Picture a group of people sitting around a ‘Rock of Vision’, atop a peak in Kodaikanal (a spot that we call Suicide Point today, ironically.) An unlikely hero, Ralph Richard or RR Keithahn (1898 – 1984) is one of those figures whose stories are often lost in the telling of the tale. However, the narrative around his small but considerable sphere of influence has made its way back to us.
For, the eminent historian Ramachanda Guha, author of multiple volumes on Gandhi and Indian history, chose Keithahn as one of seven figures to focus on in his recent work, Rebels Against the Raj: Western Fighters for India’s Freedom (Penguin Random House India, 2022). The book explores the world of non-Indians who joined the Indian freedom movement from the late 19th century to the late 20th century.
Originally from Fairmont, Minnesota, Keithahn, a missionary and social worker worked in India from 1925, influenced by Gandhi. Threatened with deportation in 1930 for wearing khadi, he ended his connection with the American Madura Mission in the 1940s and began to work in the villages, creating the blueprint for a university of rural education as the third founder of Gandhigram. He also served as an activist, helping to remove the taboo around the use of night soil as manure, for example, and exhorting Indians to fight for self-determination. He built a quiet, lasting legacy there, and found a small circle of like-minded people.
Guha spoke to The Kodai Chronicle’s editor-in-chief Rajni George about his accidental discovery of Keithahn’s papers, Gandhian legacies, and small steps towards incremental change.
Edited excerpts follow.
Rajni George (TKC): While he had a lot in common with the others in your book, Keithahn was not as well-known. Could you comment on how he came to be included among the seven?
Ramachandra Guha: How I discovered Keithahn’s papers was quite extraordinary. The other six I had enough material on to tell a compelling narrative, spread over two or three chapters. I wasn’t sure about Keithahn. He was the last person whom I decided to include.
I went to Madurai in 2018, and at the Gandhi Memorial Museum I met an old Sarvodaya worker called KM Natarajan; he died of Covid last year. He sent me to Dindigul, where I met Dr Pankajam, who is a former vice chancellor of the Gandhigram Rural University. She also told me about Keithahn. So I had two long interviews and some things that Keithahn had written in—journal articles that I had collected, a brief autobiography. But I had no papers.
Then I went to where Keithahn died, which is the Christian fellowship ashram in Oddanchatram. I’d been sent there by two people. One knew Keithahn very well, Dr Bhoomi Kumar Jegannathan, the son of Sankaralingam and Krishnamal Jagannathan, remarkable social workers groomed by Keithahn. The other person was also a doctor, Dr Vinu Aram, who does rural health work outside Coimbatore; her father, Dr M Aram, was a well-known Gandhian and vice chancellor of Gandhigram University.
In Oddanchatram, I met a few doctors who knew about Keithahn; they took me to the room where Keithahn lived his last years. I opened the cupboard in the room, and all his papers fell out.
TKC: Oh wow!
RG: So, here were many of his letters—he had kept copies. He used to send a circular letter to friends and supporters, he used to write essays including the lectures he’d given sitting on the rock in Kodai, and so on—and all these papers were here. I called Vinu Aram, who was the chairperson of Keithahn Trust. She said I could take the papers, saying, ‘We trust you to do what you want.’ That was the core of the material for my Keithahn story. Later, Shri K. M. Natarajan got me some other papers from a former secretary of Keithahn called Sam Stawrence, kept in a village somewhere in the foothills of Kodai.
I actually have with me—let me show you something I picked up in Oddanchatram. [Takes out a clipboard and holds it up, laughing.] This is Keithahn’s pad, and now I’m using it as mine.
You can see how old it is, how sturdy it is. It’s dated from the ’60s probably—he died in the ’80s. I write notes on this at home now. I’ve always used a pad like this; I used to use a non-descript pad. But now I have Keithahn’s, found in the room in which he died. So, in a sense, I then finally had to include him.
Had it not been for this serendipitous discovery of Keithahn’s papers, I would not have been able to write enough about him to merit inclusion.
TKC: Yes, he literally fell out of a cupboard into your hands!
RG: Let me give you a little background. Keithahn was in Bangalore in the ’40s. He inspired many young activists there. One was the radical Christian theologian MM Thomas, well-known in Kerala. Another was a doctor called AK Tharien, who then started a hospital in Oddanchatram. Keithahn was the mentor of the hospital; when he was ill, they looked after him in his last years. Because of their reverence for Keithahn, his stuff remains in that room.
TKC: His sphere of influence was quieter, while you found all these stories that show us how important he was within the larger narrative. It was wonderful that he renamed a place we called Suicide Point in Kodai the ‘Rock of Vision’. What were those ‘sermons’ like?
RG: I quoted a few of them. He was more reflective in his old age about what needs to be done.
TKC: Were there things that you found out about people like this from places like Kodai?
RG: There were lots of small discoveries. In Keithahn’s case it would be his environmental writings. That was his really major role in developing Gandhigram—its curriculum. Normally the credit is given to TS Soundaram Ramachandran and her husband. Keithahn was actually the third founder. He gave a particular vision to the place.
