Heritage Short Story


By  Ravindra Bhalerao

(First published in abridged and modified form in Indian Steam Railways Magazine)


CHARLES LANSON SAT through the evening service of St Bartholomew’s Church, his heart aching and grieving and wistful. As the parson preached his sermon, Lanson’s thoughts were far away; he was thinking : why do we have to be separated from our loved ones. . .  why are children orphaned . . .  and why do people have to die so far from home, unsung and uncared for? The thoughts came in unsought; Lanson sank into despair; it was all a great mystery for which he seemed to have no answer.

Lanson was here in India in 1961 on a heritage trip, hoping to find the place where a great aunt of his lay resting. He had grown up in England, the son of a corn merchant, living in the West Norfolk countryside. All his life, he had no reason to suspect he had a distant ancestor who had lived in India. Then one day he received a call from a remote cousin who said he had received information which gave him reason to believe that they had a distant ancestor, a great aunt named Isabel Thorpe, who was orphaned at an early age and was taken in by Brampton Children’s Home south of London.

Lanson set about making enquiries at the children’s home and various other quarters. By the end of the month he had succeeded in establishing that his great aunt after leaving the care of the children’s home, had gone on to study further, finally taking a degree in medicine. He followed up the trail making enquiries at the college where she studied. In the college archives, Lanson was shown a published medical thesis bearing the title: “An Investigation into the Traditional Medical Remedies Practised in the Indian Subcontinent.” The thesis was dated 1922 and was the work of Dr Isabel Thorpe, M.D.,  working under the supervision and guidance of Dr Edward Martin, Head of Bruce Memorial Hospital, Alampore, India.

Lanson was aware that this bit of information, vital though it was, did not conclusively prove that his great aunt was in India at the time of her demise. But neither could he trace any further information that would give him a clue as to Miss Thorpe’s whereabouts after her thesis had been published. He was working on his own, and knew that a trip to India was like a leap in the dark. Nonetheless, acting on a hunch, he decided to take the plunge; he set off for India and arrived in Alampore in the month March. He began by making careful enquiries at the Bruce Memorial Hospital. The records showed that a lady named Isabel Thorpe had indeed served here from 1918 to 1929.

Satisfied with the details he had procured, Lanson made further enquiries and was directed to St Bartholomew’s Church. This was the largest Protestant church in Alampore, and as it was located in the Civil Lines, Lanson knew it was the most likely candidate where he might find a clue.

He was received by the parson, the Reverend Isadas Masih, a kindly man in his late forties. The parson listened to Lanson’s story patiently. In the end, he shook his head. “We have no records with us prior to 1950,” he said in a kind voice. “What do you want to consult these records for? For dates of birth and death?” The parson bit his lips and thought for a moment. “I think I can do something better for you. If you like, I will accompany you to the Old English Cemetery here. It is not far from here. The Lord willing, we might succeed in finding the grave of your great aunt.”

Lanson accompanied by the parson arrived in the cemetery late in the afternoon. The graves, he found, were well spaced apart with a gravel pathway running through, the gulmohar trees in bloom spreading out their colourful canopy over the final resting place of these immortal souls.

The sun cast it last rays over the horizon, the sky was painted with crimson light. The young man had searched the cemetery for more than an hour when he heard a sharp cry coming from the far end of the cemetery. “Mr Lanson! Mr Lanson, please come here. I think I have found what you were looking for!”

Lanson hurried across to find Masih leaning over a gravestone partly obliterated by wild grass and scrub.

“You are lucky Mr Lanson,” said the parson to the young man as he approached. He cleared away the scrub and wild grass, revealing a tombstone crumbling and disfigured with age. The men stood reverently as they read the epitaph on the headstone:

In Loving Memory Of
Isabel Milverton
Born 16 March 1891; Died 7 September 1929
Of Bruce Memorial Hospital, Alampore
A Physician who served this land
With Unfailing Love and Zeal.
May She Enter into the Rest of the Lord.

In the fast diminishing crimson twilight, the tombstone seemed to glow almost with an ethereal beauty. The men stood silently studying the inscription.

“She died young; only thirty eight!” exclaimed the parson in a soft whisper.

Lanson stood still studying the words; he seemed to be in doubt. “There seems to be some mistake,” he pointed out. “The hospital records quote her name as Thorpe.”

The parson seemed as curious over the discovery of the tombstone as Lanson was. He thought for a moment and said: “That may be so; but look at the date. It matches your record exactly—1929.  Mr Lanson, your great aunt married here in India. This tablet is testimony to the fact, and perhaps the only evidence you’ll ever find !”

The young man looked impressed but still would not give in. “I find it strange that this epitaph makes no mention of her husband,” said he.

The parson walked over to one side to study the tomb from an angle. A moment later he was back to the young man’s side. He looked up at Lanson and said: “The inscription here makes no mention of your great aunt’s husband, as you say. These are questions which may remain unanswered…  But I am pretty certain of one thing: this is where your dear aunt sleeps. It is inconceivable that there were two physicians each named Isabel working for the same institution who both passed away in the same year. If this were the case, you would most certainly find another grave here bearing the same name, you see?”

Lanson nodded slowly. He could feel his eyes grow moist. He knelt beside the grave, placed flowers on the headstone, and whispered a prayer:  

Aunt Isabel, I am here to tell you how much we all love you. You served in this far away land without any of us knowing anything about it; how I wish you had grown up in a home with a father to care, a mother to love, and warmth and protection which a child can know only in the home. But you had none of these things. Today I have come with a gift of love for you. See, even the mynah on the branch above is singing a song of joy for you. The whole of God’s creation is your family . . .  Love and farewell, dear Aunt. . .

And with these words, the young man wept silently.

