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Correspondence with Padma Viswanathan, author of THE EVER AFTER OF ASHWIN RAO

Chrestomather | April 13, 2014 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

 

Padma Viswanathan‘s novel The Ever After of Ashwin Rao has just been published by Random House Canada.

 

9780307356345

 

The jacket copy describes the book as: ‘… a stunning new work set among families of those who lost loved ones in the 1985 Air India bombing, registering the unexpected reverberations of this tragedy in the lives of its survivors. A book of post-9/11 Canada, The Ever After of Ashwin Rao demonstrates that violent politics are all-too-often homegrown in North America but ignored at our peril.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Padma is also the author of  The Toss of a Lemon.

 

Padma sent me this letter on April 12, 2o14.

 

Dear Amitav,

 
I’m not sure whether you’ll recall having met me many years ago at Merrily Weisbord‘s place in Quebec. She wanted to introduce us because I had reviewed THE GLASS PALACE for the Montreal Gazette, and was such a fan of that book and your earlier ones.
I’m writing to you now to let you know that my second novel, THE EVER AFTER OF ASHWIN RAO, has just been published by Random House Canada and will be out from Westland India late this year. 
 
In the book, a cranky Indian psychologist comes to Canada to do what he calls “a study of comparative grief” on people who lost loved ones in the Air India bombing of 1985. (Incredibly, no such study has ever been done.) Ashwin, however, finds himself unexpectedly embroiled in one such family, and, in telling us their stories, is made to reveal his own.
 
The reason I wanted to let you know is that I make reference, at some length, to an essay, “The Ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi,” which you wrote for The New Yorker many years ago. I couldn’t talk about the bombing of AI182 without talking about the long chain of violence that led up to it, including the anti-Sikh pogroms of 1984. As you say in the essay, remarkably few people have written about the riots. Your piece was a very welcome first-person account of the time, though also I very much appreciated your analysis of the reasons it took you so long before you could write about what you witnessed. My narrative draws to an extent on your descriptions, but my narrator also cites your essay in discussing how to think about what happened.
 
You might also be interested to know that another Canadian writer, Jaspreet Singh, whose home in Delhi was attacked in 1984, has just published a novel, HELIUM which takes up the pogroms. I have been waiting for the book for some time, and just read this glowing review.
 
Hoping this finds you well!
 
Warmly,
 

Padma Viswanathan
 

 

 

 

 


Laurel Braitman’s ANIMAL MADNESS – a review

Chrestomather | April 8, 2014 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

 

 

 

Cover

Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves

Laurel Braitman

Simon & Schuster

[to be published June 10, 2014]

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rare indeed is it to come upon a work of non-fiction as compelling as Laurel Braitman’s Animal Madness.

The book is in part a memoir of the writer’s evolving relationship with animals: at its heart is the story of Oliver, a pet dog. Oliver is a Bernese Mountain Dog: ‘Bred to guard livestock and pull carts of cheese and milk through the Swiss Alps, Berners are handsome, broad, and regal, with an air of accessible friendship.’

Berners are very desirable but also very expensive; unable to afford a puppy Laurel and her then husband decide to adopt an adult dog at the suggestion of a vet. ‘[Oliver] carried his white-tipped tail like a flag raised high and arching over his back. His white paws were lion-like, huge and spreading, and his coat glossy and feathered like a 1970s haircut.’

They adopt the dog on impulse: ‘We’d fallen for Oliver at first sight. It felt more like a physical sensation than a conscious decision. It certainly wasn’t rational. We brought him home that same afternoon.’

But soon enough they realize that they should have asked a few questions.

The first real sign of trouble I discovered by accident… I said goodbye to Oliver and locked the house, only to realize as soon as I reached my car that I’d left the keys in our apartment. As I headed back up the block to our building I heard a plaintive yowling – not feline nor human … it was a bark that shounded like the squeak of an animal too large to squeak (this was before I knew any elephants), and it was coming from our apartment.’

It turns out that Oliver’s behaviour is very much like that of human being who is possessed by uncontrollable anxieties. ‘If we didn’t return home by five or six in the evening, we knew he would have destroyed pillows and towels or chewed on wooden moldings. He scratched so hard at our floorboards that it looked as if we lived with giant termites… If we were with him… Oliver was the picture of calm. Alone he was a tornado.’

But things get worse.

On a warm May afternoon in 2003, a little boy I’d never met was doing his homework in the sunroom off his family’s kitchen in Mount Pleasant, a leafy neighbourhood in Washington, D.C. The back of our apartment building faced the boy’s house, and as he worked, he looked out to the row of urban yards along the alley, separated by chain link or small planks of sagging wooden fencing, dotted with trash cans. He happeneed to look up that Saturday just as Oliver … jumped through the kitchen window of our fourth-floor apartment.

‘No one had seen Oliver at the window, even though it had to have taken him a long time to push the air-conditioning unit out of the way and rip a hole through the wire mesh of the screen that was big enough for his 120-pound body to fit through. The pet sitter that we’d left him with had gone to the farmer’s market, leaving Oliver by himself for two hours. He must have begun to slash and chew through the screen as soon as he realized he was alone. Once he made the hole large enough, Oliver hauled himself through the opening, more than fifty feet above the ground.

‘‘Mom!’ the boy screamed, ‘a dog fell out of the sky’.’

Oliver survives the fall and lives on for another two years, during which time his owners desperately seek treatment for him, from many different experts. But to no avail; one day, after working himself into a panic Oliver chews and swallows so much wood that he gives himself an awful case of bloat – ‘a horrid and probably excruciatingly painful predicament’. The attack is so bad that he has to be put down.

Oliver’s death changes Laurel’s life: ‘We divorced the year after Oliver died, and a few years after that he stopped taking my calls. I can’t say that we broke up because of what happened with Oliver. That would be a lie, or at least it wouldn’t be the whole truth. I do believe however, that if Oliver had lived, we may not have broken up when we did. Dogs have a way of gluing people together, even ones who are already coming unglued.

‘Now it feels like I walk around with a few different drafty spaces in my chest. One is in the shape of a dog, and there’s at least one more in the shape of a man. And in the years since Oliver died, I’ve fallen in love again anyway – with a half dozen elephants, a few elephant seals, a troop of gorillas, one young whale, a couple of long-dead squirrels, and a handful of men and women who came into my life as if they’d been tugged there by invisible leashes… Losses and disappointment can do that if you’re lucky. Before you know it your pain has welcomed the world. That’s what happened to me anyway. One anxious dog brought me the entire animal kingdom. I owe him everything.’

Could it be said that Oliver’s afflictions were ‘emotional’ or ‘mental’? The intellectual core of the book consists of a quest for an answer to this question.

 

 

Back Cover

 

 

The difference between a ‘happy’ dog and an ‘angry’ one is perfectly apparent to most human beings. But to ascribe emotions to animals is to affront one of the foundational tenets of Enlightenment thought. This is how Laurel puts it: ‘In 1649, the French philosopher René Descartes argued that animals were automatons, lacking feeling and self-awareness and operating unconsciously, like living machines. For Descartes and many other philosophers, capacities for self-consciousness and feeling were the sole province of humanity, the rational and moral tethers that tied humans to God and proved we were made in his image. This idea of animal machines proved to be sturdy and enduring, revisited time and again for hundreds of years to prop up arguments for humanity’s superior intelligence, reasoning, morality, and more. Well into the twentieth century, identifying human-like emotions or consciousness in other animals tended to be seen as childish or irrational.’

Not every scientist subscribed to this view. Darwin for one took a very different position. In 1872 he published On the Epression of the Emotions in Man and Animals; here, as elsewhere, he argued ‘that humans were just another kind of animal. He believed that the similar emotional experiences of people and other creatures, such as sad chimps, dejected dogs, or happy horses, further demonstrated the existence of our shared animal ancestors.’

But in this matter at least Darwin was in a minority among scientists. For a long time the attribution of a mind or consciousness to animals and plants was anathema in the sciences as well as the humanities (in the latter it could even be said that the matter is pre-judged by the very word, which in itself defines a boundary between the human and all else).

Today there are few in either the sciences or the humanities who would perhaps openly confess to subscribing to the Cartesian notion of animal as automaton. Yet, in practice, as Laurel points out, a mechanistic view of the non-human world is often institutionalized in a different doctrine – one that anathemizes anthropomorphism (i.e. ‘the projection of human emotions, characteristics, and desires onto nonhuman beings or things).

‘Like a heavy leash that drags along behind nearly all twentieth-century efforts to understand the emotional lives of other animals, anthropomorphism has tended to be resented and feared. Radical behaviourists like B.F.Skinner, comparative psychologists, ecologists, and many ethologists warned against sentimentalizing other animals and rejected Darwin’s ideas on animal emotions, working to suppress what they considered subpar science. For a long time anthropomorphism was a dirty word in the behavioural sciences, despite the fact that experimental animals were busy acting as models for human psychobiological phenomena inside laboratories worldwide.’

Fortunately things have changed: ‘In many ways the past forty to fifty years of research on animal emotion and behavior represents a long, slow, scientific U-turn back to Darwin and his arguments on the shared nature of emotional experience.’  There is now a great wealth of research into animal ‘consciousness’ and Laurel (who has a PhD in the history of science from MIT) provides us with some fascinating glimpses of this rapidly-expanding body of work. In the process it becomes clear that not only do animals suffer from many of the mental and emotional disorders that afflict human beings – anxiety, depression and so on – but they also respond in similar ways to medication. Indeed, most of the psychotropic drugs that are now prescribed for human beings were first tested on animals. ‘You could argue,’ Laurel writes, ‘that this is not the story of animals taking human drugs but of humans taking animal drugs. Almost all of the contemporary psychopharmaceuticals – from antipsychotic drugs like Thorazine to minor tranquilizers like Valium to the antidepressants – were developed in the mid-twentieth century, and animals were test subjects from the very beginning.’ This is of course, nothing short of a ‘tacit acknowledgement of emotional (and neurochemical) parallels between humans and other animals.’

