The Nobel Prize-winning Swedish writer was deeply moved by a 1920s Bombay street scene


Compassion for poor children is something Swedish proletarian writer Harry Martinson developed early on. Born in 1904 in a Sweden that was anything but the welfare state and “humanitarian superpower” it is today, Martinson witnessed childhood deprivation and suffering from an early age. By the time he was six, his father had died and his mother had abandoned him and his six sisters and moved to the United States. For the next 10 years, Martinson would live in rural southern Sweden with a foster family. Describing his childhood in his semi-autobiographical novel Nässlorna blomma (Flowering Nettle), Martinson wrote, “I was cold in my childhood home.” He attempted to run away from foster homes and schools several times before finally succeeding at the age of 16 to work on ships as a deckhand, stoker, coal cutter and laborer.

In January 1924, Martinson was hired to work on the SS Fernmoor, a 5,810 ton steamship that sailed the Atlantic Ocean to Cape Town and Port Sudan. He worked as a stoker, shoveling coal into the boiler combustion chamber to power the ship’s engine. Bombay was also a stopover for the Fernmoor.

His book Kap farval (Cape Farewell, 1933) has an entire chapter devoted to India.

A copy of Martinson’s ‘Kap farväl’ (Cape Farewell).

First impressions

“Here I am, in huge Bombay; (I am) a little piece of Europe, a mosquito among temples and cows,” Martinson wrote. “Sometimes my whole being quivers before the inconceivability of the crowd, before the unimaginable of the multitude of spectacles.”

He was overwhelmed by the onslaught of his senses, the roaring crowds and the scorching sun as he emerged from Alexandra Dock (now Indira Dock) and into Ballard Estate. The Swedish sailor was amazed to see buffalo carts transporting goods that arrived in the city by ship.

Martinson documented a funeral procession down the street: “Here come the coolies. They carry a naked dead man on an open stretcher. They sing a passionate and fanatical song with hoarse voices and they walk fast. One of the millions here is dead.

Throughout his writings on India, there is a feeling of love and compassion for children. The Swede compared a baby he saw on the street to one of Renaissance painter Raphael’s “little angels”. Martinson, however, was critical of the state of the city in 1924, making very pointed observations.

“India seems to be short of older women,” he writes. “Whenever I have free time, I go to observe, look for and watch for an old woman. the old woman from India; it doesn’t seem to exist. She’s probably been dead a long time. Women die young here. They succumb to the tyranny that overwhelms them in five layers: prejudice, maharajas, England, the ritual tyranny of their own husbands, and constant pregnancy.

Martinson was also aware of his limited opinions and ideas about India. He wrote: “But if I am to be honest and not hide my ignorance of India under self-rational genre chatter, then everywhere I go the tangle of a thousand inconceivables says one and the same thing – that I know nothing.” He added: ‘And let it mean nothing if I drown tonight in Dock Alexandra or am murdered by the dagger of a xenophobe.’


While in Bombay, the Swedish sailor wandered around the city and shared his impressions of places such as Grant Road. He was particularly pained when he saw groups of girls dancing in the streets.

“Small groups of dancers, the youngest of the dancers no more than five years old at the most, wild, tormented, ecstatic, most of the time commanded by an old man, shouting and threatening continually, ugly and repulsive: a spectacle sensational and shocking contrast to the slender beauty of the whirling little dancers,” wrote Martinson. “The bells ring wildly at the ankles of tiny ballet dancers. He, the ugly one, shouts when the dance is about to change to acrobatics, and the little ones step back on their hands and feet, their bellies pointing skyward. He screams, as if he wanted to kill them, and they raise their legs dancing, standing on their hands while he, with a murderous expression, plays a monotonously humming stringed instrument; with the shape of a fish and the appearance of a museum specimen, prehistorically evil.

