THE GOLDEN ORIOLE By Raleigh Trevelyan Viking. 536 pp. $24.95
NOW, HERE'S riches! And I admit at the outset that I closed this lengthy, most entertaining book wishing for at least as much of it again.
Born in the British penal colony of the Andaman Islands, and reared in Northern India until the age of 8, Raleigh Trevelyan was lucky enough to fulfil a nostalgic dream to revisit his early home no less than five times in recent years. As a result, he has produced a work part affectionate reminiscence, part history, part travel book -- and all enjoyment. In addition to returning to the scenes of his own youth, Trevelyan had the added incentive of discovering the many places lived in by several distinguished forebears, for the name Trevelyan was a part of British Indian history from the early 1800s, to say nothing of the awesome Thomas Babington Macaulay who married into the family.
Having been born in the lower Himalayas myself (where I still feel my "real" home lies), I was enchanted by Trevelyan's account of his childhood in Gilgit, at that time the northernmost of British Indian Territories. There a handful of British administrators and soldiers lived within grasp (almost) of some of the highest peaks in the Himalayas, surrounded by unsurpassed scenery and the friendly people of several different tribal groups. Little wonder that his parents fell in love with the place, or that Trevelyan always yearned to return to the sunny garden where golden orioles flitted in the trees, and all men were all good things to one small English boy. However, when that return was made he found the bungalow destroyed and the garden gone, a result of the violence after Partition.
Throughout his wanderings this experience is repeated. It is surely a commendation, however, that nowhere does he betray the disappointed bitterness of a V.S. Naipaul or the smug "I told you so" mentality of other post-Raj travelers with memories of "the old days," and wastes no time on recrimination or partial judgment. Even at the Memorial Gardens in Cawnpore, where once stood Marochetti's white marble angel guarding the well into which the bodies of a couple of hundred British women and children were thrown after the carnage of the Bibiaghar during the Mutiny, on finding that the angel had been replaced by a bust of Tatya Topi flanked "by two absurd white frogs," Trevelyan's only comment is: "As Tatya Topi was the man held responsible for the massacre at Satichaura Ghat, such an arrangement must have been done deliberately." Had I lost 11 relatives, including "four infants," to that well and the massacres that preceded, I wonder whether I could have been quite so restrained.
With so many notables among his family connections, several of whom helped shape modern India by their policies in the 19th century, it would have been hard to resist the temptation to comment upon some of them and their various achievements at length. Thus there are generous portraits of Macaulay and his brother-in-law, Charles Trevelyan, as well as a fascinating account of the quarrels between the Anglicists and the Orientalists as to whether English should or should not become the lingua franca of the "commercial classes" of India. There are also substantial passages on "incidents," battles, skirmishes and scandals, from Seringapatam, through the Mutiny to the Amritsar Massacre and the terrible earthquake at Quetta, in each of which some member of the extended Trevelyan family played a part.
HAPPILY, all this heavy history is illuminated by personal asides culled from the voluminous correspondence of these earnest, highminded, literate Victorians, always anxious that their families should know every detail of their lives in the difficult (too often deadly) country that they found themselves in. So we learn that Charles Trevelyan was a cranky hypochondriac despite the mountains of work he got through each day, and that the great Macaulay wept so hard and long when his sister, Hannah, married Charles, that the couple had to agree to live with him in his house; a me'nage a` trois that apparently worked out famously. We also discover that Macaulay took 12 dozen shirts out to India . . . but that was less than half the number lost by his uncle, Colin Macaulay, during an earlier disaster. He lost 302 shirts, 140 waistcoats, 126 sleeves, 170 pairs of nankeen pantaloons, 180 pairs of white cloth pantaloons, 126 pairs of stockings, 60 pairs of silk stockings and 20 flannel shirts, as well as his bungalow. Come to that, I have been told that my own grandfather, before the First World War, sent his evening or "boiled" shirts "home" to London to be laundered. The round trip took seven weeks but I never thought of asking him how many he had owned. More or less in this connection, I was delighted to see Trevelyan scotch the absurd myth propounded by popular novelists and perpetuated by Hollywood, that the stiff upper-lipped British officials wore evening dress for dinner even in the jungle. The truth is (as Trevelyan declares and I can confirm) that after arduous days in a foul climate the old dears were quite sensible enough to wallow in a long, hot tub (even if it was a tin hip bath), and then enjoy their "pegs" and dinner in their bath robes. Or even bath towels, if they were bachelors living alone!
Perhaps it is not absolutely necessary to know that snooker was not invented by Neville Chamberlain in Ootacamund in 1875, but in Jullunder in 1880 by an anonymous officer; nor that the Camerons traveled to India with two coffins packed with glass and silver; that Macaulay, while in Ooty, lived in Rose Cottage and not Woodcock Hall; nor even, perhaps, that an unfortunate drunk doing penance in a Buddhist Monastery had, for some unaccountable reason, curried his baby, but I confess I'm a sucker for such minutiae. And oh, how I would love to have lived in a place and time, when, during some rainy weather in Ooty, as Thackeray recalled: "the whole station was in a passion of excitement about Miss Harlow," who turns out to be, not as we might expect today, the latest "fetching spin" (attractive spinster) off the "fishing fleet" (girls in India to husband-hunt), but Richardson's ever virtuous but ill-done-by Clarissa. The chief justice couldn't even read the book for tears. Now there was a man with his priorities straight -- and so much for current feminism and the male who cannot weep!
Trevelyan's immense knowledge, sharp traveler's eye, humor and humanity make The Golden Oriole required reading for anyone planning a trip to India, both as a stimulating companion/guide, and as a fine example of how to travel with an open and appreciative mind.
Valerie FitzGerald is the author of "Zemindar," a novel about the Indian Mutiny of 1857 that won the 1980 Georgette Heyer Historical Novel Prize.