The Fronde of Youth
by Stuart Millson
For many years, Sir Mark Tully was the BBC’s “voice of India”. His despatches from the sub-continent, where, in old colonial terms, “he went native”, represented the highest standards of broadcast journalism – chronicles of a country (or countries if one includes Pakistan), rather than the shallow soundbites which assail us from today’s television.
Tully became something of a modern-day, post-imperial Kipling, an English writer steeped in the languages and culture of India. And, whilst as a journalist of the post-war generation he was perfectly reconciled to Indian independence, he nevertheless reported the many complicated strands, religious divisions and political pulses which made the country and its neighbours what they are today. Tully also delighted in railway journeys across India and Pakistan – railways being one of the great legacies of the British Empire – and his observations from packed carriages of the dusty plains and engulfing monsoons of the land he loved, stand among the great travel-writing achievements of this or any time.
One such railway journey took the author to modern-day Pakistan, to a curiously-named town – Jacobabad – where he came upon a remarkable story, that could have come from the pen of Kipling. It seems that after the dismantling of the British Empire and the creation in 1947 of the Muslim state, vestiges of the old 19th-century order survived – the foundation of Jacobabad being one such example.
At the end of the 1840s, a Somerset-born British officer by the name of John Jacob (who ascended to the rank of Brigadier-General) arrived in a remote village called Khangurh, his orders being to protect the region. Yet it seemed that Jacob became – like a Lawrence of Arabia figure – immersed in the way of life and landscape of the area, conceiving a vision of building a new city and giving a new-found dignity to the people. Instead of this inciting a rebellion, quite the reverse happened, with Jacob assuming the role, not of imperial overlord, but of a local potentate, trusted and, in time, revered by the inhabitants.
Engineering and building work began, not with armed imperial troops keeping a watchful eye on slavish proceedings, but – according to local legend and Jacob’s own accounts, which we have no reason to doubt – a remarkable voluntary desire by all to create a worthy, civic community, sustained by commerce, agriculture and modern communications. It seems that this unusual British officer forged some sort of mystical alliance with the people of the region, a fact confirmed by the profound local mourning and grief which followed his death in 1858.
The town which bears Jacob’s name became his final resting place – the citizens maintaining the grave and continuing to honour his memory, with a loyalty that went beyond conventional respect or colonial deference.
We live, now, in very different times – the District Officers, the Generals, the Raj itself, have departed, never to return. [Editorial note; as Carlyle observes in The French Revolution, “Sovereigns die and Sovereignties: how all dies, and is for a time only, is a “Time-phantasm, yet reckons itself real””] And the story of their ambitious works seems destined to disappear, too, even in the land from which they set forth. As a self-righteous, resentful and vociferous minority, armed with smartphones and spray paint, seek to destroy or deface the statues that memorialise this country’s history, we should remember the achievements of John Jacob and his ilk. And, even if our country is now oblivious to them, his name will still be remembered by the citizens of a small town in Pakistan. Somehow, bizarrely, British history still matters to them.
Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of QR