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Savitri Devi’s Communist Nephews

by Greg Johnson

In my biographical research on Savitri Devi, some of the most interesting reminiscences of her that I have encountered are those of two Communist nephews, Sumanta and Subrata Banerjee, who are the sons of one of the sisters of Savitri’s husband Asit Krishna Mukherji. Their reminiscences not only add details — some of them quite important, others merely interesting and amusing — to the biographies of Savitri Devi and her husband, but also, because of their diametrically opposed philosophical and political convictions, they cast an interesting light on her personality.

Sumanta Banerjee

I first learned of Sumanta Banerjee when his article on Savitri Devi, “Memories of my Nazi Maami [Aunt],” appeared in the Times of India on 19 April 1999. The article had been prompted by a review in the same paper on 19 March 1999 of Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke’s biography of Savitri, Hitler’s Priestess.

Sumanta Banerjee, who had been brought up in a Communist household, knew A.K. Mukherji as a “dark, enigmatic uncle with the rather dubious reputation of being a kingpin in some international anti-Bolshevik conspiracy! I don’t know the truth.” The truth is that Mukherji was a valued collaborator and agent of Fascist Italy, National Socialist Germany, and Imperial Japan, the three main signatories of the Anti-Comintern Pact. Savitri Devi even hinted that her husband was such a trusted collaborator of the Axis powers that, in the event of their victory over the Allies, A.K. Mukherji could have emerged the master of South Asia.

Sumanta Banerjee recalls that Savitri was a frequent visitor to his family home. She was respected for her “erudition in Greek, Egyptian, and other ancient cultures.” She openly spoke of her Nazi convictions, but they were classed as mere eccentricities, along with her giant swastika earrings, her belief in the Aryan invasion of India, her extravagant love of cats, and her commitment to the Hindu Nationalist movement, for which she worked in the 1930s and 40s.

When Savitri returned to India in 1971 and took up residence in Delhi, she appeared at Sumanta Banerjee’s office dressed as before in her sari and swastika earrings. When he took her home to meet his wife, “the first things she did was to bring out a plastic ruler from her bag and begin measuring my wife’s facial features. After finishing this exercise, she nodded approvingly to me, saying in Bengali, ‘You’ve done a good job. She’s more Aryan than you.’”

Sumanta Banerjee also recounts a conversation with Savitri regarding her mother: “She once told me about her mother, who lived in France, and who, when she was in her eighties during the Nazi occupation, joined the Resistance movement. By then she had disowned her daughter. I asked Savitri-maami how she would have received her mother, without batting an eyelid, she said: ‘I would have shot her dead.’”

This story requires some comment. Savitri learned of her mother’s support of the French Resistance only after the end of the war. She learned it from her mother herself. It was a terrible blow to Savitri and a severe strain on her relationship with her mother.1 But Savitri never severed ties with her mother, much less shot her dead, and they stayed in contact until her mother’s death in 1960. Savitri’s mother probably did not formally “disown” her, because after her mother’s death, Savitri returned to Europe, presumably to deal with her mother’s estate.2

Of course Savitri probably meant that she would have shot her mother dead during the war. But it should also be noted that, according to Savitri, her mother said that during the war, she would have turned Savitri over to the French Resistance if she had had the opportunity.3

Sumanta Banerjee closed his brief article by expressing dismay that the beliefs that he had dismissed as eccentricities continue to inspire Hindu nationalists in India and racial nationalists around the globe. He questioned the human tendency to indulge or overlook the potentially dangerous consequences of ideas held by eccentrics, especially eccentric intellectuals.

Subrata Banerjee

After I read Sumanta Banerjee’s article in the Times of India, I contacted him in September of 2001 through one of his publishers, Seagull, and asked him if he could share more recollections of Savitri Devi and A.K. Mukherji. He replied on 8 September 2001 and put me in touch with his brother Subrata Banerjee, who is also a Marxist. Subrata Banerjee responded to my request for information in late September 2001 with an enormously helpful three page document entitled “Note on Asit Krishna Mukherji,” which also contains his recollections of Savitri Devi. I also met and interviewed Subrata Banerjee in Calcutta on 14 January 2004.

