Saturday, December 15, 2018

Racism and it’s 19th century martyr from South India -The story of Ratnavelu Chetti ICS -

Ever since the so called "modern civilization" started in the west, racism has raised its ugly hood in some form or the other. From the age of discoveries to the era of colonialism and even to the modern times, generations of human beings especially in Asia, Africa and the Americas have suffered much and have fallen victims to the most obnoxious  behaviour of the white skinned sapiens.

Apartheid signs in South Africa 1956

We have heard heart-rending stories from the victims of slavery, apartheid and various other forms of racial prejudices. While I don’t intend to discuss on the abominable practices of the past centuries, it may not be inappropriate to discuss on one particular incident from the place I now live. On most mornings during my walk, I see a monument and a plaque installed in the memory of one Pulicat Ratnavelu Chetti, the first native ICS officer of Madras Presidency who was a victim of racial discrimination during the 19th century British India.

In 1893, on 7th June, Mahatma Gandhi (Then just MK Gandhi, a young barrister) was evicted from a train in South Africa’s Pietermaritzburg station because the compartment he was in was reserved for “whites only”. This was a defining moment in the history of the world because the very pillars of the great British Empire in which the sun never set started trembling on that day.

Actor Nirvikar Bundhoo playing a 24-year-old M K Gandhi getting thrown out of a first-class train compartment at Pietermaritzburg railway station on the 125th Anniversary of the incident

12 years prior to the above incident, to be exact, on the 28th of September 1881, in India, in Palakkad a horrendous incident had happened in which Mr. Ratnavelu Chetti of the Indian Civil Service, who was the Head Assistant Collector and the Vice President of the Municipality of Palakkad committed suicide as he was greatly hurt ostensibly because of an incident of racial discrimination. Chetti was no ordinary official. He was the first native civil servant of Madras Presidency having been admitted to the ICS in 1876.

The Indian Civil Service (ICS), was the elite higher civil service in British India for the period between 1858 and 1947.

For the Imperial service, to all covenanted posts, only British officers were appointed till 1863 and these elite squad ruled over 300 million people of the Indian subcontinent. Satyendranath Tagore, elder brother of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore was the first Indian to be selected to the ICS in 1863. Hence, when Ratnavelu Chetti entered the ICS, there were only a handful of Indians in the higher echelons of revenue administration in British India.

Memorial to Pulicat Ratnavelu Chetti ICS at a junction near Palakkad Fort

The plaque installed in memory of Pulicat Ratnavelu Chetti

Pulicat Ratnavelu Chetti was born in 1856 as the eldest son of Pulicat Ramaswamy Chetti. After matriculation from the Madras University he attended the Balliol college of Oxford for his B.A. As a 17 year old, he was a student at Lincoln’s Inn on 26th May 1873 and was called to the bar on 17th November 1877.

On 28th July 1876, he commenced his service on being selected to the Indian Civil Service and was posted to the Madras Civil Service.

He arrived Salem on 24th December 1876 and joined as the Assistant to the Collector and District Magistrate, Salem on the 2nd of January 1877 and was Assistant Collector, Chingleput till 9th August 1878. He was Acting Sub-Collector Chingleput, from 25th July to 7th August 1879. Thereafter he was Acting Head Assistant Collector and Magistrate, North Arcot, from 9th August 1879. He was then posted as Assistant to the Collector and District Magistrate, Malabar on 2nd December 1879.  He served as Acting Special Assistant Collector, Malabar from 5th May 1880. Further he was Acting Inspector General of Registration, from 24th August to 28th September, and from 1st October to 4th November 1880. Then he was posted as Acting Head Assistant Collector, Malabar, from 13th November 1880 thereby completing service of 4 years, 8 days. He was posted at Palghat in the above capacity.

During the service, he had qualified in Tamil, Sanskrit, Canarese, Telugu and Malayalam. He was also drawing salary and allowances of Rs 802 rupees, a princely sum in those days. Assuming gold price to be Rs 13 per sovereign (as in early 20th century), the amount could well be equivalent to today’s salary of Rs 15 lakhs per month. And he was aged only 25.

Ratnavelu Chetti while serving as Head Assistant Collector and the Vice President of the Municipality of Palakkad committed suicide on 28th September 1881 at the rather tender age of 25 thus putting a stop to a very promising career. While there are different allusions to the reasons for his suicide, the following two stories have gained popularity.

