Partying like a Maharajah at The Chandigarh Military Literature Festival

Some of the delightful young volunteers involved in the #MilLitFest

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.

The Sikh military display team, who breathed fire, spun beaded mandalas and demonstrated all kinds of weaponry prowess

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.

The hills beyond the lake are as close as I got to Shimla this time!

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.

Approaching the border at Waga for the ceremony

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.

Eager spectators queue to relay the Indian flag

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.

The ritual exchange between the soldiers of India and Pakistan.

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.

Splendidly attired soldier snapped just after the ceremony ended.

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.

Showing my thanks for the Chandigarh Tribune and in particular the work of Mr Vikramdeep Johal, who has done so much to spread the word about the Punjabi soldiers featured in Major Tom’s War

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?

With Mandeep Singh Bagwa and Colonel Jarnail Singh who helped to make the Chandigarh #MilLitFest reality

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.

A compelling discussion of Partition took place in the main arena

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.

Mandeep Bajwa, Festival Director and Dr Rima Hooja from Jaipur

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.

Depute High Commissioner Andrew Ayre welcoming guests to the first party, superbly organised by Mrs Ayre

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.

Party no. 2, with the kind folk who helped my find my coat that night!

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?

Paddling over the carpet

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.

Singing for my supper!

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.

In full flow… once the slides worked!

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.

Figure from the Rock Garden

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.

Sitting on the edge of a mosaic pool made from broken tile, covered in floating rose petals and tiny lights

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.

Inder and Author!

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.

All aboard the official transport!

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).

Captain Amarinder Singh on stage

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.

Presenting Major Tom’s War

‘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 book in the hands of the great man, a very good moment

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.

With Amarpreet (nice pink turban!), photo taken earlier

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.

Braziers and canopies

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 dal makhani to enjoy! Some fascinating people were present, not least the Captain and his family, who were very kind to me.

Elephant with Howdah

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.

Captain Amarinder must now have enough reading matter to last a lifetime!

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.

With the amazing Chandigarh transport guys

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.

Fountain and chandeliers
Polo sculpture – Tom would have loved that!

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.

Punjabi Sikh fighting demonstration, all part of the #LitFest fun

Patiala: horses, heritage – and who wrote the letter?

Bamboo scaffolding allows access to the walls of Old Moti Bagh Palace, currently under restoration

Just after the first article about Amar Singh and Major Tom’s War 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).

Patiala . State? Mohindara? Ju. 19? 91

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.

Banur is about 25 miles from Amritsar. This appears to read Banur Uni Rajpur – a translation of the line above it?

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.

The handwriting of a sick man? Or an Indian scribe copying a note written in English?

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.

Even deciphering a word or two would help – but nothing so far

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!

One of the carved wooden doors of Old Moti Bagh, inlaid with ivory

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).

Meeting Captain Amarinder Singh, Maharajah of Patiala, for the first time

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.

Inside the great reception hall the Maharajahs’ motor vehicles and a handsome silver carriage enjoy an enchanted sleep beneath protective plastic sheeting

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.

The cool paved chequerboard courtyard at Old Moti Bagh

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).

View of an inner courtyard from the roof at Old Moti Bagh

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.

The moulded ceiling of the reception hall showing some excellent progress in restoration work

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.

Vast chandeliers, many imported from Europe, ornament the ceiling of the immense reception hall of Old Moti Bagh Palace, but the power of this place lies in its less public areas
A small hawk watches us pass at the Sheesh Mahal

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 chai masala from a little stall overlooking this 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!

Finding Amar Singh…

Risaldar Major Amar Singh – probably photographed by Tom Westmacott, my grandfather, his friend

UPDATE 14 DECEMBER 2019 – this blog has now reached over 40,000 people. If you have read, followed or shared, thank you so much.🙏

The ebook of Major Tom’s War was launched in December 2019 at the Military Literature Festival at Chandigarh. The revised and expanded second edition paperback is out now too.

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, thank God, then carefully annotated each image with a name.

One entry for 1915 describes how Amar Singh with tears 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 Major Tom’s War – 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 Guru Granth Sahib 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.

The great Mairie in Doullens, site of an important celebration of the birth of Guru Nanak Dev ji on 31 December 1915 which was used by Amar Singh to rally the Sikh troops after their first full year of warfare

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!

