MN Roy: brief outline of life-events and thoughts- Part 05
Mexico years – Part One
After jumping bail and escaping from the American police, Roy along with Evelyn slipped into Mexico by crossing the border at Laredo (one of the oldest crossing points along the U.S.-Mexico border). They entered into Mexico by crossing over the bridge across the Rio Grande and reached the town of Nuevo Laredo in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, in the last week of March 1917. They had entered Mexico under their assumed names of Senorita and Senora Evelyn and Manuel Mendez. They stayed in Nuevo Laredo for a few days. And, from Nuevo Laredo, they travelled long (about 1,200 Kms) to reach Mexico City.
When Roy escaped into Mexico in the late March of 1917, he was a fugitive, scared, without money and without friends. The only credential he had was the letter of Introduction to General Salvador Alvarado, the Governor of the Eastern State of Yucatan which was far away from Mexico City. His immediate and utmost concern was to survive and be away from the clutches of British and American Secret Services. .
Ever since the Chingripota (Bengal) political robbery at the age of twenty he had been a fugitive on the run, frequently changing his hiding places, working as an utterly poor underground revolutionary. During his escapades he was mostly working alone; and did not have trusted friends. Haunted by police and spies, he drifted dangerously , crossing thousands of miles by land and sea in South-East and East Asia and the United States , under different aliases, sustained by a single passion and his extraordinary daring, intelligence and perseverance . All along he was haunted by fear, sense of insecurity and acute poverty.
During his early months in Mexico his local friends used to call him “the melancholy philosopher from India” who was impervious even to the charm and festive atmosphere of Las Chinampas or to the floating gardens on Lake Xochimilco and Lake Chalco.
All that changed in a happy way during the next few months. The brief period in Mexico brought several significant changes and developments in the life of Roy.
While Roy was entering Mexico, its civil war had just ended. Though freedom had been achieved, parts of the country were still in disturbed state. Mexico now had a new President who brought in a new constitution, which sought to give more rights to the common people and to the working class. The new Government was generally popular; but, there were also groups actively opposed to the President. There was some unrest in the air.
And by then, the Russian Revolution had just completed and the Bolsheviks had captured power in Russia. The whole of Mexico was thrilled in excitement, as ‘faint echo of that revolution blew across the Atlantic’. All of Mexico’s left wing socialists were in an exuberant mood; and breathed a fresh air charged with great expectations. Roy also was overtaken by the success of the Bolshevik revolution; he was engulfed and sucked up in the electrical atmosphere that charged the whole of Mexico.
It began to dawn on Roy that the old methods of insurgence were not leading anywhere. The socialist concept of revolution appealed to him better. And, it began to dull his keenness to secure arms help from Germans. Yet; at this stage, he still had not entirely given up in the necessity of armed insurrection, to secure India’s freedom.
Upon reaching Mexico City, they were desperate to present the letter of introduction provided by Dr. Jordan of the Stanford University, at Palo Alto, to General Salvador Alvarado, the Governor of the Sate of Yucatán. Since Mérida, the capital of Yucatán was located on the eastern edge of the Yucatán peninsula and was about 1,300 Kms away from Mexico City, they decided to first approach the government officials at Mexico City. They were successful in getting an interview with the Minister of War (Afinisterio de la Guerra) who happened to be the son-in-law of General Salvador Alvarado. He accepted the letter of introduction the Roys’ presented; and assured that they were safe in Mexico; and were among friends. He also informed them that they need not have to travel all the way to Mérida for the mere purpose of meeting his father-in-law.
During the war, Mexico, technically, was neutral. But, its sympathies were with Germany. Further, the then Mexican President had an aversion towards Britain the ’big bad bully of the world’; and shared a sort of romantic sympathy for ‘Indians’ that the Mexicans always had. And. Mexico’s relation with its big neighbour USA was also rather tense, following Mexican Government’s opposition, in 1915, to U.S. concessions in Mexico. Earlier, in April 1914, the Mexican President Venustiano Carranza had opposed the U.S. occupation of Venezuela. Many American radicals; draft-dodging drifters; ‘slackers’ (as pacifists were called); and, those with weird ideas had taken shelter in Mexico assuming various aliases. And, that Mexico was, in a way, a safe haven for all those who in some way or other had problems with the British and the American spy networks.
