Nameless Souls on Sepia

They were just nameless souls on sepia, staring out seemingly into space:  a peer into a time long since past and now, not often remembered with any degree of regularity. With its jagged edges, it was evident that part of the photograph had been torn away, why is a mystery. Someone in the family, though I cannot recall who, had once mentioned that there had been a rift within the family back in the days when they used to gather at the beautiful hill station of Mussoorie, when escaping the harrowing heat of the city. That was as much as was known. There was no accompanying documentation and nothing written down to suggest who the people in the picture may have been. That they were ancestors seemed a little more than likely. The photograph depicted a wedding scene. Three people remained in the frame. Two seated and one standing or rather two standing but as one had been unceremoniously decapitated he could not be counted. He could have been anyone. The bride wore a lavish wedding gown of lace with what appeared to be a full layered veil laid lightly and carefully, so as not to interfere with her elegant upswept hair which was so fashionable in the early 1900s. Seated beside her was an older man with a head of thick snow white wavy hair, and sporting a long white beard: a little like Santa Claus in a suit. Beneath the hairy façade was a man not unlike my father. In fact, but for the beard it could have been my father sitting beside the bride.  It was the eyes that gave it away. They were the same eyes that had watched over me all my life. Only my father’s eyes had seen different things to those of the apparently stoic figure of the man pictured here. Their worlds were far apart but their narrative of origin was one and the same.

Aunty Paddy had been a gifted and animated storyteller who had a penchant for making colourless characters come to life. She would captivate us with stories of heroes, heroines and travellers tales. “Children….are you listening carefully?” would be our queue to gather round to hear how our ancestors had sailed across oceans in search of fame and fortune. The story told so eloquently and consistently by Aunty Paddy, revealed that long ago when great vessels with billowing sails ruled the waves, travelling the trade routes carrying spices, silks and other luxury commodities, and when George III was King; two or possibly three brothers had set sail from bonny Scotland for the far off and exotic land of India. One of them or maybe all of them had been seduced by what the East had to offer, fallen madly in love with and married an Indian princess, and lived out his days happily ever after in India. This was perhaps a rather romanticised account but this was how the story had been told and retold. One brother had perhaps been a doctor, one a sea captain and the third, if indeed there was a third could have been anything Paddy decided him to be. Such is the power of the narrator. The stories were most likely a mixture of myth and reality but to us as children they were fact rather than fiction, impressing upon our imagination that we were indelibly connected to this mysterious and mystical other world, where gods were more than one, and princes were one and many; a world that had captured the hearts and souls of our forefathers and that was forever in our blood.

Shared experiences, cultures, customs and habits all go some way to forging our identities. What we are told as children often stays with us as adults. However, there are other commonalities that can engender an inherent sense of identity and belonging, such as the idea of shared stories and myths. There is no hard definition of myth. Myth is sometimes seen as being synonymous with fantasy and fairy stories, and little to do with fact. The notion of myth often conjures up images of superheroes and superhuman beings that create an idealised view of where we come from, therefore adding to our sense of worth. To us, these pioneers were real life superheroes; they represented the true to life fodder of fairy tales and fiction, that filled our minds with the machinations of an ‘Other’ world. 

Linking myth to the narrative form is relevant, especially when considering Anglo-Indian narratives of origin because their change in circumstances, and the transitions they underwent in adapting to a colonial and a post colonial era both in Indian and in British society is shrouded with princesses both real and imagined. Of particular interest is what has become known as the princess myth which seems to circulate in many Anglo-Indian families. The myth suggests the presence of a noble ancestral connection and more specifically an Indian princess. What is of importance is why this myth has been created and the reason why some families lay claim to a princess in their midst.

Aunty Paddy’s version of events is echoed in a letter dated 19th December 2004 written by Marjorie Williams to her niece;

     …thank you so much for sending me a copy of the family tree…It’s very interesting that so many Howatsons lived in India. Where does the Scottish side come in? I suppose Thomas Howatson who was originally married to (an Indian Princess)? So I heard. My story was that two brothers, Thomas and George set sail from Scotland – one a doctor and the other a sailor or captain of a ship. I can’t tell you where I got this story from – maybe Paddy…

The letter demonstrates firstly, that we find our narratives of origin appealing at any age. Marjorie Williams was 81 when she wrote the letter. She is unable to remember where she got the story from, ‘…maybe Paddy’ she asserts. Paddy was her elder sister who had died some years earlier and who it is purported knew more about the history of the family than anyone else. When Paddy past away, so too did much of the family narrative.

