My lovely cousin Arleen and her family have been clearing the house of my ‘uncle’ Richard, who was the last of my mother’s cousins. Kindly Richard and his intimidating older sister Veronica were the products of a marriage of first cousins (a family habit not without consequences) in India and both were titans of my childhood.
Even when the postie handed it over, I could hear and feel that sickening crunch of broken glass inside.
All genealogists know that bereavements are a risky time for family ‘treasures’. The grieving offspring may seek to sweep away everything in their agony of loss (or at worst their relief at having got their life back after a lengthy demise). Dustbins are filled. Skips are ordered and are soon piled gleefully or mournfully high. Photos may be saved – but only if the younger generation knows who they are.
It also takes effort to read spidery handwriting. So much easier just to consign bundles of letters to the flames. My own father burnt my paternal grandfather’s diaries. They detailed his time rounding Cape Horn on one of the last tea-clipper three-masters, but also his many infidelities, and presumably my father thought it was the right thing to do. Sob.
Arleen, her husband Richie and his sister Rosemary are not especially genealogically-inclined and knew they had their work cut out but said they would keep an eye open for anything I might like. Kindly old Richard and his ever-cheerful wife Betty had never thrown anything away – just in case it came in handy – an identifying trait of the generation which lived through the war (Richard was an army photographer). The family had to clear shelf upon cluttered shelf, box upon grimy box from their house in Queen’s Parade. As anyone who has done this will know, it can be soul-destroying labour.
The first parcel contained three pictures, one with brittle glass probably shattered in transit. All three (two certain, the third probable) I recognised as the work of Lucien Jonas, the French war artist, who features in Major Tom’s War sketching these very portraits. Two show Indian Cavalry sowars and their horses.
The third is the original charcoal portrait of Tom which appears in Major Tom’s War.
Let me explain further. Within our archive there is an album of Lucien Jonas prints and in it there is a photo of a portrait of Tom – we supposed the original to be lost. One, possibly two of these images have been cut from the album and separately framed – the knife-cuts certainly match on one.
My grandfather had no sons and was fond of Dick, his brother and his son Richard, whom he helped to raise while Dick and his wife Vera were living a butterfly life in India. Perhaps for this reason these two prints plus the original portrait were given to Richard. Or perhaps Evie my grandmother gave them to him when Tom died.
Either way, Richard must have hung the portrait sketch in bright sunlight and the paper is badly faded, unlike the album version. How do we know it is the original? Because Jonas has written the words ‘respectueux hommages’ beside his signature on the original and then obscured them on the print, where they are still faintly visible due to their reflection through the glass plate.
To say I was thrilled is an understatement so imagine my astonishment to receive another message from Arleen to say that among some other family bits and bobs she had found another portrait photograph of Tom, and would I like it. WouldI!
This is now the best portrait of my grandfather Tom that I possess. In some he looks rather testy (he was known for his quick temper). This one I think shows his good looks and his humour. I am hoping it will make its way into the paperback edition of Major Tom’s War, out later this year.
Long live keeping in contact with kind cousins – thank you to my Tenby family – Arleen, Richie and Rosemary Westmacott!
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 toescapetheJapanese. 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 dalmakhani…) 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.
As it turns out, I planned my book tour the right way round. Without my Punjab and Delhi travels for the first two-and-a-bit weeks, the impact of the Chandigarh #MilLitFest might have proved overwhelming. As it was, I had time among kind people to travel, absorb and acclimatise.
How to describe the Chandigarh Military Literature Festival? Well, I can promise you that it is utterly unlike any book festival you may have attended elsewhere in the past. It is extremely big, for a start, one of the largest in the world. It is staged in the grounds of the very grand Sukhna Lake Country Club, dotted with elegant white pavilions and stages set around the lake itself, with views of the green hills to the north where Shimla lies. There are five or six venues there of different sizes, a food court containing all kinds of good things to eat and drink and, of course, a massive book sales area too. And it is teeming with school-uniformed youngsters helping to run it, so keen to please.
Make no mistake, this festival is positively bristling with all things military, and not just books. Many of the youngsters I encountered showed a creditable intelligence and interest in the military past, present and future of their homeland. Will some of them end up in the Armed Forces? Of course they will.
One of my fellow speakers harrumphed that it was all a bit too military for his taste, but we have to see the festival through Punjabi eyes. This is border country. Punjab needs to show off its military prowess and this is a clever way of doing just that. Punjab has not just any border, but one carved with blood and fire through its heartland in 1947, after just five pitiful weeks were allowed to plan a division which would shatter the lives of millions in both India and what would become Pakistan.
Allow me to backtrack for a moment here to my time in Amritsar. There, as well as visit Jallianwala Bagh and the Partition Museum, I also went to Wagah, and I think this is the best place within my tour blog to tell the story of my experience of the border there.
A giant stadium has been erected on both sides of the border at Wagah, creating a setting for a remarkable show which takes place every evening. It is an event which is part Edinburgh Military Tattoo, part brinkmanship. I would love to know more about how it evolved on both sides, as it must have required some impressive Indo-Pakistani co-operation.
