Alois: Gateway to India

How this adventurous young German technician (my father) made his way to India, 110 years ago.

My father, Alois Friedl, was born on July 19, 1888, in Wellheim, a town in the southern German state of Bavaria. He was a bright young lad, eager to learn as much as he could. But it was not intended that he attend higher school, and his family — his father, mainly — decided it was time for the lad to learn a trade. He was to become a shoe-maker.

At the age of thirteen Alois fled from his home, in the middle of winter, walking around 100 kilometres through freezing snow to the city of Munich, where he found refuge in a family that adopted and cared for him for four years. He was able to finish school and start an apprenticeship as a watch-maker. He learnt how to build the very accurate chronometers that were needed to calculate longitude in ocean navigation — a technology pioneered by John Harrison in the 18th century. Alois also did a fair bit of astronomy, required to set the chronometers accurately by celestial observations. I have described the process in this article.

I have written about this early phase of his youth in a separate article — how a big Swiss company had seen samples of his work and hired the young German mechanic as part of a project to provide navigational instruments to naval vessels, first in Italy and then in the ports of Asia. In 1911 he set off for the city of Bombay. There he spent three years building up the facilities that supplied ships with highly accurate navigational chronometers, set to the exact time.

A few years ago, we discovered that shortly before his death in 1964 Alois had started writing an autobiography. It was never completed. We found a typed carbon copy in barely legible condition, and my wife Ingrid spent weeks deciphering it and typing the text into a computer — and then weeks translating it into English.

For me it was a document that refreshed my memory. During childhood, in the jungles of the Western Ghats of India, where my father was doing snake research, he had spent many dark nights telling me stories of his fabulously adventurous life. All of his narrative was confirmed in the type-written sheets, from which I will quote.

We will start with his arrival in India, and with a passage from the biography. I quote it as an example of the style in which the veteran engineer and biologist expressed himself. Alois writes:

Alois Friedl Biography part one: A Gateway to India

I vividly remember the day when, as a young man, I stood at the railing of a steamer and stared spellbound at the land that was to become my home. Back then, on January 1st, 1912, late in the evening, our ship, the ‘Pilsna’ anchored in the deep water some distance out to sea, where larger ships would not run aground, even at low tide. We had to wait for high tide before we could enter.

The new year was just six hours old, and we had greeted it merrily. The young lad who had grown up in the harsh Bavarian mountains had not been able to sleep. Now I stood at the railing and looked, spellbound, at the magnificent spectacle that presented itself to the travellers on the deck of the ship.

“Wonderful, isn’t it?” said a voice next to me. I turned to an old man leaning casually against the railing beside me. A pair of ice-grey eyes contrasted sharply with his weather-brown, wrinkled profile, with sharply drawn features. On his head was a thick mop of almost white hair, against which comb and brush had fought a futile battle for many decades.

“That’s what I mean,” he said, pointing with the mouthpiece of his short pipe to the land spread out before us. “It’s wonderful to come to a new, unknown land and wonder what awaits you there.”

“How do you know that I am coming to Bombay for the first time?” I asked. After running away from home at the age of 13, and spending a few years in Italy, after my apprenticeship as a watchmaker in Switzerland, I considered myself a mature traveller. But the old man obviously disagreed.

“Your face is a question mark,” he said, without taking his eyes off the panorama of the coast. “You look across at the sea of houses and know that you will live somewhere over there. One of those houses will be your home and your home for a time: but which is it?” His eyes searched the tangle of rooftops as if he really wanted to find the house where I was going to live.

The sight that greeted Alois as he entered Bombay was the newly constructed Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, which had been completed in 1903 — for a price of £250,000 (that would be around £200 million today).

An ancient 3D picture of the newly built Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay. If you know how to squint and merge the two images you will get quite a spectacular view (photo provided by Underwood & Underwood)
This is what “the Taj” looks like today. I visited it 108 years later, in January 2020.

We continue with Alois’ narrative of his arrival in Bombay in 1912.

