Nameless Souls on Sepia

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

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!

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Hugh’s Story

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…

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

Today is the day ~ Glad

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…

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? 

 

© Liola Lee 2010

Today is the day ~ A Little Princess

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…

The truth is kids grow into teenagers arriving at that crossroads in life when they are neither child nor adult not fitting neatly into one camp or another and my god, do they let you know it at every given opportunity. They are a breed apart from mainstream human society. I do not use the term breed lightly as I believe there is a certain animal quality inherent in any individual between 13 and 19. They think they know it all, they accuse you of not caring and tell you constantly that you do not understand them. They are constantly bored, always critical, totally self-obsessed, self opinionated and make it their aim in life to get on your nerves on a daily basis. Where once they were endearing and cuddly, suddenly they are obnoxious and rude to the point where you really cannot believe that they are yours and that you actually gave birth to them. It seems strange that at this moment I should recall Mary Shelly’s novel Frankenstein. I guess she was not the only one to create a monster. Perhaps I am being too hard on the little darlings and they are not the least bit like monsters but with retrospect, I sincerely think not. There is definitely some connection. Teenagers really do exist. We as parents often ask ourselves what is it that we did to deserve such treatment from our offspring, when all we ever have is their best interests at heart. Surely they should be grateful to us for putting a roof over their heads, food on the table, clothes on their backs and giving lifts to concerts, clubs, parties, friend’s houses, school, shopping and of course the school run which would not have been too bad but with my middle child that meant to school and from school until he left at 16 and doing the same for his mates was a bonus for me on most days. And what about holding their hands at the dentist, the orthodontist, doctors and in the school playground, well at least until they got too embarrassed by you and would rather you kept your distance. This last observance about distance seems to last well into their teens. God forbid that their friends, most of whom you have known since infants should see them with you, their parents. On the rare occurrence where our daughter granted us with her presence, on the premise that she would get a new iPhone saw her walk several paces behind with her hood up so as to avoid recognition by any of her friends that may be loitering in the vicinity.  In my own particular case the list also included daily trips to the stable yard, and weekly trips to the local golf club. Did I mention the ballet classes and the weekly football? Yet all we get in return for our considerateness is eyes up to heaven, monosyllabic grunts, tuts, shakes of the head  and mutterings under the breath to indicate how irritating they find you. You are old and are not the least bit clued up about where they are coming from or where they are going. They speak a whole new language…’you get what I’m saying like’ and so on and so forth. I have given up correcting speech and grammar in favour of a peaceful life by simply turning a deaf ear when they do speak. However, by doing this I get accused of never listening but then why should I when the language I grew up with has been murdered and mutilated beyond all recognition. I am on my third and final teenager now. My first two are now in their 20s and parents themselves. If what goes around comes around then I will take great pleasure in watching my children suffer the storms and strops of the turbulent teens in turn, a sort of divine retribution shall we say where the Piper is paid back in kind, and when mum can sit back with a smug smirk on her face in an all knowing way. 

Just now our baby girl, currently 16 going on 26, is uppermost in my thoughts. It has been like that a lot lately. Until a few short months ago she was a wild unkempt tom boy who resembled a pikey rather than a little princess. For instance, if I had mentioned the word bra to her she would have recoiled in mock disgust at the thought of it. It was all I could do to broach the subject when she eventually developed sufficiently ample bosoms to require one. I remember one time watching Trinny and Susannah unashamedly grab the breasts of a woman they were restyling on their makeover tv show only to be accused by my daughter of exposing her to pornography. If she had seen a couple kissing on television she would have looked away, genuinely embarrassed. How times change, now she has realised that she has a fine pair of what my husband terms man magnets, a really cringe worthy image, he is a builder and such terminology frequently finds its way into the house, and she is more than a little proud of what she has in common with Jordan and not the least bit shy or modest even. Oh yes, times have certainly changed. My little girl has gone and grown up on me without warning. She is no longer my chicken in the library or my ferocious lion with sharp teeth and claws but has donned the appearance of a diva come rock chick right down to her perfectly pointed stilettos. On the subject of stilettos, she did insist on wearing them the other day to go shopping with her mates. I did warn her. My exact words were, I think “ Are you sure you want to wear those shoes?” well of course she was sure, she liked them and they looked ‘dead good’. I had to agree they looked great but mentioned that she might feel differently about them after wearing them for a few hours around the shopping centre. I was of course proved right, and there was no need to rub it in by saying ‘I told you so’. It did not need to be said…the pain in her feet and legs said it all. I do not believe she has worn those shoes since. To think that we use to watch From Ladette to Lady on television, and laugh laboriously at the dreadful pits to which these young girls would sink. It never occurred to me that I was harbouring a ladette in the making, although I like to think that she still has a few ladylike leanings but that is most probably wishful thinking on my part. Perhaps it is just a passing phase, just one of many. I thought it would be easier this time, firstly because I have done this before with two boys both delightful little cherubs when they were born, well at least for the first few weeks. They do not remain babies for long, and before you know it they soon grow into the men they are to become albeit bit by bit. If the law of attraction is true and I have no reason to believe that it is not the old saying many a true word spoken in jest takes on an entirely new meaning. Why oh why did I ever jokingly liken my sons to notorious twins. What was I thinking? Actually, I clearly was not thinking at all. How was I to know that by saying such things I was tempting providence, and unknowingly urging the Universe to accommodate me.

