All Material © Noel Harvey
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' lazy at the sea,
There's a Burma girl a-settin', and I know she thinks o' me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
'Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!'
Rudyard Kipling Mandalay
I grew up in a household haunted by Britain’s colonial past. My parents are culturally English, yet neither set foot in the United Kingdom until they reached their early thirties. They were raised in a rural pre-industrial India ruled over by the King’s Viceroy and administered by British civil servants; a country stratified on both sides of the racial divide by class, creed and caste, with many hybridised gaps. My grandparents, and generations of our forebears, lie buried in forgotten Christian cemeteries scattered across the Himalayan foothills; corners of a foreign field that are forever Indian, or have been since 1948, when independence was gained. The dozens of family photographs jostling for space on my mother’s sideboard bear witness to this history.
There are pictures taken on shaded verandas, with exotic plants and bamboo chairs in the background. There are blackbuck antlers mounted on the walls, and fans hanging from the ceilings. There is a preponderance of generously cut white clothing and an absence of sweaters and overcoats. There are uniforms of course, and the odd solar topee. There is even a Bengal tiger, albeit a very dead one, sprawled under the right foot of my great uncle Albert. But by and large, though all these pictures were taken in India over the better part of a century, there is a notable absence of anything truly Asian. Most notable of all, there are hardly any Asians. If they are captured anywhere, they usually stand off to the side, often in bare feet, perhaps holding a tray or performing some duty, awaiting the bidding of their colonial master or mistress.
But there is one remarkable exception, and that is a sepia toned portrait of a young woman and a small boy. It is set in a frame of Indian silver, and as best I can determine, it was taken in Rangoon around 1890. The backdrop suggests a small private studio, but that is pure speculation on my part. The woman sits stiffly on a simple wicker chair, her hands palm down on each thigh, her fingers straight. She looks nervous and demure, at odds with the more quizzical and slightly defiant expression on the face of the boy. She wears a woven, presumably cotton, sarong decorated with beading, and a kind of high-necked blouson with wide sleeves, wrapped across her breast and fastened to the left by three toggles. She has some simple jewellery: what appear to be clasp earrings, a single beaded necklace worn close to the neck, and bracelets also made up of small beads. Her hair, were it to fall free, would doubtless reach to the ground. But it has been braided into a single plait and coiled under a garland of flowers so that it crowns her small, perfectly oval head. Her pert nose and almond eyes are mirrored in the boy who stands by her side, but a classicist, I think, would be more inclined to think of their faces as resembling a couple of oriental cherubs rather than the Madonna and child.
The boy’s name is Robert, and he is my mother’s uncle. The woman’s name, which translates inadequately as Demure Younger Sister, is Ma Yin. She is Burmese, and she is my great grandmother.
For the best part of a century, across three generations of my mother’s family, Ma Yin’s existence was a poorly kept secret. Poorly, because even a cursory glance at her descendents - and especially my mother - would belie any pretence of purely European parentage. And Ma Yin’s blood line does not, of course, end with my mother. Her genetic code is imprinted (via my parents offspring alone) on the chromosomes of no less than forty three living individuals, myself included. That’s a fair old tally for my parents’ progeny. Five daughters, three sons, twenty three grandchildren, twelve great grandchildren. There could well be others, but the males, and I must include myself here, are more difficult to keep tags on.
Needless to say, fecundity amongst the women of my family seems to be a genetic trait, and this may or may not have come from the Rangoon connection. But my sisters and their daughters and grand daughters have a marked tendency to be petite and undeniably attractive, with oval faces, small features and lustrously black hair. And this I am sure, they can thank Ma Yin for.
The men, thank goodness, are taller and have stronger jaw lines, but we too are given over to that same characteristically black hair, brown eyes and slightly raised cheekbones. And if further evidence were needed, I would add that not one of us, with the possible exception of my youngest sister, has ever needed to take high protection sun screen on holiday.
Ma Yin’s picture stands in its rightful place alongside a photograph of her husband, Frederick Charles Lane Shuttleworth, of the Royal Burma Police. But it was not always so. It simply appeared there one day, nearly a quarter of a century ago now, shortly after my parents returned from their last and final visit to India in December, 1983.
