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Rated: E · Short Story · Contest Entry · #2240377
THIRD PLACE: Roots & Wings Contest - the story of my grandfather

My grandfather, Henry Augustus, was born in 1913, in Bareilly, India, to parents Annie Elizabeth and Henry Ivanhoe. The family had originally come over from a gentleman farmer background, in Shakespeare country, near Stratford on Avon, at the turn of the nineteenth century. A churchyard, in the Bishops Tachbrook area, still shows the family graves. The male line to Henry and beyond him has been solidly Anglican for at least 300 years. John was the ancestor that took the family to India. He boarded the Earl of Abergavenny on his way from Poole to Hong Kong which almost immediately floundered in a giant storm. He was rescued from the waters and took an alternate ship to an alternate destination. He boarded another East India man, from Dublin, in Ireland, landing in Bombay, India. He then served, from 1804, with the East India Company, during the Napoleonic wars, ending as a sergeant in the artillery. He married a Dutch, or maybe a French girl called Elizabeth, and a hundred years later my grandfather was his descendant. Henry's parents were married in the main British garrison town of Lucknow in 1901, in an Anglican church there. He had an elder sister Ivy Kathleen, a younger brother Gordon Aubrey and a younger sister Violet Elizabeth. He was born at the height of British imperial power in India during the Raj and was accustomed to commanding with at least 12 servants, living in spacious bungalows, all over India. He married Helen, in December 1938, in St Stephen's church, in Bareilly, India. He was a major figure on the Indian railways and administered thousands of miles of track all over the Indian subcontinent serving millions of people. He spoke 6 languages fluently including English and Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Punjabi, and Gujarati, though he never went to university. Apparently, he would tell his dirty jokes in Hindi, a language that his wife Helen, like many British Indians, never learned. Henry never tolerated the racism that was endemic among British Indians sternly rebuking his son for maltreating a servant for instance. He loved India and the best part of his life was in that place. In English, he was always impeccably behaved. He went on a Tiger hunt, as a young man, passing through an Indian town, on his way. When he came back that way, having shot his tiger, the town had been completely flattened by an earthquake. That tiger skin sat in the living room, of his London home, for many decades before being worn out by kids then grandchildren. At another time Henry visited the King of Nepal. He was surrounded by Gurkhas, some of the fiercest warriors in the world, and still to this very day serving in the British army. Henry sat opposite the King himself at the dining table. The King, annoyingly, kept kicking him under the table. Finally, Henry had had enough and kicked him back. The kicking stopped, but after the meal, the King awarded him a Gurkha sword, presumably for bravery. My father still has the sword.


During World War Two Henry was made a Major, in the British army, serving in a logistical role on the railways. He had three children, in the war years, and the eldest of these swore his earliest memory was of a Japanese Zero fighter, flying overhead, in Assam. One war story was of rescuing his wife Helen's brother Jack, coming back from defeat in Burma, in one of his trains. Jack went on to recover from his wounds and marry a beautiful Italian woman, called Maria, whom he met when the British 8th army liberated Rome, in June 1944. Henry then worked with the Americans who started running supplies for the Burma campaign and to support Chinese resistance to the Japanese. They preferred him to the official toffs, from the British Military establishment, because he could speak the local languages and was familiar with the local environment, with all the right skills and experience. After the war things moved rapidly towards independence and Mountbatten became the last Viceroy of India with a remit to end the Raj. In the last year of the Raj Henry's father died. 12 days after India and Pakistan became sovereign countries, on August 15th, 1947, Henry's mother also died. Henry decided to get his family out of India and back to the UK understanding that the day of the empire was over and wanting his children to grow up in the UK. He put them on a boat that went through the Suez Canal and on through the Mediterranean to Southampton. From there they made their way to London where they bought a house in North London. Henry stayed in India, to organize the movement of Muslims and Hindus, out of their respective areas, to their new countries, as they had started killing each other after independence and needed to be moved out of the hostile territory. He may have moved millions of people, on his trains, and saved hundreds of thousands of lives. He was the man for the moment, as he had also been during the war.


