A biography always becomes a soliloquy, but I suppose I should give it a go.
I was born in Southern India, in an old British Army cantonment town called Bangalore. The city was once home to the 70th Division which formed the basis of the enlarged Chindit force* in 1944. These days it’s more famous as a messy metropolis. But growing up, it was all exotic, wonderful stuff, with lingering traces of imperial India, replete with handsomely-crafted Asiatic bungalows with sprawling tropical gardens at front, small cottages for the hired help at the rear and with a wide network of slender, leafy lanes holding these old neighborhoods together.
That is now nearly all gone now. Gaudy high-rises have replaced baroque and colonial-era architecture. Progress has displaced quiet tranquility, and so-called modernity has taken a toll on the city’s Anglo-Saxon atmosphere. Like the wholesale replacement of the charming native foliage with Australian Wattle and Eucalyptus (once deemed superior, now invasive), something has been lost in the transformation. I suspect this is the case in many of the far eastern cities of that era, with the arguable exception of those in Sri Lanka and Malaysia.
St. Mark’s Cathedral, circa 1930. This was where many of the Chindits attended mass, and there is documentary evidence that they held a ceremony here in February 1945, to pray for their comrades killed in Burma. I visited the cathedral in 2012, to find out more, but found that the church had staff had no idea what I was talking about and seemed oblivious as to whether the church even had an archive. Yes, welcome to modern India.
Less than half a mile away is St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church where Major Bernard Fergusson, the famed Chindit column (and later Brigade) commander, delivered sermons and became known for his rousing oratory. The steeples of the Church can just be seen in this image, beyond the green area which was the Central Parade Ground. By the way, the church has escaped the ravages of time and still looks good.
Exasperated with the changes, a large segment of the remaining British population which had stayed-on, four long decades after Indian independence, finally quit. As the 1980s moved towards the 1990s, many moved to Australia. When a government regulation prevented them from selling their homes — on the dicey argument that they had appropriated the land from the natives to begin with — most decamped with little more than their baggage, leaving their beloved bungalows and sprawling estates to their servants and hired help, who became overnight poster folk for the nouveau riche.
(Left) The palace largely remains the same. (Right) The old market area of the city. Undoubtedly named by an imperial bureaucrat devoid of imagination, this road, Commercial Street, still looks largely the same, although I’m pretty sure there is a McDonald’s on it now.
Others stayed on, clinging to a fast-vanishing way of life. I existed in this pocket of antiquity. Not a bad thing, really. After all, a beautiful place is a like a beautiful woman. One can’t help but falling in love despite the faults. But there are limits and deliverance was close at hand. Much of my upbringing had been distinctively British — a proper Jesuit-Catholic private school for most of the younger years with British or Anglo-Indian teachers who spoke a nasal, Oxford-accented English that would have been mine (God help me) had I had not been wrenched from that society.
My father’s company had transferred him (and by extension, me) to the United States. The ironic thing is that we departed Bangalore, that fading Imperial jewel once known as the “Garden City,” for Garden City, New York, with its towering pines, oaks, maples, rose bushes and wonderful, outlandish, knee-high snow every Christmas. Nothing new for people born in northern climates, but for a 11-year-old kid who had never been in the cold before, well…
Up until the moment of my arrival in New York, Manhattan, skyscrapers and pizzas, were obtuse concepts I had only found in books. I didn’t know much about the United States, except that Ronald Reagan had been president, that Michael Jackson had been pretty good, that the Russians had been pretty bad and that the US Armed Forces were gearing up to invade a couple of places called Iraq and Kuwait. Once in New York, I found myself in the midst of this wild, compelling mix of races and accents. Magic.
(Left) The house on Locust Street, Garden City, where I grew up. By the way, just across the street was the elementary school which the actor Telly Savalas (of “Kojak” fame) had attended as a child.
Places have a distinct smell which is especially apparent to a newcomer and New York, to me, smelled like Dunkin’ Donuts and coffee. I went to my new school with trepidation. My new American classmates of suburbia found me quaint — especially when I stood up to address the teacher as was standard practice in Jesuit instruction. Later on, in high school, Baseball became another hurdle and so did the bizarre harassment of all freshmen by seniors in the locker room. In Catholic school it had been us against the teachers, those despised, half-witted martinets. In New York, it became us against our own, the seniors.