The old watermill at Frevent by the river Canche – the pyre would have been lit on the flat land just beside this building

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 were with 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.

Amar Singh’s unusual house in Butala – worth restoration?
Detail of a gateway into Amar Singh’s house in Butala
Eucalyptus avenue

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?

The Sandhu family, direct descendants of Amar Singh, plus one ecstatic author

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.

Two of Amar Singh’s grand-daughters

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.

Captain Amar Singh Public School at Mehta Chowk near Takkapur

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.

Mrs Sandhu enjoying the archive pictures of her bapu-ji.
Amar Singh, Depinder Sandhu his great-grandson and Vee. Note the poppy cross placed on his statue earlier

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.

The statue of Amar Singh dominates the school garden

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.

The attentive pupils of Captain Amar Singh Public School

Amar Singh is an Indian hero who should be studied, celebrated – and above all, emulated.

Vee Walker presenting Mr Bhagwant Singh, Amar Singh’s grandson, and director of the Captain Amar Singh Public School, with a first edition copy of Major Tom’s War

Author Vee Walker lives in the Scottish Highlands. Her debut novel Major Tom’s War, based on her grandparents’ experience of the Great War was a recent prizewinner at the SAHR Military Fiction Awards 2019.

Major Tom’s War was launched as a revised and extended second edition ebook on Saturday 14 December 2 – 3 Venue C at the Chandigarh Military History Literature Festival. The paperback version was launched in 2020.


Finding Arjan Singh…

Arjan Singh mounted on my grandfather Tom’s second charger ‘Daisy’ in 1917 – look carefully at Arjan Singh’s face…

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.

We left Amritsar early one morning just as the sun was rising…

Dinesh Rana saw the first post about Major Tom’s War 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.

What were the chances of Dinesh having a bottle of Philip’s favourite single malt whisky made only 10 miles from our home in the Highlands?

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.

When Mandeep stopped to let me take this photo the friendly farmer stopped to wave too.
Level crossing

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.

Mojowal’s area is primarily agricultural scattered with some large factories too…

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.

Just some of Dinesh’s welcoming family

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.

Overtaking a bullock cart

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.

Oh-oh, everyone is watching …

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.

…and me watching the pupils!
#TomsSpecs have another outing on one of Arjan Singh’s great grandsons – a handsome young chap!

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 Major Tom’s War story – or Four Soldiers Named Singh 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.

Later I repeated the story of Four Soldiers Named Singh to Dinesh’s families and friends with an interpreter

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.

Arjan Singh’s precious medals

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.

I was honoured to give a long-forgotten story back to the family of Arjan Singh

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.

One of the many unusual dishes prepared for me by Dinesh’s wife and family

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.

Dinesh doing an excellent job of translating for me

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.

I have received a wondrous array of gifts since my book tour began

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.

A Britisher in Amritsar

This is the only photograph with which I illustrate this blogpost for reasons which will become apparent below

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’s soldiers opened fire on the unarmed population with their 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 Major Tom’s War. 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.

Curious about the solitary, solemn, female Britisher, happy smiling Indian families asked me to pose with them for a selfie in front of that pitted wall. Do they fully understand its significance? I stood and smiled for them 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 the 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 five weeks 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 unparalleled 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.

Vee Walker is a heritage consultant and author based in the Scottish Highlands. Her grandfather Tom was born in India in 1876. She toured Punjab and Delhi 29 November – 17 December 2019 with her unusual fact-based novel Major Tom’s War, now out in Kindle (launched on 13 December 2019 at the Chandigarh Military Literature Festival) and in paperback. Major Tom’s War commemorates the role of the Indian Cavalry in the Great War.

Homespun ambition for Sangrur’s craft heritage

Weaving a patterned dhurry rug on a bedframe loom

Ever since Mahatma Gandhi renounced western dress in favour of simple handloom-woven cloth, making a political point as he did so of course – and in fact long before that, weaving has been a central part of the culture of India.

These stylised flower vase and butterfly patterns were designed in the village

In Punjab today these ancient crafts – weaving, knitting, embroidery – are at risk of dying out. The reason for this is twofold: firstly such labour-intensive goods can still only command very low prices, in part because of the volume of production from elsewhere (including China) and in part because of the lack of belief in the value of craft as work.