Subrata Banerjee knew nothing of his uncle’s early life. He recalled, however, that A.K. Mukherji studied in England, probably departing India for there in the late 1920s. (According to Savitri Devi, A.K. Mukherji received a Ph.D. in history from the University of London.4) Banerjee adds that:

I do remember that he came back in 1931, at the same time as my father returned from Edinburgh. This is because he had sent some of his books in my father’s luggage. He was a political suspect and was afraid that his luggage would be searched on arrival in India and his books confiscated. Among his books was the first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses, autographed by him.

If A.K. Mukherji was a political suspect, just what were his politics? According to Subrata Banerjee:

Later, I came to know from [A.K. Mukherji] that he had been associated with Left circles in Britain. He had even visited the Soviet Union and showed me press clippings of statements he had made there. These carried his photograph. Rajani Mukherjee, a trade union leader and follower of M. N. Roy, was one of my uncle’s associates. This would seem to suggest that he too belonged to the same group at that time. By that time Roy had parted with the Comintern and had become a critic of the Soviet Union.

(According to Savitri Devi, Mukherji spent two years in the USSR, traveling first class. When he was about to return to India, the Soviets tried to recruit him as an agent, but he refused.5) Banerjee continues: “My uncle told me that The Statesman, a British-owned English daily, had asked him to write a series of anti-Soviet articles and he had refused. He felt that this would have damaged his reputation politically.” (Savitri Devi confirms this incident, although she does not mention the name of The Statesman, saying only that Mukherji refused the offer because he did not wish to advance the capitalist political agenda of his would-be employers by attacking Communism.6) Banerjee adds, “Although [Mukherji] maintained contact with anti-Soviet Left leaders in Calcutta, he himself stayed away from active politics, except for a brief spell of trade union work, as he told me. I have no idea what his source of income was. He led a modest life all along.”

Subrata Banerjee gives particularly valuable information on Mukherji’s publishing career, revealing the existence of two hitherto unknown periodicals in Bengali:

Soon after his return to India my uncle emerged suddenly as a publisher and editor. He brought out two publications in Bengali. One was for children, Dhruba, and the other for general readership, Bishan. The names were not without some significance. Dhruba was the name of a little boy from Indian (Hindu) mythology. He was an ardent devotee of the Hindu deity Vishnu. He had to suffer much for his devotion. The word is also the name of the Pole star. Bishan is a trumpet. In the name of inspiring children to heroic deeds and ardent nationalism, Dhruba carried many such stories, including about Garibaldi and Mussolini. Of course there were other articles and stories of interest to children. I remember taking a great deal of interest in the pages on philately. Bishan too carried serious articles on Italy under Mussolini. I do not remember if there were articles on Hitler and Nazi Germany. Such articles were very popular with the Bengali middle class, who admired these countries as they were supposed to be anti-British. This journal was the first to carry a short story with a situation which was considered somewhat risqué in middle class society in Bengal, in those days. Shades of Joyce?

He also adds two important pieces of information about the origin of Mukherji’s first English-language publication the New Mercury:

In 1935, after Italy invaded Abyssinia (Ethiopia), he brought out an English journal, New Mercury. All it contained were press statements and other publicity material issued by the Italian Embassy in India, justifying the invasion and occupation of Abyssinia.

Since Italy invaded Abyssinia early in October of 1935, we know that the New Mercury began publishing shortly thereafter. Savitri Devi, furthermore, made no mention of the fact that the New Mercury was first published in collaboration with the Italians. According to her, the New Mercury was a National Socialist periodical, published in collaboration with the Germans.7 It is possible that she discovered the publication only after it had changed its emphasis. The New Mercury was closed by the British in late 1937 or early 1938, and all copies were confiscated. In 1938, Mukherji launched his fourth publication, The Eastern Economist, an English-language periodical published in collaboration with the Japanese.8 The Eastern Economist was closed by the British in 1941, when Japan entered the Second World War.9

In January 2004, I traveled to India to do research on Savitri Devi and A.K. Mukherji. I searched without success in the National Archives in New Delhi and the National Library in Calcutta for copies of Bishan, Dhruba, the New Mercury, and The Eastern Economist. Copies of the New Mercury may still exist, however, in archives in England, Italy, and Germany. And copies of The Eastern Economist may still come to light in Japan. Any information about surviving copies of these periodicals would be greatly appreciated.

