Wednesday, 23 May 2018

RESEARCH TRIP TO INDIA - Part 4 - Lucknow, the British Residency, and talking to generals and brigadiers in Delhi



I had been to Lucknow before several times, but taking my daughter to see her Indian ancestral home was very special and made me see everything with new eyes. Even though she and my son had visited India many times, North India is very different from Mumbai, and the very westernised circle of friends that I have there. It brought home to me even more strongly how remarkable it was that my father, a village boy from a very insular community, had ended up travelling the world and opening his eyes and mind to cultures and ideas. In my childhood he was an Anglophile, who also loved France and spoke fluent French, but in his older years he turned back to his Indian roots - to yoga, Buddhist philosophy and the Gita. He remained open-minded and never tried to interfere with our lives, or even give advice.

During my father's childhood, unlike now, Uttar Pradesh (or United Provinces as it was then, under British Rule) was a place where Hindus and Muslims lived in harmony, and, although worshiping and marrying within their own communities, they shared a common culture, attending and participating in each other's music and poetry recitals. As a child I remember the village square being full of people of all faiths watching a performance of Ramayana or an all night ghazal concert.

The impressive Mughal architecture of Lucknow, capital of Awadh (now Uttar Pradesh), centre of Muslim culture, and at one point the richest state in India, is mostly crumbling now. But it is still worth seeing.  The view from the Bara or Great Imambara (a sacred hall) built by the Nawab of Awadh, Asaf-ud-Daula, (above) is stunning.

View from the Great Imambara


Small Imambara

Near the Bara Imambara is the Chotta or Small Imambara, a modest building elegantly decorated in black and white, but the inside is a surprising contrast. 


Interior of the Chhota Imambara

In the 1980s, when I last visited with my father, there were glass chandeliers from Venice and other European centres of glass blowing, part of the collections of the Nawabs from their pre-independence heydays, standing abandoned in the corridors of almost every museum and heritage building we visited. Many of them seem to have found a home here. 
And walking around the city there are still many impressive sights. 
Imambara gate, Lucknow
Rumi Darwaza (Gate), Lucknow
For those interested in colonial history the ruins of the British Residency - one of the sites of the uprising of 1857 - is well worth a visit. Beautifully preserved, the ruins themselves are full of atmosphere and tell the tragic story of the siege. I visited in the 1980s, when it was more atmospheric in some ways because nothing had been done to the site, so it looked just as it had been left after the siege, scarred by shot and shell. It was impossible to imagine how anyone could have survived, let alone retained their sanity for five whole months. Perhaps this is where the seeds of my novel, "Belonging", came from, because, although my sense of justice has always lain on the side of the colonised, rather than the colonisers, it is hard not to imagine, and therefore empathise, with any human being in such desperate straits.

Ruins in the British Residency complex, now flying the Indian flag
The Residency Museum
The Residency Tower where the British flag flew



The site is now being managed to prevent the buildings from deteriorating further and some excavation and restoration work is being done. There is also a museum that tells the history of the siege in the context of the larger uprising. The information boards acknowledge the courage and sacrifice both of the attacking forces, and of the British defenders and the sepoys who fought alongside them.


Susanna Palmer, 18, struck by a cannon ball on the first day of the siege.
Sir Henry Lawrence, the Resident, was killed by a bullet on the same day.
As India and I walked up the path towards the Residency, I remembered Sqn Ldr Rana Chinna at CAFHR in Delhi telling us that he had been a consultant on the episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” where Billy Connolly explored the history of his great-grandfather, who was one of British garrison during the Siege. The two men were asked to walk up the path towards the Residency with the camera tracking them, but Billy Connolly was so funny that the director had to keep calling them back for another take and beg Connolly to stop telling jokes, “… because we can see Rana’s shoulders shaking, and this isn’t supposed to be funny.”

The common grave where over a hundred of those who died
defending the Residency were buried.
The cemetery is poignant. Apart from the common grave, in which over a hundred of the defenders killed in the Siege are buried, there are also the memorials to individuals of high rank, like Lt-Colonel Neill, responsible for some of the most savage reprisals after the uprising, who left a trail of death and devastation behind him on his way to relieve Cawnpore (this also features in "Belonging"). There are memorials, too, to those who died attacking the Residency. And in the civil section, one get a vivid picture of the routine attrition of colonial life even in peacetime: children dying in infancy, and young women whose graves give the cause of death as 'heat prostration". One couple, the Irelands, lost five children, two of them within a month of each other in 1910, before dying themselves in 1914.


