Midnight Visitor in Meerut

12 Feb

This story (Part I) with photographs is extracted from a piece first published in my Yahoo Group pages on 20 May 2012. This is an edited version with an additional section (Part II) finalised on 20 Jan 2017. The additional section is a creative end-piece.

PART I

On 21 March 2009, I went to work as Monitoring & Evaluation Consultant on an ADB financed project in Dehradun, Uttarakhand.

Ever since university days, I have been interested in Indian colonial history and novels from this period.

While in Dehradun, I knew that I was just four hours away from Meerut, where the Great Indian Mutiny broke out on Sunday 10 May 1857.

It so happened that 10th May 2009 was also a Sunday, just as it had been in 1857.

Being a weekend, I decided I would go to Meerut on Saturday 9th May, spend the day and Sunday absorbing the Mutiny vibrations of 152 years before. I would go by bus to save money, although it was a four-hour journey at the height of summer.

On Sunday 12 April 2009, at St. John the Evangelist Church in Dehradun, I met school classmate Air Vice Marshal Don Jonas (Retd.) and Lt. Gen. Eric George Kerr (Retd.), whose son Pat Kerr was an alumnus of my school although about 15 years junior to me. Lt. General Kerr had retired as Director General of Artillery.

I told Gen. Kerr that I would like to call on him the Sunday after next if I may. The General smiled and said, “Of course”…

And so it was, that on Sunday 3rd May 2009 I made my way to Edelweiss Cottage in Clement town where the General lived.

Over a beer before lunch, I told the General of my plans to visit Meerut on 9th May. I believe I got General Kerr rather excited when I explained that the weekdays and dates coincided with those of the calamitous weekend in 1857.

Before my beer was over, General Kerr announced that he would be pleased to accompany me to Meerut on 9th May 2009.

“But, sir, its summer, I’m taking a bus for the four-hour journey and you are over seventy years old…”, I protested….

“Nonsense, I can go anywhere you can go… I’ll call the Brigadier in command of the Cantonment. He’s one of my young men…He’ll reserve rooms for us at the MES Inspection Bungalow in Meerut…”

“Sorry sir, you’re not coming with me… your children will never forgive me if they know I let you rough it out with me…”

The General wasn’t listening… He was already on the phone, calling up the Cantonment Commander and fixing up accommodation in less than two minutes! General Kerr had a sister in Meerut, so he called her and then spoke to one of her sons, a Colonel and asked him to organise dinner at the Wheler Club on 9th May 2009.

Thanks to mobile phones, I phoned Pat Kerr and told him of my dilemma… Pat thought I was right in refusing to take his dad along with me…. “It’s too hot for dad to be travelling… anyway, I’ll call him and dissuade him.”

A minute later Pat called to say that his dad had refused to listen and was determined to go…”Be careful, Ajit, take care of dad…” In one sentence the awesome responsibility was transferred to me!

The first decision I made was that we would not travel by bus… I decided to hire a taxi and asked my office to arrange a car for me for the weekend… they organised a TATA INDICA car for me. We settled on a payment of three thousand rupees for the weekend starting 0500 hrs on Saturday 9 May and ending midnight on Sunday 10 May 2009.

We arrived in Meerut at about 1000 hrs on 9th May with just one stop at Roorkee to fix a puncture…
The MES Inspection Bungalow was like a five-star hotel. What we got was a suite of rooms each, with uniformed servants to wait on us. Obviously meant only for Flag Officers (Brigadier and above!)

In the evening, I enjoyed a beer on the lawns of the Wheler Club, established on 03 Feb 1863 and named after Maj Gen Francis Wheler CB (1801-1878) who commanded Meerut Division of the Bengal Army in 1861. The badge of Wheler Club still carries the family crest of its founder who was promoted as Lt. General Francis Wheler, 10th Baronet and installed as a Companion of the Order of the Bath.

A game of Housie was in progress. Our armed forces clubs seem to have taken to Housie and Tambola (both based on the British game of chance called Bingo) with great enthusiasm. The voice of the caller droned over the loudspeaker in an educated Indian English accent, “Four and Six, Forty Six, Up to tricks”; “Six and Two, Sixty Two, Tickety Boo”… No wonder Malcolm Muggeridge observed that the last true Englishman would be an Indian! General

Wheler wouldn’t have known that almost 150 years had rolled by!
Dinner wasn’t from a nineteenth century British menu… it was a splendid Chinese meal.

