Roderick Chalmers’ web-based writing can be divided into three groups:
1. His early life in school, in the Himalayas and at St. Edmund’s
2. Life in and around the tea gardens
3. Short stories inspired by the lives of the tea garden workers
Roderick Chalmers is unique among Edmundian Authors. For one thing he started writing at the age of 82. For another, he writes about a different time and a way of life that has passed: life on the tea gardens of Assam in British India. Thus his recollections have both a historical and archival value. From his writings we get a picture of everyday life as well as special events and ceremonies. His writing is direct and simple; that is why their impact is telling. “It makes me so sad to recall this now,” he writes in one of his pieces,” The wonderful life.”
While Roderick has not yet published his stories in book form, they have been featured on the web at Koi-Hai.com and the Northeast Review.
Roderick was born in Cutlacherra Tea Estate in the Cachar district of Assam on the 5th August 1932. His relatives owned this Tea Estate so it was their permanent home. He was sent to school in St Andrews Colonial Homes, Kalimpong in 1938 and thereafter on the death of his mother in 1945, was moved to St Edmund’s College, Shillong.
His first job was with Phelps and Co. Ltd in Calcutta and he left India for England in 1954. He lived and worked in London from 1954 until 1996 and was married in 1960 and has three sons.
In 1996 his wife and he moved to be beside the sea in West Sussex. Sadly his wife of 53 years died in 2013, and it was then that he took to writing to recount his life in India as well as in England.
Samples of Roderick’s writings are presented below, while the rest of his works can be viewed on the Koi-Hai website and Northeast Review websites.
1. OUR SCHOOL HIGHLIGHTS
I have contacted my erstwhile school colleague, who lives in London, and between the two of us we have managed to recall our school highlights.
You will be aware that this narration begins in the last days of the Raj.
When I returned to St.Edmund’s in March of 1946, it was in the old school which had been vacated by the British war wounded. The whole place looked spic and span and was redolent with the smell of fresh paint. Most of the boys were strangers to each other. Others were returning to their old school after spending the war years in Darjeeling or Kurseong.
Brother O’Leary was the Principal and my teacher, Brother Morrissey, was there.
All the boys were assembled in the great hall and we were allocated ‘houses’ not by name but by colours. There were four colours. Red, Green, Gold and Blue. I was in Blue house. The boys sat for meals at long refectory tables, according to house colour, reminiscent of the medieval monks and abbeys. We were made to recite ‘the grace before meals’.
Do you remember this prayer and the ‘grace after meals.?
We were allowed to talk during mealtimes and there was a constant buzz with all the boys talking at the same time. There were a couple of hundred of us. Bearers served our meals individually. There was porridge or cereal, bread and butter and tea for breakfast. Lunch consisted of beef curry and rice and daal. Sometimes we had lamb or pork or vegetable curry by way of a change.There was always plenty of food and quite tasty.The ‘grub matron’ saw to that.At teatime we had bread and butter and jam and tea. Supper was usually made up of ‘side dishes’ you probably know these as anglicised Indian dishes. Aloo chop etc. and water to drink. As far as I can recall we only ever got a pudding (dessert) on a Sunday supper time.
The boys were a mixed bunch . English, Scottish,(mostly tea planter’s sons) Anglo-Indians, Irish and a very few Indians. The one common factor was that their fathers worked for vast companies and were extremely rich by Indian standards. They had to be, to afford St.Edmund’s boarder’s fees. Many came from Calcutta others were railway folk from Kharagpur, Asansol etc. Some fathers were chiefs of police or post and telegraphs, licensed measurers, Indian Civil Service and Army etc. You will recall ,maybe, that some jobs were the sole preserve of Anglo-Indians. Tea planters’ sons were well represented. Toss in a couple of maharajah’s boys. We all got on well together. There was absolutely no tension between the different races or the different religions.Catholics, Moslems, Hindus,protestants and Jews all happily attended mass together. That is until 15th.of August 1947 when some people with advanced theories spoilt it all. It was inevitable I suppose.
We were allocated classes and dormitories, and lockers (presses). There were two large dormitories. Juniors and Seniors. Our beds were made by the matrons every day.Our shoes were polished and our dirty clothes were listed and sent to the dhobi once a week. They were also counted back and examined by the matrons and put back in front of our presses. Our luggage trunks were removed and put in the attic, not to be seen again until going home day in December. The press room was above the shower room. We had showers on Wednesday and Saturday afternoon after which were allowed to leave the school premises. Supervised by the brothers, we were taken to town. Police Bazaar or up the hill passed Tripura Castle. The Chinese chow shop in town was very popular. Just plain chow mien. I think it was fried in bacon fat.It wasn’t messed around with, with meat or vegetables.As I recall it cost eight annas a portion or was it four annas? There was another chow shop in Laitumkrah. Another popular shop was the soda fountain near the Kelvin cinema. Morelos and Guidetties were two Italian confectioners. The former was on the way to town and the latter was in Laitumkrah.
