Leaving India

Table of Contents | Preface | An Indian Childhood | Genealogy | Colonialism and The Raj


[An Indian Childhood] [Ajmer 1933_1940] [Ajmer 1933-1940 Continurd] [Mhow 1940-1945] [Ajmer 1945_49] [Leaving India] [Life iin the Plains] [Life in the Hills]

Excellent Article on Partition from Emory University
Jawaharawal Nehru
Mohammad Ali Jinnah

Mohandas K Gandhi

"A moment  comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance." -Jawaharlal Nehru--August 15 1947



The End of the Raj

By the end of 1946, it was becoming obvious that we may be presiding over the end of the Raj.  Jinnah had declared a "Direct Action" day, a call to Muslims to riot to show their frustrations with negotiation.  Riots were breaking out all over India.  Marches were a fact of life in Ajmer.  The safe town of my youth was now filling up with “foreigners”, mostly Punjabis.  Atlee was elected in Britain and the old reactionary imperialist Churchill was out.  Atlee was committed to an appropriate transformation of the British Empire.  Jinnah was holding out for a separate country for Muslims if Britain pulled out.  He claimed that a tyranny of Hindus would be much worse than a tyranny of Englishmen and threatened massive rioting if the British pulled out without providing a separate “Pakistan”.  Gandhi was attempting to quiet the masses being inflamed by Jinnah and by some of the Congress party. 

After the failure of several British and Indian working groups to agree, Atlee in desperation asked the King to send out his cousin Lord Mountbatten of Burma to create a miracle.  Mountbatten had been the Supreme Commander of British Forces in the East during WWII with headquarters in Delhi.  He and in particular his wife Edwina had made many friends in India including the Nehru family.  Mountbatten accepted the assignment after arm twisting by the King and came out to India in March of1947.  

Nehru and Gandhi and the Congress party desperately wanted an undivided India.  But Jinnah and the Muslim League wanted a separate country for Muslims, and they were fomenting riots to pressure Mountbatten to agree to the partition of India along religious lines. 

The deterioration in British forces in India during WWII now made it impossible to run the country without massive reinforcements from Britain.  Mountbatten was being warned by the British government officials in India, that  British power could not maintain peace in India.  In fact the Viceroy Lord Wavell had drawn up a plan to evacuate the British forces and government officials in India, hand over power to a make shift Indian group, and make a run for home.  This is essentially what the British forces had done in Singapore as the Japanese forces invaded in WWII, and is precisely what they did later in Palestine when they left in 1948.  Atlee and Mountbatten were horrified with this planned scuttling of the ship.

Britain, exhausted and financially ruined by WWII was in no mood to get entangled in another military adventure.  Under pressures from all sides, and seeing no way out, Mountbatten agreed to partition India into two countries.  To everyone’s surprise, Mountbatten announced in June 1947, that India would declare Independence in August 1947 barely six weeks later.  India the fabled land of the Greeks, the Persians, the Romans, the Muslims and the Europeans was to be dismembered along sectarian lines.  The animosities created by the divide and rule policy practiced by Britain during the previous 200 years, together with the intransigence of Jinnah and the inflexibility of Congress was now too strong to overcome.  

Sir Cyril Radcliffe whose main qualifications were a reputation for rigid impartiality and complete ignorance of India was tasked to draw the line dividing up the land of two people who had lived together for 700 years.  He completed the job in six weeks.  Independence was declared on August 15, 1947, a month before my fourteenth birthday. 

There was no rejoicing in my community.

In the end, the very thing that Mountbatten feared, happened, in spades.  The biggest migration in the history of the world took place as terrified Hindus trekked across the desert eastwards, and equally terrified Muslims trekked westwards.  No one knows how many people were killed, the rough estimates put the number in the region of 500,000 to 1,000,000 -- all in individual killings.  These were not faceless enemy who were bombed from 30,000 feet.  Mostly they were knifed and burned to death in small numbers.  The number of people displaced was in the tens of millions.

In August of 1947 the blood bath accelerated.  Civil society broke down.  The railway system was a nightmare.  Trains from the East would arrive in India with hundreds of Hindus massacred as they fled Pakistan.  Trains from India arrived in Pakistan in the same condition.  Ajmer was on one of the main lines from Pakistan.  Ajmer railway station was a refuge for the poor souls from Pakistan who had no where else to go.  We avoided train travel and in fact avoided the railway station.  I saw trains reputedly full of dead people, but I only ever saw a couple of dead people, stabbed to death. 

Millions of people formed miles of human misery as they trudged across the Thar Desert and the Punjab passing each other and attempting to avoid the armed gangs who were crazy with killing.  A blood lust seemed to grip the country.  Nehru requested Mountbatten take command of the country.  Most of the English troops and police had gone home.  The madness continued for about a year.

Meanwhile Anglo Indian social life in Ajmer continued pretty much as it always did.  We kept having dances at the club.  School continued.  I finished my "Junior Cambridge" in December 1948 with excellent results. Friends visited each other.  There was much talk about which families were leaving and where they were going.  Houses in the railway colony began to empty. 

