FASCINATING LIFE AND TIMES OF AN ARMY WIFE IN INDIA

Adela was born to Colonel and Mrs. Arthur Cory of the British Indian Army, who on superannuation from army service had set up, edited and published the Civil and Military Gazette, at Lahore. Shortly, the young Rudyard Kipling too joined the same Daily as a cub-reporter. Keeping with the custom of those times, Adela and her elder sister were sent to their grandparents in England, to acquire school education. By the time the sisters returned, the Colonel had shifted to Karachi, and set up the Sind Gazette where both sisters took up the desk of Assistant Editors of their father’s publishing venture.

Adela was the petite, slim, vivacious and most attractive of the three sisters. Her chance meeting with a dyed-inthe- wool bachelor, Lieutenant Colonel Malcolm Hassels Nicolson in 1888 had all elements of the oriental, quintessential romance anchored around ‘Kismet’, that is, fate.

Lord Dufferin, the Viceroy of India was on a state visit to Karachi and was escorted by a contingent of mounted soldiers of the Baluch Regiment, dressed in resplendent scarlet and green ceremonial uniform. Almost all inhabitants of Karachi, natives and resident Britons who had gathered on both sides of the road had surged forward to the very edges of the tarmac, when one naked child slithered through the jungle of legs of humanity and crawled on to the middle of the road! Horrified by the child’s situation, Adela Cory darted forward and scooped up the bewildered infant out of harm’s way. Almost synchronously, Colonel Nicolson spurred his horse and draglifting Adela, stood her up upon her feet on the edge of the tarmac.

“You could have been killed.” he said angrily. Then in a softer tone added, “Are you always so reckless, young woman.”

Their eyes met for the briefest of a moment on that morning of November, 1888 and instantly plunged them in to a tornado-like, brief romance leading to Adela’s decision less than five months later, for a secretive court marriage to a man 25 years her senior, in April 1889 and witnessed by Malcolm’s Baluch army orderly. Adela simply abhorred the thought of a “grand marriage” which her mother would have imposed and of the thought of wearing a wedding gown, etc. and it suited her to walk home with Malcolm and casually break the momentous news to the Cory family, during lunch!

A brief honeymoon and the Colonel and his 3rd Baluch Battalion were launched in to yet another fierce campaign on the North West Frontier. Of course, wives were not even permitted to follow the baggage-train but Adela was to prove simply unstoppable. In cahoots with the Colonel’s Afghan orderly and disguised as his young son, she set out to join the troops on that campaign. Just when nearing her objective her disguise was blown by a brigand who roughed-up the orderly and made away with her upon his horse, on full gallop. But Adela had the presence of mind to pull out the dagger from the waist-band of her captor and deftly stabbed him to death and in the process got thrown off the horse. She was heavily bruised and dazed when the orderly managed to track her down.

Two days later, Adela and the orderly were again surrounded and captured by armed men but this time fortunately, it was a reconnaissance patrol from their own battalion! Faced with the two captives in the camp, the Colonel was outwardly most angry but General White, a Victoria Cross decorated soldier and with no-nonsense temperament, found Adela’s spirit and courage at once commendable and issued orders that she was welcome to stay on the campaign! A few years later, on another campaign on the Frontier, Adela changed into the uniform of a horse-holder, applied suitable dye on her face and hands to match the skin of a native and successfully retained the guise of the Colonel’s horse-keeper, by day. But by night of course, she would creep inside and seek the comfort of the Colonel’s tent-bed! All of this narrative may sound incredulous but it is part of the recorded, Baluch Regiment’s history! When promoted a Major General and posted at Mhow (near Indore), this streak for fun and daring reappeared in Adela once again, andshe often borrowed the uniform from the General’s ADC and got about places, where she should not.

All this while, Adela was intently soaking in the legends and accounts of first hand experiences of the tribes inhabiting the North West Frontier (and later of India’s diverse communities in the hinterland), in addition to gossip of soldiers and bazaars relating to the fascinating loves and lives of the very tribes that the British were campaigning against on the Frontier and reducing the tales into verse. In 1899, when on leave in London and in a chance meeting with Thomas Hardy, Adela was persuaded to show a few of the poems she had composed. Thomas Hardy found them of exceptional literary merit and requested her to let him read the entire manuscript. Hardy later passed the manuscript to the publishers (William Heinemann, London) who happily published “THE GARDEN OF KAMA And Other Love Lyrics From India”. Thomas Hardy himself reviewed the book for the publishers, and the photograph shown above was taken at that time for the review.

As the poems were set to “the beauty, pain, urgency and piety of love” in its many forms and many of them with overtones of forbidden liaisons, elopements and related romantic excesses (against the mores of the times) her husband was apprehensive of adverse criticism from the Indian establishment and so dissuaded her from assigning her married name to the book. Hence that book, and the two that followed were published pseudonymously under the name, Laurence Hope. The book comprised 93 poems and splendid colour illustrations by Byam Shaw, the renowned Indianborn British painter, illustrator, designer and teacher. It focused on Indians in native surroundings, and was on the new arrivals shelves in London, by mid 1901. Within days, following heady reviews such as “A collection of such love poetry that is marked by the abundance of feeling of sheer love and excellence in its portrayal and expression…” it was not surprising that many poems were “set to music and became favourites of drawing-room sopranos and later of radio tenors”. Among the more popular set in song, was the poem “Kashmiri Song”:

“Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell!

Whom do you lead on Rapture’s roadway, afar,
Before you agonize them in farewell?
Oh, pale dispenser of my joys and pains,
Holding the doors of Heaven and of Hell,
How the hot blood rushed wildly through the veins
Beneath your touch, until you waved farewell.
Pale hands, pink tipped,like Lotus buds that float
On those cool waters where we used to dwell,
I would have rather felt you round my throat
Crushing out life; than waving me farewell!

