Saturday, 1st February 1969 was the first time I wore jodhpurs. This I know for a fact as it was my first Saturday at boarding school – NEGS (New England Girls School, Armidale, NSW, Australia). It was the only day pupils were allowed to wear trousers and ironically, at the time, NEGS did not have the world class equestrian centre it now has.
Last weekend, and quite by chance also a Saturday, I visited the MFAH (Museum of Fine Arts Houston) to view their lavish exhibition, Peacock in the Desert: the Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India. It was magnificent. Featuring masterpieces from the kingdom of Marwar-Jodhpur in Rajasthan. Ceremonial swords and regalia, camel guns, daggers. One hall was filled with a 17th century court tent made of intricately stitched drapes, another showed a moveable wooden-framed tent used for picnics – the floor of that was covered with a rug made from slithers of ivory interwoven with fabric. Turban adornments shimmered with diamonds on the front and the finest enamel work on the back – so fine I was convinced they were also gems, tiny sparkling emerald and ruby chips rather enamel. It was a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the Rathore dynasty and how the latter day maharaja, Gaj Singh, has transformed the royal palaces and forts on the edge of the Thar, the Great Indian Desert, into self-sustaining monuments for now and the future.
The superficial glamour of the maharaja’s life hides the seriousness of his role in keeping this part of India from crumbling into ruins and crushing debt, and he believes the conservation of buildings and the wonderful works of art inside them is an important bridge between history and modernity. Gaj Singh might officially be a maharaja in name only but that is not how the people of Jodhpur see him, and they call him Bapji – father in their tribal tongue of Marwari.
And my father is why I care about Rajasthan in India and Waziristan in Pakistan.
Sent to India, as his father, his maternal grandfather and great grandfather were, to serve in the Indian Army (sometimes now referred to as the British Indian Army), Dad was there during Partition in 1947 in one of the Frontier Corps regiments and he remained as one of the few British army officers in the newly formed Pakistani Army.
I grew up to stories of derring-do on the North West Frontier and about his commanding officer, the first Pakistani CO of the South Waziristan Scouts, Colonel Khushwaqt-ul-Mulk, but who I knew as Khushi. Gilgit, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Wāna, Jaipur, Calcutta, Jodphur were all names that swirled around me with romantic abandon as a child even though we lived in neither India nor Pakistan. The first nursery rhyme I learnt was from the sub-continent – aye aye tonga-wallah, tonga-wallah idera (?), aye aye tonga-wallah, Queen Victoria very fine man!
My father’s time in both India and Pakistan were arguably his happiest days and the men with whom he served, whether British, Indian or Pakistani, were men he stayed in contact with throughout his life. When Dad died in 2010 one of the condolence letters I received was from Khushi’s son – his father having died in February of the same year.
And so I’ve almost come full circle – Saturdays, Jodhpur and Dad – but to close that gap I have to go to Waziristan. That part of Pakistan is riven, still, with violence – 71 years since Partition. And still from the same quarter. Then, the SWS gashts (patrols) were spent defending the frontier with Afghanistan against dissident tribesmen hoping to create a new independent country to be known as Pukhtunistan. Now it is the Taliban causing chaos.
I wonder was it serendipity that sent me to the museum on Saturday to see the Jodhpur exhibition? That reawakened a life-long desire to see those places albeit almost three-quarters of a century after Dad was there. Most of Dad’s ashes currently reside in my son’s London flat – awaiting the ‘right’ time to scatter them in the place which held his fascination and part of his heart for all those years. Perhaps that time is now, one Saturday very soon.
Daddy would like that!