Before the ceremony began, an army officer with a mic warmed up the crowd, leading fervent patriotic chanting. A large group of colourfully-clad spectators, many of them women, then formed a relay bearing the Indian flag, racing halfway to the border and back again, the green orange and white of the Indian flag billowing behind them as they ran. Something similar was happening on the Pakistan side – hard to see – but it appeared a more muted ceremony there, spectators more sparse, clad in white, men and women seated in different areas and their soldiers’ helmet plumes black rather than red. Rather like the real ceremony on one side and its paler shadow on the other.
Fabulously-uniformed soldiers from the two armies then marched at, postured and taunted each other, gesticulating at each other right on the grim line of the border, in a well-orchestrated ritual. The impact of this appeared more cathartic than aggressive or inflammatory. Whipped into a patriotic fervour by the MC, I found myself shouting ‘Hin-do- stan! Hin-do-stan!’ until I was hoarse, along with all the others. Sitting on those hard concrete steps with brightly-clad and bright-eyed Indians was a curiously festive experience, yet charged with emotion. I left feeling oddly stirred by it all (Tom’s blood again?) while deeply regretting the need for any border at all and feeling the weight of my own homeland’s part in its creation. I certainly had no desire to acquire a tacky souvenir from any of the border stalls I passed.
All borders divide families, loved ones, family lands and communities. The pain of Partition is still felt in both countries today. It made me think long and hard about the likelihood of Scotland dissolving its 300-year union with England and I wondered if a similar ceremony might one day take place on our own border. It was a disquieting thought but I accept its possibility.
While at the Chandigarh festival I attended many fascinating sessions on subjects ranging from mediaeval Indian history to the use of nuclear weaponry – part of the fun is stumbling into different sessions, listening and learning. And I certainly learned a great deal over the three days.
The question of apology for Partition or for Jallianwala Bagh which arose more than once in different contexts is a hard one. Is it such a momentous step for any government to acknowledge that many of the past actions of its predecessors have had terrible consequences? And yet many of my new Indian friends just shrugged and said, look Vee, it is over. You cannot change history by looking back. So why apologise for it? When Britain gave us so much?
All this was swirling around in my head and heart when I arrived at Chandigarh, where I was in the enviable if tricky-to-explain position of being a non-historian (I am a storyteller with a strong interest in history, which is not the same thing at all). I found myself surrounded by hundreds of ‘proper’ historians and military personnel and almost all of those I met, whether Indian or European, were utterly charming, if often a little bemused by my gender. A frequent (and understandable) early question, until people became used to my presence, was whether my husband was speaking at the festival.
The presentations provided much food for thought. In spite of the positive aspects of colonial occupation, I continue to think that an apology (without any subsequent reparations – too late for that) could play a part in educating a new generation of British children and, yes, its new and fearfully-hawkish government, on the impact of a colonial attitude to the world. It is also an acknowlegement that however beneficial the ‘takeover’ by a colonial power, there is always an alternative path, a road which was not then travelled, just as there would have been for Scotland in the early eighteenth century.
As well as all the book launches and presentations and stellar guest speakers (such as the BBC veteran Mark Tully, a hero of mine for many years), there was inevitably serious partying: three in fact, one for each night, plus a surprise to end on. I have to say that at home I am by no means a party animal and so those glittering events I attended in Chandigarh will stay with me for ever.
The first was at the house of Andrew Ayre, the Depute High Commissioner, where Mrs Ayre had supervised the erection of a vast marquee and the creation of a sumptuous buffet meal, all under a torrential downpour and without her housekeeper, who had been taken ill. It was a lovely gathering and some undertaking in the grounds of quite a modest home.
Let’s get one thing straight, however: these fabulous parties were work. Honestly they were. The bulk of networking and ‘book chat’ took place there. They were all ‘indoor-outdoor’ events under billowing canopies and awnings, somewhat challenged by the unseasonably cold weather. I was glad to have packed some warm wraps and my coat, which had a habit of going AWOL.
Next came an elegant party in a regimental mess, when it had rained so heavily that the fabulous carpet was actually underwater in places, but no-one cared: the fine band played on, delicious canapes were offered from hot trays and the whisky and conversation flowed like the deluge outside. The whisky was almost universally the Singleton single malt produced at the Glen Ord distillery just ten miles from my home, almost entirely for export. I drank a bit as it was chilly, and it felt strange to savour such a familiar taste in such exotic surroundings. I also wondered what happened to that beautiful red and gold carpet afterwards, was it ruined?
The third, and as I thought final party of the literature festival, was on the day I was due to speak. This date had been rearranged from Friday to Saturday just before I came and sadly the daily programme had not quite caught up. I also found I had been scheduled against Mark Tully speaking on William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy, a talk which I had hoped to attend myself.
Not many people had turned up at my venue by the appointed hour and I thought ‘oh dear’! Then when the technology refused to co-operate I thought, oh hang it – and I grabbed the microphone and began to sing songs from the Great War instead. Then I storytold and acted out my talk, without notes and with high drama. This worked wonders for my audience numbers and the tent was pretty full by the end of my presentation, when all prayers were answered and the technology belatedly decided to cooperate – whereupon I was asked to run through the whole shebang again, this time with pictures. It turned what could have been a bit of a disaster into a triumph and I had great fun doing it.
That night’s party was glittering and magnificent, set in the Chandigarh Rock Garden, a vast garden site scattered with strange sculptures, structures and patterns all created from rubbish found on the dump once located there, the work of one inspired man.
