Category Archives: India ’08-’09

Meanwhile, in Calcutta… (Finding my Roots – Part Deux)

At the moment that my mother was being born in Shimla in North-West India, my father was a 4-year-old boy on the other side of the country in Calcutta, Bengal.

Three brief paragraphs of background will help.


My paternal grandfather had left the UK in 1920 (at the age of 21) on a steamer to work for one of the Managing Agencies in Tea and Jute. My grandmother (who he had met at University) then came out to marry him in 1927; my father was born in 1931. My father left India with his mother in 1936 bound for school in Edinburgh, but my grandfather stayed on till 1948, before retiring to St Andrews. He died in 1988.

As a child I was fascinated by some type-written stories that he had left about his life in Calcutta and his travels through North India. He also left behind a beautiful leather-bound album of photographs that he put together during his (lengthy) retirement. Before I left the UK, I photocopied some of the photographs, in the hope that I might be able to trace some of this history.

Calcutta is situated at the mouth of the river Hooghly, where the waters of the great Ganges eventually spew into the Bay of Bengal after meandering across the North India plain from West to East. The city was a very valuable trading post for all the adventuring Imperial powers, and although it had lost the title of capital of the British Raj (to Delhi) in 1911, it continued as an essential city of the Empire, particularly for Jute.

Did Lyons Range really exist?

I arrived in Calcutta on Sunday, taking a ferry across the great Rover Hooghly to find my cheap hotel for the next week.

Having already located the church where my grandparents were married, I ventured into the heart of commercial Calcutta on Monday, equipped with a walking guidebook, the photographs, and a stubborn resolve.

The few type-written sheets told me that my grandfather’s office had been at “5 Lyons Range” and “2 Fairlie Place”. The final words in the type-written sheets, however, (written in 1979 at a time when the UK was suffering woes at least as bad as today) were ominous:

“In a short time, all Lyons Range was pulled down and forgotten. […] I said Good-bye to Calcutta in 1949. But as I write this some thirty years later, when business circles in the UK have little to be thankful for with inflation and shortage of jobs, I sometimes wake in the middle of the night and say to myself, ‘Did Lyons Range really exist?’”

But even though the buildings on Lyons Range have indeed disappeared, the street remains, as do the street nameplates. I spent an enjoyable few hours using my imagination to bring it all back to life, dodging the taxis, connecting all the various streets, and sneaking into some of the buildings. (I lasted longest in the Bengal Chamber of Commerce, where I managed a good 20 minutes before being unceremoniously booted out onto the street by security). Some original buildings remain; many have changed substantially. But it was wonderful to see the nameplates of the Scottish firms that ruled the roost here – McLeod & Co., Balmer Lawrie, Jardine Henderson, as well as MacNeill and Barry my grandfathers’ firm.

The Chummery

The following morning, I decided to see if I could find the two residential addresses that I had.

Arriving in Calcutta in 1921 as a single man, my grandfather chose to share rooms with three others in a house, 14 Dover Park. The house became known as “The Chummery”. (One of the other young men in the Chummery was a “Commander Maurice Bond RN” – I had high hopes that he might have had some influence on Ian Fleming’s Bond, but alas I think that is stretching things too far).

The problem was that no-one I asked could locate the address 14 Dover Park. Neither was it to be found on any maps. A street called “Dover Lane” existed in the South of the city though – and this was as good a starting point as any.

An early start, a short metro-ride, a shared rickshaw ride, and a few vague directional waves (“Go straight”) and I found Dover Lane. But even with the staff in the tiny post office, Dover Park drew blanks. A man in the queue however thought (“I cannot be certain sir”) that he might know of the place – a couple of kilometres away.

One of the nice things about this trip is that I have very little to lose, so I eagerly took up his invitation to walk with him for a while in the posited general direction. We approached a dosing rickshaw-man. “Dover Park?”

“Huh? Heh? Hah! Dover Park! Huh! Heh?” It was a strangely unconvincing reply, and followed by one of those typically drawn-out circular conversations based around street names (“Dover Park, nai?” Yes, Dover Park…” “Yes Dover park? Ha! Heh. Huh?”) Still, it was my best bet. I negotiated the princely fee of 20 rupees, and jumped in.

And then I found it. Dover Park was/is a leafy cul-de-sac in Ballygunge. Some of the buildings remain, although not Number 14. But it did not require much imagination to bring this one back to life and to see my grandfather and his chums setting out together for their mundane first jobs shuffling the Empire’s paperwork.

