The British departure from India at the time of independence was nowhere near as sudden as the handover of power. Many British citizens chose to stay on—there were 28,000 of them in 1951, and still 6,500 in 1971. They did not own large tracts of lands, as ‘settlers’ did in other former British colonies. They stayed largely because they could imagine no other life but the one in India. One of the interviewees in this enjoyable and touching book admits that he stayed on for a lifestyle that allowed him to go through life without ever learning “how to boil an egg or make a cup of tea”. These stayers-on are often caricatured as retired civil servants living in the hills, and surviving, precariously, on diminishing pensions. In fact, many of them were working men, some with families, employed in plantations or, as boxwallahs, in a range of commercial activities for big companies. Some of them were recruited from the UK to work in India after independence. The date at which things fell apart for them was not August 15, 1947, but June 6, 1966, when the devaluation of the rupee dramatically reduced many of their incomes. According to Hugh Purcell, “the date is still remembered apocalyptically as 6/6/66, when many stayers-on decided to call it a day”.
Purcell set out to track down and interview some of the last surviving stayers-on—in the hope of understanding the legacy of British rule. He had few people to choose from, because they are almost all dead. He therefore had to dilute his criteria by including Anglo-Indians, as well as people recruited to India from Britain after independence—and in the case of Mark Tully, someone who left India as teenager and returned in the 1960s as a BBC correspondent. Several of the stayers-on have died since Purcell interviewed them. Some are familiar and eccentric figures—such as Bob Wright, who ran Calcutta’s Tollygunge club for many years and died in 2005, and Nigel Hankin, the reclusive lexicographer and Delhi tour guide, who died in 2007. Others like Kitty Texeira, an illiterate Anglo-Indian living in McCluskiegunj, and Joubert van Ingen, a Mysore-based Anglo-Dutch taxidermist in his nineties, are less well-known.
The book is full of amusing anecdotes—many date from before independence—but there is not, unfortunately, much insight into the legacy of British rule. Purcell recognises this in his honest introduction: “One or two [stayers-on] came out with the cliche about ‘at least we gave India a language, cricket and the railway’. Only Mark Tully gave me a considered answer.” Others complain about how things have got worse, and have a nostalgic view of British rule—though they tend not to defend its obvious excesses. Part of the problem is that the stayers-on may, in fact, be the last people that Purcell should have asked about the legacy. So long as there are people alive with adult memories of British rule, it is hard to have an impartial discussion on the issue. Purcell might have been wise to seek the views of other groups about the British legacy. Why not ask younger Brits who have moved to India for work; or Indians who have returned home after living in Britain?
Instead, we get a potted history of the tea industry, of boxwallahs, of Anglo-Indians, of the popularity in India of old British furniture. It’s all readable—despite being full of minor errors, including a misspelt ‘legacy’ on the title page.
It’s also all rather sad. Purcell begins and ends the book with an example of just how prickly the relationship can get. He led a group of British visitors to northern India in 2007 on a tour to mark the 150th anniversary of what the British still refer to as the Mutiny. After some misunderstandings, there were demonstrations against the visit. Protesters in Agra shouted ‘angrez hatao’, in Lucknow they were pelted with plastic bottles and cow dung. A VHP member demanded that the visitors be “hanged from a tree, and the bodies put on the first plane out of India”. In his concluding paragraphs, he argues, “Many Indians obviously want no part in our shared history...those of us who remember the British Empire, even if they are not of the White Man’s Burden mentality, must respect the point of view and sensibilities of others by keeping our ‘nostalgia’ to ourselves.”
(Sam Miller is the author of Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity [Penguin])