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For the public good

INDIA'S English-speaking elite has mostly emerged, from colonial times until recently, out of private boys' schools and girls' convents. This predominance of what is loosely called the "Anglo- Indian" private sector has been bitterly complained about without being effectively displaced. The result is that even the most savage critics of an educational system skewed against the vernaculars have no option except to try and position their own children within it. More often than not, the regional elite, which now wields political power in much of the country, possess the social and financial means to ensure that their offspring find a place within such schools. Tacitly, they acknowledge that India's educational system is not so much tainted by the West as sainted by it. It does not matter whether their progeny is at St. Paul's or St. Xavier's, St. Michael's or St. Edmund's, St. Mary's or St. Bede's, so long as they end at St. Stephen's.

Meanwhile the schools themselves have been transformed by social change, sometimes so fundamentally that they are no longer constitutionally what they were set up to be. This process of transformation has been going on even within that final bastion of colonial tradition that is the Indian Army, and in schools run by or associated with the army. In one of these, a principal was discreetly eased out recently because he would not permit 15 "grace" marks each to two "failed" sons of army topdogs. In the school to which I went, a few Anglo-Indians and Christians are struggling to conserve the traditions of an establishment against the tide of a Hindi-medium population that cannot be stopped. The worldview of new entrants into that school so outweighs the English-medium purposes for which it was originally founded that the school's basic character, which is antiquated and colonial, has been subverted by the very population which studies there precisely in order to imbibe something of that character.

That particular school, La Martiniere in Lucknow, was set up in unusual circumstances by a man who was everything that a saint is not. When he died in 1800, exactly 200 years ago, this brilliant renegade Frenchman, Claude Martin, knew that he had sinned, and that the certainty of St. Peter giving him short shrift at the Gates of Heaven was more or less guaranteed. By the time he took to his deathbed, Martin had looted, bribed and wheedled himself a fortune of Rs. 40 lakhs and was reckoned to be the second-richest man in Awadh, next only to the Nawab of Awadh. He knew he had a great deal to atone for in the afterlife. The several schools which his Will decreed should be set up in his name "for the Public Good ... to educate a Certain Number of Children of any sex to a certain age and to have them put prentice to some profession ..." are like a monumental plea to the Lord for mercy upon his soul.

Martin is possibly the most substantially remembered European traveller ever to have hit upon the subcontinent; there are five schools named after him, two in Lucknow, two in Calcutta, one in Lyon. But he never conceived of himself as one of the founding saints of Indian education. In her hugely readable biography of this endearing rogue, titled A Very Ingenious Man, Rosie Llewellyn Jones, also the author of two absorbing books about Nawabi Lucknow, depicts Martin as a shrewd adventurer with his eye always on the main chance. He seems to have been an engaging scoundrel with a touch of Leonardo da Vinci about him, a mercenary and freebooter who came to symbolise for Lucknow roughly what Corbusier was for Chandigarh 150 years later: he practically built the city by himself. But Martin went one step further: he also rented out much of what he built to the local nobility.

The grandest of all his buildings, called "Constantia", which now houses La Martiniere school in Lucknow, is a huge "folly", eccentrically adorned with statues of lions, gargoyles and Greek- looking goddesses. It was completed according to Martin's instructions after he died and is situated on an estate of about 200 acres, including a golf course and a village, bang in the middle of the city. This palace once overlooked an ox-bow lake and the Gomti river. To look at, it is one of the most spectacular constructions in North India. The greatest folly of our own times is to have done so little to popularise and preserve this precious piece of the past. Uttar Pradesh is currently in the hands of paan-chewing, gun-toting criminals, and, ironically, the best hope for La Martiniere is to remain in obscurity.

If one is interested in colonialism as an enterprise begun by adventurers and entrepreneurs which degenerated into the normality of empire and administration, there are few characters whose careers illustrate this more entertainingly than Martin's. Thomas Munro of ryotwari fame, Mountstuart Elphinstone of Elphinstone College, Colonel Sleeman who slaughtered the Thugs, Lawrence of the Lucknow siege and William Hodson of Hodson's Horse are collectively less interesting than the singular Claude Martin.

Much of the credit for this goes to Martin's biographer, Dr. Llewellyn-Jones, all of whose books centre on the architecture and culture of colonial Lucknow. Her biography of Martin, in particular, manages to combine solid academic research with an admirable prose style.

Martin was born in 1735 in the French town of Lyon. His family was middle class and several of its members seem to have made their living by manufacturing vinegar, mustard and brandy. Claude branched out into the silk trade after a short education in which he showed an aptitude for physics and mathematics. The decision to take to yarn was not a happy one. The trade soon fell into a slump and Martin was forced to sign up as a common recruit with the French East India Company. When his Catholic mother heard of his resolution to seek his fortune among the heathens of India, she boxed his ears, gave him some money, and warned: "Don't come back unless you're in a carriage." Martin never saw her again; he never went back to France. Although he had every intention, when he set out, of going back home a nabob, news of the French Revolution and perhaps the fear of losing what he had amassed while away were factors which made him decide against a long and uncertain voyage back. He is entombed below the last, and finest, of his buildings in Lucknow.

In India, Martin sensed the turn of the imperial tide and switched sides from the French to the British Company. He fought as a soldier in the Pondicherry region, then in Bengal, and in the early 1770s he found himself in Lucknow. He had by this time left the service of the British Company's army and begun working as a surveyor and cartographic assistant, travelling to Cooch Behar and Bhutan on survey work. Later he helped set up a unit for the manufacture of silk, and still later, an arsenal and indigo farms. In Lucknow he befriended a fellow Frenchman-nabob, Antoine Polier, who had access to the court of the Awadh Nawabs, first Shuja-ud-daulah and then Asaf-ud-daulah. For the remaining 25 years of his life, Martin made himself the pre-eminent and indispensable courtier, builder, entertainer and trinket-peddler of successive nawabs in Awadh, as well as of the conquering British.

Apart from being a self-made man, Martin was an amateur scientist and a doctor of sorts. He appears as a hot-air balloonist in Allan Sealy's novel Trotter-Nama. He seems to have suffered from stones in his urinary tract and despite excruciating suffering, he successfully attempted a primitive form of lithotripsy (breaking stones via a waxed-wire insertion up the urethra). Martin managed to publish an account of this amazing self-surgery in London's medical circles and, notwithstanding initial scepticism among bladder surgeons, it appears to have been accepted as the first recorded operation of this kind.

Unlike his 17th Century French predecessors, Bernier and Tavernier, whose travels in Mughal India he may have learnt of, Martin did not travel to India to write about it. He went there merely to earn a living and survive. As it turned out, he achieved something he could not have dreamt of: he is the only Enlightenment European to have been almost uninterruptedly remembered in the daily prayers of Indian schoolchildren from the 1840s until today.


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