It was both eery and beautiful, and I enjoyed strolling through the unusual setting. I thought it was the most elegant party I would ever be invited to, but I was wrong about that.
By this stage many other delegates who had been strangers were becoming friends. Those of us staying at the Shivalik View Hotel all travelled together by minibus, rounded up by a team of charming transport organisers whose numbers seemed to vary between two and six. I also had my very own minder, Inderpreet, who was simply brilliant and, like most others involved in the festival (as future speakers need to remember), a volunteer.
There was also the lovely Rima Hooja from Jaipur, who suggested I speak at the book festival there, a couple of sweet Gurkha officers with a keen interest in the Battle of Imphal; a young, tall, devastatingly-handsome naval officer whose excessively correct politeness when sober was only exceeded by his righteous superiority when drunk – and so many more whose names and numbers I still have on WhatsApp, the communication tool of choice.
I woke with a sigh of relief on the Sunday morning that I could have a nice quiet day and just enjoy the presentations of others. The Sunday was to provide the most exciting speaker of all for me as Captain Amarinder himself, Maharajah of Patiala and Chief Minister of Punjab attended the festival. Captain Amarinder is himself a respected author and historian. Even the carpets had been renewed in his honour (there must be a carpet shop somewhere in Chandigarh which sells carpet by the square acre).
The Captain arrived at the main pavilion bristling with security and it was only then that I had my slightly mad idea. I had just the one copy of Major Tom’s War left, the rest had been sold – so why not present it to the Captain? It was hopeless when he arrived – too many security guards and others and I realised I should have asked to do it in advance, not on the day. Someone suggested waiting for him by the exit instead but I could see it wasn’t going to work: I am 5′ 2” and the average Chief Minister’s bodyguard is about 6′ 6! I just stood by clutching my book and feeling a little foolish. Then – a miracle. ‘Take my hand,’ instructed a deep voice from on high, and I found myself being towed through the crowd of gun-toting bodyguards before I could draw breath. That was how I was presented to and talked with Captain Amarinder Singh, Maharajah of Patiala. And he was lovely.
‘Ah, I have heard of you’, he said. ‘I have been reading the papers.’ I was glad to know my efforts at publicity had paid off! We had a photo or two taken together and then he swept on, flanked by his vast entourage.
My tall saviour turned to look down at me and beamed. I recognised Amarpreet Singh Badal, a senior finance minister and politician, who had bought a copy of Major Tom’s War only the previous day and to whom I had been chatting earlier. He must have noticed my half- hearted efforts with the book. This simple act of kindness, which meant such a lot to me that day, still brings a lump to my throat. A very decent man.
The invitation to the Captain’s special party at his house arrived about an hour later, by WhatsApp, a lovely surprise. I had thought I was all partied out, but I soon decided I would need to be wrong about that.
It was a beautiful party, with fewer invitees than the others, at Captain Amarinder’s farm about 20 minutes outside Chandigarh. There were braziers lit to keep us all warm, and this time delicious Italian-themed food, which caused great excitement among my new Indian friends – although to their amusement I still sought out some dalmakhani to enjoy! Some fascinating people were present, not least the Captain and his family, who were very kind to me.
Inside the house there were some interesting paintings and sculptures and a fabulous bar, where I was able to take a snap or two as my friend Yai Yaphaba the Gurkha presented his own book on Imphal to the Captain.
Just one thing worried me about all the partying. A few minutes after midnight I got a text from our posse of transport people saying that they were waiting for us in the minibus. I thought I was about to be left behind so shot outside, but when I went to find them they were alone, huddled together shivering under blankets – it was particularly cold on the last night. Perhaps security was too tight to allow them in somewhere to keep warm, and of course they did not themselves complain, but it made me uneasy to think of them waiting for us all like this in the cold, and possibly for four nights in succession.
I went back inside to try to round up a few of the other guests (honestly I did!) but no luck, more drink was poured and I then only have the vaguest memory of the party after that. I am pretty sure we ended up singing songs from the Sound of Music in the Captain’s beautiful bar with some of the family and the other hardworking organisers until well after midnight.
So that was the night I learned to party like a Maharajah… and I suspect no other book festival I attend will ever quite live up to that in Chandigarh for the sheer spectacle and warmth of welcome. I am so grateful to Mandeep Bajwa and his team for inviting me to attend and covering my flight costs and to my publisher Kashi House for helping me with internal travel costs, too.
Just after the first article about Amar Singh and MajorTom’sWar appeared in the Chandigarh Tribune over a year ago, a charming gentleman named Dr Naveen Kumar got in touch with me.
An experienced RIWTC panel veterinary consultantwith a keen interest in heritage, he wanted to know more about Lady Curzon, who founded one of the hospitals in Patiala. I tried to help, albeit without great success, and Dr Naveen kindly offered to have me visit if ever I came to India. At that point of course it was only a pipedream. A lot has changed in 12 months!
The placename Patiala however did ring a bell. It send me scurrying for the family archive and this tiny postcard decorated with the head of Queen Victoria. So far the writing has defied all attempts to translate it (including those of the British Museum).