He need not have grieved.

Unknown to him, Charles Lanson’s wish had been fulfilled nearly four decades before these words were uttered.

The Railway in Alampore

The Grand Trunk road passing through Alampore is a meandering strip of tar, wide enough to carry three lanes of horse- or bullock-drawn traffic, coming down through the plains of the north where it is flanked by great shimmering fields of rice and wheat. Here and there the road passes over a culvert or a stream until it begins to climb a bank that leads it right over the bridge on the Narmada, a pale blue expanse of water flowing placidly close to the town. Then in 1872 the railway came. A new bridge carrying tracks was built over the river. Townspeople who had never seen a train before stood at the river’s edge watching in great wonder the new marvel, a giant fire-breathing hulk rumbling over the steel girders carrying along a line of red carriages behind.

As the years wore on, the novelty of the railway began to wear off; the steam train which had created such a great sensation soon ceased to arouse wonder. The people of the town had ceased to marvel at the miracle wrought with steam. Feelings of apprehension that the smoke issuing from atop the devilish creature would bring harm to their cattle, their possessions, and their own selves soon gave way to feelings of resignation, followed by grudging acceptance, then finally appreciation. The steam engine was no longer looked upon as an alien. For the townsfolk had discovered that the railway brought with it blessings and conveniences they had never dreamed of before. It paved the way for brisk trade, it made travel easier and cheaper, and helped people to find employment. The railways, the civil cantonment area and various other establishments such as the District Courts and the newly set up Bruce Memorial Hospital had transformed the place from a sleepy little town into a city bustling with activity.

The railway was, beyond a doubt, pivotal in bringing about these developments. Alampore Junction was on the route to Bombay with a line forking to Jhansi. With the railway came a goods yard and a locomotive shed ; Alampore was from the start an engine changing station, a junction of first importance on the Great Indian Peninsula Railway.   

Roger Milverton, the head foreman of the engine repair shed at Alampore, put down his cup of tea with the air of one who has accepted defeat. It was the custom for loco foremen in those days to gather in the office for recreation after a major overhaul was accomplished. There would be a good deal of jesting and good-humoured raillery interspersed with cigarettes and rounds of tea. It was a time the men looked forward to with great anticipation each day.

The boys trooped into the foreman’s office. Milverton looked up, and from the way they fastened their gaze on him, he knew that he was to be the butt of their jokes today.  

“Ha! Whose turn is it today? Mamma’s boy, eh?” said one of the men sitting down with a grin. “Only a wife can save your skin today! When are you getting one, my boy?”

Milverton’s colleagues who were chuckling all along broke into guffaws; their victim looked away trying not to appear interested while nodding his head in mock assent.

“Gentlemen !” cried out another, rising as though he were making a speech, “let’s not be vulgar. It gives me great pleasure to announce that our man here has finally begun to partake of the joys of feminine company. I hear he entertains in his home a secret lady visitor practically each day!”

An applause broke out, cigarettes were lit vigorously; the men raised toasts craning their necks forward. “A secret lady visitor?” chorused one. “It’s a miracle. I’d give anything to have a glimpse of her. Let’s march into the boss’s home today and take a look for ourselves!”

Milverton waved his hand in disgust. These boys were crazy; they acted as if they had never seen a girl before. “You see, she doesn’t come to see me,” he explained. “She’s picked up a friendship with mother; and she is no secret visitor to my home as you say!”

“There again, mamma’s boy !” exclaimed someone. “I say, why don’t you marry? That’s your only hope.”

Milverton did not seem to relish these remarks. He never minded humour at his expense, but these fellows were making comments that bordered on the indecent. He was a slim man, thirty something, with a flourishing moustache, a bit awkward in manners, but well meaning and good natured. Women had attracted him ever since he was in school, but strangely, when he was around, women took to flight, he had noticed. God knows he had met ever so many of these creatures, but till date, his relationship with these ladies had been but platonic. An abiding relationship with a girl which would grow and finally culminate in marriage was a distant dream which he had little hope of seeing fulfilled.

Milverton tried to dismiss the thought of matrimony from his mind. He was here to do work and a locomotive shed was a place for serious work. He had put in more than fifteen years of service, first as a loco apprentice mechanic, than as a fireman, before taking over charge of shunting engines and goods trains. Seniority had brought one more promotion: in his sixteenth year he was put on the Khalilabad Passenger. He worked as driver for nearly a year before he decided to opt for locoshed duty again. Life on the rails had been a heady experience; he had tasted the adventure of speed. Now he wished to return to a quieter job, one that was less demanding. He was put in charge of the locomotive shed of Alampore. It was the kind of work he loved to do. He had lived amidst the smell of smoke all his life, and here he was, looking after six smart looking puffing billies, each of them eager to receive a pat of approval from him.

The foreman looked out of the window ignoring the stares of his men. “Boy, won’t you ever share your girl with us here?” the men demanded.

Milverton chuckled. “News travels very fast here, but believe me, I have yet to see the girl you speak about,” he said with a gesture of helplessness.

The men exchanged glances as they eyed the foreman gravely. “You fooling us . . .?”

“He says he hasn’t met her yet,” said one in mock seriousness, a cigarette dangling from his lips.

“Mort, don’t be too hard on him. Let’s spare him.”

An engine standing at some distance gave a short whistle, and began to back up on a line next to the locoshed. Milverton watched the loco approach and back away through his window, letting out blasts of smoke and steam. From the corner of his eye he could see the boys were waiting for an explanation. He considered the matter judiciously. “No, I haven’t met the girl yet,” he replied with a tone of finality. “In the meantime, why don’t you boys take a peek at what the Institute or Club has to offer?”

Continued below.