Martinson made 14 long voyages between 1920 and 1927, but was forced to give up sailing for health reasons. Credit: Petrus Pramm/Nordic Museum/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication]

Shocked at the way the exhausted girls were taken advantage of, Martinson paid the old man a rupee to have them arrested. “It’s as much as 16 annas; normally he doesn’t get more than 2 annas max in each block,” Martinson wrote, adding that the girls then sat down on their dirty stage mat, breathing heavily. “Now I can enjoy their stillness. Their childlike skin. Their clear eyes,” he added.

Martinson said he wanted to kill the old man or at least headbutt him, but decided against it because he would go after the girls later. “I could never be so cruel, even though I was so angry at the whole of Brahmanism and the vast constipation of the English lords system,” he wrote.

The sailor then gave a rupee to a dancer who had imitation stones on her nose ring. Martinson said the girl smiled so vaguely that her mouth didn’t even curl, adding that it was her eyes that were smiling. In the most touching prose of his chapter on India, Martinson wrote: “If only I could do something for you, lovely little being, living little child. But I’m just a ship’s stoker from Western Europe, where the ice-hearted technicians live. Oh, if you knew, my child, they don’t transmit anything until it has gone through their machines.

He continued his skepticism of development in the Western world by writing, “You see, my child, the developmentists and efficient plebeians have turned everything upside down there. It is said that nothing can stop it; everything must run its course until it breaks and becomes something else. The Swedish writer felt that those pushing greater technology were “stupid” and “greedy”.

Martinson linked India’s predicament in the 1920s to the demands of the industrial age in Europe. “This story also weighed heavily on India. If it hadn’t been like that there, but in a different way, then maybe I could have helped you today,” he wrote. “Maybe I could have taken you, little friend, and the whole carpet with the dancers with me on the boat, in the name of humanity, as they say. Or if you had chosen to stay here. Well, maybe then you would have been listening to carpenters all day busy building a truer India where you wouldn’t have to dance that humiliating dance up and down on a dirty carpet that’s not even worth six annas.

After the girls rested for a while, the old man asked them to get up and move to a new area. Saying goodbye to them, Martinson said “all kinds of eastern lies” were calling them. The fact that young girls would go on to live a life of suffering pained Martinson, who thought of the beautiful and iconic illustrations from John Bauer’s Swedish fairy tales. He wrote, while thinking of the girl with the faux-stone nose ring: “What if John Bauer had seen you, dear little heart. How happy he would have been. John Bauer was our great fairy tale painter. He drowned in a long coil-shaped lake called Vättern. He would have painted a dark picture of you, deep as a fairy tale. You would sit on a huge clump of bilberry in the woods of Holaved, blinking, dark as a motherwood, so that the sea itself would rumble like thunder in its mud, rumble with envy.

The girls and the old man disappeared into the crowd, and Martinson described the street as having “grotesque house-cupboards, upon which three distant minarets rose like a white trident.” He stood up and looked at the girls (especially the one with the nose ring) until there was no trace of them. “Even the view towards the crowd into which she had disappeared was soon obscured by a round pumphouse, with projections and colors like a carousel, forever motionless. Through the streets came the heavy twilight smell of India.

Martinson made 14 long voyages between 1920 and 1927. He was forced to give up sailing for health reasons and turned to writing. In 1929, his collection of poems Spokkepp (Phantom Ship) was released. Her first novel Resor utan mål (Journeys Without Destination, 1932) and Cape Farewell spoke both of his time as a sailor and of his experiences around the world.

He went on to a prolific writing career that spanned over 45 years. In 1974 he was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (with Eywind Johnson) for what the Nobel Committee described as “writings that catch the dewdrop and reflect the cosmos”.

An English translation of Cape Farewell by Naomi Walford was published in the UK in 1934. It has been out of print for several decades.

To note: This author is grateful to Björn Eklund for his help in translating several passages of Cape Farewell from the original Swedish.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a Mumbai-based freelance writer and journalist. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for Historical and Heritage Writings for 2022.


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