BOOKS: Not all heat and dust

Within 50 years of the Mutiny, Cawnpore was the "Manchester of the East". Ian Jack pays tribute to the pioneers
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The Independent Culture
SURELY we don't need more books about the British in India? Haven't we read all that - the tiffin, the heat and the dust, the mystery of the love-hate relationship between the white rulers and the brown ruled? Wasn't it all exhausted ten years ago with the cinematic renaissance of Paul Scott and E M Forster and those plangent keys of Merchant-Ivory?

Boxwallahs proves otherwise. It has modest intentions: at its heart are family memoirs, written to honour ancestors, deploying letters, diaries and pictures from the family album. The late Zo Yalland's family owned and ran cotton mills in Cawnpore (now Kanpur). Her stories shine like pocket torches in the shadowy basement of the British Empire - that vital part of the imperial purpose and experience devoted to trade and industry and the making of money.

This, after all, is why Britain was there. And yet British literature and most of British history neglects to describe it. Some of Kipling's early journalism apart, British writing is seduced instead by questions of governance, race and politics. The prism is official, the heroes and villains are district magistrates, viceroys, generals. The other kind of British expatriate, the kind that gave India the beginnings of its industrial and commercial modernity, have had few memorials other than their achievements: thousands of miles of railways, pithead gear whirring among the paddy fields of Bengal, the mill chimneys that still smoke above Calcutta, Bombay and Kanpur.

Snobbery explains part of this neglect. British "non-officials" in India were seen as distinctly second-division types, often forbidden from the best clubs and (at least in this century) seen as politically troublesome because of their frank and recalcitrant racism. They were often Scottish or northern English, and they tended not to have passed through ancient universities. Some became international figures - Lord Inchcape made enough profit out of his mainly Indian shipping concerns to die on board his steam yacht on the Cote d'Azur - but until Zo Yalland came along I can't think that any of them has been properly evoked.

The Britons who began and ran the Cawnpore cotton and woollen mills emerge through their own words and pictures; a submerged layer of the national character is recovered. Here are those uneminent Victorians, the stubborn, stern, penny-pinching men most at home before a set of accounts or a broken loom. They lasted for three generations in this undistinguished and rather ugly town on the Gangetic plain, which for them was scarred by the racial memory (and with it the racial fear) of the Indian Mutiny, including the infamous massacre in which the mutineers stuffed the bodies of European women and children down one of the town's wells. In 1919 General Dyer more than repaid this atrocity by mowing down hundreds of defenceless Indians at Amritsar. The government commission that then relieved him of his command included one of Cawnpore's leading businessmen, Sir Thomas Wilson. Sir Thomas was shunned in the Cawnpore club for the next three years.

Men such as these, the shunners and the shunned, made Cawnpore into "the Manchester of the East", complete with factory hooters and an electric tram-way. They were not without charity to their employees and their servants, nor sometimes without imagination: an-other of them, George Berney Allen, planted a vast area of scrubland with trees and made a large lake where, on the shore of a bay, a summer house modelled on the Greek Tower of the Winds was erected from imported stone.

Mainly, however, they made money. The Indian cotton crop was a train ride away. Their mills had the adavantages of cheap Indian labour and the best British steam machinery. Their market was often guaranteed by government orders - army blankets and uniforms.

My own favourite is Alexander MacRobert, the son of an Aberdeen labourer, "a slight stooping figure, with very little presence, plain features and a short clipped moustache" who supped porridge every morning, bought his clothes to last and boasted that his solar topee was 37 years old. The Cawnpore joke about him went - Question, what is the definition of rigid economy? Answer: a dead Aberdonian.

Out of MacRobert's rigorous ambition and parsimony came a fortune that endowed Scottish schools and universities and bought four Hurricane fighters for the wartime RAF. One of the aims of the charity established in his name was "to perpetuate the ideals of our race and empire". His three sons, all airmen, all died in flying accidents; in their memory his widow presented the RAF with a bomber christened "MacRobert's Reply".

That war ended British rule in India and with it the British dynasties in Cawnpore. Zo Yalland and her publishers have given us a superb portrait of their epoch, inflected with the personal memory of a writer who, in a glorious Indian childhood, "woke every morning to hear the hooters of the Elgin Mills calling the men to work". In MacRobert's story alone lies all the greed, fantasy and vanity that marked the British Empire - and all the energy, nobility and grief.

! 'Boxwallahs' is published by Michael Russell (ISBN 0 85955 206 3), £28.

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