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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 April 2019

The end of Empire

Feature When India gained independence in 1947, a generation of Britons decided to stay on in the new nation.
The Maharaja Regent Sir Pertub Singh, right, with a British official in Jodhpur in 1921. Nostalgia for the Raj is still evident in modern-day India.
The Maharaja Regent Sir Pertub Singh, right, with a British official in Jodhpur in 1921. Nostalgia for the Raj is still evident in modern-day India.

On my frequent visits to India over the last 40 years, I have often wondered what happened to the Raj - a word used after the British left India in 1947 to stand for the British rule and its legacy. It did not just disappear. On my first visit in 1964 there was still a thriving British commercial community in Calcutta and British planters still dominated the tea gardens. Over the hill stations and former British clubs hung a mist of Raj nostalgia. All that has disappeared, except among enclaves of Anglo-Indians (descendants of a white father and Indian mother) who still yearn for Great Britain, a country they have probably never seen. But you need not look far to find the legacy of the Raj; the Indian heritage industry taps into it, the Indian armed forces keep alive its traditions, the Indian Christian churches sing its hymns, the wonderful Indo-British language still comes up with new words. Above all, there are still a few remarkable survivors living in India connecting the present with the past. They grew up in India, did not go home to Britain when India became independent in 1947, but lived the rest of their lives within the new nation. Now there are probably no more than 50 or so left (excluding Anglo-Indians) out of a population of 1.2 billion. For my book, After the Raj, I tracked down a dozen of them living throughout the country. Three of them, whose combined age amounted to 262, have passed away since I interviewed them. Indians call these men and women who never left the koi hais (meaning "anyone there?") and the women mems, short for memsahibs. A reference book, Hanklyn-Janklin, a dictionary of the Indo-British language written by Nigel Hankin, one of those who stayed on after 1947, says koi hai is "the call with which, in British days, masters were alleged to summon their servants. Hence 'an old koi hai' means a long-term European resident of India." The men and women I interviewed are all associated with the legacy of British rule. I met a boxwallah or two (businessmen), a tea planter, a missionary, a linguist, a tiger hunter and Indian Army officer, a taxidermist, three Anglo-Indians, the famous BBC Indian correspondent Sir Mark Tully, who has lived his life in India, and the manager of a once exclusive British club. Lastly, and fittingly, I met the founder of the British Association of Cemeteries in South Asia, which preserves the records of those who never left, and whose remains are buried in India.

The Wrights of Tollygunge - The Last Imperialists The last time I met Bob Wright OBE was in 2004 over breakfast at the famous Tollygunge Club in Kolkata where he lived. I waited for him in the Shamiana (an Urdu word meaning a sort of luxury canopy for outdoor functions) and watched golfers on the 18th green. Around me were the new nabobs of Kolkata, wealthy Bengali and Marwari businessmen and their wives. As Bob entered with his Labrador dog Becky, still every inch a burra sahib (Urdu for "great master" as used by servants), conversation fell silent. Men rose to their feet. "Good morning, Bob!"

