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Saturday, 10 May 2014

The Jewel in the Crown - WW1: India 65 years on and counting.


by Patrick Brigham

                 ‘Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently, at God’s great Judgment Seat.’
Rudyard Kipling - The Ballad of East & West. 

 

Sixty-five years on, and the great continent of India no longer has that taste of colonialism lingering in the palette, except for those very few who can still remember, and then most likely their palette is residing in a glass of water beside their bed.
As we recount the events of WW1, a bloodbath which involved far too many virtually ignored, unremarked and brave colonial soldiers - many from the then Indian sub-continent - the TV is resounding with nostalgia while great emphasis is put on the Western forces - Australians, South Africans, Canadians and new Zealanders - who died during the Great War. The hero's of the Verdun and other horrific WW1 battle scenes, are always presented as being white and European, although this is far from the truth.
 
- We shoot forward in time and it is suddenly the 17th August 1947. Now we see sepia films showing the final salutes of men and women - often in rather baggy and dated military uniforms - who wonder if leaving India is the right thing to do, and worry about what life has in store for them, back in a war torn Britain that is also trying to re-emerge into an equally uncertain future, together with the rest of a decimated Europe - 
 
For over three hundred years Britain had been the policeman of India, what was soon to become the State of Pakistan and ultimately, an emerging Bangladesh. Did the politicians of the day eulogize over the brave and ignominiously forgotten Indian soldiers, who fought for a foreign country thirty years before? We shall never know it was all too long ago!
Most of us see the post war years in rather theatrical terms, and in the shires and the home counties of England - in the 50's and 60's - one often came across slightly dotty relatives who talked about their time in India as the best time of their life. Surrounded by the reminders of years spent on the equator - the pith helmets, the Indian swords and engraved matchlocks - the many sided tables inlaid with ivory and mother of pearl. Then there were the photographs of ferocious looking Colonels - their foot on the head of an equally ferocious looking but dead tiger - as a child, I was introduced to cold curry, tales of the Berkshire Regiment and Uncle John.
And, back then in the sometimes jaded reality of back street Brighton, in a world of seaside boarding houses - the subject of plays by Terrence Rattigan or John Osborne - the fifties and sixties seemed to be populated by hopeless people; old majors or retired district commissioners, all of whom found it difficult to adapt to their new home environment. Dear old Col. Hillary Hook couldn't even boil a kettle.
Often born to parents who had lived all their lives in India - there had been families who'd lived and survived for generations in India – some lives were only interdispersed with the odd visit to an English public school, a university, or perhaps to Sandhurst. And then, it was back to India in some colonial capacity.
In their mind India came to be as much theirs as the indigenous population, because British blood had been spilt on the ground of their chosen home. It was as simple as that. But they were also obnoxious, they were snobs, they were xenophobic and they were unquestionably spoilt by their Indian hosts; but never the less they were also severely misunderstood.
Emanating from the newly found and emerging middle classes of the early nineteenth century, the sons and daughters of successful traders and manufacturers, they had often been precluded from aristocratic society an their British homeland - trade was a nasty word up until the 1950's - and India proved to be and acceptable alternative.
Surrounded by the trappings of wealth, the Maharajas paid lip service to their so called protectors but they also indulged in the imported social snobbery by Anglicizing their views and often adopting the public school and elitist attitudes of their colonial cousins, into the bargain. Eton, Harrow and smart Indian Regiments were all the rage and a kind of effete Indian aristocracy emerged on the racecourses of Ascot and Epsom and the polo-grounds of Hurlingham and Sandringham; but not for long and forward in time once more we now know why.
The sepia film only shows the lines of people, and not their thoughts. Tears and smiles must have mingled with nostalgia and although some were sorry that they were leaving, others were not. Gandhi’s salt march had done the trick, Mountbatten had handed India back with as much dignity as he could muster and India was left to denude its own reality, and make the railways run on time. Back in the UK sports masters were called Major this, the school bursar was called Colonel that, and the grounds man was called Sergeant something or other too. This was when I first went to school.
As I write in the present day, and as my recollections fade of aging aunts and uncles - of small ivory elephants in glass cases - the aroma and sounds of India still linger in the photograph album, the nameless dogs sitting on the veranda of some relatives forgotten bungalow. And, although the shadow of a much loved past still lingers behind the glossy brochure of a now modern and thriving India, I am afraid that what I remember really doesn’t matter anymore.
Today the talk is of computer technology, and the highly connected nuclear tests, none of which are approved by the great powers. Rockets that wobble on their launching pads and die with disappointed looks, from ambitious Indian faces. Young people, once the scourge of immigration officers at Dover, are now the invited guests of a burgeoning electronics industry; short of manpower. No longer destined for the sweat shops of Huddersfield or Leeds, nor selling assorted silks from a market stall in Brick Lane or Southall, but a new well educated middle class, destined for the wine bars of Dover Street and trendy Covent Garden.
The India of today simultaneously seethes with the extremes of poverty and great wealth, with - one must admit - an occasional European demeanour. Gone are the cliches of the past; the Star of India Restaurant and the Bombay Brasserie, are now in the Michelin Guide, pandering to the spoilt and overpaid, the trenchermen of an over colestralized London; those who have completely forgotten, how it all began. And how do the Indians feel about their past? Well, they seem to have forgotten about it too!
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