© Liola Lee 2010

(image is one I took of my lovely daughter who is and will always be my Little Princess)

Memoirs ~ Ping…”Oh no not my knicker elastic”

Ping!! Oh No, not my knicker elastic

If you have ever had your knicker elastic break then read on. This is the story of one child’s harrowing experience! The girl was in Class 6 at the time or Year 5 as it is now called. The teacher was a lovely lady with long mid- brown hair, and a kind warm-hearted smile. Her name was Miss Lawrie. She wore short skirts and long suede boots which were in keeping with the fashion at the time. She was an attractive woman, and far too nice to be working in a school like Kelvin Grove Junior. The school was rough and not for the faint hearted. Try as she would Miss Lawrie could not control the class. You had to be as tough as old boots to work in this school. Miss Lawrie was out of her depth, and drowning in a sea of chaos and child led conflict. By now you’re probably thinking that it was Miss Lawrie’s knicker elastic that snapped. Not so. To understand the enormity of the impending situation, one has to have some idea as to the establishment in which the event took place. The teacher, as has been noted was lovely, the school was not! The children or at least some of them were as you’ve probably guessed by now lacking in social skills, and in training for a future stay at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.  Some of the boys were scary and some of the girls even scarier still. Hopefully by now you are a little clearer as to how things were.

‘PING’ -” Oh no not my knicker elastic ” thought the girl who was instantly thrown into a state of shock, horror and disbelief all rolled into one. Everything that ensued was the result of a nine year olds race to rescue herself from ridicule and embarrassment. The girl put her hand up to gain the teachers attention, for it would be fair to say that she was a good girl, and liked to adhere to the rules, at least most of the time and to have shouted for attention would have been quite rude. Miss Lawrie saw the child’s raised hand and asked what it was the girl wanted. The child asked to be excused to go to the toilet. The teacher agreed to her request, and simply said not to be too long. Oh, she was so nice, that Miss Lawrie! Holding tightly onto her knickers as discreetly as she could manage through her clothes, the girl stood up to leave the classroom and make her way to the toilet. She hoped that no one would notice how nervous she was, and how red in the face from embarrassment. She hoped no one would question her. If they did she would feign a stomach ache. That is what she would do. This would explain why she appeared to be holding her tummy; just to be on the safe side the girl pulled a few good faces as well, as if by screwing hers eyes up, and opening and closing her mouth in mock pain she would appear more convincingly unwell. Luckily the toilets were only a little way down the corridor but nevertheless the walk to the toilets seemed to take forever. She walked slowly, trying to appear as though she were in great physical discomfort. After all, if one must pretend to have a stomach ache then it went without saying that one should look and act the part. Whether she looked the part or not remains a mystery. At the time she felt that she gave an Oscar winning performance.

Arriving at the girl’s cloakroom, for that was where the toilets were the girl looked about to make sure that she was quite on her own. There were two toilets in the cloakroom adjacent to each other both with the walls painted a pale understated shabby pink . There were grey slightly chequered melamine doors. Children observe the strangest of things at the strangest of times. The girl turned to tackling the problem of her falling down knickers. The knickers were nylon and had a purple design with a sprinkling of orange flowers. The girl never forgot those knickers. The girl got so involved in fastening the offending garment that she failed to hear someone enter the cloakroom quietly, and oh so sneakily. What was worse, the girl did not notice that she was being watched. There was a gap of some six maybe eight inches between the toilets in the single window recess which served both small rooms. The toilets were not original features but had been added much later and the builders had clearly not thought to fit the dividing panel flush to the window, so that generations of girls could enjoy at least a modicum of privacy. Why should they care?

