Long after the places have faded, I will remember the people I met in India. Some of them I have already written about: Karanvir Singh Sibia, the passionate advocate of Sangrur heritage; Dinesh Rana, descendant of Arjan Singh, a loyal and brave friend to my grandfather; Depinder Sandhu and the whole charming extended family descended from the great Risaldar Major Amar Singh; Dr Naveen Kumar, who showed me ancient Patiala through his own eyes; Mandeep Singh Bajwa and the extraordinary volunteers of the #MilLitFest and of course Captain Amarinder Singh, Chief Minister of Punjab – and so many others too. The glaring omission is, of course, that of my regimental family.
The embarrassing thing is that I never knew they existed, these kind and delightful people, who hosted me so well both in India and in London, until after Major Tom’s War was published.
Tom my grandfather was a captain with the 38th King George’s Own Central India Horse during the whole of 1915, reluctantly becoming the Divisional Assistant Provost Marshal (APM) from 1916 until the end of the Great War. In that role he had to become the upholder of martial law within the division, with all the horrors that entailed. Military discipline was excellent within the Indian Army, then as now, but nonetheless courts-martial and executions became part of his life. The ‘Major’ of the book’s title is ironic: he is demoted on arrival in the regular army, fights for reinstatement throughout the war and is only reappointed major in 1919, after the war ends.
It was not that I had not looked for any trace of the Central India Horse, my grandfather’s old regiment. I was vaguely aware of a modern Indian regiment of the same name – but I knew that it was no longer a cavalry regiment, having long since exchanged the horses for tanks and other armoured vehicles. Why, I thought, no modern-day soldiers would be interested in the regimental goings-on of a century earlier – would they?
Well. I could not have been more wrong about levels of interest among retired and serving CIH officers and their families. It took that fateful article in the Chandigarh Tribune (thank you again, Vikramdeep Johal) spotted by a member of the Central India Horse Association (CIHA) to start the tumbling line of dominos which led me to stay with Major Shivjit Shergill and his family at the beginning of my India journey.
So I did not find the CIHA – it found me. To be precise a lovely lady named Charlie Tipper got in touch. She told me she was the Honorary Secretary of the CIHA and I remember that twin rush of exultation – and then embarrassment of my ignorance of its existence. Why didn’t I come to the annual CIHA luncheon, she suggested. And so I went along (you can read all about that first encounter in an earlier blog). At that meeting I mentioned what then seemed like the remote possibility of a journey to India. Charlie assured me that her regimental counterparts would welcome me with open arms there too. I thought she could not possibly be serious, but I again was proved wrong. And then some.
Preet Shergill, Shivjit’s delightful wife, prepared wonderful food to settle me in, sighing with relief (after the first cautiously bland omelette) when I told her I was happy to eat her delicately spiced curries. Theirs is an ancient and honourable military family, with portraits and weapons festooning the walls. Their boys are the same age as my daughters. I therefore felt completely at home with Shivjit and Preet.
On my first day Preet wisely drove me through Chandigarh’s elegant streets lined with old trees between which bright green parakeets shrieked and swooped. There were parks. There were roses. It was neat and tidy. Not a menacing monkey or a rabid dog in sight. Kipling was still lurking at tge edges of my subconscious and this was not what I expected India to be like at all.
Then, only a short distance away, we turned a corner to explore what Preet called the ‘villages’, which seemed strikingly basic in contrast to the residential areas so close by. This was a kind and wise introduction to the polarities of real India I would witness elsewhere.
Of everywhere I visited, it was Delhi which shocked me the most: the sheer size, the monstrous traffic which causes choking pollution which blocks out the sun; but again, the people I encountered were wonderful.
I had been invited to speak at the United Services Institute and was hosted there jointly by leading academic Squadron Leader Rana Chhina, whom I had met through Kashi House, and the delightful Mrs Aruna Minhas, remarkable wife of the current Central India Horse Colonel of the Regiment. Aruna took great care of me in Delhi, introducing me to the redoubtable Mrs Shirin Sen, widow of the renowned Colonel Rusty Sen of the CIH. Shirin met us for lunch at her local Anglican church where I tried idli for the first time, little white semolina dumplings.
Aruna also hosted me around the crowded spice markets for modest purchases of cardomum and star anise (and yes, the occasional scarf) to squeeze into my overloaded suitcase.
Aruna had managed (after eight establishments she had deemed unsatisfactory) to find me a splendid New Delhi B&B run by Mala Bindra, whose art-filled apartment was so relaxed and comfortable, and with whom I traded recipes.
Highly recommended to other travellers!
The Delhi lecture (arranged by Rana, ably assisted by Aaliya, above) went extremely well.
I was introduced to an audience of army veterans and service personnel by an awesome panel of co-presenters, including Rana, Major Karun Khanna and General Ian Cardozo, a remarkable veteran who had, I was told, lopped off his own injured leg with a khukri to escape the Japanese. He also gave me his very kind review of Major Tom’s War, confiding as he did so that he found all the early childhood chapters a little slow, but loved the military action therafter (future army readers are hereby given the author’s permission to cut to the chase!).
Afterwards we all lunched together.
The regimental family in Delhi then swooped down and carried me off (through impossible traffic!) to the splendid Sabre Mess. That evening I was privileged to meet seven retired officers who had commanded CIH and gone on to have illustrious careers at high ranks, now retired, and theur kind and beautifully-attired spouses. Colonel Robbie Kapoor and his wife even gave me a splendid cookbook, which I am greatly enjoying. I told true tales of CIH valour from Major Tom’s War late into the evening, the gentlemen matched them with stories of their own and I was presented with a regimental history and the print of the last mounted CIH parade, now on the wall of my office. We enjoyed the most amazing meal together, in very atmospheric and historic surroundings.
The following day Aruna and I shared a delicious lunch in a shopping garden where green parakeets swooped down to bird tables and a few late roses still bloomed. Whenever we were together Aruna’s WhatsApp would be pinging with messages non-stop and I am sure she should really have been dealing with many more important things than an itinerant Scots author. I really cannot imagine a nicer woman to be ‘mother’ to a modern regiment than Mrs Aruna Minhas.
Aruna even escorted me to the train the following day, which was very reassuring, as the station was mayhem. I was sorry to leave everyone I had met and board the express, with its crowds, its food and drink vendors and its unforgettable toilets (only for the most agile – and the desperate!) – but I can now definitely say I have travelled on an Indian train, a long-held ambition. I quickly found myself surrounded by kindly and interested fellow passengers (one of whom plans a whisky trip to the Highlands soon).
Once back in Chandigarh with dear Shivjit and Preet again, I spent an emotional last night with the local CIH regimental family, hosted by Colonel & Mrs Manohar Singh, also a retired officer of CIH who had commanded the regiment. After a delicious home-cooked meal (my last dal makhani…) and singing and dancing to Auld Lang Syne with everyone, it was time for bed and I said my fond farewells.
This was followed by the incredibly thoughtful gift of a massage the next morning, and I am convinced my exhausted yet elated body fared better on the 26-hour return flight that day because of this wonderful treat from regimental wife Apeksha’ talented team!
I hope to see many of those I met in Delhi and Punjab again one day and would love my ‘younger generation’ to meet their CIH peers. There will always be a billet here for any offspring of regimental family who wish to explore the beautiful Scottish Highlands.