Unwanted by Esther Lyons
UNWANTED is my true story. It is about my long drawn out struggle for an identity. I have described through the pages of my book those influences and incidents that helped to make me what I am today.
I was born in 1940 when there was a lot of instability in India. It was the last few years of the British Raj in India. World War II was still on. At the time many children were continuing to be born through the relationship of the European men and Indian women. I remember I had a very happy home with my father, a very handsome, fair complexioned man with blue eyes and dark hair, and a mother, very petite and beautiful. She wore saree and spoke in Hindi all the time. I was very much loved and cared for. Then one day my father was leaving……..
"Agnes ise ko ley jao," ( Agnes take her away) he said in Hindi forcing me into my mother’s arms. Like most British in India, my father too did not think it necessary to communicate with her in English, instead he learnt the Hindi language for her. I was crying and clinging on to my father, begging him through sobs not to leave me and go. Somehow I felt he would never return if I let him go that day. I was only four years old then. The last spoken words of my father in Hindi echoed in my ears throughout my childhood and youth. I remembered that voice, it haunted me and eventually it helped me to find my father after nearly twenty-years in USA.
After my father deserted us, my mother brought up my sister and me as a single parent through great poverty and struggle. We two were placed as borders with her friend Natasha and her husband Eddie because she had to live at the hospital where she worked as a midwife nurse.
The children born out of marriage through mixed relationship of a British or European and an Indian were put into the orphanages and Homes run by the Christian missionaries at the time. Several attempts were made to do the same with my sister and me once our father suddenly disappeared.
"The food at the orphanage was terrible. Once a week the big girls used to knead the plain wholemeal flour for the chappattis (hoe made unleavened Indian bread). The girls would roll out the kneaded flour into circles, which were then baked over the coal fire, and kept in a big wooden box for the week. Spinach or lentils were boiled every day and served with the stale chappatis from the box for dinner. I often found streaks of slime oozing from the bread when I broke it. But we had to eat what was given to us or go hungry. We all sat on the ground in rows and silently ate the watery spinach and stale bread with our hands, after thanking the good Lord for the meal and our lives. We were served the same thick stale bread for breakfast with a glass of watery tea made in the same container in which the spinach was boiled. It smelt of spinach, and there was hardly and milk or sugar in it. At Lunchtime we received thick boiled rice with watery lentil soup. Meat was a luxury, served only on a feast day. It was served in watery gravy, and everyone received just two pieces of meat…………………..We all wore blue frocks and had to walk bare feet. We walked barefoot on hot and rugged ground of Jhansi, in the heat of 52 degree Celsius to church twice on a Sunday. The church was far from the orphanage……" (Reading from UNWANTED)
Uncle Eddie had Nepali features although he was fair in complexion. Just before the partition of India, Uncle Eddie took us all to Kalimpong where he said we would be safe. He came from Graham’s Home and I was able to meet many of his friends in Kalimpong from Graham’s Home. Later we moved to Allahabad where we lived in the railway colony in his friend Uncle Dick’s house.
"Most of the guards at the Railway Colony were Anglo-Indians, who lived along strict British lines……………We ate European meals, mild curry, rice and red lentil soup called dal, sitting at the table, using knife and fork. We had to be in the best behaviour during meals. We always said Grace before the meal. Every Sunday we attended church. The servants and the shopkeepers called us ‘Baby or Missy Sahib’, they called Aunt Natasha, ‘Memsahib,’ and Uncle, ‘Sahib’. We attended the Christmas tree at the Coral Club meant only for the Railway Anglo-Indians and their families." (Reading from UNWANTED)
When I was ten years old my mother took us to an English German Loretto Convent for admission, " This is An English School, your children do not know English. I cannot admit them here, sorry." Mother Superior said looking at us and Mum critically, but later Uncle Eddie approached the Bishop saying, "These are Anglo-Indian children and they must be admitted into the English School." I was placed in Year Three because of my age. At the time I could not speak or read English but by the time I reached Year Nine, I was coming first out of 50 students and was the only student who passed High School in the Ist Division in 1959 from that convent.
