Life in the Plains

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]




"European" life in India in the 20th century was dictated by the ad hoc rules and traditions developed by the HEIC during the previous quarter millennium.   Britain controlled India with a very thin veneer of administrators and soldiers and railway and post and telegraph employees.  The senior levels of all these agencies were controlled by Britons hired in England. These expatriates lived in "Cantonments" and in "Civil Lines" apart from Indians.  These expats led much the same life no matter where they found themselves in the vast subcontinent of India.  Similar ghettoes of opulence are now  common in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States where expatriate (typically European and American) employees are employed on contract.  

India is a sub-continent with representations of virtually all the worlds climates, and all the worlds geographies crammed into its 4 million sq miles.  Native Indian life styles vary widely, dependent on the religion, climate and geography of their region.  Prior to 1857, for about four decades Britain's reform minded Governors General pushed Indians pell mell toward "modernization" of their laws and social practices.  This rapid pace of change was seen to be partly responsible for the 1857 Rebellion.  After the 1857 Rebellion, British administrators attempted to slow down the previous four decades of "social reform" and interference in the daily ritual of native Indian life, with the result that Indian life remained as it had for centuries, overlaid from region to region with a relatively haphazard and non uniform patchwork of British laws and practices. 

Like the expatriate British, we "Domiciled Europeans" lived apart from native Indians in our own (very small) artificial communities.  We were expatriates in the land of our birth.    We lived by "European laws". 

This section on "Life in the Plains" describes only a tiny fraction of the incredible Indian  mosaic  It describes the life I led in a railway colony in a small portion of the Western desert of India.  It is, however, remarkably representative of the life led by "Domiciled Europeans" (Anglo Indians) in all regions of the subcontinent. 


The first railway in India (the first in Asia, too) was the Great Indian Peninsular, conceived primarily to improve the transport of cotton to the coast for shipping to British textile merchants, after the 1846 failure of the American crop. The first public train ran on April 16th, 1853 four years before the "Mutiny".  After the "Mutiny" of 1857 railway construction was accelerated primarily to give British troops a rapid way to get around the huge subcontinent.  There were three railway gauges (width of tracks) in India -- the Broad gauge, the Meter gauge and the Narrow gauge.  Dad worked on the Bombay Baroda and Central India Railway which was a Meter gauge track.  It was a long time before I realized that "Meter" meant a measure of distance and was not another word for "medium" as neither Broad nor Narrow!

Ajmer was the headquarters of the BB&CIR and a major center of railway life in Western India.  The first engine built in India was built in the Ajmer Railway shops.  Dad did his apprenticeship in the Ajmer Railway shop in the 1923-1927 period.  When Janice and I were in Jaipur in 1998, we came across a retired engine driver who had started his career in the Ajmer shops in 1947 -- the same time Dad was a foreman in Ajmer.  This gentleman was setting up a small meter gauge railway system to ferry guests around the massive hotel which was once the Maharajah's palace.  The photograph on the right shows the engine, the driver and me.  It is quite likely that Dad inspected the boiler of this particular engine when he was in the Ajmer shop.

Railway Life

Life in the Ajmer railway community was much the same as life in any of the railway communities with which I was familiar.  However from the age of eight (March 1942) to the age of thirteen (September 1946), five school years, I went to boarding schools in “hill stations” for nine months of the year between March and September.  Life in boarding schools in the hills was a quite different life style -- I talk about it in Life in the Hills.  Here I will talk only about life in the plains --which meant for many of us life in the plains in the winter.

The BB&CI railway runs through some of the most desolate and sparsely populated parts of India.  Railway families ended up living in isolated enclaves in communities whose only reason for existence was to maintain the railway.  I suspect that there are towns dotted all over the US, particularly in the West, whose only function originally was to be a railroad depot.   Fortunately, I only lived in one such town (Phulera) briefly when I must have been about 11 or so.  I was familiar with other small towns like Neemuch where my mother was born, and Rewari where I used to visit my mother’s sister Aunt Vera and Bandikui where Mum's brother Alex was married. 

Even in Phulera I don’t remember feeling that it was a strange place to live.  I suspect that children don’t much care about their surroundings as long they have enough friends and enough things to do with them.  Which is a lead in to the general description of Anglo Indian railway life in India.  It did not much matter where we lived, we had our own society, which was pretty much self-sufficient and, I guess, quite artificial.  So whether we lived in Ajmer or Phulera or Mhow, or Neemuch, we lived much the same.  There is a note here obviously written by a woman who knew the community.

Children's lives revolved around school, church, club, home and play. School was usually a day school near home, or a boarding school in the hills.  Some of the day schools in the plains did have "boarders" but virtually all the pure boarding schools were up in the hills.  