Laurel also presents plenty of material to suggest that like human beings, animals can hate, forgive, grieve, despair – and even commit suicide. But is it possible to say that these words, when used of animals, refer to an exact counterpart of what they refer to in human beings? Of course not. For that matter it isn’t possible to say that psychic states are exactly the same in different human cultures – or even in different people.

This is how Laurel sums up her own position: ‘all human thinking about animals is, in some sense, anthropomorphic since we’re the ones doing the thinking. The challenge is to anthropomorphize well… this means avoiding anthropocentrism: the belief that humans are unique in our abilities and that our intelligence is the only one that counts.’

Animal Madness is compulsively readable and thoroughly engaging: Laurel has the rare gift of being able to combine ideas, research and personal experience into a compelling narrative. Yet behind the engaging tone and the lightness of touch there is a deep seriousness, as indeed there should be. For the ideas that animate Animal Madness are of the greatest urgency and importance, especially in this era of climate change: to acknowledge that all living things exist within a continuum of consciousness is a vital first step towards the dissolution of that human-centred world view that has, ironically, led humanity as well as millions of other species to the brink of disaster.

 

Author Photo Braitman LR

Laurel Braitman

There was a time, many years ago, when I used to conduct occasional seminars at Harvard. In the process I met many talented young writers – several have since gone on to write successful and highly-regarded books. Laurel Braitman was among the most gifted of that group: I never doubted that she would write an exceptional book some day. And so she has – may it be the first of many!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


More on the Siege of Kut al-Amara

Chrestomather | April 5, 2014 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

 

 

I recently posted an exchange of letters between myself and Chris Howell, who wrote to me after reading my posts on the Mesopotamia campaign of 1915-16 in the First World War. Chris then sent me some excerpts from his book No Thankful Village: The Impact of the Great War on a Group of Somerset Villages – A Microcosm.

 

 

 

 

Page 99

 

 

1

Somerset Guardian                                                     Page 16

15th May, 1914

 

A movement is afoot to raise a half-company of Territorials at Radstock.   At present it is understood there are but four young men living in Radstock who belong to the Territorial Force, and this is not considered creditable for a place the size and population of Radstock.

 

2

Lt. Arthur Coombs                                                    Page 16

4th Battalion, The Somerset Light Infantry

April, 1914

 

Four, you say.  Well, I was one of them.  I’d already joined them.  At that time the powers that be must have known that the war was coming and they were having great recruiting campaigns all round the country.  I thought it was a good idea so I joined and was commissioned that April. My first recollection of the Terriers was years earlier when they had had a show – a field day – up at the Clandown coal pit, all dressed in their red coats.

 

When I joined them as an officer I knew as little as any recruit. I was 18 then, and you can imagine me, looking very young for my age and put in charge of coal miners and knowing less than they did about military matters. Sergeant Ashman used to drill the men in the field opposite Radstock Church and I joined in with them.  This is us: G Company of the 4th Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry – Prince Albert’s own – at Norton Hill Station that Summer. They were a grand crowd.  I knew them all and where they came from and so on.  And they seemed to accept me all right.  They nicknamed me  ‘Our Boy’!  By the way, our Company had nine of the 11 in the Battalion football team. I was inside right.

 

3

Lt. Leslie Pollard                                                                               Page 17

Indian Army

 

 

Page 17

Lt Leslie Pollard

 

I always wanted to be a soldier – and I wanted to soldier in India. Father was then Commandant of the 4th Battalion of the Somerset Territorials and it was his view that if Mother wanted me to go, then all well and good, because he couldn’t afford to keep me in a British regiment where you had to have two or three hundred a year in order to live. All you got as a second lieutenant was five bob a day. Mother had been born in India, daughter of a Major General, so it pleased her that I should go there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the end of my first term at Sandhurst I was made a lance corporal and by the time I passed out I was the Senior Colour Sergeant in charge of all the cadets and all the parades. I put that down to a good upbringing in Midsomer Norton. So, I was commissioned from Sandhurst in January 1911, and left for a year’s attachment to the West Kent Regiment in Peshawar.

After my year with the West Kents I was posted to the Hasara. It was all a matter of knowing someone in order to get on – someone in Simla, someone in Delhi.  My father, who was Dr George Pollard, happened to know someone – a patient – in Farrington Gurney, who had a relation commanding an Indian Battalion and so it was all arranged for me to join his battalion when I’d finished with the West Kents. And that was that.

 

I joined my Indian regiment at Quetta – though they had nothing to do with India, really. They were Hasarists from Afghanistan. Well, I reported to the guardroom. Second in Command was sent for. ‘See those men over there?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Go and take charge.’ A curt reception, but no more than I expected. We subalterns were a damn nuisance – conceited young men – we were bottle-washers. Well, by that time I spoke Hindustani pretty well so I went out and started talking. No reaction. They spoke Persian.

 

I’d been at Quetta about a year when the Battalion had orders to leave. Go out by rail for about six hours – to the end of the railway line, where the desert started.  We then had 28 days’ marching out to the Persian border, averaging 20 miles a day.  All over desert – there was no road. I was acting as Quartermaster at that time so I had to stay behind each morning to see each camp was cleaned up. I had a camel to catch up with the Battalion which marched steadily till it came to mid-day -  luncheon time – when I would catch up with them and have breakfast and lunch togcthcr.

 

We were at the border for a year, stopping gun-running.  There was a telegraph line which worked occasionally but no other communication except once a month when a convoy came through with stores. That’s where I found myself in 1914, when war broke out in Europe.

 

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Lt. Arthur Coombs                                                                                        Page 33

1st/4th Battalion, The Somerset Light Infantry

9th October, 1914

 

After a few weeks in camp on Salisbury Plain we went to Plymouth to guard the bridges and so forth. G Company had the task of guarding Saltash Bridge for three or four days until the Special Reserve was mobilised to take over from us. While we were there, half the company was also detailed to go out with Sappers to dig trenches in case we were attacked.  Well, word came back to us that our fellows were refusing to dig and the CO told me to go and sort things out. Me!  A kid of eighteen!  Well, I went out in fear and trembling, and luckily – well I think it was lucky – as I arrived their time was up, and they were falling in. But I still had to make enquiries and I went up to the Sapper officer who was there and it seemed that our lads, who’d only been mobilised for ten days or so, felt that it was the Sappers’ job to do the digging but they maintained that they were there to supervise the infantry.  Anyway, it all ended peacefully!

 

People everywhere were quite convinced that it was going to be over soon and that this was the war to end wars. There’s no doubt about it.  Everybody thought that. It was the general idea that it would be over by Christmas and when we were going down to Plymouth people came out and cheered us as we marched past – and the day we came away the number of girls who came to see the men off was nobody’s business.

 

One thing we had always been told was that we were only for Home Service, but then, in September, the Divisional General of the Wessex Division – a Major General called Donald – was called in by Kitchener and we were being asked to go abroad, to India. I’ve got his account of it here:

 

Towards the end of September I received a telegram saying that Lord Kitchener wanted to see me at the War Office next day.  I went to the War Office and was taken into Lord Kitchener’s room, and you can imagine that I got a little bit of a shock when he said: ‘I want you to take your Division to India.  Will they go?’  You must remember that at that time the Imperial obligation did not apply to the Territorials.  I said, ‘Well, Sir, I do not think anybody has had much thought about it, but I am perfectly certain that if you want them to go to India they will go there right enough.’   He replied, ‘Very well, go back to your Division now, get hold of them tomorrow morning on Salisbury Plain, use your personal influence and tell them from me that I want them to go to India and that by going to India they will be performing a great Imperial duty.  I have to bring white troops back from India and I must replace them there by white troops from home.’

 

And we were very lucky that we were sent – if we’d gone to France we’d probably all have been killed.

 

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Pte. Laurence Eyres                                                                                      Page39

1st/4th Battalion, The Somerset Light Infantry

November, 1914

 

Dear Father,

 

We arrived in Bombay on November 9th and the following day we were allowed to land but not go outside the dockyards. Still, we found a very nice army store within the precincts and bought tea and cake and fresh butter, which were a great treat. None of us were very sorry to set foot on dry land once more, though the voyage was quite enjoyable, if long. It took 32 days.

 

On Wednesday we marched off the ship and onto a train.  We left Bombay dock station and very soon got into the country, so saw little of Bombay.  The railway carriages were a

pleasant surprise. We had expected to sleep sitting up but instead of that they put 14 of us into a carriage with seating accommodation for 46. There was loads of room for us to put our kitbags and everything and every man could lie full length on a seat.

 

The railway journey was intensely interesting. At all the stations of any size you could see an Englishman in charge, or rather two or three, sometimes more. Soon we were looking down 1000 feet on either side on rice fields and there was a small river running through them. That was about sunset time and the light was reflected on the river. It was exquisite.

 

We always got out at a station for our meals.  Arrangements were made beforehand by the Indian Government and they had bread, meat, jam and tea waiting for us at various places.  We went through Poonah at midnight that night and woke up to lovely scenery. We were glad of our blanket at night, and the early morning from seven to 10 was as cool as an ordinary spring morning in England.