The postmark is clearly Patiala (?State?) and the second I think says Mohindara (Mohindra, like the college?). The date is 1919, a time when the post-war flu pandemic was still sweeping India and the world.
The letter or card is contained in an envelope addressed to Mrs H R Poole – my paternal grandmother, who was a domineering mother and mother-in-law by all accounts. How she came to have it in her possession, and whether she ever found out precisely what it says is unclear. But she kept it.
My mother told me that my uncle Joe (who must have been a good 20 years older than my late-born father) vanished in India at around that time. His parents had a hard task proving him dead without a death certificate and had to wait for many years to elapse. My father’s birth decades later to my grandmother, then in her late forties, was seen as a miracle, but he always lived in the shadow of his vanished brother.
The wobbly signature across the right hand corner of the card may well read ‘Joseph’ but the letter itself is in some obscure form of Shakasta Urdu. Why? And who wrote it? Perhaps an elderly person from this area of Punjab might be able to make out a word or two. If so, please get in touch!
So you see, I had a good personal reason to explore Patiala, marvelling at what my unfortunate uncle may himself have experienced of this beautiful city. Patiala is the ancestral home of the current Chief Minister of Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh, whom I had the honour of meeting at the Chandigarh Military Literature Festival (more on that in a separate blog shortly).
The Captain, as the people of Punjab call him with great affection, was born a royal prince, into the long line of the Maharajahs of Patiala (closely connected with the Maharajahs of Jind). His role in Punjab is therefore rather like that of our Queen and Prime Minister, all rolled into one.
The Maharajahs’ vast palace buildings in Patiala bear witness to their pre-colonial power. One early Maharajah, we were told, had 365 wives. If one transgressed, she risked being walled up alive somewhere within the palace.
Old Moti Bagh Palace is currently under restoration and it was one of the team there who kindly stepped forward, unasked, and offered to guide us around some of the innermost areas of the Palace.
This was an exceptional privilege for a museums and heritage consultant like myself. These intimate inner chambers are sumptuously painted, the colour blue everywhere (before chemical or mineral blue pigments were made with minerals like cobalt, lapiz lazuli would have been crushed and used as a powder – so blue was the most costly colour).
Particularly striking was the range of religious iconography within the paintings in the palace. Sikh gurus, ancient Hindu gods and Muslim symbols appear within the same rooms, emphasising that the Maharajahs here ruled over people of all faiths. The Sikh faith is only 550 years old and Guru Nanak Dev ji its founder travelled extensively and researched the best of other religions to conclude that there is only One God.
Photography was not appropriate within these more private inner spaces but their tiny details – the haughty or cunning faces of individual courtiers and wives for example – will linger long in my memory. Our guide then led us through the palace and up a spiral staircase to a chamber where we both removed our shoes and entered a tiny dark chamber preceded by a cool tiled floor in which a small lamp glimmered. Beside this two fragrant logs smouldered on a bed of fine silver ash. The lamp, we were told, had burned for 200 years; the fire for 300. Although high within the palace walls the shrine is still set on earth – the chambers below are filled with ton upon ton of soil.
How to describe this space at the heart of Old Moti Bagh Palace? A dark chamber, bigger than it seems, but not in terms of its modest dimensions: I had a strong sense of not being alone. It was not a place for a firanghi to linger either – but neither was it somewhere I felt an unwelcome intruder. My hands and hair prickled as though I were being scrutinised – more ‘well, what do we have here?’ than ‘what do you think you’re doing here?’ Waheguru, I said, to acknowledge the courtesy of the greeting, before respectfully withdrawing.
The restoration work in Patiala is being carried out slowly and meticulously using traditional techniques. I was hugely impressed and once restored – which could take decades – Old Moti Bagh could rival any wonder on the well-worn Golden Triangle route.
I hope that when it does open, a quality- over-quantity approach is adopted, where the general tour is kept to the outer and more resilient areas only and the inner areas are kept as an advance-booked, timed-ticketed and high-value visitor experience. Certain spaces, like the upper shrine, should be kept out of bounds to all but the faithful.
The delicate pink Sheesh Mahal, the Palace of Mirrors, is also part of the Old Moti Bagh complex. It would once have appeared to float, its opulence doubled by its reflection in the still waters of a giant pool. Today it is dry and a haven for humans and wildlife – we watched a woman gathering wild greens as a wild hawk hunted overhead. We saw it later, perched on a railing, watching us closely (again that feeling of scrutiny). Dr Naveen and I sipped excellent chaimasala from a little stall overlookingthis dry ornamental moat and shared ideas for sustainable tourism in Patiala. (you would make an excellent host/guide for other visitors, Dr Naveen)!
To complete a whirlwind tour of Patiala Dr Naveen took me to visit the stud farm at New Moti Bagh Palace, the Captain’s home in Patiala. We glimpsed the building from the edge of its fine gardens.
My heart danced when I saw the horses and Tom’s genes told me exactly what I was looking for: a fine intelligent expression, ears forward not back, a small head and fluid movement in a powerful body. Dr Naveen tells me he sources these mares from all over the world. They are looked after wonderfully well, with fields of specially-grown fodder and spacious stalls and paddocks.
May these magnificent brood mares breed many future champions for the Captain!