Day school in the winter started around 8 o’clock and ended about 3 o’clock.  In the summer because of the fierce heat in the plains, school would start about 6 o’clock in the morning and end around noon or so.  School for most of us was a religious school of some kind.  Most of the teachers in the early 1940’s were Europeans, but by 1947 many teachers in Catholic schools were Indians with Goan (Portuguese) names.  Although I was taught by Europeans for most of my life in India, I was never taught by an Englishman.  The Europeans were either French or Irish.  I guess Catholic English missionaries were, and still are, a very rare breed. 

We started the day with breakfast at home before school.  In the summer we would go home after school finished, have lunch, and take a nap in the bedroom using a khus tatti to cool the room.  Only the young kids took naps.  The adults and older children worked or occupied themselves in some way.  The khus tatti was a mat made of roots and fibers of some kind which would hang like a curtain in the door way and fit tightly inside the doorway leading from the bedroom to the verandah.  A slow drip of water would drip on to the tatti and the evaporating water would cool the room.  The principle of the khus tatti is similar to the principle of the "swamp coolers" in Phoenix, AZ, but they smelt incredibly much better!

A “punkah wallah” (Hindi punkah = fan) would pull the "fan" in the bedroom if there was no electricity, and if there was electricity we used a ceiling fan.  The punkah walla would lie in the hot verandah and pull on a rope, which would pass through a hole in the wall and move a thick carpet like piece of cloth suspended from the ceiling, which would then cause a slight breeze on the sleeping child in the bedroom.  I still remember with great nostalgia the wonderful smell of wet cool roots in the heat of the bedroom.  I think the punkah wallah was a railway employee who we borrowed. 

In this matter of using railway employees too, the social situation was quite military.  Our houses were owned by the institution (the railway), the employees (read soldiers) could be asked to work for the convenience of the officers (read Anglo Indians).  There was great flexibility about the separation of the public demands of the job, and the private demands of the boss.  I attribute this attitude to the extreme paternalism of the society in which we lived, which like the military, demanded loyalty and a certain code of behavior and in return gave security and social cohesion.

Typically we would wake about three or so.  “Tiffin” would be served about 4 o’clock and we would start our evening after Tiffin.  Dinner would be served about 8.  The children’s evening life typically would be between Tiffin and dinner.

Breakfast was a cereal of some kind –suji (semolina) or sago ("frog's eggs) or porridge (oatmeal).  Sometimes boiled eggs or “rumble tumble”—scrambled eggs with light spices like cumin and coriander leaves.  I don’t remember having any bacon.  I think pig products were quite rare.  Muslims don’t eat pig, and Hindus are vegetarian. 

Meat tended to be goat (mutton) and sometimes water buffalo.  Milk was usually buffalo milk.  I think goat milk was used for sick people.  Buffalo milk is much whiter, richer and creamier than cow’s milk.  For lunch we would have a fairly light meal of some kind of curried meat or vegetable.  We mostly lived in desert areas and I think the fruit choice was quite limited.  I do remember mangoes in the right season—they were delicious. 

Tiffin was very like an English tea.  We had toast and marmite(!), jam, cake, scones and of course tea. 

Dinner was the main meal.  Usually quite heavy.  Three courses, soup, mutton stewed in some form, either curry or Irish stew or some other kind of stew, rice, vegetable cooked in spice of some kind, bread, followed by pudding.  Pudding was a generic term for dessert.  We had crepes or cake or stewed fruit as I remember.  Dinner was cooked by the cook in the kitchen, which was in the servants’ quarters about 50 yards from the house.  The cook and the bearer would bring the food to the dining room and the bearer would serve the food and clear up.  The family remained seated while the bearer served us—just like a restaurant.

Social Life

All my friends were “Europeans” meaning kids from a variety of “Western” ethnic origins who had lived in India for more than a generation or so.  There were English, Scottish, Irish, French, Portuguese, Dutch, Lebanese, and presumably others I now can’t remember.  By the time I was conscious, the collective name of Anglo Indians was applied to all India-resident non-Indians even if there was not much “Anglo” in the racial mix. 

The Anglo Indian was treated as a European except in the matter of acceptability for senior jobs in any “government” sector.  The railway waiting rooms and a few other public areas had rooms for “Europeans only”—which meant us and other Europeans—and other rooms for "Indians".  Until about the early 1940’s these strict segregation rules were enforced by the stationmaster, also a job reserved for Anglo Indians.  The segregation rules started to break down during WWII, as did the exclusion of Indians from middle level management jobs.

As far as I could tell, Anglo Indian adult life was very friendly.  We were a very small self-contained community.  Every one seemed to know everyone else not only in the town itself, but also in other towns "up and down the line".  In the Genealogy section I talk about the origin of the Anglo Indian community.  The railway community tended to be a sub set of this community with somewhat higher average academic training--meaning the men generally finished high school and many, like my father, completed an apprenticeship on the railway.  This made an already small isolated racial group even smaller.  There is a very long (600K) and critical paper on "Railway Communities" from a feminist perspective here--she talks about the apprentices and the moral values demanded by the community.