Subrata Banerjee did not recall when Savitri Devi married his uncle, but remembered her during the Second World War when she was already his aunt. Like his brother, he characterizes her primarily as an eccentric:

She was very fond of our family, particularly my mother, and used to visit us often. She used to wear much jewelry and very thick vermillion powder in the parting of her hair as the sign of a Hindu wife. She claimed that she was an Aryan and had become a Hindu, and as a Brahmin her husband too was an Aryan. She claimed that she recognized him as an Aryan the moment she set eyes on him. As far as I can recall she met him in India. We felt that she was quite eccentric. She was so serious about adopting Hinduism that she even wanted to address my uncle as Aryaputra, the very ancient Hindu was of addressing one’s husband. The world literally means the son of an Aryan. She complained to my mother that my uncle had objected to being thus addressed.

As further evidence of her eccentricity, he cites her remarkable love of animals:

She loved cats and dogs. She brought many of them home. Others she would feed in the streets of Calcutta and later of Delhi, when she went to live there in the latter part of her life in India. I remember her telling me once that animals were better than human beings. That was when we were both houseguests of a relative in Delhi. She used to sleep next to the pet Alsatian dog.

He also mentions another well-known characteristic of Savitri, her intolerance for noise:

She could not stand loud noise. The flat she used to live in, in Calcutta, was on a busy street and noisy. She used to plug her ears with the pillow and sometimes even sought refuge from the noise in the bathroom.

As a Marxist, Subrata Banerjee was totally opposed to Savitri’s Nazi convictions, and they used to have “heated arguments.” He even “joined the Indian armed forces to take an active part in the anti-fascist war.” But nonetheless, “My aunt was somehow very fond of me.” It should be noted, however, that this fondness did not prevent Savitri and his uncle from passing strategic information to the Japanese in Burma where their nephew was fighting alongside the British and Americans. Their espionage could very well have cost him his life.

At the time, however, Subrata Banerjee thought that his aunt’s subversive activities were far less dangerous:

On my way to the front in Burma, I passed through Calcutta. My aunt told me very proudly that she was translating French pornographic literature into English for the consumption of the British and American troops. I was shocked that a person of her intellectual level should sink so low. She explained that she was doing this to reduce the morale of the troops. Sexually aroused by such pornography they would frequent prostitutes, acquire venereal diseases and thus be prevented from taking part in operations. She told me that my uncle fully supported her in this.

This extraordinary story requires some comment. It could, of course, be completely true. If Savitri had translated pornography, however, it is very unlikely that such works have survived, and even if they had, she almost certainly did not translate such literature under her own name, so it would be impossible to connect it to her. We do know, however, that Savitri translated at least two books from English to French during the Second World War under her birth name Maximine Portaz. These are Denis Diderot’s La Religieuse (The Nun), which she translated as Confessions of a Nun (Calcutta: Susil Gupta, 1944), and Voltaire’s Candide (Calcutta: Susil Gupta, 1945). (Susil Gupta was A.K. Mukherji’s own imprint, published out of his and Savitri’s flat at 1 Wellesley Street in Calcutta.10) Diderot’s La Religieuse is certainly not pornographic in the strict sense, although its heady blend of religion, madness, sadism, and repressed sexuality definitely aroused prurient interest in the eighteenth century. But if Savitri and her husband thought such a book a worthwhile contribution to the Axis war effort, then they certainly seem to have been hare-brained cranks.