He took it in his stride. "Do sit down," he said, inspecting the room. I half expected a salute. There was something imperious about Bob and he revelled in it. He boasted that the only public figure who did not come to visit him - and new deputy high commissioners to Kolkata would always call to pay their respects - was his dentist because he could not carry his equipment. Wright was regarded by the British community in Kolkata as the last of the koi hais. The Hindustani Times once said he was the "most influential figure in Calcutta after Mother Teresa". In March 2005, his faithful Becky died and he passed away a few weeks later. Fifteen hundred mourners followed the funeral cortège from the Tollygunge to the crematorium, aware that with the death of "Raja Wright" the era of post independence British Calcutta had finally ended. Bob was born in India in 1924 and his future wife, Anne Layard, went out to India from Hampshire in 1930, when she was one. They met in Calcutta soon after the war and married in 1950. Although Anne Wright is one of the very few remaining stayers-on with an Indian passport, she is a daughter of the upper-crust Raj. On her father's side, the Layards, service in the colonies goes back for two centuries. One of Anne's first memories is of standing with her young sister and governess at the side of the Kings Way (now Rajpath) in New Delhi, all wearing large white topis (sun hats), and watching her father as Deputy Commissioner process past with the Viceroy Lord Willingdon in 1934. It must have seemed a marriage made in heaven when Bob and Anne fell in love, but according to Anne her family did not approve. "Bob was a boxwallah, you see, and we were used to mixing in different social circles. Calcutta with the boxwallahs was not really the place to be." It was one of the greatest ironies of the Raj that its most prosperous city, based on commerce, looked down on businessmen. For the next half-century Bob and Anne Wright were at the centre of the expatriate community of Calcutta, which numbered around 4,000 at the beginning and a dozen or so at the very end. Latterly, much of Bob's time was spent in the somewhat depressing business of repairing cemeteries, managing Anglo-Indian retirement homes and running the remains of the UK Citizens Association. Formerly, for 25 years, he was a boxwallah working his way up the prestigious managing agency of Andrew Yule. In fact, his first career covered the decline and death of the managing agencies that were the main institutional form of Raj commerce for well over half a century. The managing agencies dated from the 1880s and their function was straightforward. The boxwallahs who founded the jute and hemp mills, the coal mines and tea gardens rarely wanted to stay in India, so they returned home, set up head offices in London and employed agents to manage their companies for them in India. If the mills and tea gardens were remote in location and small in size, it made sense to share with other similar companies the infrastructure of accountants, solicitors and secretaries and base the paperwork in Calcutta where, in any event, the commodity was bound. Hence the agencies became commercial umbrellas with agreements to manage companies they might not necessarily own or even control. The grandest was Andrew Yule, which, when Bob joined, employed 60 or so British "covenanted" (contracted) assistants in its main office. It managed 10 jute mills, a paper mill, 40 tea gardens, two power stations and the largest group of coal mines in India. Until the 1960s, very few Indians were employed by the managing agencies. An exception was a brilliant Bengali accountant, RN Sen, who worked for Price Waterhouse. "In the British companies the ranking used to be as follows: British, other white people, Anglo-Indians and, lastly, Indians," he wrote. "But the British had one great quality. They knew they were ignorant and therefore would allow themselves to be led by a few capable people." Presumably that is why he was invited to be a partner in 1952. The invitation came at a lunch in the snooty Bengal Club where "we ate separately in an anteroom" because Indians were still barred from membership. "Indianisation", of course, was inevitable. Calcutta finally rejected the boxwallahs. A combination of nationalisation, taxation and trade unionism forced them out in the late 1960s. The two significant dates were the dreaded "6/6/66", when the devaluation of the rupee against the sterling reduced the exchange rate by one third, and 1969, when the Indian Companies Act abolished the managing agencies altogether. Here the story of the Wrights may have ended; another middle-aged couple of burra-sahibs retired with their wealth to Hampshire for hunting and a part-time job in the city. In fact, the era of Raja Wright of Tollygunge was about to begin. He was asked to rescue the Tollygunge Club from the hangover of the Raj - even in 1970, Indians were not allowed to become members and wives were only "permanent guests" - and turn it into the exclusive country club it is today. This he did, circumventing bureaucracy and socialist politics by taking the law into his own hands and arguing the case later, in person, at the highest level: effective in India if you can do it. Anne Wright played little part in this. When I asked her, tactlessly, how she felt "living above the shop" (on the second floor of the club house) she put me down: "No, I didn't do that. I had little to do with running the Tollygunge." She and her daughter Belinda had found a new vocation in wildlife preservation. She became a founder of Project Tiger, a government-backed scheme to protect India's tiger population, and a founder trustee of the World Wide Fund for Nature. She and Bob set up their own wildlife resort on the edge of Khana National Park in the centre of India. They called it Kipling Camp and in it the characters of The Jungle Book may be spotted: Rikki Tikki Tavi the mongoose, Baloo the friendly bear and the majestic tiger Shere Khan. Anne now lives in Delhi when she is at home. Seemingly as youthful and tomboyish as ever, she divides her time between her horse stud at Tikli Bottom and Kipling Camp. I asked her if life was better in the time of the Raj but she was reluctant to be drawn. After a pause she said: "I'll tell you in a nutshell. India was a better place because there were fewer people."