1.        Local historians say that Ratnavelu Chetti, as Head Assistant Collector once organised a reception to the visiting Malabar Collector, a British ICS officer under whom he was working. During the function, Chetti welcomed the guest by shaking hands with the guest. It is reported that the senior officer with racial prejudices washed his hands in public on the stage itself in front of the invited guests and attendees as Chetti was black skinned. Chetti was deeply shocked and the humiliation shattered him and the consequent indignation and trauma led to his suicide on the same day at his official residence.

2.        Another blog by Mr.Balakrishnan read by me mentions as follows:

“The story behind this memorial was narrated to me by my late beloved father who was in charge of this Palakkad Division of Malabar District for some time.
In those days the Head Assistant Collector was the topmost Government official in the Division. There were many Europeans in Palakkad engaged in other activities than Government service. They had an English Club for recreation purpose.
Ratnavelu Chetti being the topmost Government official was invited to the club when the Britishers were celebrating the birthday of Queen Victoria, the Queen of the British Empire (1837-1901). Except Ratnavelu Chetti all others were white men and women.
After banquet and proposal of toast to the Queen, they were drinking together in honour of the Queen. They then started ballroom dancing in the large hall with wooden flooring. While the couples were dancing, Ratnavelu Chetti the only Indian present there sat watching them dance.
A white couple who were dancing gyrated towards the place where Ratnavelu was sitting. Then the white woman asked her partner” who is this crow among the swans” and moved away.
Ratnavelu Chetti abruptly got up and hastened to his bungalow. There he shot himself dead.
What was in his mind that made him to act like this? Nobody knew. He did not leave behind a suicide note. May be it was hatred, humiliation and helplessness. He was helpless before the mighty British Empire and the rulers. It was a time when they boasted, the sun never sets in the British Empire”.

As per my research, Mr. George McWatters, B.A. Barrister at law was the acting Collector and Magistrate of Malabar from 25th January 1881 succeeding the redoubtable William Logan. Logan, the proud Scott and historian as he was, would not have stooped to the level of an ordinary egoistic Officer, I presume.

Ratnavelu Chetti had a brother (3rd son of Pulicat Ramaswamy Chetti) who was at Downing, Cambridge in 1884. He was admitted to Inner Temple in November 1884 and was called to the bar in 1888.He did not practice in England and died in India in 1901.

Photograph shows Pulicat Narayanaswami Chetti (Brother of Ratnavelu Chetti) the second Indian student at Downing,Cambridge  who matriculated in 1884 and was admitted to the Inner Temple soon afterwards

Today, a Victorian pillar with five lamps, locally called “Anchuvilakku” is seen at a busy junction near the Palakkad Fort. It contains on its base a plaque mentioning about Ratnavelu Chetti on whose remembrance it was erected about 120 years back. It is in a state of neglect because the lamppost with electric bulbs glow rarely for want of uninterrupted power supply. In olden days it used to be lighted regularly by the local authorities using kerosene .

Recently a theatre group staged a play on the life of Ratnavelu Chetti to honour this victim of racism who had laid solid foundation for Palakkad to develop it as an important town in British Malabar


2)        Asylum Press Almanacs and compendium of intelligence 1876 to 1882
3)        Blog by A Balakrishnan:
4)        Blog “Palakkad Walks”:
5)        Press reports :
6)        Drama in you tube: Directed by Ravi Thykatt :                             
7)        Alumni Cantabrigienses: A Biographical List of All Known Students, Graduates ...edited by John Venn

Monday, December 10, 2018

The Big game hunting of the British Royals and the Tiger population in the Indian subcontinent

Today, I saw a BBC post in my Facebook page that referred to an article written by Niki Rust on 8th June 2016 on the increased tiger population of the country.

It stated that for the first time in over 100 years, tiger populations are rising thanks to the indigenous peoples of the country. The latest global census counted 3,890 tigers, compared to just 3,200 tigers in 2010 and more than half of these are in India. It is interesting to note that in 1900, estimates reveal that there were around 100,000 tigers in India alone. I looked up the details country-wise in Wikipedia and noticed that the present tiger population in Nepal was just 198.

The reason I took an interest in the tiger population in Nepal was because I had read that the Terai, a lowland region in southern Nepal lying south of the foothills of the Himalayas, had been home to great biodiversity with large tiger and rhino populations over centuries.

