Sunday, June 17, 2012

St. Thomas Cathedral, Mumbai: Looking (Very Far) Back

A cursory knowledge of Bombay's history would equip anyone with the following facts - there is a terminus in South Bombay called Churchgate, named rather unimaginatively after a pair of gates that allowed access to the British settlement known as 'Fort'; that this church - the spiritual hub inside the setttlement - was known as St. Thomas' Cathedral; and that St. Thomas is credited with bringing Christianity to Indian shores. Knowing this, one would expect St.Thomas' Cathedral to be large, imposing, smug and self-important. It isn't. Through most of my life, St. Thomas' has been charmingly crumbled and moth-eaten. Even as I child, I worried about what would become of it. Those worries were misplaced. Benefactors, church-goers, heritage do-gooders, perhaps even the government (I am clearly hedging my bets here) have taken on the task of restoring the Cathedral to something of its former glory. Of which I am glad, because this church has occupied a special place in my imagination ever since sheer dumb luck helped me happen upon Ruskin Bond's 'Strange Men, Strange Places,' a slim volume of non-fiction that traces the lives, triumphs and failures of idiosyncratic Westerners who came to India during the Raj  to find their fortunes. Mercenaries, soldiers, missionaries -  many of questionable motives, all unquestionably characters, and several commemorated or buried in the Cathedral.

I've visited St. Thomas over the years,  eager to show it off to friends from out of town. Today, I went back - again with friends - but for myself. I've forgotten the Bond-compiled back stories (although that should change, since someone somewhere is probably shipping the book to me as I type), but I still found enough to marvel at - the elaborate plaques and engravings, the beautiful stain-glass windows, the carving and the woodwork.

But what has always fascinated me the most are the glimpses into lives snuffed out centuries ago - the 28 year old Captain ______, mentored by Nelson, who vanquished an enemy fleet much larger than his own and perished while doing so; the 26 year old adventurer who died on his way back from one of the first expeditions to the South Pole; the soldier who won praise from non other than the 'inexorable' Tipu; the twin brothers who fell in action, both within a year of each other. There are plaques erected in the memory of generals, army chiefs, heads of navies, 'first recorders,' 'assayers,' surgeon generals, commanders of corps of engineers, municipal commissioners, bishops. Others remember young children; wives who were 'amiable,' and 'full of virtuef';  men who were 'cheareful, filled with gentleneff.' In their names and titles I recognized the names of Bombay's streets and institutions. I liked the flourishes in the sculptures, the rhetoric in the epitaphs and the flagrant religious symbolism.  

I know I am looking at the memories and accounts of colonialists, conquerors, men and women who who exercised an unreasonable amount of power over 'natives' and didn't always wield it well. These are the same people who have been accused of grafting their world-view on ours and of therefore having altered forever, and for the worse, how we see ourselves. Some of them responded to what they felt was a call of duty - to the Empire, to God - others came for less exalted purposes. Many of the men who rest in the Cathedral may even have led battles and raised arms against Indians. 

But with their engineers, geographers, commissioners, water-works designers, horticulturalists, school principals and doctors, the colonialists also built this city. They gave it laws, a police force, a University, an architecture, a tram and train network, a sewage system, museums, hospitals and dare I say it - an identity. Their decisions may have served limited interests, but they were also just regular people, struggling with the question of how to bring up families, and adhere to long-held values in a bewildering foreign land. They may have invented the white man's burden, but they may not have known any better.

The reflexive parochialism we absorb from our environment encourages us to brand the British as villians and oppressors. Textbooks will assert to the gloriousness of ancient Indian culture, to the to efficacy of rural self-government, to the inherent guilelessness of Indian princes and to the corresponding scheming of our European overlords. It's easy to believe this version of events because our break with the British has been complete in some ways. Apart from pockets of Anglo-Indians and a few expats, I can't bring to mind any  English, Scottish, Irish or Welsh families who have lingered on in Bombay. There are no places selling British food, British beer or British nostalgia. There are only gymkhanas populated by the stuffy So-Bo elite. And a clutch of eccentric old-school Parsis who still hang portraits of Elizabeth in their living rooms.

But in spite of all the political and educational hectoring, we all know intuitively that things during colonial rule were a little more complicated than our textbooks would have us believe. It can seem unpalatable, but the truth is that our history as Indians is their colonialists'  history as well. We are so keen to disown the past that we are forgetting its part in our making - and some of what it has made of us has been for the better. And in St. Thomas Cathedral I realized with a certain force that here we all were, in the same place, ages apart. Three Indians taking pictures of British tombs in Bombay, delighted to be (re)discovering this particular slice of their past.  

In memory of Henry Curwen, editor of the Times of India

In memory of Mary Prescott, the first principal of the institution now known as The JB Petit High School for Girls

The biggest cheese - Commander in Chief of the East Indies Navy
Ok, this one is cool just because it has the words 'Hollywood House'
View of the Cathedral (to the right of the entrance) 
Bas relief commemorating a young and valiant naval officer, construction ordered by the Houses of Parliament, no less

An interesting sculptural detail...

...or two

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