My Father in India

They didn’t talk about it.

It wasn’t as bad as the First World War, when men who had nervous breakdowns were frequently shot for cowardice, but the men of the generation who fought in the Second World War were still reluctant to talk about the hardships they had faced and the horrors they had seen.

When my father did talk to me about it, and it was very rare that he would, it was generally to joke about the fun that he’d had on leave, or, after my first visit to India, to ask about places that he remembered from Delhi.

He had seen fighting in Burma, and stayed in India right up to the time of Partition. He certainly wasn’t going to talk about either of those. When pushed, he’d clam up about Burma, and would only say that what he’d seen in India at the time of Partition was horrible.

bullock cart

I daresay he told me one or two things that I have forgotten; things that didn’t mean much to me at the time. Perhaps he told me where he had been when he was on leave and was photographed rowing a boat on a lake in the hills; almost certainly in the North of India. Nainital, perhaps? I have been there myself, now, and I’m not certain. If he had told me before I’d been out there, the name would have meant nothing to me, and so I wouldn’t have remembered it.

And by then it was too late to ask him, because he died before I returned for my second visit.

dad 1

Once he had returned to England, he never went back to India, and I certainly never had the impression that he wanted to. I guess that the bad memories must have outweighed the good ones.

I have a dictionary that he bought in Delhi, stamped inside the cover ‘Cambridge Book Depot, New Delhi’ with the price scribbled in pencil; Rs 3/12, and his signature. I also had some old Indian coins, once, that he had given me, but I’m not sure where they are now. Other than the photographs, I’m not aware that he brought anything else back. Certainly, there were never any ‘curios’. Although a part of me wonders whether there might have been once, and whether my mother, a staunch Christian, might have thrown them out after they married. But that is pure conjecture.

hill station 4

And he was interested enough to read books on India’s history. I was surprised, occasionally, on the depth of his knowledge on the subject. He was, though, always interested in history, so I suppose that I shouldn’t have been really, and if he hadn’t have been born working class, I daresay that he might have had a university education, because he excelled at school.

Most of the photos are in fairly poor condition, although I have attempted to improve a couple of the ones that were particularly bad.

It seems strange to think of soldiers as tourists, but whilst they were on leave in India, that is, of course, exactly what they were. There are one or two photos in his collection that were taken of places I have been. One of them is of a view inside the Red Fort of Delhi that differs only in the size of the tree in the picture from one that I took in 1989.

He must have stood in exactly the same spot to take that picture, some 45 years before.

What does this small slice of family history mean for me?

mainstreet poona

It does mean that there is a slight family connection to India, if not in the way that usually comes to mind. He had no family there, and had no responsibilities beyond his army duties, but just the fact of his living out there for a number of years, gives me this connection. Or so I like to think of it.

In the end, India wove its magic over me – nothing much to do with Dad, I suppose, although I expect that was in the mix somewhere. I think that part of why I may have gone out there the first time, was to follow in his footsteps. And now my family can say that they have a connection to India through the time that I have spent out there as well.

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58 thoughts on “My Father in India

  1. Lovely to know so much of your dad. No wonder you have an unknown connection, maybe it would be for your future generations too. Sad your dad didn’t want to talk more about his stay in India. Hope he had a memorable stay. Happy weekend. 👍🏼

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        1. Unfortunately, all I can do is search around in my memory and look at the photos. But I think that’s probably enough; I probably have the feel for what he thought about India, I think (if that makes any sense!).

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  2. Now that, was fascinating. I love it. You write in a more emotional style than I can and you are showing another side… slightly more upsetting one, whereas my Grandfather just loved his time there. ( although he did have nightmares from WW1 until the day he died) The photographs are great. I think it does get into your bones….
    My father being younger seems it from a different perspective again…
    Hope to see more of your pictures and read more of your memories
    Brilliant stuff

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    1. Thank you. Yes, emotional…I actually felt a little weepy writing this; thinking a lot about my Dad, I guess. I think he did get to like India, but the violence at the time of Partition he found ghastly, although anyone would, of course. I will put a few other photos up at some point. Looking forward to seeing more of yours, too.

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  3. Many Englishmen have connections with India. I grew up in Nainital…
    The Partition is a touchy subject. The British Government should never have sent Lord Wavell back to England, and brought Lord Mountbatten into India

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    1. Thanks for commenting, Rajiv. Yes, I agree with you. I think it was a mistake. I feel that they had reached the point where they just wanted to be rid of India, and although some of those concerned wanted to do the right thing by India, others weren’t particularly concerned. Although whether, in the end, they could have convinced the majority of Moslems that their future lay in a united India, I do rather doubt. And Jinnah, of course, was determined that Partition should happen.
      Far cleverer people than me don’t know the answer!
      On the subject of Nainital, though, I don’t think my Dad’s pictures of the lake here could be at Nainital. Do you think it possible?

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      1. Well, I don’t think Jinnah alone is to be blamed for Pakistan. From the Indian side, I think Nehru should shoulder more of the blame.
        I will have to look at the picture again. Let me see

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          1. Well, we glorify Nehru and Gandhi.. We hate Jinnah. We too need to shed the old ghosts and rediscover our soul. We also need to discover some of the fascinating Englishmen who have given much to India

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            1. I know that there are quite a few. I always feel that it is a little difficult, as an Englishman myself, to comment on these things. I even feel it is rather cheeky of me to put up some of these posts. But I am constantly amazed at how much genuine good feeling there is between India and Britain despite their shared history, and I know that I am generally treated very warmly and kindly when I am in India.
              As for your first point, every country has areas of their past that can be painful to examine. But doing so is a sign of both maturity and bravery. Thank you very much for your comments, Rajiv.

