Review by Dr Bashabi Fraser
The following book review of India: The Peacocks Call was written by Dr Bashabi Fraser in November 2009
'No other part of the former empire excites such a curiosity as India. This is less a simple craving for the artefacts of the past than a desire to know something about the good things which tens of thousands of ordinary British men and women gave in return for their lives in India.' (Royle, 1989)
In an interview, the late Pakistani leader, Benazir Bhutto said there is a bit of India in every Pakistani. One can substitute ‘Pakistani’ with ‘Scot’ and the statement can then resonate with the experience of Scots in relation to India about a different but significant reality. Scots have travelled to, worked, lived, been born, married and died in India over a period of 200 years. Like many a Scot who can trace an ancestor who was in India, Aline Dobbie’s ‘paternal grandparents were married in the Roman Catholic chapel of Fort William…; [her] maternal grandparents were married in the Scots Kirk of St Andrew in Dalhousie Square….[Her] own parents were also married in St Andrew’s….[Her] own confirmation took place in Cathedral of St Paul by the Metropolitan Bishop of India, Burma and Ceylon in April 1961.’ (p. 98)
Her recent book, India: The Peacock’s Call, is a revised edition of her first book on India. It has the modest claim of a travel book, but in actuality, it is much more than that as it is a memoir, which moves back in time while it records several journeys back to what once was ‘home’ for the author. In India, Aline is not a ‘transient or a sojourner,’ as for her it is a return to the familiar and a revival and renewal of old ties which have never quite been snapped.
‘Paul Gilroy once suggested diaspora as an alternative to ‘the stern discipline of kinship and rooted belonging’ (Gilroy 2000: 123) – it delinks location and identity and it disrupts bounded notions of culture and racialized bodily attribution (Kalra et al, 2005). The book reaffirms the sense of continuity that has existed in the Scottish relation with and response to India. In fact, as part of the Scottish diaspora in India, Aline Dobbie endorses a much neglected and often unrecognised reality of the scattering of a nation that has had generational links with India:
At India Gate, which she calls ‘India’s answer to Arc de Triomphe,’ Dobbie says ‘For me, a daughter of the army, and very proudly the Indian army…it was a natural act of homage to all those who had given their lives this century for King, Emperor and Country and then India Their Country.’ (p. 4)
Dobbie herself was born in the north Indian city of Bareilly, the regimental centre of the Jat Regiment. Charles McGregor, a military theorist in India has, in his proposals on the subject of defence in India, advocated ‘an Indian nation-in-arms as the sole way to maintain its own security, a sort of military Orientalism. That seemed to imply, somewhere along the road, national autonomy.’ (Fry, 2001) Though McGregor’s proposals were ignored as he was held suspect, the role of Scots in the Indian army and its continuing sense of discipline and responsible position as a defender of Indian identity rather than a contender for political power, remains a legacy along McGregor’s almost prescient line of thought, exemplified in Aline Dobbie’s ancestral legacy in India and encountered by her in the traditions she sees maintained as she is hosted and shown round military cantonments in India. Significantly, though the book starts in the capital Delhi after touchdown, the actual journey begins with a return to foetal beginnings in Bareilly as the author is feted and feasted as the daughter of the Jat Regiment, very much confirming the thread of continuity that the book celebrates of the story of Scots in India.
The book is in two parts: Part 1 has fifteen and Part II five chapters, the first part beginning with the flight in on 1 November 1997 and ending with a family Christmas in 2001, and the succeeding part bringing the journeys up-to-date, with a visit to India in 2008. This is the second revised edition of what is a trilogy (The Tiger’s Roar, 2004 and The Elephant’s Blessing,) The account is accompanied by photographs which bring alive the places that are mentioned, and the fact that they are in black and white, lends them an appeal which justifies this journey to a past that has remained part of cherished, unforgettable memories for the author who left India in 1963. For me Dobbie’s experience has a particular resonance, as I too left Britain in the same year, at a similar age to the author’s, going the other way, to India. Probably our boats crossed in the dark, signalling to each other, as each of us returned to the land of our ancestors. Maybe this is why I feel drawn to Aline Dobbie’s story.
The memoir is exhaustive in its detail without the cloying heaviness of nostalgia that journeys to one’s past can trigger. The main reason behind this is Aline Dobbie’s ease in being in India where she is visibly ‘at home’, as she can recover her rusty Urdu effectively to disarm or challenge her Indian shopkeeper, taxi driver or officious official and pick up from where she left off, years ago. It has the curious perspective of the insider-outsider who relaxes in the five star luxury of Indian hotels, grading their service with an eye to minutiae.