Even after Roy and Evelyn crossed over to Mexico, the British and the American intelligence continued to be after Roy. Soon after they arrived in Mexico City and met the Minister of Defense, the British agents informed their American counterparts. The Americans promptly demanded extradition of the Roys’. But, the Mexican Government refused to oblige; and Roy with Evelyn continued to stay in Mexico. Thus, Roy and Evelyn were helped immensely by Mexican Government’s attitude towards Britain and America, as also by the then existing political equations.
Soon after their interview with the Minister of Defense, they rented a house at Calle Córdoba 33 in Mexico City. On the next day, Roy and Evelyn received an invitation from the Editor of El Pueblo (The People), the almost the official daily of the Mexican Government. The Editor requested the Roys’ to contribute series of articles on British Rule in India. The two promptly took lessons in Spanish from Enrique Guardiola, a teacher of Spanish. And, in about two moths time they had learnt enough Spanish not only to write articles and pamphlets in Spanish but also to speak it fluently.
[Roy translated into Spanish his earlier article The way to durable peace that was an open letter addressed to Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States of America: and published in America published on April 17, 1917.It Spanish translation was published in El Pueblo with the title El Camina Para La Paz Duradera del Mundo with insertion of extra passages criticizing the Monroe Doctrine which made Mexico a virtual colony of the USA. The name of its author was given as Manuel Mendez.
This article criticized the economic domination of USA over the countries of South and Central America. It gave a call to the oppressed countries to regain their independence by putting an end to the U.S. dominance. It thus marked the beginning of Roy’s commitment to a revolution which went beyond the confines of the Indian context.
During 1918, Roy published several books, articles and pamphlets in Spanish. One of those was La Voz de la India, which besides the translation of the “the way to durable peace” also included two other pieces — a detailed critique of a book El Despertar de la India (The Awakening of India) by an anonymous author who had sought in it to justify the British rule in India; and the other was a shorter essay to answer the question “Why do the Indian soldiers fight for England?” (Por que los soldados indios luchan por Inglaterra?)
But, Roy’s more notable work published in December 1918 (by which time Roy was already involved in Mexican politics) was La India: su pasado, su presente y su porvenir (India: her Past, Present and Future). The book running into more than two hundred pages discussed the cultural and political history of India over the centuries. It spoke about : “ India’s unity in diversity and briefly explained how from a fusion of Dravidian and Aryan cultures India developed a tradition which was tolerant and non-aggressive, which respected differences while believing in the unity of the universe, which offered alternative ways of realizing within individual consciousness the ultimate identity of the microcosm and the macrocosm, and which dealt with repeated invasions and conquests by gradually integrating the invaders and conquerors.”
As regards the India in modern times; Roy gave a brief account of the Indian nationalist movement indicating why the hope of the Moderates to achieve India’s freedom through piecemeal reforms with the consent of India’s alien rulers was altogether unrealistic, and why radical nationalists like himself believed that “the only way out was a bloody revolution even though it appears almost hopeless in the present circumstances”.
The concluding chapter explained how the British had been trying to defeat the nationalist movement by playing the Muslims against the Hindus and how neither the earlier Morley-Minto reforms nor the recently published Montagu-Chelmsford Report offered anything of substance to the Indians; and it reaffirmed the conviction that “India will be free, whether the English liked it or not”. India’s freedom would “assure true liberty to the whole world, putting an end to the attitude of superiority assumed by Europe”.
