FROM INDIAN.ENGLISH.: A MEMOIR
By Jillian Haslam
INDIAN.ENGLISH. EXOTIC as it may seem, I cannot say it is a mark of positive distinction. I always think, that if we were not in that country; if we were born in the west, if we were born somewhere else, we would have, many of us, been able to establish broader foundations for success in life. But we never got that kind of opportunity. In the long run, we must all be stronger for it in the way that adversity builds character.
The distinctive traits, certainly not of all I.E. but many, is our fair skin-colour, followed by the accent with which we speak English. The outgrowth for this choice is that the inflection of our accents created a distinguishing linguistic element. In many respects, it perversely served to alienate us more than if we had spoken perfect Hindi, Belgali or any other Indian language. Were you to speak to us on the telephone, you would not be able to tell that we Haslam’s were for the most part fair-skinned English people.
Within seven or eight months the school in Dum Dum was running and everything had settled down. My father had recovered from the heart attack. Though my parents were not paid a lot, they were grateful for the stability. The twins, Kimberly and Alan, were born and we were enjoying a much deserved sense of comfort and harmony. My earliest most pleasant childhood memories are from when my family and I were in Dum Dum. I recall how proud my parents were of what they had accomplished after a lot of hardship and pain, even though it was nothing much at all. Their intention was to make a difference and they were. Here lay the haven where they could build and mould something of their own, away from the stresses and dangers of the city.
Fate however, had planned something else for us entirely.
Very soon into the assignment, we were to be robbed of our happiness. Naxalites got wind of us and an attack was imminent. One of us in particular was the unwitting and unfortunate catalyst of a protracted series of dire events that haunts all of us to this day. These events were triggered by the colour of our skin and misunderstood foreign outlook within a small-minded, closed native community. The sacrificial lamb was my beautiful sister, Donna.
In 1968, in the West Bengal district of Naxalbari, a Maoist faction waged a rebellion. Known as “Naxalites”, they began to infiltrate politics in Calcutta and to influence it in many ways. They won seats on the government. Being the independent Communist party of India, they took their politics to the people of the outlying villages. The Naxalites slowly seized control of most villages and by the mid-1970s pervasively wielded that power with often deadly force. Feared by all, they were criminals who ran an area and its people. A mob but seemingly more pervasive than a mob. They were a community of terrorists in the rural outskirts of West Bengal.
Dum Dum, being extremely remote was alien to white people. The arrival of our family and in particular of my teenage sister Donna didn’t go unnoticed. She was blond, very fair and had blue eyes. Word about us and mainly about her had spread through the villages. My father was 6’ 2”, extremely fair and people looked upon him as a god of some sort. Unfortunately, it didn’t stop there. Word got as far as the Naxalites and when they saw Donna, they wanted her for their own. Her days were numbered. She was to be kidnapped.
My parents had built up a good relationship with the people around them and were tipped off about Donna’s threatened abduction. A local man, who did not want his name to be mentioned, had heard that this was going to be the case from another person and relayed what he had heard. They were terrified and knew that the Naxalites would stop at nothing to achieve what they set out to achieve.
The plot to abduct Donna had already been hatched by the time my parents were informed. They were warned not to speak a word about it; to act as though everything was normal; and not to attract any attention to themselves. By doing so, they ran the risk of the whole family being murdered. For years after it had happened, I remember my Mum telling us the story and not being able to control her tears. She never forgot the dread—that all it might have taken was for someone to want to look good in the eyes of one called Banu Bose the Leader of the Naxalites and to have informed them of our move. She was terrified and my Dad could not believe just how difficult and dangerous our lives had become.
My parents were given a plan to get out of the village under the cover of darkness.
I remember they stayed up all night, praying that all of us would not suddenly be killed and hoping that it wasn’t a plot of some kind but a genuinely kind gesture on the part of some local villager whom they would never meet again. To send just my sister away would mean death for either all of us or certainly for both my parents. Another possibility loomed—the kidnap of both us little girls (myself and my sister Vanessa) as revenge, since the area was infiltrated by kidnappers, murderers and robbers. Agonizingly, my parents had to be very, very careful.
The police of the area would not interfere. They were too scared of these Naxalites and would not act against them to protect anyone.
The plan was to take nothing with us. Everything we owned was to be left behind. All the hard work put in and all the effort made had to be left behind. My parents were crushed. Their lives and family uprooted again. Their feeling of devastation is not possible to adequately describe. For what remained behind with their belongings were two priceless possessions.