Depinder Sandhu walked into the hotel foyer and I knew him. Not from a photo but in that deep-down, ah-there-you-are-my-friend! kind of way – which is both inexplicable and yet entirely familiar.
I think it was his eyes. Depinder might not have been wearing the full beard, turban and cotton army tunic of his forebear Risaldar Major Amar Singh, but there was not one moment’s doubt in my mind about who he was. And I have, of course, been looking for him for the past decade – or possibly even for over a century, if you look at it in a different way.
All the photographs I have of Depinder’s great-grandfather show him smiling, not just with his mouth (not always visible within the fabulous beard) but with his eyes and his whole being too. Amar Singh was clearly a man at ease with himself and with whatever life threw at him.
I first came to know Amar Singh through the pages of the giant scrapbook my family calls the War Diary. This was compiled in 1919 by Evie Winnington-Ingram, my grandmother, from her (then) husband-to-be Tom Westmacott’s letters, documents and photographs 1914 – 1918. Tom then carefully annotated each image with a name.
One entry for 1915 describes how Amar Singh withtears in his eyes begs Tom not to go on a risky errand into No-Man’s-Land. Both men are officers with the 38th King George’s Own Central India Horse. Tom still goes on this supposedly secret mission to check the barbed wire is intact and returns, oddly elated at his success and with his palm ripped to shreds, only to find Amar Singh waiting for him. His friend has been watching him the whole time, ready with a party of six men to come to his aid, had he been more badly injured. No keeping a secret from Amar Singh!
Amar Singh’s life and work are already celebrated through my prizewinning novel MajorTom’sWar – but meeting his descendants on my visit to India completes the journey of the book for me.
He was not merely one of the senior Indian officers present on the Western Front: he was the spiritual leader of all the Sikh troops there. To devout Sikhs, the GuruGranthSahib is the personification of the Guru himself and must be treated as such: canopied, awoken and put to bed, and fanned with a chauri. The faithful should also never turn their back on the Guru. Imagine accomplishing this level of respect while ‘on the hoof’? Amar Singh and his men did just that.
I have also travelled widely in France to research the locations mentioned in my grandfather’s war diary. It has been lovely for example to return (to both Amar Singh’s family and the town where it took place) the fine tale of the Doullens gurdwara. The great ceremonial room upstairs in the chateau-like Mairie became the Diwan Hall and Amar Singh gave a thunderous speech to rally his men after their first year in the trenches. Tom recorded every single word, down to the last Waheguru. Most of the Division’s British officers were present, those not as respectful of religions other than Christianity as was India-born Tom must have felt slightly sheepish in their stocking soles.
Amar Singh’s sense of humour shines through the incident of the funeral at Frevent. He was determined to ensure a fine pyre for a respected brother officer who had died of wounds. Tom arranged with a Town Major to provide Amar Singh with a small amount of timber and fuel then left the Sikhs to it, probably suspecting full well what was to come. Amar Singh swiftly had the body placed on top of the entire stock of timbers destined for the trenches. Then he had all the fuel poured on top. Whoompf! Up went the pyre and their friend was suitably honoured. Unfortunately the high wind caught the flames and soon the whole town was alight. No-one was hurt – but it did a lot of semi-intentional damage. A small act of protest and defiance perhaps!
Tom asked Amar Singh how it had all gone later in the day. ‘Oh, very, very well, sahib,’ he must have grinned. My grandfather only heard the complete truth from the Town Major (who narrowly escaped a court martial!) years later and doubtless he roared with laughter.
Amar Singh was even canny enough to outwit the military censors. As the war progressed, an increasing amount of correspondance which revealed the grim reality of the western front was intercepted. By July 1917, the decimated infantry had long since been sent to Mesopotamia. The only ‘Indian Voices of the Great War’ (c.f. David Omissi’s superb work) which remained in France were those of the cavalry. Amar Singh put pencil to paper to write this in Gurmukhi verse to Dafadar Lal Singh (a family member perhaps?) in Amritsar:
What news can I give you but the following:
Many bridegrooms whose thoughts werewith their brides have passed away/ Many other men have struggled with death like fluttering pigeons/ Their widows weep since nothing remains for them on earth but sorrow/ Many met by the cannon’s blast have passed beyond/ As, in a ship, one sails away.
I found out from his family that Amar Singh returned to India from France with ambitious plans for a chateau-inspired house with a three-storey tower. The top floor provided a sunny and quiet place for Amar Singh’s devotions. The ruins still survive in Butala today.
The symmetrical lines of eucalyptus trees on the approach to Takkapur where Amar Singh lived later in his life are very reminiscent of the lines of poplars planted to provide shade on the approach roads to many French towns. I wonder if their planting too was inspired by Amar Singh’s travels?
After the war Risaldar Major Amar Singh was awarded the Indian Order of Merit Second Class, a sum of money, a grant of land and the honorary title Bahadur – brave leader. To be honest, this seems very little for all he accomplished.
We know Amar Singh travelled to London and to Paris during the war. He returned not only with strong ideas about culture but also with a desire to better his community through good works. He took on and eventually drove out the moneylenders from his village, opening a bank there instead, which helped its inhabitants prosper.
So how was it we managed to find Amar Singh’s family? My publisher Kashi House did some exemplary photo-archive research and then the Chandigarh Tribune covered the story. Amar Singh’s family saw it and made contact. I seized the opportunity of an invitation to the Military Literature Festival in Chandigarh this December to meet everyone. It was just meant to be.