Back to those knickers. Fortunately, the girl was quite practical, and had a good head for solving problems. She was wearing lace- up shoes. Good strong laces should be just fine to fix things for now, the girl thought. She unlaced one shoe and gathered up the loose material on the waist of her knickers, and tied the lace as securely as she could. This done, the girl returned to her classroom, still unaware that she had been spied on. She was actually feeling quite pleased with herself for her ingenuity and immediate improvisation. She wondered if others would have thought of so clever a solution. With hindsight it would probably have been easier to discreetly let the teacher know of her predicament, and she might have simply been given a pair of spare clean  knickers. The school always had spares of everything, including knickers, just in case of emergencies, and this was most definitely an emergency. Yes it would surely have been easier but then when you are nine, something like this is difficult to talk about. You’re not thinking in the same way you do as an adult.

The girl returned to the classroom relieved that her knickers were now tied securely. However, she moved about carefully just in case the lace worked itself loose. The fear of her knickers falling down was too awful to contemplate. It just didn’t bear thinking about. Returning to the classroom the girl carried on as normal until lunchtime. No one need ever know. Thank goodness for that she thought. After lunch the children gathered in the playground for play, before the afternoon session got underway. Anyone who noticed the missing shoelace was told how one minute it was there, and the next minute it was gone. Children often take things at face value. No one questioned that it seemed odd, and indeed unlikely.

Then, the girl’s worst nightmare happened in the guise of Wendy. Wendy was really not a nice girl. In fact she was a mean and nasty individual who ran a good line in bullying. Even some of the boys were afraid of her! She was someone to be avoided at all costs was Wendy, best to stay out of her way. Wendy made it quite clear that she had seen the girl in the toilets tying her shoe lace around her knickers. Wendy said it in an all knowing smug way, her weasly face looking even more weasly than usual; it seemed to empower her, and give her satisfaction that she had the upper hand in this situation should she wish to exercise any control over her involuntary victim. The girl felt her world crumble about her! She wanted the ground beneath her to open up and swallow her whole. Soon she would be made the laughing stock in the playground. The tears welled up inside her, and she could feel a knot forming in her throat that was making it difficult to breathe. It took all her effort to hold the tears back. She felt sick to her stomach and totally panic stricken. The girl wished that Wendy would get it over and done with! Wendy was cruel and hateful! Never before had the girl hated anyone, not really anyway but today she thought she hated Wendy. Today was the worst of all days, and the girl felt sure that there was worse yet to come. 

Wendy made the girl’s life a misery on a daily basis. Wendy and her partner in crime Robert used to wait for the girl and her little sister after school skulking in the shadows, only to appear from nowhere or so it it seemed. They would push and shove the girl along the road, taunting her and spitting at her, making fun of the fact that her and her sister were the only kids in the school who wore the correct uniform. The girl did nothing. She let them push her, she let them shove her, and let them call her names. She did nothing, and she felt that by doing nothing they would leave her sister alone. She was right. They never lifted a finger against her little sister. Whether the girl was right or wrong is a matter for debate. Some would say that she should have hit those bullies as hard as she could. Others might say that she was right to turn the other cheek. Some would say, ‘Well, that’s kids for you’. What was strange that year was that Wendy could have pointed the finger at the girl, and told the entire school what she had seen that day in the toilet. She could have let everyone laugh at the girl’s expense but she didn’t. If she told anyone, they never said anything. Childhood can be a tough journey for some. Children try to find their way in the world. Some seem to sail through with ease while others have many challenges and obstacles to overcome. It was a long time ago now and the girl has grown and dealt with far worse! Yet at the time those feelings of panic, and the fear of being ridiculed were very real. 

This really happened. The bullies were really called Wendy and Robert. I would have named and shamed them but decided to omit surnames to protect others. They know who they are and I can only hope that they changed and that if they didn’t, well that is for the Universe to decide.