The ruins of the burnt out Residency Church and cemetery


For anyone who wants to learn more about the Siege and the colonial attitudes that provoked it, J G Farrell’s satirical novel, The Siege of Krishnapur, which won the Booker Prize in 1973 and was shortlisted for the Best of Booker Prize in 2008, is a wonderful mixture of farce and tragedy. For an Indian take on the revolt, or War of Independence, the Bollywood film "Mangal Pandey - The Rising" about the sepoy whose attack on an officer sparked the uprising, gives a romantic version of events, though the four men on an elephant, who keep popping up to sing an anthem in praise of him, add an unintentionally Pythonesque touch to the proceedings. For those who prefer non-fiction, this fascinating diary of Katherine Mary Bartram, a widow who survived the siege, provides a poignant personal account. 

After Lucknow, we returned to Delhi where I gave a talk about using historical research in fiction to the Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research (CAFHR), run by Sqn.Ldr. Rana Chhina, who had generously allowed me to use their facilities for research. I was a bit nervous to discover that the audience consisted mainly of retired brigadiers and generals, who did not seem to have a natural interest in fiction (several made a point of telling me that they had written memoirs, war histories and, in one case, a comic book). But they all listened politely, but looked so serious (grim, even) that I tried to lighten the mood by giving them a flavour of Brighton as I first encountered it, including an account of witnessing my first naked bike ride, at which they just looked bemused.

General Cardozo, the head of the United Services Institute (USI) where CAFHR is based, chaired the event and I was fortunate to be seated next to him at lunch afterwards, where he told me some astonishing stories of his war service. An extraordinary man, he was the first disabled officer to command a battalion and brigade after losing a leg in combat and subsequently won a medal for bravery in action. According to his very brief Wikipedia entry, he cut off his own leg with a kukri after he was wounded by a land mine. Despite his clear air of authority and command, he was charming and easy to talk to, and in many ways reminded me of my father. 

Major General Ian Cardozo. By Devopam [CC BY-SA 4.0
(https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
This has been such an interesting trip. Becoming an author has opened me up to encounters and experiences that I would never otherwise have had, and I am enjoying every single minute of it. I feel so lucky to have received this funding - it has been such an amazing experience, and it isn't over yet. This trip just goes on and on...

Still to come: A visit to the Partition Museum in Amritsar, a visit to the Wagah border and the Jaipur Festival. 




Friday, 27 April 2018

INDIA RESEARCH TRIP - Part 3 - revisiting Nanpara, the home of my Indian forebears



A UP village in the fog

Shishir, a merchant navy officer, and the son of Shobha, the farmer’s son who looked after my grandparents in their old age and whom they left the house to, had kindly met us at Lucknow with a car and driver to take us to Nanpara.  It was reassuring to have a local driver because the one thing I had forgotten, when I wrote those lyrical descriptions of northern Indian winters in Belonging, was the thick fogs. In the mornings, before the sun gets hot enough to thin it out, it is so dense that sometimes you can’t see more than a few feet in front of you. Driving is terrifying, as truck drivers overtake blindly even on roads that have trees or ditches lining either side, so there is nowhere to go. But it was afternoon when we left Lucknow, so visibility was slightly better and our driver was remarkably calm and unfazed by lorries suddenly materialising on our side of the road out of the fog.

Seeing my grandparents’ house again produced mixed feelings. The last time I had visited Nanpara, when I was twenty-nine, it was May - harvest time, and the hottest month of the year. Many government offices close and people go home to their villages to visit family or help with bringing the crops in. The Courts close for the whole month too, and by then Dad was practicing law (a more traditional occupation for a kayashta) in Bombay High Court after he retired from the Navy, having done his bar exams at Lincoln's Inn while naval attache at the Indian High Commission in London in the 1950s.

The house was then almost at the end of the village. The narrow road between it and Shiva temple opposite ran on through open fields and past a small village with a few traditional huts with thatched roofs and whitewashed mud walls dotted with cowpats that had been stuck there to dry out in the sun. On that particular day, the men were threshing, their arms swinging in rhythm as they flailed at the wheat on the ground, and flecks of grain and husk filled the air around them and stuck to the sweat on their bare chests, arms and faces, so they looked as if they’d been gilded. Nearby, women in bright saris shook the threshed grains back and forth in large flat baskets on their heads; the winnowed husks showered down, forming a shimmering veil around them. I wished I’d brought a camera but - perhaps because I hadn’t - the picture has stayed in my mind as a living memory rather than a static image.


