Suhasini Nambiar first met her older brother Virendranath Chattopadhyaya in Germany in 1922. She had never seen him, as he had left Hyderabad before he was born, first to Calcutta, then to Madras and then, in 1902, to Great Britain. After marrying ACN Nambiar, then an aspiring journalist and anti-colonial activist, the previous year, Suhasini left India for Oxford.
Of this very moving first meeting, the American journalist and radical activist Agnes Smedley – who would later become Chattopadhyaya’s companion – would later write: “…neither spoke, and I saw Suhasini to shiver. Viren’s face was tense with an inner struggle; it was the first time in a quarter of a century that a member of his family had come to share his life, and Suhasini had to remind him of the tragedy of his father, his country, and his long years of exile.
Exile was a good word to describe the life of Virendra Chattopadhya. Known primarily as Chatto, the itinerant and revolutionary anti-colonial activist was a painful thorn in the side for the British. He had left India in 1902, never to return. Younger brother of Indian nationalist leader and poet Sarojini Naidu, Chatto was born in Hyderabad in 1880. His father, Aghorenath Chattopadhyaya, had taken up a post as an educator in the princely city of Hyderabad in 1878, leaving his mark on the city through progressive reforms and the establishment of an educational institution which was called Nizam College.
Chatto’s radical activities in England contributed greatly to his family’s misfortunes, as British Indian authorities periodically harassed them. The beautiful and fiery Suhasini, destined to be influenced by Chatto, had endured all this growing up. Chatto’s extraordinary life was marked by great turbulence. Targeted by the secret services, in the grip of misery, he was perpetually on the edge of the abyss. His stormy romances further complicated matters. From siblings, colleagues and lovers to wives, the women in Chatto’s life testify to his charm, his intelligence and his many problems.
After unsuccessful attempts to enter the Indian civil service, Chatto joined the Middle Temple to study law. As British intelligence notes, in 1903 Chatto began living with an Englishwoman in Notting Hill as Mr. and Mrs. Chatterton, but this relationship ended in 1909. Chatto’s political activities had remained negligible until 1908. He soon became a regular at India House – Shyamaji. Krishnavarma’s hostel for Indian students in North London. VD Savarkar had established himself there as its most charismatic and militant activist after his arrival in 1906.
A “hotbed of sedition”, India House had been under British surveillance since its inception in 1905. Chatto was friends with Savarkar and other members, including Srikishen Balmukund, a fellow Hyderabadi who was romantically involved with another of Chatto’s sisters, Mrinalini . His public embrace of militant ideas led to his expulsion from the Middle Temple and in June 1910 he moved to Paris following the sensational murder of British civil servant Curzon Wyllie by Madan Lal Dhingra and the deportation of Savarkar from England. Chatto began working there with Madame Cama’s revolutionary group. Back home, Sarojini Naidu was forced to publicly dissociate herself from her brother, causing a rift with her father.
Chatto became involved with a Mrs. Reynolds around this time. Its London address was often used for the delivery of issues of the Talvar, a groundbreaking publication he edited. A well-to-do woman, she supported him and her ex-husband and often visited him in Paris in the spring of 1911, “sometimes disguised as a boy”. They married early the next year and Chatto was for a time “lost to the revolutionary movement”, as British intelligence said. The marriage ended in discord because Mrs. Reynolds insisted that any children they had would be raised Catholic and Chatto refused. Subsequently, Reynolds joined a convent, and Chatto, who “was again cast upon his own resources”, unsuccessfully attempted to have their marriage annulled. His complicated “domestic affairs” at the time included “several minor entanglements” and a marriage proposal from Calcutta to a certain Miss Roy.
Chatto’s biographer, Nirode Barooah, writes that he was “not just a playboy”. He had an extraordinary understanding of languages and serious interests in philology and ethnography. He energetically contributed scholarly articles and taught Hindustani, alongside his political activities. In mid-1910, he implicated his sister Mrinalini and her admirer Balmukund in a plot to smuggle weapons hidden in furniture shipments, which came to light when the British intercepted his letters. Father Aghorenath’s house in Hyderabad was therefore raided, yielding nothing but a “somewhat seditious…and very loving correspondence” between Mrinalini and Balmukund.
