Monday, 16 March 2020

Two Worlds—part 2

Eve and Jim's wedding on September 27, 1930 in Simla.
Eveleen Victoria Marguerite Dyer led a parallel but different life from my father. Jim’s father, John, had been the first generation of his family to go to India.  Taking his young bride Emily, he went out to Calcutta in 1902 where my aunt, Helen, was born later that year. My father followed in 1905. Unfortunately John’s life in India was short and he died in Calcutta in 1920. Eve’s family had deeper roots.
Dr. Dyer and Elizabeth in later life
In 1876, the British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, in an attempt to bind India more firmly to Britain, had Queen Victoria proclaimed Empress of India. On November 20 of that year my great grandfather, Dr. James Alexander Dyer, a Free Church of Scotland missionary and accomplished eye surgeon who had arrived in India only the year before, married Elizabeth Margaret Hay Scott in Calcutta. 
For forty-five years Dr. Dyer worked tirelessly with the Santal people of West Bengal. I have a photograph from the late 1800s of him dressed in tweeds on the verandah of a bungalow, operating on a patient’s eye, while others line up behind him. 
Dr. Dyer and patients
I also have an account he wrote to the Geological Survey of India about his experiences in Giridih during the Great Assam Earthquake of 1897. “On turning to look at the house I found extraordinary movement taking place…I could see most distinctly the heaving motion, and compared it in my mind to what might have been produced by an elephant under such a roof, if he had his back against it from north to south…We stood so long in the sunshine that I dreaded sunstroke, and ran for shelter and shade to a small house.”
Dr. Dyer’s oldest son Alfred was home in Britain when the Assam earthquake occurred, but he would have his own experience at 2:28 on the afternoon of January 15, 1934, when the Bihar Earthquake struck causing immense devastation and loss of life in Nepal and northern India. Perhaps his father had told him stories of the earlier quake to pique his interest, but Alfred filled two photograph albums with pictures of collapsed buildings, fissures in the earth, fallen bridges and rails snaking across the ground like twitched lengths of string.
What earthquakes do to railway tracks
The earthquake affected my father in a different way. When Jim was back in Scotland on leave in 1935, he went to see a movie in the huge Odeon movie theatre on Renfield Street in Glasgow. As he was settling down, he heard the deep swelling reverberations of a major earthquake. Without thinking, he leaped from his seat and fled up the aisle, only to realize that the building wasn’t shaking and that everyone else was sitting calmly looking at him. Sheepishly, he returned to his seat as the underground train out of Central Station rumbled beneath the cinema.
Only my mother, Alfred’s daughter, Eve, recorded an experience of the actual quake. As the chandeliers swayed and furniture crashed about her, my mother grabbed my two-and-a-half-year-old sister and fled to sit in the relative safety of the front lawn as the earth heaved and shook around her. The family Ayah (a servant hired to look after the children), was horrified to see the infant sitting in the afternoon sun without her hat, which had been forgotten in the panic. Despite my mother’s entreaties to never mind, she rushed back into the collapsing building to retrieve it. 
What earthquakes do to bungalows
Like my father, my mother was born in India, on September 11, 1912 in Samastipur. On October 18, 1922, the ten-year-old Eve with her father Alfred, mother, Victoria, and younger sisters, Dot and Marjorie, boarded the City of Marseilles in Liverpool after a summer of being shown off to the family back home. Eve was returning to begin her preparation for her role as a memsahib. The role didn’t require an extensive formal education, it was mainly picked up by watching the world around and with lessons in the more formal elements of protocol from older female members of the family. It was tricky to run a household of many servants whose duties were rigidly defined by each individual’s place within the immensely complex Hindu caste system. No less subtlety was required in organizing dinner parties so that none of the European guests’ noses were put out of joint by being placed out of their narrowly defined role in the ruling hierarchy’s caste system. It was a lot to learn and it didn’t suit the student for life in a world wider than the restricted confines of Imperial India, but that wasn’t an issue in the confident days of 1929 when Eve was considered ready to come out into society.
Coming out for a girl was code for finding a husband and the “season” of dances, parties and balls was when and where she would find one. If she failed in this task in the first two seasons or so, she became a spinster, doomed to settle for an unsuitable match far below her on the social scale or, if she was strong-willed enough and lucky, to find a measure of freedom doing something she loved on the fringes of society.
In 1929, Eve was strikingly good-looking with her hair waved in the latest style and wearing fashionable dresses from Britain. She once told me that she loved the social whirl of that season of balls and parties—and why not—she was beautiful, privileged and doing what she had spent much of her young life being trained for. The glittering world of the Raj was eternal and the idea that Gandhi and the Indian National Congress would ever force the British to leave must have seemed ridiculous. In photographs from that time, Eve looks happy and secure, looking out at the future with a slight, wistful smile. She never had any difficulty filling her dance card. 
Eve at 18
At the balls and parties that season, she met two handsome young men. One could dance beautifully and the other couldn’t. Dancing well was an important skill in British India society and the seventeen-year-old Eve was impressed. However, after much teenage agonizing, the less accomplished dancer’s sense of humour won out and, in Christ Church at the top of the Mall in Simla, on September 27, 1930, sixteen days after her eighteenth birthday, Eve married my father. 
It was a spectacular occasion with the service performed by the local Bishop. In the photograph afterwards, Eve stands in white holding a bouquet of lilies and with the train of her veil flowing out onto the ground in front of her. Her head is tilted slightly and that smile is threatening to break through. Jim stands staring straight at the camera dressed in his formal Scottish regalia. The couple are surrounded by family dressed in their best and all look out through the camera, with the rather odd exception of Alfred who is staring off to one side.
A year less two weeks after that splendid day, their first daughter, Helen, known as Eelin, arrived. Three years on, the second, Dorothy, appeared on the scene to be followed in 1937 by the third, Susan. Life in the Raj was broken up by trips back to Scotland, in 1933 and 1934/35. Traditionally, these trips  involved a four to five week sail from Bombay or Calcutta to either Tilbury or Liverpool in April, with a return in October. Jim stayed working in the heat of an Indian summer while Eve travelled alone with the children. The 1934/35 visit was different. Eve was pregnant and gave birth to my sister Dorothy in Edinburgh that September. Consequently, she stayed over the winter. My father returned on leave for the summer of 1935 and although they both travelled back to India that fall it was on separate ships. James sailed on September 13 on the S.S. Rawalpindi, a ship which was later converted into an armed merchant raider and was famously, as Jim told it, sunk in a hopeless battle against the German battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau on November 23, 1939. The captain’s last message was: "We’ll fight them both, they’ll sink us, and that will be that. Good-bye.” Eve, accompanied by a nurse, sailed on October 26 on the much more mundane S.S. Strathmore
The next trip home, following Susan’s birth, was on April 29, 1938, once more aboard the Strathmore. Eve, aged 25, and the three girls arrived at Tilbury downriver from London. The voyage had been good. Eve later said that a young woman travelling alone with small children was pampered on the P&O Liners.
After the arrival formalities were completed. The four travelled by train up to Edinburgh where, as in 1933 and 1934/35, they stayed in a large, sandstone semi-detached house at 7 Lygon Road with Jim’s sister, also Helen known as Eelin. The visit was planned to be similar to the two previous trips, a five or six month opportunity to show off the children to relatives, and in this case to arrange an eye operation for three-year-old Dorothy—but this visit was different. Like many other passengers on the Strathmore, Eve put down her country of permanent residence as India, but she was wrong. Neither my mother nor my sisters would ever return to India.

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