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.