Out of India: A Raj Childhood
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Born in India in 1937, Michael Foss's childhood was spent between the cold, grey austerity of Britain under threat, and the brightly lit and teeming vitality of wartime India. Here, beautifully evoked, is a childhood spent amongst grudging and unloving English relations; a sufferance of cruelly harsh schooling, a bleak, dank landscape; and a sense of permanent cold and a savage hunger even for dreadful food.
All of this was suddenly changed for the sub-continent's jumble of conflicting sights and sounds and smells: the vital, stinking, hot, noisy, crowded streets; the calm, quiet grace of moghul architecture; the ancient Hindu kingdoms reduced to stones amid the roots of trees; the monumental Victorian buildings that echoed British power; the attitudes of the Raj; the self-conscious majesty and pomp. The British, the author notes, lived on but not in India.
"Our rules for living were not their rules," he writes in this wry, affectionate reflection on a childhood spent between two continents, two civilizations, two versions of history.
ground by accommodating and friendly spirits. There was, though, something jarring on first acquaintance about the intensity of the effort made by these scarecrows and skeletons to keep themselves alive secured by such slender ropes of faith and hope. I found the twisted faces, scorched eyes, spittle-flecked mouths, reaching gnarled hands, put too much strain on my ignorance and timidity. I was afraid of them. In this mood we fled, feeling unclean just through proximity, and hurried to our swim
energetic soldier and loyal booster of British interests, who saw the advantage of the town’s position and imprinted commercial enterprise, Victorian amplitude and bourgeois respectability on the old town-plan, adding broad tree-lined streets, substantial houses for business, a factory or two, and a wide circular promenade around the walls. This walk was lined with the villas and the gardens of men grown prosperous in the affairs of the East India Company. The military cantonment tacked on by the
than on argument. The prices were not high. Most of the discussion centred on how many sittings would be needed. He would rather not be rushed – he had old-world standards of commitment. It was the task of the wife to keep young sitters quiet by reading them stories. My mother was drawn towards this couple, feeling their isolation in a tough world and admiring their dogged determination to make the best of their resources. The portraits, though pleasantly done and lifelike, were hardly more than
now the whole school – the few boys and the fewer staff – sensed a tailing down, approaching a rick in the smooth flow of England’s destiny. Dwindling band though we were, Mr Mitchell did his best to leave us undismayed. He spoke much of ‘us’, meaning the whole history of the British in India. He would not demean the ‘natives’ – certainly not, excellent people – but in all honesty what was there in the Nilgiris before ‘we’ came? The pastoral, tattooed Todas with their buffalo-haunted rituals, or
finger-bowl, deep glossy black with a gold interior. Sami, the bearer, had changed from his working day-clothes into full formal dress – long white tunic with a broad cummerbund in the regimental colours, pugree and stiff white turban again showing the regimental colours. The house-boy – the chokra – carried the trays of food a dozen paces from the little outside kitchen (no more than a hut on blocks with a cooker fashioned from two cubes that had been kerosene cans) to the small back verandah.