Barrackpore

Barrackpore Park is today a forgotten piece of history. The West Bengal Police Training Academy operates here, as does the State Armed Police and the Barrackpore Cantonment of the Indian army. Its once rolling grounds have been divided and built upon by brutal looking twenty first century structures, many painted in an alarming shade of white and blue. Somewhere on the edge of the river stands a tomb built over the final resting place of Lady Canning, first Vicereine of India, while a statue of Lord Canning who passed away soon after returning to England stands guard at the foot of the tomb. It was brought here from the streets of Calcutta in the late 1960s as the city administrators went into an overdrive to remove colonial memories by erasing British era statues. Someone, somewhere, placed the magisterial figure of Lord Canning beside his wife’s grave, perhaps mindful both of the pathos of the situation as well as the silliness of defacing or removing statues to obliterate what can only be described as a definite moment in India’s past.

Other statues from colonial India are found on the lawns of the Flagstaff House, which was once the residence of the private secretary to the Viceroy and is today the Governor of Bengal’s riverside retreat. Few Governors use it though. The house stands empty and a little run down, with the sofas in the vast high-ceilinged hall sagging forlornly, the cinnamon tree in the garden looking sadly at the scrubby lawn. Only the statues of the great Governors General and Viceroys, the Mintos, a Curzon, a John Lawrence and a Mayo (there are twelve statues in all, of exquisite workmanship) and a semaphore looming out of the grass are reminders of what this house, this garden and this estate once was.

For Barrackpore Park had been begun by Lord Wellesley in 1801 to rival Government House in Calcutta, to function as a weekend retreat for the Governor General and to be a piece of England in a foreign land with its vast mansion-Government House- a rolling park styled and landscaped like an English garden, an aviary, a menagerie, and a cluster of bungalows for the guests and the officers. In time the estate grew, became a point of leisure for the British administrators where they partied, danced, came on a honeymoon, played golf, rowed on the river, painted, hunted and had a grand time. There was Calcutta- stiff, formal and crowded, and there was Barrackpore, the Latbagan as the Indians called it, the place for pleasure and sport.

Image credit: Dufferin Papers, Public Research Office of Northern Ireland

The photograph above is a picture taken by a Vicereine. Hariot Dufferin, wife of Lord Dufferin or Frederick Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood who ruled as Viceroy from 1884 to 1888 was an avid photographer and took many images of India during her stay here. Lady Dufferin’s photo is one of the many enthusiastic ones taken by other Vicerines or painted by earlier Ladysahibs in which the great Banyan Tree stands as the centre point of this country mansion. The tree stood outside on the lawn in the southern side of the mansion, hundred years old already when Wellesley began his mansion and was a beloved shaded spot under which meals were had, sore minds were rested, games were played and the stiff starched British upper lip could dissolve into merry making and fun.

After India’s Independence in 1947 the British past began to fade, so much so that sometime in the 1980s a muddled Indian bureaucrat decided that the sepoy Mangal Pandey, whose defiance had flamed into the Sepoy Mutiny (or India’s first war of Independence, as we had been taught at school) had been hanged from the banyan tree outside the Governor General’s bedroom and not the tree in the Cantonment where the hanging had actually taken place. Thus began a completely inaccurate representation of the Government House banyan tree as the scene of India’s spirited defiance. Everybody we spoke to before our research believed it to be so, without pausing to think. Why would you hang a man in chains at the spot where you had your breakfast and your children played catch!

But to return to Lady Dufferin. Her journal contains riveting accounts of her viceregal life in India, including scenes from her stays at Barrackpore and the picnics, charity balls, levees, dancing and music, Christmases and summers spent there.

Banyan Tree, Barrackpore inside the State Police Academy today.
Photo- Monotosh Paul

No ominous note in her account. Perhaps she didn’t quite realise the full import of the fact that fifteen miles away, in the heart of Calcutta, a tiny organisation called the Indian National Congress had been formed in 1885. No one took any notice of it. God was in his heaven, the British ruled the land, this land and many, many more and the sun would never set on them!


If you would like to know more about Barrackpore Park and Government House, Barrackpore, do read Under the Banyan Tree: The Forgotten Story of Barrackpore Park co-written with my husband.

The Commerce of Remembrance

History has a new audience nowadays.

