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Rediscovering India with Ian Jack

Sunday, 07 April 2013 | Chandan Mitra
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Chandan Mitra intersperses his own memories with the celebrated British journalist’s account of India in its myriad hues in this review article

The British have always had an abiding love interest in India, which intensified after the jewel in the Empire’s Crown ceased to be a colony. Maybe the guilt of colonisation and consequent exploitation of this country was gone with India’s Independence and thus the legacy of the Raj could be explored by the British intelligentsia more dispassionately after 1947. It enabled them to break out of the colonial stereotype and discard the overweening racial superiority and prejudice that marked nearly 200 years of British domination.

Still other scholars began to explore India more holistically than as a mere sociological curiosity in which quaint caste rules and tribal customs were the principal thrust of academic or administrative inquiry. So, fascination with the Raj era only grew in the immediate post-colonial period. But, in fact, Indians discovered more facets of the Raj legacy through the writings of post-War British journalists and historians. This interest probably peaked in the 1970s and 1980s; some of it continues to the present with a clutch of British writers making their former colony their home.

Foremost among them surely is Sir Mark Tully. Tully Sahib was often accused by his fellow countrymen of having “gone native” for his passionate empathy for India and Indians. As India’s voice to the world during the heyday of the radio and BBC’s status as the most dependable media organisation in the world, he understood India from the heart. Though periodically the object of hate in the Indian Establishment, particularly during the Indira Gandhi era, Sir Mark remains a highly recognised and revered figure in the Indian countryside too and continues to be regarded as the most authoritative foreign commentator on  the nation’s affairs even today.

While popular Raj historians and novelists like Paul C Scott and Charles Allen among others have added to the mystique, contemporary writers, particularly William Dalrymple, are continuing to contribute new dimensions to the rediscovery of India by the British.

In fact, Dalrymple stands out for bringing hitherto little known dimensions of rural reality and importance of faith in people’s daily lives, not only to foreign readers but also Indians, as his masterful account Nine Lives so amply demonstrates.

Ian Jack, the celebrated British journalist, falls somewhere between several such categories. He is at once a meticulous journalist as he is a historian. His journalism may be somewhat episodic (unlike that of Sir Mark who was stationed in Delhi almost throughout his adult life) in the sense that Jack often flew in and out of India, sent here by his many employers from time to time to report events that drew the world’s attention 1970s onwards.

This compilation, Mofussil Junction: Indian Encounters 1977-2012, brings together many of his dispatches from India over the years apart from a masterful reconstruction of the life, times and legacy of William Carey, the forward-looking Baptist missionary, largely forgotten outside the portals of Bengali academia despite being the first to start a printing press and introduce modern journalism to India from his base in Serampore, near Calcutta, in the late 18th century.

Like some others of his genre, Jack too brings to us many things that we Indians did not know or bother to know. For example, his Epilogue is an account of abandoned steamships rotting on sandbanks at a place called Balagarh, some 60 km upstream from Calcutta. It is barely 15 km from my ancestral hometown of Hooghly and although I had heard of this obscure town, I never knew it harboured decaying steamers that once traversed all the way from Calcutta to Patna in the West and Guwahati and Silchar in the East (through erstwhile East Pakistan) till as recently as 1965 when the India-Pakistan war finally snapped trade and travel links, which have not resumed even after Bangladesh became independent in 1971.

Jack displays predictable fascination with two other facets that have often attracted contemporary British writers: Bengali society and the Indian Railways. Bengal’s pre-eminent place in the British historians’ and journalists’ schema is understandable. It derives from the region’s long engagement with the Raj. Much of Bengali society is a product of this interaction: The Bengali intelligentsia was deeply influenced by the Raj from the time of Raja Rammohun Roy; so much so that this is India’s only region that has produced a succession of Anglophiles, right down to Nirad C Chaudhuri whose intellectual brilliance, humungous memory and quirks are superbly captured in an account of Jack’s visit to the suburban Oxford home of this self-obsessed connoisseur of European thought and culture in 1987, soon after the writer turned 90.

On the meeting Jack writes: “Sometimes, said Chaudhuri, he imagined he had been put on this earth simply to demonstrate to Britons how their grandfathers wrote, how they behaved and how they drank.” He could have added, “How they dressed” too. It brought back fleeting memories of my time in Oxford in the early 1980s when I first encountered Chaudhuri outside the Bodleian, dressed immaculately in a three-piece complete with bowler hat and carrying a brolly, while curious tourists mostly in shorts and T-shirts remarked on this five-foot nothing oddity so quaintly attired in the height of summer.

