Never having had any connection with India
I didn't know what an expatriate was until in September 1959, having
hitchhiked overland from England, I was ushered into the presence of a senior
one in a shipping office in Calcutta. His name had been given to me by a nurse I
met by the Sea of Galilee and since all three of us were Scots, the clan network
was invoked. In those days, being good Calvinists, Scotsmen abroad cultivated
masochism by wearing ties and jackets in Calcutta's sweltering heat.
Preferring to wear shorts and shirtsleeves I was viewed from day one as a failed
Scot. The expat gave me 200 rupees and said, "Buy a jacket." I did—but
only 20 years later when I revisited the UK (in winter.) I bought a blazer from
Winky's in Mussoorie in 1972 and last wore it at the launch of Arundhati
Roy's God of Small Things held in the Delhi Oberoi against the backdrop
of a lotus pond. (Wot! no hyacinth?)
The expat bastion in Calcutta was the Swimming Club where preserving the culture
of Albion appeared to rest largely on the conspicuous consumption of fish and
chips. An exceedingly plump missionary lady in a swimming costume that stretched
the bounds of feasibility, complained that labourers swarming over the bamboo
scaffolding on the adjacent High Court building were peering down at her ample
bulk. With the scorched pink of her roasting thighs, perhaps they were checking
out whether she was a buoy marking the deep end?
Disappearing for the next two decades into a Himalayan hair shirt, the only
expats I encountered were as odd and outlandish as myself. Ronald Bougham was a
Buddhist with shares in a butcher's firm. Michael Maskew was a defrocked
Yorkshire monk of a French order located deep in the Sahara. Sorensen (Sunyata
Baba) had a dog that spoke to him in silence. Yogi George (with an anti-Papal
fixation) would offer monkeys raiding his garden a radish in the hope that
better manners would prevail next time. The scholarly ex-Austrian Lama
Govinda's better half was a fire-eating Parsi lady whose voice was a cure for
constipation. And all these could be found on Cranks Ridge, at just one end of
Every hill station has its assortment of oddball characters and moving to
Mussoorie I found in Ruskin Bond's Maplewood Lodge a summer visitor in Sir
Edmund Gibson who, like Jack Gibson, was eccentric by expat standards for
feeling fully at home in India.
Expats like Sir Mark Tully, Gillian Wright and Toby Sinclair I find to be more
Indian than British-born P.I.O.'s with Cockney twang or Clydeside glottal
stop. The only occasion I had dealings with the British High Commission was
when, on becoming a naturalised Indian citizen, I was required to renounce my
British citizenship. The UK response, (impressive in an age of shrinking gunboat
fleets), was the equivalent of "Sorry chum, you can't." Anyone born in
Britain of British parents stays British irrespective of his personal choices or
Baroness Thatcher's shrill opinions. Which only goes to show that suitless and
bootless, you can still enjoy the best of both worlds.
This article originally appeared in Delhi City Limits, November 30,
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