PART II

Back at the EME Guest House, in my suite, I had a hot shower and sat reading for about an hour in the living room. I carefully arranged a book mark, laid down my book and gazed at the cover page…”The Mutiny Outbreak at Meerut in 1857″ by J.A.B. Palmer, published December 2007 by CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS. I made my way in comfortable carpet slippers across the dark brown marble floor into the air conditioned private bedroom.

I was tired after the dusty journey in the small TATA INDICA and drifted off to sleep by about 2130 hrs. I had left the light on at a small desk in the living room so that I wouldn’t be disoriented when I woke up in the middle of the night.

I woke up at about 0200 hrs with a need to go to the bathroom at the far end of the dressing room. As I passed the door to the living room, I thought I saw the silhouette of someone sitting at the desk… rather odd… who could it be? I had locked the front door and bolted it.

I opened the door a little wider to get a better view and I froze as the old hinges creaked and squealed…

From the corner of my eye I thought the silhouette at the desk slowly rose and moved noiselessly towards the expensive curtains of the French windows. It appeared as if the shadow walked into the curtained windows and disappeared.

I stood silently for about five minutes wondering if the intruder had heard me move and had hidden himself behind the curtains.

I took a heavy wooden coat hanger from the rack near the front door and tip-toed to my bed. I reached under my pillow for my 500 Lumen LED torch. I pointed it towards the window and pressed the switch button. Was there a movement behind the curtain? I summoned all my courage and crept up to the living room door and switched on the main light, the coat hanger poised for combat.

I padded silently to the French window and held my breath and… in one smooth movement, dragged the curtain to one side with the coat hanger. Nothing… absolutely nothing… and the windows were closed.

I walked to the desk and found my book open… I was sure I had left it closed and put a book mark in it.

I picked up my gun-metal hip flask from the table to fix myself a drink. I was surprised to find it empty… I was sure it was half full when I packed up for the night. Fortunately, I had a full bottle of Old Monk Rum in my suitcase. I poured myself a stiff drink and settled in the comfortable wing chair.

I finished my drink and went back to bed. I tossed and turned and pondered on my experience. Towards early morning I dropped into a deep sleep and woke up an hour later.

I got ready and went to the Mess for Breakfast. The smartly uniformed Mess Havildar showed me to a table with starched white table cloth and porcelain and silver dishes with the MES Logo on them.

There was an elderly gentleman at the table… He nodded to me and I introduced myself. He half rose, wiped his lips carefully with his serviette and said he was Brigadier Abraham Sarkis. He seemed to be in his Seventies and said he lives at the Wheler Club, just off the Mall Road. He said he came every Sunday morning to the MES Mess for breakfast.

“The scrambled eggs on toast here is something special”, he said.

I learnt from the Mess Havildar that Gen. Kerr had gone to his sister’s house for breakfast and would be back at 0930 hrs.

I struck up a conversation with Brigadier Sarkis. He was a Lahore born Armenian and had joined the British Indian Army just before Independence. He studied engineering and got a Commission in the MES and chose to join the Indian Army at the time of partition.

As I finished my broken wheat porridge and waited for the plates to be cleared, I struck up a conversation with Brigadier Sarkis.

“Last night I had a strange experience”, I said… “I woke up in the middle of the night and thought there was someone sitting at the desk in my room. By the time I bestirred myself I thought the intruder had walked into the French window… very strange…”

“Ah…” said Brigadier Sarkis… you saw Old General Hewie…  Maj-Gen W.H. Hewitt. He commanded the 7th (Meerut) Division at the time of the Mutiny. I have heard of many sightings in the Western block of the Inspection Bungalow.

“As you know the Mutiny broke out in Meerut on 10th May 1857 and then there was an orgy of arson and killing…

“Of course General Hewitt, who used to live in a stately house which is now the Headquarters of the Allahabad Bank lost his command… it was a big disgrace…Col. John Finnis, was shot off his horse at the parade ground on 10th May 1857. In addition, officers, officers’ wives, some children, and many European men, women, and children were massacred.” Hewitt simply failed to act. He could have stopped the sepoys from riding out to Delhi… he could have changed history…”

Brigadier Sarkis paused thoughtfully and stared out of the nearest window and tapped a silver table knife metronomically against his teacup.

I had this great need to do something, so I pulled out my pocket diary and made some notes… General Hewitt could have changed history… The scrambled eggs were indeed very special, served with sausages, grilled tomato and hash potatoes.

I couldn’t have had a more exciting unexpected meeting with the Divisional Commander of Meerut in May 1857… cutting through the time barrier of 152 years!

AM

(1843 Words)

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