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Bruce Bucknell

Former British Deputy High Commissioner Kolkata

Part of UK in India

3rd July 2017 Kolkata, India

Almost a year, almost 70 years

We now have the ability to surround ourselves with images that we record on our mobile phones. But the best images remain in your head.

The monsoon rains have arrived in Kolkata. I was in my official car travelling through the city in the middle of a heavy storm last week. We passed an old man paddling through the rain water. He looked pleased that it was raining, and I smiled at him. He grinned back at me.

That fleeting moment would have made a great photo. I suspect any actual photograph would have been more ordinary – of an old man smiling, and maybe out of focus. But in my mind, his face is bookended with the image of a silver-grey landscape that I first looked down on from an aircraft window when I arrived almost a year ago.

Hooghly River

I have other such moments in my head: like when we passed over the crest of a ridge in the Darjeeling hills and saw the white summit of Kanchenjunga for the first time; or the glorious light that reflected off the Hooghly as we crossed the river by boat to see the Jain temples in Murshidabad; or most recently when I saw the wide green spaces and lines of young sandalwood trees in the new city of Naya Raipur.

Sandalwood trees in Naya Raipur

Some of those memories have sound too: like the soft squelching sound as I sank into the silt on the banks of the Brahmaputra; or the light rustling of the trees that provide shadow in the Assam tea gardens; or the chatter of the crowds during the Durga Puja in Kolkata.

There are many other places to visit and things to do in my part of India. I want to see the Mangrove Islands of the Sundarbans or jungle reserves and watch the Tigers, Rhinos and other wildlife. I have yet to visit the Buddhist temple of Bodhgaya where the Buddha sat under the tree of enlightenment.

As for Indian culture, I have only scratched the surface of Indian music and film. I have attended dance, fashion and other cultural programmes. The books, CDs and DVDs are piling up in our living room.

It is similar in my professional life. I have visited all the larger states in the East and North-East India. I have shaken thousands of hands and talked to many people. Yet I know that there is so much more to see, do and understand during my time in India.

This feeling is not so different from starting any other job. In your first months, everything is new and you learn a lot. Then you start to realise the limits of your understanding. With time and experience, you gain deeper knowledge and understanding.

I am about to return to Britain for the first time since I arrived in the middle of last year’s monsoon rains. What have I learnt in my first year?

The easy answer is to talk about the diversity – of people and places, of languages and cultures, of geographies and climate zones. The ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity of the roughly 50 million people who live in the North-East is as complex as Burma, which has a similar size population.

The diversity is wider than simply of people and place. There are great differences between rich and poor, and between cities and rural areas. However, the diversity is as much within, as between, areas. In Kolkata, there are all types of dwelling from sky scrapers, villas, apartment blocks, huts, shacks and the poorest living on the streets under flyovers or temporary cover.

The diversity is also of technology. I have seen rice cultivation and tea harvesting which are still largely done by hand. I have visited operation centres of British companies in Kolkata, where everyone works on computers and staff talk direct to clients in Britain and elsewhere about the services they provide. I am learning about cloud computing and the resilience of Blockchain technology.

I shall return in time for Independence Day – the 70th anniversary of India’s independence. I look forward to attending the parade that takes place on Kolkata’s Red Road, and the other events of celebration.

I will also return to focus on three main tasks.

The first is to work for the mutual prosperity of our two countries. Britain is the largest foreign investor of any G20 country in India. But building prosperity is not just about buying and selling and seeking investments in business. It is also about building capabilities and passing on technologies. I hope to work on some projects that do that.

Then there is engaging with the next generation of Indians, on which I have written recently. This is something I enjoy and which comes easily to me. Young people in India in general are respectful of their elders, and they are a little surprised that I am so ready to chat to them.

I shall also be celebrating the “living bridge” – the extensive links between India and Britain. These range beyond the business links, the shared history and the common system of democracy. It also includes the large diaspora – the one and a half million people in Britain of Indian origin.

The recent elections in Britain saw the election of 12 members of parliament (MPs) of Indian origin. To underline the point about the diversity of India, they included the first women Sikh MP, the first turban wearing Sikh, but also other Punjabis, Gujaratis and someone whose family came from Bengal.

I look forward to my return.

7 comments on “Almost a year, almost 70 years

  1. I love the thing that you loved India. Sometimes we underestimate ourselves. But it’s great to read your views. Thanks. I have a friend called Graham in London and he has same views about the India like you have. I think people who are above 50 years have different views than the younger generation.

  2. It’s going to be end of mine day, except before end I am reading this
    great paragraph to improve my knowledge.

  3. I am delighted to read this blog Bruce. As a child born in the last days of colonialism and growing up in progressing India I love the great ancient land of my birth. Yes it has many challenges but of course with 1.2 billion population of varying beliefs, cultures and aspirations. I was last in Kolkata in 2010 and would love to visit the Sunderbans, and a voyage on the Ganga/Hoogli. How I recall as a child we would go to the Strand for a walk by the river, and when HM Naval ships came and us children were taken to parties…allegedly I ate 27 icecreams when the naval rating handed me to the horrified parents (don’t believe it). Kolkata where my paternal grandparents married in the Fort William Chapel, where my maternal grandparents are buried in the Scots Cemetery, Tollygunge, The New Market, riding on the Maidaan….Fleurys for tea, Firpos for cocktails when older……Love to visit Cooch Behar, wildlife parks and see West Bengal start to really flourish as a tourist destination.

    1. Thank you for your memories. There is indeed much to see in West Bengal and the other states I cover in East and North East India.

  4. Dear Bruce, It’s good to know that you have enjoyed your time in India. It’s nice to see India from a foreigner’s eye. I am really honored after reading your views about India. I feel proud that people like you appreciate the youth of India. Thanks very much.

    1. Thank you for your comment. The Next Generation of Indians will be the most numerous on our planet. So they – you? – are important!

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About Bruce Bucknell

Bruce was the British Deputy High Commissioner in Kolkata from 2016 to 2019. Previously he was Ambassador in Minsk from July 2012 to January 2016. Bruce grew up on a…

Bruce was the British Deputy High Commissioner in Kolkata from 2016 to 2019. Previously he was Ambassador in Minsk from July 2012 to January 2016.

Bruce grew up on a farm in southern England and enjoys walking in the countryside and visiting wild places.

He studied modern history at Durham University, and takes a keen interest in the history of the places he visits.

Bruce used to play cricket when he could see the ball. Now he enjoys watching cricket and many other sports in his spare time.

He has had a varied career in the Foreign Office. Between his postings to Amman (1988-91), Milan (1995-9) and Madrid (2003-7), he has spent much of his career in London mostly dealing with Europe and Africa.

He is married with two grown up sons.