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- Facts, fiction and fables

The frustrating drawback of the greatest convenience of our age — the Internet — is that there’s no means of telling whether an e-mail is genuine. Someone who signs as a woman in Africa might be a man in Antarctica. As for a mail’s contents, can anyone separate fact from fiction? So I didn’t know quite what to make of the message that arrived out of the blue one day some months ago when I was revising Smash and Grab: Annexation of Sikkim for the new Tranquebar edition. The author, Claire M. Jordan, claimed to be the unacknowledged daughter of Roderick (Rory) Langford Rae, only son of the enigmatic European woman who called herself Kazini Elisa-Maria Dorji Khangsarpa of Chakung and figures prominently in my book. According to newspaper reports, a car crash killed Rory, 38, unmarried and an executive of the Indian Tea Association in North Bengal, in March 1965. No daughter was ever mentioned. But here was this woman hinting at cloak and dagger espionage on the China border.

This wasn’t the first mystery involving Kazini. In 1984 when The Telegraph Colour Magazine published extracts from the first edition of Smash and Grab, Narinder Kawlra emerged out of the woodwork to claim her as his “long lost, beloved aunt”, wife of his uncle, then director of health services. Kawlra wrote that he “fondly remembered her as an affectionate and loving lady”, who had a soft corner for him. That’s more than she had for her own son, according to Sangharakshita, an English Buddhist monk (born Dennis Lingwood) who lived in India for 20 years, 14 of them (1950-1964) in Kalimpong. The mysterious Claire put me in touch with Sangharakshita who kindly sent me a copy of his memoirs, Precious Teachers: Indian Memoirs of an English Buddhist. When I sent a copy of the new Smash and Grab, Sangharakshita’s companion, Ashvajit Brahmachari, praised “the quality of (Westland’s) production, which is a whole quantum leap forward from the books printed in India to which I have been accustomed. No doubt the best publishers have the very latest computer-controlled presses nowadays, and make sure they use good quality paper too”. Sangharakshita and Ashvajit are my only proof that the disembodied Claire exists.

Her website shows a square-jawed youngish woman with strong features and long dark hair hanging loose. It claims her parents split up due to religious differences when she was a few weeks old, contradicting her earlier tale of Rory leaving Britain without suspecting his fiancée (Kathleen Veronica Jordan “aka tattyoldbitt or dreamcatcher”) was pregnant. The bizarrerie lay in her career details. Secretarial work on Britain’s Daily Telegraph, computer programming and data analysis for the National Health Service, conducting an internet discussion group “which dissects the Harry Potter books in immense, forensic detail” and even running an occult shop sound mundane. Winning “a couple of quite major prizes for poetry” or writing a science fiction novel is downright pedestrian. But she boasts of being the saviour of sick or injured hedgehogs that need biological rehabilitation and of being one of the world’s few experts on nursing orphaned ship rats. Sceptics are sternly told that her strong mania for accurate data makes lying physically painful.

Sangharakshita says in Precious Teachers he wasn’t surprised when Kazini told him “she had no maternal feelings and was quite indifferent to her son”. Rory’s death “had not affected her in the slightest” she added, “in a tone, and with an air, that suggested the event was of absolutely no interest to her”. If so, she was an even better actress than I thought. I got a gushing reply dated April 19, 1965 to my condolence letter after Rory’s death. “I am only sorry that you did not meet, for you would have liked each other tremendously… he was so like you, frank, humorous, brilliant and honest... he was a man, like yourself, who could walk with beggars and kings”, she typed on her personal writing paper, signing “Kazini” with a flourish. Yet, Rory booked into the Himalayan Hotel when he visited Kalimpong. His mother “took no more notice of him than if he had been the most casual of casual visitors”.

This explains why mourning for her only child didn’t keep Kazini away from the Chogyal’s coronation on April 4, 1965, much to the Sikkim Durbar’s disappointment. As recorded in Smash and Grab, she “strolled among the festive throng, tears of mascara streaming down her heavily powdered face, hysterically pouring out her inconsolable grief to anyone she managed to buttonhole. (Guests) woke up next morning to find on their bedside tables a typed verse making fun of ‘Hope with her Bowery accent’. No one in Sikkim had heard of the New York district, Bowery. But Kazini wiped her tears, slapped on fresh mascara, and returned chuckling to Kalimpong”.

Claire paints Rory as an exciting product of Ampleforth, the famous Benedictine public school, and Oxford, soldier, civil servant and spy. Fluent in several Chinese dialects, he was involved in hush-hush Sino-Indian talks, and his end was “dodgy”. The death certificate mentions Dibrugarh. But the Assam police told Claire’s mother “he died at Dum Duma, 50 miles from Dibrugarh and most famous for having a military airbase there”. His “body was flown back to Dibrugarh and a car accident faked to conceal the fact that a British government agent was involved in the (Sino-Indian) dispute”. Rory’s father, Bertram Langford Denis Rae, Kazini’s first husband, was also “a war hero and part-time British government spy”. He was Anglo-Burmese with Karen, Shan and Chinese blood, and friendly with Burma’s most famous policeman, Eric Blair, better known as George Orwell. Bertram and Kazini divorced in 1940.

Relatives who considered Kazini “a very silly woman and best avoided” believed she had “run off with a Tibetan”. Claire’s mother found in the early 1980s that the Ethel Maud Shirran (her maiden name) on Rory’s birth-certificate had become “Elisa Maria Dorgi (sic) Khangsarpa” in the probate application after his death. Claire “discovered” in August 2010 that whatever name she chose, her “Gran” was “both fabulous and a fabulist; flambouyant (sic) and more than somewhat over the top but possessed of a brilliant mind; a key figure in Asian politics and a contributory one in the expansion of Buddhism in the West; and either semi-detached from reality or possessed of a very odd sense of humour”.

Inadvertently perhaps, Claire exposes Kazini’s grande dame posturing. She was born in Doune, Perthshire, Scotland in January 1904, in a family of farm labourers of English, Southern Irish and Scottish stock. Her father was regimental quartermaster sergeant in the Black Watch regiment which was “only one step below regimental sergeant major which is the most senior NCO there is”, Claire boasts. She doesn’t know that a BOR (British Other Rank) would have been shown the servants’ door in class-conscious British India. Kazini knew — two of her sisters were born in Indian cantonments — and went to extraordinary lengths to replace her humdrum background with dazzling invention. Being without formal education except for some secretarial training, she relied on intelligence, charm and ambition to weave myths she rationalized by claiming “she liked to mess with journalists’ minds”.

One reason for inviting Claire to my seminar at Oxford in October when the Westland edition of Smash and Grab was launched 30 years after the original disappeared from view was the hope that illusions of the Net could be checked against the reality of a personal encounter. But it was not to be. Her regret at not being able to afford the train fare from Scotland had the ring of truth. I was therefore left with whatever image Claire (like her Gran) chooses to project. Thanks to the anomalies and ambiguities of the Net, Kazini’s granddaughter remains as elusive as Kazini herself.