Then, there was the tragedy of his wife [Dr Mildred Mckie] leaving him; her obituary doesn’t mention him at all. A story I quote in the book is from Natarajan. He says Keithahn kept a sari of hers that he would fold regularly after she left.
TKC: Was there something that set them on this path?
These rebels were rooted not in India, but emphatically in particular parts of India. So in the case of Keithahn, it is southern Tamil Nadu. In the case of Horniman, he identifies with Bombay very strongly. Spratt was still remembered until ten or 15 years ago by older people in Bangalore who had heard him speak. Stokes in Himachal [Pradesh], Saralabehn in Uttarakhand. It’s remarkable how they domesticated themselves, not just as Indians but in the region in which they lived.
TKC: It’s interesting that three of these figures were from the mountains and had their sphere of influence in the mountains.
RG: Mirabehn was there for about a decade, Stokes and Saralabehn for long periods of time. They were rooted in the mountains for most of their lives, and their influence continues. Stokes and Saralabehn have had an enduring impact on Himachal and Uttarakhand respectively. In Stokes’s case, on the apple industry; in Saralabehn’s case, on women’s emancipation, women’s education and environmentalism.
TKC: When Gandhi passed away, there was this moment of reckoning where they could either choose to keep struggling here or go back. Keithahn spoke of the responsibilities of the church, saying ‘all exploitation must go’. This was a bold statement from someone with a missionary background.
RG: Keithahn and Stokes left the church—Keithahn regarded himself as a Christian, Stokes converted to Hinduism. They were not part of the official church organisation; they de-Sahibised themselves. Perhaps this was why they could see things in this way.
TKC: Did any of these figures spark ideas for a larger project?
RG: Not for me, but I think several of them deserve a biography. Mirabehn certainly does. The story of The Bombay Chronicle newspaper founded by Horniman and what it meant to Bombay. There’s no good history of Gandhism after Gandhi, which includes not only these foreigners but also people like J C Kumarappa and Vinoba Bhave.
TKC: Do you think these freedom fighters were more pragmatic than some of the others?
RG: In Gandhi, there was always one wing that was doing social work. And I think that Mirabehn, Saralabehn, and Keithahn fit into that wing very clearly. Going to jail is incidental. It was more rural reconstruction and so on – that came from Gandhi, he wanted to root himself in rural India. That kind of constructive work tradition sort of died out.
The political side stayed with Nehru and Patel in government, promoting secularism and those kinds of ideas. This kind of renewing of the village economy never got the emphasis it deserved. It comes from Gandhi.
TKC: What would it have been like if we didn’t have these people from other countries?
RG: That was part of what we were like then—we were much more open. Now we are so paranoid and xenophobic, it’s impossible to have this kind of mutually productive exchange. That’s why I started my book with epigraphs from Gandhi and Tagore—about why foreigners are welcome.
TKC: You title the chapter on Keithahn ‘Keithahn Soldiers On’.
RG: Yes, he’s now in his 70s, and he’s carrying on. One of the most moving parts of his later years is when his protege Jagannathan is arrested during the Emergency and he goes to see him. They say, ‘You’re a white man, you can’t go in,’ and Jagannathan says, ‘He’s my anna, you have to let him in.’ It’s quite moving. There’s the poem he writes during the Emergency, which I quote in my book.
Even when his son comes and asks him to return to America, he says, ‘I’m not going back. I’m going to die here. This is my place.’
TKC: Keithahn and Mildred are pictured wearing Indian clothes. I wondered if you had any comment on how deeply the culture, in terms of access to their clothing, was ingrained.
RG: The khadi that they wore would have been most appropriate in Tamil Nadu at the time. All my characters came in their 20s or 30s, so none of them became fluent in an Indian language. Keithahn could manage in Tamil, but he wasn’t giving speeches in Tamil or writing in Tamil. He knew enough to converse and to get by. This was probably true of the others.
Horniman may have only been operating in English in Bombay. Saralabehn wrote in Hindi; she was good enough to write books in Hindi. I would call it a weakness: the one way in which they didn’t completely become Indian was that English was always their principal language.
TKC: Do you have any sense of how this restricted their audience? How many were at Keithahn’s retreat, for example?
RG: It would have been a small group, some 20 or 30 activists. It was like an intensive summer school.
Annie Besant had a huge audience during the Home Rule movement. There’s this photo of her in the book when she’s released—people are hanging from the rafters welcoming her. She was like a mass leader for the middle classes. The others would have had more limited audiences, but they would have impacted a few people a great deal.
TKC: What is the value we can place on these more limited audiences in today’s context?
RG: I believe social change is always incremental. If you improve the lives of a few villagers in a few schools, that’s good enough. I’ve never been a revolutionary who wants whole-scale transformation. Gandhi liked to say, ‘One step is enough.’ That is what these people in the book practised.