Sunday, 17 January 2016

How East Africa Got It's First Indian Comissioner: Apa Pant: Guest Post By My Daughter!

Yesterday I got a lovely surprise when I picked up Asian Weekly, the weekly magazine that tells us what's happening in Kenya among the Indian expatriates and the KenIndian community. I saw that the Indian High Commissioner to Kenya, a lady, no less, had held a program in the Indian High Commission's Apa Pant auditorium! I had no clue the auditorium had been named after my mother's oldest maternal uncle, as I've never had occasion to visit it. I excitedly sent a picture of this article to the Pant family group on What's Aap, so that Apa Pant's grandchildren in Singapore and his brothers in India could see it too. Then I remembered that a couple of years ago my daughter had written a story about Apa Pant or Apa Mama (uncle), as we called him, as a school assignment and I was figuring out the best way to share it with the family group. Then it struck me! I could let her be a guest on my own blog and share it right here, with them and everyone who cares for Indian history.
The story guidelines, as given by her 10th grade English teacher, were that it should appeal to the five senses. So she has embellished the background part of the story a bit, for example the smell of flowers, the sound of rain, based on her own imagination, but the factual part is absolutely true. She used various Internet sources to get the facts and also interviewed my mother over the phone. Any errors are my daughter's alone. She was just fifteen when she wrote it. Also, the story is a tad long, due to the word limit requirement for this assignment, but it is interesting and touching, so worth a read. She also sketched him from a photo, as an assignment requirement. I am sharing that too!
Welcome to my blog, dear daughter!