 

We travelled on three railways, the Great Indian Peninsula, The Madras and Southern Manratta, and the South Indian Railway followed by a mountain railway whose name I have forgotten.  We passed several troop trains on the way; they were all itching for a scuffle with the enemy after training so long.  Some had fought in the Boer War or had been in South Africa or India ever since.

 

On Sunday morning, November 15th, we reached Metapataiyam and began our climb to Wellington. There is one mountain railway more wonderful and that is in the Himalayas, but this is supposed to be the second in the world.  We climbed 5000 feet in two hours.   Then at last we reached our destination after 37 hours of travelling.  It is 6000 feet above the sea, and a perfect paradise . . .

 

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Lt. Geoffrey Bishop                                                                                       Page 40,

1st/4th Battalion, The Somerset Light Infantry

 May – December, 1915

 

 

I knew Laurence Eyres well – he was an extraordinary chap. I’d joined the Battalion in September 1914, when I was 17.  Father was already in it, so obviously I knew G Company – largely Midsomer Norton and Radstock men – very well and a tough company they were, too.  Very fine soldiers – nearly all miners.  But Eyres was of a different breed.  An intelligent man. A Cambridge graduate, I think. He had been going into the church. Used to say his prayers in the barrack room every night and the men obviously respected him.  A lot of them used to call him Mr Eyres – but not in any way unkindly. He was in the draft I took with me to Mesopotamia.

 

 

Page 87/88

 

I was on detachment at Amritsar when we had a call for volunteers to go to re-inforce the 2nd Battalion of the Dorsets in Mespot. They already had a draft of one officer and 29 men

undergoing a month’s special training in Jullunder but they had an outbreak of scarlet fever there and they couldn’t go, so all the draft came from Amritsar. The Second in Command asked if I would like to go. The next day I got a signal saying that I was going.

 

We left about the second week in May and I took a draft of 30 men, including myself and, as I’ve already said, Private Eyres.  The second draft of 15 arrived about the end of August. The official history says it was a total of 75, which is entirely wrong. Thirty and 15, according to my arithmetic, makes 45.  The history books are wrong.

 

We got there in early June, just before the battle that was called Townshend’s Regatta.  This was a largely waterborne affair in which General Townshend with a few officers and 100-odd soldiers and sailors captured the town of Al Amarah and a crack Turkish regiment – ‘The Constantinople Fire Brigade’ – as well as hundreds and hundreds of other Turkish prisoners. Townshend’s ultimate target was Baghdad and in September we captured Kut-al-Amarah for the first time in awful physical conditions. The temperature was well over 100 in the shade and the men had no water. They were totally dehydrated and exhausted. But we took Kut.

 

On November 22nd we again went into battle. This time it was the Battle of Ctesiphon, an indecisive to-do. It was a strange battle which was very nearly won, but in fact we didn’t owing to lack of any reserves at all. The battle was a very bloody affair with 4,500 British and Indian casualties, and not unnaturally they were largely infantry. I had six chaps in my platoon killed in about five minutes and more were killed later. There was no-one else to put in and when the Turks came back at us we retreated to Kut, a tremendously arduous march of about 120 miles, which, broadly speaking we did in about three days.

 

The Turks caught up with us about half way back to Kut and were given a bloody nose after which we hardly stopped. The Turks came closer and closer to us but we got back to Kut on December 5th and they arrived a day or so later. The siege had begun.

 

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Lt. Arthur Coombs                                                                Page 97/98

1st/4th Battalion, The Somerset Light Infantry

February/March 1916

 

Our Company had been in Amritsar since late August – it was always a centre of sedition and a hot-bed of unrest and there had been riots there. We joined the rest of the Battalion here, in Peshawar, about six weeks later.  Peshawar in the winter was a delightful spot. Those are the barracks in the picture. It was taken by a man called Lewis, from Bath, who was up on the roof of one of the blocks. That’s me at the tip of the Colonel’s shadow and our company is at the back. By that time we’d become a double company, commanded by the Honourable Edward Strachey.

 

Strachey was great man – been in the Grenadier Guards. A delightful man. All the troops loved him. We always thought ours was the best company cause we had him there and he knew what soldiering was. I always remember how he taught us to drill our men properly. There were deep drains – three or four feet deep – all around the parade ground and he’d have us out chatting about our platoon when the men were marching and suddenly he’d say, ‘Take command of the Company’. He taught us to think – and quickly!

 

Geoffrey Bishop is not in this picture, of course. He and his men had left Amritsar for Mesopotamia several months earlier. Theycould very well have been fighting at Ctesiphon when this was taken, before their incarceration in Kut-el-Amarah. They were beseiged there for three months from early December – in quite appalling conditions – despite two abortive attempts to get them out.

 

In February, 1916, we sailed up the Tigris from Karachi to Mesopotamia in an attempt to get them out. We were just under 800 strong and our Company went with B Company on Puffing Billy, the steamer in the other picture I’ve given you. There were two of them with huge barges attached to either side. We disembarked at a place called Sheik Sa’ad and set up a camp at Orah where we stayed for a day or so before setting off.

 

 

On March 7th we left Orah on a remarkable night march of about twenty miles.  We must have been the leading company because I was beside Captain Strachey – who had the compass – when he was being told that he was going to guide us all out. The regulars who were with us didn’t think much of the territorials and they didn’t know that Strachey had been in the Grenadiers. One of the Staff Officers said, ‘I take it that you do know how to read a compass?’ Pompous ass. Strachey passed it to him. ‘You set it.’  But he knew perfectly well how to do it.

 

The march was quite an astonishing achievement – an absolutely incredible achievement – 20,000 of us, moving over unknown territory counting the turns of bicycle wheels to work out our distances. But it was completely successful, and when we arrived next morning we found ourselves in front of our objective, the Dujailah Redoubt. Ours wasn’t the first attempt to relieve Kut but this redoubt hadn’t been attacked before. Actually there were very few Turks in the trenches because for the previous few days our people had been moving English troops about on the other side of the river to make the Turks think the assault would take place there.

 

We had been told the brigade we were with was not to attack but that we would give covering fire when the brigade to the left of us went forward. One didn’t hear very much but from what I could gather the people on our left were either late or missed their way and didn’t attack. I think we could have gone into the redoubt with little trouble or opposition but, presumably, the place was mined so we’d have been blown up in any case.

 

In the afternoon we had orders to move and about four o’clock we attacked, but by that time the Turks had got wind of us and were there in considerable numbers and able to drive us back. As we moved forward we found them just sitting there – waiting, and then they opened up with their rifle fire and shells. They killed three of my own platoon pretty instantly. Woods was one, he was a Midsomer Norton cricketer. Then young Bailey, another Norton man, and Seymour who was a porter on the Great Western Railway station at Radstock. I know there were at least a couple more Norton men who died.

 

Well, the long and the short of it was that our efforts to get into Kut failed and Townshend’s – and Geoffrey Bishop’s – awful sojourn continued.

 

9                                                                                                                      Page 99

History of The Somerset Light Infantry 1914-1918

Edward Wyrall

8th March, 1916

 

A and B Companies of the Somersets were ordered to retire and it was during this retirement, carried out slowly and with great steadiness, that the Battalion sustained severe casualties. Captain E. Lewis had already fallen as he was gallantly leading his men to the attack. A little later 2/Lieut Lillington was also killed, (Capt. Baker had fallen earlier) In other ranks the Battalion lost, during the day’s fighting, 9 killed, 50 wounded and 4 missing.  When darkness had set in the whole force was withdrawn a considerable distance from the Dujailah Redoubt to the sand-hills. The following day, after it had been ascertained that it was impossible for the force to maintain its positions, owing principally to lack of water, a further withdrawal was ordered to Orah. The 1st/4th Somersets formed part of the rear-guard, the general

retirement beginning in the early afternoon.  Thus ended the Second Attempt to relieve Kut – a gallant though unsuccessful effort.

 

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Lt. Geoffrey Bishop                                                                                       Page 99/100

1st/4th Battalion, The Somerset Light Infantry

9th March, 1916

 

The day after the nearly successful attempt to relieve Kut, which Arthur has told you about, the Turks sent in a flag of truce and I was told to go out and meet this chap.  I suppose I was sent because I was last at school and probably spoke French better than anyone else. The fellow was riding with an orderly and had a letter from Khalil Pasha, who was the Turkish C in C.   I also had an orderly and sent him in with the message and told the Turkish chap to return the next day, but he insisted on waiting.  Our lines were then anything from 500 to 600 yards apart and I was out there in the middle, with him, for a couple of hours.  Nice chap – a captain.  He was Kahlil’s A.D.C., or one of his junior staff officers.  We spoke in French and he gave me a packet of cigarettes which I hadn’t had for some time. We talked about the war and the Germans – and he didn’t go a lot on the Germans.  He said his uncle had a villa on the Bosphorus and he’d like me to go and stay there after the war – that sort of thing.  They were good soldiers, good fighters.  Not unpleasant really.

 

We had quite an interesting conversation with the result that the following day, when I’d

finished my report, I was seen by my Brigadier and sent in to Townshend to tell him about it.  That’s his house in the picture, incidentally.  I spent about an hour with him,  but that was the only time I saw him.  Then he sent this chap a message telling him to stuff it.  However, rations were steadily being reduced and during the last few weeks we were each down to a quarter pound of bread and some horse-meat.  We got relatively more and more hungry as time went on, until we were permanently hungry.  Men were getting a lot of dysentery and that unpleasant deficiency disease called beri-beri.

