On London’s busy Euston Road, opposite the even busier Euston Station, stands a stone building supported by two large pillars. This is Friends House, the headquarters of the Society of Friends, who are also known as the Quakers. Now, in 2007, the entry to the premises is through the garden at the side; but when Mahatma Gandhi visited it in 1931 he must surely have come in through the big wooden doors in front.
In the cumulative index to the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi there are ten references under the entry ‘Quakers’. To properly appreciate the importance of the Society in Gandhi’s life, however, these must be supplemented by the references to individual Quakers: for example, the 88 to Horace Alexander, the 198 to Agatha Harrison, the 102 to Muriel Lester, the 43 to Reginald Reynolds, and the 42 to S. E. Stokes.
These five Quakers all played a sterling role in advancing the Gandhian cause. Agatha Harrison and Muriel Lester were based in London, where they ran the very active Friends of India Society, mobilizing British public opinion in favour of the freedom of India. Horace Alexander and Reginald Reynolds were wandering nomads, travelling from England to India, where they played crucial mediatory roles between Gandhi and the officials of the Raj. Samuel (later Satyanand) Stokes was based wholly in India, in the hills of Himachal, where he ran schools, fought against forced labour, planted apples, and went to jail during the non-co-operation movement.
In fact, the Quaker connection to this country long predates Gandhi. As related by Marjorie Sykes in her book An Indian Tapestry, the first Quaker came to India in 1657, soon after the Society was formed. Through the centuries Quakers have lived in India, sometimes as servants of the Company and the Raj, at other times as servants of the people. Sykes’s book documents (as the sub-title says), ‘Quaker threads in the history of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, from the seventeenth century to Independence’. We learn here of the work done by Quakers in running schools, colleges, hospitals, libraries, children’s clubs, and farms.
Characteristically, we learn little about the author himself. Marjorie Sykes herself spent sixty years in India, living, labouring, loving. She knew Gandhi (meriting four references in the Collected Works!) and, much better, Rabindranath Tagore. She worked for long periods in Santiniketan, where she taught, translated some of Tagore’s plays, and co-authored a major biography of Gandhi’s and Tagore’s friend Charles Freer Andrews. Later, she ran a girls’ school in the Niligiri hills. In between her stints in east and south she spent time in the Narmada valley, based in the Quaker settlement at Rasulia (which was established as long ago as 1891). Here she promoted sustainable agriculture (among other things, her Centre published the Indian edition of Fukuoka’s classic One Straw Revolution) and vigorously opposed the attempts to drown the valley in a series of large dams.
Marjorie Sykes’s history ends with Independence. It thus does not take into account her own work in the Narmada valley, or the work, down in Kerala, of the architect Laurie Baker. Baker, who died on the first day of April, aged ninety, was a pioneer of low-cost and eco-friendly architecture. As his biographer Gautam Bhatia writes, although ‘Baker’s work appears to emanate from the functional doctrines of the modernist movement, it is largely the outcome of his Quaker past’. In his life and work was manifest this ‘rigorous Quaker upbringing, with its emphasis on simplicity and austerity, its rejection of all ornament and luxury as sinful self-indulgence… ’.
Baker is best known for the thousands of buildings he built in Kerala, among them houses, anganwadis, churches, and at least one fishing village. He also designed the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram, where (owing to the artfulness of Baker’s designs) the costs were actually much less than budgeted—allowing the Centre to build a world-class library with the money saved. Before he moved to Kerala, Baker had lived in the Kumaon hills, where he helped his doctor-wife run a hospital for the hill villagers.
When Baker first came out to India in 1945, he met Mahatma Gandhi, in a chance encounter which (to quote his biographer) ‘seems to have made a great impact on his architecture, as Gandhi’s ideologies were to influence him in all his life’. It was surely the Gandhian in him that moved him to write what was the first critical article to appear after the atomic tests of May 1998. Immediately after the tests, the commentary in the newspapers was uniformly eulogistic. Politicians strutted about in Parliament, and scientists posed for photographs dressed in military attire. The first note of dissent was struck by Baker. In a brilliant brief article, he pointed out that the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, had asked of Indian scientists that their work be non-violent, that it be environmentally benign, and that it enhance the welfare and happiness of the poor.
The atom bomb, Indian or otherwise, fails these three tests of a Gandhian science. By those same criteria, the science practiced by the last Quaker in India comes out with flying colours.
Published in The Hindu, 15/4/2007