His philanthropic family have continued his good works by founding and running the Captain Amar Singh Public School near Takkapur today. It was an honour to visit the school with Depinder and to meet two of Amar Singh’s grand-daughters and his grand-son who still runs the school, plus other family members.
Depinder has now bucked the trend for staunch army service within the family to become an oil and gas executive. He may have been required to abandon his turban and beard in the process (due to strict international health and safety regulations) but he is still every inch a Sikh his great-grandfather would recognise and be proud of.
Depinder has lived in eight different countries (so far!) with his wife and their son. This experience has shaped a kind, intelligent and caring young man who has assimilated a wealth of cultural experience.
Amar Singh was an excellent army officer and a great Sikh but above all a remarkable human being. His story should be told and shared in schools in Punjab and throughout India and I began this process during my visit with lectures in schools in Chandigarh, Sangrur, Mojowal and Amritsar as well as the Captain Amar Singh Public School.
Amar Singh is an Indian hero who should be studied, celebrated – and above all, emulated.
Author Vee Walker lives in the Scottish Highlands. Her debut novel MajorTom’sWar, based on her grandparents’ experience of the Great War wasarecentprizewinnerattheSAHRMilitaryFictionAwards2019.
Major Tom’s War will be launchedas a revised and extended second edition ebook on Saturday 14 December 2 – 3 Venue C attheChandigarhMilitaryHistoryLiteratureFestival. The paperback versionwillbeavailablefromFebruary2020.
For four unforgettable days in Amritsar I have had the honour to meet the descendants of not just one but two of the soldiers alongside whom Tom fought in France 1914 – 1918.
Dinesh Rana saw the first post about MajorTom’sWar in the Chandigarh Tribune in September 2018 and got in contact immediately to say that Arjan Singh, a dafadur who worked for my grandfather after he became a military policeman in 1916, was his grandfather. After a very long delay caused by a glitch in my website (I was so mortified!) I responded and plans were quickly hatched to meet up.
I travelled by car (ably driven by the unflappable Mandeep, driver to the Sandhu family, who kindly loaned him to me) through flat farmland chequered with fields of pale green winter wheat, golden mustard, and bamboo-like sugar cane. The peas were being harvested too, farm workers in brightly coloured clothing cramming them into tall grey sacks. Back-breaking work. In one grassy field a tractor driver ploughed seemingly random curved furrows, apparently for the sheer joy of watching the snowy cattle egrets settle on freshly turned soil.
There is great beauty in this place. There is also rubbish and squalor. This is not the semi-synthetic glory of the Golden Triangle. This is real India. This is Punjab, the divided land, which straddles the border between India and Pakistan. Partition cut right through its heart.
I had agreed to meet my host, Dinesh Rana, at a midpoint in our ‘journey in’ and there he was, beaming a wonderful welcome, carrying a flower garland which he placed around my neck. Lots of smiles and selfies. We proceeded to journey towards his little village. I felt like royalty greeting his charming extended family, friends and neighbours.
The villages we passed seemed leisurely places where much transport was still by cart. Street dogs, some with tiny puppies, lay curled up by the side of the road and cattle ambled past chewing as traffic eddied around them. Motorbikes beeped as they ripped past us, driven by the husband, with the wife sitting neatly perched side-saddle behind him.
Dinesh’s home in the rural village of Mojowal is huge, beautiful and spacious. Here was the first surprise: there was a beautiful shrine to Lord Ganesh in the corner of the reception room. I had supposed that Arjan Singh was a Sikh but clearly he was a Hindu. A detail to be corrected. My book may be a novel but I still like to get my facts right!
Water and delicious snacks were served and I watched my chai masala (a boiled and sweetened tea fragranced with ginger and cardamom) being prepared. I am now addicted to this delicious stuff!
I then attended the local school where they gave me the most magnificent wooden plaque and I enjoyed a superb entertainment of dancing and song out in the playground.
I liked the bhangra most of all, and I suspect the kids did too from their gleeful faces. There was also a race or two and one lad in blue ran like the wind, a good arm’s length ahead of the others.
As a thank you I sang for them. 2000+ wee ones were sitting under canopies around the massive sports ground, all hanging on every word of The Skye Boat Song – which has come very much in handy this visit as its melancholy melody and lost prince theme appeal to my audiences in Punjab. Then I told my schools version of the MajorTom’sWar story – or FourSoldiersNamedSingh as it has now seems to have become! – to the senior pupils. When I got to the part where Arjan Singh saves Tom’s life, they all applauded loudly.
Arjan Singh, it turns out however, was indeed a very strong man: he became a a wrestler. Just the sort of fellow a rather slight Assistant Provost Marshal would select as his right hand man. Arjan Singh was so strong that he could bend a silver coin between his fingertips – so easily tough enough to hoist my grandfather on to his shoulder and to run with him to safety across no-man’s-land as bullets whipped around them. I was shown Arjan Singh’s medals – battered and some attached to the wrong ribbons – but still proudly kept.
Truth and fiction have a habit of merging in Major Tom’s War. Tom wrote little in detail during the period he was gassed or during his convalescence (either that or Evie destroyed letters she viewed as too personal or argumentative). I have therefore pulled together and embroidered over some rather fragile threads.
