Child's eye on the age of empire
Sean Lang reads a closing chapter in the history of British India, as told by some of the young people who lived through it
Always bang your shoes together before putting them on to get rid of any scorpions that might have crawled in during the night: sound advice for children growing up in British India between the wars. One wonders how today's children, used to the school run and soft-surfaced playgrounds, would have coped with rabid dogs in the road and 6ft cobras wrapped around the fridge.
Laurence Fleming, himself one of the last children of the Raj, has interviewed a range of people, including veteran BBC India correspondent Mark Tully, about their memories of growing up in India, and arranged the results in two volumes. The first, dealing with the 1920s and 1930s, is arranged by region, starting with the southern Madras presidency and working its way gradually northwards to Bengal and into Assam and Burma.
The second volume covers the events of the war years and the turmoil of Partition, and is arranged chronologically.
What emerges is something quite rare: history written from the point of view of children. As well as history, there is terrific material here for English, and some of the accounts are crying out to be turned into drama.
They come with hindsight, of course, but Fleming has managed, nevertheless, to recapture a child's-eye view of a world that is difficult for the rest of us to imagine.
Inevitably, there are many tales of delicious meals or special treats, from familiar children's parties to more exotic railway journeys or rides on elephants. Valerie Thurley, looking back on a horrific rail journey through the bloodshed of Partition, explains the deep impression it left on her, not just because of the bodies, but because in all the tension and confusion no one remembered it was her birthday.
These children were familiar with heartache. There is a sad account of one young man watching his father starve to death: bad food had eroded his internal organs, so he was unable to digest. Many knew the pangs of leaving their parents and everything they knew as they set off for school in the cold, distant England they had to learn to call home. Contrary to many received notions of British India, these children seem to have developed close and warm relations with Indians; one boy become obstinate when told he should speak English rather than Hindustani; another girl, leaving for England, was terrified that her ayah, her Indian nurse, would forget her.
The prejudice that creeps in tends to be the preserve of people newly arrived from England: one Indian-bred newlywed was abruptly told by her English husband to drop all social contacts with Indians. Racial prejudice extended to Anglo-Indians, as Eurasians preferred to be called. One account tells of a young officer being asked to leave a club dance because his companion was Anglo-Indian. To their credit, his brother officers were outraged and left too.
There is an infectious sense of adventure in these accounts: it is easy to see why Kipling and Henty feature so often among the children's reading. As well as the dangers of snakes and scorpions, those stationed on the frontier had the added excitement of hostile tribesmen who were not averse to kidnapping any child or missionary foolish enough to wander too far from the safety of British lines.
Once the war starts, the pace and tone of the accounts sharpen noticeably.
The boats going out to India set off during air raids and sail far out into the Atlantic to avoid U-boats. Ironically, some children are sent from England to the supposed safety of Burma, shortly to be overrun by the Japanese. The interviewees are beginning to grow up and some leave school and put on uniform. Not that there is much difference. One boy remembers that all the drilling and exercising he went through in the school Officer Training Corps came in handy for dodging the Japanese.
Major events are glimpsed through the adults around the children. Gandhi is, according to one girl's ayah, a horrible man who organises bomb attacks on trains, though one girl recounts with pride how her dad arrested him, and even worked out exactly where to stand on the platform to do it.
Another tells how his father was imprisoned for sedition for being too friendly with Gandhi and his Congress party colleagues. Then there was the dad who organised tribesmen into a guerrilla unit to fight the Japanese.
Apparently the Japanese had a healthy respect for Indian tribesmen: the Nagas of southern India liked to take scalps; the Gurkhas preferred testicles.
For the most part the section dealing with the Second World War years is a tale of bombings in Britain and evacuations from Burma: this was when the sahibs found out what it was like to be a refugee; though those who made it to India were put up by friends, it was a small world out there. The brutal reality takes shape in the killing frenzy of Partition after the war, when even the most cocooned of children could not avoid witnessing wholesale murder. One young man was spared by a mob led by his father's factory foreman, but the mob still wanted to know where a party of Sikhs had gone so they could kill them. Despite the boy's efforts, the Sikhs were found, and three days later the boy discovered their bloated bodies hacked to pieces. Valerie Thornton remembers a woman recounting how a Sikh sitting opposite her on a train would get out at each station to kill people, then get back in the carriage, wiping the blood off his knife as he sat down.
Interestingly, despite having spent their formative years in India, few chose to stay on after independence, and fewer still opposed that independence when it came. There is one reference to Mountbatten giving India away, but otherwise there is a general recognition that independence (though not necessarily Partition) was entirely right, and a strong sense of gratitude for all that India gave them. As one girl says: "It was a privilege to have been raised there."
Se n Lang is research fellow in history at Anglia Polytechnic University and honorary secretary of the Historical Association