1911 King George V poses with Chandra Shamsher Jung Bahadur Rana, Prime Minister and Maharaja of Nepal next to a huge Bengal tiger he shot

One of the massive and barbaric hunting expeditions of all time happened in this area in 1911. After the Coronation of King George V as the Emperor of India at Delhi on 12th December 1911, he went on a massive hunting expedition in India and Nepal. His party slaughtered a total of 39 tigers, 18 rhinoceroses and 4 bears on that hunt along with other animals, in a ten-day expedition across in Terai region of Nepal. His party rode on elephants and the king reportedly killed four or five tigers a day. Photographs from such brutal pastimes of the royals remain standing testimony to the cruelties done by them and point to the crocodile tears of their descendants of the present times.

The attached photographs speak volumes about the extravaganza, barbarism and the brutality of the big game hunting expeditions of King George V in Terai in 1911.

1911 Hunting party on elephants fording Rapti river

1911 As they advanced on the back of elephants, 'the wounded tiger was presently found and despatched by His Majesty', records say

1911  King George V with the spoils of the shoot

1911 King George V with a Rhino he killed 

1911 The Maharaja spent months preparing for the King's visit, cutting roads for miles through the jungle 

1911 King George V with Chandra Shamsher Jung Bahadur Rana, Prime Minister and Maharaja of Nepal

While Prince Harry is praised for conservation work and Prince William has called for an end to the illegal killing of endangered wildlife their forefathers indeed had a different approach especially in the colonies forcibly occupied by them since the 17th century.

While there is a long tradition of royals across the globe hunting wild animals over centuries, the English royalty seems to have perfected the art of cruelty and destruction on a massive scale in the name of civilization, scriptures and religious sanctions.

Nepalese rulers over years had organised massive hunts to be on the right side of the British diplomacy for their own personal gains. In 1876, Jung Bahadur, the first Rana prime minister of Nepal, who had visited Great Britain and France in 1850 hosted Prince Albert Edward, the heir to the British throne. During the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, Jung Bahadur had personally led Nepali soldiers at Lucknow for relief of the British citizens. He was a great hunter of repute and many stories have reported that he had personally shot and killed over 500 tigers.

Jung Bahadur Rana, the first Rana prime minister of Nepal

1876 Jung Bahadur Rana of Nepal hosting Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) 

The last part of Prince Albert Edward’s India tour of seventeen-week was spent in the Terai where the sport was reportedly excellent and the Prince soon bagged the first of many more tigers, including a tigress pregnant with six cubs (Russell, William Howard, Sir. The Prince of Wales' Tour: A Diary in India). Reportedly, seven hundred elephants were employed in beating the jungle, and the Prince Albert shot no fewer than six tigers in one day.

Following is a quote from The Prince of Wales' Tour: A Diary in India by Sir William Howard Russel that was felt very interesting to me in view of the atrocities committed during the shoot.

“On the eve of the Price’s departure to India, on 10th October 1875, Dean Stanley preached an eloquent sermon in Westminster Abbey (the text taken from was Esther i., viii. 6), in which he expatiated on the journey "of the first Heir to the English Throne who has ever visited those distant regions, which the greatest of his ancestors, Alfred the Great, one thousand years ago, so ardently longed to explore." He concluded with an earnest prayer that the visit might leave behind it, on one side, "the remembrance, if so be, of graceful acts, kind words, English nobleness, Christian principle; and on the other, awaken in all concerned the sense of graver duties, wider sympathies, loftier purposes.”

Some other members of the royal family such as the Duke of Portland in 1884 and Prince Albert Victor, Eldest son of POW in 1889-90, also came to Nepal on hunting expeditions. Lord George Curzon, Viceroy of India had invited himself on a shoot to the Nepali Terai in 1901 and it had many political ramifications in Nepal leading to Chandra Shumsher becoming Prime Minister and Maharajah. Chandra was later made a Knight Grand Commander of the Empire in 1905 and he hosted King George V during his shoot in 1911.

“Hosted as part of the grand coronation celebrations, King George was met with a Nepali royal party that consisted of Chandra, his two sons and ‘His Excellency’s’ followers, who numbered at 12,000, besides 600 elephants with 2,000 attendants’.

In 1938, just before the Second World War, a three-week hunt with Lord Linlithgow, viceroy of India, saw a total of 120 tigers, 27 leopards, 15 bears, and 38 rhinos being slaughtered.”

