Mounted on a hilltop and surrounded by towering Deodar trees, the Gorton Castle could be seen from very far off. As the military vehicle pulled up in the driveway of the castle, John leaned out of the window to gape at the majestic castle designed by Col. Sir Samuel Swinton Jacob, a well-known engineer and architect, in 1904. Ever since his father had been posted in Shimla, the summer capital of the British Empire in India, John wanted to visit the castle that served as the Government Secretariat. Inspired by neo-Gothic architecture, the Gorton Castle was built with grey-stone, surrounded by high towers and covered with red galvanized iron roofing.
John’s father, Lieutenant-General Charles Williams, turned around and fixed his son with a stern gaze. “Now John, do you remember the conditions on which I’ve brought you here?”
“Yes, Father,” said John meekly. “I must not ask stupid questions. I must not wander off alone. I must not offend the Major General.”
“Excellent, John! Here we are.”
John followed his father through the entrance of the edifice, a large portico with a decorative frieze, with his Indian attendant, Shyam Lal, on his heels. They were led to an enormous room with gilded chandeliers and fabric-covered ornamental chairs, all the furniture imported from England.
John shook hands with his father’s boss, Major General Ross Emerson, a tall man with a fierce moustache, and took a seat next to his father. John’s gaze swept over the wood-panelled walls and the lush lawns outside beyond the windows. How lovely it would be to take a walk around the castle and explore its three stories and 125 rooms! And to describe his visit in loving detail to Mary, to watch her eyes go round with awe would be nothing short of pleasurable. Maybe she’d even kiss him on the cheek. The thought brought a blush to John’s cheeks. Maybe he could request his father to allow Mary to accompany him the next time. Her father was just a soldier in the British Indian Army and not an important man like his father, but still, John would try. Oh yes, he would. Anything to bring a smile to Mary’s face.
But first, he must sit politely with the men and feign interest in their conversation for at least thirty minutes — that’s what his father had told him — and then request for permission to explore the castle with Shyam Lal accompanying him. Over the past six months, John had developed an unexpected camaraderie with their live-in attendant Shyam Lal, a man of twenty, who, along with his young wife, managed all their household chores such as cleaning, cooking, gardening, laundry and grocery shopping.
“... Delhi is burning up, I must tell you, my dear fellow. I was so relieved when the orders to march to Shimla were announced,” said Major General Emerson.
Following a knock on the door, a liveried Indian attendant brought a tray and poured tea for everyone.
John’s father stirred his tea thoughtfully. “So, did you come via Amritsar?”
“Yes. Ah, so you’ve heard,” said Major General Emerson. “A most unfortunate incident, I would say. It is being blown completely out of proportion by Gandhi and his followers, of course.”
John sat up straighter in his chair. He had, of course, heard of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, one of the prominent Indians leading the anti-British movement in India. A bit of a troublemaker, but a decent, non-violent man, his father had said of Gandhi privately to John.
“Is it true?” said John’s father, dropping his voice. “The hundreds of casualties they’re talking about?”
“Brig. General Dyer was only following orders, I can assure you,” said Major General Emerson. “He’s a good man. If there’s anyone responsible for the massacre, it’s Gandhi!”
John thought he noticed a twitching of his father’s upper lip, which generally indicated his displeasure over something.
“I’m curious. How so?” said John’s father, his voice free of emotion.
Major General Emerson lit a cigar, blowing smoke towards the open window. “If Gandhi hadn’t opposed the Rowlatt Act, if he hadn’t aroused public sentiment against it, if he hadn’t fanned hatred amongst Indians against the British, none of this would’ve happened.”
John had read about the Rowlatt Act, a legislation passed by the Imperial Legislative Council in February 1919 extending the measures put in place during World War I indefinitely. The Rowlatt Act allowed the internment of suspects without trial and certain political cases to be tried without juries. It allowed the British to fight the war effectively without any distractions, John’s teacher at school had explained.
“It was the strike Gandhi called earlier this month against the Rowlatt Act that caused this massacre,” the Major General finished with a flourish.
The liveried attendant entered the room with a tray of sliced chocolate cake and offered it to everyone.
As John bit into the moist cake, he heard his father’s voice.
“I take it the protesters at Jallianwalah Bagh were armed?” he asked.
“No, no. Not from the reports I’ve heard. They weren’t armed. But they defied the ban on public meetings, didn’t they?”
“Of course,” said John’s father. “How many were there?”
“Ten thousand, I’ve heard.”
“Men, women and children. Why would anyone bring their children to a protest? I’ll never understand. Anyway, they gathered in the Jallianwalah Bagh. Have you ever been there?”
“There’s only one exit and it’s completely enclosed by walls. They were sitting ducks,” said Major General Emerson, scoffing.
“Shyam Lal,” said John’s father sharply. “Bring me some water.”
John noticed Shyam Lal scamper out of the room with his stick-thin legs to bring water for his master.
“Major General, if I may, I have a question,” said John.
“Go ahead, boy,” said Emerson, enjoying the wide-eyed attention of an impressionable young person.
John gulped. “Brig. General Dyer ordered his troops to open fire on thousands of unarmed men, women and children who had gathered in the Jallianwalah Bagh for a peaceful protest.”
John noticed his father shaking his head, but he continued undaunted. “Couldn’t Brig. General Dyer have given them a warning and... and asked them to disperse or... or simply arrested them if he wanted to teach them a lesson?”
John’s father glared at him. “I apologize on my son’s behalf, Major General,” he said, turning to his boss. “He’s just a twelve-year-old boy with a big mouth.”
Major General Emerson leaned forward and patted John’s arm patronizingly. “It is okay, John. We were all stupid young boys at one point in time. We’ve all asked stupid questions. But you will soon learn that the British Empire is the greatest Empire in the world. We’ve dominated the world for centuries and we will continue to do so.”
