4 September 2007
You asked about Sarala Behn – I certainly have plenty in my memory for I translated her autobiography from the original Hindi into English a few years ago!
She was born Catherine Mary Heillemann on 5 April 1901 in Shepherds Bush in west London. Her father was Swiss German by background, had settled in London and married a local girl.
When the First World War broke out her father was wrongfully interned as an enemy, for his papers were not in order, even though he had never set foot in Germany. She was ostracized at school, denied scholarships, and left school early with a very big chip on her shoulder. She did not get on with her father, left home early and lived in rented accommodation, working as a clerk. In the twenties contacts with Indian students gave her discontent a positive turn when she learned of Gandhi and his leadership in the independence movement. She left Liverpool on a steamer in the first week of January 1932, never to return again. For a few years she worked in a progressive school in Udaipur, but was not satisfied for she had come to India to serve the poorest of the poor. For several years she was in Gandhi’s ashrams in Wardha and then Sevagram, but the climate there did not suit her, and she was continually afflicted by malaria and stomach problems. Eventually Gandhi told her that she would have to leave for the sake of her health, and a chance conversation in her presence led her to learn of Chanauda in the Kosi Valley. She arrived there in August 1941, and within a few months had been given the cottage, Lakshmi Ashram, in Kausani to live in. Following the outbreak of the Quit India movement in 1942 she was sent to prison twice for disobeying house arrest orders, the first time for 3-4 months in Almora jail, the second getting on for two years, mostly served in Lucknow.
In 1946 she began her experiment in Basic Education for girls in Kausani, and managed the Ashram for twenty years until 1966, when Radha Behn succeeded her. She worked with Vinoba Bhave in Bihar in the Bhoodan movement in the late sixties, and with Jayprakash Narayan in the Chambal Valley with the families of dacoits that had surrendered in the early seventies. In 1975 she moved to the cottage that had been built for her in Dharamghar, where in her last years she wrote a lot on the environment, both in Hindi –“Sanrakshan Ya Vinash”, and in English –“Revive Our Dying Planet”. She passed away on 8 July 1982 and was cremated according to Hindu rites on the hillside within Lakshmi Ashram. She was very much the Mother figure of the Sarvodaya movement in the hills of Uttarakhand.
I wonder if you know the magazine ‘Resurgence’, edited by Satish Kumar. I received the latest issue today and have copied out two meditations for you which are attached. You may like to share them with others. Their website is www.resurgence.org. It is a very inspiring journal, very positive in its outlook.