Monday, 15 October 2007

Childhood Memoirs of the British Raj

The Tiger Shoot

When I was about nine years old, my father who was a great shikari (hunter) supervised many tiger, wild boar, deer hunts for the British elite of India. I disapproved of these sports in principal. My father was my idol in many ways, but not in this. These hunts were the pastime of the ‘elite’ of the British rulers of India, who took great pleasure in shooting the beautiful Bengal tigers and other big game, prolific in India at that time.

We lived for a short time in the province of Hyderabad (Deccan) when the Nizam (Prince) was one of the richest men in the world.

Our home was a large rambling house with many bedrooms, two sitting rooms, dining room, and study. In addition was a playroom cum nursery, games room and bathrooms. The ceilings were high, with electric fans suspended from long connecting poles. Every room had two or sometimes three fans. We had many servants and lived as well as the privileged British ICS (Indian Civil Service). In our sitting room was a prized tiger skin rug. My father shot the tiger and I showed my displeasure by totally ignoring the significance if it. I dreaded news of yet another tiger hunt but soon heard that one was to take place.

These hunters used the tiger skins as trophies to be displayed and to exhibit their prowess as killers of these noble beasts, helping to make this exotic animal species almost extinct. I remember my grand parents’ home had one of these skins, used as a throw on the sofa. When I was a child of eight, I rested my cheek on the head of the tiger skin, whilst stroking its soft silkiness, admiring its golden brown glass eyes and whispering how sorry I was that someone had shot it.

My father instilled a spirit of adventure in me from an early age and was determined that I should overcome my aversion to this sport. To him it was a challenge and something very exciting and so he took me on a tiger hunt, convincing me that the jungles and the excitement of the hunt would thrill me and I would not dread it so much in future. He said it was a sport and that the animal had a chance to escape if it was clever enough. There were a couple of other children on the hunt. I was not the exception.

This was the age of British Empire supremacy and big game hunting was considered to increase one's power and status. The more big game a man shot, the more he was revered by his contemporaries. They shot cheetas, leopards, lions, even the wild buffalo in the Nepal terai and of course the prized elephants were also targeted and killed. This massive slaughter of wild animals would today be considered horrific by present eco standards. As a child I too loathed this distruction of animal life.

The hunt began in the Palace grounds as the Prince supplied the elephants for the hunt. On this particular occasion there were only three elephants, with howdahs in place on their backs. The howdahs held about four adults. I was squeezed into the howdah of the lead and largest elephant with my father, two Englishmen of the Indian Civil Service and of course, His Highness the Prince. This was high class society in the days of the Raj. My family was included because of my Father’s skill and experience as a hunter – a pastime from his regular job as a train driver on the British/Indian Railways. He was respected for his skill and intuition in the sport of big game hunting, but I was hoping and praying that we did not encounter a tiger this time as was occasionally the case. I loved being on the elephant, rocked to and fro with its rhythmic motion. I adored elephants and rode on them often though, unlike some ICS member’s children, I did not own one as a pet.

It was exciting going through the jungle. My Father was right. We would soon be in the tiger haunts of long grasses without the trees. The beaters (natives hired for the day) did the dangerous job of shouting and beating the grasses, driving the animals, if they were about, towards the hunting party. These poor men were on foot, unarmed except for sticks. The hunters were moderately safe on the elephants and they had their guns for protection.

Every moment was tense, the hunters almost holding their breaths as the moment drew near of the possible appearance of the tiger or tigers. Suddenly the tall grasses moved and waved as the crazed and frightened animal appeared. Everyone froze. Most tigers charged towards the first elephant and leapt towards the mahout (the rider who sits on the neck of the elephant – in a vulnerable position). He has no gun, just a stick to defend himself. The hunters behind the lead elephant were there for back up in case the first shooters missed the target.

This tiger leapt towards the men in the howdah, not the mahout. The height of the leap was amazing. I crouched down in fear and dread. There was a blast of gun shots, the bullets hit the mark obviously by the cheering and down went this glorious animal. I lifted my head to look and was horrified to see the tiger in its death throes which quickly, thank God, ended in death. Its huge head flopped to the side and its mouth was still open, showing its large and dangerous teeth, its red topngue hanging out.

The hunters were exuberant; I was devastated and the tiger was dead. I wanted to get down and stroke its head, to caress it and bring it back to life. These futile childish thoughts went through my mind at the time. I was extremely distressed.

Then began the ceremony of the hunters - which shot killed the tiger? Whose gun did it come from? Whose foot would be placed on the head of the beast, while the others in the party stood around it for the photographer to take the pictures? These pictures took pride of place in a hunter’s sitting room. I sat down in the howdah, despondent and sad. I hardly remember the journey back.

It was an exciting adventure until the killing of the tiger. I hated the act and, with a child’s passion, the hunters with the guns.

After the hunt, the Nizam held a flamboyant celebration, which ended with a splendid dinner for the adults.

My family were welcome guests in some of the princely palaces because my father was a hunter and was always included in these parties. At that time he was with the BB&CI railway (Bombay, Baroda and Central India) and drove the prestigious ‘Deccan Queen’ train. The DQ was the longest train carrying passengers between Mumbai (Bombay in those days) and Pune (Poona in the days of the Raj). Its 'life' began in June 1930 - one of the few trains that was never powered by steam. It was also the longest train, with a complete carriage used for dining.

