Thursday, 10 October 2013

An evening with Pamela and John Davis

This is one of the emails that prompted Badri Seshadri to ask me to begin a blog. Better late than never.

Balu sir, Jayaram, John Davis, Chitra Madhavan

At the end of my lecture at New College, an English gentleman walked up to me and said he had talked to Mortimer Wheeler (who discovered the Indus valley civilzation) and had a friend who had inherited some of Alexander Cunningham's collections! Naturally, my curiosity was piqued, and thanks to Dr. Chitra Madhavan, I got his phone number. On Wednesday, Feb 27, 2013, some of us went to meet him at Madras Club where he was staying - Swaminathan, Balasubramanian, Siva, Chitra, Jayaram and Gopu.

His name is John Davis and he was there with his wife Pamela, and they had a room facing the Adayar river. "Would you be mother and pour out tea?" Mrs Davis said to Chitra, in a tone and naturality that would drive every Indian feminist up the wall. :-) 

He said he had been a boxwallah, who had come to India in 1946, when the nation was in turmoil, but Madras was a little more peaceful in those days. He is Welsh, original name Daffyd, but the English misspelt & mispronounced it as Davis! Instead of Cunningham or Wheeler, we learnt quite a bit about the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of the Welsh language, its unique grammar and spelling and modifications. Double letters sound different from single letters : "ff" is prononuced "v", "LL" is pronounced "sh", etc. Also, the word "Guin" which stands for the color white is used commonly in names of Welsh girls, and the names always mean something elaborate and poetic : for example, Guinevere, means "a lady in whose footsteps white flowers blossom!" Rather like Tamil towns which are named after trees, Mr Davis, remarked - a fact not many Tamils are aware of. Prof Swaminathan made some comments about the great difficulties he had in trying to follow Welsh, when he was in the UK, to which Davis retorted that English face the same difficulties too!

Davis also gave us a tour-de-force of the origins of the English peoples:
  • how some of them had settled Brittany, a province in France; and a number of them came back to Britain
  • how there had been a similar population settled in Iberia (Spain) in the Galician province and remigration to Britain
  • how every wave of invasion drove the previously settled populations into hills and forests
  • how the early Romans finished of the Druids of their time; the Druids were the priests and medicine men of pre-Roman Britain, who ceremonies included human sacrifices and head shrinking; less adorable than the Druids we may be familiar with in Asterix comics
  • how the end of the Roman empire effected a collapse and regrouping of British society
  • how this must be similar to the Aryan invasion of India overwhelming the Dravidian, and the Dravidian invasion into India must have overwhelmed the Munda speaking tribes and hill-dwellers - a red herring to several people, I'm sure :-) 

He then talked of his early in days in Madras, when they would bicycle from the beach to Gemini circle, and leave their bicycles there unlocked, with no fear of their getting stolen! Of swims in the Adayar river, and boat rides and races on it, with rented boats from the boat club. The Adayar river was clean those days he says, the water transparent, with lots of fishing, but the Kuvam was dirty and smelly even then. There was a British lady who would throw weekend parties at here estate near Guindy, with food and dancing, but charge a nominal amount, and vast sections of English society, even the governor sometimes, would attend those.

In all this, a genuine love of Madras, and of several things Indian, came shining through.

Wheeler delivered a set of lectures on Indus valley on BBC, he said. (If we can get this, it may be useful for our site seminar.) His wife said they had also met Max Mallowan, the husband of Agatha Christie. Mallowan was an archaeologist in Iraq - reflected in a couple of Chritie's novels. Mr Davis himself had one of Cunningham's books in his house in Malaysia, but his servant could not locate it. The Indian govt had asked all foreigners to register after the Mumbai 26/11 attacks and hotels had to submit daily reports.

All this was peppered liberally with British understatement and self effacing humour, that we associate with a Wodehousian world.

We finished the evening with his rendering of a Welsh song, with his wife joining in. The mosquitoes had begun to swarm, and Mr Davis had already suffered dengue twice. As a parting shot, Mr Davis said he wished he were young enough to join us next year for our site seminar at Gujarat, especially Dholavira; his wife sportingly invited us to take him along!!

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