Monday, 23 March 2020

Two Worlds—part 3

The lost world
Tensions in Europe steadily rose over the summer of 1938 as Hitler incorporated Austria into the Third Reich and gradually increased his demands to absorb the ethnic German population of Czechoslovakia. Politicians shuttled back and forth attempting to find a solution to an insoluble problem—as early as May 30, Hitler had ordered his army to prepare for an invasion of Czechoslovakia on October 1. 
Many people were convinced that war was going to break out that summer. It didn’t because the governments of Britain and France caved to Hitler’s pressure and, at 1:30 in the morning of September 30 in Hitler’s office in Munich, signed an agreement that dismembered Czechoslovakia and presented Germany with 25% of the armaments that were, within two years, used in the invasions of Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg and France. The British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain claimed that the agreement would bring “peace for our time” but few believed him. Churchill called the agreement a “total and unmitigated defeat” that would only be “the first foretaste of a bitter cup”. 
Amidst the uncertainty and rumours of war that summer, it was decided that Eve and the girls should stay in Britain for the time being. This decision was confirmed the following year when Jim returned in March for a brief leave. In September, as the German tanks rolled through Poland, my father returned to India and the responsibilities of protecting the Raj. He left Eve in Aberfeldy, north of Stirling with three young children and, although he couldn’t have known it at the time, pregnant with their fourth daughter.
As the war progressed, the family moved a few miles east to Strathtay. Life in Strathtay for Eve and her four young children (Fiona had arrived in the spring of 1940), wasn’t easy. I remember my mum saying how much she had hated the wartime bread and powdered eggs. Even with extra rations for the children, life was hard and making do was not something that someone trained to live in imperial India with all its servants, was used to. And yet, I recall my mother saying that those years in the Scottish countryside were among the most enjoyable of her life. It was a community of women and children and the war made everyone come together and help each other. The idyll came to an end as the war did.
Eve and my sisters in 1940
Eve and my sisters moved back to Edinburgh shortly before Jim returned home on leave on August 29, 1945 after six years away. This wasn’t a leisurely four week boat trip, but a hurried plane journey with only a brief stop in Egypt, and my dad brought bad news. Throughout the war, my mother’s cherished assumption was that something close to the life of privilege she had known in India would be continued after Germany and Japan were defeated. It was not to be. By 1945, the world had changed. It was obvious to everyone that India would be given independence in a very short time. Jim had work to do on the railways and helping with the handover to the new countries of India and Pakistan, but there was little point in bringing the family out. On February 15, 1946, James boarded a plane flying east for what turned out to be four year separation.
I know little about those postwar years other than one shattering event. 
An Egyptian stele from around 3,400 years ago is thought to be the first representation of a victim of the Poliomyelitis Enterovirus. The disease is transmitted through contact with human faeces. Ironically, in the days of poor sanitation, prolonged infant exposure to the virus accorded an immunity and the disease was rare. It was only after improved sewage disposal and the provision of clean water greatly reduced contact with the virus that polio epidemics became a factor in developed countries. Even then, in the days before vaccination, the majority of people exposed to the polio virus never even knew it. Of those who were diagnosed, the majority suffered fever, headaches and an upset stomach and recovered. In a few cases, the virus attacked the central nervous system and some form of paralysis resulted, and in some of these cases the paralysis was permanent. In a fraction of one percent, polio killed.
In Britain, polio was at its worst in the 1940s and early 1950s, when it killed up to 750 people a year. Compared to diphtheria (which annually killed an average of 3,500 children in Britain before vaccination), tuberculosis (which accounted for between twenty and thirty thousand deaths each year during the 1930s and early 40s, many of whom were children), or, in earlier years, scarlet fever and influenza, polio was a relatively minor killer of children, but it was one of the most feared. Philip Roth strikingly captured that fear in his novel Nemesis: “Finally the cataclysm began – the monstrous headache, the enfeebling exhaustion, the severe nausea, the raging fever, the unbearable muscle ache, followed in another forty-eight hours by the paralysis,”
Before polio vaccine became widely available in Britain, I remember seeing and hearing about kids in iron lungs and wearing heavy leg braces that today would not look out of place in some weird steampunk science fiction movie. That was the image that horrified adults, a tiny fragile child trapped in a cold, unyielding mechanical contraption. 