While all the fellow travellers around me were greeted by relatives and friends, I looked around in vain for an emissary to receive me. I would have gladly submitted myself to the guidance of an escort who knew the country and who would have led me to my quarters and to the business premises of my new company. Then I heard a voice:

“Sahib, do you want me to carry your suitcase?” The speaker was a dark-skinned, adolescent boy, dressed only in a grubby loincloth and a thick, bright red wraparound turban.

“No, I don’t have any money,” I said, picking up my suitcase and heading for the harbour gate. If only I knew where the Westend Watch Company office was. ‘Hornby Road’ was written on the letter I was to hand in there as my introduction. But where was this Hornby Road?

“Sahib, just two annas for carrying your suitcase,” the boy said again, trotting patiently beside me.

“I have no money,” I said again and trudged on. The office had to be somewhere downtown, I thought, and kept going towards the Taj Mahal Hotel, the only building I was somewhat familiar with.

“Don’t you even have one anna?” the boy asked incredulously. Aha, he was already going down on the price. If only one knew how much such an anna was. I still had two Marks in my pocket, which I could exchange if necessary. And the handle of the suitcase cut unpleasantly into my palms.

“Do you know where Hornby Road is?” I asked the boy, setting the suitcase down on the uneven cobbles of the harbour road. “I want to go to the West End Watch Company.”

“Hornby Road, West End Watch Company,” the boy repeated, lunging for the suitcase with a victorious grin. But he couldn’t manage it alone. It was only with my help that he was able to heave the heavy piece of luggage onto his turban and balance it, holding it steady with one hand.

Now free of my burden, I walked lightly behind my local guide and my suitcase and enjoyed to the full the colourful, exotic picture that unfolded around me. Mohammedans with flowing beards and tarbooshes on their shaven heads, holding a morning chat. Their wives stood at a respectful distance, entirely wrapped in a robe that reached to the ground, with only a narrow slit at eye level, covered with gauze, allowed a limited, blurred view of the surroundings.

Next to these grey and inconspicuous cloaked figures that looked like walking milk cans, their Hindu sisters looked doubly splendid, in their colourful, flowing saries. I rejoiced in the elegant, springy gait peculiar to the women of this country.

“Sahib, that suitcase is very heavy for one anna,” the boy said, looking at me with his brown, puppy eyes, reproachfully and pleadingly. “Two annas, all right?”

“Let’s see,” I said cautiously. If only I knew how much two annas was. A block beyond the hotel, my guide turned into a narrow side street through which we entered a maze of unpaved alleys.

“Is it much further?” I asked the boy, as we moved deeper and deeper into the branching lanes. Hungry street mongrels brushed timidly around our legs; a cow, for the Hindu the symbol of holiness, fed on a sheet of discarded newspaper; cripples stretched their mutilated limbs towards us.

“No, we’re almost there,” the boy said and trotted on. And a little later we really did emerge from this underworld, dark in more ways than one, back into the bright light of a wide main street. For the first time since leaving the ship, I saw a European again, apparently a sailor, standing in front of one of the many shops, haggling with the owner over the price of a small ivory carving.

The street stretched long between the rows of houses. Our march took over ten minutes and we still hadn’t reached our destination.

“Is it still far?” I asked the boy again. “We’re almost there, sahib,” he replied once more and walked on unperturbed, across a large square with a bronze equestrian monument in the middle, and then down another street, at the end of which the yellowish tides of the bay glistened in the sun.

Gradually, things began to seem rather strange. We were about to leave the busy streets again. There was hardly a person to be seen in this decidedly residential area. Quietly, a secret suspicion crept into my mind. After all, I had read, time and again, about kidnappings and robberies in certain quarters of the big Indian cities. And my fellow travellers on board the ‘Pilsna,’ who knew the country, had warned me not to be too trusting. Besides, the sun was now high in the sky, and it had become damn hot. Sweat was pouring into my eyes and my shirt was sticking to my back.

