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Nilla Cram Cook : The Maverick Genius
S.N. Pandita8/28/2015 9:57:42 PM
Born in a distinguished Davenport family in the United States in 1910, Nilla Cram Cook was the daughter of noted American poet, philologist and playwright George Cram Cook. Nilla's mother was George's second wife and named Mollie Price. She was a journalist. Nilla had a younger brother named Harl. Nilla Cook's father George Cram Cook was too obsessed with Greece while still a student at the University of Iowa. He turned his daughter into his most cherished disciple and student. Nilla left Davenport for Greece at the age of twelve to live a 'classic life' as her father termed the life he was living in Greece. There, she studied under Greek tutors to learn Ancient and Modern Greek. Alongside, her father taught her Literature and Philology. While studying Greek language and religion she felt strong inclination to study Sanskrit and Vedic religion also. At the time, George Cook had married a third time, this time to Susan Glaspell. She too belonged to Davenport and was also a playwright. At a very young age Nilla also studied metaphysics and theology. She also learnt many languages including Sanskrit and wore classic dresses. When still in her teens (17), she married the Greek aristocrat Nicholas Proestopolous in 1927. Later that year, a son was born to the couple. He was named Sirios. The marriage, however, did not last long and the couple divorced in 1932. A year before, in 1931, as Nilla found her marriage to Proestopolous was doddering and reaching a point of no return, she decided to go to India along with her young son Sirios. It was her keen interest to study the Vedas that brought her straight to Kashmir, the place she regarded as the "sanctuary of India's intellectual beauty". She left Greece for Kashmir in early 1931.
Travelling on board SS Himalaya, Nilla arrived in Karachi via Port Said. From there she travelled by train to arrive in Lahore. From there in an automobile she travelled to Srinagar, Kashmir, and arrived there to the welcome of pleasant summer breeze. Nilla C. Cook spent several months in Kashmir by visiting many places and enjoying its salubrious climate. There, she lived mostly in houseboats on several water-bodies like the Jhelum River, Dal, Nagin and Manasbal lakes. Soon after her arrival in Srinagar, Nilla met Maharaja Hari Singh and his beautiful wife Maharani Tara Devi at their Polo Ground retreat. While in Kashmir, she desired to learn Sanskrit and Hindi. Colonel Balaram Singh, a close aide of Maharaja Hari Singh and later Head of the Enforcement Agencies of the State arranged for her tutor. On his endorsement and recommendations Pandit Jagadhar Zadoo, an eminent Sanskrit scholar of Nilamatapurana fame and a professor at the local Sri Pratap College, was inducted to give tuitions to Nilla . She studied scriptures of Buddhism, the Laws of Manu, the Mahabharata, Ramayana, the poems of Lalla, several texts of Tibetan Books of the Dead and life of Tibet's great yogiMilarepa. During these studies, Nilla found Jagadhar Zadoo to be an ideal teacher of her ideas. Pandit Zadoo also taught her Persian besides Sanskrit and Hindi. Nilla, however, regretted that she did not find time enough to learn Kashmiri. Studying with great vigour and enthusiasm , Nilla was enchanted by the lore of Hindus. She decided to become a Hindu. She was admitted into Hinduism under the Sanatan Dharma traditions. Her sacramental ceremony was held at Nila Kund, the modern - day Verinag Spring. In this endeavour Nilla was helped by Pandit Daulat Ram and Professor Gyani Ram, the President and Secretary respectively, of the Kashmir Sabha of the Sanatan Dharma and Professor Jagadhar Zadoo. After becoming a Hindu, Nilla Cram Cook assumed her new name Nila Nagini Devi. This name was announced by Pandit Daulat Ram in presence of a huge gathering which had assembled for the occasion at the holy spring .Nilla's admittance to Hinduism was greeted by a thunderous applause of the gathered assembly that consisted of local Hindus, holy men and several hundred sadhus. After having become a Hindu and completing her sojourns in Kashmir, Nilla Cook left Kashmir towards the end of 1932 and headed straight to Mount Abu in Rajasthan. From there, she moved to Mahatma Gandhi's ashram on the banks of Sabarmati River. There, she began taking lessons on ahimsa from Gandhi Ji. Sometime by about early 1933 Nilla became the first American ever to be admitted to the inner circle of inmates of the ashram. While still at the ashram at Sabarmati, Nilla declared: " I see my salvation in the teachings of Gandhi who I regard as the prototype of Christ". She further vowed saying : " Gandhi Ji shall be my guide and father and I shall be his daughter".