Handloom weaving can mean a woman can earn additional income of her own while still maintaining a traditional family role as wife and mother

Secondly, weaving is perceived as something your Mum does at home. Girls want a better life than that of their Mum – and Mum quite understandably encourages her daughter to be ambitious. While traditional dance, for example, is flourishing and still perceived as a hugely desirable skill, craftwork is in decline, seen as unskilled and unrewarding work.

I was honoured to be entertained at a local school where I gave a lecture by these skilled dancers

Young Indian women like these do not often aspire to be craftworkers. They want to be doctors and lawyers and managers – and that is of course quite right. But they cannot all enter these high-flying professions. There are still many youngsters better suited to craftwork in supporting a more traditional household role.

Marriage is still most girls’ dream here, driven by Bollywood ideals and cultural expectations. In order to support these particular young women, who may marry and then find themselves without an income stream of their own, a new workshop has been launched in a rural village outside Sangrur by Kiran and Rana Grewal.

This intrepid couple took stock of their city life a few years ago and found it wanting. They returned to run Rana’s family farm, much to the consternation of their families (it is more traditional to hire a farm manager and live off the profits in town). Rana now relishes the satisfaction of seeing things done to a higher standard under his own supervision.

Cattle are a huge part of rural life in India

After a while artist Kiran realised, to her distress, that traditional craftwork was all but dead in the village. Just a few older mothers could remember how to do any of it. Kiran and Rana took action, planting the seeds of an enterprise which they have tended as tenderly as the villagers tend their sacred tulsi trees.

Tulsi is a fragrant tree which symbolises a happy and prosperous home

They have researched traditional tools (such as the traditional iron bedframe loom, which Kiran supplies), techniques and patterns with some spectacular results. Equally importantly, the villagers have grown to like and trust Kiran and Rana.

Kiran soon realised that it was not enough to encourage local craftworkers like this family to renew craft activity in their own homes. She saw how badly young women want a job – and that means they must be able to leave the family home and travel to a place of work.

And so she and Rana decided to build one.

Coming together like this to work there has many benefits: skills can be shared in a virtuous upward circle, and new skills learned. They embroider, knit and sew here too.

A traditional crocheted joining seam

It is also a convivial place for the women to meet and chat, combatting social isolation and enabling domestic issues to be discussed and resolved.

Kiran feels the workshop is now ready for its ‘next step’. When I stayed with Kiran on my #MajorTomsWar book tour we agreed that seeing their skills valued by the outside world would mean a lot to the ladies engaged in craftwork. It would also provide an opportunity to share skills in both directions, initially perhaps by Skype tutorials and possibly, in future, with residential workshops based around Kiran’s lovely home.

I have begun to put out feelers on this among craftworkers in Scotland and have already had a very positive response.

The workshop sits in the delightful farmhouse gardens

If you or your craft group (SWRI, Embroiderers Guild, Knitting Circle etc) would be interested in a meaningful and sustainable holiday involving a practical exchange of craft skills with a rural Punjabi community, do please get in touch with me via

Signature rose cross-stitch embroidery

Vee (Verity) Walker is a heritage consultant and author based in the Scottish Highlands. Her award-winning consultancy Interpretaction was founded in 1999 and has a client list which includes most British and many European heritage agencies.

The signature rose on the back of Major Tom’s War. No, I don’t believe in coincidence either!

She is touring Punjab and Delhi 29 November – 17 December 2019 with her novel #MajorTomsWar, 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. #MajorTomsWar commemorates the role of the Indian Cavalry in the Great War.

Meet the conservation lions of Sangrur

Lions are a frequent decorative symbol of the power of the Maharajahs of Jind

A privilege to be a guest of the recent 2019 Heritage Festival in the ancient and historic city of Sangrur (emphasis on the –rur, in case you were wondering) established by this visionary individual, Karanvir Singh Sibia and his equally dedicated group of friends. This was both an arts and heritage festival – with poetry, dance and music as well as tours of jaw-dropping heritage sites – and a call to arms for the heritage conservation of Punjab. Perhaps, like me, you had never heard of Sangrur until my visit was arranged. Perhaps, if so, you should read on.