Gone are the days of cerebral discussions in conferences, workshops, graduate or post-graduate classrooms and columns of heavy reading in learned journals and literary magazines. History is now available through online streaming services and a vast cross section of non academics now sit down over dinner and make their way through the annals of British history (The Crown, Victoria, The Tudors), colonial history (Beecham House), the great monarchies of the world (Catherine the Great, The Last Tsars) or period dramas (Poldark, Downton Abbey). The more ‘modern’ a country becomes the more it looks back to the past, while the past itself is now a carefully cultivated mythology.

Self-identities, always a complex matter, are now being created by hearkening back to a golden period very different from a muddled chaotic present. History is now a meticulously staged event, recreated through lavish costumes, manor houses , palaces and rolling parklands. For serials set in the Orient, usually India, history is an exotic escapade with the usual props of the lotus and the tiger, the snake and nautch girls, bandits and fair damsels in distress.

Such are the economics of successful historical dramas that an entire ancillary industry develops. During our Downton Abbey phase we bought Downton Abbey calendars, mugs, and signed posters. The commercial puffery works quietly and one doesn’t really stop to consider what we are doing as we hit the pay now button on our screens. History is being commodified through the Poldark and the Downton Abbey tours but we don’t really worry about the money.

Salman Rushdie in his essay “Outside the Whale” had described movies based on Raj nostalgia (Gandhi, A Passage to India, The Jewel in the Crown) as being part of the refurbishment of the Empire’s tarnished image at a time when Britain stood beleaguered under the Thatcher era. Today, caught in the chaos of Brexit, all those who share the cosmos of the British cultural legacy return to bouts of nostalgia through a glut of return-to-the-past TV shows. Many of these shows rework the grand imperial theme albeit through a newly stylised, commercially profitable avatar.

Through continuous representation creeps in a subtle legitimisation, as if colonial history, though condemnable, nevertheless had an aura and grandeur about it.

Indians are complicit in this process. Most post-colonial writers living in the West choose to systematically highlight those concerns which can make a good Booker nomination. To read Jhumpa Lahiri, Amitav Ghosh, Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni, Neel Mukherjee and even Amit Chaudhuri (to name a few) is to return over and over again to the same themes: diasporic conflict, identity, displacement, disruption in the “margins” and the “centre” . Perhaps these novels, legitimised by their Booker shortlistings, conform to what the Booker still wants — Britain as the legitimising centre of cultural work. And so a re-hashing of the familiar themes!

For those of us who live and work in India without the comforting security of summer sabbaticals and writing retreats to Europe and America, our daily problems are very different from what these writers articulate.

Park Street in Calcutta is not the hallowed haven of partying and Flury’s cakes that diasporic Indians still remember fondly; it is a road chock full of traffic with jaywalkers, Uber cabs and a Kolkata Police sergeant looming up with traffic tickets as we struggle to reach a pathology for a blood test.

The old bungalows of the 50s and 60s mean nothing to us for we are caught up in the privations of daily life, paying hefty municipal taxes for living in them, trying to keep the road in front of our house free of street hawkers who are politically patronised, wondering whether the garbage vat will be cleaned, negotiating broken pavements and unruly cab drivers — an endless cycle of errands and duties in a city where civic systems have been eroded over the years.

Doubtless those who live in other Indian cities face the same.

And yet, like a Wes Anderson movie, such real lived experiences are never described in the works of these writers. Caught in the moment of rupture sometime in the 70s, 80s or 90s they create worlds of post-colonial exotic in much the same way as the makers of Victoria and Downton Abbey create mellow worlds of escape.

Cabaret dancers in Calcutta 1960s

No Marie Kondo. I Will Not Let Go!

The table I am writing on is a solid Burma teak, plain, unadorned but just right to hold a cup of tea, a jar of pens, a jug of water, two paperweights, a desk calendar, a laptop, a tiny silver Ganesha urging me to soldier on, a mountain of books balanced near the edge, postcards of Melk monastery, my son’s old school photos and a Glasgow coat of arms with the bird that never flew and the tree that never grew. Outside the shadows are growing, the parakeets are screaming to one another to hurry up please it’s time, the squirrels clamorously clamber down my slatted windows and make a bed for the night and the hundred year old West End Watch Company (Bombay Calcutta) ticks ponderously on.