 

The white flag went up on 29th April – about mid-day, I suppose it was. We went off late the following day and then the officers were taken off to Baghdad, away from the men.  I was then a prisoner for the next two and a half years.  Of a strength of 15,000 men, 1,800 were killed or died of disease and 1,900 were wounded.  Of the 45 men I’d had with me, only four, of whom I was one, survived.  The rest were all killed in action or died as P.o.W.s.

 

 

 

11                                                                                                                    Page 109

Lt. Arthur Coombs

1st/4th Battalion, The Somerset Light Infantry

May, 1916

 

We lost a number of officers and men at Kut.  And we lost more a while later at Beit Aisa, and I’ll tell you who was wounded there; a chap from Midsomer Norton called Bill Withers.  His mother was a wonderful woman who ran the isolation hospital there.  I well remember when Withers got hit. He knew it would mean him going home and he called out, ‘I’ve got a Blighty one!’  but unfortunately he was a cripple in a wheel chair for the rest of his life.  The family had already lost another son fighting with the Somersets in France. I am given to understand that he had two other brothers – called Pharaoh and Noah. After our failed attempt on Kut we’d gone back to Basra and from there went on to Shaiba where we spent most of the summer in training and building up our numbers. One of the first officers to visit us there was Allan Thatcher, from Midsomer Norton, who was out in India with the 2nd/4th Somersets.

 

 

12                                                                                                                    Page 109

Lt. Allan Thatcher

2nd/4th Somerset Light Infantry

May, 1916

 

Yes, I did join them at Shaiba – soon after their disastrous action at Kut.  I’d arrived in Bombay in January ’15 and from there I’d gone down to Bangalore where we had to find detachments for different places. When war had first broken out we lived in Silva House, next door to Evelyn Waugh’s family. I knew him quite well although he was younger than we were – I remember that he used to wander round the garden in a white smock when we knew him.  I knew his brother Alec better than Evelyn – I was at Sherborne with him. When I left there I studied at home for my law finals.  And then war was declared and I was launched into the world.

 

My father had been in the 1st Battalion of the Somerset Volunteers and he thought it would be a good idea if I joined the Territorials.  We went up to Borden Camp on Salisbury Plain and saw Lord Strachey who was in command and who knew my father, and I was accepted.   I was commissioned on 7th October, 1914, and at the beginning of December went off to India with the 2nd/4th Somersets.

 

My first trip was to the Andeman Islands. There was a lot of naval activity going on there at the time and I understand that the Germans were filling up boats in Batavia – which was a convict settlement – and arming them and landing them in these islands. I went on one patrol in the islands with my platoon. Went up north on a Royal Indian Marine ship to inspect the bays to see if there had been any disturbance of the sand on the beaches. That took about six days but we found nothing. Quite a pleasant trip, though. Enjoyed it.

 

Another thing I did while I was with the 2nd/4th was guard the Viceroy of India for 48 hours while he was staying at Government House in Bankipur.  I was in charge of an Officer’s Guard. Myself and 30 men. I had a tent in the garden of Government House. Dined with him both evenings. I didn’t have full dress uniform so I had to send for my tail coat and waistcoat and white tie to dress up for the dinner.  He gave me a silver cigarette case for that duty.  Still got it. It was quite an interesting thing to do. Quite interesting.  I stayed with Arthur and company and the 1st/4th for a year or so, and then I joined the 10th Gurkhas in October, 1917.

 

 

 

13                                                                                                                    Page 110

Somerset Guardian

9th June, 1916

 

Last week I published a note on behalf of some of the lads who were formerly in the G Company of Territorials and lived in Midsomer Norton, Radstock and the neighbourhood, asking that their friends at home might kindly supply them with some cigarettes.  I then stated that the lads were having a rough time with little in the shape of comforts.   This is pretty evident as the Captain of the Company – the Hon. Edward Strachey – could not write directly to the relatives of the men who fell in the action on March 8th because he only had one envelope in his possession. He used it to write to his mother, Lady Strachey, and enclosed in it, on bits of flimsy paper, messages he asked her to transmit to the relatives of the men who had served under him. I have seen some of these and they certainly seem to bear out my statement that the men are short of necessities, much less luxuries.

 

14                                                                                                                    Page 132

Lt. Leslie Pollard

February 1917

Indian Army

 

I was actually at Kut when it was finally re-taken in February but I didn’t take any part in the attack.  By that time I’d become a junior officer in the Signals, looking after signalling for the brigade of the 3rd Division to which I was seconded. My signalling then consisted of flags and heliograph, oil lamps and so on with some wireless thrown in.  But when I started, flag waving was the main thing – semaphore and Morse – one flag for Morse and two for semaphore.

We left Basra, at the bottom of the Persian Gulf, and went up the Tigris as far as Kut. When we got there we lined up with the 3rd Lahore Division on one side of us and the 7th Meeruts on the other. As I was free from duties I was able to get my horse and rode out to a ridge where I sat and watched the troops moving about over the river. Watched the Turks disappearing from round the town and the Indian troops – Ghurkas I think they were – going in to re-occupy the place.  A happier outcome to what happened when Arthur Coombs and his lot were there.

The brigade I was with then moved north and two weeks later we captured Baghdad.  After that we moved on up to the Persian border where we joined up with a Russian Cavalry unit which proceeded to eat all our food.

 

 

15

Pte. Jim Peppard                                                        Page 171/172

1st/4th Battalion, The Somerset Light Infantry

Spring 1918

 

When we got out to Indial we were just doin’ ordinary work – guard duties, lookin’ out to

magazines an’ the like. I were a young chap an’ full o’ life, but I’ll tell you this – an’ you can tell who you like – I were a dunce, not too bad mind ‘cos I could read an’ count, but I knew out there that I ‘ad to do somethin’, an’ I did.   I learnt more in the army than ever I did goin’ tuh school.  There were a lad out there along wi’  me from Radstock, Jack he were called, an’ he were called to the office one day ‘cos there was an enquiry from home from his people who were worried about him – they never heard from him ‘cos he couldn’t read nor write.   He should ‘ave said.  I used to write home fer a couple of ‘em, Harry Hughes, the gypsy, an’ another chap.

 

I got on all right out there an’ I used to like to treat everybody else right, don’t matter if they were black or white or yellow, but some of our boys used to really lay into those Indian fellows tuh make ‘em clean their kit. That used tuh make I wild.  Thass not the way tuh treat anybody.   I always got on very well wi’ ‘em, they’d do anythin fer me. All’s I had tuh do was take my equipment off – boots or anythin’ – an’ put it down, an’ there was one of them would come to see if I wanted it done.  He’d clean my drill, blanco, do all me buttons – I never had tuh do anythin’.   An’ d’you know how much I did give’n a week?  Four annas – fourpence a week.

 

Mind you, none of us had much to spend out there an’ I certainly didn’t.   When my sister’s ‘usband were killed up at Emborough quarry she were left wi’ a little girl an’ no compensation – nothin’ whatsoever – an’ when I wen’ in the army I allowed half my money to her – that were three an’ sixpence each week – an’ I had the rest to play with.   She ‘ad that all the time I were away.  It were a close family we ‘ad.

 

There you are, thass us, G?Company out in Wellington Barracks, in Indial.  We’m a smart lot, ain’t we! See Mr Coombs? The officer sitting there by Captain Strachey – on the left. This other photo is yours truly, 203853 Private Peppard, J. 1st/4th S.L.I. Old Jim out in Indial. Yeah.  I borrowed the uniform fer tuh have me photo took – that were the Somersets’ Regulars’ peace time suit – an’ I had those two pictures of Father an’ Mother put in those hearts up in the corners. Don’t you think my Agnes picked a nice boy?

 

16

Somerset Guardian                                                     Page 173

8th March, 1918

STATION MASTER OF BAGHDAD

 

A Wellow porter, Sgt Albert Pritchard, Somerset Light Infantry, mentioned in General Sir Stanley Maude’s Mesopotamia De spatch, is Station Master of Baghdad.  He was a porter on the Somerset and Dorset Railway at Wellow station and went to India with the 1st/4th Somersets.

 

 

17

Pte. Jim Peppard                                                        Page 201

1st/4th Battalion, The Somerset Light Infantry

October, 1918

 

I stayed out in India on general duties. Poonah, it were. Then I got taken ill.  I led out on the sand an’ thought I were gonna die. They said t’were a touch o’ cholera, or sim’lar the same – an’ they sent me up in the hills to Wellington, for convalescence. We did go up the mountain in an engine on cogs – ever so steep, an’ when we got to the top we could look down an’ see the cattle an’ that, ever so small, down on the plain.  T’were beautiful. I must have stayed there two or three months an’ I got back to the depot the same afternoon as our lads left in the morning fer Russia – what fer I could never find out. But I found out that Maurice Baber had been transferred to the ’Ampshires then were taken ill an’ died.  There he sittin’ alongside me in the picture there. He were always so healthy.

 

 

 

 

18

Captain Arthur Coombs                                                                               Page 210

1st/4th Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry

1919

 

In Mesopotamia we didn’t know when we were going to get home and the rules came that the men would be returned as they were needed. The coal miners went off first, then various other people – students and things like that – and I, being nothing, stayed to the last with about 50 others. I found myself in charge of the cadre coming home on the troopship.  There was a fog in the Channel so we were two hours late getting into Bath Station – at eight in the evening instead of six.

