In the early 1920s, there were about two hundred Indians in Berlin, most of them students at the University of Berlin (now Humboldt University of Berlin) and the Technische Hochschule (now Technical University Berlin), and some of them veterans of the exiled Indian revolutionary movement abroad such as Virendranath Chattopadhyaya (known as ‘Chatto’), Chempakaraman Pillai, Mahendra Pratap, and M.P.T. Acharya. They were soon complemented by newcomers such as A.C.N. Nambiar and his wife Suhasini Chattopadhyaya (Chatto’s youngest sister), Jaya Surya Naidu (Sarojini Naidu’s son and nephew of Chatto), N.G. Ganpuley, and Saumyendranath Tagore. Many of the Indians in Berlin gathered at Chatto’s Indian Club in the Halensee area of Charlottenburg as well as in social-political organisations such as the Hindusthan Association of Central Europe.
‘A change from the monotonous boiled food of the Westerners’
However, finding a vegetarian Indian meal was not easy. To remedy this, in August 1929, Muni Jinvijayji, who had recently arrived in Berlin from Hamburg, opened the restaurant Hindustan House at Uhlandstrasse 179. According to a report in the Bombay Chronicle, he had ‘found that there has been a very urgent need for a place where all Indians in Berlin and those coming to Germany could meet each other and discuss matters concerning their own welfare as well as the welfare of the country’. The restaurant, located at the corner of Kurfürstendamm and Uhlandstrasse in ‘a very respectable quarter in Berlin’, was opened ‘in the presence of a very large number of Indians and Germans of high standing and status in the country’.
The Hindustan House was intended both as a place to get cheap Indian food and a social venue. As the Bombay Chronicle noted:
‘[T]he House provides vegetarian food prepared in Indian style and best provision for the purpose are imported directly from India. The charges are comparatively cheaper than at any other vegetarian restaurant in Berlin and the House also serves the purpose of an Indian Social Club where Indians of different classes and vocations, travellers and other visitors from all parts of our motherland daily meet together to exchange their views.’
Whereas the Hindusthan Association of Central Europe was more political in its outlook, the Hindustan House provided a neutral meeting space as well as cheap and sustaining meals for Indians in Berlin. Indeed, as another report from the Bombay Chronicle noted, ‘[t]hough it was started with the philanthropic object of pursuing a course of cultural unity of the East and the West by arranging classes for studies, the Hindustan House has had in its early life to divert its attention from the main object for which it was formed and today is has become purely a business proposition of running a restaurant on Indian style’. The restaurant clearly attracted local and visiting Indians: ‘[o]ur compatriots do it the honour of their visit when they feel that their palate must undergo a change from the monotonous boiled food of the Westerners’.
In his memoirs, the veteran Indian revolutionary Mahendra Pratap recalled how ‘[a] good meal in a vegetarian restaurant should not exceed two shillings. The Indian restaurants at Uhlandstrasse 179 and Schlüterstrasse 64 give still cheaper meals on weekdays. On Sundays and festivals, they have special food and special rates’. Similarly, in his memoirs, Ganpuley recalled: ‘I had quite a large circle of friends who met at the meetings of the Hindustan Association or at the Indian Restaurant in Uhlandstrasse’.
Saumyendranath Tagore, the grand-nephew of Rabindranath Tagore, also frequented the Hindustan House, where he held court and lectured on Marxism, while young German women admired his handsome looks. However, the German General Consul at Calcutta was so concerned with Tagore’s activities at Hindustan House, where they believed he had formed a new communist organisation called the Hindustan-Club, that they placed the Hindustan House under surveillance and asked for regular updates on activities there. Upon inspection, however, the Berlin Police noted that Tagore had not formed a new organisation there and that, among the regular twenty-five guests, who came to eat, read, and debate, only a few of them had communist tendencies.
Boarding and brawling at Hindustan House
From around 1930, Hindustan House also served as a boarding house for Indians in Berlin, many of them students. The new proprietor, Nalini Gupta, a former close associate of both Chatto and M.N. Roy and co-founder of the Communist Party of India, charged ‘about 5 marks per day in Pension, which is quite a respectable place in the city’, according to a Bombay Chronicle report.
By February 1933, as Adolf Hitler and the Nazis seized total power, the political climate in Berlin changed dramatically. Only a few months later, according to Monindra Kumar Sen, a student who lived at the boarding house, Hindustan House became the scene of a racist attack on a group of Indians. In addition to Sen, there were six other Indian boarders at the time: Monmatha Nath Chakraborty, B. D. Sen, Lahiri, Shivani, Motwani, and Mozumdar, a cook at the restaurant.
One evening in April 1933, some of them witnessed a brawl involving a German woman, her dog, and an unknown man outside on Kurfürstendamm, when they were assaulted by a mob of about four hundred people, according to Sen, who ‘used abusive language against the Indians, threatened Hindustan House, and said “now is the opportunity to settle our old account with you”’.The only policeman on duty was helpless, and soon after the crowd broke into the boarding house, ‘mercilessly beat four Indians and abused the rest’, until the policeman arrested Shivani and Mozumdar to ‘placate the crowd’. When Sen called the police, they used ‘nasty and vulgar language and put down the phone’.
Sen’s account, however, was contradicted by Devendra Nath Bannerjea, chairman of the Deutsch-Indische Gesellschaft (German-Indian Society), whom Sen had called for help late in the evening. Bannerjea had ingratiated himself with the German authorities and often provided information about the activities of the Indians in Berlin to them. According to him, it was merely a brawl between three Indians and four Germans over a woman, and it had ‘no political complexion, nor did racial or colour prejudice play any part in it’. Bannerjea explained that no one had broken into the boarding house and that the local police had been kind and helpful to Sen but could not intervene.
Having reported the incident to the British consul, according to Bannerjea, Sen also wanted to ‘organise and lead a procession of Indians carrying black flags to protest outside the German Foreign Office’, but Bannerjea prevailed upon Nalini Gupta that such a step would be suppressed by the German authorities, causing Sen to abandon the idea but instead arrange a protest meeting at Hindustan House.
According to Bannerjea, Sen was working up ‘young Indian students into a state of frenzy against the present Government … and is dead against the idea of Indo-German cooperation on the ground that Germans are barbarians and have no idea of liberty and justice’. Noting that Sen would not likely cease his activities, Bannerjea recommended to the German authorities that Sen be expelled from the country. As historian Daniel Brückenhaus notes, by the end of the year, both Sen and Nalini Gupta were expelled from Germany, though Sen’s expulsion was later revoked by the German Foreign Office.
Whether Sen’s or Bannerjea’s account was true is uncertain. However, the incident reveals a great deal about the centrality of the Hindustan House as both an important social space to get a cheap Indian meal, a place of accommodation for Indian students in need, but also a space of controversy and contestation. By 1938, the Hindustan House had moved to nearby Lietzenburger Strasse 48 and appears to have closed by the outbreak of the Second World War.
Research for this article was conducted in preparation for the exhibition on anti-colonial networks in Weimar era Berlin to be held at the Museum Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf in Berlin in September 2023.
Ole Birk Laursen is an Affiliated Research Fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies at Leiden University, Netherlands.