The La India showed hardly any influence of Marx. There was no reference to Marx’s thesis regarding the “Asiatic mode of production”. And there was also no discussion about conflict of class interests within Indian society. ]
The day after the Roys’ called on the Editor of El Pueblo, two Germans (one of them, possibly, was Vincent Kraft) whom he knew in Batavia ( Indonesia) contacted Roy and tried to revive the earlier plan of buying arms from the Chinese rebel groups and smuggling into India across the Burmese border. They soon put him in touch with Von Eckhardt and the visiting German privy-councillor, and a fresh scheme to help the Indian revolutionaries was soon devised. It was suggested that a Chinese businessman with good connections in French Indo-China would soon leave for Japan with Roy’s letter for Rashbehari Bose, while a German officer would proceed to East Asia ahead of Roy to do the preliminary work.
But, this time Roy did not seem enthusiastic about the plan. By then, he had begun to doubt the possibility of an armed revolution in India with German help. Further, was getting more involved in the revolution that going on in Mexico itself.
But, he had to go along with the German plan. He agreed to go along the German venture. Large sum of money was provided by Germans for purchase of arms from the Chinese.
The Mexican Government too got involved by getting Roy a Mexican passport and a letter of introduction to the Mexican Consul General in Yokohoma, Japan, who would help Roy in completing the financial transaction with the Chinese rebel groups ( with the mediation of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, who then was taking shelter in Japan) .
Roy soon made preparations for his voyage back to Japan. But, because he was wanted by the American Police, he had to wait for a Japan-bound ship that would not touch any port in U.S.A. He was therefore asked to go first to the Paciﬁc port of Manzanillo and then to Salina Cruz.
According to the plan, Roy reached the deserted western port of Manzanillo, and from there on travelled to the port of Salina Cruz (about 300 miles to the South), situated near the mouth of the Río Tehuantepec, on the open coast of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec on the Gulf of Tehuantepec . Roy was the only person to land at that little port from that ship, which left southwards after a few hours’ stop. Salina Cruz was at that time a small native village, deserted, almost haunted place; not a pretty place; and, its population was largely composed of labourers
After Roy had waited at Salina Cruz for several days, news came that the expected ship was not calling at Salina Cruz, carrying a full load from Chile; she had left Panama directly from Honolulu. The next sailing was due after a mouth. Roy writes in his Memoirs: To wait that long was out of the question. The alternative was to take the south-bound boat due in a week or so, go all the way to Valparaiso and return on the same. It was an annoying and disappointing experience; but it was also a relief.
Thus the plan of smuggling arms into India fell though, as ever, because the Japanese vessel failed to show up. And, Roy after having waited at the port for several days, returned to Mexico with the money that Germans gave him.
The failure of this attempt to smuggle arms into India to fight the British, made Roy think about the absurdity and futility of the whole plan. Earlier, in his talks with the Consul General of Germany, in Mexico, he realized that the aim of Imperial Germany was to replace the British Imperialism in India. He pondered that all the Imperialist powers were alike and vied with each other for dominating backward countries.
Roy wrote in his Memoirs: “ It suddenly dawned on me that I really did not want to go again on a wild goose chase. Mexico called me back; there I had made new friends, found new interests and planned to begin a new political career … the way back to old adventures was practically closed”.
Roy thus decided to stay back in Mexico and get involved in the Socialist politics of Mexico.
Their meeting with German officers and agents in Mexico benefitted Roy and Evelyn to a very great extent. Through the influence of the Germans, they gained access to the top officials in Mexican Government and to the powerful politicians in Mexican political circles. And, they also came in possession of a large sum of money, thanks to the aborted German scheme of smuggling Chinese arms to India. These helped Roy and Evelyn to lead a secure and a very sumptuous and rich life in Mexico. A part of the money was later used to support and develop the Socialist Party of Mexico; for supporting Bolsheviks and the Russian trade mission in Washington to promote Communist movement in USA; for financing Rash Behari Ghosh who was marooned in Japan; and, for helping many needy persons.
The money had also paved way of Roy’s cultural reformation and political rehabilitation.