There is a shrine to Arjan Singh too in one corner of the room – as very sadly he survived the war only to meet a very sticky end. Arjan Singh became a moneylender – one way of making your army pension grow – but in 1942 some men to whom he had lent money decided there was an easier way to avoid paying it back. They spiked his drink and then pushed poor Arjan Singh over a cliff. He was so strong he survived the fall, dying only some days later.
The tragedy left his family without a source of income but they survived, his widow doggedly refusing to seek revenge or compensation. It would not have brought her man back to her, after all.
I looked at the shrine to Arjan Singh and thought how he had changed in appearance since the photo of the young officer in Tom’s war diary. In his later days he looked more like the great-grandson who tried on Tom’s specs on this occasion. And then – then!- two more of his great grandchildren walked through the door. These two are so like Arjan Singh in his younger days when he assisted my grandfather with his duties that it made my hair stand on end.
It turned out that the elder was none other than the lad in blue who had won the race – so a real chip off the old block. I returned to the hotel laden with gifts and overwhelmed with the kindness of Dinesh and his lovely family.
Right at the end an elderly family member came forward, sadly disabled after a fall, but still loved and cherished by all. He gave me this beautiful hand of bananas from his own garden.
They were so sweet – just like the whole extended family and friends of Dinesh Rana in Mojowal.
It wasn’t so much the bullet holes. It was their position. One line of raking fire would have been enough, but there were two of them, there on the battered segment of mud brick wall at Jallianwala Bagh.
One line cuts across at the height of a human heart. The lower one, almost at ground level, marks where the second sweep hit the victims again as they fell. Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer wanted to make sure the ‘natives’ were good and dead.
You may not know the name Jallianwala Bagh. Perhaps you will recognise it as The Massacre at Amritsar. Be wary. This is colonial spin. There is a lot of that in Amritsar. Using the ‘Massacre’ title rather than the former local name makes it sound as though this was a wholly military action between two foes (c.f. The Massacre at the Khyber Pass).
It was not.
Our history lessons are censored in Britain, the unpalatable truths of colonial rule omitted. This event at Jallianwala Bagh happened in 1919 – so just misses the popular Great War area of the curriculum. We love teaching our kids about wars we have won, but we almost never consider the aftermath (c.f. the Battle of Culloden). In these murky shadows lurk the worst excesses of colonial history.
So please, please, learn how to say Jallianwala Bagh. It is no more complicated a placename than Achiltibuie or Cirencester. And it is the least we can do, after what happened here, at a peaceful political gathering in a public park on a religious festival in the sacred golden city of Amritsar.
On 13 April 1919, those gathered in the park were debating the arrest of two pro-independence figures. Many onlookers had just attended for the spectacle and as part of the harvest festival celebrations rather than being actively involved. Some women and children were present too. At this point in time the British had not yet accepted that India would become independent. Martial law had been declared but few realised the implication, if they knew at all.
Ordered to dispel the rally, Dyer ordered his soldiers to open fire on the unarmed population with tbeir Lee Enfield rifles. These Indian Army troops (let that sink in) were ordered to continue to fire into the people trapped within the park walls until ammunition had all but run out. The carnage could have been even worse had Dyer’s armoured cars been able to access the park via its alleys.
These narrow exits soon became blocked by the bodies of panicked civilians, which effectively sealed off the park. This technique of isolating a battleground, learned from Culloden (the battle which ended the last Rising in my native Scotland) and countless other colonial bloodbaths, saves wasting valuable ammunition on those injured, who then slowly and conveniently die of blood loss and shock.
The following day General Dyer wrote: “I hear that between 200 and 300 of the crowd were killed. My party fired 1,650 rounds…” He might as well have been reporting the ‘bag’ after an afternoon’s partridge shooting in Hampshire.
Estimates of the dead that day vary between 379 and 1000, the lower figure, naturally, being that provided by the British. The dead included over 40 children and a 6 week old baby. These little ones must have been clearly visible to Dyer, who saw only troublesome savages who needed to be dealt with.
There is a good deal of Dyer in my character Lochdubh in MajorTom’sWar. To understand how a mindset such as this takes shape from childhood onwards in a man of this era, I urge you to read the chapter which covers Lochdubh’s early years. I have known people like this. They are damaged by their upbringing and their education, leaving them with a deluded self belief in their superiority because of their parentage and upbringing or their wealth and influence.
The monument to this breathtaking atrocity is a towering sandstone shard. Yesterday, when I visited, everything around it was a desolation of broken concrete as major renovations take place. This damaged landscape felt appropriate as I picked my way across to the base, watching where I trod. And through the thick dust and shattered blocks skipped children, hundreds of them, sparkling in their festival finery. One of them was tugging on a kite string and I stood and watched the white paper triangle flit and whirl against an innocent sky.
Jallianwala Bagh is tucked around the corner from the Pool of Nectar and Sri Harmandir Sahib, the Sikh Holy of Holies, which compounds Dyer’s crime. Many families visit both sites on the same day in an atmosphere of festival fun. Many would have been doing just that on 13 April 1919 as they paused to listen to the speakers.