If I had to follow Marie Kondo’s advice I should have kept nothing of all this. The table and chair are my grandfather’s, purchased from another old zamindar in the nineteen forties who was selling off for money, in the quiet desperation of his understanding that nothing would ever be the same again in his world. The clock on the wall was rescued from a room filled with lumber, cement and other building debris in an abandoned office. The Ganesha is a gift from someone who fell to cancer. And my son is poised on the brink of flight, perhaps a year more, before my nest is empty.


Oh that empty nest! Memories crowd in thick and fast — the C Otto Berlin cottage piano which once rang out with John Thompson’s Whirlybird, the brass pussycat my seventy year-old grandfather had brazenly bought to present to his beloved till prudence prevailed and he gave it to me instead, the brass head my husband and I had wandered off into the lanes of Jama Masjid in Delhi to buy, before we lost ourselves in a tiny Mughal world of attar- and- hijab -wearing women where I was the only one in trousers. I stare at the million year -old -fossil presented to my parents in Paradip when I was five by the miners and look entranced, as I did thirty three years ago, at the faint traces of wispy something. A plant, embedded in stone from when time began!

And the books! The rows and rows of spines, a good many of which I have seen from the beginning of my time, totem and taboo, Omar Khayyam, police at the funeral, the fly leaves with spidery handwriting of owners long gone, their messages of cherished love and regard now forgotten, the recipients also turned to dust with nothing to show that they existed except the dates — Railway Station Nagpur 1975, Calcutta 1962 — oh what a world of joy and sorrow, boredom and excitement as each reader read, preserved, passed down or gave away! I have books belonging to my grandmothers as children, and their fathers before, faded ink, yellowed pages, four generations in one pile.

Each object has a story and all the stories are a count of a life that has lived, created, bought, stored, dusted and polished before cruel oblivion. I remember both my sets of grandparents but for my son they are nothing. When my bell is rung, no doubt my immediate family and friends will remember but soon they too will pass. And soon with the passage of time we will all be nothing, or less than nothing but dreams.

So why should we give up on our memories and the objects that shape our memories? Memories, said Daphne du Maurier, are precious things and whether good or ill are never sad. We must weave these memories into our lives and caress them while we can. All my books, book knives, brass bric-a-brac are not clutter but a source of great sustenance, as are the frayed doily and the faded coverlet.

Come to my house, Marie Kondo, and be content.

Of Phantoms and Vampires

I remember how wonderful I felt when I first saw snatches of Michael Crawford in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘The Phantom of the Opera.’ There was a cursed sadness about him that was, well, haunting. The subterranean cave and the candles along with the coffin and the organ seemed to my seventeen year old mind a very pleasant Gothic and, like the heroine in Northanger Abbey,  I felt a trembling pleasure.

Some years later I watched the 2004 film. It wasn’t well received critically but I found it elegantly shot and as the music of the night played out the colours shimmered over the opera, over the brilliant plumed headdresses, the white veiled faces, the crowded balconies with the swirling dancers. It was all so alive as if the spirit of the past was still here. Being a Crawford admirer I was prejudiced about Gerard Butler but somehow it all worked. The phantom’s  deep tones of anguish and Christine’s voice, strong and sweet floated over the scenes. I felt I knew each emotion forever; the phantom’s wringing despair, the burning poignant love he bore for Christine and in the end, when the phantom was unmasked and made to appear ugly and menacing I saw in him a creature shy and absurd in his adoration.

With something of the same excitement I sat down to watch five gigantic blocks of further supernatural in ‘The Twilight Saga’. Here was an extended 331/3 RPM of dark creatures and their mysterious lives. Ugh! What a mess! Edward Cullen played a tall dark handsome vampire to Jacob Black’s tall dark handsome werewolf, both decorously fighting over the saintly Bella Swan. The torment was stretched over four sequels but it was difficult to get past one. Where I had hoped to discover the velvet richness of Goths and Vampires there were ultra-American voices of hero, antihero and the heroine, all ringing hard. The sequences were distressingly laboured and disappointing, everything was shining and orderly in their dull lives, the love scenes were stiff, the magic plebeian, the ghosts and werewolves looked like toys, the dark groves and forests looked suspiciously digital and there was a general air of small-town Netflix Original that was dampening.

