Six wars, and the peace of Dalhousie
An English woman recalls the journey from London to Bangalore to have a feel of India, then Bombay before her wedding at Amritsar; next stop Shimla, before moving to Batala — here’s a fascinating tryst with six wars, men in the family fighting on the front in Europe and India, falling in love, priesthood, and settling down to a peaceful life in the homely and pristine Himachal
I AM an English woman married to an Indian. My father was born in 1898 and was sent to study in Rugby School. When the 1914 war broke out, he longed to leave school and join the army. His parents refused and said that if he left school, then he must go to Sandhurst and train as an officer at the military academy.
I once asked my elder brother how our grandparents had allowed their only son to go to Sandhurst. He replied, “Don’t you understand? They thought the war would be over in two years, and that the training in Sandhurst would delay his going to the war front.”
The First World War dragged on from 1914 to 1918 and my father did go to fight. He was wounded in the leg and sent home. He lost many good friends in that war and when the war was over, he joined the Territorial Army and was ready to be called up when the Second World War started.
Between the wars, he joined the family legal firm of solicitors Blyth Dutton in London (I was 18 when the firm celebrated its centenary). He bought some land in Bedfordshire and in the spare time he planted a Tree Cathedral with a nave of poplar trees, and chapels of the four seasons — a group of cherry trees for the spring chapel, a star-shaped winter chapel of Christmas trees, for example. This was in memory of the friends he had lost, and now many seek permission to scatter the ashes of their cremated loved ones over there. Before my father died, he handed the Tree Cathedral over to the National Trust.
When the Second World War started, I was only three. My mother, who was a Londoner, did not want to be left alone with four children in the countryside of Whipsnade. She moved to St Albans in Hertfordshire, 20 miles north of London.
Our father made a dugout for us all. It was about 6 feet deep in the back garden with a mud roof. It was cold and damp. When the air raid siren went off, we all had to go into it. One time, I remember, I troubled my mother and told her I couldn’t sleep without my soft blanket. She was so fed up with my whining that she went back into the house and got the blanket for me. When she was gone, I suddenly realised what I had done and I was terrified that a bomb would drop while she was away in the house, and she would be killed. I must have been four years old then.
After that, we had a very strong air raid shelter built just attached to the house. There were bunks in the shelter and we all stayed there day and night when we had measles. The air raid wardens would come round at night and warn us if they saw even a crack of light shining between the shutters. There was severe rationing but as a child, I did not have to manage the food. I just remember when rationing on sweets was lifted at the end of the war. I took all my pocket money and bought lots of Polos (the mint with a hole) and made a necklace of Polos for myself!
My father, meanwhile, went off for one of the first battles of the Second World War when the British were pushed out of France at Dunkirk. Luckily, he was picked up by a little boat and ferried back across the English Channel. After that, he was sent north to train soldiers as he was too old by then for active combat.
At school, we were sometimes forced to go down into the cellars when there was an air raid during school hours. But that was rare. We only had three bombs dropped in our town. We were north of London and all the bombs were dropped there before the planes got to us.
War was not frightening for me, and I really didn’t know any other kind of life as a child. What was different was that we had no father — he was away, and we really did not get to know him. The second thing was that we had many evacuees staying, escaping Hitler. I got on well with the children.
Finally, at the end of the war in 1945, my mother came upstairs and called us all outside. She said the war was over. “Come and listen to the church bells.” She took our hand and told us to remember this. The church bells had not been allowed to peal throughout the war, and now the pealing of the different size bells in the tower of the nearby church was really impressive.
Though the war ended in 1945, young men were expected to put in two years of military service after they finished school. That was compulsory. If they opted for it, they could serve for three years and get a short service commission. My elder brother, Henry Blyth, opted for it and was called up to fight in the Korean war. I would consider that my third war experience.
My brother went off in 1954 when I was still at school and one evening my mother came running up with a telegram, saying that he had been wounded. She was terrified and I did not know what I could do. I am ashamed to say that I just went back and got on with my homework.