But perhaps that was their intention. Perhaps it was merely a cover for their far more effective and dangerous work on behalf of the Japanese. Banerjee continues: “It surprised me those days that the British did not arrest either my uncle or my aunt as enemy agents. After all, that my uncle had worked for the Italians was no secret.” According to Savitri Devi, Mukherji had in fact been arrested by the British during the war on suspicion of espionage but had been released. Perhaps he was released in part because he and Savitri had cultivated the reputation of harmless eccentrics whose efforts on behalf of the Axis were pathetically ineffectual. Perhaps the British were not sufficiently intimidated by impending translations of Diderot and Voltaire.

Subrata Banerjee thought that his uncle escaped arrest because he was really working for the Allies:

I had a feeling that he was a double agent. I sued to call him an international spy. He was never angry with me for saying so, but dismissed by accusation with a hearty laugh. I could never be sure, but had a strong feeling I was right. My suspicions have now been confirmed, as I find from my aunt’s writings of later years according to press reports.

Banerjee is mistaken here. There is nothing in Savitri’s writings or interviews that supports the claim that Mr. Mukherji was a double agent. Savitri did, however, claim that he had contacts with nationalistic Indians in the British intelligence service, but she does not claim that he passed information to them, merely that he got information from them. (As far as I know, however, this fact, which I gleaned from Savitri’s 1978 interviews, has not been published until now.11)

Mukherji’s political alliances did shift over the years. He traveled for two years in the USSR. Then he associated with the anti-Soviet Left, then the Italians, then the Germans, then the Japanese. After World War II, he again courted the Communists — while simultaneously publishing Savitri’s National Socialist books Gold in the Furnace and Defiance.12 This certainly gives the impression of shifting allegiances. But it could just as well be evidence of shifting alliances, while his allegiance remained unchanged. I would suggest that Mukherji is very much like his sometime associate Subhas Chandra Bose. Like Bose, Mukherji’s one allegiance was to a free and independent India. To achieve this aim, however, Mukherji, like Bose, was willing to ally himself with the enemies of the British Empire — any enemies, first the Soviets, then the Axis powers — and he was willing to shift his alliances whenever it served his overriding goal.13

Subrata Banerjee lost touch with Savitri after World War II. He met her again only in 1980 or 1981, when she was living in New Delhi. She told her of her arrest, trial, and imprisonment in Germany in 1949 for distributing National Socialist propaganda: “My uncle, obviously with the help of his ‘intelligence contacts,’ got her released. This she told me herself.” According to Savitri, Mr. Mukherji had sufficient pull to get Prime Minister Nehru himself to ask for her release.14 The Home Political Index of the Indian government for 1949 records that the government did take up the “question of the deportation to India of [Mr. Savitri Devi Mukherji], German-born [sic] wife of Mr. Asit Krishan [sic] Mukherje [sic].”15

Subrata Banerjee also relates some details about Savitri’s life in Delhi, all of which are confirmed by her surviving correspondence and the recollections of friends who visited her there:

In Delhi she used to live in a small room above a garage, obviously a servant’s quarter, which had been rented out. Here she lived alone with the dogs and cats. She was known in the locality as the memsahib [White lady] who fed cats and dogs in the streets. That is how I located her residence. The place reeked with foul animal smells.16 At a later period, my uncle fell ill and came from Calcutta to live with my aunt. There I met him again after a long time. It was there that he died some time later. I do not remember the exact date. I was the only person that my aunt informed immediately after his death and my younger brother did the funeral rites.

Mr. Mukherji died in 1977 on the vernal equinox (21 March 1977).

Subrata Banerjee’s recollections of Savitri’s last years are also consistent with other accounts, and add a rather sad episode.

My aunt stayed on for some time in Dehli. She was ill with arthritis. She found it difficult to move around. She did come and visit us once along with a European lady, who helped her. My aunt hinted that she would like to live with us, with my mother, who was living with us. Unfortunately, I could not take the responsibility, not merely because of limitations of space in our flat, but also because my mother herself was ill and needed attention. This European lady took her away to Europe soon after. My mother received a letter from her once. I do not know what happened to it. Then one day we heard that she had passed away.