 

There were absolute crowds there to greet us and all of the people who had been out in India with us had paraded to meet us.  I think the whole of Bath must have turned out to line the streets.  I’ve never seen such masses.  The police made a passage for us to get through the crowds and I gave the order to march, but then I turned round and there was only a young lieutenant and the C.S.M. behind me – nobody else. The crowd had scuppered them.  Well, the police formed a rugby scrum and we got the men up to the Y.M.C.A. where they were taken care of.  We were then taken to the Fernley Hotel.  It was eleven at night by then, and the first thing I did was to order a whisky.  ‘Very sorry, Sir.  This is a teetotal hotel.’  I have never found out who was responsible for that.

 

 

 

19

Epilogue

 

Geoffrey Bishop                                                                                            Page 214/215

‘Like his father who was a doctor – and in the 4th Somersets before the war – Geoffrey decided that he would become one too, so he went off to Bristol University and the Bristol Royal Infirmary to qualify. He then became a country doctor and practiced in Shepton Mallet for the whole of his career with the exception World War Two. He always stayed with the Somersets and was commanding them when war broke out.  He spent the first year of the war with them in England up until the call came for him to stop playing soldiers and join the RAMC.

He served with them in forward Casualty Clearing Stations in North Africa and Italy, and was eventually made up to full Colonel with a staff job in the Area High Command, near Salerno – which is where I was serving as a Red Cross Welfare Officer, and where I met him.  We moved here to Bath when he retired in 1964.  Geoffrey died in 1987.’  (Sheila Bishop)

 

21

Arthur Coombs                                                                                             Page 216

 

In 1920 I went out to the tea and rubber plantations in Ceylon. Stayed for 32 years.  At one point I was running a tea plantation and someone commented that I was far too young to be in charge. I was 38!  It was pointed out that I’d been a major in the last war – which I was for a while, standing in for someone for a couple of months.  When I retired I came to Bath to live and I now lunch every Wednesday and Friday with Geoffrey Bishop.  Once a year those of us who are left from the 1st/4th get together for our Braemar Association dinner. We had a good crowd once: Cox and Nifton and Openshaw – the doctor’s son from Cheddar – Clutterbuck, Willie Moger, Humphrey Tanner who was Frome – Butler and Tanner, you know – he was wounded out there, as was Sir Charles Miles.  Lewis, whose father ran the paper in Bath – he was also wounded. Worger from Radstock always came. Charey died last year.   Stourman – he’s dead.  Not everyone made it back of course: Baker, of Weston super Mare, and Lillington from Shepton Mallet, and the other Lewis were all killed out there. Only a few of us left now.  Only a few.

 

22

Jim Peppard                                                               Page 218

 

My nerves went after the war – absolutely gone.  An’ that wen’ on fer two year.  I got so low.  I just wanted to be on me own – didn’t want to see nobody. Go in the garden.  Hide.  Once I’d got over that I learnt the mason’s trade. I told you how I volunteered fer everything during the first war, well I done the same in the second. First thing I done was build a hostel for land workers on Bodmin, then I went in to Bath to clean up fer the blitz, same in Bristol and then t’were London – I were up there when the first two rockets come over, in Forest Hill and the building I were in copped it. You never seen such a mess. But I’ve always been the lucky one.  It’s bin a good life!’

 

23

Leslie Pollard                                                                         Page 219

 

 

 

Brigadier Leslie Pollard

Brigadier Leslie Pollard

 

 

‘He stayed in India for the whole of his military career and retired as a Brigadier in 1939 (did you know, the Indian Army’s Corps of Signals still holds its reunions at the Pollard Arena in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh). At the outbreak of WWII he went back into uniform as Commandant of Catterick Camp, the garrison town in Yorkshire. After that war he and his wife Patricia then settled here in Stone Allerton with the Brigadier’s batman, MacDonald, and their much loved Jersey house-cow, Jemima.  He died in 1983.’ (Joan Stevens)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Correspondence on the siege of Kut al-Amara, 1916

Chrestomather | April 1, 2014 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

 

 

March 17, 2014

Dear Mr Ghosh,

Earlier today I came across your ‘On to Baghdad’ page on the net.  

Ten years ago I wrote and published a book called No Thankful Village that included the first hand accounts of three officers I had previously interviewed. It includes the following spoken by Lt Geoffrey Bishop of the 1st/4th Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry, concerning March 9th, 1916:

“The day after the nearly successful attempt to relieve Kut, which Arthur has told you about, the Turks sent in a flag of truce and I was told to go out and meet this chap. I suppose I was sent because I was last at school and probably spoke French better than anyone else. The fellow was riding with an orderly and had a letter from Khalil Pasha, who was the Turkish C in C. I also had an orderly and sent him in with the message and told the Turkish chap to return the next day, but he insisted on waiting.

“Our lines were then anything from 500 to 600 yards apart and I was out there in the middle with him for a couple of hours. Nice chap – a captain. He was Kahlil’s A.D.C., or one of his junior staff officers. We spoke in French and he gave me a packet of cigarettes which I hadn’t had for some time. We talked about the war and the Germans – and he didn’t go a lot on the Germans. He said his uncle had a villa on the Bosphorus and he’d like me to go and stay there after the war – that sort of thing. They were good soldiers, good fighters. Not unpleasant really.

“We had quite an interesting conversation with the result that the following day, when I’d finished my report, I was seen by my Brigadier and sent in to Townshend to tell him about it.

 

 

House in which Gen Townshend was taken prisoner, Kut (Capt. C.H.Weaver www.mespot.net)

House in which Gen Townshend was taken prisoner, Kut (Capt. C.H.Weaver www.mespot.net)

 

That’s his house in the picture, incidentally. I spent about an hour with him, but that was the only time I saw him. Then he sent this chap a message telling him to stuff it.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I do have more, including a detailed account by Lt Arthur Coombs (also of the SLI) who took part in the second attempt to relieve Kut, and Lt Leslie Pollard, Indian Army, who, in February 1917. . . left Basra, at the bottom of the Persian Gulf, and went up the Tigris as far as Kut. When we got there we lined up with the 3rd Lahore Division on one side of us and the 7th Meeruts on the other. As I was free from duties I was able to get my horse and rode out to a ridge where I sat and watched the troops moving about over the river. Watched the Turks disappearing from round the town and the Indian troops – Ghurkas I think they were – going in to re-occupy the place. A happier outcome to what happened when Arthur Coombs and his lot were there.

I understand that the Indian Army’s Corp of Signals still holds its annual reunions in the Pollard Arena, Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, named for Leslie Pollard, later a Brigadier.

I hope this is of some interest. If it is – and you give me a bit of time – I’ll happily send the rest of the material (two or three pages) that I have relating to the Kut story.

Regards,

Chris Howell

 

_____________________

 

 

March 17, 2014

Dear Chris

Thank you very much indeed for this. The information is fascinating. Please do send me the rest of your material – I would be glad to post it on my blog. I am sure it will be of interest to many.

By the way would you mind if I posted your letter as well?

Thanks again and all best

Amitav Ghosh

 

_______________________

March 18

 

Dear Mr Ghosh,

I’m honoured by your interest in No Thankful Village and would of course be delighted for you to include my original letter on your blog.

According to Arthur Mee, who created the Children’s Encyclopaedia and the Children’s Newspaper, there were in Britain, at the end of the First World War, only 32 Thankful Villages (his phrase) to which all the men who had fought came home alive (though in what condition was irrelevant).  Remarkably a quarter of those villages were in Somerset, though there was no Thankful Village in the area of Somerset that I have written about.

My book is an account of the effects that the war had on that part of the County that is centered on Midsomer Norton. I had previously compiled a series of books about Somerset and, in doing so, had amassed material about the war as told to me by men who had taken part, as well as by those men, women and children who remained on the home front.

I then spent 22 years building on their accounts and eventually interviewed about 100 former servicemen who had served in many regiments and corps, but mainly with the Somersets and the Coldstream Guards.  I also included contemporary newspaper reports; trench diaries; military histories, letters and so on. One of the strands I followed was that of the local territorial Battalion, the 1st/4th Somerset Light Infantry which was, early on, dispatched to India.

In my earlier email I mentioned that I’d be pleased to forward you more about this force; two or three pages, I think I said – well it turns out that it’s rather more than that.  I’ll probably send what I have in three batches, the first of which is attached above.

I’m also taking the liberty of sending a flier with some of the reviews the book received.    Because I was also the publisher it seemed a good idea to print on the cover an early review that I’d received privately from Ian Hislop, who at the time  wrote for the Sunday Telegraph. I actually though it was a canny move – but it had the opposite effect.  All the national newspapers (with the exception of The Observer) took Hislop’s comment on the cover to mean that the book was a second edition – and did not review it.  Fortunately for me, The Observer did, giving it 22 column inches.

No Thankful Village is now all but out of print, and as I have no more than 50 copies left it will no longer be available from Amazon or similar outlets. Instead, I’m letting a local shop have all that remain. If you would be good enough to let me have a forwarding address I’d be very happy to send you a copy with my compliments. (I’ve included page 173 for your amusement – the actual village of Wellow, where Sgt. Pritchard was a railway porter, had at that time a population of about 400.)

Please forgive this ramble – it’s a hurried attempt to put a few things in context.

Most sincerely,

Chris Howell

 

________________

 

March 19

Dear Chris Howell

Thanks very much for your emails. I will certainly post our entire correspondence on the site. Unfortunately I can’t post text in jpg format so I will not be able to include the attachments.

I’d be glad to have a copy of ‘No Thankful Village’ – I did look it up on Amazon and saw that it was not available. I’m traveling a lot these days so it might be best to send it to me c/o my UK publisher.