I continued to sing in Dad’s band.  Except for a fateful Friday night.  It was on January 30th 1948 when I was on my way to the club on my bike that we got word that Gandhi had been killed.  The dance was cancelled.  I later attended a funeral March in Ajmer in his  honor.  I still remember exactly where I was when I heard of Mahatma Gandhi's death.  I still remember exactly where I was when I heard President Kennedy was killed.



Victoria Railway Station


Gateway to India


SS Stratheden


Portion of Suez Canal





Leaving India

My mother had started agitating to leave India sometime before we actually left.  I don’t remember when she started, but she was quite vocal by about early 1947.  The problem we faced was who would accept the family.  As usual, the British were making up the rules as they went along.  Ad Hocracy has no finer exponent than a British ICS officer. The Commonwealth countries suddenly became skittish about accepting immigrants from India as they saw the chaos in India unfolding.    

By mid 1947 as I approached my 14th birthday, the flight of “Europeans” like us to get out of India had begun in earnest.  Uncle Jack Blanchette, the police sergeant in Calcutta left for Australia with his family in 1947.  When my father tried to get an entry permit for Australia a year later, a “White Australia” policy was being enforced and we were denied an entry permit.   

Chappy left for Canada in 1948.  Mother’s sister Vera and her family left for England in 1948.  Our family left in 1949.  All the rest of my mother's and father's siblings had left for the UK, Canada or Australia by 1951.

Sometime in 1949 my parents were able to satisfy the requirements for going to England, and we started making our plans.  I was devastated.  The last thing I wanted to do was to leave India and go to a strange land which, I suspected, had little use for our family.  In retrospect, a combination of teenage angst and anger created a very unhappy young man.  I started to talk about us being DP’s (Displaced Persons), a common acronym then for the tens of millions displaced by WWII and the partition of India.

Dad got his pension from the railway, we sold our furniture and set off for Bombay by train.  The parting from the servants was heartbreaking.  In particular our bearer, a simple young villager from a local village, was just desolate.  He ran alongside the train with tears streaming down his face refusing to believe we were leaving, as the train steamed out of the station.  The departure of "Europeans" was terribly hard on the servants.  There was nothing necessarily servile about their livelihood.  They and several generations before them had learned a craft and performed it with pride and suddenly the world had no use for their craft. 

We took the train from Ajmer and arrived at the Victoria railway station in Bombay.  Victoria station was constructed in the days of monumental railway stations.  It was meant to impress  and it does!  If you click on the photo on the left you will get a better view of its magnificence.

We stayed in a hotel in Bombay -- I forget which one.  I believe this is the first time we had been in a hotel.  I did not eat in a restaurant until I was about 18 except for this trip. 


We boarded the  P&O liner SS Stratheden near the "Gateway to India" on October 20, 1949.  The voyage had originated in Sydney and the ship was full of Australians.  Several Anglo Indian families boarded the ship in Bombay. 

Perhaps it was my mood at the time but the Australians appeared to be quite obnoxious.  My attitude probably was not helped by the refusal of Australia to accept our family a few months earlier.  At one of the dances several days into the voyage, one of the young Australian men began being rude to the Anglo Indian girls, and I told him to knock it off or words to that effect.  He challenged me to a fight, and we met in one of the holds of the ship.  The hold had a metal bottom.  I think it took about 30 seconds and he lay bleeding on the floor and refused to get up.  He had hit the metal deck with some force, and I was afraid he had been really hurt.  Not a good start to a new life!  Somehow the ships purser (an Englishman) got wind of it and asked me to come and see him.  To my intense relief he congratulated me and said the young Australian had been a nuisance since he boarded in Sydney and he felt sure he would not be a problem any more!  Score one for the Brits!        

Our first stop was Aden where we were able to leave the ship and see the town.  Walking along the street, I saw one of my teachers from St George’s.  The ubiquity of Church and Empire!.  Apparently the Patrician Brothers had a school in Aden, and he had been posted to that school.  Next stop was Port Said on the edge of the Suez Canal.  The Suez Canal was exciting.  The ship slowly cruises along, and beside the ship a few yards away at the same level, camel caravans pass the ship!  At least they used to.  I suspect that time has long gone.

The entire trip through from Bombay through the Mediterranean was quiet until we passed Gibraltar.  Then we hit the Bay of Biscay.   It was cold and wet and rough, and I got terribly seasick.  We arrived in the English Channel  in the rain and fog.  There was no “White Cliffs of Dover” romantic stuff.  It was grey and cold and unwelcoming.  On Guy Fawkes day, we disembarked at Tilbury Docks, a few miles from the East India Docks where Blanchette and Roberts had started the journey a century and a half before.  We were met by my Aunt Vera and we were off to Ealing, London.  Another Beginning.........


On to Life_in_the_Plains.htm


Table of Contents | Preface | An Indian Childhood | Genealogy | Colonialism and The Raj


[An Indian Childhood] [Ajmer 1933_1940] [Ajmer 1933-1940 Continurd] [Mhow 1940-1945] [Ajmer 1945_49] [Leaving India] [Life iin the Plains] [Life in the Hills]