The magic bonding between Ireland and India

Topics Ireland | Northern Ireland | England

When India was starving, hungry Ireland sent her food. Some said the magic bonding was anti-British sentiment. “We’ve suffered the same,” a taxi-driver once told me. “The British set one religion against the other, partitioned the country, and walked away!”

Did I hear that in Dublin or Belfast, Cork or Waterford? I have forgotten just as I have forgotten whether Frederick Forsyth set his short story There are no Snakes in Ireland, about a Punjabi medical student’s complex revenge on his racially abusive boss, in the North or South. But sworn enemies though they might have been through decades of turbulence, Northern Ireland, the six Protestant-majority British-held counties of Ulster, and the mainly Roman Catholic republic of Ireland have one thing in common. Both boast the world’s most politically sensitive and knowledgeably communicative cabbies.

They were a great help in the 1960s when I visited regularly to cover the murderous violence called the “Troubles”. Belfast was split into Protestant and Catholic ghettoes, taxi-drivers from one community travelling only so far into the other’s territory. But there was no reticence when it came to holding forth on politics. There wasn’t last week either as we cruised from one port to another. A Dublin taxi-driver chuckled deep and long when I told him as we passed the metal tower that replaced the Nelson Column the Irish blew up that Kolkata had saved the cost and trouble of destruction and reconstruction by merely renaming the Ochterlony Monument. He thought it a great idea that millions of young Bengalis don’t even know the Shahid Minar was built to honour a British general.

I learnt from him that Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar, sounds Irish except for a rare sound that might be Indian. That wasn’t surprising for Varadkar completed his medical training at Mumbai’s KEM Hospital and has apparently visited India several times. But nary a word did the cabbie say about Varadkar being openly gay or being named by Queerty, the on-line magazine, one of the Pride50 “trailblazing individuals who actively ensure society remains moving towards equality, acceptance and dignity for all queer people”. The honour marked the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots when LGBTQ activists responded with violence to police raids in distant New York. Varadkar is casual about his sexuality. “It’s not something that defines me,” he says. “I’m not a half-Indian politician, or a doctor politician or a gay politician for that matter. It’s just part of who I am, it doesn’t define me, it is part of my character I suppose.” But he was a prominent advocate of the same-sex marriage referendum which established Catholic Ireland as one of Western Europe’s most liberal nations.

The driver also said with a touch of pride that the richest Irishman is Indian. According to Forbes, the ageing builder, Pallonji Shapoorji Mistry, is worth more than $20 billion. Mistry, whose son-in-law Noel Tata is Ratan Tata’s half-brother, lives on Malabar Hill but has been an Irish citizen since 2003. He owns a 200-acre stud farm in Ireland. 

At a more sublime level, the connection reaches beyond V V Giri and the Easter Rebellion or Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel Prize to little-known Mohini Mohun Chatterjee and W B Yeats. “There was one period in [Yeats’s] early life”, writes his biographer C L Wrenn, “when his imagination was captivated and stimulated by India” and he experimented with “many pathways” to find his true poetic subject and voice. Chatterjee went to Dublin in 1885 for the Theosophical Society but moved beyond the “contemporary” eclecticism of theosophy to the philosophia perennis of Vedanta and the ageless perceptions of human existence enshrined in the Upanishads, the Gita and the works of the eighth-century seer Sankara. When I first read Yeats’ ode to Chatterjee, The Brahmin, I asked his family about the connection. They knew nothing. Tragically, Indians seldom keep records.

But the historical past that was opened up may have explained the warmth with which I was received on my first visit to Ireland. I was a 20-year-old reporter engaged by the dancer Ram Gopal to organise the publicity for his performance at Dublin’s Olympia theatre. The three local dailies, the Irish Times, Independent and Press, went to town with features, interviews and gossip. The hall was sold out long before opening night. Rave reviews followed. I felt then the truth of Wrenn’s claim of a mystic connection between Ireland and India, “not the India of politicians, or historians or travellers, but an India of pure romance, which bears some subtle yet obvious relation to old romantic Ireland”.


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