Saturday, 26 May 2012

Images of India from childhood

I have of late, but wherefore I know not, been taken up by an interest in the British Raj. Was it my dream of Bombay, unprompted by anything I've read or seen or deliberated upon, augmented by reading about the Great Hedge of India?

An India not of cool hill-stations, but of dusty cantonment bungalows, of cities laid out by the Victorians to European precepts, of teeming crowds at bazaars and railway stations, of neo-Gothic architecture arising from dusty plains; an India of humid monsoon clouds.

Thinking of these images prompt me to consider where, in my deepest childhood, did I first encounter notions of India, of the British Empire's presence there.

As I have written here before, Oaklands Road Primary School was ethnically diverse even in the mid-1960s, with one-third of my class being immigrants or children of immigrants, who ended up in West London as the result of European war or imploding Empire.

Less than 20 years from India's independence, there were signs (other than the growing number of South Asians living in Southall, the suburb bordering Hanwell's western edge) that the country had once been a British dominion. Much of the pre-decimal coinage I carried in my pocket was minted before 1948, dating back to Queen Victoria. "IND. IMP." was there on all of them - a reminder that Victoria and her heirs, Edward VII, George V, and George VI. We knew then that the IND. IMP. meant Empress/Emperor of India; however, our Queen Elizabeth II was no longer Empress of India.

Below: coins from my childhood (from top left) - a Queen Victoria penny, Edward VII penny, George V halfpenny, George VI halfpenny (pre-1948) and George VI halfpenny (1949 - note lack of 'IND: IMP.' in the inscription around the rim.

Below: the George VI halfpenny (pronounced 'hayp'nee') from 1943. Emperor of India. As a child, I thought that in profile George VI looked a lot like my father.

In the classroom, America crept into my child's consciousness far more strongly than did the Raj of Imperial India. The Janet and John books on which we learned to read, were lifted, complete with illustrations, from the American Alice and Jerry series. When I started thinking back to what stories we read then which were about India... I remembered one - just one, which ended up with tigers chasing themselves around a tree and... turning into melted butter. Gosh! The tree..., the whirring tigers... let's see if I can google it. Yes!

O dear. Is it right to mention this book, to admit to having had it as a set text at primary school? Well, here it is... The Story of Little Black Sambo, by Helen Bannerman, first published in 1899.

The pictures finally come out of copyright in four years' time, 70 years after the death in 1946 of Ms Bannerman - copyright law is absurd. The entire book, for those of my readers educated before the dawn of Political Correctness, can be seen here.

Certainly, the book resonates with me back to my childhood, but does not explain my strange and sudden fascination with the Raj... It is an entirely new fascination, and as such, it lends itself to online research. The internet's a wonderful thing!

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