The way to town was via Laitumkrah Square passed Don Bosco and St.Anthony’s and down the steep slope known as Jacob’s Ladder. We fit boys managed this slope with the greatest of ease. I wish I could do that now!
You will find the St.Edmund’s and Don Bosco campus’s on Google Earth. It is a pity that the photo has been cropped before we can see the immense and imposing cathedral of Our Lady Help of Christians. Incidentally, this cathedral was built during my St Edmund’s years. Before that there was a large church attached to St.Anthony’s College and subsequently referred to as the pro-cathedral.
I am led to believe that the reason for the photo-cropping is that there are sensitive areas in that part of Shillong.
I cannot vouch for this however. Apropos the pro cathedral. There was an English brother in Don Bosco Bro.Henry who was ordained in that cathedral in 1945 by Bishop Ferrando, an Italian’ while I was in St.John Bosco’s. I carried the large candle that towered over me. Immediately after the ordination I served ,now, Father Henry’s first mass.
I saw him a few times thereafter when he came up to St.Edmund’s to say mass. Then I lost track of him. That is until 1960, when I went, with my future wife, to the Church of the Sacred Heart in Battersea in London. The parish priest called Father Henry to speak to me, I said ‘Father do you remember me’? Much to the surprise of both my intended and also the parish priest, he replied ‘How can I forget you Roderick!’
The above and a host of other stories written by Roderick about his life in school, England and travels around the world are available on the Koi Hai website and can be accessed by clicking on the link below:
Cutlacherra Pagla Khanna
During the Christmas holidays when we were all together in Cutlacherra, the weather was fine; the temperatures were not too hot, not too cold, but just right.
It was then that we arranged “impromptu” picnics. They always took a great deal of preparation and planning.
First of all we had to choose a suitable location. Then we had to decide what food would be taken. The mode of transport to the chosen location was very important.
We did not have to wait for a bright and sunny day. During the winter months, every day was going to be bright and sunny. We just had to choose a specific day.
On the appointed day, two bearers would go ahead to make arrangements for our comfort. Workers were employed to take a table and chairs to a clearing at the edge of the forest which had been cleared of all twigs and overhanging branches. etc. The earth was flattened and the table laid out with a tablecloth and napkins.
Someone carried the gramophone and a few records to the venue, usually nursed on the back of the lorry.
A primus stove was an essential bit of equipment as all food had to be reheated.
The food was not anything different from our everyday meals, plates and cutlery and drinking glasses and water all had to be taken.
My mother, grandmother and sisters were usually taken by car to as near as possible to the picnic site. The food was transported in the dekchis, in the boot of the car and my brothers and I would ride our bicycles to the spot. Table and chairs and morahs and all the heavier stuff was taken on the back of a plantation lorry.
My father would always break off from his work on the plantation (Kamjari) and join us. He would arrive riding on his horse with the syce (groom) running along behind.
We would play some music on the gramophone and sit around chatting and laughing and joking. Because it was the jungle, nothing different then, we had to ensure that there were not any nasty creepy crawlies about. We messed about under the trees and all the while the bearers were busy reheating and preparing the food. The ayahs were kept busy looking after the very young ones, they were my sister Sheila and my youngest brother Alfy (this may come as a shock to some who knew him as a team captain in school, or even as a grown up).
When all was ready we were called to have our meal in the jungle (Pagla khanna).
Then things started to wind down, all the plates etc were given a cursory wash in a stream. All pure unpolluted water was used then the dishes were transported back to the bungalow.
The primus stove was used to boil water and make tea and cake was cut for us.
After all the playing around we had to wash our hands in the cool waters of the stream, before we could be given cake to eat. All the other food was eaten with a spoon and fork.( I still use a spoon and fork to eat my Indian meals, my children all use a knife and fork to eat curry and rice. I ‘educated’ my wife Molly, to use a spoon for curry and rice. )
As it was getting towards evening, my mother, grandmother and sisters and the Ayahs would all get in the car to return to the bungalow. My father would make a short visit to the tea gangs before he returned home and all the paraphernalia for a Pagla khanna would be returned to the bungalow.
