Monday, Sep 22, 2014

From the Discomfort Zone: Colonial baggage

A ticket to revisit India after 67 years was a birthday gift his son gave Paul. A ticket to revisit India after 67 years was a birthday gift his son gave Paul.
Written by Shombit Sengupta | Posted: June 8, 2014 12:40 am

An 86-year-old Englishman sitting adjacent to me on our flight to London last week, turned to me and said, “You are lucky you can travel with me today.” Seeing the perplexed expression on my face, he hurriedly elaborated, “In my younger days when I was living in Calcutta, you could never have done this, I would never have had occasion to meet you.”

Conversing with Paul Winslow on that flight opened up a whole new angle of our colonial past. “I’m not a racist, but racism was ingrained as a natural element in the coloniser’s mind.  It’s our colonial baggage,” he openly declared. He wistfully spoke about Calcutta then; the city was more British and a familiar home to him, much more than any city in England has been for him since. “Through the Second World War years, we were safe here. I could never believe we will not permanently stay in India.” He was 19 when they left Kolkata in 1947.

Paul’s father was working in a British multinational bank established in Kolkata, India’s most active port due to the prolific British Empire trade the East India Company carried out. He was a covenanted employee, meaning an Englishmen of a certain class who would come from England on contract to occupy a senior position and who was provided accommodation in a British community. Such colonies all over India hired hundreds of Indian servants to keep the parks and lawns free from weeds. These clubs had amenities for playing polo, tennis, golf and other games, Anglo-Indians and Indians were certainly not allowed in, and English women were barred from entering the bar and smoking room.

The senior expatriates were given large bungalows with expansive gardens in cantonments for those who came to join military service. Civil Lines were for important government officers and others who occupied positions critical to British domination of the country. Individual British families were served by Indian domestic help over whom they always maintained a social distance and superior attitude as was normal and customary then. So in his social interactions, Paul never did deal with brown-skinned people because Indians were barred from places he would frequent such as social clubs. Even during his travels, he’d use the compartments reserved for Anglo-Saxons only, so his exposure to the real India was minimal. He spoke about it all to me in a very candid way, not to provoke me in any way, just to explain how he lived.

A ticket to revisit India after 67 years was a birthday gift his son gave Paul. He was shocked to experience the non-British Kolkata, so full of so many people he could never have imagined before. Clubs he’d swung many a tennis stroke in were no longer an Englishman’s preserve, continued…

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