I can’t tell you how many fist-fights were narrowly avoided between us outnumbered greenhorns and spoiled, Porsche-driving upperclassmen. It seemed as though every time we went into the locker room, we had to hold our ground. Finally, a year-long animosity between one particularly boorish upperclassman and I reached a boiling point. A fellow freshman (a long blonde-haired kid, a skateboarder who dressed counter-culture like Kurt Cobain) who was so irate at our treatment, took off his heavy leather belt, handed it to me and raged that I should use it like a horsewhip, with the buckle out. We were all terrifically heroic and mature — or so we thought. But when the bells rang, summoning us to class, we departed the locker room sheepishly, having inflicted our worst — nicks and bruises. I can laugh about it now, but it was deadly serious then, in our juvenile world, a tinderbox of hormones, bewilderment and machismo.
In due time, everyone’s tempers were put to rest. Respect was won. I, after began playing Baseball without a mitt. Most players couldn’t believe I could catch the ball without a glove. They hadn’t known that I had been weaned on Cricket which involves a heavier ball and no gloves. Still, I wanted out and after a series of protests with the coaches, transferred to Tennis and Basketball, which had distinctly better company.
In time my jarring surprise at the New World faded and I had become an American by the end of High School. At around this time, however, my father had been posted back to India and I went with him again — although, in retrospect, I probably should’ve stayed on and gone to college in New York. In India, I joined a local university with a once famous name (although like everything else, it had deteriorated) to major in computers — which was a complete fiasco.
With hindsight, it is clear that the education system in India remains largely a product of its society — a society, which having been reborn from colonial servitude, remains culturally fragmented and philosophically confused, opting for conventionality over enlightenment. There was a rigid convention for marriage, a convention for the way a child is brought up and a convention for the way in which it is educated. In this way, a person’s life, if born into a conservative family as most are can be, is regimented along a rigid guide, from education, to the kind of job he or she should get, to the kind of person her or she marries, to the kind of life he or she is expected to live after retirement.
Room for the individual in such a setting is scant. But even as western academics and politicians rail about how India and China and are producing more scientists, engineers and doctors per annum than the United States and Europe and how this bodes ill for western youth, reality shows that this dire prognosis in unwarranted. After all, innovation is impossible without imagination or the individual. (Of course, there are exceptions, such as Japan and South Korea. And of course, creativity erupts once Asians are placed in free societies.)
In any case, the archaic system in India left me deeply unhappy and I dropped out. Bitter and convinced that I would remain a college outcast for the rest of my life, I drifted, like some nascent adolescent who had no idea what to do with his life.
At a design firm, I worked on digital art, finishing a major educational resource site for the Malaysian government before quitting, still unsure of what I was really meant to do. Abruptly, as the options seemed to vanish, salvation appeared again. Although a persistent slacker when it came to High School English, I began to find satisfaction in writing. Added to this, I began to travel, exploring the unfamiliar country of my birth, getting as far as the Himalayas and those hauntingly beautiful peaks which drum home the insignificance of man. (To this day, Brad Pitt’s Seven Years in Tibet takes me back, and I can taste another world). In these ways, I found my center again.
Two years later, I returned to the United States, this time to Texas, for college. After graduating in 2007 in English and Communications, I set about indulging in a series of middling tasks, although this period did witness copious amounts of writing, and only time will tell if any of it is of value.
Texas, as with any new place on this earth, was fascinating — anthropologically. In my experience, every place has its share of the special, the ordinary, and the foul. The polite, bible-reared gentry of the south is no exception. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting not only — as James Cagney would put it, the dirtiest, “yellow-bellied rats,” but also the finest examples of humanity. What I can really tell you about Texas is that the old west is truly dead and gone. But traces linger. Certainly, my long years there left me appreciative of the Texas mindset and the work ethic. There are things to be admired.
Although I called Texas home, that chapter has folded for now, and anyway I’ll probably go back one day. But the immediate future beckons. I should now stop and refrain from elaborating about anything — lest my hubris at destiny pays me a poor hand. ♣
*Note — The Chindits were a force of British, West African, Burmese and Gurkha troops created by the eccentric British army officer, Charles Orde Wingate, to conduct a guerrilla war against strong Japanese forces in Burma during the Second World War. Their success, following American victory in far-away Guadalcanal, were the first Allied triumphs in the war against Japan — coming at a time when the Japanese seemed truly invincible.
For more information on some of those men, check my post: The Chindits – In Art