Home is Away - India in 3 years and 3 centuries

As Nicholas Dawes says goodbye to India, he hears echoes of a long family history that resonate from Cape Town to Kashmir

Nicholas Dawes was the Chief Content Officer of Hindustan Times (Illustration by Malay Karmakar)

My first political argument with my paternal grandfather was about India. It was 1983, and I was 11 years old. It has taken me more than 30 years to trace the roots of that half-forgotten conversation in a gloomy living room, where an impossibly intricate walnut table from Kashmir stood in one corner, and faded photographs of men in uniform hung on the wall. I loved that table, I used to run my fingers over the tiny, perfectly regular flowers that stood in relief on its dark surface, and the leaves that flared from its borders. “It took a year to carve”, my grandmother would say, at once completely believable and beyond comprehension.

Some foreigners come to India to find themselves, seeking a stage set for the drama of their self-discovery. I didn’t. I also didn’t come to tap a “vast market”, to arbitrage costs, or to report India’s story for a global audience. Instead I came to do the work I love, at an important Indian media company focussed on making better sense of a hugely complex and dynamic news environment for Indian audiences. My own biography, I insisted to myself, would not feature. In fact I would avoid talking, or even thinking too much, about it, and I made no real effort to seek darshan of my family history.

But I grew up under the shadow of empire, and live in an age of fraught globalism, both born in the India trade, and if there is one cliche about this place that survives living here, it’s that you can’t escape your past, even as you rush headlong into the future. As I prepare to leave India this week, I no longer want to.

In 1983 South Africa’s struggle against apartheid was finding new, and newly powerful forms. The United Democratic Front, which led unprecedented domestic resistance, was born. The state, meanwhile, took violent repression to new levels with PW Botha’s securocrats firmly in control of the country.

It must have been in the spring of that year that my father took me to see Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi at the Golden Acre Mall in central Cape Town. I remember the newness of the multiplex, smaller screens, velour seats, a lavish concession stand, and the slightly heightened atmosphere of a special trip into town. But mostly I remember a few flashes of imagery: Ben Kingsley’s young lawyer, slightly too handsome for the part, on the platform at Pietermaritzburg station, passes being set on fire in Johannesburg, General Reginald Dyer’s troops jogging through the alley to Jallianwala Bagh, and the well filling up with bodies as their guns stuttered.

In Cape Town, in 1983, this was clearly a film about South Africa just as much as it was about India, even to an 11-year-old. It was thrilling to watch.

And so when next I saw my grandfather - my grandfather who had a picture of himself as a kurta-pyjama clad teenager in Peshawar hanging above his desk, who practised yoga daily, and who loathed South Africa’s ruling Nationalist Party so much he had modified a fishing-rod to turn down the volume on his Sony Trinitron when cabinet ministers spoke - I asked, “Have you seen Gandhi?”

Michael Dawes, the author’s grandfather posing in Peshawar in 1931.

“I don’t watch horror movies”, he curtly replied. The tone of the discussion deteriorated from there until he ended it with half-an-anecdote: “When my uncle, your two-greats uncle, drowned rescuing an Indian man, 10 000 coolies went to his funeral”.

I now realise that he probably used coolie in the Indian sense, labourer, rather than in its racist South African sense, as a slur for people of Indian descent, but it was a moment of both clarity and extreme discomfort, not just because I loved and admired my grandfather, but because I began to understand how English-speaking South Africans like me, just as much as the Afrikaners we had been taught casually to blame for Apartheid, were heirs to a globalised system of racism.

The strand of my ancestry I know most about is a long line of soldiers in India. They were ducking Tipu Sultan’s rockets in the 18th Century, patrolling the Arabian Gulf with the Bombay Royal Marine in the 19th, and enforcing the fragile peace around the Khyber pass in the early 20th. I was taught to identify with them, but until that argument in 1983, it had never really occurred to me what their history meant for my own place in the world. And for some reason, I had never heard the story of my “two-greats” uncle, and I didn’t until decades later, when my father began to dig into the archives.

In June 1909 Nicholas Bernard Dawes was appointed by the Maharaja of Mysore to officiate as Chief Engineer and Secretary to the princely state until a suitable Indian candidate could be found to take over on a permanent basis.

He had perhaps established his claim through the work he had done as Deputy Chief Engineer, writing what we would now call a business case for a major new dam on the Cauvery. Revenue earned from selling power to Coimbatore and Madras, as well as the Kolar gold fields, he argued, would eventually fund the construction of a huge irrigation network. “The state will then be the owner of a property free of all charges except Rs 8 lakhs for maintenance and bringing in a revenue of Rs. 60 lakhs per annum and this on an original borrowed capital of Rs 175 lakhs”.