Colonel "Papa" Wakefield - The Last Tiger Hunter It is the eve of Colonel John "Papa" Wakefield's 91st birthday. He is in his customary chair on the veranda of the Viceroy's Hunting Lodge at Kabini near Mysore. Although he is seated with his walking stick in hand, he has an unmistakable military appearance: a toothbrush moustache once popular among army officers, a camouflage jacket and khaki trousers. He has the manner to go with it, somewhat peremptory to his Indian bearers and used to giving orders. As a big game hunter who served 14 years in the Indian Army, Colonel Wakefield looks like a relic of the Raj. Appearances are deceptive. "Papa" is adamant that he is Indian. He was born in Bihar. He has always had an Indian passport and his employers have nearly all been Indian. Only recently did he sign another five-year contract with Jungle Lodges and Resorts, 100 per cent owned by the Government of Karnataka, as "brand ambassador". He has not returned to England since 1932, and his second wife was the widow of a maharaja. Were it not for his name, he added, noone these days would even raise the subject. The truth is that Wakefield's universal name now is "Papa". He is the elderly patriarch to whom further questions of identity do not apply. The Raj ended in the last millennium and to the Indian families staying at Kabini Lodge the question of whether the old man who knows the surrounding jungle like the back of his hand is British or Indian probably never occurs. John Felix Wakefield was born on March 21 1916 at Gaya in the state of Bihar, where his father was the general manager of the Tikari estate. From childhood, he looked at wildlife down the barrel of a gun. His father organised tiger shoots for the British guests of the maharaja and took his son along. On one hunt, when a tiger charged at them headlong, seven-year-old John announced precociously, "Don't be afraid, I am here!" I asked him about his first kill: "My father was standing behind me when I shot my first tiger at the age of nine. What happened was that we needed to keep a big male tiger so that it could be shot by Sir Henry Wheeler, the governor of Bihar, but a female tiger with cubs was attracting him. So my father shot the female and that meant the cubs had to go too, although the one I shot was three-quarter grown. The only thing my father taught me about shooting was to squeeze the trigger, after that it was all co-ordination and speed of reaction. At that age, even I was probably a better shot than he was." As was customary, John was sent to England for his education. At 25, he was runner-up for the Ashburton Shield in the schools shooting championship at Bisley. When he returned home in 1932, he was sent to manage a maharaja's estate at Tajpur below the Kumaon Hills north of Delhi. For the next 40 years, with the exception of his career as an Indian Army officer (1941-1954) and an unsuccessful job in public relations in Calcutta (1954-1964) he made tracking wildlife his profession, shooting tigers his speciality. At least 1,000 tigers were shot annually throughout the 1930s, Fifties and Sixties. "Papa", for one, was without sentiment. What was the point of tiger hunting? I asked him. "Originally, pride," he said. "I shot my first 10, then I shot my first 20. I didn't feel guilty about taking life in those days. Now, you feel, there's been a change." I asked him to describe one memorable kill. "In Tajpur, we were in a valley following a river and as we came up to the head of a valley we saw a tiger walking down the path towards us. I was on the lead elephant so I levelled the gun, took a shot and hit the tiger right up its tailbone. This paralysed its back legs but it still came charging at us, roaring and screaming, dragging its back legs along the ground. The elephant began to panic. It began to shake. I had only one shot in the barrel. That would have to be the death shot. Luckily, the chap on the elephant behind shot the tiger and it dropped two yards from my feet. I couldn't light a cigarette for a few minutes after that. "In those days one didn't worry about the tiger, just oneself. I never had any attachment to a tiger but plenty to elephants." When John left Calcutta in 1964, he returned to Tajpur and formed the Kumaon Hunters Safari Company, one of the first groups in India since the Raj to organise hunting safaris. They were primarily for rich Americans who were charged $2,000 (Dh7,346) for a 15-day shoot, but otherwise the hunting was much the same as 30 years earlier. The tricks were the same too: "In the old days a big tiger had to be at least 11 feet in length for a VIP shoot," Wakefield said, "so we had a tape measure made with 11 inches in a foot. Sometimes we would go as far as making the tiger an opium addict. The tiger would always start eating from the buttocks of a bait, so we would get opium, make a paste of it and put it on the buttocks. After the third buffalo the tiger would become addicted and would only eat buffalo that was tied up because then it would get more opium." John's life changed in 1972. A census revealed the shocking fact that only 1,800 tigers were to be found in the whole of India. This discovery became a belated call to action that started with the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. Overnight, the tiger became an endangered and strictly protected species. John, the last of the shikaris (huntsmen), needed another career. He found one as a pioneer of wildlife tourism, swapping his gun for a camera. For nearly the last 40 years he has been a TV consultant, guide and director of wildlife parks in the Kashmir, Nepal and now Karnataka. Kabini Lodge recently won the award for Best Maintained Eco-Friendly Tourist Project. Papa's change of heart makes me wonder. Some years ago, a leopard appeared from nowhere and padded up to where Colonel Wakefield was sitting outside the Viceroy's Lodge. It stopped about 10 metres away, took a long hard look, and then padded away again. Was it making sure that "Papa" had changed his spots?

Hugh Purcell is the author of After the Raj: the Last Stayers-On and the Legacy of British India, published by The History Press.

Updated: August 28, 2008 04:00 AM

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