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On Charlotte, Lady Canning


One should never write a book. One will never live long enough to savour the gratitude of posterity. Then why do authors spend their lives scribbling ‘another damned fat book’? (The Duke of Gloucester’s inane response to Edward Gibbon upon receiving yet another volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.)

Most authors will tell you that their books are written in response to an unborn command from the subject. They write because they cannot side-step inspiration.  

My latest book Sketches from a Howdah was born of such an unexpected encounter. Thirty years ago, I had come across a watercolour of Lahore’s Shalimar Gardens, done in 1860 by Charlotte, Lady Canning (wife of the Viceroy Charles Canning). I was sure she must have done others like it during their viceregal tour across northern India, starting in Kolkata and reaching the extremity of the Khyber Pass.  

The descriptions she included in her journals and letters to her family and to Queen Victoria found perfect companions in the illustrations she executed at every stage of her long journey.  Undaunted by the rigours of primitive transport and make-shift lodgings, she recorded her impressions of the scenery she passed through, the plebeians she met, and such notables as Begum Secundra of Bhopal and the wife of then Anglophile Raja of Kapurthala, who wished his lady-wife to be addressed as ‘Lady Run-dear’, rather than Randhir.

Inevitably it is with a perceptible sigh of relief that she passes through cities (Lucknow and Delhi) bloodied by the traumatic events of 1857 and reaches the placid Punjab.  Her diary entry for Feb 2 1860 reads: ‘We marched 13 ½ miles to Khurtarpore [Kartarpur]’, where they were received by ‘a very old man on a white horse with the most enormous mane I ever saw.’ That evening, the Cannings are taken through ‘very narrow streets to this great house almost like a fortress with a rather fine high tower in the centre pierced with arches.’

Inside, Lady Canning noticed ‘the rooms were like the inside of a Chinese cabinet polished & coloured & gilt in patterns of the most complicated design & covered with little framed pictures of animals. Another part with legends or pictorial subjects. Very like paintings in the old missals..[then] another set of odd shaped rooms with pillars of inlaid looking glass & a roof of the same and a low room all painted & covered with pictures.’ There, in an inner sanctum, the Cannings were shown one of the earliest copies of the Granth Sahib.

How many of us today would have the patience or application to leave such a detailed record of a day trip for posterity?

Last week, on 19th November, I gave a lecture on my book in Islamabad. That day coincided with Lady Canning’s death anniversary. I had asked a friend in Kolkata to play a wreath on her grave. He obliged and sent me a photograph. It became the apt finale to my presentation. The Indian High Commissioner Ajay Bisaria spoke at the end. He mentioned how he too had just travelled from Kolkata, to Delhi, Amritsar, Lahore and finally to Islamabad (within reach of the Khyber Pass). Except that he had done it in six days, not six months like Lady Canning, and not in a swaying howdah.       

Edward Gibbon, in his study of an earlier empire, had contrasted ‘the rapid progress of this mischievous discovery [of gunpowder] with the slow and laborious advances of reason, science, and the arts of peace’.

That evening in Islamabad, the gesture of a wreath placed on a grave in Kolkata appearing within an instant on a lecture screen in Islamabad, demonstrated that the arts of peace and intellectual affinity can travel at the speed of enlightenment.  



[The Tribune Chandigarh, 25 November 2018] 


25 November 2018
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