The Parisian group quickly disintegrated, and Chatto traveled to Switzerland, the United States and later to Halle in Germany to enroll in doctoral studies. As scholar Ole Birk Laursen revealed, Chatto moved in various circles, also fraternizing with French and Italian anarchists across Europe during this time. Immersed in “the fertilized world of anti-colonial and anarchist internationalism”, Chatto helped establish the Berlin Committee in September 1914 under the patronage of the German Foreign Office. The group sent a mission to Kabul to advance the Emir’s anti-British plans, radicalize British Indian soldiers in the region, forge ties in Ottoman Turkey, and transport arms and men to India. British intelligence foiled several plots. Soon Chatto moved to Stockholm to foster new associations, especially with the Bolsheviks. He wants to “internationalize the Indian question”, equating the Berlin Committee with Sinn Fein and Egyptian nationalists. Here too, Chatto’s position was compromised and he was tried for conspiracy.
British intelligence had spied on him from the start. In December 1915, an Englishwoman named Hilda Margaret Howsin, whom Chatto knew from London, visited him in Montreux and was arrested upon his return. A British secret agent named Donald Gullick traveled to Switzerland the following year in October to meet Chatto under the guise of helping secure Howsin’s release. Gullick’s intention was “to lure him to the French or Italian border or kill him”. At the time, writer Somerset Maugham was still in the British Secret Service and he adapted this failed assassination plot into his story. Giulia Lazzariwith a Chatto-based character named Chandra Lal.
In early 1920, Chatto encountered Agnes Smedley, the “self-taught left-wing feminist proletariat” as described by scholar Meenakshi Mukherjee. Coming from a poor rural background, Smedley worked with Lala Lajpat Rai in New York and was arrested in 1918 in the infamous Hindu-German conspiracy. Very attracted to Chatto, she considered him “the embodiment of the secret revolutionary movement, and perhaps its most brilliant protagonist abroad”. The couple embarked on a tumultuous eight-year relationship that marked them deeply. Perpetually broke and beleaguered, the couple were miserable together. As Smedley recalled, “Viren thrived on companionship, but I began to wither and sink under the complexity and poverty of our lives. Everyone understood and loved Viren; few understood me. To them, I was a strange creature that grew more and more strange – as indeed I was. Driven “almost to the brink of insanity”, Smedley eventually broke down; Chatto’s dominance, possessiveness and jealousy had a dangerous impact on her.
Smedley traveled with Chatto and others to Moscow in 1921 to seek Comintern collaboration. MN Roy, then highly favored in Moscow, denigrated them as bourgeois opportunists. Chatto and Roy were professional rivals, but the latter was also said to have been involved with Smedley before. The Berlin group attended the Third Comintern Congress in July. Their attempts to meet Lenin failed and they left Moscow empty-handed. Back in Germany, tracked by British spies, the couple is constantly on the move. Chatto was the victim of arsenic poisoning in an alleged assassination attempt. Smedley nursed him back to health. She then parted ways with him for good.
During the 1920s Chatto established the Indian News Service and Information Bureau, ostensibly to provide information to India. He started two specialized magazines with his brother-in-law ACN Nambiar which promoted Indo-German cooperation, but also served as a medium to promote his views. In late 1926, Chatto helped organize an anti-colonial conference in Brussels, which led to the formation of the League Against Imperialism. Jawaharlal Nehru was an official Indian delegate to the February 1927 conference, but withdrew Indian National Congress support as the League had become a Comintern front. Chatto angrily accused Nehru of “unexplainable weakness and mental confusion” and of “surrendering to traitors”.
The specter of Nazism looming, Chatto left Germany for Moscow in August 1931. He was then appointed researcher at the Institute of Anthropology and Ethnography (IAE) in Leningrad. Chatto was now Virendranat Agornatovich Chatopadaya. As Barooah reveals, Chatto was awaiting the arrival of his German wife Charlotte with her children from Berlin. We don’t know anything about her. He quickly became intimate with Lidiya Karunovskaya, a married colleague. She found in him “a deeply social, caring, generous and hardworking person” and they were married in late 1933. He went on to have a productive academic career, also performing party duties. But it didn’t last – on the night of July 16, 1937, Chatto was kidnapped by Stalin’s secret police. Lidiya searched desperately for him, in vain. In March 1958, she received a death certificate stating that Chatto had died on April 6, 1943. Russian historian Mithrokin then consulted KGB archival documents showing that Chatto had been executed on September 2, 1937.
In an interview with BR Nanda decades later, Eva Geissler (then Mrs. Walter), the longtime partner of Chatto’s brother-in-law, ACN Nambiar, described him as one of the loveliest men ever. she met and spoke of his “exceptional readiness to help the needy.” Tellingly, she added, “He was sometimes very and quickly attracted to women.”
Gautam Pemmaraju is a Bombay-based writer and filmmaker with a particular interest in early 20th century Indian anti-colonial activists.