Wherein lies the true trick of the ghostly and the mysterious? I suppose it is in the ordinary horrific. Hitchcock mastered it, in ‘Rebecca’ and ‘Psycho’- the Everyman caught in a critical moment.   Writers like Sheridan Le Fanu and M.R James were good at it, as was Roald Dahl. The makers of the Twilight Saga knew who their target audience was and created one big soppy melodrama out of something that could have been so riveting. Funnily enough, the song that accompanied the final instalment rings in my head now and then as an exceptionally beautiful song in a lamentable tale.

Such is life!

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C

Most teenagers listen to stuff I don’t understand. This is something I do. Number 21 kept me sane as I travelled to and fro college in Calcutta in the 90s, gritting my teeth against the diesel fumes of public buses and retreating to my private world on my Walkman. Three cheers for I’ll Tell You Later.

Fly On

The time between January 1784 and December 1786 was arguably the most productive period of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s career. He wrote an incalculable variety of music, from string quartets dedicated to Joseph Haydn to no fewer than 12 piano concertos and of course his celebrated ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’ (‘The Marriage of Figaro’). On the 9th of March, 1785, he made an entry in his thematic catalogue, “A piano concerto”. A day later, he premiered his new piece at the Burgtheatre in Vienna himself, improvising on the cadenzas in the First and Third Movements to a riveted audience. More than two centuries later, his Piano Concerto No. 21 in C (K. 467) still draws spellbound audiences and delights them with its unique charm.

While Chopin wrote exclusively for the solo piano and Beethoven pioneered the symphony, it was the realm of the concerto in which Mozart blossomed, writing 23…

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Perilous Starlight

The violence and viciousness of a child’s world are well known. Samuel Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, the staple of English literature courses today, dealt firmly with this as he de-mythologised conventions of  the helpless and tearful child and showed how monstrous they can be. The unpredictable world of children has been the subject of countless books. Dickens’ children are a useful point of reference here- leading terrible lives of quiet misery.

 I remember watching Jack Clayton’s Our Mother’s House (1967) before I became a mother myself and being quite horrified by the unforgivingly cruel world the children chose for themselves. Burying their mother in the backyard and shutting themselves off from the outside world they established their own world within, with its chilling rules and rituals. More recently, The Karate Kid (2010) blends children’s savagery with issues of race, which I think are far more relevant in today’s world than Golding’s paradise-turned hellhole parable.

A black child in China, a brown child in small town white America, a Turkish migrant’s child  in Sweden, a Hispanic in Korea: the mind boggles at what such children are going through as matters of race, community, ethnicity and gender are decided  in playgrounds and schoolrooms.

A child’s world is hard work. The sudden quarrels that sunder familiar friendships, the bullying, the trials of strength, the taunts and mockeries that have to be faced each day  from other children can sometimes be more dangerous than in an adult world.

Salman Khan, the Bollywood actor, produced a movie named Chillar Party (2011) in which a group of privileged children in a modern apartment complex torment Phatke, a poor village boy as he tries to eke out a precarious existence as a car-washer. The scene in which the boy’s pet mutt is locked up in a car and left to suffocate as Phatke, tears coursing down his cheeks, begs the rich children for mercy on his dog may be mawkish to some.

But it works! Phatke was a street-child himself in real life and may have brought to his role the understanding of felt experience. India has no official figures of its street children but there must be millions of them: grubby bodies, scarred faces, glue-sniffing, rag-picking multitudes who live precarious lives of beggary and crime.

My son, who at sixteen has changed schools and joined a new one, brings home terrible tales of teenage brutality. Not the fist-fighting, drug-taking violence of Hollywood movies, but the more insidious tales of identity and belonging, of a closed circle of insiders and the rejected outsiders; of the new boys who hang around on their own, packless, while the old boys have hardened their ranks and refused admittance.

As the schoolboy Goggles Ledwidge, a minor  character who nevertheless makes an important point in Aldous Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza realised, it is hard to belong. Huxley’s  novel  was about the turbulences in sexual and class-politics in 1930s England. But Goggles, like so many others who had gone before and would come after, realised soon enough that childhood  is the first  point of entry into the bitter lessons of life.

The Kitchen World

The world of the kitchen is almost Dantesque in preoccupation. Re-reading George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, a classic tale of sorrow and slavery in the kitchen pits of big hotels in Paris in the 1920s, I was struck by the references to fire and heat in the dark tunnelled world of a hotel basement kitchen.

