How a runaway from Punjab with little ‘knowledge of English’ became a coveted writer for US papers

On November 14, 1906, a detailed, painstakingly reasoned and combative article appeared in the Vancouver newspaper The Province. The headline was “Nothing to Fear from Hindu Invasion”. And the byline read Saint Nihal Singh, a budding journalist and writer who would go on to have a prolific and peripatetic career.

In the article, Singh took issue with the growing fear that Indian immigrants were overwhelming Canada – the so-called “Hindu Peril”. Like the Chinese and Japanese, the Hindus were seen by Canadians at the time as “undesirables” with “foreign ways of dress” who spoke an alien language and were “impudently seeking to butt into the white man’s country”.

Singh made his argument methodically. The Hindu emigrants, to start with, were mostly Sikhs from Punjab. Their numbers were so small – about 1,400 in British Columbia and another 800 reportedly on their way – that they could pose no threat in a country of around 6 million people. All the immigrants, Singh wrote, were hard-working: some had been soldiers once, and some farmers who had fallen on hard times. Finally, as citizens of the British empire, they had every legal right to move within the Commonwealth, and Canada could not discriminate against them.

Singh’s impassioned article did not sway the Canadian government. In 1908, it passed the Continuous Regulation Act, making immigration from India practically impossible. Nevertheless, his writings and speeches left many impressed. By early 1907, he was in New York, after some months lecturing in Canadian cities like Montreal, Vancouver, and Ottawa, and writing for newspapers in support of immigrants.

How a runaway from Punjab with little ‘knowledge of English’ became a coveted writer for US papers
A clipping from St Louis Post Dispatch, June 6, 1909.

Around this time, he wrote his first book, a collection of short essays from his travels through Southeast Asia, China, Japan, Canada and the US. It was titled Messages of Uplift for India. Benjamin ‘BO’ Flower, a well-known journalist and editor of the magazine Arena, wrote the introduction, which mentioned another of Singh’s early supporters, the editor of the Review of Reviews WT Stead.

In his three-decade career, Singh would go on to write nearly 20 books on a range of subjects. His newspaper articles numbered in the hundreds. Besides the likes of Flower and Stead, both regarded as muck-racking journalists for their investigative stories, there were other reform-oriented, free-thinking radicals who encouraged Singh, such as the judge Ben Lindsey who campaigned for prison reform.

Singh’s status as an outsider – a brown Asian man – gave him a unique perspective on a range of matters as a journalist and foreign correspondent. What made his achievements all the more extraordinary was his singularity: he chose to be a writer and journalist at a time when there was virtually no other South Asian in a comparable role. All his writer peers, like Har Dayal and Dhan Gopal Mukherjee, were primarily activists and lecturers.

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Spokesperson For Immigrants

Singh intriguingly wrote little about himself. Some of his life can be pieced together from odd biographical notes, his travel records on ancestry.com, his articles that tangentially reveal his journeys, and from what fellow journalists like Flower, Stead wrote about him.

Sant Nihal Singh – his first name came to be spelled variously as Saint or St – was born in Rawalpindi, a village in Punjab’s Kapurthala district, on July 15, 1884. His father was most likely an official in the maharaja of Kapurthala’s service. He began writing from “the time he could hold a pencil”. While still a student at the University of Punjab, he ran away from home, and “travelled about the world independent of help of any kind, with no other capital but his talent which has been recognized in every country that he has visited”.

In an early book, Glimpses of the Orient Today, Singh’s early vulnerabilities are evident. After travelling across the Malay States, China and Japan, he reached Vancouver. “To Canada I came, in the words of a detractor, without credentials,” he wrote. “I landed on the British Columbian coast with an undeniably eastern complexion and countenance…(and) a bare working knowledge of English my only asset.” It was an asset he used well as he became an informal spokesperson for “Hindu immigrants”, writing and speaking in their support.

Newspapers in mid-1907 noted Singh’s presence in Chicago, where he had moved from New York, in the unlikely company of Jacob Beilhart. Beilhart was an advocate of the “spirit of love” movement, which disavowed all marriage laws and advocated life in a commune with shared responsibilities and no ownership of any kind. Newspapers at the time stereotypically believed that Singh was an “eastern prince”, whose wealth would considerably assist Beilhart’s ventures.

While in Chicago, Singh married Cathleyne Brookes, an American writer and journalist who was a decade older than him. Together, they travelled widely and even collaborated on at least a couple of books.

How a runaway from Punjab with little ‘knowledge of English’ became a coveted writer for US papers
A clipping from Evening Star, December 14, 1926.