1890 Prince Albert Victor, elder brother of King George V 

1921 The future King Edward VIII (centre) in Nepal 

“Photographic records of these hunts are perhaps the best evidence that megafauna’ population across the subcontinent was driven to extinction levels because of such massive hunts. But conservation was the last thing on the minds of anyone participating in these hunts. ‘Hunting diplomacy’ lent the Ranas much-needed social capital with the British elite, and an invite from the Ranas of Nepal became a much-coveted affair for the colonists themselves. It would eventually lead to the establishment of various ‘hunting companies’ in Nepal, led by American John Coapman, African big-game hunter Charles Cottar and the Irish hunter Peter Byrne, who received a hunting concession via Prince Basundhara, brother of King Mahendra, after the fall of the Ranas. It was not until 1972 that hunting was outlawed in Nepal except in one reserve in the Himalayas – but the damage to megafauna’ numbers had already been done”. (“Using 'Shikar Diplomacy' in 19th-Century Nepal” by Amish Raj Mulmi)

Even as late as in 1961, during the visit of Queen Elizabeth to India, her consort Prince Philip went ahead with the hunt in Jaipur and killed a tiger along with many other animals despite protests from British and Indian politicians.

1961 Prince Philip and  the Queen felled this majestic tiger   as  guests of the Maharajah of Jaipur

In this context, the article by BBC indeed was like a cool breeze on a hot Indian summer. It is so refreshing and heartening to note that the local rural folks in India, Africa and many other countries are rising to the occasion to the clarion call for saving the environment, the wildlife and thereby the future generations from great calamities.


1)“The wake of the White Tiger” by Diamond Shumsher JB Rana
2)Russell, William Howard, Sir. The Prince of Wales' Tour: A Diary in India; with some account of the visits of His Royal Highness to the courts of Greece, Egypt, Spain, and Portugal.
3)“Using 'Shikar Diplomacy' in 19th-Century Nepal” by Amish Raj Mulmi.
4)Various other internet sources.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

For our tomorrows, they gave their todays

- First World War and the untold stories of the Indian soldiers-

The Great War or the First World War ("The war to end all wars”) ended on 11 November 1918 and the day is popularly called   Armistice Day.  The global commemoration of the centenary of the Great War Armistice was held in Paris on the 12th November 2018. It was attended by world leaders including the US and Russian Presidents apparently at a time when the diplomatic relations among various countries seem to be at a low ebb.

A French lady pins a flower on the Sikh saviours of France, Paris, 1916. (Toor Collection)

In 1914, India had sent well over 1 million men overseas to fight the war alongside the British and over 75000 had lost their lives.

The Indian Army fought against the Germans in German East Africa and on the Western Front. At the First Battle of Ypres (Belgium), on 31st October 1914, Sepoy Khudadad Khan of 129th Duke of Connaught's Own Baluchis became the first Indian to be awarded a Victoria Cross, equivalent to today’s Parama Vira Chakra. Till 1911, Indians were not eligible for the Victoria Cross. Naik Darwan Sing Negi, 1st Battalion, 39th Garhwal Rifles too was awarded the VC on the same day Khudadad Khan received his award for his gallant deeds during the Defence of Festubert on 23rd/24th November 1914. Indian troops also served with great distinction in Egypt, Gallipoli and Mesopotamia against the Ottoman Empire. Many Indian regiments had remained in India guarding the North West Frontier and on internal security and other duties.

When the war ended, Indians who bravely fought alongside the British had high hopes about greater autonomy or even full freedom but these were belied and many promises were swiftly forgotten.

 In India, save for the brave hearts from the regiments of Sikhs, Gurkhas , Dogras and few others from the  North , the Country seems blissfully unaware of those historic times when our soldiers fought against heavy odds in unknown lands and shed their lives for a cause.They were not even fighting “their” wars for they were the subjects of the British Empire and were drawn to the vortex of the Great War often against their own will. But, they fought with loyalty, dedication and commitment and their families gave them great strength as they fought in unknown territories in extreme climates holding hands of their fellow soldiers of a different class, creed or race. History is replete with instances of bravery, brotherhood and the supreme sacrifices made by many of them and these still remain inspirational for our present day soldiers.

In the book, “Indian Voices of the Great War”, the author and scholar David Omissi has brought to light various facets of the soldiers’ lives, both professional and personal, through letters written by them from the warfront and through letters received from their closest family members.