As always, my random hanging around looking at buildings raised the curiosity of a few others and I had new-found friends in no time. Amazingly, one man with betelnut-stained teeth was even able to fill in some of the gaps about my grandfathers’ business. In this strangest of journeys, it seemed only right to hop into a cab with him; and given the bizarre contrasts on offer in this country, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that within 30 minutes I was watching a goat having its head chopped off in a live sacrifice in the Kali Temple in Kalighat. But that’s another story.

The goat was Kali’s. It was still only midday. I had one more address to find. Lyons Range and the Chummery were long-gone. But would No. 2 Lee Road, where my grandparents had lived after my father returned to Edinburgh, still exist?

To be continued…

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Simla – where the family waters always break

One day a couple of decades ago, my brother rang my parents to ask where they were born, for an Army application form he was filling out. My mother responded “Dad was born in Edinburgh, and I was born in Simla”.

“Edinburgh too then?” was my brother’s response. I never quite worked out if he was joking.

Simla is, in fact, one of the former imperial hill stations in India, used by sweating Raj types to escape the heat of Delhi and it’s surrounds. As my maternal grandfather was one of those types in 1935 (being briefly with the Indian Army), my mother ended up being born there.

So, despite the fact that the Raj is (quite rightly) slipping quietly into irrelevance for an Indian nation with 60 years of far more interesting history since Independence in 1947, it felt like an obvious destination for me. My grandparents died well before I was born, and I have always been curious about their life.

Actually getting to Simla, however, was something of a trial. The only direct option through the hills from Dharamsala was a “semi-deluxe” (Government-run) overnight bus, leaving at 9.30pm and arriving at 5am the following morning. In a country where they have invented the term VVIP (Very VERY Important Person) to trump the VIPs, I had a feeling (duly confirmed) that the journey would be more “semi” than deluxe.

Nevertheless, I got there in one piece. Arriving in near-freezing temperatures at 5am, it became clear why this town must have felt a bit like a home-from-home, particularly for Scots. The ensuing stiff 200m climb in altitude to get to my hotel – where I was then given a single bar heater to head off the bitter draught coming through the paper-thin door – confirmed the initial impression. If it hadn’t been for the monkeys in the pine trees, it could have been the Highlands.

After a kip, I set out (more in hope than expectation) to see if I could find any evidence of my mother’s short-lived stay.

I quickly met a couple of dead-ends (in the state Library and the Church) before walking up the well-worn stone stairs to the Town Hall. I entered a small wood-paneled late 19th century room in a state of some disrepair. Ten official-looking Indians studiously shuffled papers. Tentatively, I declared my intention – ahem, did anyone know if they would have records for births in 1935?

It quickly became clear that the records did indeed exist, though finding them might be another matter. A kind-looking man and a bustling woman led me upstairs. I was warned that it might take “some time”. Given the horror stories about Indian bureaucracy, I prepared for a long wait.

But only minutes later they returned excitedly with a register. We found the year 1935, and turned to find May 8th (the birthday in question). April… late May… but no May 8th. My two co-investigators looked almost as disappointed as I was – until I noticed the words “Death register” at the top of the page. Oops. Back to square one.

The woman bustled away, returning a quarter of an hour even more excitedly. This time we definitely had the dusty Birth Register and eagerly turned the pages. January… February… April… And there it was:

Name: Robina Jane
Father: LGFRH Bell MC, RA [in a sign of the times, no column for mother]
Residence of father: RA Mess, Sabathur
Born: Patmore Nursing Home, Shimla

(The intense pleasure of the discovery was greatly magnified when I found that that the Date of Birth in the Register was plainly recorded as 8 April, not 8 May. The truth? No-one’s sure, and frankly, it doesn’t really matter).

My new-found genealogist friends hurried off to prepare a duplicate Birth Certificate – my mother will now have a rather natty “Government of Himachal Pradesh” one.

I sat and stared out of the astragal windows at the buildings of this strange hangover town from the Raj. It felt like I had found something I was meant to find. I have to admit that tears ran down my face as my own waters broke – it was a more emotional moment than I expected. I have heard about Simla all my life and always wondered what it was like.

The rest of my time in Shimla was equally filled with incident. I had lunch with a Tibetan Lama (Chanting Master at the local monastery who I had met on the bus, and who gave me a silk scarf for safe passage through Tibet); and had a bizarre 10km walk with a wonderful 65-year-old Indian Singer and Writer, Jaswant Hans, followed by dinner with him and his wife in their house. I felt strangely at home.

I am now in Delhi, and heading for Calcutta tomorrow. More anon.

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Banter at the Border – and a new Lingua India?

In the last week, my travels have taken me to two of the great mosques in India (Agra and Fatehpur Sikri), to “play” in the Hindu festival Holi, to the Sikh Golden Temple, and finally to Dharamsala, home to the Tibetan Buddhist leader Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile. It’s enough to confuse even the most committed agnostic.