Maybe you have never been to India because of the prejudiced preconceptions listed in an earlier blog. Or maybe you think you have already ‘done’ India. Millions of Western visitors are duped into this belief annually, after a comfort-zone package tour around the ‘Golden Triangle’ of Delhi, Jaipur and Agra. They take photographs of the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort etc and then leave, probably complaining about queues and crowds and pushy guides. Have they experienced the real India? Not really. They have eaten a cake which consists only of icing. And too much sugar rots the teeth.

The memorial mausolea of the Maharajahs of Jind – strong echoes of southern India

There is a clear desire, especially among the young, for more meaningful forms of visiting and engagement which can be summed up as a desire to give something back. They pay to help in orphanages, muck out elephants and teach in schools. Some of these activities are not exploitative, but many are, and often they can be overpriced and underwhelming.

This young gentleman – aged about 14 – already has a creditable knowledge of his doorstep heritage – I hope he will grow up to become a great heritage project director

Not so here in Punjab, where there is a vast amount to appeal to British tourists in particular, given our country’s disastrous propensity for meddling here (all the more reason to ‘give something back’ by visiting). Its astonishing Royal Heritage remains largely undiscovered by western tourists. I have been in Punjab for six days now and have encountered no other westerners at all. I have also only paid one admission charge for any of the heritage sites visited. The rest have all been free. Travel and food are very inexpensive indeed too. It is a fantastic, friendly and safe place to visit.

A local breakfast of hot scrambled eggs spiced with turmeric and chilli served on a paratha with cubed iced butter

In Sangrur I could see the potential for something quite different from a ‘normal’ tour based holiday approach, one which could be developed both on a much larger/more organised but also on a more personal scale. Why not offer a menu of visitor activity within heritage conservation for those with interest or skills to share? People today are increasingly interested in holiday experiences which are authentic, meaningful, immersive, sustainable and personal. Slow tourism where you visit one state in depth instead of attempting to see many has huge appeal among intelligent western visitors today.

Alabaster fountain base with monkeys

Those who volunteered to work here could be accommodated within people’s homes and welcomed for longer periods than the normal holiday, perhaps a month at a time. It would suit the student, the teacher and the vigorous retired. Staff at individual organisations such as Historic Environment Scotland or the National Trust could also be approached with a view to annual placements here as part of continuing professional development. Crucially this could be a two way skills exchange, with wesyerners receiving training in traditional conservation techniques during their stay.

Local people are using traditional techniques to restore their heritage buildings but need external input to encourage internal buy-in

The aim here would not to be offering a one-off tour based holiday but for Sangrur to become embedded in people’s lives longer term. Connections could be sustained through individual friendships using communication technologies which shrink the world. Those who came would share their skills but also, and crucially, learn new skills of their own within risk-assessed training programmes.

Health and safety protocols would need need to be established to allow western volunteers to work in Sangrur

A long-lasting connection with a UK or American university would be a good thing to target; and it would be important to discuss the logistics of travel and insurance with an ethical travel company too.

Alabaster peacocks top a ceremonial gateway in Sangrur

In my view, Sangrur should set its sights on achieving World Heritage Site status, based jointly on its fine built architecture but also on its food/craft/music/cultural heritage too. Listening to ragas echoing around the gardens of the maharajahs is far more interpretive of any amount of dull guide books or interpretive panels. For more on Sangrur’s potential as a centre for Punjabi craft conservation and development please see my next blog.

Duelling Sikhs inside a mausoleum – these murals and many others badly need conservation

Karanvir Singh Sibia knows that sometimes one will have a battle on one’s hands to achieve a great vision. He strikes me as someone who relishes this kind of fight. In a project of this kind there always comes a tipping point when the local sceptics realise they are missing out on something extraordinary and jump aboard. The sooner this moment comes, the better for Sangrur.

Vee (Verity) Walker is a heritage consultant and author based in the Scottish Highlands. Her award-winning consultancy Interpretaction was founded in 1999 and has a client list which includes most British and many European heritage agencies.

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.

Travelling through time and space…

An unremarkable journey (albeit one of 5000 miles) to a remarkable city, where my #Indiabooktour for #MajorTomsWar will both begin and end.

