Monday, March 20, 2006

Haridas Muzumdar - Miller's Hindu Connection

The subject of Haridas Muzumdar was brought up to me by Kreg at I immediately found myself pre-occupied with investingating the relationship between Henry Miller and Muzumdar, a man who went from being Miller's Western Union assistant to being Mahatma Gandhi's spokesman in America.

Besides being an esteemed individual in his efforts to support Gandhi and India's independence movement, as well as the American Civil Rights Movement, Muzumdar also has the misfortune of generally being acknowledged as the unidentified man who mistakingly shits in a bidet in a Paris brothel, as portrayed in Tropic Of Cancer. I'll try to back this conclusion up.


Born in India, Muzumdar came to the U.S. in 1920 "to study" [New York Times, Feb. 26, 1956, p.26 (1)]. 1920 was also the year Henry joined Western Union and quickly became an Employment Manager. According to Ferguson's Henry Miller: A Life, Miller employed Muzumdar and liked him enough to make him his assistant.

Haridas Muzumdar makes a pretty obvious appearance in Miller's Moloch, under the name "Hari Das." As if to confirm the identity, Miller writes about an incident in which Hari is harrassed by street urchins on his second day at Western Union, at which point he pulls out a copy of An Open Letter To Lloyd George--an essay he actually wrote--and starts reciting it [Muzumdar's Gandhi Versus The Empire (1932) lists Open Letter as the first piece written "by the same author.")

According to Miller in Moloch, Muzumdar had taken the Western Union job two months after his arrival in America: "He thought of his intended studies at Columbia. They seemed far away, and about as useful as a totem pole. [...] What could he do, in America, with a degree of 'Doctor of Philosophy '?" (p. 11) Muzumdar became a friend of Henry's; he visited his home for dinner and discussions. The "Hari Das" of Moloch will be featured in some other posting one day.

Muzumdar began to make a name for himself in 1923, a year before Miller left Western Union. Gandhi The Apostle (Chicago: Universal, 1923) was, according to Muzumdar, "the first full-length portrait of the Mahatma to appear in any language of the world" (ref.) [excerpts from a 1923 review in The Nation]. Miller makes reference to Muzumdar in a letter to Emil Schnellock dated November 5, 1923: "Write Haridas Thakorrial Muzumdar and request a copy of the New York Call."

Photo above: Muzumdar (in middle) laying garlands on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia on January 26, 1931, to mark the first anniversary of India's Declaration of Independence [pic from Gandhi Versus The Empire].

Muzumdar continued to write from the U.S. about India's "non-violent revolution" throughout the 20's, but finally joined Gandhi in India in 1929. Muzumdar was part of Gandhi's famous Salt March in March-April 1930. During the march, Muzumdar upset Gandhi by eating ice cream when nobody else could. As one would hope, Gandhi didn't hold a grudge, and Muzumdar continued to be his champion in the U.S., writing Gandhi Versus The Empire (1932), Gandhi Triumphant! (1939), and more.


In Tropic Of Cancer, Miller tells of his brief and miserable stay with another Hindu from Western Union, N.P. Nanavati, a pearl merchant (called Nanantatee in the novel). Dearborn's Happiest Man Alive incorrectly identifies Nanavanti as Muzumdar (which she also spells incorrectly, an error Ferguson also makes). Anyway, through him, Miller is introduced to an unnamed Indian man described as a "young man" (to Miller's 40-year old self, anyway), to whom he is assigned the task of taking to a brothel. Long story short, as I'm sure you all know, this man shits in the bidet instead of just peeing in it, which is all one should do. A big stink is made, so to speak, and the dignified, refined Indian man is embarrased.

Is this Muzumdar? As narrator, Miller never insinuates that he's met him before. In fact, I'm not even saying that Miller did anything more than base a character on Muzumdar. However, this "young man" is "decked out in a corduroy suit, a beret, a cane, a Windsor tie" and other wise very refined, as is his educated speech. This is comparable to the Hari Das of Moloch and the reality of Muzumdar's education. He's also described as being "one of Gandhi's men, one of that little band who made the historic march to the sea during the salt trouble."

After they leave the brothel, further evidence is provided as Miller describes: "He talks about the eight vows that he took, the control of the palate, etc. On the march to Dandi even a plate of ice cream it was forbidden to take." Yes, even the ice cream is mentioned. He goes on to tell how the Young Man has newspaper men to see and lectures to give, as was Muzumdar's role. Also: "He has been to America." Finally, on page 94, Miller calls the Young Man a "saint:" at the start of the chapter, he references two Hindu "saints" he knew at Western Union, but only names one (Gupte). I think Muzumdar is the other.