* * *
The chain of events by which Ma Yin came to be officially recognised as one of the family, begin, not on a sideboard in the leafy suburbs of the home counties, but on the ramp of a ferry moored in Harwich, bound for the Hook of Holland. It was June, 1983. Margaret Thatcher had romped home to a landslide majority of 144 seats, having convinced the British people that colonies, and colonial wars especially, were something to rejoice in. It was also the week that I sat astride a large, heavily laden BMW motorcycle, revving the throttle and waiting for a signal to ride onto the lower decks of the ferry. Ostensibly I was bound for the low countries, but my intention was to see the world, and corny as it might now sound, to find in the journey something of myself.
It is a good story, and may bear telling some day. But for now it must remain a backdrop, and we shall pick up the journey the following November on the Grand Trunk Road of India. It had carried me and my motorcycle under its own swirling current since Lahore, and for once I was almost anonymous, blending into the unending, shifting throng of trucks, bullock carts, scooters and three wheeled taxis, the flotsam and jetsam of the Indian highways. I washed up more or less as intended, into the colonnaded grandeur of Herbert Baker’s Connaught Circus, in New Delhi.
By this time, after six months on the road, with around 18,000 miles under my wheels, I considered myself something of a seasoned professional. I had seen a little of three continents and twenty countries. I had slept in palaces, hovels, deserts, and on beaches. I had been dined in Algiers, fêted in Karachi, arrested in Isfahan, and stoned (somewhat half -heartedly) in Dogubeyazit in Eastern Turkey.
I was wearing socks from France, a belt from Morocco, a tee-shirt from Greece. My other possessions had expanded to include several small mementoes from people I had met along the way. A good luck note from a lovely young Dutch girl; a St Christopher’s medal from a Spanish priest; some worry beads from two boys who had befriended me in Tunisia. I was also carrying, courtesy of the American Express office in Lahore, a letter from my younger brother, Francis.
It had arrived along with several cards for my 29th birthday, and though I was touched by the many kind thoughts and well wishes, I was decidedly more circumspect about the news. Francis and his wife, Julie, would be flying in to Delhi that December. Mum and Dad would be with them. Their contemporaries were long departed, but they wanted to see their old homes, pay their respects at their parents’ graves, perhaps visit their old schools. They had flights and hotels booked, vaccinations arranged. They were all so looking forward to seeing me. I could join them for the tour, then we could all fly down to Goa for Christmas.
No journey, I suppose, can ever simply be a trip to somewhere. It must (Einstein’s theories not withstanding) also be a flight from something. And if I couldn’t admit it then, I can now. They had no right, no right at all to come parachuting in on my journey. I could have handled my brother, might even have enjoyed his company, might even have put up with his wife. But Mum and Dad? They did not belong here. It was their country no longer, and in any case they were too late. They had had precious little time for me as a child, and I didn’t need them as an adult. I could find my own roots thank you very much, I had no need of a guided tour from my parents.
I toyed with the idea of heading south and pretending the letter had never arrived. I thought of asking them not to come, or to come another time, or saying, come, but I won’t be joining you. But all solutions seemed either dishonest, or downright hurtful, or both. In the end, a virus, probably acquired in Lahore around the same time as the letter, resolved my dilemma. After two days in Delhi, I was pole axed with hepatitis. As it stood, I might not be fit to travel with them anyway, and if I was, perhaps it wasn’t such a bad idea. There was after all, so very much to say.
It wasn’t that I didn’t speak to my parents; it was that we were not, had never been, given to much in the way of talking. How could you, with eight children, nine if you include my mother with her chronic depression and valium? My father’s every waking moment had been spent simply trying to keep a roof over our heads and food in our bellies. He was a decent courageous man who had done his magnificent, superhuman best, but had he understood the term ‘positive mirroring’ he would have had no time for it. The lines of communication had been laid down long ago. They were strictly functional, triggered around short term results. Imperatives, judgements, regrets. Shame here, blame there. Anger and shouting, slapping and pushing. Some very rare, but nonetheless real incidents of bruising violence.