When my brother got back to England, we went to visit him in the hospital. He had been shot in the leg while leading the assault and could not stand, but was strong enough to sit with bent knees. He received the Military Cross and I went with my father to Buckingham Palace to see him receive it from the Queen. It was odd though. The bullet in his leg was not detected at the army hospital and he suffered for many years before it was removed.
After the Korean war, Henry went to Queen’s College, Oxford, and I later went to London University. While there, I attended a Student Christian Movement Conference and met an attractive Indian student, Maqbul Caleb. He was sure I was the one for him. I wasn’t at all sure, but we kept in touch.
Maqbul was the son of Major Samuel Caleb and his army family originally came from west Punjab. His elder brothers, Iqbal and Salim, were serving officers, though Maqbul had decided to train as a Christian priest. I went to India to see if I could adjust to life there before I said “yes” to his proposal of marriage. I was very happy working for two years in Bangalore and agreed to get married in 1962.
I visited my parents and flew back via Bombay, where Col Iqbal and his wife Joyce Caleb were stationed. It was the time of the Chinese war, and Iqbal’s regiment had been called to the front. Joyce was very busy and responsible for seeing that the junior officers’ wives went back to their families and understood that there would be a time of separation. For the men, it was their first experience of war.
Neither of my brothers-in-law could attend our wedding at St Paul’s Church, Amritsar, in December that year. That was my fourth war.
After I got married, Maqbul and I went to work at Bishop Cotton School, Shimla. We were there when the 1965 war broke out on the Punjab border. Even in Shimla, there was a blackout and we were made to feel we were part of the war zone. We knew all about the Patton tanks. Then suddenly we heard that Salim Caleb, a Muslim, had led the attack against Pakistan and had been awarded the Maha Vir Chakra. Of course, we were proud and Maqbul wrote to The Tribune to say that Salim Caleb was not a Muslim but a Christian.
When we went down to Amritsar that winter, we visited Bhikhiwind and saw the 15 smashed tanks, and then went to the Khem Karan border. That was the fifth war in my life. Maj Gen Salim Caleb died aged 90 in January this year and did not live to see the 50th year commemorations, but the Brigadier in Shimla did greet him on his 90th birthday last November as “the hero of the 1965 war”.
The sixth war that I experienced did not last long. That was the 1971 Bangladesh war. We were staying in Batala in those days, working in Baring Union Christian College. My sister, Elizabeth, had come from England on holiday to stay with us. There was bombing on the border each night. Our neighbours on the campus were quite excited and looked up to see the planes fly past. Though the Indians were not frightened by the bombing, my English sister and I were. We’d wake up trembling. I suppose it brought back memories of war time in our childhood.
We decided after a few days to go to Delhi. Almost as soon as we got there, Bangladesh declared its independence and we went along to visit its new embassy and sign its visitors’ book.
My parents did not want me to marry and live so far away in India. But I am sure they didn’t think that the country of Mahatma Gandhi was a country of wars. However, the wars on the border brought us one good thing. No one wanted to buy a house near the border. That meant we could buy a house in the lovely hill resort of Dalhousie at a very reasonable price in 1966. We wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
The writer and her husband live in Dalhousie. Both are in their eighties
Maqbul Caleb turns 84 on the 3rd of December (1930 born). Rev Maqbul Caleb’s years at Bishop Cotton School Simla were 1962 to Feb 1966. BCS Principal then was Dr. T.M. Dustan and from 1963 Mr. Goldstein. Maqbul was Chaplain and English teacher, then in 1966 moved to Gorton Mission School Kotgarh.
In his autobiography “Count your blessings: the autobiography of Maqbul Caleb, Bishop” (2006 self published, Leila has a few copies- please write to her if interested) He remembers taking the 5th Form boys on a trek to Manali and then climbing up to the Rohtang Pass and seeing the Dalai Lama’s jeep passing over the pass as he went to visit followers in Lahaul and Spiti. Another remembered is a trek down the Sutlej valley to Rampur town and visiting the beautiful temple at Sarhan.