Chandigarh is quite a modern state capital, replacing Lahore which was severed from the rest of Punjab in 1947 during Partition. The new city was planned by the French (notably by the architect Le Corbusier) in numerical sectors (think arrondissements in Paris) and this is clear from its central spacious tree-lined boulevards and generous public gardens. I have come as a guest of its prestigious military history book festival.

The past is very much present in this part of India but standard military history does not tend to relate how people thought or felt at the time of the Great War. I have the impression of travelling back in time as well as thousands of miles from home. So little is left in the way of personal family memories of these times here. I will be returning knowledge of the Indian Army’s actions in #WWI to a generation which will now cherish them as I have. I think/hope Tom would approve of my actions.

Preet, Shivjit and Farid their charming son

I am staying with Major Shivjit Singh Shergill, retired from the Central India Horse regiment and his wife Preet and their son Farid in a comfortable house with a lovely garden and terrace.

Their home just bulges with erudition and heritage – family portraits of military forebears, fearsome weapons on the wall, books filling the shelves. It is very good to have a base while I am here and Shiv and Preet are treating me as one of the family.

My twin interests in food and heritage readily combine in their home as we swap family stories over the dinner table. Here is Farid trying on some WWI era specs like Tom’s to see how it might have felt to wear them.

Preet cooked an English lunch just to break me in gently but last night was my first taste of authentic Indian cooking. We had a dark lentil dal, dal makhani, paneer cheese cooked with onion and red chillies and my favourite, Preet’s pea curry. This was made with a reduced sauce made of ginger, onion, tomato and chilli to which the gently stewed peas are added, separately cooked until soft. Mental note: be braver with ginger in the kitchen!

These tasty dishes were served with small round breads called pulka made by one of the maids. Like a fool I was too bug-eyed to photograph these wonders but I did come to my senses enough to record this sumptuous creme caramel, steamed on the hob, not baked in the oven, which changes its texture from firm to silky. Something about its shape and wobble made me think of those lionsmane jellyfish which occasionally get stranded on Rosemarkie Beach at home. A good deal more appetising however!

Very close to the handsome city centre lie what Preet referred to as the ‘villages’. She drove me gallantly, along a hair-raisinglyly bumpy and rutted road, past much more crowded living areas.

Buffalo in the villages outside central Chandigarh

Lines of bright washing festoon houses and trees like tinsel on last year’s Christmas tree. Dogs and cattle – sometimes buffalo – amble about everywhere, which can be quite dangerous, according to Shiv.

We went to my first Indian bookshop where I met Ajay, its proprietor. It had a fantastic selection of books and I bought this one, which will keep me entertained while on the move. I love the phrase rude food!

My next blog will be a retrospective view my visit to the heritage festival in the ancient city of Sangrur. Do join me and share this post with others, the more the merrier!

Preconceptions of India…

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 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…

Inverness Museum and Art Gallery/Netley Centre/Ness Book Fest Family Treasures Workshop October 2019 – tutored by Vee Walker

This gorgeous ‘goonie doggie’ was brought along to the Netley Centre by its proud owner

My privilege to tutor a group of very able writers with varying degrees of experience this week.

Our aim was to allow ‘family treasures’ – not necessarily objects of great value’ – find a voice. We spent two hours working hard on different techniques: exploring the known lives and stories of the objects and dipping our toes into the fiction just beyond that.

The result is some fine pieces of work. My pleasure to post them for you here (without comments, just for the joy of reading them). If others come through I will add them too.

Thank you Margaret, Alex, Alastair, Janie, Carol, Glennis, Sheena, Helen, Rachel, Rebecca and Hazel-Ann for your hard work and enthusiastic response at the morning workshop and to the Ness Book Fest team for inviting me to host it.

Thank you too to the Netley Centre folks who took part in such an enjoyable workshop in the afternoon, too.

If anyone would like to attend a similar workshop (some techniques repeated) which will be focusing more on characterisation I will be taking part in Word on the Street Festival in Dingwall at 6pm on Friday 18th October in HighFlight bookshop – first come, first served, I am told!

All copyright remains with the author of each piece.

Over to you and again, well done.


