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Thomas Sebastian Richmond (b. 1911)

Reminiscences, from "Chasing the Monsoon", by Alexander Frater

An Englishman in Shillong

Thomas Sebastian Richmond

Then he said, 'I know an Englishman living in Shillong. Mr Tom Richmond. It's a pity you must go now. You would have enjoyed meeting him.'

This was extraordinary news. 'Do you know where his house is?'

'Of course.'

I had to check in at Umroi in two hours. It would take an hour to get there, and first I needed to return to the Pinewood to pack and pay my bill.

'Let's go and find him,' I said.

Twenty minutes later we stopped outside a small, two-storeyed wooden residence with blue door and window frames. Thomas Sebastian Richmond turned out to be a handsome, strong-looking man of seventy-five who welcomed me warmly and ushered me into a living room containing comfortable chairs, a piano, a custom-built, mirror-backed bar with curtains, two friendly golden retrievers and some bits of machinery. It smelled strongly of meat.

'I'm a West Cumbrian, from Seascale,' he said. 'I shot my first hare on the spot where that nuclear reactor thing now stands, and went to school just up the road, at St Bees. There used to be another Old St Beghian in Shillong, oddly enough, living not two golf shots from this very house.'

He threw open the curtains of the bar. 'Fancy a snort? It's all Indian, but the whisky's quite tolerable.'

I said it was a little early for me and, besides, I had a plane to catch.

Mr Richmond arrived in Assam in 1933, a young engineer tea planter, and first came to Shillong three years later. 'I had my appendix removed by the famous Dr Hughes at the Welsh Mission Hospital. In those days this was known as "the Scotland of the East"; most evenings Highland pipers played at the bandstand while everyone cried into their gin. It was dinner jackets every night, and when the Governor turned up you couldn't get plastered till he'd gone.' He polished his spectacles. 'Shame you have to rush off. We could have gone to see Carruthers. He's in Upper Shillong, but comes from Dumfriesshire and is doing very big things in chickens.'

Mr Richmond did things in the meat-curing line. 'Bacon, mainly. And, of course, loads of hams at Christmas. I've married a local girl and we have three sons, George, Tony and Bill. Bill's in the police and George runs the local Home Guard. I've still got a sister at home in Seascale and a brother somewhere in Pinner. We've lost touch now, but he used to be with Rowland Ward, the well-known taxidermists.'

I asked Mr Richmond how he coped with the monsoon.

'Boredom becomes a factor.' He nodded at the piano. 'This year I'm rebuilding and tuning that. It was absolutely clapped out when I got it but, by the time I'm through, it'll sound like a Steinway concert grand. Rebuilding old pianos is a very popular monsoon activity in Shillong. Every household has one, some two. In fact, there are more pianos per head of population here than anywhere else in India. Jerry, old son, can't I tempt you to a quick gargle?'

Jerry said he would soon have to get back to work.

'You can get some surprisingly decent stuff here. One of my chums, Mike Hunt, used to make an excellent cherry brandy and I sometimes lent him a hand. It was a famous brew, one of the things visitors always took home with them: orange honey, framed Khasi butterflies and Captain Hunt's cherry brandy. Then he diversified into the plum sort, and I reckon that's what killed him; plum brandy has a dangerously high wood alcohol content.' He beamed at me. 'Mike's sister married the bloke who owned all those barges at Port Said, know who I mean? Famous.'

Mrs Richmond, a shy, softly spoken Indian woman wearing a blue jainsem, brought coffee and biscuits but Jerry caught my eye and tapped his watch. At the front door Mr Richmond gestured around him. 'I built this place when I retired from my Assam garden in '58. Then you could bag snipe, woodcock and grouse not a hundred yards from here. On cold days you could even shoot the buggers from the privacy of your bedroom. But not any more.'

I promised to contact his sister in England, then shook hands and went speeding back to the Pinewood. I had exactly one hour to get to Umroi.

From "Chasing the Monsooon: A modern Pilgrimage through India", by Alexander Frater. London: Viking; 1990.

Owner/SourceAlexander Frater
Linked toThomas Sebastian Richmond

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