On return from tiger hunts the party was invited to dine at the palace of the Prince, and even though I was young at the time, I recall the splendour of these feasts and the lavish glittering chandeliers that hung from ornate ceilings of the banqueting halls. The scent of exotic meals being prepared attacked one’s nostrils with tantalising spicy odours - this mixed with the scent of many vases of exotic flowers was strangely intoxicating.

After the early evening festivities that included magicians who performed for the children and clowns who made us laugh, we were sent off with our ayahs (nannies) to bed whilst the adults remained for the formal dinner party that followed.

My mother was a very beautiful woman who caused a sensation with her French-Oriental type beauty. I noticed that everyone stared at her and the ladies whispered behind their fans. It never occurred to me as a child that they were saying anything detrimental about her, but in later years I became aware of racism and that perhaps they were wondering why she was there amongst the British elite. My Father and Mother totally ignored any snobbery, if it existed at all. My Dad was a very proud man with a great deal of self confidence. This whispering was surreptitiously done, behind hands or fans and not spoken out aloud.

We often overheard snippets of conversation amid all this affluence and splendour, of affairs between the rich princes and white women and of the offspring that came from these illicit liaisons being adopted by the Princes’ official wives. It was feared that if the real mothers acknowledged these children, they would be ostracised by British society. There was a great deal of this mixing of races during the days of the Raj. Men married Indian women more than the other way round. The white women mostly had 'affairs' with native men of class. Therefore there were many such offspring. The Prince’s many wives were subservient to their husband and did as they were told. I knew one such mixed blood boy who was doted on by his adoptive mother and by the Prince. His skin was light and he had big blue eyes. He was very smart too. Many of these children were friends with us.


My Fabulous School

Anglo Indians, as my parents and our family were known, in later years became the buffer between the two cultures – British and Indian, a transient connection between the two. We were given the cream jobs, sent to the best schools and colleges where we obtained a high standard of education to fill the important jobs that the British needed done by people they could trust.

My school was in the Himalayan foothills, about 9000 feet above sea level. It was a boarding school situated at the highest point of my little town in the clouds, as I called it, because our parents did not want us to live in the plains during the summer’s intense heat. Most Anglo Indian and British children attended these prestigious schools. I was sent to school in the Hills when I was eight. I recall sitting on the school’s upper playground bench and looking down in wonder on clouds covering the valley below, totally obscuring the village nestling in this valley. Glancing in the opposite direction, towards Kashmir, I was able to gaze at the snow capped peaks of the Hindu Kush mountain range. It was truly a magical place to be educated in and I consider myself lucky now to have had the privilege of attending this school for my entire High School life and later to attend the Teachers' Training College there.

I loved the monkeys that lived in the forests surrounding our school. Though the school had meshed high fences enclosing the grounds, the monkeys came right up to the fences and we fed them, against all school rules. The forests around our school grounds housed leopards, their roars heard at night down the hillside near our bedrooms, making us curl up in our beds with fear even though we were quite safe.

School term started in March and ended in November. When we went up in March by coach, along the winding road with many hairpin bends and deep gorges on one side of the road and steep rock-faced inclines on the other, there were many who suffered altitude sickness. The climb from the plains to the hills was steep – the journey by coach took about two or three hours. The coach engines groaned and whined on the climb up.

When we arrived at our school it was covered in snow, about five to six feet deep. The workmen had cleared the long drive and the porch. We sneaked into school and it was like entering an igloo as the snow covered the whole downstairs of the three storey building.

During my early years of the Raj my life was all about learning, adventure and freedom. It was an idyllic childhood.

My beloved Father died on New Years day 1937, catching pneumonia then a fatal disease. I was heart broken but was made to realise that life carried on without him and I too had to carry on. He was my inspiration then and still is today.


terence said...

i found this article of great interest.

Anne said...

I have just read your childhood memories with great interest, I found them absolutely fascinating and very touching. How nice it is to read something so well written. I hope this is the beginning of your writing for all to enjoy.

ali p said...

Helen, your childhood memories were a window into an alien world for me. I found them absorbing and I hope you add more.

Helen Renaux said...


Thanks. Sweet of you. I will write more - when I come back!

maureen said...

Very interesting...reads like a storybook.
Thank for sharing Helen

Helen Renaux said...

To one and all a thank you for your comments. Much appreciated.

दुधवा लाइव said...

I like these stories

Raj Prateek Verma said...

Very interesting. Has the power to give us an insight into the old glorious days of The Raj.

r syed said...

really interesting to see the raj from an anglo indian's eyes...would love to read more...please :)

Helen Renaux said...

Thank you R Syed for your compliment. I have a book out which is rather expensive I feel, but it is like a coffee table book 11 x 8.5 with colour pictures etc. It is about mixed race and about the Raj. It is entitled 'True Children of the Raj' by Helen Renaux (me)if you are interested. Perhaps you can ask for it in bookshops - it may encourage them to buy in bulk, then the price will drop. It is selling well anyway.