Pedalling to Victory

A fictional account of how my grandfather, Peter Coupar, became Scottish Cycling Champion in 1926

 by Carol I Walker

Peter and Joe Coupar never showed the slightest interest in becoming blacksmiths like their father and older brother.  They were inclined to the view that horses were a drain on time and resources.   Why, the brutes needed feeding, grooming, watering and cosseting in return for a fast gallop.  Their bicycles, however, demanded no such attention, sitting ever ready, ever compliant and willing to eat up the miles of Forfarshire’s rural highways, giving few arguments and requiring little maintenance. 

            When the spoked rubber shod steeds had been hosed down and oiled, the young men pored over linen- backed maps and plotted their next adventure – the carses and glens of their homeland lay at their fingertips and even Dundee and beyond beckoned.  Crossing the River Tay on the ‘Fifie’ ferry from Broughty Ferry to Tayport took them into the Kingdom of Fife.

            The brothers were scunnered.

            “Nae a’ it’s cracked up tae be”. 

            “Aye, nae King in sight.” 

            Some days they hurtled through Glamis, Meigle and on to Coupar Angus and down into Dundee.  The bicycles birled to the click of gear and chain with little brake employed, such was the joy in speed.  Yet when the Powrie Brae out of Dundee loured over them, steep and relentless, they ate up its challenge, urging each other to climb and pedal and climb.

            “Come on ya big jessie,” Peter would shout at Joe.

            And Joe would reply, “I’m on yer back wheel ya tattie heid.  Canna leave me behind.”

            And so a fierce rivalry blossomed with each brother vying to be the first – to be the first at the bottom of the hill, to be first at the top of the hill, to be the first to reach the next village, to be the first to arrive home.  Each brother claimed he was the fastest cyclist, and their outings became more competitive.  Friends and family assured each brother that they were surely the fastest, but the brothers were shrewd enough to know that familial peace in Coupar household lay behind such assurances.  

            One day, on returning from a sortie into Glen Clova, the brothers passed through the well set up town of Kirriemuir when Peter, a wheel in front of Joe, yelled and pulled on the brakes. In a flurry of dust and confusion Joe, red faced and spluttering, skidded to a halt beside him.

            “Are ye wise man?” Joe demanded. “You nearly couped me o’er.”

            Peter had stopped by Charles Lyon the Ironmongers’ shop and was pointing at a notice in the widow that read: “The Kirriemuir Agricultural Show” and further down amongst attractions such as ploughing matches and champion Clydesdale horse classes, Peter had read “Bicycle Races”.  

            “I’ll race you at the Kirrie Show.” he said pointing. “Then we’ll see wha’s the best!”

            “You’re on!” Joe shouted back as he peddled off. “Beat ya home, dunderheid!”

Note: both Peter and Joe became champion cyclists in the years around 1926



by Janie Thorburn

The misty reek of the railway station fills my nostrils.  Coal smoke and creosote.  The rain-streaked, smudgy window.  I peer anxiously amongst the grey crowds and see the porter carelessly loading the motley collection of leather, canvas and wooden luggage aboard the train which will carry me to… I know not.

Take care!  The familiar wooden hatbox, proudly burnished to a chestnut sheen, the lid modestly adorned with metal trim, contains precious snapshots of my life, at least as it was.  It now announces its new destination.  Paris. 

The train heaves from the platform and I reflect on what I have left behind as the thoughts come spilling through my mind.  The fresh, scented fields of barley and corn; the land stretching for acres providing both income and employment; the workhorses, Beauty and Sergeant.  Farm Hall.  The children, Thomas, Lucas, Margaret, Michael.  Nanny for the younger two, the elder boys ploughing their own furrow.  A comfortable, orderly, country life.  Lucas Foster an educated man, a fine judge of hunters. Respectable and respected.  Kind.  Too kind perhaps.

The mingling thoughts of home are a gentle contrast to the puzzling, bustling scene in which I now am placed.  ButI must put these thoughts aside and gather the fortitude to face my new ‘home’, meet my employer. 

Safe from the grime of the journey my fingers close on the white, laundered gloves waiting in my pocket as, with apprehension, I ponder what challenges lie ahead for me.

Farmer’s wife, widow, soon to be Housekeeper.  All that is familiar and secure lost through the kindness of my husband and the betrayal of a friend.  We have known misfortune through the vagaries of weather and harvest but this is beyond that which I have faced alone. 