While researching a rare group of WW1 medals in my possession, awarded to Risaldar Prag Singh of the 2nd Lancers, (Gardiners Horse) I got to know about the most difficult times he had spent in France and Belgium and about the great legacy of his Rajput wife who sent such inspirational letters to her husband in the warfront.

In the battle of Cambrai in France Prag Singh’s regiment suffered hundred casualties including its Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel HHF Turner. In the same battle Lance Dafadar Govind Singh won the Victoria Cross for his exceptional bravery.

Following are the details of my study based on the WWI pair of medals –the 1914-15 Star and Victory Medal- awarded to Risaldar Prag Singh.

For the uninitiated, please note that in the British Indian Army, till 1918, Indians were not open for the King’s Commission for direct recruitment as an Officer. Instead, they were called  In India, save for the brave hearts from the regiments of Sikhs, Gurkhas , Dogras and few others from the  North , the Country seems blissfully unaware of those historic times when our soldiers fought against heavy odds in unknown lands and shed their lives for a cause.

The commission issued by the Viceroy was to facilitate effective liaison between the British officers and their native troops. The VCOs had long service and good service records, spoke reasonably fluent English, and could act as a common liaison point between officers and men and as advisers to the British officers on Indian affairs.VCOs were treated and addressed with respect. Even a British officer would address a VCO as, for instance, "Subedar sahib" or "sahib”.

Risaldar Prag Singh, 2nd Royal Lancers
WWI Group of Two Medals (1914-15 Star and Victory Medal)
(No: 1870 Lance Dafadar Prag Singh, 2/LCRS on 1914-15 Star and Jemdr   Prag Singh 2 LCRS on VM)

Prag Singh, a young Rajput from Moradabad, joined the British Indian Army in 2nd Lancers (Gardiners Horse) on 16th October 1904. The regiment was then at Faizabad, present day Uttar Pradesh, having reached there on 8th February 1903 from Nowshera in Jammu and Kashmir.

Original 1914-15 Star and Victory Medals awarded to Jemadar Prag Singh (Murali's Collections)

The illustrious regiment was started in 1809 by Lt Col W.L.Gardner that had a composition of 1 squadron each of Sikhs, Rajputs, Jats and Hindustani Musalmans. Major General Osborn Wilkinson CB was the Colonel of the regiment since 1904 that had the services of HH Sir Ganga Singh Bahadur KCSI, KCIE, the Maharajah of Bikaner. He was Honorary Major to the regiment and was Hon ADC to HRH the Prince of Wales.

Prag Singh’s regiment was sent to France in World War I as part of the Mhow Cavalry Brigade, 2nd Indian Cavalry Division. Once in France its personnel were called upon to serve in the trenches as infantry. The high number of officer casualties suffered early on had an effect on performance. During their time on the Western Front the regiment was involved in the Battle of the Somme, Battle of Bazentin, Battle of Flers–Courcelette, the Advance to the Hindenburg Line and the Battle of Cambrai.

Because of his exemplary bravery in the fields, Lance Dafadar Prag Singh was promoted as Jemadar on 25th August 1917. His war service records show that he was in the Operations in France and Belgium from 18th November 1914 to 31st January 1919 and that he was wounded in the battle.

In the battle of Cambrai in France the regiment suffered hundred casualties including its Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel HHF Turner. In the same battle Lance Dafadar Govind Singh won the Victoria Cross for his exceptional bravery. For its gallant actions the Regiment was mentioned in the Cambrai Despatch by Field Marshall Lord Douglas Haig. Since, then Cambrai day i.e. 30 Nov is celebrated as a Battle Honour day.

Lance Dafadar later Jemadar Gobind Singh), VC, 28th Light Cavalry Attached to 2nd Lancers (Gardner’s Horse) was awarded VC in 1918 after the Battle of Cambrai

Indian Cavalry at Cambrai 1917

After Cambrai the regiment headed to Egypt, and served in the Jordan Valley, leading the advance through the Musmus Pass on 19th September, 1918, capturing a Turkish battalion of 500 men for the loss of one man and 12 horses wounded. After the Armistice, they served in pacifying operations in Palestine and Syria, and Trumpeter Mangal Jain won an Albert Medal (the first Indian to do so) for rescuing three drowning soldiers in the surf at Beirut.

In the Middle East it led one of the greatest cavalry charges at El Afuleh on 20th September 1918 during the “Drive to Damascus”, which was also the last Cavalry charge in the world. In 1922, they amalgamated with the 4th Cavalry to form the 2nd Royal Lancers (Gardner's Horse).

