Amethi Fort In garlands behind the birthday Rajah.
I’m jumping to today, Tuesday 12th November, after missing a few days blogging through tummy hell. I’ll get back to those but right now I want to get this down while it’s sharp.
Today was the second day of the Granny Goldney road trip. Our driver picked us up from our seventies-time-warped hotel (complete with pink plastic bathroom suite) in Allahabad at 5.30am accompanied by Zeeshan from Greaves Indian Travel who is our travel companion and navigator.
Zeeshan has seized the challenge of interpreting the Indian bits of Mrs Goldney’s escape letter with enthusiasm and excitement. It’s completely off the wall from the usual travels itinerary for him. He loves her story and thinks it would be a great Bollywood plot. We play casting the heroine games-we decide on a cross between Kate Winslet and Cait Blanchett.
We have to break it to Zeeshan that the amazing fort – Manda Fort – we travelled to yesterday, backtracking and looping around ever rougher backwaters, can’t be somewhere Mrs Goldney stayed – we’ve been calculating the distance in the wrong direction! We spent most of yesterday looking for it and then magically it appeared behind locked gates at the end of a narrow village road. We thought it was enough to look at it from this point, and go on,but the driver finds an ancient retainer with a key and he opens it up for us.
We had to pass through a tiny hinged opening cut out of the gate- made so that underlings would always approach or withdraw from the Rajah in a submissive crouch. The Zamindar ushered us through an uninhabited romance of pillars, courtyards, gardens, holi basin, and purdah quarters. No man except the king could enter the Purdah. The Rani’s brother-in -law was bricked up inside the wall for breaking this code; the newer brickwork still clearly visible.
The caretaker unlocked for us the golden steepled temple only used by him and his fellow workers. He said his prayers and then brought out sugar for us just as had been given to my Great great grandmother a hundred and sixty years ago. We were touched and excited at this thought, but then as we worked out, this couldn’t be the one mentioned in her escape letters. But Manda Fort is so beautiful and lonely, visited rarely by the USA dwelling owner, that I am really glad our mistake meant she got some admiring company.
Back to today, we set off at dawn, drive down to the place of the confluence of the rivers where the great Kunbh Mela takes place every twelve years, fifteen million strong last February. Tents and stalls straggle the mudflats, a few early pilgrims and fishermen wander in the pale light. We are looking for a crossing place, where Mrs Goldney might have made her final dash to safety. We drive across a bridge to the other side- we are tracing her journey back to front. Down at Pampernou Gatt, still named so, she waved her hankie for hours at the Allahabd bank, across the wide stream, till she caught the attention of her rescuers. It’s below us, but we don’t stop, so much to do.
We reach Pretagarph, where Mrs G made her mad gallop from the mutineers; it’s a busy narrow dusty town but has a distinct crossroads, maybe the place.
On to Sultanpur, her home for many years, decimated in the 1857 strife. She was born in Delhi, she uses many Hindi words in her letters – a natural usage from years in this country. We think if we can find the old civil lines we may see an old wall or archway re-incorporated into more modern buildings at best.
But on a town roundabout, the driver and Zeeshan soon have a gathering of men, young and old, surrounding them, offering directions. We take one of them with us, squished in the front seat, down winding unpromising streets. We pass through broken stone gates into a place of newish bungalows, and park. In front of them are a series of much older outbuildings. He tells us these are the ‘places where the British were’. Under the earth and dust we see brick road-workings, and the long low building, could be barracks or stables. A large building, made up of three pitched roof shaped buildings locked together, is historically known to the locals as ‘the place of meetings’ so is possibly a mess hall. I wander around the bungalows which seem to be built of reconstituted old brick. The hall, stable type building and crumbling structures now used to house old cars could definitely be what is left of the old Civil Lines.
Our helpful new friend shows us what remains of ‘where the British were’.
I am pretty satisfied with all this but there always turns out to be more. We drive out of the gates but stop after a few yards after our new passenger points out another possibility.
We get out of the car again, he shows us a military house, the address is 1, officers Colony, Civil Lines, currently belonging to the Indian Militia, but it’s too new. But then peeping below and behind it I glimpse something else, a very old villa, with crenellated roof edging, now-blinded windows, an old front garden leading to pointed gate posts, but divided into two abodes.