In addition the letter typifies the element of the ‘Indian princess’ myth that circulates in many Anglo-Indian families. Marjorie Williams is Anglo-Indian. Her father was Hugh William Howatson born in Calcutta, India, in 1886, habitually resident in India until about 1900 when he was sent to Britain to finish his education and later to follow a successful career in medicine. It was in Scotland that he met, fell in love with and married his own princess. His princess was Annie. It was close to one hundred years earlier, when Hugh William’s great grandfather Thomas Howatson had set sail for India. What Thomas would have thought of the Britain that his great grandson Hugh returned to can only be guessed at. It is known that following an irregular marriage in Glasgow, Hugh and Annie journeyed to India and travelled about with their young family for a few years, only to return permanently to Britain later. The reasons for their movements between these two great lands, is unknown. The Diaspora to other lands following partition and independence is well documented but what of those who returned to the fatherland beforehand. What are their stories? Our sense of ‘self’ is governed by what is going on the world and is in a constant state of flux. 

It is only by telling our stories and passing them on to our children that we can preserve the memories and myths of past lives. Many stories are passed down between one generation and another, while other stories remain untold and are lost forever. So next time, when you are gathered cosily around the dining table after a sumptuous Sunday lunch as is quite common among families, laughing at the crazy antics of dad’s schooldays,  finding out about grandma’s culinary gifts or hearing of an aunt’s penchant for telling tales, take note and listen very carefully to the snippets and anecdotes of your elders for these are your stories, your narratives of origin: savour every word and share!

© Liola Lee 2010

This was a piece I wrote a few years back. I was lucky enough to have its included in a lovely Anthology titled ‘More Voices on the Verandah’ which was the final in a series of works by Anglo-Indians and those of Anglo-Indian descent. The Anthology is available still and is edited by Lionel Lumb


Home is where the heart is…

Concrete, granite, stoney grey,

outside the window, any day.

Terracotta, red-brick box,

blazing, brazoned bolts and locks.

Attached together, detached alone,

standing strong, stone to stone.

Hearths and hearts, cills and souls,

turning time takes its toll.

Home is where the heart is best,

where we lay our heads to rest

Home is where we feel at peace

home is where the hearts at ease.

Homes, housing, houses, homes,

to some castles, to others tombs:

Families living, families dead,

home is where the heart is led.

© Liola Lee 2007

Chilli Tuesdays

Chilli Tuesdays have been a long standing culinary tradition here in our home or more accurately in our kitchen. Kitchens often tend to be at the heart of the home where  families gather and sit around the dining table to chat and catch up with the events of the day, in addition to telling stories and exchanging news. Our kitchen was and still is that place where minds meet, debate and tell tales if tales need to be told. Back in the days when our darling daughter Sam was a little ray of sunshine with the joy of childhood still raging through her veins, and no responsibility, she declared Chilli con carne to be her most favourite meal in all the world and please Mummy can you make it every week. It had to be Mum’s Chilli (mine) rather than Dad’s because Mum’s was more tomatoey with finely chopped vegetables which she liked, and Dad made his too hot and cut his vegetables too big as Dad’s often tend to do which she did not like. Like most Mums, I did whatever it took to keep the kids happy, fed and watered, and allowed them to be far too fussy where food was concerned. This was to prove a serious error in judgement on my part. To all you parents out there just starting out, do not do as I did and allow your children too much free choice  in the kitchen as  later down the line you will suffer the tantrums of them refusing to eat what is on the table. Tuesday was our ten pin bowling night where me and the husband would take a few hours out to go to the bowling alley for a bit of adult only time.  Sam would stay at home with her brothers and our lovely babysitter Daina. On this point I hasten to add that her brothers were old enough to look after her but made such a song and dance of it, that it was easier to ask Daina to come over to keep her company, and to ensure that our little cherub was content while we were away. The boys, her brothers were too preoccupied with going outside to play football or just hang out with their friends, as older kids choose to do in preference to staying home and looking after their little sister. Daina was sensible, reliable  and played games with Sam. Getting back to what became the dish of the day or rather the dish of every Tuesday, Chilli con carne became the staple supper of choice for it’s simplicity, and the fact that all the kids were happy to eat it, hence  Tuesdays have been affectionately dubbed Chilli Tuesdays ever since, even though now we do not eat Chilli every week.  This is because our dear little cherub is now all grown up with a responsible career and a sizeable salary, and Chilli con carne is no longer her most favourite meal in all the world . She would rather have a Dominoes or a Nandos. All that said, every so often I revert to cooking chilli on a Tuesday when the family needs to be grounded and a sense of normality is needed if there is really such a thing. When life becomes chaotic as it often does, and everyone is busy with the busyness that is life in the 21st century with us being on call 24/7 then just sometimes it is good to raise the old traditions that glue a family together before they become unstuck. This is just one of our traditions as daft as it may sound but all families can create rituals that give a sense of stability. We all need grounding from time to time and it helps knowing that things that we once valued are still there when the need arises. For the last eight months I have been following a vegetarian diet so the image shows a vegetarian chilli. The rest of the family still eat meat.

© Liola Lee 2018