Words and images from home and away
An expeditious trip to India in February for a symposium and launch of Welsh missionaries and British imperialism in Shillong in Meghalaya, and some seminars in Delhi. I hadn’t been to Delhi previously, knowing it only vaguely from the pages of Dalrymple (though I have just started reading City of Djinns since I returned). I can’t pretend to be able to make sense of it, or of them—the two Delhis, both the old city and the new of Lutyens. In Delhi, writes Dalrymple, ‘Different millenia co-existed side by side. Minds set in different ages walked the same pavements, drank the same water, returned to the same dust’. Mine was a much more fleeting city, my generally uninformed curiosity mixed with a healthy dash of chance and serendipity. Lots of snatched images flashed past my vision, out of car windows, from rickshaws, walking along pavements, and I felt a bit like the character on the train in Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings, trying to cohere fragmentary vignettes (‘An Odeon went past, a cooling tower /And someone running up to bowl…’). We stumbled off the plane and into the hotel room some time after 4am. On the wall above the bed was a large framed print of the Salt Lake Tsomognalari in Pangkong, Western Tibet, from the Schlagintweit’s 1861 Atlas, published after their scientific mission to India and High Asia. My mind was already making connections—as it happens, in the book I reproduce another plate from this work, a cane suspension bridge over a river in the Khasi Hills, and then just three days later we would see one of these extraordinary living root bridges in situ at Mawlynnong.
So my mental map of Delhi is from a frantic few hours of being driven around, glimpsing the 1930 column marking the Commonwealth connection between Australia and India outside the Government Ministries building on Rajpath, and India Gate on its grand processional boulevard. And as at Larkin’s Whitsun, it was an auspicious time for matrimony towards the end of the shaadi or wedding season, and ‘this frail / Travelling coincidence’ of white horses and wedding musicians wielding drums and euphoniums, their work over for the day, wearily returned home and added to the traffic’s cacophony and snarl.
At Humayan’s Tomb, guards wielding large sticks surveilled the conga lines of smiling school children on day outings. The scale of this sixteenth century garden mausoleum was impressive, but so was the intricate beauty of the glazed tilework and stone carving. We skirted the Red Fort, then ran the rickshaw gauntlet down Chandni Chowk.
Later at the Qutb Minar complex, which includes the first mosque in Delhi (built 1192) and the fourth century Iron Pillar from Bihar, an aeroplane snapped flying past the extraordinary fiver-storey minaret tower seemed to sum up those millenia existing side-by-side.
On the other side of our visit to the Khasi Hills, Jo Sharma (University of Toronto) and I put together a symposium at the India International Centre (Writing Histories of Empire, Northeast India, and Himalayan ‘Homes’) chaired by Basudev Chatterji (Chairman, Indian Council of Historical Research and Professor of Modern Indian History, Delhi University), and we jointly launched Welsh missionaries and Jo’s book Empire’s garden: Assam and the making of India. I also gave a seminar at the History Department at Delhi University (‘Treaty, tradition and statecraft: 19th century British imperialism and political order in the Khasi Hills’) and heard about some of the terrific postgraduate work being undertaken on the north-east, including Shilpi Rajpal (’Madness and Delinquency in Colonial North India, 1850-1947’), Anisha Bordoloi (missionaries in Assam), Santosh Hasnu (social and cultural history transport systems in Cachar), and Heeral Chhabra (schools for domiciled European children).
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