Uncle Dick retired from the railways in 1955 and we moved to the Anglo-Indian Trust Property on 27 Thornhill Road, Allahabad. Only the Anglo-Indians with membership could rent or build on the leased land. It was here that I spent the rest of my childhood and youth. The Anglo-Indian Trust Property had a Club, called the Bundhwa Club in the centre of the property. The residential cottages were built all around it. Every cottage had a servant quarter close bye. The servants did everything for the Memsahibs and the Sahibs. Polished the shoes, tied the laces, picked up the rubbish, and all other domestic work. We lived as a community and everyone knew each other at the Trust Property. It was here that I met some very compassionate and caring people, just as much as I met a few that could be the cause for embarrassment to the community. The experience that I had with them inspired me to write my fiction, PEACOCK IN THE GUM TREE. Uncle James, a fictional character from the book said, "There are bad and good in every community. It is the circumstances which makes them what they become in life." A couple in the Anglo-Indian Colony had two very severely handicapped sons. Their devotion and commitment to those handicapped sons inspired me to write about them in the new fiction story that I have recently completed.
Everyone spoke English at the Anglo-Indian Trust Property. Broken Hindi was only used to communicate with the servants and the Indians around. No Indian was allowed to enter the club without being invited as the guest of an Anglo-Indian. No Indian could be accepted as members to the club. Everyone went to the club for the dances in suits and ties and gorgeous dresses. Everything was very British and formal. The band and the music played were very British. They drank mostly Indian-made Rum and Whisky, and most of them got drunk by the end of the dance.
"Your daughter is too quiet and timid, she cannot be a teacher, she should take up Pitman’s Secretarial Course." The nun advised my mother after I finished High School. Eventually I took Pitman’s typing and shorthand and in mid 1960 I started my first job as a Receptionist – cum – Secretary at Mr Tayal’s Office in Allahabad.
" I met the young accountant, Mr Hari Gupta at the office. He was initially a very considerate and polite person, but when Mr Tayal left the station to visit different offices in the state, he started harassing me for dinner with him. He kept me long busy after office hours and withheld my pay till one day I agreed to see a film with him. I arranged to meet him at the picture hall. When the time came, I could not go alone so I asked my mother and aunt to accompany me. I did not tell them about Mr Hari Gupta……………………" (Reading from UNWANTED)
Offcourse I could not continue working in the office and ended up taking up teaching as a career. "My old teacher, Miss Caston and Mrs Anne Clarke from the Anglo-Indian Trust Property made the new Principal, Rev Mother Hermina, realise how close I was to losing my innocence amongst the hungry wolves in the office in the shape of bachelors, henpecked and obedient Indian men." (Reading from UNWANTED)
My father the represented many of the British and European men who in those days considered it best to leave their children and their native women behind in India at the mercy of the missionaries and the charities.
Aunt Natasha represented the general caste and class-conscious Indian people. "No good can come from a background like yours." She would say, " You two may be fair in complexion, but my children come from the high caste Brahmins background. You have no background, and no family?" (Reading from UNWANTED)
Her words stung deep and made great impression in my innocent mind. It forced me to take up the challenge and set out in search of my background and identity. By then I had discovered that my father was a catholic priest, but it was the ‘papa’ behind that priestly robe I set out in search for and also his family background. I am not saying here that there were any other Anglo-Indians born of priest and nuns, because I do not know about it. I only know about my case. Besides, there were more British and European men and officers than the missionaries in India. I realised that illegitimacy did not make me less of a human than those born of marriage. I had no choice in being born as such; the problem lay not with me, but with my father and mother, and the church, and that offcourse was another issue. I was born free like every other child and had only to prove my worth as an individual belonging to the human race. I realised that only those who have the experience and knowledge of circumstances can sympathise and understand. Ignorance breeds contempt and prejudice. I had to get over with prejudice and get on with my own life. And the only way to do this was to be honest and speak the truth. Somehow the knowledge that my father was a Catholic priest had developed a fear and guilt in me, and I did make a mistake once. I trusted and married a Hindu thinking that I would be able to hide my birth circumstances and labelling, but it made it worse. My husband used my being an Anglo-Indian, a casteless community. Our marriage did not work as I was and am a staunch Christian, and I could not change my religion. I soon realised that I had nothing to fear. Truth was the only shelter for me and I was able to write my autobiography with honest accepting my origin.
Now my children and my sister’s children will no more lie or be afraid to speak of the background. I have throughout been conscious of my individual worth, not that of my father or my mother or of the family background, it is me and that matters. Writers, non-Anglo-Indians have written about Anglo-Indian women, eg Cotton Mary, only to get money through shocking evidence, but none have written about the good Anglo-Indians, the Florence Nightingales and the compassionate and hardworking members of the community. I was very aware of my image throughout and of my identity as a worthy individual of the community that supported me, the Anglo-Indians, a Mixed Race of European and Indian. It time to spread the goodness of the community in image and spirit through icons like An Anglo-Indian Restaurant where Yellow Rice and Ball Curry, Jalferracy are offered. All the pickles and spices must have the word, Anglo-Indian and Chuney Mary etc etc. Make film on the good Anglo-India. Promote the Community through the logo, Anglo-Indian. This would be the way to save our culture and show pride in it. No point in picking on the bad points, it is time to promote unity and support and to spread our strong culture. We cannot hide behind India for support, we have our own cultural background which is different from India, USA or Europe. We must promote it and take pride in it.
