An Indian Childhood
Russell and me in India ca 1943
I spent the first sixteen years of my life in India and I loved it. It was my home and has, in many respects, forever remained so. I was fluently bilingual in Hindi and English by the age of four, and yet to the day I left I knew almost nothing about the history or the traditions of India. As you will see from other parts of this site, my then ignorance of all things Indian was neither an accident of my particular education, nor the failing of my particular schools. The excellence of my education in India, measured in English terms, is attested to by the fact that I won first prize in every one of the seven subjects I took for high school graduation in England, six months after entering school in England in January 1950.
My ignorance of India was the result of the colonial mind set which invented and governed the educational system of India. The pattern was set by Cornwallis in the 1790's, accelerated by the English Evangelical missionaries who flooded into India in 1813, and set in stone by Macaulay and the Utilitarian in the 1830's. By then the arrogance of power had set in and the colonial overlords had begun to believe their own propaganda. Unlike the swashbuckling European merchants of the 18th century who respected and emulated Indian culture, the British "reformers" of the early 19th century (the elder Mills -father of John Stuart Mills -- for instance) professed to believe there was no Indian history and culture; what little there was, he believed, was primitive and degrading. James Mills wrote a "History of India" (1818)-- the text used by generations of HEIC administrators as the foundation of their education about India before they ever set foot on Indian soil. Mills spoke no Indian language, had never been to India, and strongly believed that a knowledge of English, Latin and Greek gave him all the information he needed to write the definitive "History of India". The Indian educational system set up by the British was based on the convictions of men like James Mills. I was one of the more successful products of that system. My Latin was once excellent, my written Hindi was high school level Hindi. My spoken Hindi was the language of children and servants. My English language usage and comprehension would rival that of students from the best English schools. In the side bar I have collected a few quotes from some of the most influential 19th century Englishmen who set up the systems of Indian education and Government. I need say no more.
I grew up as a dedicated and conscientious Roman Catholic in a strong Catholic family. I was educated in Catholic boy's schools by Catholic religious orders dedicated to education. My early knowledge of India, and Indian ways and Indians was, for the most part, picked up by my own first hand experience of living among Indians, and not from a formal education about India. I got to love what I learned. I knew enough to believe (and I still do ) that in general Hinduism creates a loving, inclusive, non judgmental people. That Islam fosters a sense of friendship, justice and egalitarianism, and that Jainism, the foundation of Gandhi's core values, is the most gentle religion in the world. I did not get to meet many Sikhs or Buddhists during my years in India although I got to know and respect them in later years. Long after I left India I became fascinated with Indian religions and Indian history, particularly as it relates to British history. I pride myself now that, excluding professional historians of British India, I am probably better informed about the details of British India than almost any other layman.
Despite the fact that we were not "Indians", as I grew up in India I learned to enjoy Hindu festivals like Holi, and Diwali, and to appreciate Muslim celebrations like Muharram and Eid. I could tell the religion and caste of Indians at a glance and could communicate with them appropriately. Warlike Pathans from the NW frontier (and they were indeed warlike!) were to be approached differently than the highly cultivated Bengali. The gypsy like Kanjars of Ajmer who gardened for us, were different than the mystic Muslim Sufis of the same city whose traditions and esoteric knowledge fit well in the Hindu “sadhu” tradition. The people I did not meet were the educated Muslims and Hindus who would form the future governments of India and Pakistan.
I believe strongly that the partition of India was a dreadful tragedy. I believe it was the unintended and almost inevitable consequence of Britain's divide and rule strategy she used so successfully to govern India for more than two hundred years. In Ajmer I saw first hand the peaceful co-existence of Muslims and Hindus and the later discomfort of both peoples even as they slaughtered each other. I suspect that under similar circumstances there would have been much more blood letting in Europe than occurred in India in 1947.
So despite the fact that I was reared on European classics, that I could recite Shakespeare, the Latin Mass, St Matthew's Gospel and Gilbert and Sullivan by heart, and that I knew nothing of the Gita or the Mahabharath, nevertheless I developed a deep love for India and "Indianness". This is not to deny my love for my mother tongue nor my appreciation of my European background. I believe I appreciate my "Englishness" and my "Americanness" all the more for understanding my "Indianness".