Walking on through the fields, we came to a low thatched shelter, about waist high, and open at the front, in which sat a hermit – a Brahmin called Lallu Maharaj- a simple soul who was supplied with food by people from the nearby villages. My father walked out to meet him for a philosophical chat every time he visited. A couple of miles further on stood a small white Hindu temple by a large pond, shaded by trees and full of water hyacinth. It was picturesque and peaceful, and it has often appeared in my dreams. 

But Lallu is long gone, as is the traditional village. The area is now built up with single storey rough brick houses, and when we finally found the temple I barely recognised it. It has been painted pink, which seems to be a new fashion for temples, as the one opposite the house has been too. The pond is now almost dried up, the remaining water stagnant and full of rubbish. The priest, a striking looking man, outfitted in magenta, presumably to match his temple, looked pleased to be asked to pose for a picture. 

Inside the courtyard of my grandparents’ house, the changes were even greater. The internal walls dividing the different family properties have gone, and the entire courtyard is now one property instead of the four it used to be. Two of the other family properties, which used to be in separate plots within the same walled courtyard, and most of my grandparents’ house, have been demolished, all except the front wall with its red pillars, which opened into the verandah where my grandfather used to sit on his charpoi (rope-strung bed), resting from his labours in the vegetable garden and talking philosophy with my father. Behind the wall now stands the shell of an impressive two storey house, every detail designed by Shobha himself, with pillars and a roof terrace, still awaiting doors, windows, floors, plumbing and electrics.

The old verandah area 



The new house looms over the front wall of the old house
Shobha was still the same, even forty years later: funny, smart and confident. He and his wife, Renu, made us very welcome and generously gave up their bedroom to us. While the house has been being built, as time and money becomes available, Shobha and his family have been camping in the last inhabitable rooms of the one property that still stands in one corner of the courtyard. When the big house is finished they too will be demolished. 

Shishir and his sister Saumya showed us around the village to the places connected with our family history (covered in the last blog). In the evenings we sat, reminisced, ate delicious local delicacies produced by Renu and her sister-in-law, and told stories around a bowl of burning logs in the ground floor of the unfinished new house. 



The family showed us round and helped me to identify the places I remembered – the site of the old well that used to stand under a mango tree on a raised stone platform behind the house which now lies under the new building; the old open air toilets, where three people could squat side by side; my grandfather’s beloved vegetable garden, which is still in use; and the corner of the courtyard which used to bound our family unit, where my grandmother used to squat to cook at her open-air hearth. The open air kitchen with the tiled roof, is still there beside it, though that too will go when the house is finished.

Outside our courtyard, the village and its people are still in essence the same, and the lifestyle is still much as I remember it – apart from mobile phones, technology is still largely missing from home life. There is still curiosity about foreign visitors, the obligatory visits to old family friends, the welcome and hospitality, the ceremonial offer of tea or lassi and delicious snacks, and sitting around the fire in people’s gardens, talking of the old days.

The view from the roof terrace of the new house

After Nanpara, we returned to Lucknow for a couple of days. If we still have family in the city, I have lost touch with them. My father’s closest relative, his first cousin - Doctor Sahb as he was always known - died some years before my father, estranged from his wife and children. He had disowned both his sons for marrying out of their caste. My father tried to persuade him to be less inflexible, but in vain. His autocratic behaviour and refusal to adapt to changing society eventually alienated even his dutiful and long-suffering wife, who went to live in America with her daughter. He ended up alone, a sad, embittered old man. I liked Sushil, the older son, very much but sadly lost touch with him and his lovely Punjabi wife. The younger son, Lalloo, who had married an Air Force pilot's widow, died young. I never met his wife.

There is another branch of the family in Lucknow but, unlike my grandfather and father, they were very conservative. I never liked them much and never felt accepted by them. On the couple of occasions that Dad and I stayed with them overnight on the way to Nanpara, I felt as though, as a “half-caste”, I was seen as a source of contamination. I don’t think any of them ever accepted my father’s marriage, and he never brought my mother to U.P. to meet the family. 

So in Lucknow now I am just a tourist, but it is a city full of fascinating history and well worth visiting. More about that in the next blog. 

Next blog: A visit to Lucknow, Amritsar and the Partition Museum and a visit to the Wagah border.  Still to come: Our return to Delhi and my talk at the United Services Institute to an audience of generals and brigadiers. And a hair-raising adventure on the way to the Jaipur Festival. 





