Wednesday, 23 May 2018

INDIA RESEARCH TRIP - Part 4 - Lucknow, the British Residency, and talking to generals and brigadiers in Delhi

I had been to Lucknow before several times, but taking my daughter to see her Indian ancestral home was very special and made me see everything with new eyes. Even though she and my son had visited India many times, North India is very different from Mumbai, and the very westernised circle of friends that I have there. It brought home to me even more strongly how remarkable it was that my father, a village boy from a very insular community, had ended up travelling the world and opening his eyes and mind to cultures and ideas. In my childhood he was an Anglophile, who also loved France and spoke fluent French, but in his older years he turned back to his Indian roots - to yoga, Buddhist philosophy and the Gita. He remained open-minded and never tried to interfere with our lives, or even give advice.

During my father's childhood, unlike now, Uttar Pradesh (or United Provinces as it was then, under British Rule) was a place where Hindus and Muslims lived in harmony, and, although worshiping and marrying within their own communities, they shared a common culture, attending and participating in each other's music and poetry recitals. As a child I remember the village square being full of people of all faiths watching a performance of Ramayana or an all night ghazal concert.

The impressive Mughal architecture of Lucknow, capital of Awadh (now Uttar Pradesh), centre of Muslim culture, and at one point the richest state in India, is mostly crumbling now. But it is still worth seeing.  The view from the Bara or Great Imambara (a sacred hall) built by the Nawab of Awadh, Asaf-ud-Daula, (above) is stunning.

View from the Great Imambara

Small Imambara

Near the Bara Imambara is the Chotta or Small Imambara, a modest building elegantly decorated in black and white, but the inside is a surprising contrast. 

Interior of the Chhota Imambara

In the 1980s, when I last visited with my father, there were glass chandeliers from Venice and other European centres of glass blowing, part of the collections of the Nawabs from their pre-independence heydays, standing abandoned in the corridors of almost every museum and heritage building we visited. Many of them seem to have found a home here. 
And walking around the city there are still many impressive sights. 
Imambara gate, Lucknow
Rumi Darwaza (Gate), Lucknow
For those interested in colonial history the ruins of the British Residency - one of the sites of the uprising of 1857 - is well worth a visit. Beautifully preserved, the ruins themselves are full of atmosphere and tell the tragic story of the siege. I visited in the 1980s, when it was more atmospheric in some ways because nothing had been done to the site, so it looked just as it had been left after the siege, scarred by shot and shell. It was impossible to imagine how anyone could have survived, let alone retained their sanity for five whole months. Perhaps this is where the seeds of my novel, "Belonging", came from, because, although my sense of justice has always lain on the side of the colonised, rather than the colonisers, it is hard not to imagine, and therefore empathise, with any human being in such desperate straits.

Ruins in the British Residency complex, now flying the Indian flag
The Residency Museum
The Residency Tower where the British flag flew

The site is now being managed to prevent the buildings from deteriorating further and some excavation and restoration work is being done. There is also a museum that tells the history of the siege in the context of the larger uprising. The information boards acknowledge the courage and sacrifice both of the attacking forces, and of the British defenders and the sepoys who fought alongside them.

Susanna Palmer, 18, struck by a cannon ball on the first day of the siege.
Sir Henry Lawrence, the Resident, was killed by a bullet on the same day.
As India and I walked up the path towards the Residency, I remembered Sqn Ldr Rana Chinna at CAFHR in Delhi telling us that he had been a consultant on the episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” where Billy Connolly explored the history of his great-grandfather, who was one of British garrison during the Siege. The two men were asked to walk up the path towards the Residency with the camera tracking them, but Billy Connolly was so funny that the director had to keep calling them back for another take and beg Connolly to stop telling jokes, “… because we can see Rana’s shoulders shaking, and this isn’t supposed to be funny.”

The common grave where over a hundred of those who died
defending the Residency were buried.
The cemetery is poignant. Apart from the common grave, in which over a hundred of the defenders killed in the Siege are buried, there are also the memorials to individuals of high rank, like Lt-Colonel Neill, responsible for some of the most savage reprisals after the uprising, who left a trail of death and devastation behind him on his way to relieve Cawnpore (this also features in "Belonging"). There are memorials, too, to those who died attacking the Residency. And in the civil section, one get a vivid picture of the routine attrition of colonial life even in peacetime: children dying in infancy, and young women whose graves give the cause of death as 'heat prostration". One couple, the Irelands, lost five children, two of them within a month of each other in 1910, before dying themselves in 1914.

The ruins of the burnt out Residency Church and cemetery

For anyone who wants to learn more about the Siege and the colonial attitudes that provoked it, J G Farrell’s satirical novel, The Siege of Krishnapur, which won the Booker Prize in 1973 and was shortlisted for the Best of Booker Prize in 2008, is a wonderful mixture of farce and tragedy. For an Indian take on the revolt, or War of Independence, the Bollywood film "Mangal Pandey - The Rising" about the sepoy whose attack on an officer sparked the uprising, gives a romantic version of events, though the four men on an elephant, who keep popping up to sing an anthem in praise of him, add an unintentionally Pythonesque touch to the proceedings. For those who prefer non-fiction, this fascinating diary of Katherine Mary Bartram, a widow who survived the siege, provides a poignant personal account. 

After Lucknow, we returned to Delhi where I gave a talk about using historical research in fiction to the Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research (CAFHR), run by Sqn.Ldr. Rana Chhina, who had generously allowed me to use their facilities for research. I was a bit nervous to discover that the audience consisted mainly of retired brigadiers and generals, who did not seem to have a natural interest in fiction (several made a point of telling me that they had written memoirs, war histories and, in one case, a comic book). But they all listened politely, but looked so serious (grim, even) that I tried to lighten the mood by giving them a flavour of Brighton as I first encountered it, including an account of witnessing my first naked bike ride, at which they just looked bemused.

General Cardozo, the head of the United Services Institute (USI) where CAFHR is based, chaired the event and I was fortunate to be seated next to him at lunch afterwards, where he told me some astonishing stories of his war service. An extraordinary man, he was the first disabled officer to command a battalion and brigade after losing a leg in combat and subsequently won a medal for bravery in action. According to his very brief Wikipedia entry, he cut off his own leg with a kukri after he was wounded by a land mine. Despite his clear air of authority and command, he was charming and easy to talk to, and in many ways reminded me of my father. 

Major General Ian Cardozo. By Devopam [CC BY-SA 4.0
(], from Wikimedia Commons
This has been such an interesting trip. Becoming an author has opened me up to encounters and experiences that I would never otherwise have had, and I am enjoying every single minute of it. I feel so lucky to have received this funding - it has been such an amazing experience, and it isn't over yet. This trip just goes on and on...

Still to come: A visit to the Partition Museum in Amritsar, a visit to the Wagah border and the Jaipur Festival. 


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