The 1834 December in Delhi was a grand occasion (if old gossip is to be believed) and the two men prominently associated with it were Col James Skinner and the British Resident, William Fraser. They were both great friends and liked to spend their evenings together when not out hunting or scouting for mistresses in the countryside. Skinner was a religious man despite his romances but not Fraser, who was once reprimanded by Lady Nugent, wife of the British Commander-in-Chief, for his “shocking life-style”.
According to Pran Nevile in his Stories of the Raj and the Sahibs in India, she also criticized him for “neglecting his religion”. Born a Christian in Scotland, after his Indian experience, according to the French botanist, Victor Jaquemont, he had become “half- Asiatic in his habits but in other respects remained a Scotch Highlander and an excellent man with great originality of thought, a metaphysician to boot and enjoying the best possible reputation of being a country bear”. Besides, he was a generous patron of the artistes, a scholar of Persian and Sanskrit who had become a vegetarian and lived with his “seven-wives”. Earlier, he had been assistant to Gen Ochterlony who once surprised his guests with a performance at his Residency by 100 nautch girls.
Col Skinner also had seven wives, most of them Hindus or Muslims, whose children were allowed to follow their own religion. This colourful man, who built the St James’ Church in Kashmere Gate, also constructed a mosque and a temple, says Nevile. His senior Muslim wife lived in Meerut and enjoyed great authority as Bahu Begum.
What can one expect when two such men get together to enjoy themselves during Akbar Shah II’s reign, with Mirza Ghalib enjoying his popularity in the streets of the city and at the mushairas at Haveli Sadr Sadur in Matia Mahal. Fraser had helped the poet when he visited Calcutta regarding his pension but after Ghalib’s return to Delhi and Fraser’s appointment here, there doesn’t seem to have been much communication between the two, even though Fraser’s love for Oriental poetry knew no bounds.
Besides drinking to each other’s health on New Year’s Eve, Skinner and Fraser enjoyed the ambience of the former’s house, situated in what later became Nicholson Road. A white canopy was put up for the nautch performance by such reputed courtesans as Malagire, Kandarbaksh and Pyarijan. The last named was so beautiful and enchanting that she was once compared by a besotted Irishman to the great beauties of the world like Helen of Troy.
As the dancing proceeded, the guests got drunk, among them rajas and nawabs and some British officials, whose wives were back home in England and resenting their existence as grass widows.
Skinner, who is said to have fathered 80 children, was in his element, relating the incidents in his almost incredible career of a military man, who had raised his own irregular troops known as the Yellow Boys and later Skinner’s Horse. Fraser was no less a soldier and romantic, having peopled Haryana villages with blue-eyed children through his many wives, among whom was his favourite Ambiban. As the midnight hour approached they became tipsy enough to leave the assembly and spend with the dancers of their choice. One does not know if Hindu Rao, brother-in-law of Maharaja Daulat Rao Scindia of Gwalior was present then but he was no less a lover of the nautch.
Nevile quotes Lt Thomas Bacon’s description of the nautch held at “Maharaja Hindu Rao’s house” (before he bought Fraser’s mansion) where the tents were most glaringly lighted by mussaulchis or torch bearers…”who held their torches first to the face and then lower down as if showing off the charms of the dancers to the best advantages”.
The date given is 1831 but three years later, at the Skinner’s House the atmosphere was no less colourful. By the time the two friends reappeared after their encounter with the dancers of their choice, the other nautch girls were too bored to continue with their performance. It was part jealousy and part exhaustion that had affected them. Their plight was not lost on Skinner and Fraser and soon the laundis (maids) were ordered to take them aside and serve them their long-delayed dinner and drinks (most of them incidentally were fond of the “jaam”).
After that the guests dispersed, for New Year’s Day 1835 had already been ushered in and the previous one had passed into memory. Fraser, however, was not destined to attend another such function as he was murdered later that year. But Skinner’s get-togethers continued at his estate in Hansi though he greatly missed his bosom companion.
Skinner’s relative George Heatherlay recalled during his last visit to Delhi from Perth in 2014 that 67 years after the 1834 party, New Year’s Day 1911 fell on a Monday, which meant a two-day holiday for many, since the previous day was a Sunday. It was bitingly cold with the Christmas tree having been installed in St James’ Church, Baptist Church, Chandni Chowk, Trinity Church, Turkman Gate, St Stephen’s Church, Fatehpuri and in St Mary’s Church, Mor Sarai, opposite Old Delhi Station. Midnight service was held earlier at St James’ Church in Kashmere Gate, while there were vespers in the other churches the next evening.
But at the Delhi Club housed in Ludlow Castle, the evening was marked by a ballroom dance. Before that St Mary’s, Baptist Church, Holy Trinity Church and St Stephen’s Church held morning services, with the Rev AS Walnutt, vicar of the last-named church preaching the sermon. At St Mary’s, Father Hillary and Fr Colamba officiated in the presence of the Bishop of Simla. At St James’ there was a lunch with gifts being distributed to the poor and children. The same was done at St Stephen’s, with the inhabitants of Fatehpuri flocking to the compound.
At St Mary’s, the crib, depicting the manger in which Christ was born, was the main attraction. At the Baptist Church, Hakim Ajmal Khan, the famous Unani medicine expert, was among the visitors, along with some members of Lala Chunna Mal’s family from Katra Neel. At the Holy Trinity Church, Nawab Sorayah Jah and Nawab Dojana were the VIPs.
Also present were the children of the butchers of Turkman Gate. They had been told that Baradin was called “Kishmish” (a corruption of Christmas) and they had come with the great expectation that the padre would distribute kishmish (raisins) to them at New Year’s at least. But what they got surprised them no end because cake pieces were distributed, with only a few kishmish in each. The cakes were baked at Kashmere Gate and Fatehpuri.
Following the excitement of the Coronation Durbar, the King went for Shikar near Nepal and the Queen paid a visit to the Taj in Agra. New Year’s Day 1912 turned out to be a memorable occasion for both Christians and non-Christians. There was, however, an undercurrent of resentment among the local Mussalmans against the Durbar, which they considered as an insult to the former rulers, the Mughals.
Some had returned home in disgust after watching George V and his retinue leaving the Red Fort on horses via the Delhi Gate. But the King, despite general expectations, was not on an elephant but riding a horse and so was missed by many spectators in the stands erected in front of the Jama Masjid, beyond which Mirza Nasirul Mulk, Bahadur Shah Zafar’s youngest son, was seen in a beggar’s cart. However, the younger generation was more accommodative and enjoyed the spectacle.
Talking of New Year’s celebrations, the Freemasons’ Lodge in Qudsia Garden also held a lunch, after which food was distributed to the poor. At the nearby Delhi Club, after lunch, most young people, including soldiers from the Red Fort, went for a picnic to the Ridge, which provided a good opportunity to courting couples to enjoy blissful moments in shady nooks and corners.
By the time the evening shadows had lengthened, the picnickers and others started leaving for their homes. But a sizable number, both Indian and foreign bought sweets and other condiments from Ghante Wala’s shop in Chandni Chowk. Liquor was available at the MacDonald shop opposite the Fountain and Old Tom and red wine were in great demand.
When the day finally ended, some merrymakers could still be seen in Chandni Chowk and Daryaganj singing in drunken voices that alarmed even the street dogs. But for many a young man and woman it was time for a few sighs as they hugged their tear-wet pillows before falling off to sleep, hoping to meet their beloveds again six days later on 6 January, Epiphany Day, which marks the visit of three Kings or Hagi from the East to worship the Christ child.