And set against this less than ideal childhood was an incessant, nagging uncertainty over who we really were. My aunts and uncles spoke a perfect but oddly cadenced English. My mother too, though I noticed it only as an adult. My father would sometimes scold me by calling me a ghoondha or bhadmash. We often ate curries and dhal served up with poppadums and pickles. There were Indian artefacts in the house, and I have already mentioned our physical traits.
My school mates were well aware of the difference and teased me, sometimes brutally. My mother always said there was some French and Portuguese blood, which was true, but not the truth. And when my parents finally found space in their lives to catch their breath and might have been willing to explain it all, the older ones, my self included, had flown the nest, if not damaged, then certainly scarred.
I flew the furthest. First London, then Saudi Arabia as an expatriate, then the bike trip. I had said my goodbyes, but now it seemed, they wanted to come after me. Wait my son, there is something we have to tell you. Of course, nothing is ever so simple, but in the meantime I wasn’t running anywhere, and they, bless them, were on their way. And thus it was that I found myself shoe-horned into a Morris Oxford heading out of New Delhi, along with Gopal the driver, my Mum and Dad, brother, sister in law, and the still unheard ghost of Ma Yin.
* * *
We are driving north, up into the foothills of the Himalayas, to the hill station of Mussourie. It is the closest thing I’ll ever have to an ancestral village. I am over the worst of my illness, but it has left me feeling flat and listless and immensely irritable. Everybody else is suffering from intermittent tummy trouble. Mum seems to think it’s all rather fun, but she has her valium. Francis is stoic and makes appalling, but innocuous jokes. Julie moans infrequently, without changing her expression. Dad is faring by far the worst, having gone into terminal shock since arriving three days ago. It must be impossible for him.
He is now in his seventies, and he hasn’t seen the country in thirty five years. The population has doubled to nearly a billion. The forest cover, I have read, is reduced from 65% to around 20%. The latest estimates of wild tigers put the number at 4,000 - in his day there were ten times that many. He remembers forests and mangroves but sees only bazaars. He recalls neat, white washed cottages but now there are apartment blocks of weeping concrete and protruding wire. They flew in at night, so he hasn’t seen the slums yet, but the place is still a tip. Nothing works, everything smells. He has stepped from a time machine into an over-populated, decaying, anarchic India of the future and he wants to go home. Strangely enough, I hope they will stay.
We have checked into the Hakman Grand. In my parents’ day there were tea dances and Goan bands, and turbaned waiters in cummerbunds bossed about by a fastidious Swiss owner. But now it is deserted and run down, though it still has a faded, threadbare opulence about it. This morning I sat alone on the verandah with a cup of hot, sweet tea, listening to the birds while the sound of the dhobi whacking the laundry echoed up the valley. It is low season, and there are no other guests. The hills, it must be said, are beautiful, and the sun rising over the Dun valley is an exquisite sight. Last night I thought we were thawing just a little. Their stomachs are settling down, and it is marvellous to be free of the crush of Delhi. Today, Gopal will drive us to the cemetery.
We enter through the Norman arched lych-gate, transplanted, I would swear, from the English shires. Its white stucco facing is cracked and discoloured, and the iron gates are rusting badly, but by some miracle there is a leather bound register inside, lying open on a teak table. The earliest entry is dated 1912. I want to stop and examine it, but Mum has walked off into the grounds, as if she knows where she is going, and everybody else is following her. The pathways are still vaguely discernable, as if a caretaker, or someone, comes by now and again to clear the worst of the overgrowth, whilst the graves lay forgotten and untended amongst the deodars and maple.
Mum walks gingerly down one path, hesitates, looks around, and turns left. We are holding back, but then she calls out: ‘I think they’re over here!’, like they’re sitting there waiting for us, and now we’re genuinely excited, except for Dad, whose stomach is still troubling him and who was never one for treading over old ground anyway.
Mum has her bearings now, and she is moving with surprising agility for a sixty seven year old, and with irreverent haste. Dad keeps telling her to mind her step, but she is pointing out graves as she moves, as if she were standing still and they might float away from her.