Is this Granny’s house?
We walk around it; an old stone veranda, steps to the front door, arches closed up that would have once been airy almost cloister-like spaces. Was this her sweet home she had to leave? The garden brimful of flowers? Mr and Mrs Mistral, an elderly english-speaking couple appear; our quest attracts so much interest. Mr Mistral tells us this was an English house belonging to an officer in those old times. We try and rouse the person who now lives in one half of it, but only the lady is in and she doesn’t know anything: this she tells us through a closed door not through unfriendliness but shyness of male strangers. Mr Mistral says ‘let your granny guide you to the right place’ and maybe she has.
We only have one more place to track down before heading for Lucknow; the fort of the Rajah Madhoosing where Mrs Goldney stayed for eight days. The Rajah hid her, her children and companions in a ‘long building within the fort’ that she had visited socially before. It had been boiling hot, June, and the hot wind blew through slats in the wall, the room open to a courtyard on one side. She had been fed, given cloth and the use of the Rajas tailors, warm baths, anything she wanted. Charpoy bedsteads had been brought to her and ‘right glad’ she was to lie on them.
We find the fort, more palace than fort! Handsome and ornate. Some kind of festivity is taking place outside the gates with a marquee and decorations. We take photos through the railings of the one place we know with certainty that Mary Louisa Goldney, my Great Great Grandmother was, in her great escape from the mutiny.
Zeeshan has gone off to find someone in charge and soon a housekeeper/ guardian appears. He lets us in so we can take photos. Zeeshan tells him our story. The housekeeper tells us the current Rajah is the Great Great Grandson of my Great Great Granny’s Rajah and it’s his birthday, hence the festivities. Kaye and I take a little walk around the lawn and on our return Zeenash tells us the Rani is coming down to talk to us
A beautiful woman in a red and gold sari appears from a doorway and greets us charmingly. Servants touch her sari hem before seating her in the garden. We sit too and she summons coffee, biscuits, snacks. She tells us that this story is very important to her family too and they have their own records of the same event. She sends someone off to photocopy our escape letters so she can read it properly. She says they are very busy with the birthday but want to make time to talk to us about it. Will we stay the night as their guests?
By this time Zeeshan is in a swoon of ecstasy, totally starstruck by his proximity to the lovely gracious Rani and the fact she is offering him a biscuit. Now the Rajah has arrived, walked over from his celebrations to meet us. He is dapper, handsome and charming. He knows the story. If we want to stay they will drive us to Lucknow in the morning. We are only allowed to decline this delightful offer by promising to meet with them again in Lucknow the next day; another invitation for when we are in Delhi. Now they must leave us, but please, rest an hour in the guest rooms, have a light lunch and pop into the celebrations before we drive on. The Rajah flicks the bees from my Parisian panama hat before I am turned into a human hive.
We are shown to an airy guest room and ‘right glad’ we are to lie down. After a snooze, Zeeshan, Kaye and I walk across the road to the marquee hosting the Rajah’s birthday bash. He and the Rani are sitting on a raised dias with other dignitaries while people line up to give them presents. We slip in at the back, but Kaye and I are fetched, brought to the dias by minions. I kickoff my decathlon trainers before I ascend the stairs and they sit accusingly in the middle of the central aisle all by themselves in all their Peckhamness.
We are seated behind the Rajah and Rani, photographers jostle for our pictures. The Rajah gives me a special cloth to wear on my shoulders. The Rani invites us to the microphone to say a few words. I am overcome by the parallel-ness of our ancestors, close to tears. I wish the Rajah Happy Birthday, I thank their Majesties for their hospitality to us and I thank the Rajah’s great great grandfather on behalf of my great great grandmother for giving her refuge and then I go on, a bit muddled, about hospitality being greater than conflict, but never mind. Kaye manages to get a word in too. Lots of clapping. I return to my seat, the Rani turns round and garlands us and then they give us both big hugs.
We return to the guest room for lunch , the tastiest food of our trip so far, and before we make our way, a servant asks if we will wave goodbye and we do. The Rajah is still in front of his constituents but gives us the mime sign for ‘until tomorrow’. Before we can drive off we have to sign autographs for local lads who want to be photographed with us.
I write this in our hotel room. It wasn’t a dream. Today these hobbits dined among the elves.