly. He would buy this house some years later.”

One does get a sense that Mr. Palchoudhury’s grandfather was an attractive man with a certain flavour of seriousness about him by looking at his portrait which hangs on the wall of the dining hall.

A portrait of Mr Bipradas Palchoudhury (Image courtesy – Balakhana)

“My Grandfather was a very foresighted man and of many talents”, after establishing himself at Moisgunj he would go on to be a pioneer tea planter creating tea plantations all across North Bengal and Assam. “He was a member of the INC, he had built hospitals and banks and helped the community in so many other ways also.”

We were given a souvenir as we were about to leave. Little wooden spoons crafted by Mr. Palchoudhury himself. He did mention that he was very fond of carpentry among other things. I guess having numerous talents runs within the family so to say. He asked if I had seen Thomas Savi’s bed in the other guest room “you should have reminded me to show it to you, it has an arch over it which is very reminiscent of French architecture and is one of a kind”.

Probably next time I said.


We are grateful to the Palchoudhury family for their hospitality and for sharing with us such wonderful insights on the estate’s and their family’s history.


  1. Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Indian Mutiny.” Encyclopedia Britannica, November 4, 2020. .
  2. “Balakhana – Heritage home stay”. In, 2021, [accessed 21 February 2021].
  3. Chanda, P, Nil Bidroho. In, 1st ed., Kolkata, Dey’s Publishing, 2015. 
  4. Das, S, Indigo Cultivation in Undivided Bengal: The History of Indigo   Revolt (In Light Of 150 Years). In, Kolkata, Nakshatra, 2014.
  5. DREW, J, “THE MAN WITH THREE NATIONALITIES”. In The Daily Star, 2018,  [accessed 21 February 2021].
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