However, eight months later, Nilla Cook could no longer bear the hardships of the ashram life and the sufferings it accompanied. She fled Gandhi Ji's ashram in November 1933. Fleeing like a fugitive she drove her car at a blinding high speed only to end up in a road mishap. Fortunately for her, she escaped with minor injuries that healed without any trace. After reaching Delhi, Nilla Cram tried to impersonate Hollywood actress Jannet Gaynor while registering herself at a hotel in New Delhi to avoid detection. Highly embarrassed by her devious actions and eccentric behavior, the Government of India in January 1934 declared Nilla Cram Cook a vagrant and lodged her in a mental hospital in Calcutta. A month later, in February 1934, she was deported from India by placing her on board SS Elwodd, a ship bound for America. During her ship journey, Nilla met her future husband Albret Nathaniel Hutchins. He was a mess steward on the ship. While romancing this seaman, Nilla was completely floored by his reciprocation and called him "Starlight on the Waters" and "Glorious Night of Sweet Compassion". After arriving in New York, the couple were married in a simple civil ceremony sometime at the end of March 1934. However, though not unexpectedly, their marriage dissolved within months of the union. Nilla had much to blame her own self for this eventuality and regretted her frivolous actions that caused the split. She never married again. After her failed marriage to Nathaniel Hutchins, Nilla Cook roamed like a vagabond across the United States, often getting spotted in California and on the banks of Mississippi. In 1939, Nilla Cram Cook came down to Greece as a correspondent for Liberty magazine. She wrote several articles about the ongoing Second World War in Europe. In 1941 she narrowly escaped arrest by the Nazis, hiding in local caves she knew as a young girl. Escaping from there in a sail-boat by crossing the Aegean Sea along with her son Sirios, Nilla Cook this time arrived in Turkey. In 1942 Nilla moved to Iran where she began yet another chapter of her extraordinary life by becoming the Cultural Attaché in the US Embassy in Tehran. Sometime later, she became the Director General of the Arts for Iran's Ministry of Education. In this capacity she directed the foreign services of Radio Tehran and broadcast her translations of Persian, Arabic and Turkish poems. As Director General she inspired and trained scores of young Iranian girls to take up dancing and thus helped Iran establish its first modern opera school.
While in Iran, Nilla Cook converted to Islam. There she spent next decade or so studying languages, art, music and poetry of Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan, Syria ,Lebanon and Egypt under some renowned religious leaders and eminent scholars. For more than three years she also studied the Holy Koran at the famous Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and later labored to make her own translation of the holy book into English. She looked forward to its simultaneous publication from Turkey, Afghanistan and India, a project that somehow never materialized. In 1954, Nilla Cram Cook once again travelled to India and this time too she headed straight to Kashmir. She spent few months in Kashmir moving about several places mainly collecting poems of many local poets, both of the early and contemporary times. She translated these poems into English and later published them in a book form in 1958 under the title 'The Way of the Swan'. It included the poems of Lal Ded, Nund Reshi, Wahab Khar, Mahmud Gami, Habba Khatoon, Arnimal, Parmananda, Krishenjoo Razdan and Master Zinda Kaul. Nilla also translated several passages of Kalhana's Rajatarangini, Nilamatapurana and many Kashmiri and Ladakhi folk songs into English. Nilla dedicated the book to Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, sister of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.
After leaving Kashmir for the second time, further news about Nilla Cram Cook ceased to appear. She vanished from public sight and memory. More than two decades passed in silence and anonymity. In January 1982, a census register in the US named Des Moines Register gave an account of her tumultuous life declaring "little else is known about her". It tried to reach out to Nilla by advertising " Are you out there, somewhere, Nilla Cram Cook, are you still alive"? It, however, evoked no response from her. Ten months later in October 1982, the New York Times reported her death. She had died in a hospital in Neunkrichen in Austria. Briefly, the news item also mentioned that prior to her death she was living in Aspang, a small town fifty miles away from Vienna. At the time of her death, Nilla Cram Cook was survived by her son Sirios, his wife and three grandchildren. Presently, the surviving members of her family claim that she lies buried alongside her father near the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, Greece, the place that had enchanted both the father and the daughter during their lifetime.
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