We boys would ride our bicycles around a bit and then pedal home.
We would all be tired but happy because it had been such an enjoyable day. These days were memorable because they were so infrequent but also because they were a family affair. Best of all, my Mum was alive then.
Sometimes, only sometimes, we invited other planters and their families to join us.
The servants always referred to our picnics as Pagla khanna and could not see why we had to go to the jungle when we were perfectly comfortable eating at home.
In time we always referred to our picnics as Pagla khannas and never as picnics. (Sahib log Pagla ho gya)
The above and more stories appeared in The Northeastern Review, May 25, 2015. Click on the link below:
3. SHORT STORIES
The Father did not come Home
Seven-year old Mahesh trudged wearily to school, a school that he hated. His shoulders were hunched and his fists were tightly clenched.
His hair was uncut and flowing over his eyes. At the back the hair covered his shirt collar, just as well, perhaps as the collar was frayed and in imminent danger of falling off. His shorts were cut below the knee and frayed at the edges, they were held together by means of a safety pin at the waist. He looked altogether a perfect mess.
As he walked along he kicked a small pebble, with his scuffed shoes as if it was a football. What rose along with the pebble was coal dust.
Hardly any coal was mined nowadays. With the advent of almost universal electricity there was less need for coal. But the years of mining had left the roads and home with a gossamer layer of coal dust.
Most of the men had moved away, in search of work in larger towns. Some men however, had remained. They were usually the married men with a family. They eked out a living as best they could. Some remained in the vain hope that the mine would reopen to its original capacity.
The pittance that the mine owners had given as recompense for the loss of employment was soon gone in the ale houses and whiskey joints.
One such family comprised of a mother and a father and a son. It did not take the father long to join the ranks of the leavers. The mother managed to feed the boy and herself by getting casual work in the big house. The work was very intermittent and did not pay well. It usually consisted of doing cleaning and working in the kitchen as a scullery maid. But she was grateful for even this small income.
Mahesh was poorly dressed with miscast clothing because she had purchased them from the charity shop in the nearby town. All the clothes were of the wrong size for the boy and had all the goodness knocked out of them with constant washing.
Mahesh had left home without having eaten any breakfast. There was nothing unusual in that. Most mornings he had no breakfast as there was nothing to eat in the house. He excused his mother; she was a single mother and found it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. He knew that he would be humiliated in school as he accepted a free meal. But he was so hungry..
Ever since her husband had gone away to try and provide for his family, both she and Mahesh would look expectantly down the road hoping to catch a glimpse of him coming back.
The days had turned into weeks and the weeks into months and then into years, but there was no word from him and certainly no money and no letter ever arrived.
Just after he left home she found that she was expecting another child. This child, a girl, was now five years old. What a beautiful child, she was the apple of her mother’s eye, whatever little money that the mother earned was lavished on the girl. The boy loved his little sister, he was also aware that she was the favourite and he had been relegated from his mother’s affections.
The mother would trudge the lanes every day in search of work, but there were very few jobs available, the younger women would fight for the available work, the mother had all the fight knocked out of her. Nobody wanted to employ a woman with a small child in tow.
These thoughts kept turning over in Mahesh’s mind as he trudged disconsolately on his weary way to his lessons.
The only consolation that he had was the knowledge that he would be able to play football with his young friends. He loved playing football, if only it didn’t wear out his shoes . His mother would be unable to buy a new pair for him, so he relied on the already worn shoes from the charity shop.
And then he saw them, a pair of small football boots. He begged his mother to buy them for him and pointed out how they would save his shoes from disintegration. After much persuasion, his mother relented. How could she possibly not know that a pair of football boots was his dearest wish? Even though this had put a strain on her already meagre finances, she was determined to make his life as happy as she possibly could.
The boy’s chest puffed with pride as he sat on the side of the field and changed into his new boots
That day, wearing his new boots, the boy played a brilliant game of football and all his friends and team-mates marvelled at his excellent way of dribbling the ball away from his opponents. He even managed to score a goal. For the first time ever he was congratulated by everyone and carried on their shoulders back to the pavilion.
For the second time that day he was puffed with pride as he made his way home, and was composing the words, in his mind, as to how he would relay his good news to his mother and his sister.
But then it started to rain, just a drizzle at first and then the rain came down harder and harder. He leaned against a tree for shelter, and then he sat down as the rain continued. He was so overcome with emotion that he began to sob. The sobbing developed into a full flow of tears. He began to think of his father, whom he vaguely remembered and the hard life of poverty that his family had to endure. He wept pitifully and there was no controlling his sorrow.