I was asked to take photographs of happy smiling Indian families posing in front of that pitted wall. Do they fully understand its significance? Curious about the solemn Britisher they asked me to pose for selfies with them and so I stood and smiled in that hellish place, then fled, feeling sick.
A large statue towers over the grim exit alleyway, that of the man who tracked down and executed Michael O’Dwyer, Governor of Punjab, who imposed martial law – but then failed to publicise it – for those three brief and bloody months in 1919.
Udham Singh stalked O’Dwyer right into the Second World War, assassinating him in 1940: all history connects, but we only study the ‘best bits’ which put Britain in the best light, disconnected history in sanitised bubbles. At his trial Udham Singh took on the name Ram Mohammad Singh Azad, which protested the colonial mistreatment of the Sikh, Hindu and Moslem faiths of Punjab. He had had many years with which to plan the execution and his trial.
They still hanged him, of course.
I had to smile and smile for selfies in front of Udham Singh’s statue too.
There is only one possible way to interpret kind of carnage which occurred at Jallianwala Bagh and that is to use (sparingly) only the accounts of eyewitnesses to the event, both survivors and the Indian Army troops and their officers. I hope this is what they will do there. Anything else risks being spun in one political direction or another and Amritsar has had enough of spin.
The Partition Museum next door makes a sobering pair to Jallianwala Bagh. The two are intimately connected, as Dyer’s actions that day caused the independence movement to consolidate and gain momentum. Quite rightly, no photographs are permitted inside.
I am a storyteller, not a historian. When I try to understand the Partition of India (i.e. the division of India into a smaller India and a new Muslim state, Pakistan, which would later itself divide into Pakistan and Bangladesh) all I can see is evidence of yet more ghastly colonial blundering in a country we despoiled and then abandoned.
My Indian friends, army people in the main, try to be kind when I bring up the subject of Partition. They cite all the benefits of colonisation: education, infrastructure, democracy etc. And all these are real. Let us be clear on this, however: India would have had a future without being colonised by Britain (just as Scotland could have a future independent of her southern neighbour). Impossible now to predict what that future for India would have been, but it was a future nonetheless stolen by Britain, along with the last Maharajah of Punjab, the child Duleep Singh, and his sacred Koh-i-noor diamond.
All the leaders involved in the negotiations – Jinnah, Nehru, Gandhi and Mountbatten – knew that carnage would ensue in the chaotic aftermath of Partition – and yet they did nothing to prevent it. Eager to ‘get Partition done’ (which has uncomfortable resonance for British politics today) the task was rushed and the impact of the poor decisions made was catastrophic. Rather than allowing time to draw the Partition boundary carefully, Cyril Radcliffe, a lawyer, was given inadequate, outdated maps and just fiveweeks to complete the task. He knew it would be a botched job and afterwards refused his fee, the only honourable act in the whole sorry tale. He fled to England to avoid being murdered in the bloodbath which he, and all of them, knew would follow Partition.
What happened next amounted to the most breathtaking piece of spin of all. Mountbatten and the other leaders opted to delay the announcement of the exact line of the border until after the Independence Day celebrations on 15 August 1947 (so two years too late to be taught alongside WWII – that murky underbelly of war again). This act sought to reduce the very clear responsibility Britain had and for what was to come – and to a degree succeeds to this day.
A few days later after the joy of celebrating freedom has subsided, the border route was announced. Among other brutal political decisions taken, it divided the most powerful Indian state of Punjab into two and separated it from its capital Lahore. This started a mass migration unparalled in human history for its horror, as Sikhs and Hindus fled south and Muslims, north. People were raped and mutilated and murdered as each heaped blame on the other. Millions died or were displaced. And what do we know about this through the history taught in British schools? Nothing.
One story haunts me still. An exhausted woman walking south handed her heavy toddler to another woman to carry and took her baby in exchange for a moment or two instead. That stranger then vanished, abandoning the precious toddler somewhere. The mother noticed too late and could not find her child but kept the stranger’s baby safe. She survived – but hunted for her own little girl until the day she died.
Governments have a poor track record in terms of apology for atrocity. There can be no more ‘Great’ in Britain as far as I am concerned. Not after this enlightening, sobering and heartbreaking day in Amritsar. We are just another country. And this Britisher, for what it is worth, is deeply sorry.
This overwhelming museum uses powerful eyewitness accounts like this one to good effect. I have walked around Holocaust museums horrified yet dry-eyed. In this museum, where I spent three hours listening to the witnesses, I sobbed. Why the difference? My grandfather Tom’s genes, perhaps. He loved India, was born there. I can feel his hands clenched on The Times as he reads its watered-down accounts of the barbarism unleashed, knowing full well what the reality would be. It is no coincidence, I believe, that Tom died just a few years after Partition. It would have broken his heart.
VeeWalker is a heritage consultant and author based in the Scottish Highlands. Her grandfather Tom was born in India in 1876. She is touring Punjab and Delhi 29 November – 17 December 2019 with her novel Major Tom’s War, which is out in Kindle on December 13 (launching on 13 December at the Chandigarh Military Literature Festival) and in paperback in February 2020. She is also speaking at the USI in Delhi at 11am on 9th December. Major Tom’s War commemorates the role of the Indian Cavalry in the Great War.www.majortomswar.com