Wherever I lay my hat

Indian notebook 2

High in the uplands of Kerala, surrounded by acres of tea plantations, sits the town of Munnar. We were visiting anyway and, prompted by a friend who grew up there and whose father was a tea planter, we searched out the High Range Club, an unreformed relic of the imperial age. In the bar, surrounded by the stuffed heads of tigers and leopards, we found her father’s hat. Anyone who was a member for 30 years or more was entitled to have their hat hung on the wall. The hats are still there, but not the culture that engendered the Club.  

It is impossible for an Englishman to visit India without constantly being made aware of Britain’s imperial past. And difficult not to have ancestral connections with the imperial age in India. My great-great-great grandfather, Thomas Love Peacock, worked for the East India Company in London as inspector of Indian correspondence, preceded in the post by James Mill and succeeded by his son, John Stuart Mill.

My grandmother, Eileen Blenkinsop, was born in Chennai. My wife’s grandparents, Kim and Kit Fallon, were married in Udaipur. We saw the church in which the marriage almost certainly took place, on the edge of the British compound in the city. My great-grandmother, Alice Timbrell, born in India in 1856, was supposedly the last child to be evacuated when the Indian Mutiny began, smuggled out of town in an oxcart with her family, disguised as Indians. I have the family’s inventory of possessions lost in the Mutiny.

But perhaps I shouldn’t refer to it as the Mutiny. To many Indians, it was India’s First War of Independence. Like the imperial era as a whole, it poses questions of perspective.

The British presence in India had origins quite different from our presence in other parts of the Empire. It started far earlier, during the reign of Elizabeth I. It began with trade, and specifically and wholly with the East India Company. Only in the late 18th century did the presence start to become more overtly political and military. India was never Britain’s colony. It was presented as a free-standing country, under British rule. The distinction is subtle, but important.

If Britain’s experience of India was different to other imperial experiences, so was India’s experience of Britain. Unlike parts of Africa, say, or countries like Australia and Canada, India was no stranger to invasions, to foreign domination, notably from what became the Mughal Empire. The British were merely the latest in a long stream of foreigners who wanted to control the sub-continent.

Not even the most blinkered, jingoistic Brit could have mistaken India for an uncivilised country. It had a history and a culture longer and richer than Britain’s, and a scientific reputation to match. In Jaipur, the Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh constructed an astonishing astrological observatory in the 1720s, still functioning now. Our tour organiser informed us that ‘Sawai’ is a title bestowed on someone ‘who is 25% more intelligent’. This seems an underestimate. Eat your heart out, Isaac Newton.

India also had a plethora of kingdoms, of varying sizes and wealth, ruled in feudal style by dynastic maharajas, sultans and nabobs. Britain wisely attempted to make allies of these princes and mostly succeeded. Thus the Indian dynasties buttressed British imperialism in return for the British buttressing their feudal rule. When independence came in 1947, the new Indian government needed to dismantle imperialism and feudalism simultaneously. Arguably, it has had more success with the former task.

For anyone who thought (or who still does think) that the British royal family, or peers of the realm, or international bankers and lawyers, are fabulously wealthy, they are paupers compared with some of the Indian aristocracy. In the palace at Jaipur, we saw two vast urns of solid silver, each weighing 345 kg and capable of holding 4,000 litres. These are not the relics of antiquity, but were ordered by the Maharaja of Jaipur to accompany him (filled with water from the Ganges) to the coronation of Edward VII in 1902. Reputedly, there was a third such urn, jettisoned overboard at the start of the journey to appease the gods of the sea. An enterprising salvage firm might like to investigate Mumbai harbour.

When the princes lost their political power in 1947, and their compensatory privy purse income in 1971, many turned instead to the tourist trade. Some of the best heritage hotels in India are erstwhile royal palaces. We stayed at several of them. The Bissau Palace in Jaipur, described on its website as ‘recently renovated’, was converted into a hotel in 1971 and has not changed since. (‘Recently’ is a relative concept in India.) One can indulge simultaneously in nostalgia for the Raj and nostalgia for the 1970s. The TV was an authentic Bush, and the huge brass bath tap came off in my hand. The hotel also boasts a magnificent and ancient waiter, probably an old family retainer, who could give Julie Walters serious competition in the ‘Two Soups’ sketch.

At the castle in Mandawa, another hotel, we met the Thakur, the former ruler. Sadly we did not discover the identity of this friendly, courteous old gentleman until after the event.

I cannot say what Indians, or the Indians we met, thought of British rule. We asked, but they were unfailingly polite. However, when one of our guides said that she was grateful to the British for teaching Indians how to dress, that seemed to be leaving rather a lot unsaid. In the end, how can the people of any country think well of another country that, to a greater or lesser extent according to one’s view, but to a considerable extent anyhow, oppressed them and took much of their wealth?

We ended our visit, fittingly, at a Lutyens bungalow in New Delhi. Whatever the connotations, the government buildings and the viceroy’s house that Lutyens designed for Delhi are an architectural triumph. It is wonderful that India is proud of them too and, since independence, has continued to use them, weaving them into its own heritage, as it has with most that has been best from the country’s assorted empires.

New Delhi looks as if it was intended to herald a thousand-year Raj. How astonishing that, after its completion in 1931, the Raj should have ended 16 years later, and the rest of the Empire not long after. Still, if the British Empire needed to have an epitaph, it could have asked for none finer.