Lucy Ellen Foster shall master the task with quiet dignity and courage, knowing that the bonnet, the lead soldier, the Bible, the child’s bracelet held within the sturdy hatbox provide the thread to all that is precious.  A thread that will not be broken.


Sweetheart Brooch

by Glennis McClemont

A ‘diamond’ wing sparkles, caught by the light, unfurls from a laurel wreath promising victory in a world at war… an almost unbelievable reprise from the one in the not too distant past.

The garland encloses the letters AG – Air Gunner. Count the ‘diamond’ feathers. Thirty, perhaps? A twinkle for every sortie made by a ‘Tail end Charlie’ in a Lancaster Bomber roaring over the North Sea enfolded in a blackness stabbed by trails of orange flak out to destroy. Ping! Ping! The fuselage is strafed. Forty years later the sound brings the Tail Gunner out of a deep sleep, sweating and trembling. The bedroom radiator makes the same sound. Ping! Ping!

It’s a lonely position, lying aft, separated from the rest of the crew in a claustrophobic, freezing space with only a covering of Perspex between now and eternity.

The Lancaster drops its lethal load and turns for the English coast, the crew inwardly willing the tower of Lincoln cathedral to appear.

Breakfast in the Mess. Bacon and eggs. The Gunner evades, cannot afford to engage the thought that Jimmy, his fellow Jock from Rutherglen was an empty place at the table this morning.

He thinks instead of Margaret. The sweetheart brooch is his pledge to her. She’s in Lanark with her family, she’s listening to every Radio News broadcast, knitting, knitting, smoking, drinking ersatz coffee, more knitting, more smoking, most of all she’s waiting, waiting….



by Alastair Cunningham

This etching is a representation of a bothy on Scotland’s north west coast.  The bothy is part of a hamlet of three once-homes that look over the sea towards the village of Lochinver.  It is just a short and cruel gaze back across the bay to those richer lands on which these crofts’ inhabitants had been permitted to live until the time of their eviction during Sutherland’s clearances.  It has always been an empty place, where ravens outnumber humans and sea eagles sometimes fly.  There is nothing here to interrupt the milky way from its shining.  The land is called Camas Coille, which translates  as ‘bay of the wood’ – though until my time there had been no trees here for generations.

The etching is not a representation of what is there now.  Since the copper plate was scratched in the early 1960s, the bothy has been repaired, the drystone wall rebuilt and a copse of trees planted.  The etching shows a place in need of a loving that has since been lavished.

It is not a perfect representation of what was there when it was drawn.  The hill behind has never been that steep.  In reality, it is a whaleback hump of boulders left by receding ice.            

I am not sure of the coastline across the sea either – though I have spent less time tramping those hills and so cannot be so definitive about their true profile.  It is, however, a family treasure for what it purports to show.

It shows a building that had been vacated about twenty years previously, at the start of the 1940s: abandoned when life in this place with neither road nor boat access had become too hard and the last widow had left home for a new life in Lairg.  As a mark of tough times, her husband had died from an infected boil and left her with four children and no income beyond the few vegetables grown on the croft.  The land looks pretty barren to me but could apparently support strawberries in a good year.  Good years were too rare, so she left.  By the late 1950s the roof was caving and the floor a swamp of dead sheep.  My father bought it and worked to stabilise the ruin.  I spent a childhood of summers here: drinking of the vast skies, keeping the fires burning and playing my part in keeping the roof attached to the gables.

It is also treasured by me because of how it was made.  My dad produced this work during an evening class printing: he was always annoyingly good with his hands.  He died a decade ago and now his ashes are incorporated in the trees we planted.  I think of his alder as the biggest most gnarled tree of the copse.  But that is a son’s imagination more than a measurement.



The Foot

by Alexandra Dold

I can almost feel how sore the foot was. After all, she must have been kneeling in an uncomfortable position for a long time. A position women nowadays would gladly sit in, as long as it’s called yoga and fits with their wannabe healthy lifestyle.

However, she didn’t do it gladly. She had been sitting on her knees with her foot outstretched like this for over five hours now. The floor had felt cold beneath her naked feet initially, but not any more.

She had no idea how it all would turn out; she was only a slave girl. All she knew was that the artist would not picture the crusty bits on her smelly feet, she was only the model.

The rich looking at the finished piece of art would never connect her to it.