Photos of the Dal lake probably taken by the author's great-grandfather, Lt. col Frederick Dawes.

Family legend takes little account of these details, and you would be hard pressed to find a contemporary Dawes who could tell you that the man who ultimately took the job on a permanent basis, designed and built the Cauvery scheme, and transformed the region, was the legendary Indian engineer, M. Visvesvaraya. My ancestor was clearly a capable bureaucrat, but he was warming the Mysore government seat for a great one, a man whose September 15 birthday is celebrated as “engineer’s day” in a country that reveres engineers more than any other.

One reason for this blank, of course, is that the imperial imagination struggled with the idea of Indian genius (although Visvesvaraya was knighted by George V) and loved tales of vain, selfless, heroism, which, as it turned out, Captain Dawes was to demonstrate just a month after he was appointed.

On the afternoon of July 30th, 1909, repair work to fix a breach in the anicut across the Cauvery near Krishnarajkatte was underway. The river was at full monsoon flood, and the officiating Chief Engineer, along with a small group of workmen, was crossing from a raft anchored above the damaged wall, to a nearby island via an arrangement of ropes, weighted barrels, and two dugouts lashed together. Under the pressure of the current, the dugouts began to heel over violently, forcing their occupants into the river.

Dawes swam toward the island, but just before he reached safety, according to contemporary reports, turned to check if his crew were safe. “He noticed one man being carried toward the breach and swam out to help him”, the Edinburgh Gazette of October 1910 records. “He was swept out through the breach and must have been dashed against a rock, as there was no shout for help or other signal of distress. His body was not recovered until three days later. The Indian was washed ashore some 500 to 600 yards downstream in a badly bruised condition”.

A tablet to the memory of Nicholas Bernard Edwin Dawes hangs in Bangalore’s St Mark’s church, and King Edward VII conferred upon him the Albert medal for lifesaving, second class. The name of the “Indian” who survived is not recorded.

Photos of the Dal lake probably taken by the author's great-grandfather, Lt. col Frederick Dawes.

For my grandfather - an engineer himself - that story redeemed the blood of Jallianwala Bagh. The good officer, dying for his men in a foreign land, the good white man dying to save his coolies.

This year, I travelled to Amritsar with my father on his first visit to India. It was March 21st, a mild spring day and in the Golden Temple, utterly calm despite the weight of the crowd, hymns pulsing from Harmandir Sahib across the mirrored surface of the Amrit Sarovar. After making our circuit we picked our way past the construction debris and souvenir-sellers of Golden Temple road and found the narrow alley to Jallianwala Bagh.

There is deep shade where the dusky pink walls of the gali press in, far too narrow for Dyer’s armoured car. Beyond are the wide and sun-struck gardens. It is a pleasant place now, with neat lawns and bushes absurdly clipped into the shape of kneeling soldiers with sprouting Lee Enfields. The well where so many leapt for safety and instead found death is enclosed with mesh, and grubby. But to look across at the encircling walls, the locked gates that barred escape and the impassive houses beyond, is to touch the surface of a deep reservoir of horror.

March 21st is Human Rights day in South Africa. It commemorates the 1960 massacre at Sharpeville when police opened fire with Lee Enfield rifles and more modern Sten guns on a large crowd protesting the pass laws. Sixty-nine people were killed and at least 180 injured. Many were shot in the back while fleeing.

My father and I stood in the mild spring sun for a while. There was nothing more to see, but it was hard to leave. Eventually my children dragged us out and we drove toward the mountains.

Some of Kashmir’s finest Walnut comes from Pahalgam, the hill town where pilgrims depart for the Amarnath Yatra. Perhaps the wood for our family table, now hanging in my father’s Cape Town home, grew in its groves. Even here, a strict curfew has been in force for 47 days, and there are few customers for the wood-carvers of Srinagar. 67 people are dead, thousands have been injured, hundreds have had surgery for eye-injuries caused by pellets fired at protesters by the security forces, many have been blinded.

Around me in the newsroom, in the 9pm television brawl, and on social media, I can hear hurt, insistent, voices reaching back to the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits, or the accession of 1947, and out across the border to Pakistan and the breeding grounds of extremist terror, searching for a narrative to redeem the violence of the state. Answering them is Kashmiri rage shaded with despair, and the small, vigorous, chorus of Indian opinion counseling a political solution.

The same conversations play out wherever the crisis at the geographical margins of the country, or among its marginalised, confronts the democratic centre with contradictions that cannot be sustained: over caste, over sexuality, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act or a broken penal code.

I won’t be plucking any swimmers from these currents, but it is in their tug toward justice, and in the terror of the breach, that India feels the most like home.

Nic Dawes' last day at the Hindustan Times' office (Photo by Anand Katakam)