The Roys’ moved into a more spacious house at Merida 186, Colonia Roma (which now had been remodeled and converted into a trendy nightclub bearing the name M.N ROY – guarded by a former transsexual model, actress and singer , with lovely long lingering eyes).
The mansion like house, from its balcony provided magnificent view of the distant twin peaks of the dormant volcanic mountains Popocatepetl and Iztaccíhuatl. The view of Iztaccíhuatl peak partly covered with snow and resembling a reclaiming woman, in particular, fascinated Roy. And years later, in his Memoirs, he fondly recalled the memory of the ‘Sleeping Woman’ that haunted him.”
The house was tastefully furnished with green satin covered Louis XIV furniture. Their housekeeper Maria ‘a healthy and handsome pure-blooded Mexican woman’ assisted by a muchacho (boy) who performed odd jobs around the house managed the household. By then, Roy had also acquired a beard and “a splendid brown Alsatian … who slept on the floor by my bed just across the open door.” Charles Phillips, an American socialist with a string of aliases, remembered Roy during his Mexican years as “tall, slim, elegant and somber, deadly serious…, very brilliant, a fascinating personality”. Another of Roy’s acquaintance in Mexico City during this period, was Carlton Beals, who described Roy as: tall, with long, slim expressive hands and black-white eyes that flashed out of his dark face; and as person with boundless energy who mastered enough Spanish in a few months to write pamphlets and speak from platform”.
Maria was an excellent cook and entertained their guests with tasty Mexican dishes. The guests at his parties included intellectuals; journalists; writers; artists; actors; musicians; German and Mexican officials and diplomats some of whom were close to president Carranza; American radicals escaping from draft; and, a number of socialist and leftwing thinkers and workers. Roy and Evelyn were very good hosts. They did greatly enjoy hosting such parties at their home; and were captivated by the warmth and friendliness of the Mexicans who were remarkably free from racial prejudice.
Mexico, its social environment and Evelyn brought about remarkable changes in the personal life, the habits, the interests and the general outlook of Roy.
In Mexico for the first time he had a home of his own where a woman who adored him and shared his ideals, brought him new insights and experience of happiness. Roy who all along had been bogged down by poverty led in Mexico a sumptuous and rich life. Roy who earlier was a lone fugitive, enjoyed in Mexico the support and friendship of common peoples as also of those in high places including the President of the Republic and the Rector of the University. All these were strange and unbelievably real experiences for him.
The period of about two and a half years (March 1917 – November 1919) that Roy and Evelyn lived in Mexico were perhaps the most wonderfully delightful and magical years in their life. It was in Mexico Roy acquired a love for life and a new set of friends and acquaintances who exerted a lasting influence on his life and his ways of thinking. It was his life and experiences as also the environment in Mexico that totally transformed Roy into the person that the world later came to know.
The Mexican experience was for Roy a sort of liberation from pre-conceived notions of culture, nationalism etc. When he had left India he was a political ascetic with strong puritanical taboos and an intense distrust of western civilization. But, while in Mexico, outgrowing his ‘cultural nationalism’, he entered into a whole new world of painting, art, music; discovered European civilization and culture; learnt European languages of Spanish, German and French. As his interests grew, he acquired and developed a fairly intimate knowledge of literature, art and western music. He learnt to socialize with groups of friends, among whom were socialists, intellectuals as also men-of-the world; and listen, in their company, to the great Cellist Pablo Casals’s music and the majestic voice of Enrico Caruso the renowned Italian operatic tenor, who then was touring Mexico. The singer wife of Pablo Casals taught him music appreciation. Maestro Cassas, the Rector of the University, introduced him to the world of European literature. And, the artist wife of a German merchant (who is said to have done a portrait of Roy) gave him lessons on art and art-appreciation. Evelyn and his friends introduced him to the subtleties of the game of Chess. Another German, Dr. Gramatsky, a philologist, and his wife who came to in their house in CoIonia Roma taught them French and German. With encouragement of his friends, Roy discovered the rich intellectual and literary heritage of modern Europe reflected in the works of Cervantes, Kant, Voltaire and such others. Later, Roy wrote: with each passing day, it became painfully clear how uneducated and how ignorant I had been.
