09 February 2002: The Daily Telegraph

Emma Peel and the Railway Sahib

Dame Diana Rigg and her brother grew up in India. Trevor Fishlock joined them on a journey into the Raj

DIANA RIGG tempted me to breakfast. "Cream cheese and Marmite," she murmured, spreading the ambrosial goo on a fragment of toast and passing it across the swaying table. "Isn't it bliss?" It was.

Wrapped in a thick railway blanket over her white nightdress, she ate toast and gazed from the carriage window at the unfolding camel-brown land, its scrubby trees and distant temple towers. In the early sunshine the overnight express from Delhi jogged westwards, bound for splendid Bikaner in the Great Indian Desert.

For Dame Diana and her brother, Hugh, this was a longed-for homecoming; and the journey by train perfectly appropriate. As children of the Raj they enjoyed an idyllic Indian upbringing in Rajasthan, the stalwart son and tomboy daughter of a railway superintendent, Louis Rigg, known as James. Now they were on the train to the past, searching for something of their mother and father and something of themselves.

"Dad," said Diana, "was a pale, skinny Yorkshire lad of 22 when he answered a newspaper ad and came to India in 1925." "After five years," Hugh said, "he returned to Yorkshire to find a bride and met Beryl at a tennis club. They married in Bombay cathedral in 1932 and moved into a bungalow at Bikaner. I was born in India in 1934 and mother travelled to Doncaster to have Diana four years later."

"For us India was a wonderful adventure," Diana recalled, "but with some frights for my mother. She shrieked if we went out without our topis; and there were snakes everywhere, particularly in the bathrooms. The gardener showed us a snake nest and we saw the babies in their eggs.

"I spoke Hindi with my ayah and the other servants, who all spoiled me. The ayah would say aap bahut hi badmash ladki hain - you're a very bad girl - and my mother told me I talked like an Indian. She tried to keep things English and gave us the nearest thing to English food, a lot of it from tins and disgusting; although her sardine kedgeree was delicious."

As children of the railway sahib, Diana and Hugh had enjoyed travel in a private railway carriage and now, in an echo of that luxury, they were heading for Bikaner in a private three-bedroom coach attached to the express. Two hours late, it pulled into Bikaner station. A red carpet stretched over the platform. A uniformed band banged drums and blew raucous horns. A crowd surged forward. A thousand necks craned. Diana adjusted her elegant straw hat and stepped out regally, followed by Hugh and his wife, Sue. In moments garlands engulfed them. Palms pressed together in namaste greeting. The welcome was led by their host for the trip, Arvind Singh Mewar, the Maharana of Udaipur, 76th ruler in the world's oldest princely dynasty, a striking figure with his abundant forked white beard, his navy blazer, red trousers and yellow shirt. "Welcome," he boomed.

"I'm overwhelmed," Diana said, up to her ears in marigolds.

"I know that lady," a man in the crowd informed me. "She is film hero."

Another band and more garlands greeted the Riggs as they went to dinner that evening, Diana chic in a dark pinstripe trouser suit. An elderly man, Anand Singh, approached her. "Your father," he said, "was a fine man, and your mother most beautiful. She taught me to dance the waltz and foxtrot."

The next morning the Riggs drove to the engineering works their father once commanded as locomotive carriage and wagon superintendent of the Jodhpur and Bikaner State Railways. From the welcoming crowd, a jolly man stepped forward to sing a Sanskrit blessing to the children of Rigg Sahib.

"This," they were informed as they stepped into an office, "was your father's desk; and this the ceiling under which he worked. We have not forgotten what he did."

"I knew you were the true son of Rigg Sahib," a man of 84 told Hugh. "You walk just like him."

The Riggs were pied pipers as they toured the workshops. Men swarmed enthusiastically around them. "Rigg Sahib zindabad!" they chanted. "Long live Rigg Sahib!" The old engineer's children were visibly moved.

"I remember the smell of oil and metal," said Diana. "This was Dad's kingdom. He loved it so much."

An employee made a short speech - "It is our honour that your foot is on this land today" - and the Riggs left to huzzahs and cries of "Rigg Sahib zindabad!"

From Bikaner we rattled in a rail car to Gajner, 20 miles away. "Look," said Diana, "there's a true Bikaner camel. You can tell by the lovely long eyelashes."