As a student at Oxford, 35 years ago, I hitchhiked through Somerset and had a wonderful time. It was shocking to read about the terrible floods.

Best wishes

Amitav

 

 

 


Correspondence on the Liverpool connections of 1st World War military doctor Kalyan Mukherji

Chrestomather | March 1, 2014 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)

Feb 18, 2014

Dear Amitav,

I discovered your wonderful blog entries about Kalyan Kumar Mukherji whilst researching First World War soldiers from the Liverpool area.
I initially became interested in Captain Mukherji because he is recorded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as the “son of Mrs. Blair of 7 Percy St, Liverpool, England.”  
After reading your blog I quickly realised that his cwgc entry could not be true but, as I’m sure you can imagine, I am extremely reluctant to ‘lose’ such an interesting man from the ranks of Liverpool’s War Dead. 
 
As you mention that Kalyan spent time in England with relatives and studied at Liverpool I have been attempting to discover the identity of “Mrs. Blair of 7 Percy Street” and her connection to Kalyan Mukherji.
I have lighted upon a possible Mrs. Blair and, my Bengali being non-existent, I am hoping that you will be able to confirm from the text of Kalyan Pradeep that she is the relative Kalyan stayed with in England.
Nalini Heloise Blair was the wife of George Alexander Blair and the daughter of Womesh Chandra Bonnerjee (Umesh Chandra Banerjee), first president of the Indian National Congress.

Although Nalini was born in Calcutta she was raised at Croydon, England and this is where she married George Blair in 1899. Both her father and husband were lawyers and Nalini herself was a medical practitioner.
 
Nalini’s husband was also a Lt Colonel with the local Territorial Army. He was in command of the 10th (Scottish) battalion King’s Liverpool Regiment when they were first deployed to France in November 1914 but returned to England after a few weeks due to ill health.
 
The Blairs had a number of addresses in the Liverpool area:
 
1901 Census: 146 Princes Road, Toxteth Park
1904-5 Phone Book: 21 Church Road, Waterloo
1907 Medical Register: 5 Canning Street, Liverpool
1911 Census: The Bungalow, Formby
1915 Medical Register: Southmead, Formby
Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the early twentieth century edited by Susie J. Tharu, Ke Lalita [accessed via Google Books] contains the following information:
Mokshada Debi was the sister of Womesh Chandra Bonnerjee. However, it also states that Mokshada Debi was Kalyan’s aunt rather than his grandmother.
 
Nalini Blair translated her aunt’s books, Safal Swapna, into English as Dreams Unfulfilled
 
I hope I haven’t taken up too much of your time and, once again, thank you for your blog about Kalyan
 
Best Wishes
 
Marie McQuade
_________________________________
Feb 19, 2014
Dear Marie

Thank you ever so much for this very illuminating letter. The world is full of so many co-incidences (or ‘synchronicities’ to use Jung’s word)! As it happens, I’ve been hearing a lot about W.C.Bonnerjee recently.

Regarding your question, I’m afraid it will take me a few days to dig out the text but I will certainly try to get to it soon. In the meantime perhaps I should put you in touch with Santanu Das who is writing about Kalyan Pradeep at much greater length? I am sure he will be able to help.

Would you mind if I posted your letter on my blog? I am sure it would be of interest to many.

With my best wishes

Amitav
____________________________________________________
Feb 26
Hi Amitav,
 
Thank you so much for replying to my email.
 
By all means post my email on your blog if you would like and edit out anything you see fit.
 
As part of a larger First World War project I am putting together a section that features a story of an individual service man or woman with a Liverpool connection for every day of the year.
 
I hope Kalyan will be my featured ‘casualty’ for the 18th March. Your blog entries have let his voice be heard across all these years.
 
Now I just have to be careful not to get side-tracked by the Bonnerjee family!
 
Marie McQuade
_____________________________________________________
Feb 28
Dear Marie

Some excerpts from ‘Kalyan Pradeep’ that might be of  use:

Kalyankumar was the second child of Kshetramohan’s second wife. Kalyan’s mother was my [i.e. Mokshada Debi's] eldest daughter Binodini.’ (p. 79)

Kalyan was born in our Bhagalpur house in the year 1882 of the Christian era on 24th October, Tuesday at 6 pm.’ (p. 133).

- My sister in law Hemangini … left her Croydon house in the care of her eldest daughter Nalini, her husband Mr George Blair and Blair-sahib’s mother. My sister in law had received Kalyan’s letter before leaving and had made arrangements for him to be well looked after (in her house). When Kalyan reached England in July his aunt Nalini and his uncle Mr George Blair affectionately received him and took him to their Croydon house. … Kalyan’s aunt Nalini and Mr George Blair both treated him as if he were their own son.‘ (p. 183)

- ‘It was decided that it would be better for Kalyan to attend lectures and do his hospital work in Liverpool. This was because Blair-sahib worked in Liverpool, and he was acquainted with the burra sahibs of the hospitals in Liverpool…. (After my sister-in-law returned to Croydon) Kalyan went to Liverpool with his aunt Nalini and Blair-sahib and lived with them while studying medicine there. Kalyan often wrote to me and his mother about the great kindness they had showed him.’ (p. 188)

- Kalyan went to England in 1908.

Hope this helps.

All the best

Amitav


The Lascar War Memorial, Kolkata

Chrestomather | January 25, 2014 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

 

[This is a guest post by Commodore Bibhu Mohanti (retd.) of Cuttack, Odisha. Commodore Mohanti also provided the collage below.]

 

8x12=_1

 

 

The Lascar War Memorial is located in the Indian Naval premises of Hastings, Kolkata. In 1920, William Ingram Keir, an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects, started the construction of this historical monument. He had also designed Kidderpore Bridge, the buildings of the Bengal Engineering and Science University (erstwhile Bengal Engineering College) in Shibpur, the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur and Islamia College. He’d also replaced the spire of St. Paul’s Cathedral (damaged in an earthquake in 1934), and designed a number of mosques, temples and gurdwaras  in the city. He would never talk much about his life but would always say, “I am a foreigner in India but a stranger everywhere else”. He died three months after he left India in 1967. The Lascar War Memorial earned William Ingram Keir an award of Rs.500/- for its design in an international contest in 1929 and it “remained of special value to him”.

Apart from this memorial, Kolkata has two others: the Cenotaph and the Bengali War Memorial, erected in the memory of Bengali martyrs of the World War in 1914-1918. The Lascar memorial was erected by shipping and mercantile companies at the southern end of the Maidan, within few yards of Prinsep Ghat, in the memory of the 896 Lascars of undivided Bengal and Assam  who lost their lives at sea during World War I. It was unveiled on 6th February 1924 by Lord Lytton, then Governor of Bengal. The memorial, a four-sided ‘oriental’ column, with the prow of  an ancient galley projecting from each of its sides, is capped by four small minarets and a large gilt dome. The undulating lines beneath symbolize waves, with chhajjas and trellises to give it a distinctly Indian look.

On his regular visits to the city of Kolkata, James Keir, son of William Keir, living in Hongkong  since 1962, was struck  by the neglect of Lascar monument. In 1998 he noticed a change – the memorial was restored in 1994 under the care of Commodore Bibhu Mohanti, who was then the Naval Officer-In-Charge Kolkata.

On a winter morning in January 1994 Commodore Mohanti, on his usual morning walk from Navy House, noticed smoke billowing out of the surroundings of the memorial -  someone had lit the grass around it, for warmth. The monument was in ruins and shrubs and wild plants had grown around it due to neglect. The surface was cracked and the dome was damaged due to the vagaries of the weather, over six decades. He had a closer look at the memorial and was really  struck by its historical relevance. He took it as a challenge to renovate the memorial and it was adopted by the Indian Navy in February 1994.

It look almost one year to get the memorial to its present pristine state. The gardens around the memorial were aptly laid out. He approached Philips (India) to help in illuminating the memorial. Trials were conducted for a week with different combinations of lighting. The lights are visible from the Vidya Sagar Setu (second Hooghly Bridge).

The Cenotaph, at the northern end of the Maidan to the west of Ochterlony Monument, was erected by public subscription, and its inscription reads, “The Glorious Dead”. It is almost a replica of the Cenotaph in Whitehall,    London, and it was unveiled in 1921 by the Prince of Wales who later became Edward VIII. Two bronze soldiers stand guard at its approach. On Armistice Day each year, its base is covered with flowers and the Governor and his entourage, representatives of the Army the Navy, and a large gathering of people of all communities stand in reverential silence for two minutes. On 3rd September (Merchant Navy Day) in 1995 for the first time wreaths were laid at the Lascar War Memorial by personnel of the Merchant Navy and Indian Navy which is now an annual feature. The illumination was switched on by the Governor of West Bengal on Navy day in December 1994.

James Keir had not met Commodore Mohanti as he had retired from the Indian Navy in May 1997 and moved out of Kolkata to lead a retired life at Cuttack (Odisha). On 3rd November 2012, James Keir and Bibhu Mohanti met under the portals of the memorial. It was a special meeting for them. Now they are in constant touch and exchange emails regularly.

Kolkata has a lot to offer in terms of heritage. It is for the people to connect with these monuments that make the City of Joy unique says  Commodore  Bibhu Mohanti.

