1. ME AND HISTORY (OR HISTORY AND ME...)
At its height, the British Empire covered 14 million square miles of territory and ruled over a quarter of the world’s population. To look at it another way, there were 450 million people in the British Empire....
My first home was number 18, Lal Bazaar, the headquarters of the Calcutta Police and the center of the web controlling millions of citizens in one of the world’s great cities.
My father, Assistant Commissioner William Robinson, known as “Robby” lived with his new wife, Doreen, in a small apartment on the third floor of the officers’ block.
Lal Bazaar was typical of most government offices of the time. Untidy. Rows of steel cabinets and tables overflowing with bulging brown files. Telephones ringing. People entering and leaving. Loud voices everywhere. And in the center of this turmoil sat my father, Robby, barking orders at uniformed policemen while beneath the desk, our dog Peggy slept peacefully at his feet amid the turmoil.
One can see the problems of the new country had been incubating for a long time. India had been fighting for independence over many centuries. The revolution began in earnest with the “Indian Mutiny” in 1857. In the 1920 and 30s the pace of the struggle increased. Bombs and shootings were a regular occurrence. The period of the Second World War saw the peak of the campaigns by the Quit India Movement led by Congress, and the Indian National Army movement led by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. The leaders of the violent resistance made a pact with Britain. They would lay down their arms during the war allowing Britain to concentrate on winning the fight against Hitler and in return India would be granted independence when the war was over.
At least one of the revolutionary leaders, Bose, broke this agreement and actively campaigned with the Germans and the Japanese against England. He died from third-degree burns on 18 August 1945 after his overloaded Japanese plane crashed in Formosa (now Taiwan).
My father cited the climate created by Bose and others as the reason he always carried a loaded revolver in the glove compartment of his Jeep. In an abundance of caution, even after independence, between 1950 and 57, I was assigned a personal “servant” who was actually a police bodyguard. A wiry little man called Bhuddah ChaCha, translated as “Old Man Uncle” and was always by my side except when he prayed five times a day as devout Muslims do.
Tuesday August 15th 1947, two years later after that film was made, the new Republic of India emerged from the womb of the British Empire kicking and screaming like a demanding baby into a fractured world. The culture of my father’s office reflected the nature of the country. There was a mixture of British resignation from the old Empire hands and great activity from the emerging Indian ruling class.
It was a painful time:
Here is my father - William "Robby" Robinson - from a 1945 instructional film on wartime traffic control. He was an inspector when this film was made. He appears briefly at around 3'00" indicating routes on a map of the city to two US soldiers.