The 1935 tour’s itinerary was extensive, cutting a swathe through a Europe that was about to tip over into war. One of the recommended readings for the tour was a book titled Will War Come in Europe? The Japanese had already invaded Manchuria in 1931; Hitler was re-militarising Germany and Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in October 1935. Indeed, the build up to the invasion of Ethiopia looms large in Mrs Nair’s accounts, as they do in the issues of the Hindustan Times her accounts appear in. Indians such as the women on this tour and the readers of such newspapers were clearly interested in, concerned and up-to-date about international affairs even as 1935 was an important year in India’s struggle for independence and freedom from its colonial overlords.
While Mrs Nair and her colleagues were touring Europe, the British Parliament was debating a revised Government of India Act, passed in August of that year, just as our travellers returned to India. This Bill was hugely important to the Independence Movement in India, although its results, while delivering a degree of constitutional autonomy, fell far short of Indians’ hopes. The tour group was fortunate enough to visit Westminster to hear parts of the debate. Mrs Nair also records that the women attended an informal discussion on the Bill in the evening, with special reference to the “opportunities for Indian women to serve their country under the new Constitution”’. The audience was a mixed English and Indian group and Mrs Nair asserts that the tour participants ‘made it clear that we were by no means satisfied with the franchise extended to us’, especially the limitations which prevented suffrage to the wives of ‘educated men’ while ‘those with military and property qualifications – conservative elements – have been granted the right to vote’.
Already some of the fuzziness of our photograph is receding. These women were a reasonable cross-section of educated middle-class women in 1930s India. They were metropolitan and provincial in background and adventurous enough to apply for the tour and consider a lengthy period away from home, family and country. None of the women on the 1935 tour knew each other before they met in Bombay. They were also, as Mrs Nair’s report of their public participation in London suggests, supporters of Indian independence and female suffrage and not averse to voicing their opinions to strangers in a strange land.