Brighton and the Alps

‘PIERRE’ IS A FRIEND of my father.  He and his American wife Bobbie lived on the outskirts of Paris with their lively intelligent children. I went to stay with them over Christmas when I was about 16. After a rough crossing of the English Channel and a long train journey, I arrived at the station near where they lived. Pierre met me there and whilst driving me home told me that he had a high temperature. He disappeared leaving me at the front door, where the family’s unruly dog wrapped his jaws around one of my wrists.

Bobbie greeted me, and then took me into the kitchen. I was tired and completely unprepared for what I was to experience. The work surfaces in Bobbie’s kitchen were higher than my shoulders. I felt as if I had shrunk. I wondered whether the rough sea voyage had affected me in some strange way. But this was not the case. Bobbie, who was tall, explained to me that she had had the kitchen constructed in such a way that she would not need to bend her back whilst working in it. My hands could hardly reach the work surfaces, but her energetic children had no difficulty; they climbed up onto them and ran along them with great agility. As Bobbie showed me around the rest of the house, we passed a bedroom where Pierre was shivering feverishly in bed under his sheets and blankets. I wondered whether he was going to be fit enough to embark on the trip to the French Alps that we were supposed to be making on the next day.

On the day after I arrived, Pierre was still extremely unwell. A doctor visited him that morning and gave him some medicine. At 3 pm that late December day, we decided to set off on our more than 400-mile journey. The journey began badly. After driving a few miles along an autoroute, Pierre realised that we were on the wrong motorway. We drove in reverse at hair-raising speed back along the way we had come until we reached the motorway junction where we had chosen the incorrect road, and then we joined the correct highway. At about midnight, we stopped for dinner at a motorway restaurant near to Bourg-en-Bresse. Then, we drove upwards into the Alps.

After passing through Albertville at about 2 am, we drew near to our destination Méribel-les-Allues. Then, we lost our way. The place to which we were heading was one of several settlements that made up the locality known as Méribel. By now, Pierre, who was driving and still unwell, was becoming exhausted. He and Bobbie began arguing. The children were fast asleep. As we drove around aimlessly along the dark winding snow lined alpine roads, I realised that we were going around in circles. However, I did not want to risk my hosts’ ire by suggesting this. After a little thought, I volunteered as tactfully as possible:

I believe that when we go around this bend, we will pass the Hotel de La Poste again.”

And, sure enough, we did. My hosts realised that we were in fact going around and around the same roads, and soon after that, we reached our destination at last. It was a holiday colony owned by the ministry for which Pierre worked.

I was accommodated in a dormitory for young men and my friends shared a family room. The place where we were staying was for the exclusive use of employees of the ministry and their close families. So, soon after I arrived, some of the others in my dormitory asked me why I spoke English rather than French and also why the woman with whom I dined and spent time spoke ‘American’.  Atypically for me, I rapidly improvised an answer that seemed to satisfy them. I told them that Bobbie was my aunt from Canada and that she spoke both French and ‘American’.

Some years later, Bobbie came to visit us in my parents’ home in London. It was a hot summer’s evening. She was expected to join us for dinner at a particular time but arrived about an hour and a half late. When my mother went to open the front door for her, we all heard a long sigh and then we could hear Bobbie asking whether she could use my parents’ bedroom before joining us. When she arrived at the table, she presented my mother with a gift from Paris. It was a box of instant soup powder. The sachet containing the powder had been torn open.  Bobbie explained that she had opened it to check whether it contained exactly what she wanted to give us. Then, she apologised to my mother for losing the other gift that she had brought for her.

She told us that to avoid injuring her bad back by carrying heavy baggage she had worn all of the clothes that she was going to need for her short stay in England, wearing layer upon layer. While she was travelling on the Underground to reach our home, she had begun to feel unbearably hot. So, she un-wrapped my mother’s other present, a bottle of perfume spray with a bulb for pumping it. At this point I must tell you that, at the time, London was the target of many IRA bombs, and the public had been told to be vigilant. So, when the passengers sitting near to Bobbie saw what looked a bit like a hand grenade, the squeezable bulb attached to the perfume bottle, they moved away from her. She told us that seeing this, she panicked and threw the perfume spray away from her, and it had broken on the floor.