It was lighted by one dim electric bulb, and four or five gas-fires that sent out a fierce red breath.” The hot steaming kitchen was a “stifling, low-ceilinged inferno of a cellar, red-lit from the fires, and deafening with oaths and the clanging of pots and pans”.

Orwell’s analysis of poverty has always struck me as being peculiarly effective, perhaps because of his real lived experiences.  Dorothy in A Clergyman’s Daughter or Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying have the battered un-heroic poverty of the very middle-middle class, a world in which appearances have to be maintained and the dinner at an expensive restaurant has got to be paid for airily, languorously even,  although the heart is racing at what this means for the rest of the week.

In Down and Out in Paris and London we take a step further and walk down into those mysterious caverns from which the fine food emerges only to find a sordid tale of poor wages, hours of drudgery, fights, drunkenness, cursing and every other kind of folly and knavery that the outside world has.

Hundreds of years before, Shakespeare had given us similar insights. In Twelfth Night Or What You Will—a play performed in 1602—the genteel world of the nobility in which the  thwarted romance of Duke Orsino for Countess Olivia is played out, is balanced by the seamier sides of the kitchen world of Malvolio, Sir Andrew Agueheek and Sir Toby Belch.

The subplot traces the fooling of the steward Malvolio who is duped, confined to a dark room and driven half mad by a series of supposed acts of tomfoolery under the adroit planning of Maria, the lady’s maid.  There is something sinister in the world of the steward and lady’s attendant and their childish acts of pure cruelty that approximates tragic overtones.

Even in the heightened world of period dramas like Gosford Park and Downton Abbey, the lilting notes of Christmas cheer aired in the Christmas Special episodes are entirely at variance with the dark concerns in the downstairs world.  Barrow’s homosexuality makes him particularly vulnerable, but so are the army of maids who get into ‘trouble’ because of their liaisons with the lord of the manor.

The kitchen frequently became a war zone where sex, class and prejudice combine. Briskly stirring a white sauce or decorating a roast, Daisy and Mrs Patmore had fierce arguments over literacy, propriety and hierarchy.

“Gastronomy is the science of pain” said Anthony Bourdain in his 1999 classic article in The New Yorker entitled  Don’t Eat Before Reading This.

It most certainly is.

Not only in the systematic slaughter and decapitation that cooking involves, carving out head and heart and kidneys, skinning animals still warm with life, washing off bits of clotted blood but also in the appearances that have to be maintained: dressing stale food and passing it off as fresh, using the same ingredients in disguised ways to create a new-fangled soup, huge amounts of pretence in using the same old butter and garlic and cream in a hundred so called innovative ways.

And of course, the tiredness, the rudeness, the squalid lives of the men behind the glass door. Last month, at the Madras hotel in which I was staying, I saw a bitter looking man of twenty something send back his uneaten pasta thrice, complaining that it was tasteless.

Three times the waiters sent it back to the cook, and three times the cook sent it back again with new forms of pasta, garnishing, sauce and yet to no avail. The bitter young man had tasted pasta ambrosia somewhere and no earthly penne could soothe him.

“Everyone seemed to be in a hurry and a rage” noted Orwell. Yes. From Paris in the 1920s to Madras in 2018, from the sham shouting of Gordon Ramsay to the real humiliation of the chef at our hotel, the world of the hotel kitchen is the world of the Inferno. Unknown battles with flesh and vegetables become the Roast Mutton with Brandy Sauce.

Hell’s Kitchens in hotels and restaurants prepare our meals and wait for the depressing business of eating to be got over with before the shift can be brought to an end. Till it begins next morning again.

And so the tedium continues.

Panopticon

via Daily Prompt: Observe

All right. I’ve been observed all my life. In nursery school. At singing lessons. During examinations .

In my work place I am the observed again. Carefully placed cameras in the nooks and crannies of the college hall observe me walking to my graduate class students. The students, bored and unable to understand me, observe my teaching as a performance. I perform Macbeth and they watch my performance with a sigh while the Principal stands outside the door and observes …no judges me. I want to be free. I want to hear the cicadas and watch a drongo skip from branch to branch, I want to observe the specks of airplanes as they climb the skies. I want to be one with the twigs and branches, the baked mud and the parched earth.

But to do all this I must have sufficient means and to garner that means another round of observations and grading and measuring out my life in coffee spoons and core course periods. Still trapped. A poor life this if full of care/ we have no time to stand and stare.