Dad and his brothers were gifted musicians.  They all played various instruments, and to my young ear they played well.  This skill also appears to have been common in the Anglo Indian community.  Between about 1800 when Cornwallis' laws regarding jobs and nationalities began to take hold, and the rise of the railways in about 1860, Anglo Indians were forbidden from doing the job most of them had done in the previous decades, namely serving in the British and various other armies as combatants.  The only job open to them in the army was as fifers and drummers.  There were thus at least two and nearly three generations of  "Domiciled Europeans" when the easiest way to find work was to be an army musician.  Maybe this accounts for the fact that so many of them were quite accomplished musicians. 

Dad always seemed to run a dance band, which played at the Railway Institute.  We always had a piano at home, and most evenings at home Dad played the piano and we sang.  When friends came over we would have dinner and invariably end up with music and singing.  All of my friends were members of the railway institute and we hung out there doing whatever kids all over the world do.

A little aside—when Dad was about 70 he volunteered to play the piano for kindergartners in Wolverhampton schools.  He told me the happiest thing he ever did was playing the piano for little kids.  Dad played dance music.  His idol was Fats Waller, but his style was more Glen Miller.  I grew up in India with music as part of my life and singing was second nature to my siblings and me. 

Children's Activities

What else did kids do?  I don’t ever remember being bored.  It seems that everywhere I lived there were large open areas where a young boy could safely go with his friends.  It wasn’t that there were parks in cities where we could go.  A better metaphor would be vast uncultivated, un-owned, desert areas with a few European style houses sprinkled here and there.  These open areas would surround the European living areas which themselves would be a couple of miles or so away from the dense bazaar of the central town. 

The other human habitation was a few shacks and huts of small Indian villages.  I had an air rifle when I was about ten, I guess, and I had a dog.  My friends and I would spend countless hours hunting squirrels, birds, lizards, iguanas and any other fauna we could terrify.  We actually killed birds and squirrels and cut off the bird’s wings or squirrel’s tails for decorating our hats.  I stopped this “hunting” when I was probably about thirteen or so.  Never once did any of us young boys ever have any fear of harm from anybody as we wandered around India a mile or so from home.  In these "hunting" years it was always boys only.  Girls didn't enter the picture until much later.

We played a game called “gilli dunda”.  Dunda is Hindi for a stick and I guess gilli means “a small piece of cylindrical wood sharpened on both ends”.  The idea is that you hit the end of the little gilli, which then bounces up, and you hit it as far as you can.  You then run down the (empty, dusty) street and catch up with the gilli wherever it is. Each person gets a certain number of turns and whoever hits it the farthest wins.

We also played marbles a lot in the shade of trees in the heat.  I have never again seen anyone aim the marble like we did.  We would grab the marble between the thumb and forefinger of the left hand, push it hard against the middle finger of our right hand and propel it forward by letting go the marble and pushing the middle finger forward.

Kite fighting was a seasonal sport, I have no idea why.  We would spend hours making up a paste, which we would then apply to the string of our kite.  The paste would typically consist of glue, ground glass, chili powder and secret ingredients intended to cut the other persons kite string when our kite string rubbed against it.  We would then fly our kites and get them entwined and hope his kite string would give out first.

We also played “hoops” -- not basketball(!).  We would get a metal hoop about the size of a bicycle wheel and run along beside it as it wheeled down the road.  We controlled the hoop with a hook on the end of a thick metal wire about 18 inches long and we would run for miles controlling our hoops. 

I loved to read and there was always children's books around.  I remember I used to get a monthly "boys paper" which had 3 or 4 serialized adventure stories and I would look forward to getting the sequel as soon as it arrived.  The "Hotspur" was the name of one of them. 

Christmas and Other Festivals

Festivals were very big.  Christmas was huge.  Easter was next.  Although I was away in boarding school for most of the year including Easter, I was always home for Christmas   Preparations for organizing the Christmas dances would start with the wives committees who would be responsible for decorations, food, entertainment and so on.  All the food was cooked by the wives:  They made all the decorations, fancy dress costumes and, I am sure, much else I now forget.  In our house Christmas preparations started about two months before Christmas.  Large quantities of fruit would be bought and dried in the sun for the Christmas cake.  "Milk Punch", a very sweet alcoholic drink was made -- I think it took weeks to make!  Our Christmas tree was a huge branch of a neem tree placed in a corner of the "drawing room".  Our "reindeer" were elephants bedecked with Christmas decorations.   The story here "Christmas in Anglo India" is a charming evocation of an Anglo Indian Christmas.