Charge of the 2nd Lancers at El Afuli in the Valley of Armageddon, 5 am, Friday 20th September 1918

Prag Sing’s war service records him as part of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force from 1st July 1920 to 12th December 1920 and his being wounded.

A couple of letters sent by his wife from Moradabad to the warfront of France are standing testimonies of an emotional partner who urged her husband to stand by his duty and responsibility. These letters are from the brilliant book, “Indian Voices of the Great War” by the military historian David Omissi that shows censored letters of the Indian soldiers (1914-1918). Many of these letters are historically very important because of its contents depicting the lives of the soldiers and their families, their emotional lives and their unstinting loyalty to the King Emperor. 

Letter 1 (Page 206)

To Dafadar Prayag Singh (Rajput, 2nd Lancers, France) from his wife
Moradabad, UP                                                                                                                              
December 1915

My dear, when your letter comes, my heart is made happy. I write to you every week, but sometimes your letters to me are delayed. Why should I be annoyed with you? I am your servant, and you are my all ... Every morning when I wake, 1 do homage to your picture; and my picture, is it not imprisoned in your heart? Why then are you distressed in mind? Often do I see you in my dreams, but never in a state which would cause me anxiety. Question your heart. Does it not tell you that at all times I am with you in spirit? Who is there in this world, beside yourself, to whom I would give a thought? What does it matter how or where one lives, in a mansion or in a wilderness, so long as the heart is true. I am steadfast in my faith always. There are but two conditions in this life, peace and trouble. When you were with me all was peace; in your absence all is trouble. God alone knows when I shall see and do homage to you again and thus be freed from trouble ... Your letters reach me on Wednesday. When a letter comes, I am happy till the following Tuesday. When a letter does not come I am sunk in despondency for a week, asking myself what can it be that has deprived me of a letter from my Lord this week- And I never fail to write weekly to you. I could not forget you, for you are to me what the broad, deep sea is to the fish ... Why do you praise me so much? I am not worthy of praise. Nor could I become estranged from you, for then I should make a hell of this house. No, no; in no circumstances can I be separated from you. You are my lord and master, you alone can fathom the depths of my heart and understand its desires. For me there is not your equal in this world. Therefore, trust me and believe that no thought of mine is hidden from you. You ask me to write in more detail. The reason why I do not do so is because I do not wish to weary you. Occupy yourself with the duty the performance of which will give satisfaction to God; and now indeed is the time, above all others, when you can work so as to please God ... Today a letter has come from Kheri in which uncle has asked me to lend him all the money I have as Kalmawatti is to be married... I shall raise no objection because I do not wish anyone to say that I raised any obstacle in the family. Besides, I have no need for money - it is your presence that I desire. You are my joy.  What is money to me...? Do not worry yourself about anything. Do your duty and your work with all your heart. [Letter passed]

1. This apparently loyal and devoted woman was still writing in similar vein in February 1917. See No. 487.

Letter 2 (Page 487)

To Dafadar Prayag Singh (2nd Lancers, France) from his wife  
Moradabad, UP   
                                                                                                                                    20th February 1917

My heart feels that it could not sustain separation from you for a single minute; but it is now three years since I was last blessed with your presence - what then my heart suffer! I am wandering alone in the wilderness of this world. I cannot realize when it was that I last looked on your face, and I would thankfully give my life as an offering to anyone who would bring me into your presence once more. What words of yours, my dear, need I recall to mind, when my very veins are full of love for you! And how can I enjoy any degree of happiness in separation from you! Therefore I make this one request that you should send for me, or write and tell me to come to you. But tell me precisely the place you are in, so that I may not fail to find it. You write to me about money, but what care I for money. I need you alone! I am in need of nothing else, and I do not hanker after riches. I am my lord’s handmaid, and would count it happiness even to starve in my lord s presence. May God speedily bring the day when I, the grief-laden one, gazing in the glory of your countenance, will renew my life.