Far Away and Long Ago

Once upon a time, though it seems so far away now, it was 1978 and I was a child. My father was an officer in the Indian Railways and was presiding over the phased withdrawal of steam and its eventual replacement by diesel and electric. Narrow gauge lines were being dismantled in favour of broad gauge, which meant a standard five feet width so that express trains could gallop past at alarming speed. The old locomotives were being sold as scrap, or put into museums or made to decorate the entrances of railway colonies, stations and offices.

We were in a small town in Bengal, so small that no one knows its name save for the fifty or so railway officers who lived in red brick bungalows in its tiny nineteenth century colony. The bungalows had front gardens, lily pools, back gardens, summer houses, green houses, Bougainvillea trellises, Rangoon creepers over the wooden balustrades and large tin baths in enormous bathrooms, under which lay coiled snakes as they glided in for shelter on a hot summer day.

As we played amongst the sunflowers and tamarind trees, the smell of Railway mutton curry drifted in from the kitchens,  prepared by the station cook in fiery chilly sauce. And in the evenings one set off for the Club, with its wooden ballroom where the moms and dads played rummy and sipped beer while the children scrambled around the badminton courts and gardens playing ‘catch’ or ‘Red Rover’ or the exciting “Wolf and the Lamb”.

It had been a terrible year for rains and flash floods had suddenly left us all marooned. My father was in a terrible state because all the lines had been flooded and train movement ground to a halt. Passengers were stranded, it is true, but the more serious trouble was the movement of freight.

When Lord Dalhousie built the first railway lines it was less for passenger movement than for the quick movement of troops, raw materials for industries and freight movement across the country. And so we put ourselves into a saloon car and travelled as far down as we dared while my father supervised flood relief work and I, cut off from my school in Calcutta, could enjoy three weeks of wondrous confinement in a train.

Oh, what a time I had! We baked in the saloon car by day, because there was no air-conditioning and the slatted shutters had to be pulled down. In the evening the carriage went for a spot of shunting and I hung my head out of the window as we wandered up and down branch lines, backward and forward, backward and forward till we were put on the ‘up’ or ‘down’ siding. And all the while our steam engine puffed and panted and whooshed, screaming  a thin tinny horn as the wheels went jhuk-jhuk-jhuk and the carriage clicked and rattled.

Saloon RA-6 (232)

Once every three days another steam engine would ponderously pull up alongside ours with a tremendous whooosh and the driver would give me a wink and tug at the horn as his mate shovelled across coal from his engine to ours for. . . . cooking, for the saloon kitchen had no gas range but a mighty coal-fed chula upon which meals were cooked. And yes, the sunny-side-up for my father’s breakfast was perfectly done.

We were the last Romantics! Alas, steam was out by 1980! Never again would I ride on a train pulled by a steam locomotive, with its tugging, jerky movements and its tremendous hissing and spitting as it breathed fire and brimstone and hurtled headlong into the night. I have travelled far and wide on clinical trains that pull noiselessly  in and glide gently out, but never felt the thrill of that first tremendous tug as the wheels pulled and the doors  slammed and we could smell the smoky air and had to dust the soot from the seat before settling in.

The British Raj took much away from India but gave some things in return and the Railways has been one of those things that has given so many of us life, sustenance and memories.

Is it any wonder that Bhowani Junction has always been one of my most favourite novels and movies? I lived in the last of the Bhowani Junctions.

I miss them.

August, Munnoo and Empire

Shashi Tharoor’s famed speech on British reparation for its misdeeds has always struck me as being the brilliant but theatrical rant of a showy man. Colonial rule was oppressive, money-minded and debilitating but it was also a historically complex phenomenon in which many Indians collaborated and benefits were sown. Leaving aside the Princely States who were frank defenders of British rule, the fact that I am writing this post in English from a beautiful high-ceilinged British-built bungalow of the nineteenth century in Calcutta which was the British city to beat all others  shows that I too may be a product of colonialism. My school and college institutions certainly were—the one set up by the Loretto Sisters in the garden house of an eighteenth century British judge, the other established in 1817 to facilitate Western secular education through the medium of English. Tharoor certainly is also a product of Empire. His voice is modulated to Etonian splendour and I’m really not sure if the shopgirl at Debenhams  in Liverpool would have quite understood him. But then he wouldn’t go there, would he! A spot of shooting with cronies in an impressive two hundred year old estate in the Scottish Highlands would be more his style.

