We dropped off our daughter Eve at her new school in the Midlands and started the long journey home to Africa. On the train we sat down and my wife Claire looked as if she’d seen a ghost when she saw the elderly lady in the opposite seat. After ten minutes Claire said, ‘I’m sorry I keep staring at you, but you look exactly like my grandmother. Where are you from?’ The woman said she was from Trinidad, but her family was originally from Kerala, in India. Claire said her grandmother was from Calcutta.
Our son Rider looked puzzled. ‘Where are we from?’ For him the counties whizzing by our train window were foreign lands. After Kenya, Elspeth Huxley said, England was like a ‘castrated leopard’.
Claire explained that her grandma, also called Claire, was an Aukim from Burma — or maybe Saigon — whose mother was a Calcutta Armenian called Matarosian. Her grandpa, Ted Taylor, was an Irish Mancunian who went to India as a soldier and eventually ran a section of the railways in northern India. The Aukims were well-to-do accountants and engineers, who drove around in Bentleys and lived in posh flats that today have become a slum. I know because I have visited what is now Kolkata to see Claire’s delightful great-aunt Peggy, who has been a Catholic nun in Kidderpore since the 1940s. Just across the street from her convent is a church where a number of my own ancestors were buried in past centuries — before the family went on to Africa.
During the war, Claire’s grandpa Ted fought in Burma and the family went to live upcountry in Lalmonirhat, which is now in Bangladesh. My father-in-law Gerry, when home from school at North Point in Darjeeling, spent his days shooting duck and dreamt of bagging a tiger. Once, Ted came back from Burma with Orde Wingate, who was having one of his mental collapses, and Grandma also invited the Archbishop of Calcutta to stay. She had laid on a lavish weekend for her famous guests, but Ted just got them tight on whisky and made them play snooker until the early hours. The family’s last home at Budge Budge on the Hooghly River was pillaged by Indian nationalists and then in early 1948 the family sailed to England on the MV Georgic. On the 31-day voyage Ted made a lot of money betting on deck games. At the docks in Southampton 17-year-old Gerry, who had never been out of India, was shocked to see white porters carrying his luggage. The customs officer told Ted he had to pay duty on a crate of Black Label whisky, so Ted opened a bottle, drank it all and tossed the rest of the crate overboard. He was fined for ‘defiling the King’s waters’.
The Taylors moved back to Ted’s birthplace in Manchester, where his Irish parents kept coal in the bath and went to mass on Sundays. Gerry soon had enough of that and joined the Royal Navy, which shipped him off to Malaya, then deployed him all over the world to play in cricket matches because he was so good at it. Ted worked as a crown agent at the Manchester docks until a crane dropped a huge roll of paper on him, breaking his legs. For the rest of his life he played snooker for money, hung out with jockeys or at Old Trafford and bet on the horses.
Grandma Claire made curries in the high-rise council flat where they lived and said ‘We British’ in a lilting Indian accent, like a character out of the 1970s sitcom It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. She gambled for coppers on canasta and regularly stayed up until three o’clock in the morning playing bridge. She was a voracious reader of biographies and became obsessed with the life story of Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister. She was five-foot-one and became immensely fat in her old age. She loved a party.
‘So in a way, you’re from here,’ said Claire in answer to Rider’s question. We’ve been all over the world and now the children are starting school in England. Eve attended her first mass last Sunday. Rider looked doubtful at this explanation. He asked me, ‘Where are you from? I mean originally?’ ‘Umm,’ I said, quietly wondering if I should mention my mother’s birthplace of Lahore, in what is now Pakistan. I said, ‘Maybe Yorkshire?’ ‘I’m from Kenya,’ said Rider with great firmness. A man who had evidently been listening to all this from the other side of the carriage piped up, ‘You know, my wife is from Calcutta.’