“Caring For The Dead: A homage to the late Theon Wilkinson” by K.J.S.Chatrath

The news item reporting the passing away in London of Theon Wilkinson in November 2007 some how did not catch my eye then. It is only much later that while re-reading his well known book “The Two Monsoons”- which he had sent to me with his autograph and a personal letter about two years back that I checked up the internet and found about his demise.

Theon was born was born on January 28, 1924 in, what the Britishers called, Cawnpore (Kanpur) in India and later on served in the British Indian army. He settled in the UK after retirement. On his sons’s 21st birthday, he brought him to India to show him around. While visiting various cemeteries, he was sad to see condition of the graves. This was when he decided to do something about it. He set up an informal Association of Friends of European Cemeteries in India – which later came to be christened as the British Association for Cemeteries in South-Asia (BACSA) and was formed in March 1977.

In 1976 he published “The Two Monsoons”. The full title of the book “The Two Monsoons – The Life and Death of Europeans in India” gives an idea of the contents. It reviews 350 years of cemeteries in India. A revised Second Edition came in 1987- which coincided with a decade of the setting up of BACSA. The preface explains two clear aims of the book. The first was a hope that the fragments from the tombs would present a mosaic of the life and death of Europeans in India without any political prejudice. The second aim, interlinked with and in fact flowing from the first, was to set up an association of those who felt for the European cemeteries in the Indian peninsula. Both the aims seem to have been well full filled.

It is estimated that more than 2 million Europeans lie buried in different parts of the Indian peninsula. He puts the whole issue in a stark perspective by informing the reader that the average age at death of Europeans in India during the earlier part of the colonial period was a meager 30 years for men and a pathetic 25 years for women. And this excluded the high rates of infant and child mortality. It took a sea journey of 6-7 months to reach India from Britain. And reaching just before the monsoons, one had no time for getting acclimatized. One was lucky to survive two consecutive monsoons in India and that’s what the title of the book is hinting at. He sweeps through locations of cemeteries, the inscriptions, the causes of death, and puts everything in a perspective.

He puts forth a different and fairly dispassionate view of the history of the British colonialism in India. He doesn’t try to justify anything and at times he is openly critical of the ways of the Europeans in India. Describing the inscriptions giving cause of death as some of the sports being then played by the Europeans, he blames them for their insensitivity to local customs: “Europeans in India pursued their sports with a desperate disregard for the customs of the country and the local population was surprised and bewildered by their values- the needless heroism, the unnecessary activity of mind and muscle – when the climate had taught the Indians that passivity was the answer. On this point there was a real gulf between the East and the West”. Of course including the word “mind” with “muscle” in the above description does hint that he thought the Indians to be averse to unnecessary activity of the mind too, a statement which even though it rhymes well, is neither true nor acceptable.

He didn’t mince words in describing the large scale shooting of the tigers by the British. Of course he went a step further and pondered over the possible reasons behind this “sport” having become so popular with his countrymen in India: “Tiger shooting became the sport of the Governors, the new kings of India, and killing a tiger, in some unconscious way, symbolized the conquest of the mysterious forces of the East.”

He succeeds in giving the Indian point of view and in the process often mocks at the Europeans. He describes how the Europeans always appeared to be in a hurry in India, which greatly intrigued, and one is sure, amused the Indians. “For some reason, incomprehensible to the Eastern mind, Europeans were always in a hurry ‘Jaldi Karo’ … … ‘Jaldi’ was almost the first word a European learnt in India. Not that the time saved was put to any useful purpose”.

We are told of the little known relatives of important personalities of the day lying buried in India. We get details about the Yale University’s founder Elihu Yale’s Madras connection. In Bangalore is the grave of the son of Sir Walter Scott who died at the Cape on his way to India. Who but Theon Willkinson could discover that poet John Milton’s great-grandson Caleb Clarke was the Parish priest of the St. Mary’s Church in Madras. Or that Mathew Arnold’s brother Delafield Arnold, who wrote several books and articles under the penname “Punjabee” had a long stay in India. He also located the grave of Charles Dickens son Walter Landor Dickens in Bhowanipore near Calcutta.

He shows surprise that there is no memorial to the dead Indians at the site of the Battle of Plassey, or to the victims of the Great Cyclone of 1st November, 1864 which left thousands dead in Calcutta. One needs to appreciate that expression of private grief in public, by way of erection of memorials was not common in India. Similarly mass monuments were also not erected in India. One reason is the difference in the manner of disposal of the dead. Since in Christians, the dead are buried at specific, identifiable places in the cemeteries, putting up a gravestone with an inscription or getting a monument constructed over it are understandable. The majority Indian form of disposal of the dead is by burning at the burning ghat. The same spot is used again and again, to burn the dead bodies. So it is difficult for any one to individually or collectively regard it as the burial place of a particular individual and to bury a memorial or structure there. Therefore not finding memorials to the dead in India should not be taken as lack of show of respect for the departed.

Remembering the dead is not the same thing as glorifying the colonial rule – these are just different levels. At one level, the detailed epitaphs and inscriptions could be seen as an expression of, and even an attempt to glorify the colonial empire. At a different and more humane level, it is just remembering the dead who came from far away lands, never, ever to go back to their motherlands. Those who subjugated the land lie dead and buried here- subjugated by the same very land- what an irony!

As is welknown, the Moghuls had got pillars erected at every ‘kos’ on the Grand Trunk Road in India. These were known as the “Kos Minars” and were the precursors of the present day milestones. But what really came as a surprise was the finding in the book about small cemeteries set up by the British along the grand Trunk road and some other major roads. “There were tiny cemeteries or clusters of graves at about 12 mile intervals, known as ‘marching cemeteries’, where the casualties of heat stroke were buried when the marchers camped on for the night”. This is a tempting area for further research – if only I were younger!

It is difficult to label this book into a single category. It is interestingly informative, thoroughly thought provoking and amazingly anecdotal.

Thanks to his initiative BACSA has aroused considerable interest in India and the upkeep and conservation of the European cemeteries has improved, though in patches. My humble homage to this extra ordinary man would be to propose the following epithet for his grave.

“There are many who care for the living,
But here lies a man who cared for the dead!”


  Photograph, text and copyright by K.J.S.Chatrath.


May I invite you to see my other website: www.fiftyplustravels.com and my blog www.anaap-shnaap.blogspot.com ?



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