Friday 13th September 2013

A truly touching blast from the past

Today, by way of a change from the butterfly list updates that I have been doing lately, I shall describe a deeply touching event that took place yesterday, but first a little background. In October 2006, my parents, cousin and I visited the delightfully situated mountain cantonment of Lansdowne, as guests of the Garhwal Rifles regiment of the Indian Army. My great-grandfather, Major-General Sir Keith Stewart KCB DSO, was stationed in Lansdowne during the early part of the 20th century, and it was there that his daughter, Julia Constance Jean Stewart, first met her future husband, F W Champion, who was Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) for Kalagarh Forest Division, whose headquarters is also in Lansdowne. They married in 1923, and it was here that my father was born on, like today, a Friday 13th, this time in July 1928, in the beautiful residence of the DFO.

While we were in Lansdowne, we showed some old photographs of the house to our military hosts, and asked them if they recognised the building, and whether it still existed. The following morning, we were driven along some twisting roads through the chir pine, deodar and rhododendron forests to the driveway of that very house, which it turned is still the official residence of the Divisional Forest Officer. The then DFO himself was already out on official business, but we were welcomed in most kindly by his wife, Mrs Renu Sonar, and their young son, Prashant Kumar Verma. We sat in the living room, with me showing our hosts the old photographs of the very house in which they were then living. Mrs Sonar said that it was one of the most emotional days of her life, and my father was deeply touched too to be in the house in which he had been born and in which he had spent the earliest years of his childhood. It was also wonderful to see how beautifully maintained this splendid old wooden structure still was, and to know that those responsible for the wonderful Himalayan forests that my grandparents loved so much are still occupying and cherishing this historic residence.

The DFO’s residence, Lansdowne, as it was in the late 1920s

The DFO’s residence, Lansdowne, in October 2006

Myself showing Mrs Sonar and Prashant the old pictures of their home, with my father sitting on the sofa behind

The young Prashant standing on the verandah of the DFO’s residence, Lansdowne, in which my father was born in 1928

Shortly afterwards, the DFO, Mr G Sonar, returned, and we took photographs of the entire family and other forest department staff, with my father sitting on a kind of “throne” in the the centre, with the young Prashant sitting on the arm of the chair. It was a moving experience for all concerned, and we were deeply touched by the warmth of the welcome extended to us by the Sonar family.

My family with the Sonars and other Forest Dept staff in front of the house in which my father was born

Well, yesterday, to my great astonishment, seven years later, that very same boy, Prashant Kumar Verma, who has now grown up somewhat, contacted me through Facebook! In fact, I then found that he had sent me a message on 28th July, but I had somehow not seen it. His message read:

“Hi, Sir, it has been a gap of nearly 7 years since we met you in Lansdowne, India. My father was DFO Kalagarh tiger reserve (where your honourable grandpa Mr F W Champion was also DFO). You and your family came to the residence where your father was born. Sir, those proud memories are still fresh in my mind.”

How I missed this touching message, I do not know, but yesterday there came another, in which he reintroduced himself and complimented me on the photographs that appear on this website. I replied, thanking him for his kind words, and telling him that I often show the pictures of him and his mother and father when I give talks here, and mentioning that I hoped very much to meet them all again when I next visit India.

To this, I received the following reply:

“Sir, it will be a huge honour for us to have you again in India. My family and I often talk about you and your photo collection….Sir, above all we all miss you and your family very much. Those memories of 16th October 2006 are still fresh in our minds. My father is currently DFO of Nainital and head of Nainital Yacht Club.”

Well, quite apart from being deeply touched by his words, this last piece of information was totally astonishing to me, and seemed to underline the extraordinary parallel lives that the Sonars and we the Champions seem to have followed. Not only did my grandfather and Mr G Sonar hold the same post and occupy the same residence in Lansdowne, but my grandparents were also keen members of the Naini Tal Yacht Club (NTYC), and my grandfather was Rear Commodore of the club in 1946 – 47.

The Naini Tal Yacht Club in 1946, with my grandfather F W Champion seated in the centre, my grandmother two places to the right (as one looks at the photograph), and their daughter Jean in the back row second from the left

Again, in 2006, we visited the club, not knowing whether it was still in operation. To our delight, we found that it was thriving, and we sat enjoying a drink in the bar, beneath a shield inscribed with the words “F W CHAMPION, REAR COMMODORE, 1946 – 1947″ on it.

Naini Tal Yacht Club shield commemorating my grandfather’s tenure as Rear Commodore

I had long known that my grandparents’ favourite boat was Number 7, named Stella. These wooden vessels, built I believe in Maidenhead, UK, in 1911 and shipped to India, were the pride of the club, and local NTYC members would take pleasure in holding regattas in which they competed against visiting sailors of the Royal Navy who came up from Bombay, and invariably winning, as they knew the strange tricks that the wind can play on the lake, which is situated in a deep valley, ringed by high hills.

My grandparents’ favourite yacht, Number 7, Stella, in the 1940s

While we were sitting in the bar of the club, we took a look out onto the water, and we were astonished to see that Stella and her sister vessels still exist, and were moored to the jetty just as if my grandparents and their colleagues had tied them up only a few days before. That these wooden boats should have survived so long, and be cherished as much today as they were in those far-off days, was deeply touching.

My grandparents’ favourite yacht, Number 7, Stella, in 2006

Well, in my correspondence yesterday with Prashant Kumar Verma, I naturally asked how my grandparents’ favourite boat was doing, now that she is 102 years old. His reply came:

“Your boat Stella is under great care of my father and it is a beautiful boat, I must say. We were already aware that it was your boat, so it was our responsibility to take care of it….Next time you are here the two of us will surely have a ride in Stella.”

Well, what could be more touching than that, a totally unexpected blast from the past? My thanks go to the Sonar family, not only for their kind hospitality in 2006, but also for taking care of Stella and the DFO’s residence in Lansdowne, but more than anything, for nurturing India’s priceless forests, upon which so much of the country’s water resources, air quality and wonderful wildlife depend.

A supremely beautiful shot of the boats on the Naini Tal lake in the 1940s, by F W Champion

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