Ian Jack – At Home on the Hooghly

India isn’t the most obvious place to start thinking about Britain, but it was in India in the late 1970s that I first properly began to consider the country I came from. Distance, of course, is a famous supplier of perspective and freedom – often writing about places and people becomes possible only when a writer has left them, or when, by dying, they leave the writer. But in India’s case, there was more to it than that. True, I was a long way from Britain in the most significant ways – miles, climate, culture – but I was also perpetually reminded of how it had once been, either in my childhood or within the lifetime of my parents. A tiny example. All through the night from a barsati flat in Defence Colony, South Delhi, I would hear steam locomotives puffing and whistling as they hauled freight trains round the loop line. That sound had vanished from Britain by the mid-1960s. Despite the presence of much more foreign noises – the tap of the chowkidar’s stick, the howl of stray dogs – I was instantly taken back to the nights twenty years before when steam trains would rattle my bedroom window as they hauled coal or fish or sleeping passengers (tucked up in bunks) only a few hundred yards from our house in Scotland. The different rhythms of their exhausts – slow and laboured, fast and smooth – told them apart.

At school in those years we didn’t learn much about India. I knew more about the origins of the Franco-Prussian war than I did about Robert Clive, and much, much more about Stuart kings than about Nehru or Gandhi. It was perhaps too awkward a subject to teach: the British Empire was fast becoming history, but it hadn’t quite become it. What attitudes could a teacher take? Good thing, bad thing, mixture of both?  In 1959, formal education decided it was too early to find out. The little I knew about India came from a few objects that we inherited from my grandmother: a few black ornaments that were called ‘Lucknow pottery’, a small stuffed crocodile (a gharial, I think) said to have been shot in the Ganges, a leather-bound book in Persian script that my great-grandfather had been awarded for his skills in Hindustani. He’d been a sergeant major with the Royal Artillery in India; my grandmother was born in the cantonment at Meerut and went to school in Murree. Those late-nineteenth century generations were informed about India in a way mine wasn’t. My father, inspired by his mother, longed to see India and for that reason signed on as a junior engineer with the British India Steam Navigation Company, only to discover that he sailed on the Australia run and never got closer than Colombo. Still, his ship had an Indian crew and Indian cooks and my father could remember imperatives in Hindi and frequently ate mutton curry – alone, the rest of us didn’t touch it – which my mother made with a fierce brown powder from a tin kept on one of the kitchen’s upper shelves.

Eventually, school long past, I got some enlightenment from books about India (by the usual suspects: Kipling, Forster, Naipaul), but they gave me very little sense of how intimately the two countries had until so recently been connected by industry and trade.  Dundee, a nearby city, owed its living to the mills that wove jute from Bengal. Glasgow, where I went to live, had handsome villas built from the profits of the tea business and whole townships that had grown up around factories building river steamers for the Brahmaputra and steam locomotives for every line between Quetta and Chittagong (including the prototypes for the class I heard at night on the Delhi loop). Until I began to travel in India, I’d never thought to consider how much Britain owed the country – not just in terms of raising armies or giving young public schoolboys the chance to become administrators, but in providing jobs and wages for Britain’s industrial working-class, to which my parents and further ancestors belonged.

The reverse – what Britain gave India – is usually seen in terms of governance and language, but there is (or was) an industrial bequest too, which in the mills and chawls of Bombay and the Hoogli replicated many aspects of the factory towns of north Britain. My eyes were opened by such places, and memories revived.  This accounts for the fact that my book, The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain, includes reports from Bengal and Bihar as well as from places that the title might lead you to expect. Here is how I reacted in 1989 after a slow journey along the Ganges from Patna to Calcutta:

‘Sometimes as I travelled that winter and spring it seemed that these might be the last places on earth which preserved the old industrial civilisation of Britain, people as well scenes, manners as well as objects, frozen in the Victorian economy of the lower Ganges. Sometimes it even seemed, particularly in a place such as Serampur at dusk, that I had come home; or if not home, then to some tropical version of the time and country that my Scottish parents and grandparents knew, as if I might turn a corner of a Serampur lane and meet them dressed in dhotis and saris. That was absurd. But among the mill chimneys and the steamboats and the hissing locomotives this waking dream persisted, like a tribal memory.’

India has changed utterly since then. No steam engines hiss, and I doubt if many mill chimneys still smoke. Travellers from Britain are more likely to see visions of the future than the past.

 After working on a weekly newspaper in Scotland in the 1960s, Ian Jack worked from 1970 to 1986 at the Sunday Times as a reporter, editor, feature writer and foreign correspondent. He was a co-founder of the Independent on Sunday in 1989 and edited the paper from 1991 to 1995. Having been editor since 1995, he left Granta in 2007 and now writes regularly for the Guardian. He is the author of two books of non-fiction – Before the Oil Ran Out: Britian 1977-86 (1987) and The Crash That Stopped Britain (2001). The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain is published in January, 2011 and is priced at Rs. 399.

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