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Charles Allen’s days in India

He loved nothing better than to immerse himself in India’s “muddy waters, getting her dust between my toes.”

Charles Robin Allen, born in India in the industrial city of Kanpur on January 2, 1940 and was a popular British freelance writer and popular historian from London. Both his parents were too born in India and his numerous works focus on the British Raj. Charles Allen had travelled throughout the length and breadth of India documenting its rich historical facts and authoring some 20 odd books until his demise in August 2020.

In his last book, Coromandel: A personal History of South India, he regales a very fond memory of his childhood days when he had the opportunity of visiting the jungles of North East India in Assam mounted on the back of an elephant his ‘topi’ or a hat which was quintessential for any white child to protect from the scorching sun fell down and the elephant retrieved it and handed it to him with his trunk.

His various volumes consist of Lives of Indian Princess, A soldier of the Company, Maharajas, in the search of Shangri La, Introduction to Rudyard Kippling and his bestseller Ashoka: the Search for India’s Lost Emperor. In 1974, for a BBC radio series he even spoke to the last British administrators in India which was later published as a book in 1975. Plain Tales from the Raj is allows the British to speak for themselves and recounting their experiences in the Sub Continent. Charles rather opines that the British Raj was own welfare seeking exercise and throwing its weight all over. He also recounts about how people gambled with their own selves, cross-culture experiences and fusions of whose consequences are borne till date.

The radio and book showcased how just by interrogating an average British family one could find so many clues with India, their experiences both happy and not so happy irrespective of their age, occupation, the place where they were stationed in India. The various stories and events, their day to day interactions with locals, and many more incidents clearly showcase how these events helped in shaping their lives.

The chapter 21 gives a chunk of British life style set in Indian atmosphere and of people child or elder (chhota and Burra) the ladies- wives and daughters commonly addressed as Memsabibs, the sepahis or the army men and other civil servicemen working in different regions of India. It also gave a vivid description of how the British learnt different attributes such as managing households with the help of local servants replicating English homes and so much creating a home away from home in the hills to escape the scorching rays of the sun in the plains. But also he leaves a note about how the British must have felt when they finally had to leave India and forsake all the luxuries that were availed and the servants present at their beck and call?

Allen very nostalgically reminisces of childhood spent in India – the bright sunlight, the luxuries of spacious houses, having different pets and people to take care of them, and of course a sense of superiority that every white skinned person enjoyed. The excitement of mounting on ponies and not prams, sleeping under mosquito nets, a snake killed in the bathroom, small pox stricken nanny. The inseparable part of every British child brought up in India is of the Ayahs who were the gateway for contact with India.

The train journeys which were a pleasure for children, which otherwise thought cumbersome for the adults. Spike Milligan, a writer and humorist remembers with fondness as the “golden experience” when compared with England where life is gloomy, dull and grey.

By the end of the 19th century men who served the empire and the very well known families in India were the Rivetts, Carnacs, Maynes, Ogilvies, Birdwoods, Napiers, Lawrences. The Maynes for that matter came in India in the 1760s and had people serving in different locations like Darjeeling, Allahabad, Saurashtra, Meerut, Bangalore Akola and Lucknow.

Allen also talks of how the tea planters in the region of Assam grew tea and as far as going against all odds up to the very furious Bhramaputra River also taming a bear to ward off any intruders on the tea estate. Apart from British there were even many Scots who served as civil servants or were engineers and planters.

He admits that the last of the young who were in India must have been difficult to accept that independence is soon to come and for many the memories of India were so deep rooted that it moved even into their systems and difficult to expel.