My long-awaited book tour journey has begun with a dawn flight from Inverness. The plane cruised over a thick grey blanket which covered the UK and as I looked down I would catch an occasional glimpse of lights in the darkness. Not a bad metaphor for my knowledge of India! My head and heart are so full of a country I have never visited – but how real is it? What has influenced my limited understanding of this great nation?
There are the family stories which evolved to become Major Tom’s War, of course, plus the family ‘treasures’ and the family idiolect. I used the word baksheesh before I realised it came from India and I have known what tent-pegging and pig-sticking were since infancy. We still say horses and, later, cars, ‘turn on sixpence’, also a polo term I suspect.
I love curry to the point of obsession, perhaps because two generations of my immediate family spent their lives in the south of India: Tom’s father Vesey didn’t fancy the priesthood so escaped his father’s dull vicarage at Chastleton in Oxfordshire to practise law in Calcutta. Tom and Dick his sons were born there and became respected lawyers too, playing at soldiering in the reserve regiment the Calcutta Light Horse for the social side as much as anything. Tom’s little tiger and elephant, toys from childhood, still prowl and growl and trumpet and stamp along my bookshelves. It was in part their beady stares which nudged me into writing Major Tom’s War all those years ago.
I had never looked at a detailed map of India until planning this trip – and yet the first chapter of Major Tom’s War is set in a fictional India of my grandfather’s childhood. I could taste Calcutta dust at the back of my throat as I was writing it but it is invented dust. I will first set foot on Indian soil early tomorrow morning. So before I get there, as a starting-point, it is worth sone digging on how these impressions have formed.
Books came first, oh best beloved: a heady mix of Kipling, EM Forster and MM Kaye, and, later, Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy. And some books spilled into film and television: Ben Cross as a tanned Ashok in the Far Pavilions, Dame Peggy Ashcroft terminally failing to respond to the plaintive summons as ‘Mrs Moore!’. Ben Kingsley as Gandhi. Beneath this lurk the less honourable shadows of the 1970s comedy programme ‘It Ain’t Arf Ot Mum’ – based on an innuendo-ridden concert-party somewhere in India or the unidentified ‘Tropics’. In the 1970s it was prime time family entertainment on TV, but no longer. Lofty is most unlikely ever to ‘sing it again’, thank God. We have moved on.
Even so, its impact still lingers in the recesses of the minds of people of my age. The usual ‘lucky you’ response to news of this book tour has been muted from some quarters; negativity, born, in the main, of unwitting prejudice. ‘You’re not going alone?’ one or two have gasped. India, say these experts who have never been, is chaotic, hot, polluted and dirty. I will lose my luggage and possibly worse. I am also likely to have all my worldly goods stolen, be devoured by mosquitos, chewed by rabid dogs or felled by ‘Delhi Belly’ within minutes of arrival.
I have learned to travel hopefully through life so will report back on the accuracy or otherwise of these misconceptions at the end of the tour!
Balancing such ill-judged comments from the uninformed is the extraordinary tidal wave of courtesy I have encountered, even before my arrival. My publisher Kashi House has been the advance guard as far as this is concerned. From the moment I signed my contract, commissioning editor Parmjit Singh has treated me with a kindness and courtesy not always present in the cut-throat world of publishing. The Kashi House back catalogue www.kashihouse.com is well worth a browse. As well as sublime books on art and culture, it also unflinchingly documents the darker history of India too, including the horrors of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre (at Amritsar) and the 1984 genocide. The Kashi House team are great ambassadors for India and for Punjab especially.
Many of my hosts on my three week, nine-stop (and therefore almost non-stop) tour are regimental contacts. Some are modern army families, fellow members of the Central India Horse Association, living in the cities. The CIH has now evolved into a modern Indian Army regiment.
Other hosts are out in more rural villages, kind people who contacted me after reading the features on Major Tom’s War which appeared in the Chandigarh Tribune to thank me for shining light on their half-forgotten forebears. Will you come and see us, Madam Vee, they asked.
Thanks to Kashi House and to the team at Chandigarh Military Literature Festival (at which I will be speaking on 13th December) Madam Vee was able to board the plane today.
More (much more) to come…