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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Could it be forever…

According to my darling daughter I am one of Life’s happy hoarders. I have accumulated a great deal of ‘stuff’ shall we say over a good many years. The problem is that I find it very hard, almost impossible to let go of some, if not a lot of this stuff that has become a part of me. I am pretty certain that this is inherent in my make-up, and that I am in fact genetically disposed to this condition for want of a better word, though I am sure there are many levels of hoarding, and it is only by degree that it can become a problem for some people. My parents were the same, and my sisters also seem to share this tendency to gather all manner of gubbins. The words that come to mind are ‘…it may come in handy one day’; or ‘…I may need it one day’; or ‘…aw this has sentimental value’.  Also, I have to confess to having all manner of items that I have never used or worn which I have bought on a whim only to realise later ‘…what on Earth was I thinking?’, in addition to those items of clothing that I will wear again when I drop a few pounds. I have birthday cards, Christmas cards, Valentine’s cards, and anniversary cards stored in what I refer to as my treasure chest which in reality is a big white plastic box. Not only have I saved mine but I have also saved cards for my children, telling them that they will be grateful one day. Naturally, numerous drawings, letters and school reports have been preserved as any good modern Mum would do, would n’t she? Or maybe I am a little weird, and just perhaps a tadge too sentimental. I have a huge Cd collection as well as a large suitcase full of my old LPs and singles which I just cannot bring myself to sell or throw out, and somewhere in the garage, there is a record player but just now I cannot see it for other stuff that is in the way. I have the first record I ever bought. I was just ten or eleven at the time. It was David Cassidy’s Could it be forever with a B side of a song called Cherish . To many it may just be a couple of songs which I can now download on Spotify. To me though, this small seven inch vinyl disc conjures up childhood memories, and is a small part of the soundtrack that is my life. In every room there are piles of books, and  magazines which at some stage I may manage to read. Many times I determine to declutter to create more space and equilibrium. I roll up my sleeves to wrestle with this mammoth task only to find a few hours on, I am reminiscing over old times and happy memories, and just maybe I will delay the declutter for another day.  These things that I have gathered have made me laugh, made me cry and are part of the archives. So maybe I am not really a hoarder but rather a caretaker of cherished times and memories, and just maybe in the future these things for what they are worth will show and tell the stories that are mine and make someone smile. If like me they love family history and ancestral tales then just maybe I will have made someone’s day!

(Please note that this is just  an image of the picture sleeve. I am not sure who captured the image for the sleeve photograph. I did try to Google it but without success. If anyone knows the Photographer please send details so that I can give credit correctly).

© Liola Lee 2018

Rainy Days are not so bad…

Umbrellas are up and the rain has been pouring relentlessly on this saturated Sunday in September 2018. It is a far cry from the sizzling sunshine, and soaring temperatures of a few weeks ago; when  Summer was scorching my lily white skin, and attempting to transform me into something akin to a sun-ripened human tomato (…think red, think  burnt, think a ‘is that sore? sort of scenario). Fast forward to now, and we have returned to the oh so familiar territory of wind, rain and wellies. What is this obsession we have with the weather here in ‘old Blighty’? I mean it is nearly always, more often than not the general topic of conversation we have between ourselves and anyone else we care to stop and chat to whether we know them or not, pun most certainly intended. That said, we have enjoyed a spectacular Summer season with day after day of rocketing temperatures. The last time I recall such a hot, dry sunny spell without flying off to some distant shores was back in the Summer of 1976 when we officially had a drought  declared no less. There was even a Drought Act passed in Parliament that year, and a Minister for Drought duly appointed just to demonstrate  the seriousness of the situation.  Hot weather is great on the most part but when the heat becomes extreme, things can become heated or more to the point overheated. In 1976, there were standpipes in the street where people carrying buckets were having to queue for water. I am sure there are many of the Baby Boomer generation that recall this only too well. I remember Second hand bath water only too well, as water was such a cherished commodity for that short and sticky period of time, ‘ew’ I hear some of you younger ones cry but that was the way it was. You did what you had to do without question and without wingeing.  So today, many of us will have bemoaned the return of the rain but without the rain we would not enjoy the sunshine half as much! Rainy days are not so bad…but we do like a bit of Sunshine too!

© Liola Lee 2018