Henry was invited by the Indian government to stay on, after independence, supporting his family in London, UK, from there. His brothers and sisters also now got out of India and many of them went through Henry's house in London, where Helen his wife held the fort, to their new homes. As a result, there were some very strong bonds between the cousins and the brothers and sisters that have lasted through the years. In 1955 while navigating some track, using a Rail Road Hand pump car, Henry hit a tree, that had fallen across the track, at some speed and injured his back in the accident. He was forced to retire and finally moved to the UK permanently rejoining his family. Some 5 years after that, the generally pro-British, post-independence, India shifted in a Marxist direction and the last British provincial governors were ousted, streets and cities renamed. So maybe it was the right time to leave.


Back in England Henry and Helen conceived their fourth child, Pat, and Henry tried to get a job on the railways. But such was the contempt of native British people for colonials that his vast experience was dismissed as worthless, and he was told he had to start from the very bottom of the hierarchy as a train guard. The British employers, who gave him low-level jobs, on his return to India, would delight in saying things like "Major can you get us a cup of tea". He had several years of such humiliation, as he made the adjustment from being a "king" in the Empire to a nobody back home. In that time he did what he had to, to feed his family, but he lost the respect of his eldest son who could not reconcile the great man, he had known in India, with the new reality. He made a career change and ended as an HR Manager. He was also the Worshipful Master of a London based Masonic Lodge, though he never talked about that. Back in England, his eldest son John, who had grown used to ruling the roost, in his absence, found his injured father a disappointment and was very rebellious, finally emigrating and splitting with him, the monarchy and all things British for two decades. He went to New York and then Toronto Canada. Finally, they were reconciled and John came back over to his father in the UK. Henry saw his daughter Jenny marry an RAF Wing commander and give him 2 grandsons, his son Michael become a CEO with 4 sons and then a Pastor in his later years, his daughter Pat married a Lawyer and had 2 children as well. His sister Ivy went to Rhodesia, later Zimbabwe, but then decades later had to repeat the move from there when things went bad. Henry's wife would cook the most fantastic curries, as this was the staple diet of British Indians, and love of curry has been passed down the family tree. There was an amusing incident when Henry was in an Indian curry house in Canada with family. The staff were chattering in Gujarati and had no experience of white people understanding their language. They were slagging off the guests, including Henry's party. As he left Henry made a few comments about the food, in fluent Gujarati, and then bid the staff goodbye, with a twinkle in his eye. The staff, open-mouthed, were amusingly embarrassed and apologetic.


Helen died suddenly, a decade before Henry joined her. He was in perfect health, jogging each day till he had an operation at 80 which ended up killing him 6 months later. Henry's faith in God was one of actions not words, and he preferred to show you his faith rather than speak about it, he had a deep knowledge of scriptures that informed his decisions. He was a man who kept secrets and only some of them came out after he died. For instance that he organized donations for various widows every Christmas time. He spent his last months getting his house in order, sharing words and prayers with those he loved, and when he died the church was full, though many of those there crying, were not known to me, his grandson. It was a warm funeral with many tears, the man was loved and he will be missed. He was buried with his wife at his request.


His is not a great name in history, he was not born rich or with aristocratic titles and privileges, he was treated with some snobbery and contempt by those he served and benefited and by his own people when he returned to the UK. He bore all these things with dignity. I am sure that without him, and people like him, the world would be a far poorer place. He saved literally thousands of lives that went on to do significant things, he was a part of victories that changed the world for the better, he saw the full glory of and then the end of empire and felt the humiliation that came with that, he made difficult decisions and sacrifices, enduring many things for the sake of those he loved, his large family adored him and his life was full. He was a devout Christian who preferred that the good thing was done without anyone knowing that it was he that did it. You might never know his full name but God does and his family does and that was enough for him.

w/c 1789
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