Woman Who Came in From the Wild

A high-society beauty from England, who led the Zeme Nagas of the Northeast during World War II, inspires a new play Ursula: Queen of the Jungle

Written by Dipanita Nath | Updated: August 15, 2017 6:30 pm
ursula graham bower, joanna purslow, world war two, zeme naga, theatre, art and culture, indian express news Actor Joanna Purslow in a scene from Ursula: Queen of the Jungle (Express photo by Mike Ashton)

British military records refer to her simply as a typist. Among the Zeme Nagas of the Northeast, she is “Ketazile” (The Giver) or Saipui (Female Warrior). An American comic strip on her is titled Jungle Queen.

Ursula Graham Bower, who lived, worked and fought alongside the Nagas in World War II, occupies a less-read chapter in Indian history. She is revisited in a new play, Ursula: Queen of the Jungle, which will be staged at the Edinburgh Fringe from August 13 to 26. Written and directed by BBC and Radio 4’s Chris Eldon Lee and enacted by Joanna Purslow, the production will tour India this winter.

It will be staged in Laisong village in Assam, where, in the spring of 1944, news came that the Japanese were advancing rapidly towards the Northeast. A strange army prepared to fight to death this invasion. The soldiers were from fierce warrior families. Until a hundred years ago, the Nagas had been headhunters. Now, the commander they trusted and swore to serve was Bower, a pretty young woman, who had, just a few years ago, been presented as a debutante at the court of King George V and Queen Mary. As walls go up and borders get drawn across the world, the play examines how a white woman and an ancient warrior race in India forged a relationship that passed the test of war.

Over phone from Shrewsbury in the UK, Lee says, “Sadly, I have never met Ursula but I have been living with her story for 30 years, ever since Trina told me about her amazing mother.” Trina is Catriona Child, a communications expert and writer who lives and works in Delhi. “They tell me I look like my mother. She had brown eyes, though. The build is the same. We’re both broad and sturdy,” she says, drawing on cold coffee from a straw at the end of a hard Monday. “We both had to fight with our weight all our lives,” she adds.

Bower used to work in Scotland. London is a boring swirl of cocktail parties and her mother is trying to marry her off. When a friend plans to go out to India to keep house for her brother, Bower agrees to accompany her for the winter. “At first, they did the usual things. They went out for polo, put on white gloves and hats and went off to the governor’s tea party. But, every evening in Imphal, there was a market, where all the tribal people would come, and my mum was fascinated,” says Child.

Against the thrum of World War II, Bower returns to India in 1939, as an amateur anthropologist to document tribal life and culture. The hills are bristling with rebellion against British maladministration. One of those quelled was led by 16-year-old Rani Guidinliu. As she is led way to prison, Guidinliu promises her people that she will return in another form. “Philip Mills, who was a visionary and not prejudiced about what women could do, thought, ‘I have got this woman who is an anthropologist and not an official in any capacity and she seems quite a character. Can she get behind the wall that has come up?”’ says Child. Voila, a strange white woman appears among the Nagas and many see her as Guidinliu, while the rest don’t believe it.

Bower, at first, is bemused and befuddled in a Naga village. “Half the population won’t talk to me, the other half keep coming and worshipping me,” she writes. Her bodyguard, Namkia, is among those who are suspicious of her and has a tendency to keep resigning. “The quality of obedience, I do not have. I am not a man to be a mere servant and, as that is all the British want, I am not wholly suited. So, I resigned. I have resigned every day for 27 days. Then you arrived. I have to follow orders. But I will probably resign again tomorrow,” he says.

The play jumps through time and space, from Nagaland in 1932 (when the rebel Guidinliu was arrested), to a talk in 1981 Shrewsbury, England (where Bower showed her films of Naga life), to London in 1937 (when she decided she needed an adventure) to her marriage to a British officer in Nagaland in 1945. Images taken by Bower — and of her — are projected as Purslow plays all 11 characters, including Child. The actor is a veteran of essaying Shakespeare’s women, and she draws upon her understanding of human sensitivities to play the dramatis personae of Ursula: Queen of the Jungle. “Ursula was terribly, terribly English. She enunciated her words very well. This would sound quite old-fashioned to modern ears. I had to make her accessible. Trina has my natural voice while, with Namkia, I had to be careful not to sound like a caricature,” she says.

“A basket of medicine was Ursula’s passport among the Nagas,” says Lee. The medicine chest contained iodine and sulphur drugs. “If you read my mother’s letters, she writes about infection from cuts and an encounter with a bear. There were tropical sores that could only be treated with something like sulphur drugs,” says Child. It was not the drugs but something more powerful that made Bower a part of tribal society. “She respected the rules of the village. On certain days, all the village had to stay within the precincts and, if you go out, you are breaking the rules and all sorts of bad luck would come,” says Child.

As part of war efforts, Bower became a part of the V Force, a team of scouts that would gather intelligence on enemy activity along the border, with her group of 150 Nagas. This makes her the only female commander of a guerrilla force in the history of the British army — a role so unusual that Bower is officially registered as a typist.

A critical moment in the play — and real life — is when the Japanese have come close but the army of Naga men has gone away. Ursula wonders if they will return. This is, after all, not their war. “The next day, they are back but not wearing their valuable bead jewellery. They tell her, ‘We went home, we made our wills, we left our beads to our sons and now we are here to die with you,”’ says Child. Lee adds that “much of Ursula’s time was spent on jungle patrols, seeking out deserters and crashed planes. It was the Yanks she rescued from broken planes and nursed back to health, who called her the Naga Queen”.

“The Zeme Naga communities are now split among Manipur, Nagaland and Assam. They have to fight for resources and the ones who need the most help are in Assam and Manipur,” says Child. She has partnered with NGOs to work for them. “In the village where she lived, there is an Ursula Graham Bower Memorial Building. It acts as a library and guest house, children come here to do homework and we plan to turn it into a mini museum about my mum and the Second World War in that region,” says Child.

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