After dinner that evening, she and I set off in a car, which she had been lent. It belonged to a man whom she had asked us to invite for dinner with her that evening. He drove us to where he lived in London and left us his car. Then, Bobbie began driving the two of us towards Brighton, where the rest of her family were staying in a borrowed house. As soon as we got onto the motorway just south of London, we were engulfed in dense fog. It was then that Bobbie admitted that she was wearing the wrong glasses for driving. It was after midnight and I had not yet learnt to drive. So, I was unable to take over the driving. She asked me to keep an eye out for the line on the left side of the carriageway, and to tell her whenever we began to stray from it. Fortunately, when we reached Brighton, the fog had lifted, and we arrived at our destination intact.

I have lost touch with Bobbie and her family, whose identity I hope has been disguised adequately, but I still remember them fondly and should they recognise themselves, I hope that they will not mind me relating these memories of the many good times I enjoyed with them.

Umbrella of memory

BUILT BETWEEN 1787 AND 1820, BRIGHTON PAVILION looks less like a hospital than most other buildings. Yet, during the First World War (‘WW1’), this decorative seaside retreat for British royalty was converted into a hospital to treat Indian troops. They had been wounded whilst fighting for the for the British Empire in the battlefields of Flanders. On the 14th of December 1914, the Pavilion was opened as a hospital with 724 beds. According to George Morton-Jack in his book “The Indian Army on the Western Front”, 14,185 wounded Indian troops were brought to Brighton on six “state-of-the-art” hospital ships. They were treated in the Pavilion and other hospitals specially established for the Indian wounded in Brighton and elsewhere. Over 2,300 Indians were treated in the converted Pavilion.

BLOG

The Chattri

A few of the Indians did not survive their injuries. Of those treated at the Pavilion, 18 died, 10 of whom were cremated. Those who died, were given last rites according to their religious beliefs. Moslem corpses were buried in a purpose-built cemetery near the Shah Jehan Mosque at Woking (in Surrey). This mosque was completed in 1889 to the design of Gottlieb William Leitner (1840-1899), an orientalist of Hungarian Jewish heritage. The Hindus and Sikhs who succumbed to their injuries in the hospitals in Brighton were cremated on traditional funeral pyres. Between the 31st of December 1914 and the 30th of December 1915, 53 Sikh and Hindu soldiers were cremated at a specially demarcated spot on Holt Hill (near Patcham) in the South Downs, 500 feet above sea-level and then their ashes were scattered in the sea according to their rites.

Years ago, we used to meet the late General Misra (of the Indian Army) once a year for dinner when he came from India to the UK on his annual visits. He was a jovial gentleman, who seemed to enjoy life. All that we knew about his visits was that during them, he used to make a trip to Sussex to pay his respects to those Indian soldiers who had died during WW1. Apart from knowing him as a pleasant dining companion, we knew nothing else about him apart from the fact that he was related to some close friends of ours. We were not sure exactly why he used to go to Sussex in particular. Also, we were then unaware that our affable old friend had had a formidable military career.

During WW2, the General was attached to the 6th Rajputana Rifle regiment. A report (https://opus.lib.uts.edu.au/bitstream/10453/28086/4/MANIS002.txt) written during the British Indian campaign against the Japanese in Burma noted:

“Expediting the Jap withdrawl from the TENGNOOPAL Ridge and converting his retreat into a rout, the capture of a prominent hill to the east of Sibong, know(n) as Battle Hill, by a battalion of the 6th. Rajputana Rifles enabled us to have a grand-stand view of the retreating Japa on their LOC. The Rajputs singing and shouting made merry here as they sent MAG bursts on the jap LOC. In this battle and from the attack on Lone Tree Hill near Shenam, the Rajrifs [sic] have been commanded by Lt. Col. Dinesh Chandra Misra of Agra and a graduate of the Indian Military Academy.”

On the 5th of October 1944, the London Gazette announced that the then Captain (temporary Major) Misra had been awarded the prestigious Military Cross for his services in Burma. His distinguished military career (with the British before Indian independence) is summarised on the Imperial War Museum website (https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80017253):

“Indian cadet at Indian Military College, Dehra Dum, India, 1933-1935; officer attached to North Staffordshire Regiment in India, 1935-1936; served with 5th Bn Rajputan Rifles in India and Hong Kong, 1937-1941; served with British Army Aid Group Indian Section, China, 1942-1943, served with Rajputan Rifles in India and Burma 1943-1944; student attended Staff College at Camberley, GB, 1944-1945.”

From what my wife and I remember of this affable general, he never mentioned his brave exploits or even hinted at them.

Recently, a friend posted a photograph of a monument that he runs past whilst taking exercise on the South Downs near Hove. This small structure, which looks Indian in design, is what General Misra used to visit on his annual trips to the UK. A few days ago, we visited our friends in Hove and after eating a delicious lunch with them, we drove up on to the Downs near Patcham and walked through a field of well-fed grazing cows to reach a small enclosure containing the Chattri and a monument listing the names of the Hindu and Sikh soldiers who were cremated at this place during WW1.

