Tuesday, Nov 29, 2022

Speakeasy: As He Saw It

Robert Baden-Powell’s accounts of his life in India are marked by a blistering honesty.

Robert Baden-Powell Passage to India: Robert Baden-Powell.

The colonial period generated a fantastic spectrum of literature on India in English. At one end are accounts of the madness of Thomas Coryate, who walked to Agra from his native Somerset in the 17th century and is remembered by the English for introducing the fork to dining tables and inspiring the very English brolly, from his account of the prevalence of umbrellas in Italy. In India, he is remembered for developing the extraordinary habit of yelling imprecations from his rooftop every time the aazaan was cried out. It is surmised that he was spared the attentions of the Mughal justice system only because it was believed that the insane are touched by the almighty.

At the other end of the spectrum are accounts of colonial Calcutta, like those of Montague Massey and the imperialist journalist Valentine Chirol, who developed an enduring affection for the country. But one massive work, which falls in between and is generally overlooked, is that of Robert Baden-Powell. We remember him as the founder of the global scout movement, but his Indian Memories, published between Boy Scouts Beyond the Sea and My Adventures as a Spy, is a reminder that he was also a famed racounteur, and an artist whose illustrations were used for recruitment posters during World War I (the book contains 20 colour plates and innumerable line drawings). This was besides his extraordinary military career, crowned by his defence of Mafeking in the Second Boer War.

Baden-Powell dedicated Indian Memories (published in 1915 (it was delayed by the outbreak of World War I), to his mother, “who thought my letters worth keeping.” The 350-odd pages of the book are extracted from diaries and letters home, when Baden-Powell was a subaltern in India, an “ordinary silly young ass who was fond of dogs and horses…”

But it’s a thought-provoking journey through many postings in the subcontinent, in places where the past is almost indistinguishable from the present. Most dangerous was Kandahar, which Baden-Powell visited during the Second Anglo-Afghan War, where “all the officers and men went about armed, most officers carrying a hog-spear, some of them revolvers… Even when a man was going only ten yards from the barrack-room to get water from the stream he would carry a drawn bayonet in his hand.”

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The source of anxiety was Ghazis, “fanatics who were only too anxious to stick their knives into a European, as they believed that if they were killed in consequence of their act they would go straight to Heaven… When they propose to go to Heaven the Ghazis dress themselves in clean white clothes and refuse to take food or cut their hair until they have succeeded in killing an unbeliever. It is then best for them to get killed themselves before they have time to meet with temptation, and to commit further sins.”

Gallows stood outside the main gate, where Ghazis were hanged every few days, and Baden-Powell writes of a Ghazi who killed the sentry at the gate, walked to the guard room, threw his blood-stained knife on the table and demanded to be hanged. There’s also an account of a botched murder, followed by a botched hanging. A Ghazi failed to find a white victim and picked off an Asian camp follower instead, presuming him to be Christian like his masters. Before he was hanged, he was asked why he had killed a co-religionist, upon which he was horrified and demanded to be set free, because it was all a mistake. He was to be hanged nevertheless, with a Hindu who had murdered an Afghan woman. But the gallows collapsed under their weight before the sentence could be administered, and had to be rebuilt. And Baden-Powell found a “difference of character” — “the Afghan, though bleeding from a wound in the head incurred in the fall, started to work in helping to rebuild the gallows, while the Hindu cowered in misery awaiting his end.” There is, of course, more than one way to read this “difference”.

The signature of Baden-Powell’s accounts is the blistering honesty of a military man. He will tell you how Kashmiris were viewed by Kashmiris (not very favourably) as readily as he will confess to his admiration for the marksmanship of the Raja and Rani of Dholpur (the former shot coins flung in the air). He equally admired the retired Colonel Alexander Gardner who, at 94, “spoke English with some difficulty, having spent practically all his life in Afghanistan and northern India.” Indeed, he “became an Afghan and married under romantic circumstances.” And he recounts Gardner’s moving story of the sati of the wife of Raja Dhyan Singh of the Sikh army.


It is a pity that Baden-Powell’s writing is obscure in comparison to that of other Europeans, for it reminds us that the past was delightfully complicated. At a time of polarising politics, when black and white pictures of the past are much in demand, his accounts are a universal specific.

Pratik Kanjilal lectures a surprisingly tolerant public on far too many issues.

First published on: 04-11-2018 at 05:00:17 am
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