The journey is epic in scope as Dobbie travels through Rajasthan and provides a meticulous study of many historic cities like Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Bikaner, Jaipur and Bharatpur. The word pictures are evocative, take for example the description of Jaisalmer, ‘As one approaches by car, there it is, a magnificent citadel rising from the Tricuta Hill like a golden coronet from the desert plain’ (p. 35). There is the romantic paean to the symbol of love in a trip to the Taj Mahal in Agra. Here, the defender of Indian heritage makes a plea to ‘clean, restore and maintain all of India’s architectural history,’ and not just the Taj Mahal. The book abounds in practical yet sensitively thought through suggestions, ‘the fee should be structured to allow Indians to see their national treasure at a realistic figure relevant to their incomes…(but) all foreign tourists should be required to pay a figure that is double that paid by the country’s inhabitants.’ (p. 71). The orientalist view of the intricate carvings of Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh is revised in Dobbie’s account, ‘With a good guide you will see the carvings as a celebration of all aspects of life, not simply erotica.’ (p. 82). There are multiple visits to some places like Delhi and Jaipur and the Part II records ‘Regal Rajasthan Revisited.’
The book has many poetic flourishes as the alliterative title just quoted testifies, as do titles like ‘Aakash Ganga,’ a chapter which follows the epic route to where Ganga leaps from the Himalayan peaks. This is not a eulogy of India, though there are personal tributes to old friends, to good food, excellent service in many hotels, friendly guides and India’s numerous arts and crafts which the writer seems to gather in bountiful armfuls with a collector’s enthusiasm and eye for beauty. The book is honest in its balance of praise with condemnation, as the author dismisses Mumbai, ‘an unlovely city’ while reluctantly accepting the fact that it is ‘generally acknowledged to be India’s most energetic and successful metropolis.’ (p. 104) Dobbie notes how Calcutta has moved on since her childhood there, ‘[T]here is now a metro and a second Howrah Bridge to complement the original built in 1941 by the British…’ while she picks up from where she left off, enjoying a swim or a game of tennis at the Tollygunge Club. She goes on to state that ‘Calcutta needs these distractions as it is a cultural city but with little opportunity for rural leisure… (and) is a shabby, decrepit, overpopulated city but there are still some rare instances of great beauty and special experiences.’ (pp. 99-100) This juxtaposition of the old and the new, of culture and decay, of warmth and inefficiency, of the flashy rich and neglected poor, capture the paradox of India time and again in Dobbie’s detailed account.
The affection for India is apparent in a book which is, as said earlier, much more than a travel book, being a crowded travel diary, a personal history and a historical study. However, the scholarly details of a history narrative do not intrude, but connect the present with the past in a continuous stream that seems inevitable. Dobbie’s book problematizes the binaries of ‘home’ and ‘away’ in any study of diaspora as she seems to flit contentedly between her two, ‘homes’ – the land of her birth and the land of her ancestors. In fact, the farewell coming at the end of Part I, where she says, ‘Beloved Bharat, land of my birth, there is so much to explore and experience…, the chapter heading is ‘A Fond Farewell ‘Phir Milenge,’ – we will meet again. Here the finality of the English leave-taking is belied by the Hindi/Urdu message, and it is the latter that remains the underlying message of the book - that this is neither the final journey nor the final book, as the author will return/re-return to India, revisiting the ‘land of her birth’ in physical, mental and imaginative journeys to the generous expanse of a sub-continent as there will always be a bit of India in almost every Scot who has been there.
The final chapter is an overview of the experience of travelling to and writing about travel in India, and at the end there is a helpful list of charities and a guest house in Delhi and website details for those interested in travelling to India and learning more about the author and her work. The ‘Final Word’ that intervenes between Chapter 21 and the list, records the author’s concerns about the terrorist attacks in Bangalore and Ahmedabad and the reality of India’s largely secular Muslim community and its loyalty to India. The references to India’s nuclear power deals and India’s economic position will undoubtedly be revisited and revised by Aline Dobbie as her socio-historical alertness will take into account the significance of current developments in Obama’s plea for non-proliferation in her later writing, with the G20 taking stock of a world staggering under Recession, where the conservative Reserve Bank of India has proved that caution is the best way forward in Aline Dobbie’s ‘Beloved Bharat.’ The Peacock’s Call (2008) remains a raucous call from a beautiful bird to be read for its historical narrative, its travel tips and above all, its personal story of a Scot in India.
- Trevor Royle, The Last Days of the Raj (London: John Murray, 1989)
- Virinder S Kalra, Raminder Kaur and John Hutnyk, Diaspora and Identity (London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2005)
- Michael Fry, The Scottish Empire (East Lothian and Edinburgh: Tuckwell Press and Birlinn Ltd., 2001)