Last updateTue, 17 Mar 2015 2pm

"In the Shadow of Freedom": Laxmi Tendulkar's Personal Odyssey

A fascinating new book detailing the life of a globe-trotting Indian independence activist and the two ideologically opposed women who loved him was recently launched in the UK.

'In the Shadow of Freedom', written by Laxmi Tendulkar Dhaul - the daughter of the book's protagonist, tells the story of Ayi Tendulkar, a boy from rural Goa whose ardour for magnificent women was equalled only by his passion for India's freedom struggle. 

Ayi Tendulkar is best known for his passionate love affair and marriage to the great Prussian actress and director Thea Gabrielle von Harbou, an aristocratic Nazi Party member who was 17 years Tendulkars' senior at the time of their secret nuptials in 1933.

Born in 1905 in a tiny village in Portuguese Goa, Tendulkar was orphaned at a young age.  After completing his secondary education, Tendulkar enrolled at the Tilak Vidyapeeth in Ahemdabad, where he was drawn to Mahatma Gandhi's Satyagraha movement, at one time working as the private secretary of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the first Deputy Prime Minister of India.

In 1920, Tendulkar arrived in Britain on a scholarship but left for France soon after.  He spent four years at the Ecole Normale Suprieure in Paris where he had his first fling with marital bliss, entering into a short-lived marriage with a divorced Italian beauty. 

After graduation, Tendulkar headed for Germany's University of Gottingen where he studied applied mathematics and wooed and married the daughter of a professor.  The marriage however, didn't last beyond Tendulkar's time in Gottingen.

He later transferred to Berlin University to complete his doctorate in Mechanical Engineering and whilst there Tendulkar exploited Nazi Germany's sympathetic view of the Indian freedom struggle by publishing a series of articles about the independence movement.

His writing caught the attention of Thea von Harbou, who had long held a fascination for Indian culture.  Von Harbou had an established career as a screen writer and was married at the time to the legendary Austrian filmmaker Fritz Lang.

Tendulkar's love affair with the aristocratic von Harbou caused a scandal in conservative, Nazi Berlin, after the duo were caught in bed by Lang. 

After her divorce in April 1933, von Harbou married Tendulkar in secret as marriage between people of different races was strictly prohibited.

Six years later however, Tendulkar was forced to return to India as World War 2 gripped Europe.  He settled in Belgaum and resumed his journalism career and fell in love again, this time with Indumati Gunaji, an activist for the Indian National Congress.

Tendulkar's reputation was such that even Mahatma Gandhi opposed Indumati's proposed marriage with the much-married academic and journalist, relenting only after the duo agreed to remain separated - after marriage - for several years and to not have children until after India had gained independence from the British.

Intriguingly, Indumati travelled to Berlin in 1953 to meet with her husband's former wife. 

At the time, Thea von Harbou was a shadow of her former self.  At the end of the war she had been imprisoned in a British prison camp as a Nazi sympathiser.  After her released she was forced to work as a "rubble woman" in Berlin, clearing away the bomb damage in the city.

In the run up to von Harbou's death in 1954, the two women got along famously, sharing first-hand accounts of Hitler and Gandhi, the two iconic figures of their time, and their shared love for Ayi Tendulkar.  

Laxmi Dhaul's 'In the Shadow of Freedom' is based on Indumati's recollections as well as a wealth of documents and letters belonging to her father. 

First launched to much acclaim at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January, 'In the Shadow of Freedom' was published in the UK in June.

Here, Laxmi Tendulkar tells The UKAsian about her motivations and her own remarkable story recounting her parents' extraordinary lives.

UKAsian: The book has been very well received in India and the UK.  What compelled you to write it?
Laxmi Tendulkar: It was a book that had to be written.  My parents lives were very open to everyone including Mahatma Gandhi.  They led such open lives and the involvement of people like Mahatma Gandhi made it all the more extraordinary.  I feel very privileged that I was able to bring the story to a wider audience.  I could have written it earlier but I think the digital age, perhaps ironically, helped a great deal in putting the story together.  I made my initial contact with archivists and historians in Germany via email and the story just kind of developed from there and mostly online as well.  It was remarkable.