Okay, one more: this bidet thing happened around August 1930, during the couple of weeks he was staying with Nanavati. On p. 90 of Cancer, Miller begins his introduction of the Young Man by saying "The young man had just come from India [...] The money he was spending was a gift from the merchants of Bombay; they were sending him to England to spread the gospel of Gandhi." In 1952, Muzumdar's preface to Mahatma Gandhi: Peaceful Revolutionary states "When all is said and done, my greatest debt is to the Saint of Sabarmati, my association with whom at the Satyagraha Ashram, on the Dandi March, and in London, I count among the greatest privileges in life" (thus placing him in England at that time). And in an article in the New York Times, dated August 29, 1930, Muzumdar is said to have "left India on July 11" (and was in New York by Aug. 29). These facts establish the possibility that Haridas was in Paris in late-July/early August 1930, the period in which Henry was with Nanavati.


1930s: Lectures in support of Marcus Garvey, at UNIA meetings;

1931: Prominent New York lecturer on the subject of Gandhi and India:

1947: Becomes a U.S. citizen;

Early 1950's: Professor of Sociology at Cornel College, Mt. Vernon, Iowa;

1956: Runs for US Congress as a Republican;

1982: Greatness of Gandhi: An American Estimate, edited by Muzumdar. After this, I lose track. I've located no obituary. Perhaps he's still alive?


Anonymous Kreg said...

Wow! That is some excellent detective work, RC. I'm really impressed that you were able to trace the bidet incident to Muzumdar - the ice cream bit is perfect. Muzumdar seems like such an interesting guy. It's too bad he doesn't get more notice in Miller's biographies. And you know, I never did read Moloch. I think I'll give that one a turn next. Thanks for looking into this.

3:52 pm  
Anonymous JamesD said...

I would recommend Ranganath Nandyal's Henry Miller in the Light of Eastern Thought for more information on Miller's connection to Indian philosophy and spirituality. While it does not pursue the Muzumdar connection, it investigates the impact of India on Miller: "It is no exaggeration to say that very few Indians have more love for India, more admiration for and more interest in Indian scriptures, and more adoration for Indian thinkers than Henry Miller" (42-43).

On 9 January 1949, Miller also wrote a piece for Bombay's Kaiser-i-Hind called "What India Means to Me." He writes that his acquaintance with "humble, obscure Indians" at Western Union allowed him "to understand why the great mass of mankind can never be fully enslaved, never utterly degraded" and to see that "the exalted being must eventually return to the great ocean of humanity to realize himself completely" (10).

7:39 pm  
Blogger RC said...

Thanks, Kreg, for putting me on the scent.

And thank you, James, for the recommendations.

9:45 pm  
Anonymous Tony in London said...

Oh man, thanks so much for your work on this. It is excessivly interesting and as always very inspiring!

11:57 am  
Blogger RC said...

Cheers Tony. Appreciate you taking a moment to post a comment.

12:11 am  
Anonymous JBF said...

I knew Haridas Muzumdar. He is no longer living. I attended his funeral in Little Rock, Arkansas several years ago. For many years, before moving to Litle Rock, he taught at the Pine Bluff (Arkansas)branch of the University of Arkansas. His wife Amu also taught there. My husband helped him edit one of his books, written during the time he lived in Pine Bluff.

Have more info about him but no time just now to write.

4:10 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did he seem like the type to drop a few turds in a bidet?

7:19 pm  
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2:00 am  
Anonymous Kreg said...

As a confirmation that Mazumdar was the model for the young man in the bidet incident, it appears that Miller confessed this once to his lawyer, Elmer Gertz. In Gertz's autobiography, To Life: The Story of a Chicago Layer, he writes:

"I did not hear the name Haridas after I left college, until I was discussing Tropic of Cancer with Henry Miller, in 1962, in Minneapolis, and learned the amazing fact that Haridas was the model for the Hindu in some fantastic passages in that highly original work."

You can read find a copy of this passage on Google Books - page 28

I stumbled across the Gertz connection via a blog post at WICKEDWORD

10:13 pm  
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Blogger Chris Anderson said...

Haridas Muzumdar was my next door neighbor growing up while he taught inexplicably at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. He lived in Little Rock with his wife Amu. After Haridas passed, Amu passed away sometime later in route back to India. Amu was always nice and gracious. Haridas was set in his ways and took a substantial amount of talking to in order to get him to open up or smile.

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Blogger Catherine Boardman said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12:05 pm  
Blogger Catherine Boardman said...

That's so interesting, I've been really trying to look into him. He is my great grandfather, and he lived such an interesting life .

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Blogger Catherine Boardman said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

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Blogger Catherine Boardman said...

I have his obituary and also a paper signed by the President for when he became a US citizen. Also dedicating a holiday to him.

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Blogger Catherine Boardman said...

I have his obituary and also a paper signed by the President for when he became a US citizen. Also dedicating a holiday to him.

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Haridas is my great grandfather!

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Anonymous Roy ( said...

Interesting narrative on Haridas. He was my stepfather for a brief period when he was a professor at Cornell College. His marriage to my mother (his second marriage) ended in divorce about 1958. We believe Haridas can be seen in the photo of the Gandhi funeral pyre on the cover of Life Magazine at the time of Gandhi's death.

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