When Salk’s and Sabin’s vaccines became available in the late fifties and early sixties, parents rushed their children in to doctors and clinics. Of all the vaccines I received as a child, the only one I remember was going down with Eve to the Russell Institute on Causeyside Street in Paisley to get my polio shots. It wasn’t because it hurt more or was more unpleasant than any others; it was because of my mother’s tension around each visit.
One morning in October, 1948, my eight-year-old sister, Fiona, complained of a headache and stiffness. My mother checked and discovered a fever. Aspirin didn’t do the trick and by late afternoon, things were bad enough for my mother to call an ambulance. The ambulance arrived and took Fiona to hospital just as her older sister was arriving home from school. Forty-eight hours later Fiona was dead.
The suddenness and horror was devastating, but it was not a devastation that I experienced. For me, my lost sister was a ghostly black and white photograph that sat in the living room of every house we lived in while I was growing up—and the urgency with which my mother took me to get my polio vaccine shots.
For the first eight years of their married life, my parents were apart a lot. That was the way it was in the Raj. In the days before air-conditioning, women and children escaped the brutal heat by taking refuge in a hill station such as Darjeeling, Mussoorie or Simla between May and October each year. The men remained on the plains except for brief visits to the hills whenever they could. The wives and children saw little enough of their husbands and fathers for those months, but they saw nothing at all if they went back to Britain between April and October, which Eve did in 1933 and 1934. 
My parents were used to being apart by 1938, but after that, things were different. In the twelve years from the end of April, 1938 to late March, 1950, Eve and Jim were together for no more than ten months—five in 1939 and five in 1945/46.
Renewing a marriage after a twelve year separation is hard on any relationship. How much more difficult is it if you throw in a world war, the birth and death of a child, and the collapse of the only world you know? My father took refuge in whatever work he could find and may have augmented that out of a bottle, but what was it like for my mother? 
Eve was part of a lost generation of women, one of the 45,000 or so European women living in India and Burma around 1947. Most returned to Britain, either before the war or in the years after independence. The vast majority were not independently wealthy. They came from middle class families; a list of the occupations of my ancestors in the generation or two prior to the move to India included a tailor, a baker, two blacksmith, a stone mason, and a cork cutter, whatever that was. They had been trained for little other than running a household full of servants within the rigid social structure of the imperial rulers. Back in Britain they were bereft of servants in a world they either didn’t understand or detested. They found themselves in a grey, wet country, struggling for money in an economically depressed climate, and surrounded by people who didn’t care about them, didn’t help them, and who they didn’t much like. The Raj and the rest of the British Empire was gone or rapidly going. Imperialism, in all its complexity, was dismissed as a dirty word, and those who had participated in it as grumpy, inflexible old fossils out of synch with the bright new world of hope that blossomed in the 1960s.
My mother wasn’t a storyteller like my father, although she did tell me about the earthquake and the time a rabid dog ran through the house and my infant sister had to endure a series of extremely painful injections into her stomach. Her filtering of the India experience through to me was more subtle. 
I sometimes confounded my school friends by getting the doodh (the Hindi word for milk) from the fridge. Of course, whether they realized it or not, they themselves used many words that the British had derived from Hindi: bangle, bungalow, cot, dungarees, jungle, khaki, loot, monsoon, pyjamas, shampoo, thug, typhoon, veranda. But there were many that were in common usage in our house that they didn’t know: begum (a high born lady, usually used by my mother for someone with ideas above her station), choky (a chair), palavar (an unnecessarily long discussion), ghee (clarified butter), chota peg (a small drink), burra peg (a large drink). 