UKAsian: Did your father ever speak about Thea or his days in Germany when you were growing up?
LT: My clearest memory of my father was him being immersed in his business or at least struggling to keep his business afloat.  He never related the story to us.  Not even the aspects about how she had helped a lot of Indians in Germany, including Subhash Chandra Bose.  It was many years later, after my father's death in 1975 that the full story emerged, mostly from my mother.

UKAsian: Your father seems to have had this aura about him, a globe-trotter which is remarkable given his very humble background.
LT: He was a man of many talents, not least the fact that he was very good with languages.  He could learn any language very quickly.  And he had tremendous oratory skills.  He was such a persuasive talker.  A handsome man as well.  He had so many interesting stories to tell.  And he was able to engage with all manner of people, which I suppose was handy when you're working towards Indian independence. 

UKAsian: He lived an incredibly rich and rewarding life.  You've chosen to focus on this three-way love story between him and Thea von Harbou and your mother Indumati.
LT: His marriage and contact with Thea von Harbou was possibly the most important aspect of his life, particularly as she was already an Indophile.  She and her then husband Fritz Lang had both loved India and like many other Germans they had a great love for all things Eastern.  When she met my father it was almost as though that the India of her imagination and dreams became a reality.  Having said that, she was a very progressive woman.  I think she instilled in him and told him, that this PhD he was doing wasn't of great importance and that India would become free soon and would need industry.  She forced him to pause his engineering degree.  My father's interest in industry was also piqued by that.  But after he returned to India, anyone with any association with Germany was locked up and detained. 

UKAsian: Do you know if your father was ever conflicted by his involvement in Gandhi's non-violent movement and his association with a Nazi party member in Nazi Germany?
LT:  In the articles that he during his time in Germany the one thing that he kept asking was how to alleviate poverty.  He felt strongly about improving the lives of the common man particularly because he too came from a very humble background.  He always wondered whether the advent of freedom would mean if the lords and ladies of the British Raj would be replaced by their Indian counterparts, which in a sense is what happened.  He was actually sent back to India by Der Berliner to cover the Congress and what plans it had for the future of India.  I think like a lot of others who were involved in India's freedom struggle my father too was perhaps blind to what the Nazis did because they were so focused on attaining independence for India.  In his small way, he could make a difference from Berlin and with the help of Thea von Harbou.  It must have been akin to choosing the lesser of two evils.

UKAsian: What did he make of India after independence?
LT: He had always wanted to go into industry in India and believed that industry would spur India's growth along.  But he was disillusioned with the bureaucracy in India.  He wanted to set up an Alumnium smelter in Maharashtra with Alcoa but his ambition was suppressed by the local government which was wary about even partial foreign ownership.  He would also encourage people to go abroad and study and try and open their minds to what was happening beyond India's borders.  He sent a lot of people, from his nephews to his carpenter abroad to study.  The West was a Utopia for him.  But things change.  India has changed.

VA: What would he have made of India today?
LT: No different from any of us think.  Some good and some bad.  You just have to deal with it.

VA: Finally, and I put this question to you as a woman and a daughter and a mother.  Possibly the most remarkable aspect of this story is the fact that your mother reached out to Thea von Harbou.  What prompted her to do that?

LT: By the time my mother went to Germany in 1952, things had changed a great deal.  The romance was on the wane I suppose.  And my father had, for a very long time, pushed my mother into going to Germany to meet up with Thea.  By that time Thea was very frail and a shadow of her former self.  I'm sure my mother was really conflicted about that but maturity and age had given both of them different perspectives.  In fact, the two of them became comrades in arms because of this enigmatic man they were both associated with.   To the extent that when a letter would come to Germany from my father, my mother would actually give it to Thea to open and read.  Thea even begged my mother to name her first daughter after her as well.  But my mother was set upon naming me after my great grand-mother.

- 'In the Shadow of Freedom' by Laxmi Tendulkar Dhaul is now available on Amazon.



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