In addition to arthritis, Savitri also suffered from cataracts, glaucoma, and degeneration of her optic nerves. Moreover, on 30 March 1981, she suffered a stroke which left her with partial paralysis on her right side, making it impossible for her to live on her own. It was probably after her stroke that she asked to live with Sumanta Banerjee and his mother. After her stroke, Savitri lived for some time in Delhi with her French friend Myriam Hirn. She also lived in Jaipur with an elderly English friend, Crystal Rogers, who ran a shelter for homeless cats and dogs. Eventually, Savitri’s German admirer Lotte Asmus persuaded her to fly to Germany on 4 October 1981. Savitri spent the next year living with friends and comrades in Germany, France, and England, as well as a couple of unhappy stints in convalescent homes. Savitri Devi died in England on 22 October 1982 at the home of her old friend Muriel Gantry.

Subrata Banerjee's closing reflections on Savitri are also interesting:

Savitri Devi was a highly educated person, having studied at the Sorbonne. She was the author of two books, copies of which she had given us. I cannot find them among my books. As far as I can remember they were about some ancient Egyptian rulers. As I look back I can understand now that these books too were coloured by her Nazi philosophy. As she told me herself, her mother did not approve of her Nazi affiliation and had herself worked with the resistance movement against the Nazis.

I could never accept her fundamentalist Hindu and Nazi views, but I remember my aunt as a very warm and loving person and even a lovable one, possibly because of her eccentricities.

First, the claim that Savitri studied at the Sorbonne is probably false. Savitri received her two Master’s degrees as well as her Ph.D. from the University of Lyons. Of course Savitri may have taken classes at the Sorbonne. Futhermore, Savitri’s dissertation director Étienne Souriau was a Professor at the Sorbonne.17 So perhaps she had occasion to meet him there. Or perhaps Subrata Banerjee erroneously inferred from this fact that Savitri had studied there. Second, Savitri was the author of more than two books, but at least two of her books were on the Pharaoh Akhnaton, and these may be the ones Savitri gave to the Banerjees. Third, Subrata Banerjee, like his brother, classifies Savitri as an eccentric, but emphasizes that she was both warm and loving and also loveable. It was probably this loving and loveable character that inclined both brothers to tolerate Savitri’s Nazi and Hindu convictions as mere eccentricities.

1 Savitri Devi, And Time Rolls On: The Savitri Devi Interviews (henceforth ATRO), ed. R.G. Fowler (Atlanta: Black Sun Publications, 2005), 40-41.
2 ATRO, 93.
3 Letter to H.J., 1 October 1980, author’s collection.
4 ATRO, 26.
5 ATRO, 28.
6 ATRO, 29.
7 ATRO, 25-27.
8 ATRO, 27.
9 I found the following entry in the General Index to Proceedings of the Home Department, 1941, page 36: “Eastern Economist: Question of taking action against the monthly journal [The Eastern Economist] (organ of the Japanese Chamber) on account of its being medium for pro-Japanese propaganda. Suspension of publication of the journal until the war crisis is over.” Unfortunately, the file on The Eastern Economist, designated F 44/19/41 — Poli. (I), was not transferred to the Indian National Archives, and the archivists could not determine whether the file is still extant somewhere in the archives of the Indian Home Office.
10 In August 1945 Susil Gupta published A.K. Mukherji’s major work: Asit Mukerji, Ph.D. (Lond.), A History of Japan: Cultural and Political (Calcutta: Susil Gupta, 1945).
11 ATRO, 32.
12 In February 1950 A.K. Mukherji published a pamphlet as Asit Mukerji, Ph.D. (Lond.) entitled Pakistan Puts the Clock Back (Calcutta: Uttarayan Limited, 1950). The pamphlet deals with India-Pakistan relations, and to all appearances seems to be written by a Communist. For instance, on page 3, Mukherji refers to Lenin as “the greatest revolutionary leader of this century,” and on page 11, he writes, “The termination of World War II has heralded a new era in the Balkans. The post-war people’s democratic Governments have removed the last traces of British duplicity and cunning from the Balkan soil.” Yet at the same time as he was posing as a Communist, Mukherji was preparing to publish Savitri’s first two openly National Socialist books: Defiance (Calcutta: A.K. Mukherji, 1951) and Gold in the Furnace (Calcutta: A.K. Mukherji, 1952).
13 It should be noted that Savitri herself believed that her husband’s primary loyalty was to National Socialist Germany, and that he would have accepted continued English domination of India if England had been an ally of National Socialist Germany:

But in the event of an understanding between National Socialist Germany and England, Sri A.K. Mukherji would himself have been indirectly — the ally of England. Friends of our friends, and a fortiori of those whom we hold to be our brothers in faith, are our friends. Sri A.K. Mukherji wanted, certainly, the autonomy of India, but not just any “autonomy,” and not at any price. He did not want an “independent” India dominated by Marxist influences, nor that of parliamentarism such as the English had preached it: “One man, one vote,” any mammal with two legs, from the purest Aryan to the Koukis of the mountains of Assam, being regarded as a “man” (Souvenirs et réflexions d’une Aryenne [Calcutta: Savitri Devi Mukherji, 1976), 42, trans. R.G. Fowler).

14 In Defiance, Savitri writes: “In a letter, an old Indian friend of mine had told me that a telegram had been sent to Pandit Nehru, asking the Indian Government to intervene in my favour” (Defiance, 561).
15 Unfortunately, the file on this action (F. No. 96-F-II) was not transferred to the Indian National Archives, so I could not examine it there. Whether the file is even extant could not be determined by the archivists.
16 Although it seems silly to devote a note to Savitri Devi’s housekeeping habits, I should add that two other visitors to Savitri’s home in New Delhi have reported similar smells. (One prefers to remain anonymous. The other is Christian Bouchet. See “An Interview with Christian Bouchet,” The Nexus, no. 6 [November 1996], page 5.) Savitri shared her apartment with three to five cats. Although in normal circumstances, her cats went outside to “do their business,” sometimes they had “accidents,” and the smell of cat urine is hard to banish. In Savitri’s defense, however, I must mention several facts. First, one female visitor whom I interviewed, and who also prefers to remain anonymous, described Savitri’s apartment as Spartan in simplicity and cleanliness. So her apartment was not always messy. Second, Savitri mentioned in one of her letters that it had been her habit, under normal circumstances, to wash the floor of her apartment every day (Letter to Beryl Cheetham, 6 September 1982, author’s collection). However, in another letter, she mentioned that she no longer had the strength to clean her apartment “properly,” and could not hire someone to do so, specifically because they did not want to deal with cat messes (Letter to OL, 17 December 1976, author’s collection). Third, in another letter, she mentioned that she had been sick for several weeks and that her apartment was a “pig sty” because she did not have the strength to clean it (Letter to SD, 21 June 1974, author’s collection). Thus it is possible that Subrata Banerjee, Christian Bouchet, and others happened to visit Savitri when she was, or had recently been, sick and had fallen behind in her housekeeping. Finally, a close female friend of Savitri, who visited her almost daily during her last years in New Delhi (and who also prefers to remain anonymous), confirmed that from time to time her apartment smelled of cat urine, but explained that Savitri had a very poor senses of taste and smell, so even in the best of circumstances, when she could immediately clean up a cat mess, her defective sense of smell told her that her task was complete, even though those with sharper senses of smell knew otherwise. It is also the case that people with perfectly normal senses of smell cease to notice odors when exposed to them constantly. The important point is that in her later years, Savitri Devi was not a disgusting person who was indifferent to cleanliness, or a mentally-ill person who hoarded pets, but an old woman who sometimes failed to clean up after her cats immediately because of illness or lack of strength, and who often did not clean thoroughly enough because of an inadequate sense of smell.
17 ATRO, 10-11. From the way Savitri speaks about Professor Souriau on the tapes, one could easily infer that she herself studied at the Sorbonne.