Out of India: Up country, Hitler and Hamlet rub shoulders

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SHILLONG - High in the pine forests of Meghalaya is this, the most resolutely British of all hill stations remaining in India.

A friend, Farouk Hussein, and his Anglo-Indian wife, June, invited me over for cards, and the scene was straight out of a British country home. At the bridge table, a company director, a retired army colonel and their wives were talking about golf and an article in the Telegraph. The Calcutta Telegraph, that is.

'Hamlet]' shouted Farouk, and I thought he was going to grab a skull and quote a bit of Shakespeare. Instead, a servant boy scurried out with a bottle of whisky.

'He's Hamlet?' I asked.

'Oh, yes,' Farouk replied. 'We have some very unusual names here in Meghalaya. In the last elections, Adolf Hitler won and Churchill lost.'

'And how did Frankenstein do?' June wondered.

'Lost, I'm afraid,' her husband replied. 'I can't remember whether he was up against Rockefeller or Mountbatten.'

'Frankenstein always loses. I can't understand why he bothers to run,' said one of the bridge players.

A few days later, with June and Farouk, I visited a butterfly collector, Mr Wankhar. He pointed to a pale butterfly from Kashmir that rapes his mate, chasing her over the dizzying, snowy Himalayan peaks before forcing her into a mountain meadow and having his way with her (only to die 10 days later of old age). In the middle of this tale of high-altitude ravishing, in walks an old friend of June's by the name of Latrine.

'Latrine?' I whispered, 'as in . . . toilet?'

'Yes,' June replied.

I was beginning to wonder why June's name was not May-I-Help-You, Black Beauty or She-Satisfies-Us, some of the other names I was beginning to collect with the same avid interest that Mr Wankhar netted his butterflies. It turns out that June's father was an Englishman who joined the Indian Civil Service after a first in Philosophy at Oxford, and he was quite sensible about names.

He married June's mother, an exquisite beauty from the Khasi tribe, and when she died, he retired to a thatched forest hut where he read philosophical tomes with a candle perched on his chest. He often wrote essays that had a lifespan shorter than a Kashmir butterfly's. Every week he burned his writings.

As for Latrine, said June, it was probably chosen as a name because his Khasi parents, servants to a British couple, had heard the word mentioned frequently and liked the sound of it. 'You think Latrine sounds strange,' said June, 'there's a woman here in Shillong named Prostitute. Prostie, for short.'

I dread to think of what quarrels her parents might have overheard coming from the British Sahib and Memsahib's bungalow that made them think: 'That word they keep using, over and over . . . prostitute. Sounds good. Let's call our daughter that.'

The odd names in Meghalaya started with the English and Welsh missionaries who arrived in the mid- 19th century in possession of a diabolical sense of humour. When the animist tribesmen converted to Christianity, the missionaries often baptised with bizarre, arresting names. The literary tastes of the missionaries often came into play, which explains the many Hamlets and Wordsworths roaming the Meghalaya highlands.

Preachers of a more historical bent sprinkled their congregation with Admiral Nelsons, Mountbattens, Churchills, and a few John F Kennedys. Adolf Hitler, I suppose, must have been a name plucked randomly by his parents listening to BBC radio during the Second World War.

Then, there are the wish-fulfilment names, such as Dentist (who also grew up to be a politician) and Rockefeller. Place names are big, too: New York, Birmingham, and Manchester. But my favourite was the Shillong man (perhaps a long-distance lorry driver) who called his number one son First Gear. They tend to have big families in north-east India, and First Gear was followed, inevitably, by Second Gear, Third Gear, Fourth Gear and, of course . . . Neutral.