I too once visited him at his home and the encounter was very similar to Jack’s a few years later, replete with long monologues on European music and history, apart from periodic digressions to his upcoming masterpiece, Thy Hand! Great Anarch, a 1,000-plus page tome he was then writing in long hand with a fountain pen. Chaudhuri was never very popular in India for his derogatory references to his country of birth, but for all his Anglophilia, he insisted on a mix of Bengali and English food at home and delighted in declaring that “Indians would never get clean bowels until their knees touch their armpits. I on the contrary, still perch like a fowl hee, hee!” Strangely he also preached that good English could never be written on an Indian diet!

Jack’s account of his experiences on the Indian Railways demonstrates his passion for train travel, particularly in the age of the Steam locomotive. But across dispatches in this compilation, his nostalgia for Old World charms of India’s magnificent railway system emerges repeatedly. He laments the passing of the era of Newman’s Indian Bradshaw, which listed every train in India (the entire subcontinent till 1947) from everywhere to everywhere else, noting their arrival and departure timings at every station, including minor wayside halts. And the timings, judging by present imprecision, would appear hilarious reflecting the British fastidiousness for punctuality, which is something Independent India has merrily forsaken. The timings were of a piece with Sherlock Holmes’ favourite 9-13 from Paddington! For example, the Bradshaw dutifully stated that 8 Up Howrah-Puri Express would arrive at Khurda Road at 5-43 and depart at 5-51 (am). As Jack writes, it informed you of every detail about facilities at the stations such as if they had vegetarian or non-vegetarian refreshment rooms, if retiring rooms were located there, whether tea/coffee stalls and even booksellers would be found on the platform. There were so many abbreviations of these facilities that each page had explanations given as a footnote.

He correctly observes that most fellow passengers on his myriad Indian journeys in his early years were extremely knowledgeable about their trains — which one took how long, which took the shortest route but skipped which stations and so on — not because they were enthusiasts in the sense many British tourists were, but because the railways were once India’s only lifeline.

My father would travel out of Calcutta at least once a fortnight, primarily as he would need to visit remote centres in modern Jharkhand or Odisha’s mining belt for business. Copies of the Bradshaw are still nestled, partly white ant-eaten, in our ancestral home. As Jack mentions, in the height of summer, First Class compartments would be cooled by huge slabs of ice carted in wooden boxes and placed on a bed of gunny bags. AC options were mostly non-existent on trains or prohibitively expensive for middle class households of the time.

He is also right about the degeneration of style and luxury since the Raj and early post-Raj years. The AC compartments were then impeccably varnished, had a toilet attached and a wardrobe with hangers. Food was served in fine china and silver crockery by nattily attired waiters, trained to take special care of the babalog as I remember from my rare AC coach travels of early childhood.

But I do share many memories of Puri’s BNR Hotel with Jack as also his deep sense of pathos at the passage of a Golden Era. He writes with abundant nostalgia about the magnificent hotel that once set the benchmark of luxury at least in Eastern India’s tourist destinations. Even after the departure of the British, brown Sahibs from Calcutta, particularly Anglophile barristers made it their annual summer retreat. When I first stayed there as a boy of 13, I was awestruck by the formality of customs meant to be observed. Gongs were sounded for meals and room service was prohibited except for bed-tea and the evening tea service (sharp at 4 pm, accompanied by scones and slices of cake). Although the lunch menu was mostly Indian, the five-course dinner for which guests were required to be formally attired, was entirely Continental, with preparations like fish mayonnaise, roast chicken or mutton stew and vanilla noisettes for dessert.

It had fallen on evil times when Jack revisited it in 2008. The then Railway Minister, the boorish Lalu Prasad Yadav had sold off the two BNR properties at Puri and Ranchi to one of his Patna acolytes. They have added typical glass-and-concrete buildings with AC rooms and sanitised corridors, apart from wedding halls where cacophonous music blares till midnight, thereby destroying the heritage. In these fabulous hotels, the cuisine nowadays consists primarily of chicken tandoori and dal makhani, more chicken tandoori and more dal makhani. The discreet bars have shut and instead raucous contractors display their ill-gotten wealth by ordering (what else?) Black Label, drinking themselves silly, devouring paneer tikka and ogling at every passing woman.

Ian Jack may not connect with many in the current generation, those who haven’t heard of Sham Lal, erudite editor of The Times of India in its pre-Philistine days, to whom the author devotes a chapter. Most new generation readers would have no clue about Calcutta’s intellectual collector-celebrity, RP Gupta. To this generation even Emergency, nasbandi and Sanjay Gandhi are distant “ghouls”. Personally, Jack’s collection was rich reading for me, as a student of history, a journalist and someone who grew up with India as it transited from the age of the Morse code to the era of the cyber cafe.

 
 
 
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