Eve and Jim's sister, Helen, making the best of it in Scotland
I grew up firmly closing my mouth when passing a bad smell in the street, looking with fascination at women who smoked in public or wore bright lipstick because both were signs of low morals, and being far too conscious of class distinctions that only existed in my mother’s mind. 
I once got into terrible trouble from my mother for suggesting out loud that we were working class, which from a financial point of view, of course, we were. 
I learned to talk in the Isle of Skye. I spoke with a soft, highland lilt which was derided when I went to school in Paisley outside Glasgow in the lowlands. I had to learn to talk differently at school and I had to remember to change the way I spoke when I went home because, to my mother, a west coast lowland accent was lower class.
All my school friend’s parents were much younger than mine and seemed to understand the world that their children were growing up in. Not only were Eve and Jim older, but their lives in the fossilized society of the Raj added an extra generation to the gap. 
I often felt that I was growing up in two worlds, my home life and everything else. I wished for a life identical to my peers and didn’t appreciate until much later what I had been given. Growing up in two worlds teaches you to always see the other side, to never take things at face value, to always distrust the person who has a simple answer and is convinced that he or she is right, to be skeptical. It is probably no coincidence that two of my favourite authors since I was a teenager are George Orwell and Albert Camus, both independent thinkers who grew up in two worlds, Orwell in England and Imperial Burma, Camus in Algeria—then a colony of France.
My mother hated Britain, and that gave me her other great gift. Scotland in the 1950s and 60s was the anti-Raj. Where India was bright and colourful, Scotland was dull and grey. Where India was sunny and dry, Scotland was continually overcast and rainy. Where India glittered and was vibrant, at least for the rulers, Scotland was drab and listless.
It didn’t help that my parents were always struggling to make ends meet. Jim’s pension from India was never paid and his first venture in Scotland, running a hotel on the Isle of Skye, failed. He worked in shipbuilding on Clydeside until technology made engineers of his training and background redundant. He ran a
Royal Alexandra Infirmary where Eve worked and
where they removed my tonsils and appendix
driving school, managed gas stations and operated a hardware store. Eve worked shifts as an Auxiliary nurse in the children’s ward at the Royal Alexandra Infirmary in Paisley. It was always tough and my mother’s constant theme was what a dreadful place Scotland was. My sisters all left the country for Australia, Africa and Canada and I was repeatedly told that, after I had an education, I had to leave and make my future elsewhere. Of course, the unstated subtext was, “Go out into the Empire, young man,” but when I opened the door to leave and asked which way the empire was, there was nothing left. It didn’t stop me moving and that is the other thing I have to thank my mother’s Indian imperial experience for, a love of being in different places. 
I doubt if my parents intended to raise a skeptical storytelling traveller, but that’s the way it turned out. Of course, growing up, I didn’t know the directions I was going or the influences that were steering me, but my parent’s lives in India, had, in ways that I am still discovering, an immense formative influence on the person I was to become. 
At the beginning of April, 1982, Eve had a stroke. According to Jim, she had had several before that had changed her personality and made her a bit difficult to live with, but this one was massive and sent her into a deep coma. I flew home from Canada to be with my dad in the small cottage my parents owned in Letham. Early in the morning of Good Friday, April 9, the hospital in nearby Forfar called to say that Eve had died.
Three years later Jim was dead and my last direct link to his and Eve’s world was gone. All that remained was that boy sitting shyly in the corner of the room listening to incomprehensible tales of a magical lost world and all that was left for me to do in order to try to make sense of it all was the obvious. I would do what my parents, sisters and aunts and uncles never did, I would go to India and see what remnants were left of their world.

1 comment:

  1. John,a great tale! Brought back many memories. You may remember me as cousin Robin, son of Marjorie, although we only met a few times when we were children. Lovely to hear from you - I will follow your blog. Best regards, Robin.