Thursday 23 October 2014

Peer into the past

He ekes out a living as a peasant farmer in a remote part of north India. His only link to Britain would seem to be his short-wave radio. But despite his humble lot, Julian Gardner is heir to an English barony. William Dalrymple tracks him down deep in Uttar Pradesh

William Dalrymple
The Guardian, Monday 8 December 2003
The village of Khasgunge ( Kasgunj ) lies on the edge of bandit territory in the increasingly anarchic north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Here on the banks of the Ganges, in the badlands to the north west of Lucknow, it is the police who are the highwaymen and the local politicians who run the mafia. It is a place where you do well to keep off the roads after the fall of darkness.
The nearest town of any size to Khasgunge is the old Mughal capital of Agra, three hours' drive away, so I set off in the pre-dawn glimmer of a chill winter's morning, hoping to get safely back by nightfall. As we set off, the great white dome of the Taj Mahal was just visible above the early morning mist, and the bazaars were full of muffled figures wobbling along on rickety bikes. Passing the crumbling cupolas of the old ruined Mughal gardens, we drove out into the foggy fields of yellow winter mustard beyond. Trucks and camel carts headed slowly in the opposite direction, as monkeys lolloped across the road.

The tale I was chasing was an unlikely one. During the research for my book White Mughals - all about the forgotten period of multicultural "chutnification" during the late 18th century - I had heard about a princely Anglo-Mughal dynasty living in strained circumstances in Khasgunge. The Gardners mixed in their veins the blood of British barons, Mughal Emperors and Indian Nawabs, and were said to be still clinging on to their ancestral acres where their mixed Muslim and Christian ancestors still lay buried in large domed Mughal tombs. More intriguing still, it was said that Julian Gardner, the small-holding peasant farmer who was now the head of the dynasty, was in fact the rightful heir to the Barony of Gardner, historically linked to Uttoxeter, and so eligible - at least until recently - for a seat in the House of Lords.

I had asked around and learned a little about Julian before setting off in search of him. Some said that the putative Lord Gardner had never been to England and spoke only faltering English, contenting himself with farming his Indian acres and enjoying the prestige of being the village wrestling champion. Others told me of the strained circumstances in which the current Baron Gardner now lived. A distant cousin of his described how Julian, having invited her to stay to lunch, had picked up his shotgun and promptly shot a green parakeet sitting in the tree outside his house, then handed it to his wife to be plucked and cooked.

It certainly sounded intriguing, especially when a quick call to the royal College of Arms confirmed that the story of Julian's peerage was indeed true. According to Patric Dickinson, the Richmond Herald, who has spent some time researching the claim, had Julian Gardner had the money and the inclination to fight his case through the committee of privileges at Westminster, he would have had no trouble in spending much of his adult life not in a dusty Indian farm, but instead on the soft leather benches of the Lords. "I personally have no doubt that Julian should be Lord Gardner," said Dickinson. "It's not going to be much use to him now that the government wishes to abolish the hereditaries, although I suppose there is the consolation of an invitation to the next coronation. But I don't think there is any doubt that Julian is the rightful heir."

Three hours' drive later, Khasgunge turned out to be a scrappy bazaar town, alive with the smell of ginger tea, frying parathas and the sound of blaring film music. The sun was now up and I was directed from chai stall to chai stall as people pointed out the way to the Angrez Kothi (the Englishman's estate) as they called it. We found our way through the maze of canals and rutted bullock tracks that criss-crossed the country, past saras cranes preening on the edge of irrigation runnels, finding our way towards the high-pointed hemisphere of the vast-domed Mughal tomb of the American-born founder of the dynasty, William Linnaeus Gardner. The tomb dominated the flat country for miles around, and it was only when you drew nearer that you could see that to one side lay the ruined remains of a once very grand residential complex: a hamam [Turkish bath] and a stable block, a roofless ballroom with glassless Georgian fan windows, and a bibi khana or women's house with crumbling lattices set in cusped Mughal arches.

There is a wonderful description of life in these buildings in the journals of a travel writer named Fanny Parkes who visited Khasgunge in February 1835. She gives a detailed picture of how William Gardner lived in a culturally hybrid house with Mughal customs and mixed European and Mughal cuisine.

At the wedding of the colonel's granddaughter, Parkes describes how the European guests, like their host, were all in Mughal dress. Later, "two English gentlemen, who were fond of native life, and fascinated with Khasgunge, requested me to mention to Colonel Gardner their wish to become of his family". But little was now left of this hybrid world: goats lay tethered in the ballroom, and Yadav peasant women stacked their sheaves of winter wheat in the remains of the hamam . Before long the village headman appeared and gave me direction to Julian's farmhouse, which lay, he said, along a narrow dirt track, a couple of villages away.

The house was indistinguishable from any other north Indian farmstead. Outside was the usual disordered Indian scene: chickens perching on charpoys, buffaloes chewing the cud amid mountain of dung chapatis, drying for the winter cooking fires, the gush of water from an ill-oiled hand pump. There was certainly no indication that this was the residence of a man with an excellent claim to a British title.

