Saturday, March 10, 2007

Mhow Diary - Thoughts on Mhow

As it appeared in the Free Press (Indore edition) on March 10 2007

The Name ‘Mhow’
Mhow Cantonment came into existence in 1818 as a result of the Treaty of Mandsaur when the Holkars ceded this area to the British after their defeat in the Battle of Mahidpur. How this small town in Indore district got its name is often the subject of heated debate. There are various theories which one keeps hearing. Some people claim that Mhow is an abbreviation of Military Headquarters of War while others claim that Mhow is short for Military Headquarters of Western India. According to old timers in Mhow it is fairly certain that Mhow Gaon, the village near Mhow existed before the Treaty of Mandsaur. Thus it is highly unlikely that any of the above two reasons are correct. Another theory is that the name Mhow comes from the Mahua (Bassia latifolia) tree. Considering the fact that this tree grows in abundance in the forests around Mhow this could very well be the true reason. Many others have also told me that as Mhow is between the two pilgrim towns Maheshwar and Omkareshwar it got its name from the first syllable of each name. This could also be true. Any other theories? Readers could send in any other possible origins that they know of.

Mhow in the printed form.
Rudyard Kipling (1865- 1936) has mentioned Mhow in some of his works. A google search while writing the Wikipedia entry on Mhow gave me three such instances. These include his poem "The Ladies", a reference to the train from Ajmer to Mhow in Chapter 1 of The Man Who would be King and a reference to Mhow in chapter 11 of Kim. Some other books written by westerners include Diaries and letters from India, 1895-1900 by Violet Jacob and Last Post At Mhow by Arthur Hawkey. Violet Jacob was a British memsahib whose husband was posted in Mhow and her detailed writings on Mhow make interesting reading. They also show how the British kept away from the Indians and made no effort at all to befriend them. It was an abusive relationship of the ruler and the ruled. The Last Post At Mhow is about a scandal in Mhow which occurred when the 6th battalion of the Inniskilling Dragoons was posted here in 1860. The Commanding Officer was accused of extreme cruelty to his subordinates after the death of a Regimental Sergeant Major John Lilley and his wife.

The latest book set in Mhow is a fictional work Chinnery's Hotel by Jaysinh Birjepatil (Publishers:Ravi Dayal; Pages: 261; Rs 275).It could well qualify as the only work of fiction written by an Indian and set in Mhow. This is another addition to the genre of fiction about the Raj. The book is set in a fictional Mhow. The Raj atmosphere has been brought out quiet effectively in books like 'A Passage to India' by E.M. Forster, The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott and 'Heat and Dust' by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Writer, scholar and senior journalist Khushwant Singh has been quiet effusive in his praise for Chinnery's Hotel. He writes about how the publishers of the book had sent him the manuscript for his opinion and he had marked it 'first rate'. As he had found the novel to be free of Indian cliches he had assumed that the writer must be an Englishman or an Anglo Indian. He realised later that he was wrong on both counts. Jaysinh Birjepatil is a Baroda born professor of English who is presently teaching at Marlboro College, Vermont (US). Educated in England, Birjepatil has also taught at Baroda University, and Brown University (US).

The book is about an Englishwoman who returns to Mhow with the daughter of her dead sister, four decades after she had left for England. They visit Chinnery's Hotel which was built by her parents during the Raj and the protagonist realises that along with the Mhow of today she has to also face the Mhow of yesterday. The novel is an interplay of past and present. That was a technique that Jhabvala too used in 'Heat and Dust'. The British played one community against another by appealing to their chauvinism and by attacking their self-esteem. The underlying theme in most Raj novels is abuse, violence and the condescension and contempt with which the English treated Indians and Anglo Indians. Anyone who has read any books pertaining to this period will agree with this. Birjepatil's book also explores these issues in an extremely well written and competent manner.

According to Mark Tully, an Englishman who was born in India during the days of the Raj, this is a typical Raj novel, with all the attendant scandals and wining and dining and socialising which is so typical of cantonment towns. Tully feels that things are slightly overdone in this book. He wonders whether the last days of the Raj were as awful as described in this novel. I personally feel that no book can capture the mental bankruptcy of the English in India - something which cost them the Empire. But the book evokes enough memories of (and revulsion towards) the Raj to make Tully feel that he is lucky to have grown up in post-independence India. I must agree with him as, thanks to my birth in an Army family, I have seen cantonment towns of India (including Mhow) all my life and have got a good glimpse of what the Raj stood for. As Khushwant Singh wrote it is a pity that this good book did not get the readership it deserved.
[Note: Mark Tully had reviewed Chinnery's Hotel in the Indian newsmagazine Outlook
Tailpiece According to a wag it is good that the air chief designate Air Marshal Fali H Major did not join the army. If he had done so some of the names he would have been known as during his rise through the ranks would have been: Lieutenant Major, Captain Major, Major Major, and so on till he became General Major!


Friday, March 09, 2007

The Tesu Tree in Mhow

"I think I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree
Poems are made by fools like me
But only God can make a tree" - American poet Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918)

(Kilmer was killed in the trench warfare of World War One)

Spring is in the air. The Semul or silk cotton tree (Salmalia malabarica or Bombax malabaricum) is on flower. And so is the mango. "Aam kay ped par mor aaye hain" I overheard a young girl tell her grandfather. The flower of the mango tree is known as mor (peacock) in Hindi. And the most beautiful of all trees is the Flame of the Forest or Dhak. It is also known as Palas, Bastard Teak, Parrot Tree, Porasum (Tamil) , Khakda (Gujarati).The battle of Plassey was fought near a forest full of these trees. And I have seen villages named Palasiya in Madhya Pradesh. I recommend a google search for all those of you who are do not live in areas where this tree grows naturally. I remember boiling the flowers and making colour for Holi when I was a child and my Dad was posted in Mhow.

A naturalist from Pune had once written an essay on this tree in Bittu Sahgal's Sanctuary magazine and he had claimed to have seen more than twenty species of birds on this tree in a short time span of 3 or 4 hours. I love the feel of the trifoliate leaves when they are green, it is like touching suede. I have often seen squirrels and parrots eating the seeds from the pods. I used to collect these pods, one had to get to them when they fell down before the squirrels did so. Even succeeded in making some of them sprout but they died and I felt heartbroken.

I remember taking some photographs of a clump of these trees from a moving train while travelling from Indore to Jabalpur almost ten years ago. I wish a serious effort is undertaken to make this tree more popular. Whenever I see the Flame of the forest on flower I remember these words of the poet Ezra Pound :"The difference between a gun and a tree is a difference of tempo. The tree explodes every spring."

On March 3 I went around town on a moped with a young man named Shyam who I borrowed from a photographer's studio and who was wielding a digital camera. We were taking pictures of a small stadium and on the way back we took a few pictures of a Flame of the Forest tree. I am including them in this post so that all of you can also enjoy this sight.

p.s. In the last picture you can see a male purple sunbird. A parakeet was also sitting on this tree but we disturbed it so it flew away. Maybe we will have better luck next time.