They had not quite recovered from the deaths of Mini & Carol who had passed away in Calcutta just before they left for Dum Dum and were now trying to deal with the deaths of the twins they had lost in Dum Dum itself, Kimberley and Alan, who had died but a few weeks before. Not only that trauma, but the trauma of having to bury their own children in large tea-leaf boxes because they couldn’t afford coffins. Donna who was old enough to understand about the twins had grown to love them dearly. She could not bear the thought of leaving them in the ground at Dum Dum. It seemed a sacrilegious act of defilement to their memories to abandon them to the Naxalites and to never be able to go and visit even their graves again.
We didn’t have the time to properly say goodbye to the twins. That thought even today haunts me. I am sure that although my parents never talked about it, it hurt more than words could ever explain. The greatest loss any human being can suffer is the loss of one’s own child. Not to mention losing four.
I remember the twins were so tiny, and when Kimberley died first my elder sister Donna cried, holding her like she was going to die herself. I have never in all my work with children throughout my life, ever seen the type of grief and sadness I saw on my sister’s face the nights on which they died.
My mother knew that Kimberley had died. Despite spending hours together, however, she could not tell Donna that this was the case. She waited for my Dad to get home so that she would have him there before breaking the news to Donna. She just kept telling her, “Don’t try and pick her up, let her sleep.”
She also knew that one would not survive without the other. True enough. Alan died a few days later.
The house was just unbearably sad. I remember my mother trying to tell us stories in order for us not to worry, but the despair and the grief that each of us felt cannot be explained. Even though she tried hard to keep a brave face herself, she sometimes broke down and walked outside pretending she needed to think about something. We knew, of course, that the sadness on her face said it all.
A local man had brought us a tea-leaf box which was made out of wood and sealed with tape at the ends. I remember my Mum turning it around so that the open part faced her like a little doll’s house with the doors open. In that she put an old sheet, and then Donna placed her own little pillow into it because she wanted Kimberley to have it forever.
I can picture her pink little lips and such an angelic face. I remember my Mum trying to seal the box and Donna getting hysterical, saying you’ll suffocate her, and my Dad holding her while my Mum kept taping the box. I do not know how she did it or how she managed to seal her little daughter in but she did. I’ll never know how my Dad was able to pick up the box, but he did and walked through the doors.
There was no funeral. My mother couldn’t go to the burial, because women weren’t allowed in the area where they had found a little pit in which to lay her to rest. My Mum kept saying to my Dad, “Take me one day and just show me where you put her.” Unfortunately, that was never to be only because people were most often burnt and therefore we didn’t know of any cemeteries in Dum Dum. More likely, I think my Dad did not want my Mum to know that that was indeed the case.
Young as I was, I could tell that things were not like a normal burial should have been. Still my Dad kept saying, “It was nice, she’s okay.” But he never provided any description at all. Until this day I think he died knowing how terrible it really was to not only go through something like that, but to accept the conditions that went with it. He never did speak a word about it to my mother in fear that it would hurt her terribly.
Throughout my life, I cannot help but think of how hard it must have been for him to keep silent about something like that, and, what’s more, how honourable a human being he was to suffer it alone.
They had to go through it yet again when Alan died a few days later. All I can remember is running to the door to see my Dad walking with this box in his hands with two locals following him, since there wasn’t even a car or any type of conveyance at the time.
I may have been little, yet I could tell that my mother was existing solely because of us and not because she wanted to. Even today when I try to talk about it, I am unable to explain what we actually felt.
We were children holding two other dead children and watching them, as they were being laid out in large tea-leaf boxes and being taken away, never to be seen again.
The pain and the depression felt by my elder sister Donna was what I believed turned her into the emotional person that she is. The mere thought of losing someone even to this day is unbearable for her. I have been with people who have had losses, but with her it is a trauma that has never been resolved. She would not eat for days, she refused to have their things touched and sobbed virtually every hour of every day. She has refused to have children of her own and never talks about it. Yet, like with my father, we cannot fathom nor understand the true depth of that experience or the lasting impact it had on all our lives, though mainly on hers.
Vanessa and I just stood by and cried primarily because we relied on Donna as our big sister. To see her break down was not easy on us. But never to see the baby twins again was something we were too little to comprehend. We heard the word “death” but what it meant was what we couldn’t understand. All we did know is that they were never coming home again and my Mum said that she was sending them to Jesus.
I am sure for any parent, the loss of a child is the hardest thing to face. How overwhelming can it be, then, to lose four children due to extreme poverty and being incapable to save them especially after having cared for them for some time. It is something beyond all expression. All this in addition to fighting for survival, and now fleeing for our lives, in a country which was against us, all while living in utter poverty.
Without ceremony or our ability to adequately prepare or say good-bye to the twins, the time had come to escape from Dum Dum.