Life & Style

The squire from Tikli Bottom

Martin Howard   | Photo Credit: Karam Puri/Glorious Hotels of India

There is nothing more poignant in a faraway land than stumbling across a remnant of your native culture, marooned thousands of miles away. I first encountered this sensation as a budding young travel writer one foggy Christmas outside Delhi. Turning up the drive, lined with Traveller Palms and pecking Guinea Fowl, a rose-pink bungalow came into view. Under the pillared portico stood a tall Englishman with a polka-dot cravat and twinkling eyes. My host, Martin Howard, was an ‘exuberant, Kipling-quoting, salty-humored old India hand’, who, with his elegant wife, Annie, lived here, at the delightfully-named Tikli Bottom. Preparations were in full swing for a Christmas party. Annie, breezy in turquoise block print and beaming welcome, thrust some tinsel into my hand with the request, ‘Do decorate the camel.’

The real joy of Tikli Bottom, in many ways an English estate with tropical fronds, was the community that the Howards created around them. The bungalow’s interiors were airy and serene, thanks to Annie’s eye, but they were also open to the much-loved local children, who bounced on the sofas and jumped in the swimming pool, like flocks of starlings. The couple had opened Tikli to paying guests and visitors came from New York, Edinburgh and Mumbai, including at least one member of the British Royal Family — all fascinated by this unique swansong of the Raj on the rural fringes of Gurgaon.

Tikli Bottom

Tikli Bottom   | Photo Credit: Karam Puri/Glorious Hotels of India

Martin, who was 84 when he passed away last month, was born into a farming family on the East Coast of England. After a successful career as a naval engineer, he came to Delhi and landed a coveted role as Naval Advisor to the British High Commission. Martin had married Annie, as his second wife, on a snowy day in December 1979 after meeting at a dinner at his Knightsbridge digs. The couple took to life among the Delhiwallahs and expats with aplomb, establishing themselves as regular faces on the social scene, cherished by all who came into their orbit. A directorship at the Delhi outpost of Rolls Royce kept them in India after Martin’s retirement from the British Navy and the subcontinent became their permanent home.

Farmer at heart

Their friendship with Anne Wright, of Kipling Camp fame, led to the Howards buying land near the Haryana village of Teekli and enabled Martin’s dream of returning to his farming roots, albeit a world away from the Lincolnshire fens. They built what Martin liked to call ‘a four-bedroom house with a courtyard — for the breezes’, in fact a Lutyens-inspired throwback to a more considered, languid age. Celebrated for their spirit, the couple became known for their own Anglo-Indian lifestyle, as British as cucumber sandwiches, and yet deeply rooted in their adopted culture.

Returning to Tikli Bottom to record the interiors for our book, Glorious Hotels of India, was great fun. Standing on the flat roof with photographer Karam Puri, as the setting sun kindled the surrounding valley on fire, we watched Martin stride across the lawns in shorts and ankle socks, a man at one with his creation. He was a squire, a plantsman, a storyteller and a buffalo farmer all at once. Diplomats, backpackers and retired prime ministers enjoyed sitting al fresco at his table, as Martin strewed bon mots, great chunks of If by Kipling, and teasing jokes into the air with the potent magnetism of someone who has lived his life exactly as he wished.

Martin and Annie Howard

Martin and Annie Howard   | Photo Credit: Karam Puri/Glorious Hotels of India

Contributing in a meaningful way to his local community was a passion for Martin. He was concerned about India’s growing population time bomb. He felt education to be key to progress, so in 2000 he founded a school, the first ever for the village, for a handful of local children, particularly girls. Agreeing to a long lease with the panchayat in return for building the school, Martin set about garnering donations from across the world and volunteers flocked in.

Education for all

Now operating under an Indian-registered charity, the Baas Education Trust, the school is an astonishing success story. “These children need to be told that the sky’s the limit” he loved to say, and he had no truck with parental limitations, charming many into the championing of the school. “Nor was he afraid to discuss religion; he recognised the importance of faith, but did not want religion to play a central role in his school,” Tom Homfray, the very first volunteer, told me. “He knew that it had the potential to sow division, when he was trying to achieve inclusivity... and unity”. It made sense that his favourite book was The Education of Little Tree, the story of a Cherokee orphan battling against the limits of state education and finding strength and succor in the natural world.

A snapshot of Tikli Bottom

A snapshot of Tikli Bottom   | Photo Credit: Karam Puri/Glorious Hotels of India

An MBE honour was conferred on Martin by Prince Charles on the final afternoon of his 2017 India Tour. It was a moment of huge pride and recognition, although underplayed by the retired naval captain with characteristic modesty. He leaves behind three daughters, Joanna, Samantha and Tabatha. Perhaps this inspiring life is best summed up in the murmured epitaph of his widow Annie to me, spoken with all the simplicity of a long-held intimacy, “My boy did well.”

Cosmo Brockway is a travel and interiors author and his book, Glorious Hotels of India, is available at bookstores nationwide.

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Printable version | May 13, 2021 11:52:01 AM |

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