The strange story of the Indian Gardners begins approximately 200 years ago, with the arrival in Madras of a young refugee from the patriot victory in the American war of independence. William Linnaeus Gardner was born into a prominent American loyalist family on the banks of the Hudson. After the British defeat at Yorktown, the Gardners fled America for Britain, and William sailed to India to seek his fortune. There he married a beautiful Mughal princess, and seems to have converted to Islam to marry her. It was a long, happy marriage. Years later, living with his Anglo-Indian family on his wife's estates at Khasgunge, with his son James married to a niece of the Mughal emperor, Gardner wrote proudly of his multi-racial family: "My having been married some 30 years and never having taken another wife surprises the Musselmans very much," he informed a cousin. "The begum and I, from years of constant contact, have smoothed off each other's asperities and roll on peaceably and contentedly. My house is filled with brats, and the very thinking of them, from blue eyes and fair hair to ebony and wool makes me anxious to get back again. I have more relish in playing with my little brats than for the First Society of the World."

The "brats" and their children grew in time into a remarkable Anglo-Mughal dynasty, half of whose members were Muslim and half Christian; indeed some of them, such as James Jehangir Shikoh Gardner, seem to have been both at the same time. Even those Gardners who were straightforwardly Christian had alternative Muslim names: thus the Rev Bartholomew Gardner could also be addressed as Sabr, under which name he was a notable Urdu and Persian poet.

William Gardner died on his Khasgunge estate on July 29 1835, at the age of 65. His begum, whose eyes he had first glimpsed 38 years earlier, could not live without him. According to Parkes: "My beloved friend Colonel Gardner was buried, according to his desire, near the [Mughal] tomb of his son. From the time of his death the poor begum pined and sank daily; just as he said, she complained not, but she took his death to heart; she died one month and two days after his decease."

The family never recovered the position they held under William. Despite possessing the right to a pukka peerage, over time they lost their wealth, became poorer and poorer, gradually losing touch with both their aristocratic Mughal and English relations. Their old porous multiculturalism gave way to a more conventional pigeon-holing in the firm social stratification of the Raj, and like many other Anglo-Indians, the Gardners found employment on the railways. The penultimate vicereine, Lady Halifax, had Gardner blood and records in her memoirs that she was a little surprised when alighting from the viceregal train on her way up to Simla, to see the station master break through the ceremonial guard and fight his way up to the red carpet. Shouldering his way through the ranks of aides, he addressed the vicereine:

"Your excellency," he said, "my name is Gardner."

"Of course," replied Lady Halifax, somewhat to the surprise of the viceregal entourage. "We are therefore cousins."

I sit on a charpoy in the winter sunshine of Julian's farm as he lays out his file full of family papers. Letters from Burke's Peerage and Debrett's blew about the yard as we eat not parrot, rather disappointingly, but one of the chickens who has been picking about the letters from Burke's only minutes earlier. "The papers are all there and no one disputes my claim," says Julian, through a mouthful of chickpeas. "But I simply don't have the cash to fight the case through the courts: when the bank at Farrukhabad failed during my grandfather's time we lost nearly everything. We're living all right - God has been good to us - but we can't afford to employ lawyers or anything like that."

He is a thin, wiry, intelligent man in his late 60s. He has dark sunburned skin and a lilting Anglo-Indian accent. Contrary to reports I had heard, he is neither a village wrestling champion, nor illiterate; but it is true that he has never been to Britain, and his only link to the country of his ancestors is the short-wave radio inside, permanently tuned to the BBC World Service.

"Anyway," he continues, "what would I do in the English parliament? My life is here: getting up at 5.30 to put the cattle out, check the herdsmen are giving the right food to the buffaloes, that the maize and barley are being watered properly ... It's true we Gardners feel more English than Indian: our behaviour, our way of dressing and living - it's all English and we bring up our children to learn the English scriptures. All the people here call us Angrez. But my home is not London - it's here in Khasgunge."

"Do the people here know about your history?" I ask.

"Oh, yes: if ever the bandits come, the people only have to say Angrezi Sahib aa rehe hai - the English sahib is coming - and the dacoits run off: they have heard I am handy with my rifle. But now hardly any Gardners are left. When I was young there were hundreds of us: we could dance and sing and create our own English atmosphere in this village. We knew all the old songs. Now most of us have emigrated, to Australia mainly. There are a few in Allahabad and Delhi, including my children. But I don't think they will ever come back to live here. My wife and I are the last Gardners left here.

"The end is coming very fast," he says. "It's sad. My family have been here for centuries and now it's the end of the chapter. I just hope the title will come through before I die. My grandfather's soul will rest in peace and my children can go back home as English lords. That's what I pray for at night.

"At my age its too late for me to emigrate. But my children would definitely go if they got the title. I'd like my children to have what belonged to their ancestors. At the moment," he added, "they can't even get a British passport."

· Fanny Parkes's travelogue Begums, Thugs and White Mughals has just been reprinted by Sickle Moon. William Dalrymple's book on 18th-century multiculturalism, White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth Century India, recently won the Wolfson Prize for History and the Scottish Book of the Year.

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