We were in our house in Poona on 30 January 1948 when the news came that Mahatma Gandhi had been murdered in Delhi. (Dad was always baffled as to how this information could have travelled so fast because Gandhi’s death was not announced on the radio for some time after it happened.)
We overheard Dad telling Mum that the general had just said, “If Gandhi has been killed by a Britisher, we will all be dead by suppertime, and if he’s been killed by someone from Poona, this city is going to go up in flames.”
We didn’t have to wait very long to hear our fate – an hour or so; I was scared, but not that scared; perhaps I just couldn’t imagine it. Luckily for us, Gandhi had not been killed by a Britisher, but he had been killed by someone from Poona, and that evening the city did go up in flames. Dad drove through it all in an armoured car, and came across Swaller bicycling casually along amidst the uproar, and sent her home.
A month later, on 28 February, Swaller and Tessa and I were taken by Mum and Dad to the Farewell to British Troops parade in Bombay: the departure of the very last British soldiers from India. We found the programme for the event among Dad’s things after he died; the introduction says: “In September 1754 two Companies of the 39th Foot, which later became the Dorsetshire Regiment, landed at Madras . . . the first soldiers of the British Regular Army to set foot in India. Today, nearly 200 years later ...the lst Bn The Somerset Light Infantry, the last British battalion remaining in India, is leaving Bombay for England.”
This parade was the potent, visible end to the British Raj, and though I was only eight years old, I was aware that we were watching history, and that everyone around me was feeling emotional as we saw the last British soldiers march off the parade ground, through the Gateway of India, and straight on to launches that took them to their ship – but that didn’t stop me eating the rice grains that had been stuck on my forehead (and on everyone else’s) as a ceremonial gesture on arrival, and getting into trouble with Dad for disrespect.
Our final move in India was from Flagstaff House in Poona to Colaba transit camp in Bombay to wait for the ship that was to take us home for ever and ever. When we had returned to England in 1945, our transit camp had been Deolali – the place in which, over the years, so many British soldiers went mad from boredom, or heat, or venereal disease, that “doolally” became another word for crazy in English.
I got muddled about these camps and when, later, I went to school in England I shocked my teachers by telling them I had lived in two different concentration camps, rather than transit camps.
There must have been some kind of public pool or tank at Colaba because I was bullied by a much older English boy who ducked me and held me underwater until I thought I would drown. I was terrified of him but too scared to tell anyone.
And then – I can’t imagine how it ever came into our conversation – I mentioned to him that I had eaten an acorn when I’d been in England, and he said, “You know what that means, don’t you? Any child who eats an acorn will die before they are twelve.” I worried about this for four years, only really relaxing when I was twelve and one day old.
I have no idea how long we had to wait in Colaba for our ship home, and did we have our servants and their families with us there, or did they come specially to say goodbye at the end? I know they were on the dockside waving and crying – just as we were – when our ship sailed away from Bombay because we looked back on this later, with anguish.
My father, who was always short of money, had most unusually made “an investment” before we left India: he bought Moira and Tessa and me each a thick gold bracelet that was to be our inheritance (almost everything else our family owned had to be left behind in India – and Dad’s parents’ home in Burma had been burned down by the Japanese Army).
These were packed away in one of our NOT WANTED ON VOYAGE trunks and it was only when they were unpacked in Fleet that Dad discovered the bracelets had disappeared. Apparently it would have been almost impossible for them to have been stolen on the ship, so we could only suppose that one, or maybe all, of those weeping figures on the dockside, getting smaller and smaller as our ship moved away, was actually secretly pleased at our departure. It was almost the worst thing about our leaving India.
No one ever feels any sympathy for those who are dispossessed of other people’s possessions, i.e., the men and women who lived and served in the colonies and who had to go home when Independence came, whether it was from India, Indonesia, Algeria, West Africa or somewhere else. But I do, because I remember the heartache and the homesickness for the land we’d left.
After five generations or more of my family’s life and service in India, the only thing to show for it all now, in our daughters’ lives, are a couple of Hindi words that have taken hold: nanga panga, meaning naked, and kutchcha for unfinished or shoddy, and the lullaby that Ayah-Ma used to sing to me that I in turn sang to my girls when they were babies, and that they now sing to their children.
But I can still count to ten and recite Little Miss Muffet in Hindustani (after a fashion), and remember words for things that were part of life when I was a child but have become obsolete now, such as chilamchee, for a travelling shaving kit with bowl, or chaplee for sandals which had a wrapover front, and whenever I taste passion fruit or hear crows cawing or the sound of sweeping, I am transported back to heat and sun and happy days.
I can’t defend the British Raj in India. But I know my parents – good, honest, kind people who, as far as I could tell, always did their duty as they saw it – loved the place and thought about it until the day they died. When Dad was in his eighties, he and my mother, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease by then, were invited to lunch with a group of AWs and my friends, among them a Kashmiri, Afzal, who is dear to us.
Somehow, while we were all admiring the garden, Afzal came across Mum wandering around on her own looking for the loo and he helped her find and use it. Dad was touched and appreciative, and on the way home in the car he said, “You cannot imagine how envious I am of you having close Indian friends; in my day it was not really possible,” and he began to cry, and I wept too for those lost friendships and the cruel artificial barriers erected by time and place, and power and history.
And I will be forever grateful for my eventful, scary, loving, warm, colourful childhood in India.
Excerpted with permission from Full Marks for Trying: An Unlikely Journey from the Raj to the Rag Trade, Brigid Keenan, Bloomsbury.