It seems to be a shared family plot. There are several Shuttleworths, a few Powells, a couple of Grants, and the Collets - grandparents I never knew. I would learn later how the others, and I, are all related. Mum is silent now, standing by the grave of her mother, Jesse Collet, wife of Maurice Charles. I can make out the simple, poignant dedication, ‘Mummy Darling’. It is the beginning of an understanding that my parents too are grieving, lonely children.
Mum and Dad are taking a nap, and Francis and Julie have gone to the bazaar. I’ve started to sketch Mum’s family tree. You can know about gaps for decades, but they only really become obvious when you start to fill in the bits around them. I’ve now got my great, great grand father, Edward Inglis Shuttleworth, 1830 -1902, Inspector General of the Bengal Police, and his wife Jesse, née Grant. Below them there are nine children, one of whom, Frederick, is my great grandfather. He was born in 1872, and died aged thirty, the same year as his father. The rest seems to be simple. He had five children, one of whom was my grandmother, Jesse. After dinner I’ll ask Mum about Frederick Shuttleworth’s wife.
We have eaten, all except Dad, who could only manage some soup, and he has now gone to bed. Mum is giving instructions to Mohammed Din, one of the room bearers. She speaks in a quiet, paternal sounding Hindustani, and I am struck, though not for the first time, at the easy, natural authority she and my father are able to command in this country. I have never thought of them in that way, but they are instinctively the Sahib and Memsahib, and the hotel staff address them accordingly, and seem almost nurtured by the relationship. It goes far beyond a deference for their age. Years later, when I came to acquire a command of Hindi, I realised that that my parents knowledge of the grammar did not extend beyond the imperative voice. I learnt too that Hindi and Urdu have, like French, both formal and familiar forms. My parents knew only the latter.
* * *
In the end, there was no denouement to speak of, and in some ways, it was something of an anti-climax. It wasn’t like Bhowani Junction or anything. Mum and I were sitting in the hotel drawing room, and I showed her the family tree, and asked her to tell me about Frederick Shuttleworth. She responded by acting as if all I’d ever had to do was ask her, and she told me everything she knew. But it wasn’t learning of Ma Yin’s existence that surprised me, because I’d always known about her at some level, but the tragedy of her life.
Later that night, I lay in bed and thought of my great grandparents. How had they met? They were man and wife - my mother has their marriage certificate - but had they also been lovers? I wanted them to have been like Holden and Ameera in the Kipling story, Without Benefit of Clergy, idyllically happy together in their little house on the edge of the old city. There were similar tragic themes in that story. Had he discovered that first tell-tale spot of bloodstained phlegm on the pillow, or had she? Did he know then that he had consumption, that the disease would spread to his lymph nodes and his bones, and eventually inflame the membranes surrounding his brain and spinal cord? When did they both learn he would die a painful, lingering death? He would survive longer in the clean mountain air of Mussourie, it was true, but how had they arrived at that brutal, impossible decision to break up the family? His sister, Florence would adopt four of their children, and raise them in India. The youngest, Mary, would stay with Ma Yin in Burma. Had they been taken screaming from her, or in quiet ignorance, or in tearful, resigned acceptance? Had they written to her? Could she even read? Did anyone make provision for her, a stipend perhaps, some kind of allowance? Had she ever seen her children again? Was she informed of her husband’s death? When, where, how did she die?
Mum has told me all she knows, and there is no one else left now, as far as I know. This all happened more than fifteen years before she was born. Even her own mother could barely recall it, and in any case, it was one of those things that people never spoke of. Perhaps I would never know.
19th Dec 1983, New Delhi.
Mum and Dad have retuned home. Mum went reluctantly, but Dad’s stomach had never settled down, and he had really just given up. Just didn’t want to go on. He never stopped acting the martyr, which is most unlike him. I was rather disappointed in the old boy. I know he’s made of pretty stern stuff, but I guess he didn’t really want to be here after all, but I know mum was glad she came. I rather wish I could have been a bit more constructive and encouraging - after all it was me they came to see. Anyway, they’re gone now, and Dad at least will be glad to get home. It’ll be okay. Mum’s given me the name and address of a distant cousin in Ranchi, who’s a nun. She’s also our last surviving relative in India. I can pass through there on the way to Calcutta. She might know something more about Ma Yin.