Monday, 3 February 2020

Schoolboys and a Dead Doctor—part 2

Life in the RAJ
In 1951, James Annan Wilson, or Jim as he was always known, after fathering four girls the oldest of whom was about to turn twenty-years-old, wasn’t prepared to entertain the possibility that number five would be a son, so, when my sister phoned to tell him of my arrival, at first he didn’t believe her. However, proof was forthcoming and, unaware of the confusion I had caused, I squalled my way back to my new home at 10 Duddingston Crescent in Portobello, equally unaware that a few minutes walk away on Duddingston Ave was the house where, almost exactly three years later, the infant who was to become my wife would also come home. Had I stayed, grown up and met and married the girl around the corner, this would not be remarkable, however my stay in the neighbourhood was brief and our meeting was in a very different time and place. Even if unintentional, the tangled webs we weave begin early.
Prior to my arrival, Jim had lived much of his life in India. He was born in Lucknow on January 20, 1905, but returned to Scotland around 1909 to live with his uncle, James, in Helensburgh. In 1915 he crossed the country to Edinburgh to attend boarding school at Fettes before, in 1921, beginning a five year apprenticeship in engineering at North British Locomotive's Hyde Park Works in Glasgow. North British mainly built steam engines and, among other projects, Jim would have worked on several Ab class 4-6-2 Pacific tender steam locomotives for New Zealand railways. One that he probably knew, Ab 745, crashed fifty feet down an embankment between Wanganui and New Plymouth in 1956 and lay buried until 2001 when it was purchased for a dollar. It now sits in a Rimutaka Incline Railway Heritage Trust shed in Maymorn, awaiting restoration.
Ab 745 after its last journey
In 1927 Jim returned to India to take up a post with the Bombay and North Western Railway where he rose to be a Chief Mechanical Engineer and acted occasionally as ‘Government Surveyor of inland steam vessels’ for the Government of Bihar. A few weeks leave in each of 1935, 1939 and 1945/46 were the only times he went back to Britain before his final return not long before my arrival. 
My father’s contribution to the jewel of the British imperial crown came to an end with partition and independence on August 15, 1947. On May 20, 1950—he stayed on to help with the transition to independence—he walked down the gangplank of the S.S. Stratheden in London. Jim’s wife, Eve, had travelled down from Edinburgh to meet him off the boat. It must have been a strange homecoming. They had not seen each other for four years and only for less than six months since September, 1939. In that time three of Jim and Eve’s daughters had grown up and the fourth had been born and died. Jim was forty-five years old, overweight and, although entering his profession as Government Official in the ship’s passenger list, he was unemployed and had precious little experience of living in the changing world of mid-twentieth century Britain. The train journey back up north must have been bleak. 
For my parents, after such long separation, the adjustment of recreating a life together in a dreary post-war Scotland, a land that they barely knew and that life had hardly prepared them for, must have been incredibly harsh and stressful. Into the middle of all of this and blissfully unaware, I arrived.
As I grew, I only had a vague sense of how difficult life was for my parents. I was aware that we had very little ‘Indian stuff’. All my relatives who had lived in India had houses filled with faded memorabilia: intricately inlaid tables, hammered brass bowls and trays, moth-eaten tiger skins, and, in one case, an elephant’s foot worked into a stool. It was only years later that I discovered the reason for this gap in the family history.
Like many refugees from the Raj, my parents brought with them trunks and tea chests filled with their most treasured possessions: silverware, crockery, cutlery, pictures, small favourite items of furniture, ornaments, pieces of Indian work that would always remind them of their lost past. After Jim came home, my parents’ Indian life was put into storage until the family became settled. The settling didn’t happen and there was never enough money to recover the possessions from storage. Eventually, everything was sold off to pay for the storage costs. 
I suspect that this cruel wrench from the life that she loved broke my mother’s heart and contributed to her dislike of the world I grew up in, but I was oblivious. All I remember from India were easily transportable things that had never gone into storage or had survived our many moves. There was old-fashioned bone-handled cutlery and increasingly chipped willow pattern cups, plates and bowls, but the things that fascinated me were the remnants of Jim’s life: the tusks of the wild boar that gored his horse, a kukri (a Gurkha knife), a selection of books riddled with silverfish holes, and a 1915 vintage, .455 calibre Webley Scott Mark 1 Self-Loading Pistol. All that remain are the kukri, the tusks and a 1924 edition of Lord Roberts’ Letters Written During the Indian Mutiny, but it was the pistol that occupied my young imagination the most.
A remnant of the Raj

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