Good news always makes a day go with a swing, puts a smile on your face, a bounce in your step. Makes your fingers dance on the keyboard. My good news this morning is that one of my short stories, Bowler and bunnet, felt and fascinator, has been shortlisted for the H G Wells Short Story Competition, the theme of which was class (to be interpreted as you wanted). http://hgwellscompetition.com/2015/09/21/junior-and-senior-category-competition-shortlists/comment-page-1/#comment-430
So happy to have achieved this as my story will now be published in their anthology. Whee!
Now class to someone in Scotland, and the rest of the UK, could mean a story about manual workers and landowners, or unemployed and politicians – plenty material there for creativity. But no, what I decided to write about was hats. Why? Well hats were a giveaway about a person’s class – still are in some ways. Think of the Ascot races or royal garden parties, the plumage on show; the old films of people stomping to work in shipyards or factories, caps on heads; top-hatted politicians striking a pose; head-scarfed women shopping for essentials.
Memories and images of family and strangers churn around my mind, providing a store for me to draw on when writing, though it has taken a while and some elbow grease for me to realise how I could tap into it. My past and experiences have provided me with the acorns, the kernels of ideas, quite a few recently. My new book Any news from India? is very loosely based, for era and material though not for personalities or personal events) on the stay of an aunt and uncle in end of Raj India from the nineteen thirties until after Indian independence in 1948.
Years ago, when helping my parents clear my aunt’s house, we held bags of family history in our hands as it was bundled up to throw out. Thankfully my husband had the forethought to keep some letters and other material. It lay hidden in a drawer for years until one day it hit me that I could use the material as the setting for a novel, or, as it turned out, part of a novel.
I dug out letters, old passports (British and British Indian), a map stamped with the name of the company my uncle worked for, a track chart showing their route, and a map of the Nagpur railway in the days before Pakistan and Bangladesh were even thought of, air routes drawn in blue pencil. Postcards of boats told me the vessels sailed on, each with their own fascinating history, all built on the Clyde or the Tyne. A menu for a fairly lavish (by immediate post war standards) landfall dinner on their final trip home, must have caused a few mouths to drool as Scotland still survived on meagre choice and limited quantity under rationing.
My uncle’s only reference to his years in India was the use of a few Indian English words – tiffin (lunch or afternoon tea, or picnic), punkawallah (ceiling fan operator), dhurrie (flat-woven rug), and the tiger and leopard rugs with bared teeth, glassy-eyed heads and moulting claws that lay on the floors of their house. This aspect of his time there is captured in a few small photographs of hunting party with bounty. With the rise of more politically and ethically aware attitudes to hunting, my aunt latterly insisted big cats were only killed if they had attacked, for once they had tasted human blood they would attack again. Rarely did my uncle talk of his work, so it was fascinating for me to winkle out what information I could in my researches.
A tiger entering the bedroom when she was confined to bed with malaria, and a scorpion bite – those were the two stories I remember of my aunt’s time living in a bungalow miles from another European woman. She remembered trips to a convent where nuns taught young girls how to sew, and where my aunt bought embroidered cotton lawn nightgowns, all pure white. And I already knew from photographs of the silver-studded pale blue sari she brought home to be made into my mother’s wedding dress.
She never spoke of the fear that must occasionally have stalked her, the loneliness, the feeling of exclusion from a society she knew little about. In 1930s Scotland there was little opportunity to learn of life in India, or anywhere else, so she must have travelled knowing only what my uncle had told her of his previous years there.
Why do we wait until answers to questions are impossible before wanting to ask them? When young, I could have asked my aunt and uncle at any time to tell me more of their stay in India, to describe the smells, food, scenery around their bungalow, her impressions of what was Calcutta and is now Kolkata, their journeys across the continent, life on board ship, Ghandi. So many questions but only a few mementos and the internet to provide answers.
So using what I had and what I could find out, I stitched together a story of a couple, Bethida and Johnie, who bear only a glancing resemblance to my relatives, bringing in other characters who also discover how little they know of loved ones, bemoaning questions unasked, along with Aitken who is bereft at having to sell his family home in the Scottish Borders. Far from being unaware of his family history, Aitken can recite it, revels in it and feels Berefield his family home encapsulates the essence of his being. Selling Berefield is like tearing himself apart.
So Any news from India? is about identity, family, choices, what makes us who we are. It’s a journey I’ve taken myself in researching bits of my family tree, in writing novels and stories, drawing on things that have meaning for me, things remembered, things important. And I suppose as you get older it’s good to remember what you have done and those who surrounded and encouraged you, giving all a little slice of immortality.