The death of Aubrey Ceastan recently was a reminder of the contribution of the Armenian community to the country’s history
R. V. Smith
After Faridabad, the Tughlakabad railway resthouse holds a special place of interest for those nostalgic about times past. One may doubt the story of the Bhawal Sanyasi having visited it in the course of his wanderings for justice, which he eventually got when Sir Dingle Foot, Q.C. (Queen’s Counsel) proved before the Privy Council in London that he was indeed the Kumar of Bhawal State (now in Bangladesh). He had been poisoned by his rani (the wife of his elder brother, whom he had married as per custom after the former’s death). But as fate would have it, his funeral pyre was doused by a sudden thunderstorm and a group of sadhus passing by, seeing signs of life in him, rescued the Kumar. The grateful prince accompanied the sadhus through jungles and towns for 12 years, until he was in a position to stake his claim in the Calcutta High Court and provide proof of his royal identity at the Privy Council.
Why he came to Tughlakabad is not known but, according to the grapevine, he had come to seek the blessings of an Armenian seer in his quest for justice. The holy man had once been a railway employee, but a dream and a meeting with a wizard made him adopt monastic life. But why did this Armenian sadhu decide to make his home in that suburb of Delhi? There are no clear-cut answers available, though it was once believed that some Armenians had settled down in that place after the massacre of Armenians in 1739 during the invasion of Nadir Shah.
Kishanganj, between Old Delhi and Sarai Rohila stations, has a cemetery where some Armenians and Dutch, who at one time were notable members of the royal court at the Red Fort, are buried. Like the Bourbons, these Armenians also bade goodbye to Delhi in the reign of Mohammad Shah Rangila. The Bourbons were worried about their women being forced by the pleasure-loving emperor to join his harem.
They found refuge with the Raja of Narwar, where one night several of them were murdered by the raja’s men for some unknown reason in 1778. The rest escaped to Bhopal where they earned the patronage of the Nawab, who made them his courtiers and one of them (Salvadore) even became Prime Minister and his wife came to be known as Madame Dulhan. The Armenians did not find a godfather after their ouster from Delhi. Whether you believe the story of the Armenian seer and the Bhawal Sanyasi is a moot point. He may have travelled this far, certainly not on foot but by train, for Tughlakabad has always been an important railway link.
One had to make a night halt there a long time ago when a passenger train to Delhi from Agra Cantt was stalled for several hours because of disruption on the track. A friendly off-duty train driver, who was to stay at the Tughlakabad resthouse before getting charge of a down train, took one to the resthouse, and the remainder of the night was spent in drinking endless cups of tea and listening to yarns, like the one about the Bhawal Sanyasi and the Armenian connection.
The Armenians came to India during the reign of Akbar and settled down mostly in Delhi and Agra. They held high posts at the court, and one of them, Abdul Hayee, even became Chief Justice. Notwithstanding their names, they were all Christians, some prefixing them with the honorific Khwaja or Khoja. In course of time the Armenian community dwindled in North India. Many of them found a new home in Kolkata, where the Armenian Church and Armenian Street are famous landmarks. The Armenians merged with the Anglo-Indians and became big names like the enterprising Arathoons. Mrs Gandhi during her first term as Prime Minister visited Yeravan, in Armenia, to review old links.
One such link in India was the Ceastan family. The name was derived from Siestan, a region of Armenia. The death of Aubrey Ceastan recently opened the floodgates of memory. His father was a big, burly mustached man, who resembled Dr. Watson of Sherlock Holmes stories and retired as driver of Mail and Express trains.
His uncle was an absented-minded, soft-spoken man, who looked like Robinson Crusoe and could speak impeccable Urdu with the grace actor Tom Alter does now. Aubrey, a fine athlete and good boxer, also joined the Railways (as a guard) and retired 18 years ago. His major achievement was volunteering to take an essential supplies train for the Army to the northern border during the second conflict with Pakistan, necessitated by the Bangladesh War. Imagine the train moving on endangered tracks with bomber planes flying around and Ceastan holding his nerve, as in the boxing ring. One heard a graphic account of his odyssey while once travelling with him to Delhi.
One’s last meeting with him was two years ago. He had come up from Tughlakabad and was waiting for a bus at Shankar Road en route to R.K. Puram. Ceastan was proud that his son had become a teacher in the same school where he and his father had studied. It too had once been an Armenian institution, and thus an old link survives.