In addition to the Christian festivals all of us were attuned to the Hindu and Moslem festivals.  Diwali and Holi were particularly fun for kids.  For Diwali we would get firecrackers and set them off in the fields.  All the houses in Ajmer including ours would be lit with little oil lamps (chirags), similar to having Christmas lights festooned all over the outside of the house as we do in the US.  I think Diwali was in October.  Holi was our favorite of all.  I have no idea of the origin or meaning of Holi.  For us kids it meant putting on old clothes, filling bicycle pumps with colored paint and squirting everyone adult, friend, stranger, friend.  It was all done with great humour and everyone had a wonderful time. 

Going "On Line"

The most exciting times in my life were when I would accompany Dad “on line”.  This is a term I have never heard in that context outside the railway ethos of India.  It means visiting a railway installation of some kind, which is so remote that it has no resident maintenance staff and therefore needs to be inspected periodically by visiting specialists.  Typically these installations would be out in the jungle miles from other “towns” and would be accessible only by a rail spur.  Sometimes it meant going to a small railway town to fill in for a railway man who had got sick or suddenly posted to another location. 

One of the things Dad did when he went on line was to inspect boilers.  Boilers came in all shapes and sizes.  To inspect a boiler you crawl inside the boiler and visually examine the pipes which carry the hot water and steam, and the inside skin of the boiler which carries the fire which heats the water in the pipes.  The smaller boilers as I recall consisted of a metal cylinder about four feet in diameter with various pipes running through it.  You entered the boiler through a hole in the cylinder about 30 inches wide  To find whether there are any non-visible flaws in the pipes, you tap on the pipes in a variety of ways and listen for anomalous sounds.  A skilled boilermaker can pinpoint flaws in the metal pipes and weakness in the welds.  Sometimes I would crawl inside with Dad and listen to him tapping.  The noise was usually deafening in this metal cylinder and presumably accounted for Dad’s hearing loss at a very young age.  For a boy of nine or so it was terribly exciting.

When Dad went to “relieve” some person (that was the official word) we would take the train to the town and stay with friends or we would stay in the “dak” house.  The dak house was a rest house built by the railway or some other government entity and maintained by a small staff of servants for visiting dignitaries.  The house was empty 90% of the time but was necessary since there were no hotels anywhere.  I am pretty sure this “dak” house was a remnant of the early Moghul days when the tax collector came around to check on the peasants’ crops and collect the taxes.  The dak house is certainly referred to in the earliest British tales of India where the visiting British government officer would use it for his inspections. It was on these trips that I visited and stayed for a few days in tiny towns like Phulera, Ratlam, Rewari and other such specks on the map.   

The Railway Trolley

The really exciting times though were when we would go to an isolated structure in the bush.  Miles from anywhere, out in the jungle there would be a boiler of some kind, which powered some steam machine, which would need inspection.  We would make our way to the nearest railway town and then take four Indian railway workers and a trolley.  The trolley was a wooden seat placed on two pairs of railway wheels, which ran on tracks.  Dad and I and two of the four workers would sit on the trolley, while the other two would run along the rails in their bare feet pushing the trolley.  When the first pair  got tired, the other two would jump off and the tired pair would jump on the trolley and rest and be pushed   We would cover miles and miles in this fashion.  When we saw a train coming, we would jump off, dismantle the trolley and remove it from the tracks.  Then we would put the trolley back and proceed.  We would go to the structure, which may be near the tracks or down a dirt path in the jungle.  Dad would do his inspection and we would then retrace our steps.  the photograph on the left is actually a photograph from an African Railway trolley.  I could not find a photo of an Indian trolley.  The two are almost identical.

All my recollections of home life between the ages of 8 and fourteen are of the three months I would spend at home in the winter between the nine month terms at boarding school

Holidays and Vacations

I don't remember ever routinely going away on "holiday".  We would visit relatives in other railway towns and stay with them, but the idea of going to the sea or the hills for a couple of weeks every year was not part of our life style.  I don't remember going away very often -- the life style just did not seem to lend itself to that kind of recreation.  I think this all fits in with the idea of living a life separate from India in the middle of India -- if there is no history and nothing to see where you go, why go anywhere?  Besides which, when the kids are away in school for nine months of the year, they just want to stay around the house for the other three. 

Ana Sagar Lake in 1998

We did occasionally go for picnics to places like Ana Sagar with friends.  Generally the Ajmer weather was not conducive to picnics in the winter or the summer.  There were a few weeks in Spring and Fall when we could bicycle or take a tonga and go for a picnic.  We used to visit my Aunt Vera in other towns when I was very young-- she always seemed to have a large house and animals to play with.  I remember visiting Aunt Girlie in the "Red Fort" in Delhi-- her husband did something in the army and they lived in barracks in the Fort.  We went to Calcutta to visit my uncle Jack the police sergeant also when I was about five.  I remember seeing men in jail.   On to Life in the Hills

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]