 

 


A Jewish connection with pre-war Rangoon

Chrestomather | January 15, 2014 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

 

 

Dear Mr. Ghosh

I just finished reading your book The Glass Palace.
I enjoyed it very much.
It has a very personal meaning to me and I would like to ask you
if you have more information regarding the

“Forgotten Long March” of 1941

My husband’s father was a Jewish merchant in Rangoon at the time.
His wife and many children, including my husband (two years old at the time), were able to board a ship that took them to Calcutta where they lived for about 10 years before making Aliyah to Israel.
His father was among the trekkers that walked from Burma to Calcutta over several months. They thought he did not survive. He turned up several months later in Calcutta but in a very sad state after the long march.
Due to his trauma, he did not speak much about this journey and the family would
like to know more about the experience.
My husband and I visited Rangoon in 1970 en route from the US to Israel where we lived for several years on a kibbutz. It was difficult to get a visa here in the states and we were able to get a 24 hour visa for Burma in Japan.
Synagogue, Rangoon

Synagogue, Rangoon

 I have some slides from the visit, most from the Jewish synagogue where my father in law was very involved and some street scenes and of course the Pagoda.
I am planning to have the slides converted to a DVD.
Is it possible to email or write to Nellie Casyab, a survivor in Calcutta who you mention in your book?
Do you have more material about this march and in particular do you have anything about the Jewish survivors.
I hope this email comes to you and would appreciate hearing from you.
We live in NY, in the Rockaways and would gladly come to you or would love to have you visit with us.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Thank you in advance.
Sincerely,
Susan Sagiv  and Abraham Sagiv


Book III of the IBIS TRILOGY

Chrestomather | November 20, 2013 in Uncategorized | Comments (80)

 

I am pleased to announced the title of the third book of the Ibis Trilogy. It  is:

Flood of Fire.

The estimated date of publication is the Spring of 2015. More details will appear anon in the catalogues of my publishers: Penguin India, John Murray (UK) and Farrar, Straus and Giroux (USA).

 


An Asian View of Europe: Pallavi Aiyar’s ‘Punjabi Parmesan’ – part 2

Chrestomather | November 7, 2013 in Reviews | Comments (0)

 

 

One of the pleasures of Pallavi Aiyar’s Punjabi Parmesan §  is that it addresses the pressing issues of contemporary Europe through a chorus of contrasting voices. Pallavi is a diligent reporter and a fine interviewer; she has an extraordinary knack for finding interesting people to talk to, on a wide range of subjects – the environment, inter-faith relations, immigration, the crisis of the Euro, the resilience of the German economy, the legacy of imperialism and so on.

Her other great strength is her knowledge of India and China: her gift for comparison often leads to unexpected insights. For instance, on the subject of tolerance and religious pluralism:

For most Indians, a certain amount of role-playing is an accepted part of life and the contradictions between one’s varied roles is not usually a matter of existential angst. An atheist bowing down before a shrine in a temple; a habitually mini-skirted girl choosing to dress demurely to meet her more conservative relatives; an observant teetotaller Jain offering his dinner party guests a glass of beer: such common accommodations are not about lacking the guts to stand up for one’s own beliefs as much as about expressing a respect for the beliefs of others. In Europe, this would probably have been frowned upon as hypocrisy. In India, it is considered tact. And tact has a definite advantage in a multicultural space. (85)

And

Europeans are usually quick to censure authoritarian China for the restrictions on the practice of religion placed by Beijing on its western Muslim-majority region of Xinjiang. In Xinjiang, muezzins are banned from using loudspeakers during their call to prayer. Imams are not permitted to teach the Koran in private, and the study of Arabic is allowed only at designated government schools. But the difference between the constraints on Islam imposed by China and those by some European countries is arguably a matter of degree rather than substance. (80)

 

 

In one wonderfully entertaining chapter, Pallavi accompanies a group of Chinese schoolchildren on a tour of Europe. ‘Chinese travellers have emerged as the European tourism industry’s knights in shining armour, riding to the rescue of otherwise stagnant economies.’ (187)

She visits Bordeaux where the Chinese have become a major force: ‘Thanks to the explosion of Chinese wine consumption, the price of Bordeaux wines had risen in recent years, even though wine consumption in France itself (where 50–60 per cent of the region’s wines are sold) had been falling. Chinese consumers of wine had played an important part in ensuring Bordeaux continued to flourish despite the economic slowdown in Europe and aggressive competition from new, world wines.’

 

Zhang stands on the steps of his Chateau Grand Moueys

Chinese tycoon Zhang Jin Shan stands on the steps of the Chateau Grand Moueys

 

She interviews Zhang Jin Shan the new owner of Chateau du Grand Mouëys, a well-known French vineyard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Like Baron Dilip Mehta, Zhang Jin Shan is a man who does not mince his words.

‘Born in 1963, a few years before the start of the Cultural Revolution, Zhang grew up in the hardscrabble of an obscure town in one of China’s poorest provinces, Ningxia. His mother was a peasant working the fields, while his father had a small-time job in the local railways.

Zhang never made it to university but a technical diploma landed him an accounting job with a state-owned enterprise in 1983. By 1996, he had somehow made the leap to running a baijiu (a popular Chinese spirit) factory, and in 2000 he bought Ningxiahong, then a struggling factory, and transformed it into the successful, diversified business it is today. Other than goji berry-related products, the company’s activities currently also include real estate, printing, catering, and a travel agency.

Zhang did not seem to want to dwell on the past. During our interview, it was the future he was all fired up about. He was dismissive about the wine produced at Chateau du Grand Mouëys, in its current avatar, and oblivious to any hurt French feelings his curt assessment might engender… ‘It’s no good,’ he said, of the wine.

 

 

Zhang Jin Shan (Bordeaux's latest wine baron) & Pallavi in his Chateau in France

Zhang Jin Shan (Bordeaux’s latest wine baron) & Pallavi in his Chateau in France

 

The taste, he claimed, was mama huhu, mediocre. Everything must change, including the packaging, he continued, because it was of ‘low quality’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pallavi is often scathing about European pretensions, most of all on matters relating to the environment (there is a wonderful section on the Copenhagen conference, which she covered). In my view though, this is one subject on which she allows her gift for satire to get the better of her judgement.

There can be no doubt that Europe does speak in many voices on the environment and some of these are indeed sanctimonious, hypocritical and self-serving. But this cacophony can be misleading: it is more productive perhaps to focus on what Europe actually does. And the fact is that Europe has moved in a direction that is markedly different from the trajectory of the US, Australia and Canada: some of the countries of the EU have banned fracking for example, and many are vigorously exploring sources of alternative energy. Most of all in Europe there is a willingness to accept the reality of climate change: it is telling that Europe does not have any counterparts to the well-funded denial movements that play such an important part in the debate in Anglo-Saxon countries. Some European countries, like Holland, have already made extensive preparations for large-scale flooding etc: the world has a great deal to learn from them. I have written about this subject elsewhere and will not belabour it here. Suffice it to say that  in my view Europe holds what little hope there is for any kind of leadership on matters relating to climate change.

Although Pallavi does not pull any punches, she is at heart a firm believer in the idea of Europe. She also insists on its relevance to the world, and especially to India. One of her most interesting insights is this:

‘It struck me with some force how in many ways the Chinese were the Americans of Asia, while the Indians were the Europeans. As players on the international stage, the United States and China are both goal-oriented and able to act decisively in their national interest. Despite the existence of internal divisions, they are coherent entities that speak with a unified voice. Backed by hard power, their strategic planners take a long-term view of evolving rivalries and alliances.

‘In contrast, the Indians, like their European counterparts, are notable for the glacial pace of their decision-making. Constrained by the workings of coalition politics, both the twenty-seven-member EU and India valorize plurality and argumentation over actual outcomes and performance. They often appear unable to articulate a clear vision of their core interests, with internal factiousness hijacking unified, long-term agendas. Unlike the Unites States and ironically, ‘communist’ China, the political mainstream in both Europe and India is Leftish and characterized by a distrust of unfettered markets.

‘Polyphonic (both boast over twenty official languages) and seemingly chaotic, the EU and India are the world’s two most populous democracies. The commonalities between them are underscored by the fact that their governments use an identical catchphrase to describe their union: ‘unity in diversity’.

‘But despite the similarities, or perhaps because of them, neither India nor the EU was particularly engaged with the other. Rather, the US and China formed the twin poles of their (once again) common strategic fixations. Ultimately, both India and the EU were in essence soft powers, beguiled by and envious of the hard muscle shown by the Americans and the Chinese.’ (226-7)

As she points out, India and Europe are in many ways mirrors of each other, only they don’t know it:

In some ways, India is a proto-European Union, having stitched together a large region of diverse social and cultural fabric into a political and economic union. Like the EU, it is the antithesis of the concept of the nineteenth-century European nation state where a single religion, a single language and a common enemy form the ‘natural’ basis for the only sustainable kind of political unit.’ (306)

Yet, few Indians are invested in the idea of Europe—an attitude that is mirrored in Brussels, where few seem even aware of the idea of India. As a result, both India and the EU fail to engage with the other seriously, in what seems to be a classic case of familiarity breeding contempt. As essentially soft powers, hamstrung by coalitions and the niceties of convoluted political processes, and consumed by the challenges of handling enormous diversity, the EU and India sneer at each other’s purported incompetence and arrogance. Instead, it is the hard powers of the United States and China that are the poles of their common strategic fixations and awe.’ (312-3)

Elsewhere she writes:

‘India and the European Union are not just cumbersome polities; they are huge political achievements that allow the world to imagine alternative, inclusive configurations to the exclusions and bigotry of national tribalisms. This is not to claim that either lives up perfectly to its own underlying idea. Both remain messy and contradictory and half-baked. But in their idealized potential there resides considerable hope for humanity.’