I was teaching at Girls La Martiniere School in Lucknow when I applied for a six weeks trip to USA with the Experiment in International Living Scheme in early 1965. Dr Tewari interviewed the applicants. " Well," he said, "I will see that you are successful in going to USA but you must come out with me for dinner." I looked at him and replied, "Offcourse I will come out to dinner with you, but not today. First let me have the confirmation letter stating that I have been selected." I replied with a smile. I got the letter of confirmation but I never saw Dr Tewari because I went home to Allahabad for the Summer Vacation. I met him in July in Delhi during the orientation and just three days before we were to leave for USA. "You said you would come out for dinner with me once you are selected." Dr Tewari reminded me. "I am sorry, I was busy preparing for the trip, but I will come out with you once I return." I replied. The day our group left for the USA, I made sure complaining about Dr Tewari’s harassment to the Co-ordinator in Delhi. I never saw Dr Tewari again. (Reading from UNWANTED)
I was able to discover the family tree of both his parents. Last year there was a celebration of 300 years since the establishment of Detroit city in the USA. Due to my research and family tree I was able to prove that through my French grandmother I was the direct descendant of Francois Bienvenue dit Delisle, one of the pioneers who helped establish Detroit City. I was invited to Detroit by the Mayor and presented with a plaque as the 10th descendant. Some one from the Internet presented me with a Collier’s dictionary that my Irish granduncle, Daniel Lyons, wrote in 1889. The dictionary was widely used in the schools in New York for many years. A French relative from Paris contacted me and we keep in touch as cousins since. I also discovered my mother’s Indian ancestors and made contact with all the relations both in USA and in India. Finally in my fifty-fifth year I discovered my background! This made me revise my UNWANTED into BITTER SWEET TRUTH where I proudly included my family tree and some more about my father’s achievements.
I also discovered that my father was the editor of his own newspaper, ‘The Voice of the poor’ in India, and the editor of the Patna Mission Magazine. He also wrote articles for the many newspapers in the USA. I did not know this when I started with my autobiography. Dr Wallace Suchting, an Australian Reader of the Philosophy Department, Sydney University encouraged me to write the autobiography because he was intrigued with the many stories I told him from time to time about my experiences in India. "You are a born writer!" He said one day. He taught me the skills of writing my story and helped me develop my inherited talent.
Having found my father and mother’s French, Irish and Indian background, I discovered my own identity; the identity of the one born with mixed blood, an Anglo-Indian. I am in communication with my family members in France, USA and India, but I am today proud to be an Anglo-Indian first and then the product of French, Irish and Indian background of my parents. The child who was once placed into various orphanages, who had walked the streets of Allahabad and Jhansi homeless in the heat of mid-summer in India, was rejected by the church and who had sunk into suicidal depression, was finally accepted by the people of the three countries, India, USA and Australia and had found her identity.
UNWANTED is the history of many Anglo-Indians in India. It is a story of success and achievements. While writing the experiences and the struggles I faced as an unwanted and an abandoned child, I have included the description of a period that has passed. The men and women described are products of that period and they too are passing. To give a picture of life at that time, I have gone beyond the facts to get at the truth. I have created scenes, made composite characters when this was necessary, changed time sequences to help the continuity, and introduced dialogue.
I use a lot of dialogues to make my characters real and lively. They communicate and give necessary information to the readers. I found it important to describe the cultures and traditions, which existed at that period of time for the readers to understand the mode of behaviour and interaction within the society they lived. I believe that the truth can be established and revealed with the help of certain amount of imagination. The information and the description of the background are very important to encourage imagination, therefore.
My books are the voice of the many Anglo-Indians still struggling in poverty, injustice and discrimination in India. I wrote from my heart as I spoke in my Anglo-Indian style. Before I left India, Sister Bernard, an Anglo-Indian nun said, "Now Esther, I hope you will not change your identity with that put-on accent. Remain what you are. Stay with your own style of communication for it is a part of you, and your identity as to who you are." I have always remembered those words of hers. My books have the Anglo-Indian culture and language. I have tried to capture the time and period which existed in mid 20th century and before in India through my own experiences of life and brought it forward to the present. It is a story of a lifetime of search for an Identity and background. The Anglo-Indian community of Allahabad accepted, encouraged, inspired and made me what I am today in Australia.