Monday, 30 March 2020

Beggars and Gentlemen—part 1

My sister, Eelin, and I once discussed how much fun it would be to go together to India and explore all the places from our family past, but it never happened. At my prompting as to whether they would like to go back, my parents gave very differing reactions. Jim expressed a vague interest in seeing how things had changed, but accepted that it would never be financially possible. Eve was dead against any thought of a return, even for a nostalgic visit. 
“I would hate it,” she said. “It would be too sad. Everything would be different.”
Actually, it wouldn’t have been that different, only the world she lived in was gone, the rest of India was remarkably unchanged. There is an immense inertia in India against change for its own sake. We tear down city buildings and put up new ones every generation or two. In India, there is an abandoned city that hasn’t changed since the sixteenth century. In the 1980s I showed photographs of Simla to an aunt who had lived there half a century before. She could identify every building and claimed that it hadn’t changed one bit. 
Of course under the surface Simla had changed; the buildings were not used for their old imperial purposes and the statue of Queen Victoria at the top of The Mall had been replaced by one of Gandhi, but the physical presence of the town was identical. What my mother meant by “change” was not physical, and not even large scale. She didn’t want to return because she thought her culture—which in any case was an artificial, transplanted one and even at the height of the Raj made up only a tiny piece of India as a whole—had vanished. Even that was not entirely true and, as I was to discover, there were tiny remnants of the Raj, sometimes in the most unexpected places.
St Andrews Church, Simla
Despite the best efforts of my missionary great grandfather, Christianity never really took hold in India; there are only about 28 million Christians distributed among India’s 1.324 billion population. Still, it has left the most obvious remnants of European rule. Churches in India range from the soaring neo-gothic edifice of the Anglican All Saints Cathedral in Allahabad to the modest, sensible, red brick, presbyterian St Andrew’s in Simla. Some are still used for their original purpose, others have been repurposed (St Andrew’s was used for evening classes at the University of Himachal Pradash when I visited), and some have fallen into ruin, like the Rosary Church in Shetihalli which is flooded when the water rises in the nearby dam every monsoon season. 
The dour Scottish Presbyterian monotheism of my ancestor’s Church never had a hope of supplanting the rich, vigorous Hindu culture that, some say, offers 330 million gods. Today there are a mere 8 million Protestants in India spread amongst a surprising array of 31 denominations. The Catholic church, both Roman and Eastern Orthodox, with its mystery and ceremony was always more attractive and has garnered two-and-a-half times as many converts. Christianity is, perhaps unsurprisingly, most in evidence in one of the oldest enclaves of imperialism. But it is a tiny piece of the subcontinent that was never a part of the British Raj.
In December 1961, a two day war in India resulted in 52 deaths and the end of 451 years of European occupation. In 1510, the Portuguese defeated the local sultan and established a colony at Velha Goa, or Old Goa, on India’s southwest coast. It rapidly became a centre for missionary activity led by Francis Xavier who voyaged as far as Japan and established the Goa Inquisition, which was notable for the enthusiasm with which it tortured and burned Hindus, Buddhists, Jews and lapsed Catholics. All of this religious fervour has left a World Heritage site of impressive churches, some ruined, some still in use.
My visit to Goa in 1987 coincided with that of a Soviet Naval Commander who strode hurriedly around the Archaeological Museum amidst large security guards in ill-fitting suits. Afterwards, I was sitting in the cool of the vast Se Cathedral when the church deacon introduced himself with, “Excuse me, sir, I’d like to ask your advice,” only time a member of any church has asked my advice.
Apparently Se Cathedral had been on the whirlwind agenda of the Soviet naval officer. He had come in with his retinue and asked if they could go up to the altar. While the deacon went to check with the priest, the visitors had gone over the low railing designed to keep people away from the altar and posed for a group photograph. This was what was upsetting the anxious deacon. “Had they blasphemed, sir?” “Am I at fault for failing to prevent them?” “Will my job be in jeopardy?” I had not the slightest idea how to answer his questions, but tried to reassure him as well as I could. It seemed to work, as I met him later in the garden where he cheerfully offered to share his lunch with me.
The Portuguese stubbornly regarded their colony at Goa as a detached but integral part of their country, which was why a war was necessary to make it a part of India. Even at the height of the Raj’s power, the British never felt that. For the sahibs and memsahibs, India was always the other—an exotic alien culture that offered wonderful opportunities for those adventurous enough to brave its harsh climate and terrifying diseases. However Britain, specifically it seemed Eastbourne or somewhere else on the south coast, was always ‘home’. While I loved Goa with its almost Mediterranean feel, ruins and spectacular beaches, it was the British experience that I sought.

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