Reprise Books

‘Plain Tales from the Raj’ by Charles Allen

Auld lang syne: Thomas Daniell’s oil, ‘Jami Masjid, Delhi’ (1811).

Auld lang syne: Thomas Daniell’s oil, ‘Jami Masjid, Delhi’ (1811).   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Charles Allen, who had for decades travelled the length and breadth of the subcontinent chronicling its history, passed away last month. In his 20-odd books, he writes mostly about India and the colonial experience; how religion shaped its society, culture and people. Allen, who was born in Kanpur on January 2, 1940, loved nothing better than to immerse himself in India’s “muddy waters, getting her dust between my toes.”

In the introduction to his last book, Coromandel: A Personal History of South India, he recalls that one of his earliest memories as a child is of lurching on elephant back through a hot tropical jungle in north-eastern Assam, losing his topi (“mandatory for any white child in the sun”), and the elephant retrieving it from the forest floor and handing it back to him with his trunk.

Scratch the surface

Among his tomes are Soldier Sahibs, God’s Terrorists, A Mountain in Tibet, The Search for Shangri-La, Kipling Sahib and the bestselling Ashoka. In 1974, he spoke to the last of the British administrators in India for a BBC radio series which was published as a book a year later. Plain Tales from the Raj lets the British speak for themselves about the India experience. “Yes, the British Raj was a self-serving exercise in throwing national weight about,” he says in the preface to the 1999 edition, “but it was also about people and the gambles they took with their lives, their interaction with other cultures and the subsequent cross-fertilisation which continues to affect us to this day.”

The radio series and the book revealed that “you only had to scratch the surface of an average British family to find any number of links with India”. Widely separated by “age, rank, occupation, geography and personal character”, the survivors remember their time in India. Their stories, “warts and all”, show that they “lived out their lives, without self-conscious regard to their times and the great events that shaped them.”

In 21 chapters, Allen gives readers a slice of British life and its brush with Indian culture and the people, of the chota and burra (child and older) sahib, the memsahib (daughters and wives), the armyman, the civil servant working in all parts of the subcontinent. He tells us of the seemingly ordinary things the British did in India, how they learnt the ropes, managed the household, often setting up replica of English homes, the Club, the sojourn to the hills to escape the hot plains, the city and mofussil life, and what they felt when they had to leave.

Ayah and an open door

“I grew up in bright sunshine, I grew up with tremendous space, I grew up with animals, I grew up with excitement, I grew up believing that white people were superior”: every chota sahib or missy baba whose first years were spent in India would echo such sentiments, writes Allen. “The extra dimensions of India took immediate effect — first memories are of mosquito nets, ponies rather than prams, of a father ‘killing a snake in my bathroom’, of ‘nanny getting small-pox.’” For many, the first common image is of their ayah, “the open door through which contact with India was made.”

Train journeys which the adults found tedious were the delight of the children. Writer and humorist Spike Milligan remembers them fondly as a “golden experience” — compared to the sights and sounds of India, England was “gloomy, dull, grey.”

At the close of the 19th century, men served the Empire as a matter of course and some of the well-known British families in India were the Rivetts, Carnacs, Maynes, Ogilvies, Birdwoods, Napiers, Lawrences. The Maynes, for instance, flocked to India from 1761 and left “two graves in Darjeeling, two in Allahabad, one in Saharashtra [Saurashtra], one in Meerut, one in Bangalore, one in Achola [Akola] and another in Lucknow.”

Allen talks about planters who tamed the jungles of Assam to grow tea, going up the Brahmaputra against all advice, and a pet bear who saw off intruders in an estate. “Anybody with a Celtic streak was immediately more at home in India” — thousands of Scots were not only in the civil services but also worked as engineers and planters.

What caused this last generation of young men and women to strike out for India knowing that independence was going to come? Allen lists the factors — romantic, practical, even involuntary. “For all of them India had moved deep into the blood,” and many were never able to get it out of their system.

The writer looks back at one classic every month.

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Printable version | Sep 28, 2020 3:53:05 PM |

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