My Hometown -- Ajmer
I spent most of my early years and my last year in India in a town called Ajmer living in a "railway colony". In many, many respects Ajmer itself and the railway colony in particular, was a microcosm of, and a metaphor for, India and its relationship with the Raj.
Ajmer's origins go back to earlier than the 11th century. The first English Ambassador from the court of James 1 met the Moghul Emperor Jehangir in Ajmer in 1615. Three years later he got what he came for, a license to trade -- Indian bureaucracy still does not move fast! Two of the most sacred sites in India—Pushkar for Hindus, and the Sufi saint Chishti’s tomb (12th century) for Muslims are part of the greater Ajmer metropolis.
Ajmer was among the last parts of the Indian subcontinent to be ceded to the British Empire in 1818. The "Conqueror" of that part of India and its first "Commissioner" was a fascinating man -- the dashing Sir David Ochterlony. When I was born, Ajmer-Merwara was a small British-India province set in an ocean of “independent” Rajput states. Because Ajmer and Octherlony encapsulate and typify so much of the Indo British story and because Ajmer was "home", I will cover the history of the town and the man in some detail in future editions.
My Community -- Railway Colonies
The railway colony is a post "Mutiny" (1857) phenomenon. It is a testament to the British genius for "muddling through". The railway colony was an ad hoc solution to the problem of creating and maintaining a "bleeding edge" Industrial age technology -- the railway -- in the middle of a hostile, rural nation. Railway colonies were clearly racist excrescences on the body of India. They were a pale imitation of the even worse ghettos of magnificent opulence -- "Cantonments" and "Civil Lines" -- in which the British military and "covenanted" British employees in India immured themselves in the early 19th century. The British "Cantonments" and "Civil Lines" and the Anglo Indian "Railway Colonies" will be subjects of academic study for PhD's in social science for generations to come.
I talk at length in this memoir about growing up in a railway colony. For those who want to know more about these unique communities I refer you to a couple of articles describing them. There is a simple, quite gentle article on railway colonies here, and a very long angry article here.(607k -- don't try to down load with a "dial up!"). I don't recommend any of the books on railway colonies written prior to about 1960. Interestingly enough some of the American Universities are doing good work in this field.
My Home -- A Railway Colony House
Our home in India was a rented house provided by the Railway in a Railway Colony. Cornwallis' rules promulgated in 1793 prohibited non Indians including "Domiciled Europeans" later known as "Anglo Indians" from owning real property. The compromise arrived at eventually was for the "state" to provide housing for a certain level of employee. When Janice and Paddy and I visited Ajmer in 1998 we visited the house we were living in when our family left India. We took a few photographs of the house, and various other photographs which are scattered throughout this memoir. A front view of the house is shown here with Janice and me in the foreground. You will get a larger and different view by clicking the picture. When we lived in the house the verandah was surrounded by large palms and other potted plants. You will see signs of these plants and sections of the house as it used to be, on some of the old black and white pictures in various places in the memoir. Beside the picture we took in 1998 is a photo of Clive in front of the same house taken bout 50 years earlier in ~ 1948. Clive was about three at the time. Other black and white pictures with different houses in which we lived in different towns in different railway colonies are also scattered throughout the memoir. You will notice a remarkable similarity in the houses. They were pretty much all the same. Large, airy, verandahed stone buildings with large rooms, whitewashed walls, high ceilings, with a few lizards on the walls, and a few servants living a few dozen yards away. They were wonderful houses and "compounds" for children. A railway colony, like all well run successful ghettoes, is a wonderfully warm nurturing place for youngsters. It is the adults raised in these artifices who develop a curious view of the world.
The rest of this section expands on the theme of growing up in India. I have also attempted to tie in world events as they happened and the effect they had on our day to day lives. As you can see from the TOC, I have divided this "An Indian Childhood" section into chronological/geographical segments. I have also composed two generic sections called "Life in the Plains" and "Life in the Hills" respectively. Here too I had to struggle with the organization of the material --you see the result of the compromises. On to Ajmer_1933_1940(1).htm