Tuesday, 6 March 2018

INDIA RESEARCH TRIP - Part 1 - Delhi and a visit to the Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research

Wearing smog masks in Delhi

This year I was fortunate enough to be given two grants, the first by the Society of Authors for trips to Italy to research my next novel, working title “The Fallen”. The second was an Artists' International Development Grant, from Arts Council England. I was very fortunate to receive advice about the latter application from Amy Solis from the Writing Our Legacy project, with whom I have been working for many years. The grant covered researching the Indian part of the novel, a memoir I’m working on about my family, and exploring traditional and modern forms of storytelling, as I am also a storyteller and co-founder of an oral storytelling club, The GuestHouse Storytellers, based in Newhaven, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last year.

I’ve written about my Italian trips in the previous blogs, and this next series of blogs is about my trip to India, which involved a hectic month of travelling around north India, working with different organisations and people. I must admit I was rather dreading this month of exploration and travel on my own, and was thrilled when my daughter, India Stoughton, an arts and culture journalist in Lebanon, volunteered to come with me to research her own article about the projects to capture the stories of Partition.

Left to right: Erna, Firdaus, Ernesta, me, Shireen, & Maria

I had originally intended to fly straight to Delhi, but changed my mind when I learnt that Ernesta Boccaletti, who had put my friend Jo and me up at her extraordinary mansion in Italy in the summer, was going to be in Mumbai. She and her sister Maria were visiting Shireen, a mutual friend, whose father, "Jimmy" Vakil, was an officer in an Indian POW camp in Italy in 1943 and Ernesta’s father, who was a doctor at the camp, helped him to escape and hid him from the Germans. We had a very enjoyable reunion at the Willingdon Club in Mumbai, along with Shireen's cousins Firdaus and Erna.

Firdaus is also the friend I stay with in Mumbai. He is the most book-loving person I've ever met and without his encouragement and feedback I'm not sure I'd ever have finished "Belonging". It was through him that I met Shireen and learnt about her father's story.

Next to Delhi, to brave the pollution, and visit the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) to see the impressive RamLila exhibition, with artefacts from different Indian forms of storytelling. It was an absolute feast for the senses, followed by a literal feast at a nearby canteen. 

Then on to do some military research at the Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research (CAFHR) where retired Squadron Leader Rana Chhina, the resident historian, had offered to help and to provide a letter of invitation if required. He was recommended to me by Raghu Karnad who wrote the very moving and impressive "The Farthest Field", a blend of fact and imagination, about three of his uncles who died in the Second World War. His description of the battle of Kohima is one of the best depictions of the horror of combat that I have ever read.

I’m glad I didn’t realise when I approached him just how eminent Rana is. An MBE, with an impressive collection of medals, as you can see from the picture below, he was also the consultant on “Who Do YouThink You Are” with Anita Rani, telling the harrowing story of her family during Partition, and the episode with Billy Connolly, whose great-grandfather was in the garrison at the Lucknow Residency, during “The Indian Mutiny” as it’s known in Britain, or “The War of Independence” as it’s known in India. The terrible events at Cawnpore (Kanpur), just 50 miles away, are related in “Belonging”. (There will be more about the Lucknow Residency, which we visited, in my next blog.)   

Retired Squadron-Leader Rana Chhina MBE
photograph courtesy Times of India

I subsequently discovered that Rana has been to Brighton several times, the last time to attend the Dr Blighty events, put on by Nutkhut in the Brighton Festival in 2016, for the unveiling of the blue plaque to Jemadar Mir Dast, which was placed on the India Gate at the entrance to the Pavilion Gardens.  
Propaganda leaflet aimed at colonial soldiers
Finding CAFHR was a challenge as our Uber cab got lost, and access to the unit involves passing through a very thorough army checkpoint, so by the time we arrived we were very late, but Rana could not have been more charming.  It was heartening that as I broached all my ideas, which in the absence of detailed research were stabs in the dark, he kept saying, “Yes, that’s possible. Yes, that could happen”. And no matter how small a detail I required, he could immediately identify a book that covered it, pick it out of CAFHR's impressive library of thousands of leather-bound military books and records in glass-fronted bookcases, and open it to the right page.

The following Saturday he invited us to his house for lunch and to meet his charming and hospitable extended family, and in the afternoon we repeated the exercise with books and artefacts from his private collection, which was as impressive as CAFHR's. His son Adil, who works for the Commonwealth Graves Commission, and is almost as knowledgeable as his father, joined us. We got down to work, and within a few hours I had hundreds of photographs of the relevant pages on my phone, including some of original German propaganda leaflets.
Propaganda leaflet aimed at Indian soldiers

I happened to mention that we were going to Amritsar to the newly opened Partition Museum and that I was hoping to see a bit of Punjabi rural life, as my Sikh soldier protagonist grew up on a farm there. Rana said that his family was also from a farm near Amritsar and he was going to be there at the same time. He invited us to visit for a day so that he could show us around the farm and the village. 

This was just one example of the kindness and hospitality we met with everywhere we went. People were extraordinarily helpful; the moment they learnt that we were researching Indian soldiers or Partition, they introduced us to people they knew with experiences in those areas, so every moment of each day began to be filled in with things to do and people to meet. 

I’ll be talking about all that in more detail in the next couple of blogs, and covering our visits to Lucknow, including a visit to the atmospheric ruins of the British Residency; the Partition Museum and Golden Temple in Amritsar; the very theatrical changing of the guard ceremony at the Wagah border post between India and Pakistan; my talk to an intimidating collection of generals and brigadiers at the United Services Institute about using historical research in fiction; an unexpected stay at the perfectly preserved and very swish colonial Royal Bombay Yacht Club in Mumbai, ending with four days at the Jaipur Literary Festival with my publisher.

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Our first stop in Amritsar was the Partition Museum . Recently opened, it is the first museum dedicated to bringing together mat...