Along with appreciation of music, fine arts and literature, Roy learnt to appreciate and enjoy the good things of life, from rare European wines to Chinese menu. He also learnt to enjoy the beauty of the landscape and the delights of refined recreational activities, stimulating conversations and intellectual pursuits. The external world, the influence of friends and the sensory stimulant – food he had not tasted before; the works of art, music which he had not heard of ; and, body of literature that was unknown to him- – enlarged Roy’s interaction with the people around him. All these were totally new and enthralling experiences to Roy who most of his life, till then, was a lone puritan fugitive in a hurry chasing an eluding dream.
[Even after he returned to India , joined Congress and began wearing Khaddar , Roy continued to love good food and drinks; enjoying evenings with friends and admirers drinking and narrating anecdotes of the famous persons he met while he was in Europe . His narrations were laced with humor, understanding and without bitterness.]
The newly developed Epicureanism did not corrupt Roy either mentally or physically. Because, as he saw it, neither did socialism nor radicalism preclude enjoyment of life’s gifts and its many refinements.
It was Mexico and Evelyn that intellectually liberated Roy; broadened his attitude and outlook towards life; and, transformed him into a truly cosmopolitan person with a new cultural sensitivity. He developed a more open approach and a new outlook to life. Much credit must be given to Evelyn in transforming Roy’s sensibility while in Mexico.
That formative period in Mexico was a very important phase in his life. It molded him as a person and as an intellectual with a perceptive understanding of life.
I am rather surprised that many of his biographies skip or gloss over the magical years that Roy and Evelyn lived and enjoyed in Mexico. This was the period that made the personality of MN Roy. As far as I know, only Sibnarayan Ray in Volume I of his “In Freedom’s Quest: a Study of the Life and Works of M.N. Roy (1887-1954)” has devoted a chapter to Roy’s life in Mexico. This part of my article is mainly based on that Chapter.
When Roy left India during 1915 in search of arms to fight the British in India, his views about revolution and international relations were still naïve. It was mainly his life, his experiences and his learning in Mexico that dispelled many of his old ideas and transformed him into an articulate theoretician.
The Mexican years brought about huge changes in Roy’s political philosophy and the methods which he regarded as effective in ushering a new social order , just and equitable, paving way for Man’s freedom.
After his experiences in USA and Mexico, Roy was a thoroughly changed person. His ideas about revolution were drastically revised. He also had lost the urge to return to India forthwith. Now, he believed that revolutions are brought about by social forces. His perspective of the process of revolution in India was in terms of social reformation.
Thus, Roy’s stay in Mexico was of great significance in his intellectual and political development. He wrote:
“My ideas of revolution and political activity changed during my stay in the United States of America. But the sojourn there was too short for me to put the new ideas into practice. In Mexico, I got the opportunity. For the first time I came in contact with a mass revolutionary movement.”
“Mexico was the land of my rebirth. It is true that before coming there I had begun to feel dissatisfied with ideas and ideals of my earlier life. But it was during my stay in Mexico that the new vision became clear and the dissatisfaction with a sterile past was replaced by a conviction to guide me in a more promising future. “
He later said: I left the land of my re-birth an intellectually freeman, though with a new faith.
It is no wonder then that M N Roy called Mexico as the land of his re-birth; and cherished a longing and a love for that country till his last days.
Sources and References
- M.N. Roy: A Political Biography by Samaren Roy; Oriental Longman ; 1997
- M N Roy by V.B. Karnik; National Book Trust; 1980
- Communism and Nationalism in India: M.N. Roy and Comintern Policy, 1920-1939 by John Patrick Haithcox; Princeton University Press; 2015
- Encyclopaedia of Eminent Thinkers, Volume 10by K. S. Bharathi; Concept Publishing Co; 1998
- Many pages from Wikipedia
- Pictures are from Internet