I was born
in Shillong, Assam, India on 20th December 1941. The world was in chaos,
with the British near to defeat by Germany. I was on the edge of the
area into which the Japanese would shortly advance. My father, two uncles
and grandfather were all in the Indian army. Yet I lived a relatively
sheltered and cosseted existence with nurses, toys, the security of
my mother and grandparents. I was obviously unaware of the vast conflicts,
the massacres and the dropping of the first atomic bomb. I took for
granted the frequent movements back and forth across India, mostly to
cooler hill stations. I was not aware of the inequalities of caste and
class or the primitive state of the technologies around me. I was experiencing
the last five years of the largest Empire the world has known and the
start of a new world order, reflected in my wider families' accounts
but not remembered at all by me.
almost entirely surrounded by my family, though, as photograph shows,
I did have friends as well. My mother gave birth to me when she was
nineteen in December 1941 and then to my sister Fiona in April 1944
and my sister Anne in June 1946. My father was absent on military service
for nearly all of the years until the end of the war in 1945, and then
returned to take up his job as the Manager of a Tea Estate in Assam.
My upbringing was shared by my mother, a succession of ayahs or nurses,
and also my mother's mother. In the later period we were joined by my
young uncle, Robert, only eight years older than myself. I did not go
to any kind of kindergarten.
as we all do, a tiny baby who could not speak, walk, feed myself, control
my bowel movements. Gradually I learnt all these skills. The dating
of most of these achievements was recorded by my mother, who also described
my character in letters (and photographs) to my absent father. My personality
was clearly much shaped in these first five years. I was affectionate,
busy, competitive, sensitive, companionate and full of imagination and
curiosity. I was bad at losing or being beaten, resilient when in pain
though several times seriously ill, and, perhaps because of these stomach
problems, grew slowly and remained very small for my age throughout
my later education.
not show any precocious ability and began to learn early that I would
achieve things only through hard effort. The numerous photographs suggest
that I was rather shy and did not smile much. Yet I survived and internalized
India, the smells, sights and language, which drew me back later.
in Assam was re-enforced by three further visits there. One was when
I was just eleven in 1952 and visited my parents on the tea plantation
where they were living. Although I only remember glimpses, it is clear
from my letters and reports of the time that I was strongly influenced
by the visit.
is more evidence of the effects of the second visit I paid to Assam
in 1958, around my seventeenth birthday. I kept a diary of the visit
and there are reports, letters and essays which show how much it influenced
me. These are described in my autobiographical volumes, Lakeland Life
and Sedbergh Schooldays. This last visit, in particular, made me more
determined to return to Assam and towards the end of my Oxford undergraduate
study in 1963 I was planning to do so. In the event I went on to do
a doctorate in Oxford. Yet the exchange of letters with my mother, as
can be seen from the very first exchanges when I was aged seven onwards,
kept the idea of Assam alive and fresh.
clearly my infant experience, and the constant flow of ideas and images
form my mother, which led me to switch from history to anthropology
at the end of my D.Phil. and to spend two years at the London School
of Economics. When I explored a potential fieldwork site for my Ph.D.
I really wanted to go back to Assam to study one of the hill tribes.
I was unable to go there because of the political situation, but having
been appointed Professor Furer-Haimendorf as my supervisor, he suggested
going to Nepal instead. I did this, and from 1968-1970 worked in central
Nepal on another Tibeto-Burman group, the Gurungs. At the end of this,
my wife and I visited Assam and to the old tea garden where my parents
had spent most of their last twenty years.
this experience has emerged not only the Nepal fieldwork, but the project
on the Nagas which arose from my memories and from the early work by
Haimendorf. It also led to various ongoing projects and publications,
in particular on the history and culture of tea.