Apa Pant: The story of East Africa's First Indian High Commissioner, As Seen Through His Great Grand Niece's Eyes!
The Rani’s screams rent the still, cool air of the night as the pain ripped through her. The Maharaja nervously paced the cool, lofty corridor of the marble palace. The Rani of Aundh, the Raja’s second wife was having her first baby. After an agonizing two hours, what seemed like centuries to the king, a woman nervously ducked through the curtain and said “Maharaja, You have been blessed with a beautiful baby boy.” He let out a heartfelt thanks to Maa Amba and went in to see his newborn son. Just as the baby’s lusty cries filled the air the patter of the soft monsoon rain could be heard in the courtyard. It was on this night of September the eleventh, 1912 that the future king of Aundh, Parshuram Rao Pant aka Apa Sahib Pant was born.
He led a very lavish childhood, one that was expected of a prince. Their palace in Aundh was a beautiful stone structure with soaring rafters and gleaming marble floors. Huge carved, wooden doors that protected the members living inside the courtyard. They were studded with spikes to keep the elephants as far away from them as possible. There was a vast courtyard in the middle of the palace where a sprig of the sacred tulsi (basil) was planted in an ornately carved marble pot and there was a niche where every evening as dusk set, a lamp would be lighted. It was in this court yard that Apa took his first baby steps and toddled around exploring the world. When Apa was around two years old his mother took ill and unfortunately died. The king soon remarried a third time. It was out of this union that the rest of Apa’s eleven siblings were born.
The gardens were acres of lush greenery with every kind of imaginable tree. There were vast orchards of guava, mango, jamun (a kind of berry), custard apple, chiku (a fruit), neem trees, Ashoka trees, gulmohar trees, peepal trees and banyan trees. Lush flowers bloomed in every crevice of the garden, roses and hibiscuses, jasmine and tuberoses, their heady scents wafted through the cool air during the monsoons. There was a beautiful lotus pond crafted out of marble in the centre of the garden. Brilliant pink lotuses floated among the emerald green lily pads and the fish were shimmering darts of iridescence. Scattered around the garden were six beautifully crafted statues, one for each of the king’s daughters`. It was in this fairy tale like ambience that the future king of Aundh was raised in. In the summer he would climb the trees and hang upside down while he ate mangoes and the juice dribbled down or should we say up his nose into his hair. If the taste of the mango wasn’t perfect he’d just throw it down carelessly. The fruit that the parrots had pecked on were the best because they tasted the sweetest. During the monsoon he and his siblings would dance in the rain with the peacocks. Every morning as when he got ready he would gather in a room with the rest of his family and servants would come around bearing huge plates heaped with jewels for the royal family to choose from and wear according to the dress they had on.
             Then one day Apa, too, fell gravely ill when he was only five years old. He was on his deathbed and the king was devastated. He loved his son very much. He stood by his son’s bedside, looked into his eyes and said, “Promise me that if you get well you will always do Surya Namaskars every single day for the rest of your life. After a long battle with his illness, Apa did survive and from that day onward to the day he died Apa did at least a hundred Surya Namaskars every day and this made him very fit. This was one of the many incidents that showed how honourable he was about keeping his word.
As Apa grew older he learned many lessons, some through his own experiences and some at the knee of his beloved father through his paintings or his singing about the Ramayana. Apa loved to sit with his father in the room where he painted   Apa grew up to go to the University of Bombay (BA) and Oxford University (MA); and he did his Barrister-at-Law in Lincoln's Inn. He came back to India in 1937. He then met the beautiful lady doctor, Dr. Nalini Raje. She was the first woman in her state to have an FRCS degree from the United Kingdom. It was a crisp, sunny afternoon when they went to see Nalini and her family. She met them at the door wearing a simple silk sari in a soft, pastel shade of lavender. She was wearing simple gold jewellery and Apa was very impressed by her intelligent looks and her piercing but kind, gentle, eyes. When Dr. Nalini went into the kitchen to get more snacks, she banged straight into the wooden screen in front of the door. It was destined to be love at first sight.  
After Apa returned to Aundh, he helped his father run Aundh and got more and more training each day on his future role as king. Then one day the entire village was abuzz with excitement. Mahatma Gandhi himself was coming to town. It was rumoured that he was coming to talk to the king about a new idea that the king had in mind. He was received at the palace with great pomp and splendour. A huge feast was organized for him, and the entire town was invited. Gandhiji amused everyone by telling them stories of his life. After lunch the crowd dispersed and the king, Apa and Gandhiji moved to the cool shade of the porch where Gandhiji sat with his loom spinning cloth, as was his daily ritual. His wise eyes peered out from behind the round glasses that sat on a bony nose. “Gandhiji”, the king began “We have an idea” he said. “We, as leaders, fighting for a free India, propose that Aundh becomes one of the first self ruled kingdoms of the future free India. “Oh!?” Gandhiji said looking mildly curious. This was a totally foreign concept and no king in his right sense would ever give up his authority to the common people. “We have come to you”, the king continued seriously, “because you have the power and influence to support us in this decision and in carrying it out.” “Please consider our proposal.” “We feel it would be a big achievement in taking  one of the first steps that would lead to Swaraj, which is self rule in the nation, free from the British. “We would be most honoured Gandhiji”, they said respectfully, “if we can have your blessings in this course of government we have decided to adopt” “Yes of course! Gandhiji said. “This is an excellent idea and I applaud you for taking this step and contributing to the history of India working its way towards freedom. And so the noble idea of self rule was imposed upon the people and the king gave up his rightful position in all but name and the people were allowed to make decisions for themselves. The small kingdom of Aundh flourished tremendously under the king’s expert guidance and support. He was a just ruler and even though his subjects were allowed to make decisions they looked to him for advice. He gave out interest free loans and helped his subjects develop companies so they could earn a livelihood and make a name for themselves amongst society. He introduced the concept of bar ‘free’ jails where convicts were kept in door less cells and trusted enough so that they never had to be chained. They were also taught crafts that would help them make a living after they were released from jail. It is told that not one of his convicts ever even thought of making a dash from the jail even though they were given a free reign. He was not only a successful ruler but also a beautiful human being.
Then one day in 1947, the glorious news came that India had been freed from the British. Everyone in the kingdom of Aundh was exhilarated. After a few days, a second piece of news was delivered that all the kingdoms in India had been dissolved and the rulers would only be allowed to keep privy purses and their palaces, everything else would be annexed by the new government. When Apa heard this news he was shocked. “I will never be the monarch of all I survey” he thought dazedly. Apa’s ego was severely wounded. They had done all they could to support the Swaraj movement and now that Nehru was the Prime Minister the least he could do was acknowledge that and reward them in a special way. Suddenly all the years of training and the effort spent on this little kingdom of Aundh seemed like a waste. The future looked empty and bleak. Although he was trained to be a lawyer, he had never considered the possibility of giving up the control of his kingdom. He still expected to be the head patriarch of the town, regardless of the fact the people had a government; ultimately they looked to the king for instruction. He felt lost, like a lamb that had strayed from its flock. His father was also sorely disappointed at the callous action from the side of the government. Soon the hours turned into days, the days turned into weeks and the weeks into months yet there was no ray of hope breaking through the dark clouds that hovered over his personal horizon. Never before had he felt so strongly the sense of ‘the little lost prince’. The government, Nehru, Gandhi they had all forgotten about him. He had been so sure he would follow in his father’s footsteps and leave a legacy for his children but his hopes and aspirations had been snatched out from under his feet like a carpet both literary and metaphorically as even the handmade, hand woven, hand embroidered Kashmiri carpets no longer technically belonged to him but to the government of India.
As the days went by Apa sank deeper into depression and was most dejected with the way things had turned out for such patriots like his father and himself. Then one day he received a missive from the Indian Prime Minister Nehru himself to come and meet him in Bombay (now Mumbai). So he travelled to Pune and then caught the train to Bombay, all this done mechanically, with no passion or enthusiasm. There he met Mr. Nehru and to his great surprise Nehru offered him an amazing position. “We would love for you to be the first Ambassador of free India to East Africa. It was amazing! Suddenly where there had been only doom and gloom there were thousands of possibilities. He immediately agreed to this fabulous offer. Although he was thrilled to be of use in such an important position he also had several conflicting emotions. Despite the fact that this job had given the rulers of Aundh back their honour he did not want to leave when his father was so old and frail. Also his wife, as the wife of a diplomat had to sacrifice her own career and henceforth would have to set her medical qualifications aside and could only play the role of supporting her husband’s endeavours.
But no father would ever stand in his child’s way and so it was with the erstwhile Raja of Aundh. He encouraged his son to take up this plum posting and to use the gifts that God had seen fit to bestow on him, albeit in another land. And so with the blessings of his parents and the people of Aundh, with wife and tiny tots in tow, he boarded the ship which would take him across the stormy Indian Ocean into unknown territory. As they chartered the seas he turned his face towards the new land and said to himself “I will write a new chapter in the history of both India and East Africa……..” Which he surely did!

                                                 Barrister Apa Pant

                Sketch by my daughter. She has improved as an artist since then!


  1. What ever profession u choose next year, always be a linguist at heart. Congratulations Sanjana.

  2. What ever profession u choose next year, always be a linguist at heart. Congratulations Sanjana.


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