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PAST & PRESENT

Churchill in Bangalore

RAMACHANDRA GUHA

What traces did Winston Churchill leave on Bangalore?

THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Winston Churchill ... an education in Bangalore.

IN October 1896, Winston Churchill reached Bangalore, then not a bustling megapolis but a small, sleepy, cantonment town. He liked the climate: "the sun even at midday is temperate and the mornings and evenings are fresh and cool. He liked the house allotted to him: "a magnificent pink and white stucco palace in the middle of a large and beautiful garden." And he was well served by his staff, who included a gardener, a water-carrier, a dhobi, and a watchman.

Life in Bangalore was pleasant, but also very boring. A young army officer yearned for "action"; but the only wars in India were then being fought at the other end of the subcontinent, on the Afghan border. So Churchill began, a butterfly collection; this got to as many as 65 varieties, before it was attacked by rats. Simultaneously, he got down to the business of educating himself. After school he had been sent to the military academy in Sandhurst, and was consequently denied the benefit of an Oxbridge education. This left him with a serious chip on his shoulder, for whenever he met University men they would "pose you entrapping questions or give baffling answers."

To get even, the young Winston "resolved to read history, philosophy, economics and things like that; and I wrote to my mother asking for such books as I had heard of on these topics." The books arrived, and the autodidact got down to work. He read four or five hours each day: historians like Gibbon and Macaulay, philosophers like Plato and Socrates, economists like Malthus, biologists like Darwin. These varied readings led him to question the basis of his religion. No longer could he accept the Bible as an accurate rendition of history; but he was not prepared either to abandon his faith and declare himself an atheist. There was no real need, as he saw it, to attempt to reconcile the Bible with modern scientific and historical knowledge. As he put it, "if you are the recipient of a message which cheers your heart and fortifies your soul, which promises you reunion with those you have loved in a world of larger opportunity and wider sympathies, why should you worry about the shape of colour of the travel-stained envelope; whether it is duly stamped, whether the date on the postmark is right or wrong?... What is important is the message and the benefits to you of receiving it." This process of self-learning is described in his memoir My Early Life, in a chapter suitably entitled "Education in Bangalore".

After eight months in Bangalore, the young Subaltern wrote to his mother summing up his life there. "Poked away in a garrison town which resembles a 3rd rate watering place, out of season and without the sea, with lots of routine work and... without society or good sport — half my friends on leave and the other half ill — my life here would be intolerable were it not for the consolations of literature ... ."

Apart from butterflies and books, there was also sport. In My Early Life there is a vivid description of a polo tournament in Hyderabad won by Churchill's regiment. Discreetly omitted from the memoir is what happened on that visit, outside the playing field. For it was in Hyderabad that Churchill fell in love for the first time. The lady's name was Pamela Flowden, and her father was a high official of the Indian Civil Service. "She was," Winston wrote to his mother, "The most beautiful girl I have ever seen — Bar none," and also "very clever". He hoped to take a tour of the city with her on elephant back, for "you dare not walk or the natives spit at Europeans — which provokes retaliation leading to riots."

The ride was taken, but it got nowhere. For Pamela's father would not allow his daughter to enter into marriage with an impecunious army officer. So Churchill returned disconsolately to Bangalore. He now sought, as his biographer writes, "an opportunity to expose himself to the fire of any enemy of England who happened to be available at the moment." He wrote asking to join Kitchener's advancing army in Egypt, but they didn't want him there.

Ultimately, after his mother had pulled a few strings in London, he was invited by General Sir Bindon Blood to join the Malakand Field Force, which was battling truculent tribes on the North-west Frontier.

Churchill's son later wrote that his letters from Bangalore "show that he thought he was in a prison". So when the order for parole came he raced to redeem it. As he himself recalled, when Sir Bindon's telegram arrived "I sped to the Bangalore railway station and bought a ticket for Nowshera. The Indian clerk, having collected from me a small sack of rupees, pushed an ordinary ticket through a pigeon-hole. I had the curiosity to ask how far it was. The polite Indian consulted a railway time table an impressively answered, 2,028 miles. Quite a big place, India! This meant a five days' journey in the worst of heat. I was alone, but with plenty of books, the time passed not unpleasantly... . I spent five days in a dark padded moving cell, reading mostly by lamplight or by some jealously admitted ray of glare."

So the Indian countryside made as little impression on Churchill as had the sights in and around Bangalore. Books, English books, were preferable to either. "Prison" or "3rd rate watering role"; that is how he seems to have regarded my home town. Bangalore left no traces on him; what traces did he leave on it?

In Bangalore, Churchill was bored, he was bookish, and he was butterfly-obsessed. And he was also (not that he reveals it in his memoirs) broke. Evidence of his financial penury is contained in the lounge of the Bangalore Club. There, under a display window, is a minute book open at a page where we can read, under the list of members who have outstanding dues, the name of "Lieutenant W.S. Churchill." The sum he owed (indeed still owes) the Bangalore Club was 13 rupees.

From his own testimony and that of his biographer, we know how Churchill lived in Bangalore. Many people in the city, most especially perhaps brokers in real estate, are keen to know where he lived. Not long ago a friend of mine moved to Bangalore. After a few months in rented premises he sought to buy a bungalow in Whitefield, since he had been informed that it had once been the home of Churchill. Luckily he consulted me before signing the papers. I told him that in fact every owner of an old bungalow in the city claimed that it was once Churchill's. I myself write this in a room the tiles of whose floor tell me that they were made in the year 1865 by the Standard Brick and Tiles Company, Yelahanka. The room forms part of a building which is no longer a "magnificent pink and stucco palace." And the once "beautiful garden" was long ago colonised by concrete. Still, I have only to point the visitor in the direction of those faded but still lovely red tiles, and say: "Lieuetenant Winston Spencer Churchill once lived here."

Ramachandra Guha is a historian based in Bangalore. E-mail him at ramguha@vsnl.com

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