There is a wistfully romantic feeling of sentimentality that arises at finding your loved ones and ancestors buried in a land far away. To not know where, but to know that their graves exist continents apart, locating these cemeteries become an act of navigating one’s identity thousands of miles away through the dead. History is replete with displacement of people in war and colonialism. Thousands of cemeteries across the world hold graves of people from different nationalities such as the WWII graves of Indian sepoys in Florence.
Back home, be it the Gothic St. John’s Church in McLeod Ganj, Himachal Pradesh, adjoining which is the graveyard of British people who passed away in 1905, or the controversial Nicholson Christian (Brigadier General in the revolt of 1857) cemetery at Kashmere gate, Delhi, India holds the grave of hundreds of such British citizens and foreigners who played a role for better or for worse in India’s colonial past.
Initially, there was a lack of a watcher for the cemeteries holding graves of soldiers who died in wars other than the World Wars. For the British soldiers and civilians who died in the Indian subcontinent from the 17th-20th century, BACSA (British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia) came into existence to preserve, navigate and locate the graves of these lost but not forgotten British ancestors. Founded in October of 1976, the society is often described as the ‘liveliest society for the dead’.
The story goes that Theon Wilkinson back in 1976 was appalled at the conditions of the European graves he visited in South Asia. Even three decades after Britain's exit of India, he Wilkinson continued to receive a rather large correspondence from people who directly served as government employees in the Indian subcontinent and were enthusiastically willing to support the association to tell about their life in the East.
The birth of the bi-annual Chowkidar can be attributed to this demand. The journal would be a watchman of sorts to the graves of Europeans in the Indian subcontinent, documenting the lives of the many who remain alive in history and in memory.
Published twice a year for the past 40 years, Chowkidar provides a rather fresh perspective of looking at British citizens who served as soldiers, governors, administrators and their families, besides exploring their identities beyond that of colonisers. The journal archives their stories and in essence preserves their identities for those who seek it.
One such seeker, Edward Mitchell found his grandparents buried in different cemeteries in India—one in Pune's St Sepulchre Cemetery and the other in Bombay at the Sewri Christian Cemetery. His search for his ancestors became the subject of an issue of Chowkidar, which investigates and provides resolutions to many such inquiries. The journal provides an ‘ask me query’ section which opens up the archive of tombs in the Indian subcontinent. For 40 consecutive years BACSA and its journal has relentlessly reminisced and preserved the memory and graves of their loved ones.
Without such associations these graves and monuments of centuries of European descent would have eventually faded away into oblivion. So the next time you have an opportunity to visit a cemetery, don't give it up—you will find it replete with stories that speak louder than those alive.