Shyam Lal entered the room timorously, carrying a glass of water on a tray.
“Plus, Indians breed like rabbits. What’s a few hundred less?” said Major General Emerson, leaning back in his chair.
John’s thoughts drifted towards Shyam Lal’s young wife, pregnant with their third child, and he wondered if that was true.
On that morning in February 2014, Tara Sharma entered her temporary new office, a smaller room on the ground floor which had not been in use for over a century but was recently unlocked because the top two floors of the Gorton Castle — Tara’s original office was on the top floor — were consumed by a devastating fire a week earlier.
For the past year, Tara had served as Deputy Accountant General in the Indian Audit & Accounts Services (IAAS), a coveted central government service. Each year, a million students competed in the UPSC Civil Services exam for a total of about 1000 vacancies in the Indian Administrative Services (IAS), Indian Police Service (IPS), IAAS and various other government services. A bright young woman of twenty-three, Tara had cracked the UPSC exam in her first attempt, making her parents, extended family, friends, neighbours and anyone even remotely associated with her extremely proud.
As Tara arranged the files on her desk, she realized how lucky she was to have her first posting in the state of Himachal Pradesh. She loved working in the Gorton Castle, which served as the office of the state’s Audit and Accountant General.
Tara tapped her password on her computer and logged into her email, reading for the hundredth time the email from Imperial College London offering her a scholarship to study Masters in Engineering, for which she had applied under the Commonwealth Scholarship programme. With her heart hammering in her chest, Tara wondered whether she would find a home away from home in London, just the way the British had found a home in Shimla, a town that boasted of London-like weather.
“But why do you want to leave your own country?”
Tara’s father, a retired Brigadier from the Indian Army, had argued when Tara showed him the scholarship.
“Who gets into the IAAS service and then leaves the country to pursue something else?” Tara’s mother, the principal of a top-rated Delhi school, had said. “Your father and I are already finding a husband for you. You will marry an IAS officer. You can’t leave, Tara.”
It was precisely why Tara wanted to leave — to escape her parents’ controlling influence. If she continued to live in India, her parents would try to control every aspect of her life. Today, it was her parents. Tomorrow, it would be her husband and in-laws whose wishes she’d have to bow. Tara hated leaving behind a job she loved for which she had worked very hard, but what choice did she have?
As Tara pulled out the bottom drawer of the desk to place some of her files into it, she noticed something blue sticking out from a corner. Kneeling in front of the century-old desk, Tara ran her fingers over the bottom surface of the drawer and to her surprise, a part of the surface slid under her fingers, revealing a concealed section underneath. It was where the blue diary was sticking out from.
Tara picked up the blue diary carefully and laid it on her desk. Had she discovered a document from the British era that had remained concealed for the past 67 years since India’s independence in 1947? She was about to pick up the phone on her desk to inform her supervisor about her discovery, but she paused. What harm would it do to check out the contents of the diary and ascertain it was something before she called anyone?
Pouring a cup of tea for herself from the thermos which was dutifully filled by her attendant that morning, Tara opened the blue diary.
21 January 1921
Today, Shyam Lal and his wife packed their bags and left with their children. Mother was distraught. I think Father was disappointed, but he rarely shows any emotion. We have treated Shyam Lal and his family with nothing but kindness and love. I don’t understand. Until a week ago, Shyam Lal was his usual warm and friendly self with his self-deprecating humour. Father says it’s the impact of Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement, but he still won’t say or allow anyone to utter a word against Gandhi. Father says we’ll find someone else to work for us very soon. Until then, I must help Mother and my sisters with the household chores.
Tara skimmed through several other entries in the diary and jumped ahead to an entry in more mature handwriting dated seven years later.
25 November 1928
A most unfortunate incident occurred recently. A frail old man of 63 died after sustaining severe injuries in a lathi-charge ordered by the government against protesters protesting against the Simon Commission. Many others were injured.
“The blows struck at me today will be the last nails in the coffin of British rule in India.”
His words continue to haunt me day and night. The man’s name was Lala Lajpat Rai.
There were no entries in the diary for more than two years, after which the following entry appeared.
25 March 1931
No “Last Interview” with Relations read the headline. Below it, the photo of a 23-year-old man wearing a European-style hat, his face unsmiling yet handsome. Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev Executed. Dead bodies secretly disposed of. The three men convicted of the murder of a British police officer, Paul Saunders, whom they mistook for James Scott, the British police superintendent who ordered the lathi-charge that killed Lala Lajpat Rai. The man was only 23 —as old as I am today —and he died fighting for the freedom of his country. While I do not agree with his violent methods, I have to admire his courage. It makes me wonder whether I will do anything significant in my life. What is the purpose of my life?
"It is easy to kill individuals but you cannot kill ideas. Great empires crumbled, while the ideas survived."
Tara read various other entries in the diary, documenting significant events of India’s freedom struggle and J.W.’s thoughts and feelings about them.
What is the purpose of my life, she wondered.
She wondered what became of J.W. The diary entries continued until May 1947, a few months before India’s independence. By then, communal rioting — instigated by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the All India Muslim League, who wanted a separate nation for Muslims – had broken out all over India. One million died and fifteen million were displaced as Muslims fled to Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs headed towards India.
Tara realized how fortunate she was to live in a free country. How easy it was to take things for granted, to feel no gratitude for a life free from fear and repression, to feel bothered by concerns that seemed trivial compared to the struggles that led to India’s independence. How many people died or were imprisoned so that India could be free?
Tara took a deep breath, returned to her computer, opened the email from Imperial College London and began typing her response.