The Golden Temple was particularly stunning, meriting three separate visits, including one at 4am. The sight of thousands of circumambulating pilgrims combined with the sound of the recitation of the Sikh holy book the Adi Granth (read continuously 24/7/365) was unforgettable.

Amidst this spiritual sensory overload, I took a trip over to the India-Pakistan border on Sunday, for a bizarre display that highlights the contrasting fortunes of these two countries. On this most arbitrary of borderlines (drawn on the map in 1947), the “lowering of the flags” at Wagah has become something of an attraction for patriotic Indians and intrigued foreigners alike.

Driving out through the super-organised Punjabi fields (this area is the breadbasket for the country and has a prosperous feel to match) I noticed an advert painted on a building wall – “BHATIA GUN HOUSE Licensed for pistols and Gun Cartridges”. I wondered briefly if Wagah might have a touch of the Waco about it. In the event, it was all pretty good-natured.

I arrived at the border at 5.30, walking the last kilometre with thousands of others for the prequel to the sunset ceremony.

On the Indian side, in a large, incongruous stadium-style hemisphere of concrete seating, a few thousand colourful over-excited spectators were being whipped into a frenzy by a scary-looking ringleader in dark glasses. The screams – of “HIN-DU-STAN!” and “VAN-DE MA-TA-RAM!” (Hail to the Motherland) – were deafening. One of my neighbours was quick to assure me that everyone loves everyone really.

The view on the Pakistan side might be a bit different. The contrast with the happy-go-lucky growing-at-5%-a-year Indians was stark. The Pakistani side looked dismal. A paltry couple of hundred sat in a similar sized amphitheatre. This lot looked dour, sad, dressed in bland greys and blacks, the women in burkhas against tatty white-washed seating. It was all a bit sad.

The ceremony itself – choreographed in advance by both sides and involving copious chest-puffing and goose-stepping – was greeted with whoops, cheers, and more flag-waving and foot-stomping than a crucial Celtic-Rangers head-to-head.

It was a vivid reminder of the continued blurring of the lines between politics, the military, warfare and sport – and of the strange relationship between two countries created out of the back-end of a failing imperial adventure in 1947.

A new Lingua India?

There’s something interesting going on within India itself too. Despite apparent frequent displays of pan-national pride like the one above, regionalism is definitely rearing its head for the April/May elections. I noted the huge diversity of languages across India in an earlier post, that diversity is now being reflected by a rise in the power of locally attractive politicians. You might even see one of them – Mayawati, a powerful Dalit women who looks like she could pack a punch – becoming a critical power-broker when the time comes to appoint a PM…

A common language is, in many ways, the glue that keeps a country together. So it is interesting to note that English is giving Hindi a run for its money. Consider these facts:

1. If a North Indian from Delhi wants to communicate with a South Indian from Kerala or Tamil Nadu, he will most likely do so in English. (If he tries Hindi, he will probably get a blank look from the Southerners, whose own languages of Malayalam and Tamil are worn as a badge of honour)

2. The huge adverts for private schools everywhere always say “English medium” or “Hindi medium”. If the relative number of each is a reflection of market demand, India wants its children speaking English first and foremost. .

3. At the showing of Smile Pinki that I attended in Varanasi, everything (except the film) was conducted in… English. And that despite the fact that the audience was (with the exception of me and one other) entirely Indian.

It’s all rather interesting. After a long period after partition where English was lingua non grata (while Hindi was being pushed forward), market forces may be shifting things. Most people here are also clear that English gives India something of a business advantage over its arch-rival China.

Meanwhile the way English is used by Indians continues to be as flowery as ever. Reading the cricket reports in the Times of India or the Indian Express (both English language) is sometimes like reading McGonagall at his worst. This from the Times of India after they lost a couple of games in New Zealand (the emphasis is mine):

“The Indian cricket team is like a sleeping ocean, or a dormant volcano, if you please: One just doesn’t know when it will wake up and take the shape of an all-consuming storm or erupt into a flame-throwing monster. New Zealand heard the first roll of thunder, saw flashes of lightening too, on Tuesday afternoon; they also felt the earth growl from deep within as India’s batting all but exploded in unison. They are clearly worried, if not scared.”

The article goes on to talk of fighting “ripple-to-ripple, wave-to-wave”, of “follow-up Tsunamis”, of “getting past other brooks, creeks, and even seas”. There’s nothing like taking an analogy too far. Read the whole, wonderful, article here.


Despite the attractions of feeling cold rain on my face for the first time in 4 months (Mcleod Ganj a.k.a Dharamsala is at 2827m), I am moving southwards from Dharamsala tonight so that I can get East before my visa runs out.

Toodle pip!

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