“Boy, aren’t we there yet?” — “Yes, we’re almost there,” he called back, without turning his turbaned head with his burden. We had almost reached the end of the road when a bearded Indian in a British officer’s uniform came towards us. When you come from the highly ordered life of Germany, a uniformed man, no matter what branch of the civil service he is in, means a piece of personified security to you. So I went straight up to him and asked him if he could direct me to Hornby Road.

“To Hornby Road? But you’ve gone past it,” he replied in amazement. “Now go back as far as the big square, and then turn into the wide shopping street, which is Hornby Road.” He then turned to my porter and spoke to him in the local language.

“I thought so,” he then said to me. “The fellow has no idea where you are going. All he cared about was carrying your suitcase. If you had told him that you wanted to walk to Delhi, he would have immediately agreed. Come, I have the same route and will accompany you all the way into the city.”

Thanks to his friendly help, we reached our destination after a few minutes. It turned out that my arrival had been noted in the office of the West End Watch Company, but that the ship had been expected to arrive a little later. The employee who was supposed to pick me up, however, had found the pier empty, and they were already beginning to worry about my whereabouts. I was now taken to a small English boarding house where they had reserved a room for me, and after a refreshing shower I sat down to dinner with the other guests.

After the meal, a fruit bowl was passed around with a mountain of oranges, sweet limes and bananas on it. I had loved bananas since my childhood and often saved money to buy the tropical plants, which were still very rare and expensive at that time. When I signed the contract for India I was especially looking forward to eating this fruit. I would have loved to finish the entire bowl, but in the somewhat stiff atmosphere that prevailed at English tables, and under the critical eyes of the three servants, I did not dare to take another bite and watched with a bleeding heart as the still almost full fruit bowl was removed.

In the afternoon I went back to the office to familiarise myself with my new place of work and to get to know my colleagues and, most importantly, to get an advance. I was given a generous handful of Rupees.

Arrival in India, Alois Friedl in 1912
West End Watch, the clock factory he went on to manage

Kela lao!

I now take up the narrative from the stories my father told me, forty years later, during our wanderings in the jungles of the Western Ghats. He had not been satisfied with the one banana he had eaten at his first dinner. In the boarding house he was assigned a servant to look after his every need. But this cheerful young man spoke not a word of English. So Alois asked a fellow lodger how to instruct him in Hindustani. Say “Kela lao”, he was told. “Kela” is banana, “lao” means fetch.

So Alois went to the servant, handed him a Rupee and uttered his first sentence in Hindustani: “Kela lao.” The man looked agitated and kept pointing to the money, saying unintelligible things. So Alois gave him another Rupee, saying “Kela lao!” — more emphatically. It didn’t seem to calm the servant down. He went away muttering to himself.

That evening Alois returned to his room and found his bed and table covered with many hundreds of bananas. They cost less than an anna a bunch (there were 16 annas to the Rupee). Alois and his fellow lodgers all spent the next days gouging themselves on bananas.

In his Bombay residence, sixteen years later. Incidentally I knew that grey parrot. Jacku, lived all the way to my childhood and youth, thirty years later.

Alois Friedl biographical stories

  • 1. Alois: the beginning — The adventurous life of a young boy started with his fleeing from his native village in Bavaria, Germany.
  • 2. Alois: Gateway to India — How this adventurous young German technician (my father) made his way to India, 110 years ago
  • 3. Alois: Death in the jungle — An adventurous young German (my father) described his first hunt in the jungles of India, over 100 years ago.
  • 4. Alois: Prisoner of war — What was internship like during the first world war. Not like you might think, in British ruled India, a century ago.
  • 5. Alois: Deadly poisonous snakes
    How a German technician in a British prisoner-of-war camp, in 1914–18, dealt with the reptiles that abounded in India
  • 6. Alois: Purdah — A description of how, in 1914, Indian traditions and mores made even a minor dental treatment of women a challenge.
  • 7. Alois: The last tiger hunt
    Sitting watch over a dead tiger he developed an almost personal relationship. It was like holding a wake over the body of a friend.

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.