The second book of 69 poems, “Stars of the Desert” followed in 1903. And the last, “Indian Love”, is a testimonial to Adela’s masterly command and maturity over poetic expression. Her composition of verse reached newer levels of perfection, with each successive book. Of course, no Indian has versified on love in the physical and of the soul-inspired dimensions or indeed dared to express in prose or poetry with the degree of boldness and candour, without loss of refinement, as Adela’s compositions have succeeded. Perhaps the finest example of Adela’s depth of understanding of India and Indians, their intimacies and Adela’s empathy with her object, is most forcefully revealed in her poem,‘The Bride’ -some passages of which are shown below:

“Beat on the tom-toms, and scatter the flowers,

Jasmine, hibiscus, vermilion and white, This is the day, and the hour of hours, Bring forth the bride for her over’s delight. ********

Who, if she waver a moment, shall blame her?

She is a flower, and love is fire. Choti Tinchauria syani hogayi ! *********

Give her the anklets, the rings and the necklace,
Darken her eyelids with delicate Art. By the Gods favoured, oh, Bridegroom thou art ! ********

Twine in thy fingers her fingers so slender,

Circle together the Mystical Fire, Bridegroom, – a whisper, – be gentle and tender,

Choti Tinchauria knows not desire. Abhi Tinchauria sayani hogayi ! ********

Ripe are her lips for the kiss of a lover, Ripe are her breasts for the lips of a child, ********

Thine is his valour oh, Bride, and his beauty,

Thine to possess and re-issue again, Such is thy tender and passionate duty,
Licit thy pleasure and honoured thy pain.
Choti Tinchauria syani hogayi !*

*Anglice: Little Tinchaurya has grown up”.

Adela had put together 47 poems to make up Indian Love, but the book was destined for posthumous release, in 1908. Following a minor surgery gone awry, at a private nursing home in Madras, the General tragically passed away on 07 August 1904, and was buried at St Mary’s cemetery. They had been holidaying with Sir Norman Stewart, the Governor of Madras who had once been the General’s subordinate in the Indian Army and a good friend. As though preordained, theGovernor’s tenure ended the day after Malcolm’s burial, and a few days later, the Stewarts set sail for England. Adela refused their offer to relocate herself to England but chose to stay on with their friend, Eardley Norton, the most famous Barrister of the Madras High Court who was also entrusted with the implementation of the General’s will. In the process, Norton got deeply infatuated with her but Adela rebuffed all overtures, out of hand.

Unable to overcome grief and cope with loneliness, Adela wrote a letter to their four year old son, (who had been left in the care of the General’s mother in England), explaining what she was doing and why. She wrote the last letter to her friend Blanche Crackanthrope, enclosed it with the manuscript of “Indian Love” requesting her to hand it to her publishers, as also explaining “Blanche, I am exercising my right to follow the man I love and I know you will not judge me – only God can do that and I know he will be merciful. Let Malcolm be remembered for his goodness, and me for the undying love I bore him. For that reason, Blanche please ensure that the dedication to Malcolm has pride of place in the book.”

Dedication to Malcolm Nicolson

“I, who of lighter love wrote many a verse,

Made public never words inspired by thee,

Lest strangers lips should carelessly rehearse

Things that were sacred and too dear to me.

Thy soul was noble; through these fifteen years

Mine eyes familiar, found no fleck or flaw, Stern to thyself, thy comrade’s faults and fears

Proved generosity thine only law. Small joy was I to thee; before we met

Sorrow had left thee all too sad to save. Useless my love – as vain as this regret That pours my hopeless life cross thy grave.”

The dedication written, Adela, went to a chemist, bought a bottle of the deadly perchloride of mercury, consumed it and quietly passed away. Eardley Norton, had the General’s grave opened and interred her body by Malcolm’s side; unknowing that in the ultimate, Adela would commit her self and soul, to Omar Khayyam’s prophesy: “There was a Door to which I found no Key:

There was a Veil past which I could not see:

Some little talk awhile of ME and THEE There seemed – and then no more of THEE and ME.” The Cross marking the grave had simply the initials MHN etched and the common head-stone, read (as given in the book, Fate Knows no Tears)…

LTGENLMALCOLMNICOLSON BI, CB DIED 7TH AUGUST 1904 ‘WHOSE SOUL WAS NOBLE’ AND HIS WIFE ADELA FLORENCE DIED4TH OCTOBER 1904 AGED39 YEARS.

Thus ended the life of Violet Nicolson (Laurence Hope). Her husband always called her Violet, because of the colour of her eyes and among the two photo-portraits of her that survive, one is signed in her own hand in that name. She was the first woman, admittedly not a native but Indian domiciled, who published poetry in English, long before Sarojini Naidu. In the 1930s, Hollywood wanted to make a movie of her life but their son, not desirous of making public his parent’s personal lives, refused Adela’s letters.Today, even the headstone has disappeared from their common grave at St Mary’s cemetery. No memory exists in Chennai (Madras) or for that matter elsewhere in India – not even in the Indian Army, which is otherwise so strong on heritage history, of this incredibly talented poet, without any formal education in the discipline. Born to poetry as it were, her life has been recounted in over half a dozen books; the latest being a fictionalised biography, “Fate Knows No Tears”, by Mary Talbot Cross, published in 1996.

Commissioned in the Regiment of Artillery in July 1956, Lt Gen Baljit Singh, AVSM, VSM, retired on 31 July 1992 after 36 years of distinguished service. A keen sportsman, accomplished writer and noted environmentalist, he is an active promoter of Conservation of Nature, more so within and by the Armed Forces.

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