‘Chattri’ is the Hindustani and Punjabi word for ‘umbrella’. The monument on Holt Hill consists of a small white marble dome supported on eight pillars made of the same material. This stone Chattri stands on a podium with stairs leading up to it from a lower platform on which there are three low granite slabs. The three granite slabs cover the spots where originally there had been three concrete slabs on which the funeral pyres were built and then ignited according to religious tradition. The ‘umbrella’ or ‘chattri’ symbolises, according to a plaque nearby, “the protection offered to the memory of the dead”.

Funded partly by the India Office and Brighton Borough Council, the monument was unveiled by the Prince of Wales in 1921. It was built to the designs of EC Henriques (died 1940, aged 51) a young Indian architect from Bombay. His work was supervised by Sir Samuel Swinton Jacob (1841-1917), an expert in the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture. I have eaten dinner at one of Jacob’s other buildings: Bikaner House, a palace he designed in Mount Abu (Rajasthan), constructed in 1893. Built as a summer palace for a maharajah of Bikaner, it is now a hotel. In January 2020, we ate a poor-quality meal there. We and the other diners sat dressed in padded jackets because the dining room was unheated, and the outside temperature was close to freezing point.

The bases of the eight columns of the Chattri interested me because they bear the same decorative motif seen on the bases of pillars in Hindu temples constructed well before the era of Moslem invasions of India began. The early mosques built in the 15th century in Gujarat (e.g. in Ahmedabad and Champaner), which borrow many structural features of Hindu temples, also contain pillars whose bases are decorated with the same motif seen on the Chattri. The same is true of the capitals of the pillars that support the dome of the Chattri. Also, the domes in those ancient Hindu temples and mediaeval mosques are always supported on eight pillars arranged in an octagon, as is the case at the Chattri.  In brief, the small but elegant Chattri, which looks a little incongruous in West Sussex, would look very much at home in many parts of India.

The Chattri stands high on the South Downs in a pleasingly landscaped garden. It overlooks the surrounding hills and the ribbon of coastal towns including Brighton and Hove, and beyond them the sea. Part of the monument complex is a more recently (2010) erected concrete wall on which are carved the names of the 53 Hindu and Sikh men who were cremated at this spot, as well as their ranks and regiments.

To reach the Chattri, we walked along a path through a field in which cattle were grazing. As I looked at the cows, I thought that most of the Indian men whose lives ended in Brighton and were cremated on the Downs must have often walked amongst cattle in India before they left it to fight in Flanders  for the Empire, which did their fellow countrymen few favours.

During our brief visit to the Chattri, there were a couple of families relaxing around it. Their children were playing cheerfully around the pillars and on its steps, blissfully unaware of what it represented. This did not bother us. We felt that their joy would have been appreciated by the men who sacrificed their lives for the future of families such as these and many others. The wide horizons, the lovely landscape, and the fresh air enveloping the monument, gave the place and its surroundings a special, maybe spiritual, atmosphere, a feeling of the continuum of life and beyond. Who knows, but any of us at the Chattri might possibly be reincarnations of some of the soldiers cremated there.

POSTSCRIPT: INDIAN SOLDIERS ON THE WESTERN FRONT

Many Indian soldiers fought for the British because they believed, or hoped, that by supporting the Empire in its struggle for survival, India would gain at least some autonomy, if not a generous dose of self-rule. In the last years of WW1, even the pacifist Mahatma Gandhi roamed around India encouraging Indians to enrol to fight for the British. Joseph Lelyveld wrote of Gandhi in his book “Great Soul. Mahatma Gandhi and his Struggle with India”:

“He implores wives to send their husbands to sacrifice themselves on behalf of the empire, blithely promising, ‘They will be yours in the next incarnation.’ Fighting for the empire, he now argues, is ‘the straightest way to swaraj’”

The Indian soldiers fought for the empire. Some were killed, others injured, but India did not reach swaraj (i.e. self-government) at the end of WW1. Remember, less than a year after the Great War ended, soldiers commanded by a British general killed at least 379 and wounded over 1000 unarmed Indian civilians in Amritsar in the Punjab, the district of India that supplied many troops to the Western Front and other battlefields. Even Winston Churchill, no lover of India, was genuinely outraged by the horrific nature of this murderous event.

India would have to endure many upheavals and another world war before independence was won.