Issues regarding identity have always been touchy though. Upamanyu Chatterjee’s masterly novel “English, August : An Indian Story” shows an English Literature graduate remembering his Milton and Pope in the grimy heat of fictional Madna which represents small town India. Agastya can make nothing of nothing and finds himself alien in the IAS society as well as in village life. A century and a half ago  Gilbert Elliott, the first Lord Minto yearned for the Scottish Borders as he sat watching a nautch in a sweat-soaking evening at the Governor General’s weekend retreat at Barrackpore.

When Lord Minto went to Java for a Company campaign, the Hindu Rajah of Bali presented him with a brood of young girls and boys as slaves. Lord Minto took a fancy to two of them, and as he tells us in his Reminiscences, named them Child and Man and took them back to Scotland in 1813. The good Lord Minto died before he could reach his home  but Child and Man had been sent on there in advance. What happened to them after he died? Sunk in history except for a few mentions in a Scotsman’s letters in the nineteenth century, I think of two Malayan children, torn from their home in Asia, alone in the chill green of a village near the North Sea and wonder what befell them.

Carrying slaves back to England was a bad habit in the nineteenth century. William Hickey (1749-1830) was a lawyer better known for his Memoirs, written around 1810 and giving us extraordinary glimpses of colonial life in London, Madras and Calcutta. In Calcutta his Memoirs provide a fascinating account of famous names and events, including the young Rose Aylmer, beloved of Walter Savage Landor, who died of a most severe bowel complaint “brought on entirely by indulging too much with that mischievous and dangerous fruit: the pineapple”.  Hickey returned to England in 1810 after burying two wives, one of which was his Indian mistress Jemdanee and their young son. On his return he brought with him his servant Munnoo and a pie-bald dog Tiger. Munnoo had been acquired some time before.
Here’s how:

“I engaged a remarkably smart, good-tempered boy about thirteen years old named Munnoo, who had then lived with me upwards of four years, without ever being of the least real use, his chief occupation being to make other servants laugh by his monkey tricks when waiting at table and standing at the back of my chair as he always did; his mother, who doated upon the boy, would not for a long time consent to let him go to Europe, until an offer of [approximately £60] which I made her proved irresistible; she accepted the money and agreed to part with her favourite Munnoo, and a more attached and faithful creature never existed than he has proved to me.”

By December 1808 Mr Hickey had taken a house in Beaconsfield to be near an old friend and his twin sisters. Here he resumed the life of an elderly English gentleman ( in great contrast to the peccadilloes of his youth) walking, reading, going to London. Here too lived Munnoo in a precarious in-between manner till the child took the matter in his own hands.

“In the month of February my favourite Munnoo, without the least hint or solicitation on my part upon the subject, expressed an earnest desire to be made a Christian.  I had upon first coming to Beaconsfield put him to school to be taught to read and write; his schoolmaster, having made the Catechism the first object, probably turned his thoughts that way.  I therefore applied to the Reverend Mr Bradford, Curate of the place, who very kindly furnished him with the books requisite to give him all the necessary information previous to becoming a member of the Church of England, and as the boy was extremely zealous, he soon entitled himself to receive baptism, which ceremony was performed in the church of Beaconsfield, by Mr Bradford, his sponsors being myself, a man-servant of mine, and my sister Sarah.  Upon this occasion I thought it would be as well to anglify his name a little, and therefore instead of Munnoo, I had him designated in the parochial register, “William Munnew”.

Poor Munnoo! Caught between two worlds, belonging to neither, Mr Munnew married in 1813 a girl called Anne and had two children, christened most unimaginatively Anne and William, before rising from servant to “licensed victualler”. He died in the 1830s and left behind a large Munnew family in Westminster whose descendants had little Indian in them save their genes. The image tagged to this post shows a portrait of Munnoo with his master and the dog Tiger, all three looking distant and thoughtful to India which they have left behind.

An interesting way of seeing the British colonisation of India  is to see it as one in a wave of colonisations and empires of over two thousand years. The British experience was no worse or better than the others.  And though Munnoo and Jemdanee, Child and Man lived fragile lives, they showed that humanity can adapt itself to the unfamiliar in many ways.