This post will continue the Indian theme of the last post. I have, since writing that, made a Twitter Bot which tweets a couplet from the first book of J.N. Mookerjee’s Epic poem about the Russo-Japanese War every ten minutes for 66 hours. If I can find the energy, I might programme it to do book two.
For now I discuss a very different book written about India: Two Monsoons by Theon Wilkinson.
It is a 1976 book focused on the graves and cemeteries of India. It will come as no surprise that I am very interested gravestones and graveyards, mostly for the fact they preserved often unknown but interesting stories. Epitaphs are inherently public but they also try to be personal. They also often last much longer than living memories of the dead. Writings on stone.
The term “two monsoons” comes from what they said was the average lifespan of a European in India. The whole impulse is uncomfortably colonial and this is only compounded by his complaints that under independence he was struck by “the appalling condition of many of the European cemeteries.” He alleged that their stones had been “removed for grinding curry powder – or even reappear[ed] as coffee-tables in the fashionable houses of Calcutta.” The trope that the country fell apart when the British left is a familiar and not very pleasant one. The writer of the book was forced by his observations to form an association of Friends of European Cemeteries in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
Nonetheless, this is still, in many ways, a very charming book. He collects the gravestones of a large number of those living in India since the 18th century. He does not only record the graves of the British nor of the Politicians. Some of the most interesting epitaphs, for instance, come from the Armenian community. One tomb reads:
My body was placed in this sepulchre of rest. I am a pilgrim and the son of Bektan
and my name is Malcolm. I am a native of Julfa and in my old age went on a
pilgrimage to Holy Jerusalem which was my fervent desire and ultimate object.
Died in Calcutta on the 9th Hamirah in the year of Our Lord, 1791.
Oh! Thou who mayst pass my tomb pray for me.
Another Armenian epitaph come on an oil painting above the grave ofPetrus Uscan de Coja Pogus who died in 1751. He is said to have given 100 pagodas to his surgeon to remove his heart after death. Then it was to be placed in a golden casket and taken back to Julfa, Persia. Wilkinson reports that there is a picture of his heart on the painting, on which is written:
My heart longs for home, where should I be unable to go, I desire
That when my last day comes, me heart be sent to my native land,
So that I, Petrus Uscan, may have a grave there.
Another one I particularly like, which makes the title of this blog, is the epitaph of an unnamed Salvation Army Worker in Palampur:
She has done her bit – what about you?
However, this book also has more in it that the printed text and this is why I got it.
In 1977 It was given to someone called Buster by someone called Janet:
Some time later it came into the possession of a Retired Lt. Col. called Eric Goodwin (unless of course Buster was a nickname he had):
In the front pages he has written a quite a long note inspired by the contents of the book. It is unclear whether it is a note to himself or what the purpose of it but it reads as if it is a note to the next owner of the book. Unfortunately, it is written in a very difficult hand to read. I attach the first two pages but there are additions and notes written on other pages. He writes as if his thoughts are spilling out across the available space in a haphazard way:
I will attempt to summarise what he writes.
He begins thus:
“Having, besides being born in Calcutta, served as an officer in the Indian Army, in the political Dept. and other […] appointments for over 37 years and have seen most of the Indian sub-continent, chiefly the North-West…” He then goes on to names the places in India he knew.
After giving a short history of himself, then, he launched into an anecdote about a time he was out shooting in Hardoi (he adds in a note that this is a place 60 miles from Lucknow where the Governor used to shoot duck).
He tells what happened on the shoot: “Whilst out shooting [I] came across a small cemetery in a large grove of trees at Bangarmau. It was surrounded by a small masonry wall, in which were the graves of Brigadier the Honourable Adrian Hope and others of the Highland Brigade.”
The Highland Brigade was part of the British army that put brutally down the “Indian Rebellion” in 1857. Hope himself, who Goodwin adds was “a red haired, blue eyed highlander” was part of the British attack on the Shah Najaf mosque. He died in April of the next year.
Goodwin then goes on to describe the events of 1857-8 but I find them hard to make out. The last sentence read “I saw that repairs had been done”.
I picked the book up from G. David’s bookshop in Cambridge, where a number of Goodwin’s books are still for sale. His writing feels particularly apt for this blog because it serves no obvious point. There is no obvious person it is made out to, Goodwin just seems to have wanted to write down the memory of a shooting trip and a cemetery that was sparked by his reading. Perhaps he wrote it for himself, perhaps for someone who would come after but, whatever his motivation, his small memory survives.