Monday, 20 April 2020

Beggars and Gentlemen—part 4

The shellpocked ruins of the Residency as both Jim and I saw them in Lucknow
The governor at Lucknow, Sir Henry Lawrence, prepared the city for the Indian Rebellion of 1857 much more effectively than did General Wheeler at Cawnpore. When the rebellion broke out, over 2,000 British and loyal Indian troops and civilians, including many women and children, took refuge in the fortified Residency buildings in the centre of the city. They held out from May 30 to November 27 when they were finally relieved. Oddly, they had been relieved once already. On September 25, Colonel (now Brigadier-general) James Neill, who had been slowly slaughtering his way from Varanasi, led his 1st Madras Fusiliers as part of a relief attack on the city. It succeeded, but there were not enough soldiers left to force a way out, so they became part of the defence in a second siege. Neill, in a touch of poetic justice, was killed in the attack.
After Lucknow was relieved, the Residency was kept in its ruined state as a memorial and it remains so today. Jim was born in Lucknow in 1905 and visited the ruins several times as a child and as an adult, so was able to tell me many exciting tales of the Residency’s defence. When I went to visit the ruins, they looked as they had eighty years before, so I could half-close my eyes and imagine a small boy in short pants or a young man in jodhpurs and solar topi walking ahead of me. 
After visiting the Residency, I spent a pleasant afternoon wandering around the quiet tree-lined streets of the cantonment area of Lucknow. This was where the British had lived during the Raj and their bungalows were still there although, according to the name plates by the gates, now mostly occupied by high-ranking Indian army officers.
While I was peering at one bungalow, an aged Indian gardener poked his head above the rose bushes and asked who I was and what I was doing. I explained that I was from Canada and that my father had been born in Lucknow many years before.
“What was his name,” the old man asked. I told him and he nodded his head. “This is the house he was born in.”
Of course it wasn’t, at least no more likely than any of the other identical bungalows, but it was a delightful idea. It was told in a genuine attempt to be helpful and friendly and not in the insincere way of so many attempts to scrounge baksheesh. To the gardener, there was no difference between working for an imperial engineer on the Bengal and North Western Railway and a general in the Indian Army. 
A slowly decaying imperial bungalow on the hill above Simla
If you know anything of the British Raj, walking through Simla (now Shimla), is like entering a time warp. The Viceregal Lodge, now the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies; Christ Church, where the minister showed me the entry in the church annals recording Eve and Jim’s wedding; the toy train from Kalka, which is still hauled by steam locomotives over 864 bridges and through 102 tunnels; the immaculately uniformed waiters in the high-ceilinged tea rooms on the Mall; the countless slowly decaying imperial bungalows; and the sad overgrown cemeteries filled with sahibs, memsahibs and their children, are all incredibly evocative of the nostalgia I recognized around the fire in Paisley. With the exception of the wedding in Christ Church, I had no specific locales in Simla to evoke my parents, but the whole town was like a museum to Eve and Jim’s lost past.
Churches, slowly deteriorating bungalows, overgrown cemeteries, cricket, an incredible railway network and a ponderous bureaucracy are the legacy of two centuries of British rule in India. Personally, the Raj of my parents, their remembrances of it, and what it made them, have all played their part in creating who I am. However fascinating it is to explore the past, one’s own or one’s
Indian laundry
culture, it is a not particularly profitable or healthy, and probably a doomed, activity. 
After Simla, I still had several weeks in India, travelling on my father’s trains but experiencing an India that he and my mother were never a part of. For a westerner, India is not an easy country to know and there were times on my travels when I sincerely wished for the closeted, protected, privileged existence that Eve and Jim enjoyed, but the Indian culture which had existed for thousands of years before the Raj, which had absorbed from the Raj what it wanted, and which continues to evolve and change in its own way is where I was and where I wanted be. 
I went to India seeking remnants of a very specific, personal past, but I ended up appreciating a much larger history that gifted me extraordinary days wandering around and appreciating Fatehpur Sikri, Hampi, Ellora and Ajanta, Arunja’s Penance, and a host of other extraordinary places. I suffered dirt, noise, suspect food, crooked rickshaw drivers, interminable waits, and numberless beggars and thieves, but I also met some of the kindest, gentlest people on earth who made my travelling exceptional in countless tiny way: Mr. Pavri who bought Jen and I supper; the taxi driver who refused to charge us for the trip because the temple at our destination was closed; the aged, turbaned, impressively moustachioed Sikh guide who showed us round the palace where he had once been a retainer for the long vanished Maharaja. 
The perspectives that I inherited directly and indirectly from my parents—skepticism and a love of story, history and travel—are much more important than the eroding specifics of the world that I searched for in India. I loved standing in the doorway of Christ Church in Simla where Eve and Jim’s wedding photograph was taken and was enchanted by the myriad tiny remnants of the Raj that I encountered. However, if I am honest, I can never capture the nostalgia of my parents, but then I suppose that is the nature of nostalgia. Even in Simla, the nostalgia is simply a bonus that spices and enlivens the history that, at the root of it, stirs my emotions.
Obligatory photo in front of the Taj Mahal
I am an atheist but I can stand in absolute awe for an age in the nave of Chartres Cathedral; I have never been a soldier and I can come close to tears standing in no-man’s-land where the Newfoundland Regiment were slaughtered in half an hour on July 1, 1916; I am a slightly cynical skeptic and yet I can feel the excitement of being a twelve-year-old boy standing by Hadrian’s Wall watching seventy or so middle-aged Italian re-enactors marching back and forth and play-fighting as a Roman legionaries. The Raj, through my parents’ expression of their nostalgia for it, gave me that gift, but it would not be much of a gift if it had not been crafted and polished by countless other experiences, an early one of which was an odd congruence of castles.

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