down memory lane History & Culture

Remembering the Sahibs

ONCE UPON A TIME...he Flagstaff Tower is an important symbol of Indo-British history

ONCE UPON A TIME...he Flagstaff Tower is an important symbol of Indo-British history   | Photo Credit: Sushil Kumar Verma

Decorated with interesting aliases by locals, many British officers became a part of the cityscape of Delhi and Agra

Mr Mcleod was an old-world sahib of Delhi and his friend in Agra (where he went every November to build the ‘Altar of Repose’ for Phoolon-ki-Id) was Mr Webb. The latter fondly called him ‘Langra Sahib’ because of a permanent limp due to a war-time injury. But like him Mr Webb too was dressed in khaki shorts, half-sleeved shirt and stockings, with a sola-hat on his head. He walked passed Ghattia Azam Khan with a shopping bag on his way to Phulatti Bazar. Mr Webb used to live near the Neharwali kothi, so named because it was built on a stream that was part of the Delhi-Agra Canal. Later he shifted to the vicinity of the YWCA where existed Fantasia, a one-time abode of an Anglo-Indian official and writer J. F. Fanthome. Also cycling down from that area was a moustached Rajput Sirdar, shirt tucked into breeches, wearing riding boots and a starched turban with a silver-headed cane under his armpit. Webb was quite fair, though sun-burnt, of medium build with an aquiline nose, light blue eyes and hair parted at the side as per the style of the 1930s. He was a confirmed bachelor and spoke Hindustani with ease. Butcher Barati and his son, Sharfu, were among his admirers, though they confessed that he was an eccentric sahib who frequented the shrine of Shah Abul Ullah on Thursdays after most of the devotees had left. “Kya jalwa tha kal raat ko”! (what an aura there was last night), he would remark. Then followed a discourse on Sufism.

One day he appeared at the home of the Jacksons, with his brother Sydney who lived in some other town. The purpose was to fix a match for him. Things did not work out and Sydney went back to where he had come from to resume his bachelor existence. “Who wants a wife when one is happy otherwise,” remarked Webb with a sigh of relief when someone asked him about it. A contrast to him was Alexander Sahib, who used to come every Sunday to buy mince and groceries, cycling all the way from Saunt-ki-Mandi, near which was the Mental Hospital. He was an incredibly thin man, wearing full-sleeved shirt, broad-bottomed trousers, held apart with clips, a tie with a fancy pin and a small sola-topee to fit his head. Alexander looked like an emaciated incarnation of Sherlock Holmes, a long cigarette stuck between his thin lips.

Then there was Mr Hines tall, fair, slim as a reed and always accompanied on Sunday mornings by his pretty wife and son Kenneth. He had been in the RAF but met with an air accident as a result of which his intestines were so badly damaged that he could hardly eat solids. But the irony was that he was a very good cook and continued to make tasty week-end dishes for his wife, son and their acquaintance, the hunter Cyrill Thomas. They used to stay in the old house of the Michaels, the family to which Mrs Hines belonged.

A sketch of Major Taylor testing his gun at a dak bungalow

A sketch of Major Taylor testing his gun at a dak bungalow  

Hines died, Mrs Hines, despite gossip, did not remarry but went away to England with Kenneth. Alexander too passed away but Webb’s whereabouts became a mystery. He also must be dead now, unless he survives as a centenarian, still enjoying the Thursday qawwalis and going into mystic raptures. But one misses the man. He was an institution in himself, a link with the past that is hard to break. In this connection one would also like to remember Major PJO Taylor, a handsome octogenarian who died in East Sussex on 27 Feb, 2006.

Coming to India in 1943, he joined the Maratha Light Infantry and was soon engaged on the Eastern Front of World War II, where the British Indian Army was fighting the Japanese. He also served in Italy and Japan. Major Taylor would go looking for old haunts, like the Pande Hut and other 1857 landmarks on the Ridge, since he was a great expert on Indo-British history. His chronicles found a wide readership and he never stopped adding to his memoirs. The Flagstaff Tower, near the old Subzi Mandi, was his focus of attention one full afternoon. After that it was Kingsway Camp and Kashmere Gate, where he spent a full day looking up Col Skinner’s ruined house in Nicholson Road, and the St James Church. The third day was spent in Delhi Cantonment, where he visited the colonial bungalows and spoke to retired khidmaters, khansamas and gardeners, along of course with old army officers. In Kanpur and Lucknow too the sites excited his interest. He would visit the scenes of 1857 events – the Sati-Chaura ghat, the Residency and the well which carried the controversial inscription: “Sacred to the memory of British officers and men, and a large number of Christian women and children who were massacred here by the orders of one Nana Saheb of Betoor”. Taylor’s sympathies, however were not confined to his own kind. He was equally agonised by the atrocities perpetrated by the Company Sarkar after the 1857 War of Independence was crushed. He regretted the slaughter of innocent white women and children just as much as he deplored the cruel deaths of Indian men, women (some of them pregnant) and children who were impaled on spears and swords. Taylor would go back to England and follow up his findings with material available in the India British Library, where he used to spend most of his time, and where he found information on such diverse topics as the hanging of the Nawab of Ferozepore, Shamsuddin Khan, for alleged complicity in the murder of William Fraser, the British Resident, in 1835, and Mirza Ghalib’s love for gambling and a dark courtesan of Chawri Bazar.

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Printable version | Mar 25, 2020 3:39:46 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/remembering-the-sahibs/article23076756.ece

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