And still the father did not come home.
So the years went by, the boy was growing up fast and soon outgrew his cheap second hand clothes which had to be replaced by other cheap second hand clothes from the charity shop. If only he could afford some new clothes and a warm jacket!!!!
He so wished that his mother did not have to work so hard and that his sister was dressed in beautiful dresses, instead of the cheap cotton frocks from the same charity shop.
The boy spent all his leisure hours playing football. It was the only time that he could forget his troubles and imagined a different life for his family and himself.
Whenever the boy felt overcome with emotion, he would sit under the same tree and weep. The tree felt like a comfortable old friend to be turned to in times of trouble .The boy longed for his father to come home.
But the father never came.
From a very young age, both children had gone out seeking work that had paid them some money. They had always given their hard earned money to their mother without spending any on themselves. The mother had noticed these constant acts of unselfishness, and had encouraged the children in whatever path that they chose to pursue.
Although it would not always appear so, she loved her two children with equal intensity.
The boy had returned this love and he and his sister did all they could to ease the burden of poverty that they had to endure.
And still the father did not come home.
The mother allowed the boy to fulfil his love of football and remain after school to play with his friends.
When Mahesh was sixteen years old, He was noticed by team scouts who went around the villages looking for players of above average ability.
The scouts had spoken to the boy’s mother and she had agreed for him to attend a camp where his prowess could be gauged against children of similar ability. He was classed as outstanding and signed on as an apprentice, he was paid for this from a club and he slowly progressed from the reserves to become a member of the team.
This meant long absences from home and he missed his mother and his sister.
And still the father did not come home.
The scout signed up Mahesh to a local football club in a neighbouring town.
Mahesh’s skill as a footballer took him from the town to a city, then a bigger city. He was signed by a prestigious club in the capital city.
The club paid good salaries and a bonus for every victory. Mahesh began to send home money.
Mahesh was chosen for the state team to play in the Nationals. He did the state proud .
The prestigious club gave him a five year contract. The first Mahesh did was to bring his mother and sister over. His mother had stopped looking for work and she kept house for him and his sister.
By the time Mahesh was twenty, he was earning a healthy sum of money.
They now lived in a large house and had servants of their own. The girl went to a private school and she wore the most up-to-date clothes. No more hand-me-downs from the charity shops, they were the most fashionable new clothes that money could buy.
In time he was signed up by one of the most prestigious clubs in the land. Within a few years the boy was earning more money than he had ever imagined.
And, at last, the father came home
The rest of the Mahesh saga can be read at the following link
INTERVIEW WITH RODERICK CHALMERS
Edmundian Authors: At what age did you start writing, and what prompted you to write
R.C: When my wife died in 2013, I was 81 years old. We had been married for 53 years and we had devoted our lives to each other.
I felt her loss a great deal and just wallowed in my grief. Even before Molly died I started losing the use of my legs so I had to give up driving.
I bought an electric mobility scooter to go out to the shops, but this was no consolation to actually walking around
and talking to the neighbours.
I had to find a way out of this downward spiral of depression so I started to write about my early life in school, up in the Himalayas and St Edmund’s in Shillong.
I then wrote about the tea gardens and it all progressed from there.
I really churned out these stories week after week since 2014. Early in 2015 I thought that I would try my luck in writing short stories.
That is how The Mahesh Saga and A Childhood Dream were born.
All my writings have been done in the last two years.
E.A: How does your dual perspective – the fact that your formative years were spent in India and your working life spent in England – influence your writing about tea garden life and an era that has ended?
R.C: I have a great love for India, whatever others might think, and my stories show this sympathetically, I hope.
When I spoke to my wife I prefaced many a conversation with the words ‘’When I was at home’’ She always
replied ‘’But this is your home Roderick’
When Molly was well she got up one morning and said ‘’I feel so sad Roderick’’ I asked her why and she said that we did not have much time left . How did she know? Within a few months she was dead.
When I cast my mind back I find that I can recall many aspects of my life.
Sadly my own family do not seem interested in my life, it was for them as much as anyone else that I recounted all these stories.
Then I found that my youngest brother Alfy’s wife and granddaughter have always shown a keen interest in my stories, so I send my links to them.
With my failing health, I tried to get as much as I possibly could, on to these webpages, in a short time.
As I observed once before, if you write stories then you become immortal. Perhaps they will
be read for generations to come.
Most of Roderick Chalmers writing first appeared on the Koi Hai Website.
Here are the links
One more, titled Brinda, has yet to be published in Koi Hai. The link will be added after publication.