The Fanthomes witnessed the milestones of Indian history, and chronicled it for future generations, says R. V. Smith

The Fanthome family, whose antecedents in India go back some 200 years, is in the news again because of the untimely death of its scion, F. J. Fanthome. That makes the wheel of history turn full circle for, after all, what are present events but a repetition of previous ones in the ever-going charade of life, as his ancestor observed through one of the characters in his engrossing stories!

Predating even the celebrated Savage family of John Masters’ novels were the Fanthomes. J. F. Fanthome was a distinguished civil servant, born during the reign of Bahadur Shah Zafar when Delhi, besides being the seat of the Mughals was also the cultural capital of India. Ghalib, Zauq Tichna and Momin held sway then, not counting Mirza Fakru, the emperor’s son, more famous as Mirza Chappati than a poet as he was in charge of the distribution of rotis in the harem. Sir Charles Metcalfe and his brother, Sir Thomas were also lovers of Urdu – as were the Fanthomes and other Anglo-Indians, one of whom, Alexander Heatherley Azad was a pupil of Ghalib’s nephew, Zainul Abadin Arif. But he and his ustad both died young.

Joseph Francis Fanthome (who shared his birth decade with Edward VII and Altaf Husain Hali) is best remembered for his book, “Mariam: A Story of the Indian Mutiny”, published in 1896. An adaptation of it, “A Flight of Pigeons” formed the theme of the 1960s’ hit-film Junoon. It starred Shashi Kapoor as a Pathan freedom-fighter and his wife, Jennifer Kendal as Mariam, an Englishwoman with whose teenaged daughter the hero falls in love after a Sunday morning church massacre at Shahjahanpur, in which her husband perished. Another tale from the book which, however, was not filmed, was about the midwife who was taken away blindfolded by two men dressed in white one late autumn night. The midwife’s eyes were opened in an old haveli of Delhi, where a woman was lying in labour beside a burning coal brazier (angithi). After the delivery the men blindfolded her again and left her at a street corner in the Walled City with a handful of coals (presumably picked up from near the brazier). She reached home terrified and disgusted with what she had earned for her midnight adventure. But as soon as the midwife threw the coals near the fireplace, they turned into asharfis (gold coins). The poor old woman embraced her daughter tight and whispered in her ear that it was the Jinns who had made them rich.

Fanthome’s book, now out of print, was the prized possession of the private library of Nawab Mohammad Faiyaz Khan of Datoli. The memoirs, that form part of the magistrate’s magnum opus, give a wealth of information on life in the medieval zenana. There was neither electricity nor radio nor TV those days and to entertain themselves the ladies told tales in the evening by lantern light, which generally began with the words, “Aap biti kahoon ya jag biti” (should I relate a personal or general experience). One begum spoke about the time when the site of the Red Fort was littered with the ruins of an Afghan fortress and another about Badalgarh, where later Agra Fort was built by Akbar. “Jinns”, said the begum, “threw big stones at each other and at passers-by, after luring them with haunting music, and the Great Moghul lost two of his sons, Hassan and Hussain because of their antics.

A story of Hindu-Muslim camaraderie in 1857 stated that a Pande and a Sheikh, making their way over the Ridge with looted arms came across a snake. The Sheikh first picked up a stone to kill it and then drew his sword, but Pande asked him to spare Nagraj since the cobra was associated with Shiva. At a Sayyid Baba’s grave the Sheikh offered fateha while the Pande did “Pranam”. Then under a pipal tree the latter lit a “diya” and his companion stood with folded hands. Afterwards both fed pigeons, regarded as Sayyids by some Muslims and sacred birds of Mahadev by Hindus before rushing to join the rebel sepoys. J. F. Fanthome had studied Indian social life and mores at close quarters as a sympathetic chronicler and supplemented his knowledge through bazaar news from servants. This included inputs about impending attacks on the sahibs. His descendant, Francis Joseph Fanthome, who died in Dehra Dun on 12 March, was a well-known face in Delhi. He had been an M.P. and also the Chief Executive of the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examination. A noted educationist, he had taught at the Doon School and at St Joseph’s College, was vice-principal of La Martiniere’s, Kolkata, and principal of Tashi Namgyal Academy. He also served as an office-bearer of the Anglo-Indian Association, Delhi. According to Professor Sydney Riberio of Delhi University, Francis Fanthome, as an MP, once addressed Parliament in chaste Hindustani, saying that though his mother tongue was English, he could speak the national language just as well, a trait obviously inherited from ancestors. His passing away at a not-so-old age is sad news but it may be some consolation that his nephew, Peter Fanthome, who became an MLA in UP, is still around as a link with a memorable surname.