Letter from Musoorie

My first ‘object’ is a letter. First letter, first school, first separation. I remember writing it. I am four years old. In an English boarding school in Musoorie, up in the Himalayas,  sitting in a room with my 9 year old sister. There is a grownup there watching over us and we are  writing a letter to our parents in Paris. My sister wrote hers with a fountain pen and I carefully traced over the pencilled message with a brown crayon. Both of us gave pretty well the same news; that it had been  the birthday of Roma our older cousin who was also at the school, that we had been to see ‘Song of Scherezade’ and that we were happy. That what was pencilled for me to write over with  the brown crayon in my chubby fingers

There wasn’t anything I wish to remember about my time in Cainville house except the joy I felt when leaving the place. And that memory is clear and in colour. I am sitting on a train in a red polka dotted dress swinging my legs and singing with the others ‘Aye aye yippie yippie yippee aye…’ And my smile is so big, I can see my cheeks.

The letter is a memento of a moment of transition.  It is a blue Air letter, priced at six annas with the clear postmark over the head of King George VI. Sent six weeks before my parents were due to return to India and my father to resume his teaching. The franked stamp reads Musoorie 11 August 1947. In the six or seven days it would take to reach them, our lives would change irrevocably. Four days after it was sent, on the 15th August, India would be Independent, two days later on the 17th of August the Radcliffe line demarcating the boundaries would unleash the mayhem of Partition. Lahore would be placed across the border in Pakistan and so, there was nowhere to return to. My parents were refugees, in Paris. And it would be six months before we were all reunited.

Never asked them about that time, where they were when they heard the news. –  I can only try and imagine.

But I did ask my mother why she had put me in a boarding school aged 4!

‘I got confused.’ She replied, her eyes glistening ‘Your father was in Paris, and I so wanted join him. I asked but couldn’t find anyone to keep you. People said send her to boarding. The English were our rulers and they were sending their little children away and we were taught to emulate them. So I got confused. You were such a sweet child I never imagined they would be cruel to you.’

My mother was getting upset remembering and I felt for her. I had to fight a battle not to send my own five year old to boarding as the 1944 Education act stipulated that blind children be separated from their parents as early as possible.

‘Don’t worry Mama, it was all a long time ago. Nothing to be upset about.’ I sat down beside her as she dabbed the moisture from her eyes with the end of her sari.

‘When you arrived in Paris, you said:‘ Waste of money, waste of money!’

‘What waste of money?’ I asked and you replied.

‘You gave them a shawl to be kind to me , well it was a waste of money. They were horrible.’

‘That was very bright of me to say that’

‘Oh you were very bright then. And you will be again.’ she smiled, looked at me and then, she slowly took my hand, and kissed it.

Years later ( 9 years after her death) that gesture would percolate into my consciousness when, as an actress playing a grandmother in an episode of Dr Who about Partition, I would take my granddaughter’s hand and repeat that very gesture.

And when I saw it on the screen, I remembered my mother and had to dab the moisture from my eye.

Why the tears? Why was I crying?

One thought on “Letter from Musoorie

  1. I never realised you were in India at the time of partition. As you suggest that must have been an unimaginable nightmare for your parents being so far away. I wonder if you will develop that in another story. Such an absolutely pivotal point in India’s history and of course one that is so intricately connected to Madan Lal and your own history. I love the echo of your mother in your own Dr Who story. That must be one reason you are such a good actor to be able to draw on those memories with such vivacity. Thank you. x

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