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  4. I loved this post. I wonder why your dad didn’t want to talk about it much though. Was there bloodshed? Is it why?
    And the fact that you have some of these photos, it’s truly amazing. I’m glad you’ve kept them. Speaks of a past and somehow of a future. How surreal is it that you’ve been to the same places he has been. I love that.

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    1. Many of those who fought in Burma in WWII wouldn’t talk about it afterwards – there were a lot of ghastly things happening there. Nowadays we would think of it as a form of Post Traumatic Stress. The same at the time of Partition in India.
      It is surreal that we stood at the same spot, though. I never realised it, of course, until I found the photograph that he had taken and compared it with my own.

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      1. Yes. I can’t even imagine what some of the stuff they saw and witnessed must have been like. Wow. Don’t blame them for not wanting to talk about it. But atleast there will always be a little part of India in you. Now i got to understand more of your vast interest in that part of the world. So thank you for sharing, through your eyes…

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  5. Mick! It’s always nice to read your post, may be it’s your words.
    This one seems to be a connection based on your emotions. lovely pictures specially the one with your Dad in a boat in nainital lake and one with traffic police. while the reasons may vary but a large number of Britishers chose to stay in India after colonial years were over. most of them preferred hill stations, weather must be top of their mind or may be sylvain environment! Ruskin bond a great writer is the best example, I’m sure you must have heard about him.
    Keep writing …we’re waiting! 🙂

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    1. Thanks, Arv. I’ll do my best!
      I’m sure that the reason most of them chose the hill stations was the climate. In 2004 I was in Bihar for 6 weeks, from Mid-february until early April, when I just had to head up to Darjeeling, since the heat was simply becoming too much for me. I’m sure I would struggle to stay there all year round, although I know that you do get used to it. I did, after all, live in Oman for 3 years, even if I did spend much of my time in air-conditioned buildings.

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      1. Yes Mick! All the hill stations like Shimla, Darjeeling, Mussoorie etc were developed as summer getaway for British administrators as the heat became too oppressive for them to survive. Adjusting to heat is quite subjective, some people do get used to it and some don’t, inspite of spending many years. North India is certainly faces extreme climate with temperature ranging from 3-4 degrees to 47 degrees.

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        1. LMF – well the RAF still judge people on that now….still very old school.
          their connection with Cambodia about the time of the genocide was…” interesting” at best and
          ” frankly shameful “at worst

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      1. I don’t know that it caused him ongoing pain, but he did have a noticeable limp, and one leg had noticeably less muscle tissue remaining. I can’t say if there were any mental issues – back in the day manly men didn’t talk about it and we kids knew not to ask. I suspect current vets don’t like to dwell on the ugliness of war either.

        Maybe that’s one reason why some of the newer generations historically have seen glory in it – they don’t appreciate the real price, or just don’t think it could happen to them.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. That may be true. I suppose that there has always been an element of ‘glory’ in war, all the way throughout history. And it is in the interests of the establishment to promote that, of course. Then, as you say, ‘real men’ just get on with it and don’t complain. There will be lots of reasons why those that have been through war prefer to keep quiet, and it would need more than just the space available here to disect them. Thanks for sharing that, Dave.

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    1. Yes, harrowing pictures by any standards. The experience must have been unimaginably terrible for anyone caught up in it. Even having to observe what happened, and being pretty well powerless to do anything about it must have been awful. Thanks for the link. By total coincidence, a novel I was reading last night had some descriptions of the women forcibly taken and converted/abducted/assaulted/killed by both sides at the time – millions of them. A dreadful time.

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  6. My grandfather was in the Pacific during the war – he was offshore when they dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, and took photos when they went ashore a couple of days after. He was also part of the liberation force for the POW camps in Singapore and Japan – he never ever spoke of it. He only ever told funny stories about going to sumo wrestling fights, or meeting angry spiders. He also came home with a set of china and the silk for my grandmothers wedding dress. When my mother went to Singapore a few years ago, she visited Changi to honour his memory.
    It’s interesting that you feel a link to India because of your fathers experience there – in some ways I feel the same about Asia.

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  7. Rahul

    Quite a few of my friends’ grandparents have experienced the trauma of partition – having to leave behind everything that you called home, forever and face untold horrors on the way to a new beginning.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Untold horrors is about right. There is a lot written about it, but so much more left unsaid. I cannot even begin to imagine how terrible it must have been for so many people. The thing I cannot understand at all, even now, is how people can behave in the way that they did towards each other – often to people who had been their neighbours for years. There is something dark and horrible beneath the surface in us humans.

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  8. It was interesting to hear about your dad’s time in India, Mick. Somehow, I was particularly touched by your comment that his photograph and yours of the inside the Red Fort of Delhi differs only in the size of the tree. It’s funny to think of you both standing in the same spot and looking at the same tree at different stages in its life.

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  9. Pingback: The Past is a Foreign Country; We Did Remarkably Similar Things There – Mick Canning

    1. Strange, yet…not so? Looking at the few photos I have from his time in India, I was surprised how one of his army chums is a dead ringer for someone I worked with in Oman. What if it was his father? These things do happen!

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