Bernard Shaw's interesting Indian visit (1933)

Gandhi, Mahatma & Shaw,  image oil on canvas. Clare  Winsten

British class system

Mr. George  Bernard Shaw (26 July, 1856 – 2 November, 1950) of  Pygmalion  fame  was  a well known  Nobel Prize and Oscar-winning Irish  playwright,  satirist and essayist. With respect  to  matters  involving  labor problems, social injustice, shortcomings  of  the ruling  British government  and  even the British  royalty,  he was the  first  to  call the shot  and  make carping remarks  on  them. Never  in his  long active  life, had   he  failed  to  call  a  spade a spade, if occasion demanded  to  set  things   right. He was  an  ardent advocate  of  equal rights  for  both  men  and  women  and  a  classless British  society. 

Bernard Shaw's   forte  was   addressing   various  prevailing  evils   in   our  society,  in  particular,  unpalatable  class  distinctions   and  the poor  living  conditions of British workers in  the  British  society  with  a  vein  of  comedy  in  uncompromising  language.  By the same token he had no soft corner for the so called British aristocrats who live in palatial mansions with numerous servants to attend to their elementary needs,  including blowing  their runny nose into their hankies!!   To the visiting guests, the royal would care more for their table manners and how to use the butter on the bread  than for their intelligence and wisdom. 

If  such  a  nice  76  year  old  dynamic  human being, who  truly  cared  for  other  fellow  human beings' welfare,  was  on  a  visit  to  India  in  1933 during  the  British  rule  and  the  on  going  freedom  struggle  under  the  leadership  of  Gandhi, naturally  it  caused  excitement  among  the  Indian elite and  the   media. So, Bernard Shaw's  brief  visit  to  Bombay, India  in  January, 1933  with  his  wife  was,  no doubt, a sensational  one. The media people had a field day generating scoops after scoops.

Bernard Shaw in Bombay 1933.

Shaw  and  his  wife  were  on  a  holiday  cruise    round  the  world  by  the  Canadian  Ocean  Liner "Empress of Britain". As  the  sea  was  shallow, near the harbor, the ship  was  anchored  two miles  away  from  the  Bombay  harbor. The  couple's  sight-  seeing trip   was mainly confined to  Bombay city  alone  as  it  was  a  very  short  visit  and  he  regretted  that  he  was  unable  to  see  real India - in  the  sense  rural  India. About  Indian  railway coaches  he  said  they were  as bad, if  not, worse than  the  British  railway  coaches.


Shaw  had  high  regard  for  Gandhiji,  a  humble leader  who  stood  like  a  colossus  before  the mighty  British  to  free  India  from  their  long centuries of  exploitation  of  Indians  and  their  vast natural  resources.  Once  Shaw said of Gandhiji, “Impressions of Gandhi? You might well ask for someone's impression of the Himalayas.”   Mind  you, Gandhiji  never had superb  war  weaponry. On  the  other  hand  his only weapon   was  non - violence - satyagragha.   About Gandhiji (who  was  in the Yeravada  jail, near  Pune  under  detention) he said, "I saw Gandhi  lately  in London.  He is  a  charming man, an  exceptionally clear  headed  man.....He  is  the  sort  of  man  who  is born,  perhaps, once in several  centuries,  a  very marvelous  personality."   While  appreciating  Gandhiji's  struggle  for un-touchability,  Shaw said,  "I am  more  concerned  with  the untouchables in England.  There  ia  large  class  of  working   people  who   are  treated  as  untouchables. We have millionaires  and  capitalists  in  England  who  do  not  inter-marry  with  British  workers.  The un- touchability   problem  is  very  acute  in  England. The  English  touchable  will not probably  object  to   the shadow of  the  untouchable falling on  him or her  as  you  do  in  India...." 

Mr. Shaw  further  resented  that  any  marriage  proposal    between  a  worker and   the  daughter of a  capitalist or Duchess  would raise storms  and the poor  girl  would  soon  find  herself  as  much  an untouchable  among the vanity-ridden aristocrats  as  the  untouchable  in  India. Mr. Shaw  was  highly critical  of class  divisions, aristocratic  arrogance,  middle  class  morality, dress code, dining table manners, etc.,  in  England. He  was  equally  critical   of  the   British  royalty,  their  over spending  of  public  funds  and  bizarre customs. 

George Bernard Shaw.

Sir. M. Visvesvaraya  of  Mysore  Kingdom, one  of  the  greatest  civil  engineers of India  has  ever  produced, called on Shaw  and  invited him  to  the Wellington  Sports  Club, one of  the  best in  Bombay.  Shaw remarked, "Oh, a  club  is  nothing. The  best  club  in  England  is  the  one  every sensible  man  keeps  away  from". Subsequently Shaw  went  for  a  stroll  down  the  streets  of Bombay  and  enjoyed  both  Indian and  English buildings. Near  the  Gate  Way  of  India - a  commemoration  arch  was erected in 1906  in  memory of  the  landing  of  King  George V  and  Queen  Mary who  were  then  Prince  and princesses  of  wales - both  Mr. and Mrs. Shaw were  warmly  greeted  by  the  students  and  others  which  he  responded well.  

Shaw  became  wild  upon  seeing  a  sign  on  a Yacht  club near  Taj  Hotel (a well- known heritage hotel  which  was  partly  damaged  during   the worst  Pakistani  Muslim  terrorists' attack  on 26, November, 2008) that  said, "Reserved exclusively for the  white  people  only."    He  remarked  angrily, "It   was   nothing  short  of  snobbery  to  have  a  club  exclusively  reserved   for  the  use  of  the  white  people  in  a  land  of  colored  people".   

Bernard  Shaw  most probably  would  not  have  known  that  the  British  gentlemen  and  their  lily-white  ladies  in  the colonial  days  traveled  exclusively  in  first  class  coaches  on  the  Indian  railways through out India and  at  almost all major  stations  there  was  a  separate  deluxe  waiting  room  for  them to relax during transit break;   so no question of sweating in the hot sultry weather.  . When both  British Sahib  and  Sahiba  had  a comfortable  stay in the cozy rooms  during the  break  of  journey,  the  hard working Indian  natives  were  not allowed   to  stay in special waiting room  and, instead,  they had  to  stay in congested, very  warm  waiting halls, looking like sweat hogs.

Bernard  Shaw,  took  particular  interest  in  Jain temples  and  visited  some  them.  On  request  from Hiralal   Shah of  Vasant  Vjay  Mills, he  visited  the  Jain  temple  at   Pydhoni,  Babu  Marble  temple at  the  top  of  the  Walkeswar hills. He was  in  full praise  of  the  wonderful  marble sculptures  and  and  delicate works  in  marbles.

Before  leaving  for Colombo, Shaw  remarked  that the   Bombay   pressmen  gave  his  private  visit  with  his wife  so  much publicity  every  day  that  literally 'I was on show' and  he had  no rest  for  which   the holiday  tour was undertaken. Imagine  our   present  day   politicians  including   mediocre ones, if  they  were  in  such  a  situation, they would have  turned  their  holiday  or ego  trip (actually a junket trip) into  publicity  bonanza!! 

GBS by  N. Salivateeswaran, Bhavan's journel. oct. 28, 1962 page 100 to 106.