Chronicle of an extraordinary life
Providing one such account of a childhood in the Raj’s waning years is journalist and author Brigid Keenan.
Known for her witty and colourful accounts of sojourns in foreign climes ranging from Barbados to Kazakhstan with her diplomat husband (“Diplomatic Baggage” and “Packing Up”), Keenan here turns deals with her early life, as she notes that she has “never felt completely at home in my homeland, England” with “deep down there’s always a tinge of anxiety, almost guilt: a feeling that I don’t really fit in...”
The reason, she admits citing the Jesuit saying – ‘Give me a child until the age of seven and I will make him mine forever’s – why she doesn’t feel home in England “is obviously because I belong to India where I lived until I was eight-years-old”.
Born in Ambala (1939), Keenan describes her life with her family (which itself had deep roots in India) in India (save a small stint in Britain in 1945) till 1948. As her father (born in Bangalore himself) was an army officer (in the Dogra Regiment), it meant a nomadic life across the cantonment towns – Kasauli, Jabalpur, in Kashmir, Nathia Gali (near Murree), Wah (where they lived in tents), Secundrabad and others before going ‘home’.
Though she paints a nostalgic picture of her ordered – but also exotic – childhood, but along with the colourful memories, there are also some unwholesome recollections, especially of the frenzied bloodbath in the run-up to independence - and partition, even if she only came to know of them second-hand.
Keenan recounts the traumatic scenes witnessed by her father, posted to the Punjab Boundary Force which was tasked with maintaining peace in the bloodthirsty province moving towards division but was markedly inadequate for its responsibility (its members termed it and themselves ‘Poor Bloody Fools’). Then they had to contend with criminal duplicity at high levels.
In one piquant episode, her father burst into a Sikh ruler’s place with a drawn pistol to confront the ruler who misled the authorities and sent a party of emigrants – to their deaths – by moving them on a road other than that agreed and guarded. It was only the ruler’s earnest pleadings of his helplessness that saved his life.
But Keenan, who has also penned an authoritative travelogue on Kashmir and a guide to old Damascus, does not confine her latest work to her life in the last days of the Raj, but also in the next two decades too, and especially her determination to make her mark in the world after one day she came from school earlier and overheard her mother describe her as “desperately plain”.
In her endearing, witty and gently self-deprecating way, she also provides a most engrossing, and comparative, account of those watershed decades, especially “the Swinging Sixties”, and “all the profound social, sexual, gender, medical, religious and technological changes” that altered the world beyond recognition.
Participating in all this in her own way was Keenan, who became a fashion correspondent and saw some revolutionary changes in the field including trousers for women, the birth of the miniskirt, and more. There is also a hilarious – in hindsight – part about her abortive bid to become a war correspondent during a visit to, then South Vietnam.
A candid, incisive and valuable portrait of an era that is just a few decades back but might be centuries old given the radical shift in mores and norms, this will be an interesting read for anyone who wants to know what has changed and how much – and which was for good and which not.