by Jane Haggis
83 years ago today, at some point before lunch, a group of young Indian women boarded the Italian liner Conte Rosso, docked at Bombay (today’s Mumbai) en route to Venice, Italy. The figures in the grainy photograph on our home page and header give us little idea of these women as people or their historical significance. But fuzzy faces in old photographs arouse my curiosity. I am impatient to get to know what I can of these women and their travels; to bring some clarity to that photograph and pin down what makes the image so evocative to me.
For the next four months this group of women would travel around Europe under the care of the tour leader, Mrs Alexandrena Datta. The tour was part of a series sponsored by the International Student Service or ISS; a Christian organisation based in Geneva, with a commitment to interfaith and apolitical cultural co-operation. The 1935 tour was the second, with two others in 1937 and 1938. So far, we know most about the 1935 tour thanks to Mrs Kuttan Nair’s journalism and a set of scrapbooks in the British Museum in London. The scrapbooks, kept by Mrs Datta, are preserved amongst her husband’s extensive personal papers, bequeathed to the library by their son (more on the Dattas’ later in our project). The scrapbooks, large and hard covered, include not only photographs of places visited and people met on each tour, but papers revealing something of how the tours were organised, including the names of the women and their places of origin and even reading lists recommended to the women as homework prior to their departure. Because the scrapbooks cover all four tours, we know that each tour, while varying in places visited and people met, followed a similar format that makes the 1935 tour typical. However, the scrapbooks are pretty thin on personal details or stories, except for snatches of interviews sometimes found in the press articles carefully glued on to the pages amongst the photographs.
What we know
What these slim resources tell us about the women who went on these tours is that they were diverse – from different parts of India and ethnic groups as well as faiths. They were on the whole either teachers or students, although some appear to have been practising doctors on their way to do further studies in Europe. Some were married, some single. For the most part, they appear to have been youngish women in their twenties and thirties. Even our grainy photo of the group departing from Bombay in 1935 indicates diversity. Some wore short hair, still relatively unusual among Indian women of that era; most wore saris, variously draped, with at least one in European attire (apart from Mrs Datta in the front centre). The albums record the meticulous organisation required to mount such tours. The cost of the 1935 trip was 1600 Rupees which Mrs Kuttan Nair described as “a minimum cost”, suggesting the women were not poor, but neither were they from elite or wealthy backgrounds as their occupational status suggests.
It is, however, Mrs Nair’s articles and book that brings the tour alive as a personal and inter-cultural event. I’ll write more about her accounts of the tour and incidents she describes in later posts. On the anniversary of the tour’s departure, however, here’s a taste of the unpromising start to the adventure for Mrs Nair, as I share her focus on food!
Not a Lunch for ‘Grass Eaters’
‘What we had heard of the comforts and conveniences on Italian ships had raised in me great hopes as far as food, the prime necessity of life, was concerned. A splendid array of choices vegetable dishes with the delicious luxury of pickles and the far famed fruits of the sunny South rose up before my mental vision. But alas! dreams seldom come true … The dishes served were few and the little that was given far from relishable, while the looks of sympathy cast on us by the waiters did little to appease our hunger. The gloomy prospect of being starved on board the ship was by no means welcome and some of us were already beginning to feel depressed and homesick.
Four of the women, including Mrs Nair, were ‘grass eaters’ or vegetarians. But our hero was saved as she reports the food was much better the next day so starvation was averted and spirits brightened.