Former British soldier offers rare take on Delhi

Watching a dead body being bathed in “holy” river water for a funeral may be an unusual thing to do for a guided tour, but that’s the point of an outing with Nigel Hankin.

Almost everything about the “Nigel tour” of Delhi is far from the usual, right down to seeking an appointment—the 87-year-old Hankin does not have a telephone or internet connection. Word travels by mouth mostly among diplomats and foreign tourists.

“This is not a regular tour. Please do not mention how to get in touch with me, or there would be a stream of visitors,” the gaunt expatriate warns at the start of a day-long trip through a city he made his home nearly 60 years ago, one of the last former colonials to remain in this vast country.

Hankin came to India on his way to Burma (now Myanmar) where he was sent to fight in World War II.
The war ended before the British soldier could get there, and he remained in India instead.

Two years later in 1947—the year India gained freedom from its colonial masters—Hankin came to the capital New Delhi, which the British had made the seat of what was once famously called the “jewel in the crown”.

“I just loved it when I first came here. The place was so open then. There used to be so many deer, and we would go hunting,” recalls the octogenarian, whose age has not diminished any memories.

After quitting the British army as a captain, Hankin joined the British High Commission, where his “odd jobs” often included taking diplomats and their wives around the city—something he has done for the past 50 years.

Since his retirement about 20 years ago, Hankin has conducted regular tours, for which one has to pay 2 000 rupees (about $45) per person and buy him lunch at the colonial-era Oberoi Maiden’s hotel.

You can also buy a copy of his book, Hanklin Janklin, an idiosyncratic list of commonly seen items and phrases complied by Hankin and now being readied for its fifth edition.

The tour starts with a visit to the Indira Gandhi Memorial—a museum where India’s former prime minister and a member of the famed Gandhi dynasty lived and was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards.

“She was no dumb belle,” Hankin says, sounding like a proud father, as he points to a young Gandhi staring down from a black-and-white portrait.

He wears wide-soled running shoes, black-frame glasses and casual Western clothes to cover his lean, six-foot frame. His patter is a mixture of the British he learned growing up in Sussex, south-west England, and Hindi learned in India.

As we walk past a picture of Jawaharlal Nehru—Gandhi’s father and the country’s first prime minister—incarcerated during the British rule, Hankin’s admiration for India’s most famous family is even more evident.

“We sent him to jail nine times, but he never bore a grudge,” the guide says.

The next stop is an historic Sikh temple, where Hankin says: “We have seen the bad things the Sikhs did. Now, we will see the good things they do.”

Though a non-believer, he carries his own black turban to the temple to cover his head in accordance with the faith, and at Delhi’s largest cremation ground, he knows the sacred hymns chanted at the time of a funeral.

From there he heads to a lesser-known historical site called Coronation Park—a now desolate stretch where King George V was declared the ruler of India in 1911. It was also the site from where the new emperor of the colony would announce the city to be the new capital of India instead of eastern Calcutta (now Kolkota) city, paving the way for modern New Delhi.

“This is where New Delhi started, but very few people in Delhi know this,” Hankin informs us.

Hankin has little nostalgia for the British Raj but India’s independence, also, meant little to him.

“In 1947, a few Brits moved out and a few Indians moved up. Nothing else changed.”

He last visited Britain in 1983, and has never wanted to go back again.

“My brother came to India once. He thought there were too many Indians,” says the reticent man who complains little about the city’s population growth from three million to nearly 14-million since he arrived.

Hankin, a bachelor, lives in the diplomatic enclave area of Chanakyapuri. He says his lifestyle is very simple. He has had the same Indian servant for 40 years, he mainly eats Indian food, works on his book, reads the Kolkota-based Statesman newspaper and generally stays away from anything to do with government.

And like the city, he embraces the old and the new with equal measure, as was evident in a walk through the narrow by lanes of “Old Delhi”—once a 17th century Mughal city now famous for its teeming bazaars where time seems to have stood still for decades.

“Those days, we used to go there in tongas [horse carriages],” Hankin says, as he guides us through the narrow dingy lanes.

At the nearby famous sari market crowded with young women shopping for weddings, he tells you where to buy gold thread if you want to embroider clothes yourself.

He carries on through the wholesale spice market on to a dilapidated structure whose wealthy owners have shifted to the plush south in the city. It now serves as a warehouse, whose workers light up when they see Hankin.

“Jai Shri Ram [Hail Lord Ram]. Haven’t seen you for a long time,” they greet him with part amusement, part curiosity.

When we emerge from the obscure, unlit streets of Old Delhi, the sun seems harsh and the heat unbearable.

Hankin wipes his brow, tired, but not complaining, and gently reminds us not to give away his contact details.—AFP

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