In The Heavenborn’s Ranks

The train halted at Gorakhpur Railway Station in the United Provinces and my father, the departed J.M. Lobo Prabhu, then  a  dapper 22 year old  stepped out  into the sultry heat. Having passed the fiendishly difficult Indian Civil Services Exam, he was going to experience his induction into the ranks of the heavenborn. He had come a long way from Mangalore, his coastal hometown in a South Western corner of India on his maiden posting. The lessons of Haileybury College and the London School of Economics were fresh in his mind. Though he had joined the elite band of men who would govern a sub-continent, he was nevertheless surprised to be met at the Station by the Collector, G.M.Harper, who took him home in his horse carriage to his residence, a vast mansion with a 200 yard driveway from the gate. They enjoyed a companionable drink in the Drawing Room which the young ICS officer noted was in a style that belonged to an English manor. Later in the evening JM donned his evening jacket to join the small dinner party which he recalled “ was as good as one at the Savoy in London.” He was made subtly aware of his induction into the ruling class.

The next day, he assumed a seat on the dais of his court, passing 20 orders on petitions right on his first day at work. He received different classes of officials and noted that the higher class of officials customarily brought fruits and flowers. Afternoon tea with the Collector was a daily ritual.

Jawaharlal Nehru, who had enjoyed  socializing at the highest level in London encountered a rude shock when he was denied membership of the Allahabad Club-an event which was said to have made him a nationalist.   J.M.had no such problem- as a covenanted officer, he was among the few Indians whose entry into these exclusive British bastions was assured.  His Collector pronounced him “ pretty good” and invited him to make a foursome with the  District Judge and the Agent of  the Imperial bank- a routine which continued till the winter camp commenced.

Camping was described as an elaborate exercise. Bullock carts carried tents- 3 big ones for Harper and 2 small ones for JM.The tents were pitched in advance in a grove, while the officers journeyed on horseback and checked revenue records at different villages on the way.   Touring was for ten days at a time. The visiting officers were honoured with receptions in villages. In smaller villages, the Rajas and landowners called and the visits were returned, “ sometimes with foreign presents for which the Rajas had showcases.” The duo  also went shooting, and JM felled an alligator with his Collector’s guidance on his maiden shoot.

Back at the District Headquarters, JM played tennis, golf and polo when the day’s work was done. For Polo, Harper organized the purchase of an Australian Horse for Rs 800. The owner gifted JM an Afghan hound pup, June, which was his faithful companion for many years.The horse which had raced for a few years was relatively intractable and went down a disused well with JM who broke a collar bone. Later, JM bought a second horse, an Arab Grey from Philip Mason, an ICS Colleague and famous historian who also wrote books under the pseudonym Philip Wood.

Two horses necessarily entailed employing a groom and a grasscutter. JM in the meanwhile moved out of the Collector’s house and set up his own household in the Annexe to the Collector’s mansion.His personal staff consisted of a  cook, a dishwasher, a sweeper, a dhobi  and coachmen. This plethora of attendants was possible because salaries were low- within Rs 50 for the aggregate. The gardener paid for his own keep by raising his own vegetables.

As a Magistrate, he  found that most cases related to cattle trespass and elopement which was termed “ seduction.” He noted that in the case of seduction the plea was generally the girl’s age “ for which amusing medical evidence was produced.” He initiated procedures for eliminating corruption and expediting redress of grievances.

One of his early challenges on the field was dealing with a swarm of locusts. Observing that local workers  ate locusts roasted by fire, he ordered a line of fires in the direction of their flight. This effectively ended the menace though the State Entomologist found this“ was not a measure in his books.”

JM’s probation also included a stint at the Moradabad Training College, where among other things he vividly recalled the Christmas repast “where a whole leg of ham was cut for Christmas Dinner.” Moradabad, though smaller , was socially livelier than Gorakhpur.The Railway Institute was “good for dancing, with a good sprinkling of Anglo- Indians.” The Kadir Cup on the riverside near Hasanpur was an important event “where the Viceroy and the top brass rode on their horses after wild boar, in which more horses were maimed perhaps than pigs. It was a big Durbar with champagne cocktails.”

The Nawabi Culture of the place appealed to JM’s epicurean instincts. Among his group of friends were those who hailed from aristocratic families ( some of whom later migrated to Pakistan) and an informal competition ensued around the talents of their respective cooks. “Biryani was compared for softness and the right kind of ghee.” His own cook Neeru was famed for his Shammi Kababs and Kormas.

These are but a few glimpses in the making of an ICS Officer who would serve with distinction  in  both Colonial and Independent India, reconstructed from his reminiscences typed in a shaky hand at the advanced age of 86.

–         Giselle D.Mehta

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About proteanpen

Giselle Mehta, an entrepreneur, engages in writing, theater,public speaking and activities with a creative/intellectual stimulus. She is the author of the acclaimed novel "Blossom Showers."
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