Tuesday, 13 March 2018

INDIA RESEARCH TRIP – Part 2 - Family History



Lt. Bhagwati Prasad (Bob) Sinha
After Delhi, we flew to Lucknow before travelling on to Nanpara, the village where my father was born and grew up, near the border with Nepal. Lucknow is the capital of Uttar Pradesh and was the centre of Muslim culture in India – a city full of exquisite Mughal architecture, where Urdu poetry, music and dance flourished, a place where the communities were so integrated that Hindus often bore Muslim names, my grandfather being a case in point. A Hindu of the Kayastha caste, from which ministers, administrators, civil servants and court clerks traditionally were recruited, he was given the name Iqbal, a Muslim name meaning “fortunate”, while his brother was called Kanaiyalal, after Lord Krishna. 
Photo by Nitin Dani -  http://www.nitindani.com/ - Used with permission

Kayashthas worship pen and ink and perform an annual pooja (worship ceremony) to them. My grandfather joined the postal service and rose to become Postmaster of Nanpara, and was given the honorific title “Bahadur”, often given to officers in British service. He became a prominent man in his village.

Dad’s mother was Nepalese and died of puerperal fever, along with his baby sister, shortly after giving birth. Dad was still a baby himself. When I interviewed him about his life in his ‘80s I asked him what her name was. He said he didn’t know. Apparently he never thought to ask. His father remarried a couple of years later. 


Dad was an only child, but he had a cousin-sister Priya, two years older than him, of whom he was very fond. One night, when he was seven and she was nine, they were sleeping outside under the chajja – an overhanging cement canopy – when it collapsed killing her outright. Dad was saved by two beams that crossed over his bed. He still became emotional talking about it more than seventy years later and this was unusual because he was a man who rarely showed his feelings. He had suffered a lot of loss in his young life and was always a loner, spending more time with his maths master than with friends, though he once showed me a scar in his head which had been caused by a friend who had accidentally struck him with an axe while they were foraging for firewood in the forest. Dad was bending over holding a log for his friend to chop. The friend was frightened and ran home without telling anyone and it was hours before Dad was found. There was no hospital in the village and he said they had plastered his head with a poultice of “some local remedy, like hay and cow dung”. I’m still not sure if he was joking.

After school Dad went to the University of Lucknow, where he joined the University Training Corps. The Scottish NCO who ran it took a shine to him and encouraged him to sit the exams to join the armed forces.  Indians had started been accepted as officers in the Royal Indian Navy in 1934, and they took just one a year, and only as engineer officers, probably because it meant they would never command a ship.  Dad took second place in the national exam and had a choice of all three services. He took the navy place because he liked the uniform and he wanted to travel, and naval officers were trained in Britain, while army officers went to Dehradun.

Mum and Dad's wedding
Joining the military was not something people of Dad’s caste did then. Crossing the ocean – the kala pani, or black water, as it’s known in India – meant losing his caste, and when he returned to India after the war he had to perform a pooja with the village elders as a kind of penance to restore it. His father had chosen a bride for him, but he married my mother, an Englishwoman whom he had met in Britain at the end of the war, so we, his children, became outcastes.

Dad arrived in Britain in 1938, and trained at Portsmouth Dockyard and Royal Naval Engineering College, at Keyham, Plymouth. He remained in Britain throughout the war, and after getting five firsts at Keyham was the first Indian to attend Greenwich Naval College. He also served on the Arctic Convoys, which carried food and supplies to Russia, then our allies. He was in one of the ships, The HMS Jamaica, which was involved in the Battle of the North Cape, when the pride of the German navy, the battleship Scharnhorst, was sunk. 

In the Cold War years that followed, the British government decided not to award medals to those who had helped Russia, or to allow them to accept medals offered by the Russian government. After years of campaigns by veterans and their families, they relented and issued the Arctic Star medal. By then my father was in the Asvini Hospital, the military hospital in Mumbai where my brother Indra and I were born. Delivering the medal to Dad, seventy years after the event, to the astonishment of doctors who happened to be doing their rounds, bought him some much-needed attention. And in May 2015, three years after his death, we were finally invited by the Russian Embassy to a ceremony in Hastings where he was posthumously awarded the Ushakov Medal for his service to Russia. And although the Russian award list states that the medals were awarded to “Citizens of Britain”, Dad was never a British citizen. 

The Ushakov Medal

Nanpara is just 25 miles from the Nepalese border, and my father’s ancestral home, originally on the edge of the village opposite a Shiva Temple, was a traditional house enclosed in a large walled courtyard with an open air kitchen, a well, and a large vegetable garden in which my grandfather spent many hours wearing his dhoti and my father’s naval issue solar topee. The compound was divided into different units as it was joint family property shared by both the brothers’ families, but grandfather had the largest part. 

