Book brings Briton to roots

76-year-old traces her great-grandparents' footsteps

By Chandreyee Ghose in Calcutta
  • Published 13.02.18
Sarah Royle and husband Julian take a stroll down Dacres Lane on Monday as part of Iftekhar Ahsan's Calcutta Walks tour. Picture by B. Halder

Calcutta: A compilation of journals chronicling a British housewife's life in Calcutta and erstwhile Dacca between 1856 and 1889 has opened up a whole new world to discover for her great-granddaughter at the age of 76.

Sarah Royle was tingling with excitement when she reached Ho Chi Minh Sarani, formerly Harrington Street, on Sunday. This was where her great-grandparents H.J. Reynolds and Margaretta had lived for three decades.

Sarah knew they lived in "houses No. 3 and No. 8" around this location. One of these likely places now houses a gallery. As she and her husband Julian went around the gallery and the compound, it was as if Sarah was under a spell.

She had been walking through the streets of the city and its landmarks over the previous week, seeking to be entwined with the "roots" whose existence she didn't know of until a few months ago.

"We came across a book called At Home in India, written by my great-grandmother. It was a compilation of journals she had maintained in Calcutta. Two copies of it were there at The British Library in London. We wanted to buy the book from the library, but they gave us the soft copy," Sarah, a mother of four living in London, told Metro .

The journey of discovery had started when Sarah and a cousin decided to trace the family tree. She learnt that her great-grandfather had joined the Bengal Civil Services in 1855 and gone on to become the 11th vice-chancellor of Calcutta University (from 1883 to 1885) and the president of the Asiatic Society around the same time.

"I wonder why my father never spoke about him," Sarah said on the penultimate day of her Calcutta trip.

Sarah now not only possesses a personal copy of At Home in India (Taza-be-Taza) by Mrs Herbert Reynolds, she has also got some printed and bound in black hardcover for her cousins.

The book provides glimpses into the Reynolds' life in colonial Calcutta and the people they came across during their stay. It is also a valuable commentary on the city's social structure in the 19th Century. Several pages mention the parties, dinners and dances that the Reynolds got to attend, sometimes along with royal guests.

"Margaretta, my great-grandmother, wrote about how she did up her Harrington Street house with stuff bought from a Chinese bazaar," said Sarah, explaining her visit to Poddar Court to connect the dots.

Margaretta, in her journals, also mentions a Miss Bose and Miss Ghose attending the convocation, one of whom went on to become the principal of Bethune School. The other studied medicine.

She also wrote about how the women wore gowns for the convocation, but she would have preferred them wearing saris instead. At Home in India also has pages on the challenges Reynolds faced while promoting women's education. "My great-grandfather was a strong supporter of the Ilbert Bill that allowed Indian judges to try European accused," Sarah said.

The Royles met the current vice-chancellor of Calcutta University, Sonali Chakravarti Banerjee, who gave them a copy of Reynold's convocation speech.

The couple visited St John's Church, the old and new Park Street cemeteries and the Beth el Synagogue. "Margaretta had attended a Jewish wedding at this synagogue. She loved mixing with all communities. She even learnt Hindi," Sarah said.

She learnt a few sad "family truths" too - how the Reynolds lost three of their eight children in Dacca, and the fact that they had left behind their first-borns in England and didn't meet them until after 10 years.

The Royles will take back memories of "a busy, animated and ever-helpful Calcutta" with them. And also memories of " bharer cha" and lovely walks. "The Raj was not perfect. But we gave you lovely buildings with amazing staircases. I wish they are taken care of," Sarah said, eager to take off for Darjeeling and Shimla to create more memories.