Letter 3 (Page 576)

To Dafadar Prag Singh (Rajput, 2nd Lancers, France) from his wife
Moradabad, UP

4th September 1917

Send for me. I will go with you and fight against the enemy and will never give way a foot, but will meet the Hun and keep my faith. I will show them what Rajput women are. I will behave like the heroes of old, and on the field of battle you shall see my bravery. The enemy will taste the edge of my talwar. I am with you for weal or woe, which is my religion. Let me keep my vow and fight along with you and smite down the foe. I am a Rajput woman. My bravery is second to none. I am so strong that if I be cut in pieces I shall not give way, and the enemy will be obliged to praise me. What, am I but your wife? My heart is like yours. #

# Two others (not reproduced in this collection) are quoted in Omissi, The Sepoy and the Raj, p 76.

The following letter no: 394 dated 6 September 1916 –originally in Urdu- from Daya Ram (Jat) of 2nd Lancers, France to Kalu Ram (Ambala City, Punjab) is very revealing about the horrors of the war that a soldier of the regiment experienced. 

I went into the trenches on 7th August and returned on 28th August. Some of our men were wounded. I am not permitted to give any fuller details. The battle is raging violently, and various new ways of fighting have been introduced. The ground is honeycombed, as a field with rat holes. No one can advance beyond the trenches. If he does so, he is blown away. Mines are ready charged with explosives. Shells and machine guns and bombs are mostly employed. No one considers rifles nowadays, and serviceable rifle ammunition is lying about as plentifully as pebbles. At the trenches, thousands of mounds of iron, representing exploded shells, lie on the ground. At some places corpses are found of men killed in 1914, with uniform and accoutrements still on. Large flies, which have become poisonous through feasting on dead bodies, infest the trenches, and huge fat rats run about there. By the blessing of God the climate of this country is cold, and for that reason corpses do not decompose quickly. It rains frequently and that causes much inconvenience. At the present time we are suffering, as the horses are tethered outside and the rain has converted the ground into slush. Sometimes we have to march in the rain and then the cold is intense. However after two years’ experience, we have grown used to all these troubles and think lightly of them. I have lots to write about, but I have no leisure, nor have I permission to do so. Even this I have had to write very prudently, otherwise it would be withheld. [Indian Voices of the Great War, p.231]

In January 1922, the regiment returned to India after some tumultuous years in the field. We could safely presume that Prag Singh eventually met his most devoted wife.

Jamadar Prag Singh was duly promoted Risaldar on 1st May 1924 and was posted as the Indian Staff Officer at the Equestrian School in Sagar in Jaipur, Rajasthan.

He had during his service qualified himself in English (Preliminary I Cl), Hotchkiss gun, Rifle and Equitation School.

He was selected as a Military instructor in Kitchener College, Nowgaon in Chattarpur, and Madhya Pradesh on 15th June 1929.  This was a preparatory college for Military Academy for Officers. In 1936, Risaldar Prag Singh appears to have been retired after an eventful service of 32 years.

Certainly it was an eventful life of a Viceroy’s Commissioned Officer who witnessed some of the bloodiest battles in human history and who was indeed fortunate to return to the safety of his motherland and his family.


1. Quarterly Indian Army lists over the years from 1904 to 1937

2. Indian Voices of the Great War by David Omissi

3. Various open sources from internet, Wikipedia etc.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Reading for Pleasure

– Mario Vargas Llosa’s historical novel “The feast of the goat”-

A few years ago, during one of our conversations, my younger brother, Hari (Dr.HK Varma) told me about the brilliance of the writing of the Peruvian Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa. It was heartening to note that that the scientist in him had not lost touch with human sensibilities despite his busy schedules involving lots of international travel and the nitty-gritty of administration. I was working for a Company at that time and my days were mostly in the office or in travel leaving me with little option for reading. Still, I managed to read Llosa’s “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter”, that made very interesting reading with its many hilarious anecdotes. (I remember the scriptwriter in the novel who used to sell his Radio scripts to telecasting companies by weight. This I feel is applicable to many of the TV serial scripts presently telecast by most of the regional language channels in our Country.) The book is partly autobiographical with details of the 18-year-old narrator falling for a 32-year-old divorcee in Peru of the 50’s.

Now that I have time at my disposal, I keep myself busy with various activities that interest me.

