A memoir of India that mirrors the last days of the British Raj

The Golden Oriole: A 200-Year History of an English Family in India, by Raleigh Trevelyan. New York: Viking. 536 pp. $24.95. The sun has long since set on the British Raj, but the afterimage has yet to fade. Especially for those who were part of it, but also - judging by the popularity of such films as ``Gandhi'' and ``The Far Pavilions'' - for the rest of us, the British occupation of India remains a source of fascination.

``The Golden Oriole'' is yet another intense response to that era. Both historical commentary on the Raj and personal memoir, the book succeeds in being at once large in scope and intimate.

Raleigh Trevelyan, born in the Andaman Islands in 1923, spent his early years on the subcontinent, where his father served in the military. His initial impulse to return to India in the '70s was nostalgic, a longing to revisit places recalled as paradisiacal and to find some bond with his father, who in his lifetime had seemed a stranger.

Trevelyan, the author of several books, intended ``vaguely'' to write ``about going back and what it was like to have lived in such remote places.''

In view of Trevelyan's family tree, it was inevitable that his personal memoir should expand into history. Many kinsmen had had significant Raj connections: Charles Trevelyan as governor of Madras and finance member of the Supreme Council at Calcutta; Charles's brother-in-law, Thomas Macaulay, as law member of the Governor-General's Council at Calcutta; Charles's son George Otto, as author of ``Cawnpore,'' an account of the 1857 mutiny in which 10 family members died.

Perceiving himself as ``inescapably'' part of a ``wider context,'' Trevelyan decided to trace not only his own Indian past but also his family's. Between 1977 and 1984, he made five journeys, described separately in his book. They included childhood ``haunts'' - Gilgit, Srinagar, Gulmarg, the Andamans - as well as Sri Lanka, Madras, and mutiny sites at Cawnpore (today, Kanpur).

At one level, ``The Golden Oriole'' is a travelogue, describing scenery, people, and political tension the author encounters.

But each journey occurs in the past as well: Trevelyan moves deftly back from Gilgit, 1977, to a recollection of life in the British colony in 1929; from Madras, 1983, to Charles's stormy governorship in 1859.

Lively as the contemporary journeys are, they cannot match the intensity of past figures and events. Trevelyan draws colorful portraits - especially of the driving, dedicated (and often insufferable) Charles, and of the brilliant, eccentric Macaulay, so dependent on his sister Hannah. Lucid discussion of Raj issues - such as the debate between Anglicists and Orientalists - provides a context for these men's views; quotations from their letters and speeches reveal how passionately they held those views.

Throughout, drawing on correspondence and diaries, Trevelyan conveys the drama of the Raj for the British and a sense of ``what it was like to have lived in India at different times.''

He gives a powerful account of the mutiny; letters and sketches of some of those killed at Cawnpore personalize the historical episode and make it horrifyingly real.

Also powerfully depicted is ``the other massacre,'' at Amritsar in 1919, when the British slaughtered hundreds of unarmed Indians. But though Trevelyan condemns the action, his efforts to explain British panic seem weak; and by quoting from diaries of an Englishwoman, he personalizes only the British side of the affair.

But Trevelyan's is, of course, a British view of the Raj. He does not address the question of whether the British ``should have been in India at all.''

Given that they were, he defends not imperialism but individuals: ``From my own limited experience I knew that it had not all been hypocrisy, exploitation, lust and plunder, but that there had also been a degree of selflessness among a great many who had served in India and given their lives to it.''

In Charles, Macaulay, and others - including his father, with whom one feels at the end he has made peace - he portrays men who believed they were doing right.

``The Golden Oriole'' is permeated with nostalgia - but it is not the ``hankering after an imperial past.'' Trevelyan's nostalgia is for his own historical and personal past, and he writes persuasively of that quest and its fulfillment.

Gail Pool is a free-lance book reviewer.

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