These are words of real wisdom.

 

Pallavi Aiyar & family

Pallavi Aiyar & family

In sum Punjabi Parmesan is the story of the shared journey of Europe, India and China over the last tumultous decade.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is an enormously ambitious narrative, yet the human scale of its perspective, its unflinching honesty, its critical acuity, its humour and generosity, and the directness of the writing make it wonderfully readable as well as richly instructive.

The book ends with Pallavi and her family moving to Jakarta where her husband has been appointed to a position in the EU’s delegation. Pallavi is now the Hindu’s Indonesia correspondent. I very much hope that her new assignment will lead to another volume of this engrossing journalistic autobiography.

 

 

 

____________________________________________________________

§ Forthcoming Penguin India, December 2013. All pictures courtesy Pallavi Aiyar.

 


An Asian View of Europe: Pallavi Aiyar’s ‘Punjabi Parmesan’ – part 1

Chrestomather | November 4, 2013 in Reviews | Comments (2)

 

 

Pallavi Aiyar’s new book, Punjabi Parmesan (Penguin India, December 2013) is an account of contemporary Europe seen through Asian eyes. The project is ambitious, timely and important, and I cannot think of anyone who is better equipped to undertake it than Pallavi Aiyar.

Born, raised and schooled in India, Pallavi also has a degree from Oxford. She lived in China for many years, reporting for the Hindu, and speaks Mandarin. Her first book Smoke and Mirrors was about her time in that country. A fine blend of memoir and straightforward reporting, the book is woven around an account of the time Pallavi spent living in a hutong in Beijing, with her Spanish husband, Julio Arias. It is to my mind among the best of the slew of recent books about China – a  compelling blend of autobiography, social history and journalism.

I should add here that my personal acquaintance with Pallavi is very brief. I met her at a book event some years years ago, soon after I’d read Smoke and Mirrors. I told her how much I had liked the book, which is why, I suppose, she sent me the proofs of Punjabi Parmesan

 

 

Pallavi Aiyar in Spain

Pallavi Aiyar in Spain

 

(later, when I decided to write about it, I asked for some pictures and she sent the photographs that are posted here).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Punjabi Parmesan (and I must note here that the title is one of the few things I didn’t like about the book) could be described as the second volume of Pallavi’s ongoing journalistic autobiography. In this book we follow her from Beijing to Brussels where her husband Julio has taken a job in the offices of the European Commission.

The move, undertaken for family reasons, brings about a sea change in Pallavi’s journalistic career: ‘For years I’d had front row seats to the volcanic awakening of this Asian colossus [China], the consequences of which were leading to an epochal inversion of world power… Indian newspapers had developed a Chinese obsession, alternatively adulating and vilifying the country. This had worked to my advantage as a journalist, as almost every story I filed from Beijing was prominently showcased. Europe, on the other hand, barely registered a bleep on the Indian media’s radar… I was resigned to the fact that I’d be lucky if my dispatches from Brussels made it to the newspaper at all. … I consoled myself with philosophical reflections on my stage of life. I was, after all, no longer a footloose youngster, guzzling sea slugs with ne’er a care. I had a baby now, and planned on more. Adventure for me had become equated with the contents of a diaper. Perhaps pretty, stable, pleasant Europe was exactly what I needed.’

But of course nothing ever works out as expected. ‘The ‘story’ found a way of chasing me. The timing of my move, in 2009, was such that before long I was once again in the eye of a news maelstrom. From the “Rise of China,” I now found myself with front row seats to the “Decline of Europe”. In some ways, of course, the two were the flip side of the same coin.’

The way Pallavi frames her project is characteristic, both in its modesty and its sly subversiveness. Her family and her children are placed at the very centre of the narrative and she makes no bones about subordinating her career to her husband’s: but far from constraining her, these choices lead to the discovery of an exciting new project, one that becomes all the richer because she approaches it not just as a journalist and writer but also as a mother and spouse.

The confounding of expectations is a recurrent and refreshing theme in Pallavi’s narrative. Europe turns out to be rather different from the ‘pretty, stable, pleasant’  place that she had expected. Arriving in Brussels airport is a bureaucratic disaster; within minutes of stepping out of the airport the family is robbed of a large part of their possessions.

Expectations of ease and comfort in Europe are confounded in other ways too: ‘Efficiency, reliability, quality, cleanliness: these words had echoed in my head, taking on an almost hallucinatory allure as our plane prepared for landing in Brussels on a late April’s day.’ But, in the event: ‘It took me a day to get a phone connection installed in Beijing, but several weeks to get one in Brussels. It took me five days to get my residence card in China when I moved there back in 2002, compared to nine weeks for the equivalent in Brussels.’

The plot thickens as Pallavi and her family learn to cope with the Great European Vacation. ‘We began our European lives just as continental Europe was gearing up for what the Belgians (or at least the French-speaking amongst them) called ‘Les Grand Vacances. This was a staggeringly long period between July and August when large parts of the continent, and certainly Brussels, came to a halt, with everyone from EU civil servants to primary school teachers heading off on a grand vacation, clasping suntan lotion and beach towels. (11) ‘I was increasingly convinced of the religious overtones to vacations in Belgium, where many seemed to hold holidays as the raison d’être for work, and even life itself.’ (12)

Imagine, then, my disorientation in having landed from China in Brussels, a city that not only shut shop for les grand vacances but every Sunday as well. When I tried to impress people by telling them how China was pretty much open for business twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, they would shake their head sadly, exclaiming,  ‘Yes, isn’t it terrible?!’ Not quite the reaction I was hoping for. (13)

This leads Pallavi to ask some searching questions about the contemporary European work ethic. She seeks out Baron Dilip Mehta, a hugely successful Gujarati diamond merchant, now based in Antwerp. The Baron minces no words; according to him the key ingredient in the success of Indians in the diamond industry is ‘a willingness to work harder and longer hours than the competition.’

 

Baron Dilip Mehta examining a large diamond. His Rosy Blue is one of the largest diamond companies in the world

Baron Dilip Mehta examining a large diamond. His Rosy Blue is one of the largest diamond companies in the world

 

This, he says, is how Gujaratis came to displace the Jews who had previously dominated this industry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘‘[They] just couldn’t withstand our competitiveness,’ he said with a matter-of-fact shrug of the shoulders. ‘We are married to our businesses. We will work at night. We will work on the weekends. We will do whatever it takes to get a client. And we are willing to work this hard even for small margins.’

The baron sighed.Of course, sometimes I feel guilty that I’m such a company-driven person. My family always comes second to the business. But that’s just the way it is.’ (29)

 

 

Diamond Street in Antwerp

Diamond Street in Antwerp

Pallavi then interviews a Jewish diamond merchant, who essentially confirms the Baron’s diagnosis:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Indians work too hard,’  he spat. It was the first time I’d ever heard ‘work’ made to sound like a dirty word.That’s all they talk about, “diamonds”. It’s their life and they won’t stop at anything to grab customers. Even if it means selling at a loss.’ (32)

The irony, as Pallavi points out is that ‘[These] allegations … against the Indians—the ‘unfair’ competition they posed because of their willingness to work too hard and their desire to ‘grab’ business at any cost—are charges that have been levelled time and again, over centuries, against the Jews themselves.’ (34)

 

 

 

DSCF4760

Sikhs at the Gurudwara in Sabaudia in central Italy

 

Pallavi hears a similar story in Italy where ‘Punjabi agricultural immigrants … constitute the second largest Indian diaspora in Europe, after the UK’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘‘Italians don’t like to work too much,’ said Sartaj Singh,

 

DSCF4759

Gurudwara, Sabaudia, central Italy

 

 

a clean-shaven Sikh who was working alongside Harbhajan on the day. ‘They keep going on holiday and make life difficult for the bosses.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He lowered his voice even though we were talking in Punjabi, and indicated Angelino, his overseer, with a quick sideways motion. ‘He never gets to work before 10 in the morning, even though we start at dawn.’

 

 

DSCF6860

Gurudwara, Sabaudia, central Italy

 

‘Before we (Punjabis) got here, the fields were barren,’ chipped in Harbhajan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was no one to work in the fields. If there is agriculture in Latina today, it’s all because of us,’ he beamed.’

 

 

 

DSCF6849

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pallavi goes to Rome to interview a First Secretary in the Indian embassy.

He tells her: ‘‘You know, Italians don’t like to work in the fields … Italy needed labour and since the late 1980s Indians have been providing it. It’s worked well because they [the Italians] see the Indians as reliable, enterprising and quite docile. They work hard and don’t demand things like some of these others . . . the First Secretary left the rest of the sentence dangling complicitly between us.

The words ‘docile’ and ‘reliable’ leapt out at me: it was astonishing to see this 21st century Indian diplomat using the exact words that British colonial officials liked to use to describe Indian indentured workers in the 19th century.

I was reminded also of another set of words that occurs often in European writings of the 19th and early 20th centuries: ‘the lazy native’. Colonial officials of that period concocted all kinds of theories about what they saw as the laziness and profligacy of Asians and Africans.  These notions were of course bitterly resented and the Malaysian politician and thinker, Syed Hussein Alatas, even devoted a whole book to the subject:  The Myth of the Lazy Native.

Can we soon expect a screed with a title like The Myth of the Lazy European /First Worlder? To judge by the furore that greeted Ratan Tata’s comments on the British workforce, it would certainly seem so.

Sometimes the wheel of history turns very fast.

 

____________________________________________________

All pictures courtesy Pallavi Aiyar

 

 

 

 



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