One of the streets of Palakkad where I go for a morning walk

I go for long walks in the morning enjoying the nature and later do my researches on various war medals in my collection. I have lots of cataloguing to be completed for my collectibles that include war medals, coins, antiques, and books. Besides spending time with my wife Sindhu and talking to her on various subjects as a dispassionate observer, I give her a helping hand to make an occasional exotic dish. I go for an evening walk as well to the heritage village of Kalpathy enjoying the scenes and breathing the aromatic scents of various eatables freshly made by the street vendors. This is a place where the time stands still. I think it has been so since the 13th century when the Tamil Brahmins started to migrate to this part of the land. ( The place has a vague resemblance to the busy streets of the Wild West with people, wagons and animals and the occasional Tavern. Here, the cow replaces the horse and the coffee shop comes in place of the pub). I work on my computer a good part of the day and find time for reading for which I have built up a few cupboards of selected books.

Drawing of an old western town of the 19th century

One of the streets of the heritage village of Kalpathy, 2018

I just completed reading the magnificent historical novel, “The Feast of the Goat” by Mario Vargas Llosa. The official website of the Nobel Prize announced thus: The Nobel Prize in Literature 2010 was awarded to Mario Vargas Llosa "for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt, and defeat". In this outstanding work of historical fiction, Llosa has brought out various powerful images vouchsafing the above citation.

Mario Vargas Llosa

The book dwells on the assassination of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, the dictator of The Dominican Republic who ruled the country with an iron grip from 1930 to 30th May 1961 the day on which he was shot dead by a team of seven conspirators most of whom were his former associates. 

The Dominican Republic with its capital at Santo Domingo is a Caribbean nation with Haiti bordering its West. Countries in the region like Cuba, Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Panama all were fertile grounds for revolutions, uprisings and dictatorships due to the geographical, demographic, economic and political reasons of the 19th and 20th centuries. There always was the US, the big brother, watching over these nations with keen self-interests of its own. No wonder, the Dominican Republic gave birth to a most intelligent, cunning and brutal dictator in Rafael Trujillo who had earlier been trained by the US Marines during its occupation.

Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina  (1891 –1961)

The fascinating yet bloody tale is viewed from different angles, the primary one being from the beautiful spinster  Uranita Cabral, a senior official of the World Bank and daughter of Augustine Cabral who was the Secretary of State under Trujillo administration. She recounts her story after 35 years of the assassination when she visited the Country for the first time in as many years. She had some startling revelations to be made before her paternal aunt and her daughters as her father lay dying paralyzed. Then, there is the story of the conspiracy and the assassination from the side of the conspirators portrayed by Llosa with great skill and with his keen understanding of the working of the human mind and its struggle for survival in difficult times. The aftermath of the assassination and the brutal retaliation and tortures that followed are portrayed by Llosa in great detail keeping the reader with a pounding heart. We also have a view of the Country and the political leadership through the eyes of Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo, the Dictator who preferred to be known as “The Chief” or “The Benefactor”.

While most of the characters in the novel are actual people who lived, there are a few like Uranita who are fictional characters. All the 24 chapters of this 475 pages novel are most engrossing.

Llosa’s portrayal of the Generalissimo, his intelligence Chief Johnny Abbes Garcia and Dr.Balaguer, the puppet President who later came to his own man are particularly powerful. Man’s craving for justice, his cruelties, greed, passions, the urge for survival and ultimately the futility of most actions reflect in the novel taking its turn through various characters. We also realize that the nemesis always catches up with a man based on his actions. Once we read the epilogue of the events that followed, we realize that the law of “Karma” is absolute or unassailable. Otherwise, how do you interpret the untimely accidental death of Ramfis Trujillo, playboy son of the Dictator, who committed untold atrocities after the assassination of his father? How does one explain the Alzheimer’s disease that caught up with the “Bountiful First Lady”, Dona Maria Martinez de Trujillo who opened many numbered Swiss Bank accounts to which millions of dollars were transferred and then forgot about all these numbers that were never shared with anyone including her children due to mistrust? She died in exile in Miami in 1989.

I don’t have pretentions as a literary critique and hence do not want to approach the novel from that angle. As one who loves good books, I recommend the book to my young readers who would definitely gain much after reading it. They are sure to grow emotionally and intellectually. Llosa, no doubt is one of the greatest of Latin American writers of all time and this book underscores the truth most emphatically.

Aldous Huxley paid tributes to his friend D.H.Lawrence in the following words. “He seemed to know, by personal experience, what it was like to be a tree or a daisy or a breaking wave or even the mysterious moon itself. He could get inside the skin of an animal and tell you in the most convincing detail how it felt and how, dimly, inhumanly, it thought. “

This above comment is applicable to Llosa as well, I am convinced. 

Palakkad, South India
19th June 2018 

Photo credits: and other websites.


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