India and Bangladesh were important to my family – although I don’t think there is anyone left there now. I went last week to the Newsnight Partition programme presented by Kirsty Wark which was fascinating and packed, and well worth watching. The subject remains fraught with complications. Old men and women from all sides remembered what it had been like in 1947, historians and writers gave their opinions, The Daily Express branded it biased and divisive and Dr Kehinde Andrews, Associate Professor at Birmingham City University, said: “There is no defence for empire. It should be a stain on our collective identity.” It is a time that has gone, and probably just as well, although people point out that some good came of Empire too. I agree with those who feel that although we need to acknowledge the legacy, both good and bad, and learn from memories and past actions, we don’t need to beat ourselves up about it hundreds of years later. That energy could be put into doing things better, I reckon. Opinions and responses welcomed.
As a child of the British Empire, living on a tea estate in the 50s and 60s and leaving to come to small cold England to go to school aged nine, I can only remember people being nice to me (‘well they would be, wouldn’t they?’), and space and freedom and warmth. And isolation, it is true – I didn’t have many people my own age, because people lived miles apart and travelling took time and often turned out to be a right tamasha (fuss and bother, as I recall).
When I did come to the UK, it was unfamiliar and not very welcoming. And as a child who had spent most of her time with adults I found it hard to find my way about, literally and in playground politics.
I looked odd for starters – here I am at one of my birthday parties with a haircut that was done (possibly with his eyes closed) by my father’s nappit (barber) who would come the house, be set up outside so that the hair would blow away, and cut away without a mirror.
It’s my fifth birthday, I think, if you count the candles. I had been subjected to the trimming, and then, to make up for it, was called to the corner where the Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow bush poured out its scent in the early evening, when the sun was dimmed. Its flowers start out dark mauve, change to pale lilac and end up, a day later, white. Its honeyed smell, like many others, remains with me, a light sweet scent that puffed out at you as you walked past, but inconveniently couldn’t be captured for long. When I got there, I saw that the table was laid for tea. My ayah, Lily, stood behind my younger sister’s high chair and my mother was dressed more smartly than she usually was at tea time. The cook appeared with a cake and lighted candles from behind the bush, and Sudham and William the bearers hovered in the background. Everyone was in on the act, and everyone was loving it, lustily singing Happy Birthday, and cheering when I puffed hard to blow out the candles. I felt spoilt and important!
I have put many of these sensory memories into The Jacaranda Letters, and some of the characters too. The book is a mixture of fact and fiction and I have used what I remember to make it authentic. I will share some of my notes in this blog every so often. Luckily most of the people are no longer around, and my sister was too small to remember!