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

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Hugh’s Story

Hugh Montgomery Howatson 11/04/1923 – 29/12/2013 ‘ A man who inspired…’

Hugh was a truly amazing Man, and a beautiful human being! He was good, he was kind, he was patient, he was intelligent, and he always offered encouragement even when the odds were stacked against you! He epitomised Strength and Gentility! At the beginning of World War II he played his part by becoming an ARP Warden (Air Raid Patrol). Then as soon as he reached 18 he enlisted and joined the RAF, and was attached to 294 Squadron as a WAG (Wireless Operator Air Gunner) in Air Sea Rescue. He was just a boy at the start of the War but had strong values and believed in doing his duty by his country and his family, and fought for the continued freedom of his fellow countrymen and women. Joining the War Effort was just par for the course. While serving King and Country Hugh demonstrated a skill for languages, and during the war years mastered fluent French, German and Arabic. He was a very talented man. He attained a Degree in Chemistry with the University of London as an external student, and later became a Research Chemist by Profession, a job which he stayed in until he retired. He was a devoted family man being a wonderful Husband, brilliant Dad, loving Brother, Uncle, Grandfather, Great Grandfather and friend! He worked hard all his life and always paid his dues. He had always been a healthy man, and always looked much younger than his years. He never ever complained about anything, least of all his health, and just got on with Life. He believed that if a job was worth doing it was worth doing well and to the best of your ability. He had many hobbies and interests. He was a brilliant Photographer, an avid reader, an exceptional craftsman with wood, making his own beautiful items and restoring antiques. He used to enjoy making his own wine. He would always tell us to follow our heart and our dreams!  He passed on his love of learning and his many gifts to all of us. We are all better human beings for having had the honour and privilege of being a part of him. Getting mixed dementia was not on the agenda. You always think things like Dementia and Alzheimers happen to other people, and other families! When it comes, it can be a gradual process, and even go unnoticed for a long time. But when it takes a grip it does n’t let go! Each day bit by bit the person you love is taken from you until they no longer know who you are or even who they are. There are drugs that are currently used but in all honesty they fall far short of doing anything that really helps. Resources are limited to say the least! Much more Research is needed to explore this soul destroying illness in its many guises. 

This story is Hugh’s story but it could be anybody’s story. Alzheimers/Dementia does not discriminate. It can happen to anyone, male or female and not always when elderly. It’s a cruel, unforgiving and soul destroying illness which lays claim to an individual bit by bit chipping away relentlessly until a person is just a shadow of their former and vital self. Families are heartbroken as they watch their loved ones die, and then when physical death occurs they lose their loved one all over again. When Hugh was in hospital he shared his part of the ward with Bertie, Terence and Tony. All had Alzheimers/Dementia in one form or another. This illness is on the increase! A former Global Summit said we need to do something! So let’s do something  and raise awareness to find a way forward.  No one knows what the future holds until it happens. Let’s make it a future free from Alzheimers/Dementia!

© Liola Lee 2014

It is five years today since our beautiful Daddy passed away from this World to the next. I originally wrote this piece in 2014 when I set up a charity page in his memory. It was about raising much needed funds for research, the message remains relative and of course to raise awareness. The page is no longer running but the message remains as important today as back then I am posting this article here in his memory and in memory of all those who have suffered from Alzheimer’s/Dementia and of course for all their loved ones…

Today is the day ~ Glad

Today is the day when I shall focus on being glad. This is easier said than done as I am sitting here in my dining room, organising the wage run for our subcontractors, which if I am to be honest does not make me glad. The recent recession has meant that each Friday I have to practice my circus skills as a juggler, and rob Peter to pay Paul so for that reason I am not glad but if I am to practice being glad about other things I am sure I can manage that.

I am glad I have a roof over my head, and I am glad that I am in good health which is always something that one should be glad about. I am trying to think what else I can be glad about today. Well, the sun is shining and I have managed to pay everyone, and so far nobody has annoyed me. Mind you it is still early, and my daughter has yet to arise from her bed, and as on most mornings she is likely to get up on the wrong side of the bed and be grumpy. It is 8.30 on a beautifully sunny morning on the 21st May 2010, and by now you will most likely have come to the conclusion that my daughter is not an early bird who catches the worm, although on the subject of worms, the wriggly ones which can be found in the garden, and not the type that you catch from animals where you need to be wormed, I can recall a time when my daughter was four, and used to subject me to worm patrol on the way to nursery. You may by now be wondering what exactly is worm patrol? Let me explain. 

In order for worm patrol to take place, there had to be wet conditions. It had to have been raining overnight so that next morning worms would be out and about, worming along on their daily business which tended to be winding along the pathway through the park. The walk to nursery was always an eventful time as four year olds tend to be curious little things, and for most of the time rather sweet. Back then my daughter was a morning person, still in awe of the world around her and saving worms from hungry birds was the order of the day. At that time I was temping for Lewisham Council as a cashier. I would drop my daughter off at nursery, and then run to catch the number 75 bus. I was late most days, only by minutes but nevertheless late, and the head cashier would let me know it by looking up at the clock as I walked in, and then at his watch. He never said a word but the look on his face said it all. I always just said that the bus was late again. After all how could I explain that I was assisting on worm patrol. The things we do for our children, and the trouble we get in to for them!  Back then there was not even the slightest inkling that my darling daughter, saviour of worms would evolve into a tempestuous teenager as most children eventually do. That said, I am glad that we shared such times, so yes today I shall focus on being glad for the times I shared with my daughter when we were on worm patrol and be proud that I too was instrumental in the saving of worms. 

What else shall I be glad about today? 

Today is the day’ …was a collection of musings I wrote during the Peri menopause years. It’s spoken in the first person, and was based largely on my journal entries written around that time. Journalling is a wonderful way to express this, that and whatever else needs to be said whether aloud or silently…

© Liola Lee 2010