He and his wife Jane Rathbone Caleb (nee Blyth) still live on their own in their home in Dalhousie. Rev. Caleb retired as Bishop of the Diocese of Delhi in 1990 and then for 10 years headed a Christian Study and retreat center at Khyber House in Dalhousie called the “Earth Centre”. While there he also worked towards fundraising and construction of a small chapel in the Pahari Style (a hexagonal stone structure) at Khyber house dedicated to the life and works of Sadhu Sundar Singh -a Sikh convert to Christianity around the turn of the Century whose life and works influenced him a lot.
A man of prayer and with an interest in mysticism Rev. Calebsince last year has been confined to home as his legs slowly have succumbed to a neuropathy so that he no longer walk. Jane manages the house and they have a night and a day male attendant. For treatment he’s been brave to be transported to Christian Medical College, Ludhiana in a rudimentary ambulance but will probably not do that again. He and Jane are doing their best at home. He still loves sport and watches endless cricket, football and tennis.
When asked what Bishop Cotton old boys could do my mother piped in “Oh well they could help set up a guest room – perhaps in prospect lodge or elsewhere in Simla, so that old students and staff who come to Simla to visit their school feel welcomed and not do not have to look for hotels.” It could also have some old Cottonian memorabilia. So you can see Jane is still full of ideas.
Their children – Sunil (50) is Principal of Bishop’s College – a theological college (CNI) in Calcutta and daughter Leila (48) is a part time public health researcher in Delhi.
They live at Mehboob Villa, Mehboob Villa Dalhousie, HP
My thanks to Janet and this introduction is appreciated.
Like Janet’s husband, Kanwarjit, I was a student of your parents at BCS, Shimla. Your mother is the one who taught me English literature and if I remember the prescribed text, which was Thomas Hardy’s ” Far from the Madding Crowd,” it is entirely due to her direction and guidance. Actually her analysis of the material spurred me to read more of the author including some of his terrible work, ” The Woodlanders” !! Barring this exception, the other tales by Hardy were most enjoyable. !!
There was some connection, we heard, about your mother’s father being a British member of parliament. Some little bits about a teacher did float around and this was one piece that was never confirmed!! We would whisper about this great connection with a wee bit of admiration suggesting good stock was around in our midst. “Aache ghar ke hain” is an expression that we learnt only much later !!
Your father, I recall, as being a person who was always proper and correct. A very fair man. He did not lack warmth and encouragement but he never displayed those feelings explicitly. A handsome man who was also a good sports person. I recall the crisp 50 runs he scored in a cricket match with a lot of firm stroke play. He retired from that innings, not out ! I can still see him whack those runs!!
I also recall your uncle whom I once briefly met when he was a brigadier in the army in Bombay. This must have been 1962. I am not sure but your parents were in Bombay that winter. The circumstances of that meeting are not clear but I think Dr Raja Ram and his wife had come into the city to meet your parents. Dr Raja Ram, a former principal of St Stephen’s, would move to Bombay in the winter to be with his daughter, who was our neighbour in Santa Cruz. I was asked to accompany them on that visit. All this is very faint and old memory, possibly not entirely factual but merely an impression !!
I am in touch with a lot of my old teachers, most of whom are now in their 80’s. One of them, Mr Goss, was kind enough to send me a photograph of the staff members in 1959. Your parents are not in this picture, which accompanies this mail as an attachment, but they will surely remember several of the faces in the picture. I am not sure but your parents were at BCS between 1960 and 1962. You were born around this time, if my memory serves me correctly!!
Please convey my good wishes to your parents, though it is not likely that they will remember any of us. It was, afterall, a long time ago!! However several of us remember them with the sentiments I have expressed in this note.
My kind regards
(BCS – 1954-1963)