There’s a story about the way the land was acquired. My great-grandfather was Chief of Police to the Rajah of Nanpara, and it was rumoured that the land was given to him as reward for helping to conceal from his British superiors that the Rajah had walled up alive his favourite dancing girl for running off with one of his stewards. My father said the rumour was rife when he was a child and he once asked his grandfather if it were true, but his grandfather denied it. But then, as Mandy Rice Davies put it, “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?”


Shishir, India and I in front of the Rajah of Nanpara's palace - now derelict

When I visited my grandparents’ house as a child, there was no electricity or running water and the toilets were open air cement channels in which three people could squat companionably side by side. A bucket of ash stood nearby to be sprinkled over the ‘kaka’, which was scooped out with shovels through holes in the courtyard wall by the Dalits, or “Untouchables”, as they were known then. Showers were taken by the well, under the mango tree, and I enjoyed pulling up the buckets and washing our clothes there too, much to my grandmother’s astonishment.

My grandparents in old age
By the time I returned there in my late twenties, there was flickering  electricity and some noisy ceiling fans, and running water but no drains, which resulted in the town becoming ankle deep in sewage in the monsoon. The cow was gone, but there was still my grandmother's strong ginger-infused morning tea, which was the best thing to wake up to, followed by supple chapattis tasting of butter and ash, and crisp lightly cooked vegetables from the garden. She would send me off to fetch a chilli or lemon or onion, which entailed a hunt through the house as for some reason she placed them randomly on windowsills in different rooms. My grandfather had a hookah, which he and my father would smoke together. When they had finished, my grandmother would go off into a corner and squat there with her sari pulled right over her head and puffs of smoke emerging from under it, as though she was on fire. She was a countrywoman, uneducated and illiterate, and spoke a rough local dialect, whereas my grandfather spoke Hindi, Urdu and Persian, and read Sanskrit, but they seemed to live in harmony.  She had no children of her own and seemed genuinely fond of Dad, but he never felt close to her. When we talked about his life when he was in his eighties and I asked him how he felt about her he said, “Well... neutral really.”

After Independence, his career took off. He was promoted rapidly and could only visit his parents once a year. As they got older, my grandfather, who was governor of a school, began to take in the sons of farmers and to pay for their education in return for their help around the house and garden.  The last of these boys, Shobha, was with them for years, living with them into adulthood. He became like a son to them and when my grandmother was too old to cope his mother came to live with them and look after them. With my father’s agreement my grandfather left Shobha the house. It was his family that India, my daughter, and I were going to visit. It would be the first time she would see the house where her grandfather was born.

Dad and Grandad in later life
Before we arrived, Shobha’s son, Shishir, reminded me of the time that my father and I took ten year old Shobha to the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve. We’d arrived by train at the station after a long journey, and used the wind up telephone to ring the reserve to send a jeep to collect us. We rang and rang but there was no reply. Eventually the stationmaster suggested we ride in the steam engine through the forest and the train driver could drop us off near the Reserve.

As we walked through the forest, I said to my father, “What if a tiger comes along?” He laughed. “Don’t be stupid. It’s rare to see a tiger and, anyway, it would be more afraid of us than we are of it.” When we arrived at the Reserve, it was apparent from the general gadbad (disarray) that something had happened. A guard came rushing out to meet us and demanded: “What are you doing walking through the forest? Don’t you know there’s a man-eater out there?”

It turned out that the night before one of the guards had gone to do his business in the forest (apparently there were no toilets in their quarters) and while crouching had been mistaken for an animal by the tiger, which carried him off. The guards had been looking for him all morning and had eventually found his lota (washing pot) on the other side of the ditch that separated the quarters from the forest. That morning the postman, cycling to the Reserve, had been charged by a tiger and knocked off his bicycle. Fortunately the tiger attacked the bicycle and the postman was able to climb a tree. The guards seemed angrier with their unfortunate colleague than with the tiger. “God knows why he crossed the ditch,” the guard said. “Stupid bastard! Now we’ll have to kill that tiger, because once they’ve tasted human blood they get a taste for it.”

The next morning we went out on elephant back, sticking to the path, and were lucky enough to see, not one, but two tigers. One was walking through the long grass, almost perfectly camouflaged. The other was lying by the side of the track. He allowed us to approach within ten feet of him before lazily getting to his feet and ambling away. Clearly not so afraid of humans then.

To be continued…

RESEARCH TRIP TO INDIA - Part 4 - Lucknow, the British Residency, and talking to generals and brigadiers in Delhi

I had been to Lucknow before several times, but taking my daughter to see her Indian ancestral home was very special and made me ...