Gajner had rolled out the red carpet, too. The garlands piled up like quoits on Diana's shoulders. At the pink Gajner Palace Hotel a girl in a yellow sari scattered petals on our heads. From the windows of our Victorian rooms beside the lake we watched graceful demoiselle cranes. That evening, under the trees in the courtyard, and warmed by a great log fire, we dined on kebabs of meat and cheese and sugary sweets.

We drove next day to the Riggs' old house in Bikaner, a red-washed bungalow now disused and dusty, its windows shattered, the parquet covered in straw and chicken feathers. A thin and gloomy dog slunk away. Boys played cricket in the dusty patch that was once the front lawn and Hugh joked with them in Hindi.

He and Diana were entranced, striding from room to room. "I lived here from 1934 to 1943, before we moved to Jodhpur," said Hugh. "Here's my bedroom, that's where the phone was. I have a photograph of mother reading to us by this fireplace. And right here - this is where the old man flopped down in his chair in the evening and a servant brought him whisky and soda.

"Dad had been a Doncaster engineering apprentice," he continued, "and India made him. He and mother moved into higher circles."

"A social leap for both of them," Diana said. "Mother had to learn quickly to run a house with servants and adjust to the social conventions of the Raj, which were strict and without mercy or pity. But they lived happy lives of privilege. Dad was an excellent shot and a brilliant golfer, tennis and squash player. These qualities made him welcome. And he was also a witty, handsome man with great social ease."

If you don't like rats, close your eyes now. We drove to Deshnok and joined the barefoot pilgrims passing through the embossed silver doors of the Karniji temple, which harbours thousands of sacred and pampered rats. They drank the milk and nibbled the abundant food fed to them by priests, and skittered and darted over the marble floors, over our feet and over Diana's red-painted toes. "I can feel little droppings under my feet," she said.

We had dinner in the Gajner Palace courtyard again, presided over by the genial Maharana of Udaipur. "There's always been a strong connection between India and Britain; and my generation holds no animosity to those who ruled us for 200 years," he told me. "Some came to rule but many others were like Diana's father. Such people did not lord it over us and you'll find a great respect for them. His was a life of service. He was a boss but not a ruler."

Around midnight, as we sipped a final whisky, a man came to feed the fire with more logs. Hugh told him: "Aag mein aur lakdi nahin chahiye" - no more logs on the fire. "Good Lord," he said, surprised, "I haven't said such a thing in 55 years." The words had popped from that recess in his mind that stored the memories of childhood.

Hugh and his sister spent their summers in Nainital, in the Himalayan foothills. "Mother allowed us to run wild," Diana remembered. "We disappeared every day . . . though we came back for lunch. I remember sucking the toffee my mother used to make, reading Jim Corbett's Maneaters of Kumaon with the rain thundering on the roof. And I remember my father reading Kipling to me.

"India gave me a glorious start to life. It gave me an independence of spirit. Our parents lived very social lives and took us on lovely family outings. Back in England at the age of eight, I was thrown into an English boarding school and to judge by my school reports I did not adapt to discipline all that well. But I had a highly developed imagination and I was a good storyteller in the dormitory."

Hugh, who had his father's engineering bent and became a Royal Air Force test pilot, said: "I look back on my boyhood with wonder and affection. I only wish I'd been born earlier so that I could have learnt more about India. This trip has meant a lot to us. It's so moving to see how Dad is remembered."

"We've been bathed in kindness and welcomes," Diana added.

At lunch next day she ordered fried eggs - "There's something special about the taste of fried eggs in India" - and we set off for the Bikaner camel fair, where the Riggs were guests of honour. Diana was hailed as a goddess of stage and screen. Called to the platform, she banged a drum twice to open the pageant of dazzling Rajasthani costume and music. It was hard to judge which were the more gorgeously attired: the camels or their preening, moustachioed riders. Even the manager of the Camel Bank took part in the camel parade, tall in the saddle in his brown bankerly suit.

Towards the end of the afternoon, a camel was persuaded to give Diana a garland and another to bring her a pot of tea in its teeth. A third beast was brought in front of her and vigorously milked. It was not for nothing that Diana played the quick-thinking Emma Peel in The Avengers. She could see that this performance might end with her being offered a dish of frothing camel milk, impossible to refuse.

With effortless elegance she gathered up Hugh and Sue, smiled gracious thanks to all around her and made swiftly for her car. Shakespeare might have stretched a point and written: Exit, pursued by a camel.

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