It is not fashionable to feel sympathy for the men and women who lived and served in the British colonies and who had to leave when independence came, whether it was from Kenya, Ghana — or from India, which celebrated the 70th anniversary of its freedom earlier this month. But I do, because I remember the pain and the loss and the homesickness of leaving India — a feeling which has niggled away somewhere deep down all my life. The Indian writer Shrabani Basu (the film based on her book Victoria & Abdul comes out next month) is no friend of the Raj, but she read my recent memoir and said: ‘It must have been particularly painful for the children, as India was the only home they knew.’ Exactly.
My family sailed ‘home’ on a troopship from Bombay to Liverpool in June 1948, when I was eight. It wasn’t home in any meaningful sense. My sisters and I had never been there, and we hardly knew my brother, as he had been sent back to boarding school before the war and had been trapped there when it broke out. Our ship was called SS Franconia, and on board were more than 1,000 people from families exactly like ours. My father was a general who had served with the Dogra regiment of the Indian army; our fellow passengers were a whole cross-section of those who had made their lives in India: missionaries, office workers, tea planters, dressmakers, telephonists, typists, engineers and nurses.
My family, or at least some of them, had lived in India for five generations. My great-great-grandfather was a Frenchman — according to unreliable family legend he had been taken prisoner by the British during some battle in India but was allowed to return to France on parole in order to bring his silk-weaving business back to India from Lyons. What is definitely true is that he settled in Bengal as a silk weaver. My great-grandmother was his daughter Blanche, who married a local British indigo planter.
On my father’s side, they were poor Irishmen who had joined the British army, which along with the Guinness brewery was one of the main employers then. (Roddy Doyle has described this as the great unspoken secret in Ireland.) And so ironically, colonised Irishmen became part of the colonisation of India. Kipling chose to give this background to two of his most famous characters — Terence Mulvaney, an irreverent troublemaking soldier who comes into many of his stories, and of course Kim himself (whose real name in the book was Kimball O’Hara), the orphan child of an impoverished Irish soldier serving in India, and his wife.
We set sail pretty much empty–handed from Bombay — with just a couple of trunks. Many lifetimes of experiences and possessions, acquired over the decades by our forebears, were left behind. We children didn’t care about any of that. When we arrived in cold, grey, post-war, not-very–friendly Britain, what we missed and cried for was warmth — the warmth of the sun and, above all, the warmth of the people who had worked in our house and had taken care of us as we grew up. My parting from my ayah, who had looked after me all my life, is still a distressing memory and it was probably just as painful for her.
Rumer Godden, who spent her early years in Bengal and whose books about India capture the mood of my own childhood, wrote: ‘Children in India are greatly loved and indulged and we never felt that we were foreigners, not India’s own; we felt at home, safely held in her large warm embrace, content as we never were to be content in our own country.’ The distinguished writer Lee Langley, also Indian-born, and bilingual in English and Hindi, remembers her feelings of estrangement and confusion on ‘coming home’. ‘I once stood, newly arrived on a Cornish hillside, desperately shouting Hindi words. The wind whipped them away and they were lost.’
My own family’s return to Britain took place a year after Indian independence. My father had considered staying on in the Indian army, but his experiences in the short-lived Punjab Boundary Force — a hopelessly inadequate patrol of soldiers and local police set up by Mountbatten, which desperately tried and failed to prevent the slaughter in the Punjab after partition — haunted him for the rest of his life and he wanted to get away. After he died we discovered a packet of agonised letters he had written to our mother at the time, lamenting the horrors he was witnessing. He blamed the ‘bloodbath’ (as it became known) on Mount-batten’s bungled planning: the British police had been sent back to the UK at independence, along with the majority of the British soldiers serving in India, so there was no neutral power left in the subcontinent to keep the peace.
When we arrived in June 1948 my father was still young, only 45, but jobs were rare as hens’ teeth. My father became eighth cowman on a farm in Hampshire; one of his friends, an admiral, took a job as a lavatory attendant at Waterloo Station. We lived with my grandparents.
Socially, the returnees were faintly despised. The feeling seemed to be that they had lived high on the hog, they hadn’t suffered the Blitz or rationing or cold winters and so what could they expect now? My uncle had been killed in Burma, but somehow the suffering of the war in the East, so far away, didn’t seem to count in the same way as the war in the West. The returnees, bereft in many different ways, didn’t get any sympathy — nor did they really expect any. They were a resilient lot. They worked hard at whatever jobs they could get, taught themselves to cook and clean and do the laundry, and got on with life. If they suffered from heartache at their changed circumstances, they rarely showed it.
Sometimes regret showed itself in unexpected ways. Forty years after we left India, I took my father and my mother, who had developed Alzheimer’s by then, to lunch with an Indian friend who my husband and I are very close to. In the car going back afterwards, my father started to weep quietly: ‘You cannot imagine how envious I am of you having close Indian friends — in my day it was not really possible.’ And I found myself crying too, for those lost friendships and for the barriers erected by time and place and power and history.
Brigid Keenan and Shrabani Basu discuss India’s independence on The Spectator Podcast.
Brigid Keenan and Shrabani Basu on 70 years of Indian independence.