Saturday, 11 February 2012

We say farewell to the Jewel in the Crown

Volume 1 – chapter 7– part3

When thinking of this boy who cared for me, night and day and for seven days a week, I feel some regret that I cannot recall his name. Many of the Indians who were employed by the British were given English names, and my 'boy' was called Michael, though what his real name was I cannot say.


Who was giving the orders me or the camera man? This was my Chokra we called Michael who was always by my side; we never used the Indian term because in some instances it was used in a derogatory fashion.

It was not long before he became not only a paid servant, he became a friend as well, in fact he became like one of the family. I’m sure that such relationships were not uncommon in such circumstances; is it any wonder when you consider that he never left my side. He slept on a mat at the foot of my bed at night, and tended my every need during the day. His one mission in life was to guard me and protect me, and I suppose it might seem strange now to wonder why this India boy should actually want to devote himself to a foreign child? But the fact is that he did, and a bond was formed that is still a clear memory to this day.

My mother also became very fond of him, and knowing that I would miss him when we left India, tried to arrange for him to accompany us back to England; something that apparently he was very eager to do. It goes without saying that such a thing was impossible, and my father quickly put an end to such thoughts. He was right of course, and putting aside sentimentality, it has to be said that such a decision would have led to unhappiness for all concerned. England was a different world, and there would have been no place in it for my Chokra, in fact I was to find that there was hardly a place in it for me. - It is said that travel makes one adaptable and able to fit in, but it is my impression that it has another effect. It withers the roots and brings about a feeling of alienation; one can fall between two stools and end up not really belonging anywhere. Also the wanderer often finds that being different triggers a hostile reaction and life becomes a running battle to survive the attempts to reject or eliminate him. - The final memory I have of the boy that became my friend, was the image I have of him standing on the platform of the railway station, the day we departed on the long journey home. He looked very lonely and sad, and I suppose he was bound to be. He had become part of the family and we were leaving him behind; he had been happy and well cared for, and life had seemed safe and secure. Now he was once again just a poor native boy who must find another way to survive.


This picture is a copy of a larger portrait taken by a German photographer who was well known in India. It was hand painted and framed; it hung on the wall in our lounge for many years. I remember that the shirt was a creamy colour, and the trousers were brown velvet.

My father had been running the army supply office in Calcutta when the decision to return home was made. So our long journey began with a three day train trip from Calcutta to Bombay; where we were to sail on the SS Empress of India. The year was 1937, which was fast coming to a close, and the army was enjoying a period of relative peace. Peace time service in India had become a pleasant way of life for the British serviceman. Our departure would not have been a source of satisfaction to my father. Nor would the army have been pleased about it either; authorising the move only in the face of my father’s plea that his wife and child were both ill and not fit to remain in the hot and unhealthy conditions that existed. It was certainly true that I was quite ill, but others had experienced much worse without demanding a return home. The truth of the matter was in fact that my mother was showing no sign of adjusting to the life of a memsahib, and in the face of the determination that she was showing my father had been forced to comply with her wishes. Much could be read into this situation, but whatever transpired between my parents, the outcome was our return to England. I am sure that the health of his family did matter to my father, but his acceptance of this distasteful decision was probably influenced even more by a determination not to be placed in an embarrassing position by his wife. There must have been many hours of argument and heartache before my father would have given way, after all he was a man who was used to doing things his way. But he was no fool and would have recognised eventually that married life in India was not going to be the idyllic state that he had thought it would be, and he must have known that his work would have been affected by his domestic environment; which would have made it impossible for him to have functioned efficiently.

Looking back I can admire my father’s willingness to do what was best for his family, especially when it was going to cost him so much, in terms of his career. One should also remember that although he had been married since 1932, his experience of family life had only begun when he returned from his next leave three years later. In my view his behaviour now demonstrated the good qualities that he possessed, and it also revealed that this hard and disciplined man had more to him that met the eye; beneath the apparent unbending exterior, their lay a more sensitive inner self. Our return to England meant that our lives were to change drastically; this was a major event, which is why I dwell on it momentarily. It is also the reason I see it as an appropriate time to talk of my father and to try and understand the man he was. Just as importantly my mother should also be considered; being equally responsible for the decisions that were shaping our lives.

My mother was the shy and gentle person I have described her to be, but like everyone else, she had inner qualities, and facets to her personality that were not always apparent. Mary took after her mother in both looks and demeanour, but her father had made his mark upon her as well; this was a side of her that was not immediately apparent. When you got to know her well, you found that she could be stubborn, determined, and not easily intimidated. In later years some of us discovered also, that if you offended her she did not forget quickly. A memory I have of her when I was about 12 years old, was an occasion when she boxed my ears, to my amazement, because at the time I was innocent of any offence. When I asked her why she had punished me, she replied: “I just remembered something you did last week, and I decided you should not get away with it.” My father was to be subjected to the same retribution for his offences.

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