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When nobody could snigger about the 'Great' in Great Britain
Once upon a time when the map of the world was largely red and the sun never set on the British Empire, India was considered Britain’s greatest colony – the so called ‘Jewel in the Crown’. As well as a source of great trade and wealth, India became a place where young men – yes, mostly men – could go to make their fortune. The big employers were the Army, the Civil Service and for the less affluent and less classically educated, the Railways. India was for most a land of opportunity but for many a living hell. The heat, the dirt and the disease, as well as the sheer sense of nothing being at all like home, meant many who went didn’t come back or came back badly damaged by their experience.
In his introduction to ‘Sahibs who Loved India’, Kushwant Singh comments that many of the Brits who went to India did so because they couldn’t make it back home. It reminded me of the slang used to describe Brits in Hong Kong in the final decades of it being a British colony. They were known as ‘FILTH’ – or ‘failed in London, try Hong Kong’. He also tells us that the majority of Brits in India hated everything about the place – “its climate, mosquitoes, flies, the filth, dirt and smell. Above all, they hated Indians”. Others had a wonderful time living in big bungalows with cheap staff, hunting and playing polo, and having lots of booze and good food in their ‘clubs’ which were for the most part ‘Whites Only’. This book is devoted to a third group – the men and women who stayed away from the clubs, met and became friends with the locals, and maintained those friendships for many decades. Many of them stayed on after Independence and made India their home – others returned to Britain but left their hearts in the sub-continent.
Kushwant Singh - Possibly the greatest Indian writer you've probably never heard of
Kushwant Singh is one of India’s greatest – and most irascible – living writers though he's relatively poorly known outside his country. I first got to know him through his classic book ‘The Train to Pakistan’ about the Partition of India and his seminal work on 'The Sikhs' and since then have bought and read several of his novels and essays. During his tenure as editor of ‘The Illustrated Weekly of India’ he invited his British friends – the Sahibs and Memsahibs of his title – to write short essays about what India meant to them. These essays were collected in the 1970s but did not become this book until 2008 – just a few months after the 60th anniversary of Independence. The essays had fallen into the hands of Phillip Knightly, an ex-editor of the Sunday Times and writer of chapter 14 who arrived in Bombay in 1960 to fall in love with the country and his Indian wife. He sent the manuscript to Singh’s son, not knowing whether Singh senior was still alive.
The three decades that passed between the writing and the publishing of the essays meant that many of the older writers were dead by the time the book came out. At the end of each chapter Singh gives a biographic update on the writers – whether they are still alive and what they did after the essays were written. Singh appears to have viewed the publishing of the book as an act of remembrance for his friends and equally an opportunity to show his countrymen that not all Brits hated his country or survived only by cutting themselves off from their surroundings. It’s a lovely collection of essays about a time that’s long gone and largely forgotten. The post-Independence era has received far less literary attention than Independence itself and the decades which preceded it. This book was written for the Indian market, not for the export trade, and is all the more endearing for that target. My copy came from my favourite dusty little bookshop in Delhi.
Mountbatten - the man who gave it all away
If you’re going to start a book or recollections of India in the 20th Century then you really can’t do better than to kick it off with the words of Lord Mountbatten of Burma, the last Viceroy and a man whose love of the country was intrinsically linked with his love of his wife Edwina, whom he met there when he was a 21 year old naval lieutenant. Mountbatten was for me the only household name in the book. If I was twenty or thirty years older there might have been others I would have recognised but I’m too young to know who these people were. That’s not a problem – instead the book gave me a chance to get to know a bunch of people about whom I could have had no preconceived ideas. In effect it’s not the individuals that matter – it’s their collected experience of and enthusiasm for India that moves me deeply. The majority of the writers are media-men – people who went out to work on the newspapers before or after Independence - so it’s no great surprise that they can write. Their inclusion is perhaps inevitable given that they’ve been chosen and invited by Singh, who is himself a writer – editor – journalist. They are perhaps not the most representative sample of their era but their accounts are charming, nonetheless and their investigative roles brought them into more direct contact with local people than many other trades.
It's interesting to perhaps reflect that many of these younger writers in the book were going TO India at a time when Indians immigration was starting to the UK. There's been a lot of literary coverage of that immigration but very little about emigration in the opposite direction. Some fish will always swim against the current, I guess.
In twenty two short chapters we meet two women and twenty men who loved India. In addition to the many journalists, there are architects, engineers, civil servants, a head master, soldiers and even an ambassador to add some variety. Several tell of meeting Indian history’s greats – Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mrs Gandhi, and many leading politicians. These are not always the stories of grand encounters – one woman writes that Nehru would offer her a ride in his car if he saw her out walking. Many went out to India expecting to find the land of Kipling but found instead a land of their own.
It’s perhaps more moving that so many of the authors are now dead and there’s a poignancy that comes with lifting the lid of a box of forgotten treasures. By keeping each chapter short and giving the writers some key questions, most notably “What does India mean to me?” Singh has managed to stop a lot of elderly ex-pats from banging-on too much about the past and instead kept them focused on their love of this great country.
As a 21st Century Brit who loves India, I loved this book and the opportunity it gave to look at an earlier era. I’ve often wondered whether if I’d been born 40 or 50 years earlier I would have found a way to get to India. Sadly I fear that the only way for women to get there in those days was in pursuit or support of a good husband. I wouldn’t have been posh enough for the former or probably subservient enough to take the latter course. So on balance, I’d rather be around now and able to dip in and out of this fabulous country.
If your impression of the Brits in India has been touched by too many Merchant Ivory films of snooty Brits being nasty to their servants or delicate ladies in floaty dresses wafting around with parasols then 'Sahibs who Loved India' will give you a rather more realistic picture of life for the ones that loved the country in the decades that straddle Independence. You don't need to be widely read about India to enjoy this short but loving tribute to times past. I recommend it highly.