Meanwhile, Singh became a sought-after writer, as various American newspapers hoped to explain India to their readers. For many American readers, Singh’s first-hand accounts made India more than just an exotic, mysterious eastern land. In an article for The New York Times – headlined “Why is there revolt in India?” – in December 1908, Singh described the aspirations of a changing India. “Self-government,” he wrote, was greatly preferred to “good government”.

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By 1910, Singh had authored six books and was writing a million words a year (that is 2,800 words a day). In “How a Hindu sees America”, he wrote with some annoyance about the typical American’s rudeness and overweening curiosity about foreigners like him. But while the American coarseness irritated him, its tradition of hard-work and self-sufficiency heartened him.

From his pen emerged the occasional piece on food as well. In one article, he mentioned the Indian technique that allows a dish to “cook in its own juice”, and in another, he shared the secret to reducing a cucumber’s bitterness.

Prolific Period

He and Cathleyne moved to London in the 1910s. Here, Singh met several Indian political figures – Dadabhai Naoroji, Bipin Chandra Pal, Shapurji Saklatvala – as well as rajahs of princely states, such as Baroda and Gondal. Singh was impressed by the reforms instituted in some princely states in areas of administration, health, and, chiefly, women’s education. He met Bhopal’s Begum Sultan Jahan when she visited London in 1911 to attend the coronation of George V.

A member of the League to Abolish War, Singh attended the Universal Races Congress in London in 1911, which was the first attempt to understand racism and improve race relations among the world’s peoples.

While living in the nerve-centre of the British Raj, Singh mentored his younger brother, Gurmukh Nihal Singh, who was studying law, according to the book Sikh Achievers. Gurmukh Nihal Singh, an academic, went on to become Delhi’s chief minister in the 1950s, and later, the governor of Rajasthan. His son, S Nihal Singh, was one of India’s best-known journalists and a long-time editor of The Statesman.

How a runaway from Punjab with little ‘knowledge of English’ became a coveted writer for US papers
A clipping from St Louis Post Dispatch, June 6, 1909.

Singh’s books from the 1910s included The King’s Indian Allies, which detailed the political importance of the rajahs and the reforms they implemented; India’s Fighters; and Progressive British India. During this period, he also turned longer magazine pieces into shorter books: Japan’s Modernization; Making Bad Children Good (on juvenile reforms in India), and When the Rani Lifts Her Veil.

Singh was The Observer’s correspondent during the Prince of Wales’ (later Edward VIII) six-month tour of India in 1921-’22. On the journey, he seized the opportunity to send periodical dispatches to other newspapers as well, including an interview with the Begum of Bhopal.

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This prolificacy continued through the 1920s. During the decade, he produced books on prohibition in the US, development of Bombay, the Bengal-Nagpur Railway, the Nizam of Hyderabad, and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). In the mid-1920s, he also became a world correspondent for The Baltimore Sun. In an introductory note, the paper described him in glowing terms: “His observations from his own distant corner of the world are always of the moment and interesting.”

For the 14 years that he wrote for the newspaper, Singh’s articles were always pegged to the paper’s front pages. The reports he filed ranged from political dispatches and reportage to features. From Ceylon, he wrote about labour exploitation on the spice plantations, and the pearl divers who worked along the island’s coast. His last piece, in June 1940, was about India’s demands for independence as World War II broke out.

By this time, he was living in Lancashire, England. He died in 1949, aged around 65. There is little known about Cathleyne, though it is likely she died before him.

How a runaway from Punjab with little ‘knowledge of English’ became a coveted writer for US papers
A clipping from The Windsor Star, January 11, 1927.

Nihal Singh embodied the quintessential characteristics of a journalist: he reported facts, carefully and objectively. Among the subjects he felt keenly about was women’s emancipation. In a memorable double-page spread for The Baltimore Sun in March 1931, headlined “India’s Women in the Political World”, he wrote about four women making an impact in India’s politics: Gandhi’s associates Sarojini Naidu and Hansa Mehta; and Jahanara Shahnawaz and Radhabai Subbarayan, the only two women who attended the first Round Table Conference in 1930 and who argued, unsuccessfully, for a 5% reservation for women in the proposed legislatures.

Whether “cooperating with the British to find a solution to the knotty Indian problem, or bent on securing India’s liberation from the British yoke,” Singh wrote, “the Indian women are certainly not lagging behind the men in their effort on behalf of the motherland. Nothing of India of our day is so startling as the manner in which the women have rushed, at a single bound, into the forefront of nationalist activity.”

This is the first part in a new triweekly series on early Indians who blazed a trail in other parts of the world, particularly the United States. The next part will be on guru and filmmaker Akhoy Kumar Mozumdar.

How a runaway from Punjab with little ‘knowledge of English’ became a coveted writer for US papers