In the turbulent years that follow the British Empire’s collapse in India, rebellious and inquisitive Lucy de Souza is born into an affluent Indian family that once prospered under the Raj. Known as Black British because of their English language and customs, when the British deserted India Lucy’s family was left behind, strangers in their own land.
A richly visceral and stunning debut, based on the author’s own childhood, Black British is an unflinching and beautiful narrative about feminism, family and the search for identity.
Read an extract below.
The magical day when the birthing stork dropped me in a Scottish Hospital in Kanpur, India, was 29 November, the day before St Andrew’s Day. Saint Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland and though it was eleven turbulent years after independence from the British Raj, he was still the patron saint of the Georgina MacRobert Memorial Hospital.
My sister Lily was born on St Andrew’s Day two years earlier but since she had the good sense to choose a hospital that had no connection with Scotland her birth caused no more than the usual tamasha.
But my birthday upset my mother. As she often said: “I wanted you to be born on your sister’s birthday. That way I’d have continued the trend set by my mother who had my sisters, Elsie and Tilly, on the same calendar day, two years apart. But you upset the apple cart and came a day early, causing endless confusion.
Her theory was that I was afraid if I waited for St Andrew’s Day my birth would go unnoticed in the frenzy of song and dance to celebrate the patron saint’s day.
“You upset so many people. Important people.” Ticking it off on her fingers she continued, “The hospital wasn’t ready, the doctor had the day off, your father was at his mill, there was no one to look after Lorraine and Lily…” She’d run out of steam.
And confusion there was.
The obstetrician was playing golf and feeling very pleased with himself because by the eighth hole his game was going better than that of his companions. He was poised for a birdie and having shuffled his feet, wriggled his bottom to ensure he was in the perfect position to effect a perfect shot, he gripped his putter with fierce concentration and that’s when the aaga- walla, the young servant employed to keep an eye on the ball, arrived with the summons.
“Sahib! Aou jow juldhi, quicklyquickly come. Baby coming. BABYCOMING.” The lad’s voice rose to a squeak as he leaned forward and pranced around energetically to add urgency to his already urgent words.
It took a few seconds before the obstetrician tore his focus away from his game and absorbed the news. Thinking from the aagawalla’s panic that my mother was at death’s door he dropped his golf club and ran all the way to the clubhouse, it being the days before golfing buggies. Arriving on the front verandah gasping for air, his face cherry-red, he was met by a gaggle of post-colonial memsahibs, elderly matrons who were consumed by their status as married, white, upper-class women.
These women decided he was ill and insisted on minis- tering to him. “Dr Aitkens! You shouldn’t be running around at your age.” Mrs Stott, the wife of the State Bank Manager, borrowed status from her husband’s position and appointed herself spokesperson of her cronies. With a singular lack of tact she added, “You are not a young man anymore!” Armed by her third tipple of gin-and-lime for the morning she was intent on doing her good deed for the day.
Calling for water, “Bearer, pani loa. Now!” And as though he was helpless, she insisted on holding the glass while he sipped. At the same time she attempted to mop his brow. Unfortunately, her alcohol-induced tremor meant that most of the water landed on his shirtfront so that by the time he arrived at the hospital his usually immaculate image was gone and he was dishevelled. My birth was also safely over and he had missed his opportunity to show off an expertise that is so unnecessary in an uncomplicated birth.
The second breathless messenger found the midwife at a tailor’s shop. She was clutching a grab-rail, desperately trying to maintain her balance on a three-legged stool while having the hem of her new dress pinned. My father was at his mill, and my sisters Lorraine and Lily took full advantage of adult distraction to ensure they were underfoot.
“Biscuit!” Lorraine was peremptory with our ayah, the nursery maid who had charge of them. Though she was only four years old she recognised an imbalance of power.
“Hungry!” wailed Lily, happy to learn a naughty lesson. But before the biscuit tin could be opened Lorraine jumped up and hit it with such force that the lid shot off and ginger- nuts flew in every direction.
“Run!” she shrieked, and grabbed biscuits in both hands before she tore through the dining and drawing rooms to the library. “In here. She won’t fit in here.” And Lorraine dived under my father’s desk with Lily close behind.
Biscuits gorged, helpless giggling at their temerity in the face of futile pleas from the ayah “to come out, baba,” soon subsided into boredom.
“It’s dark in here.” Lily showed signs of capitulation and that’s when Lorraine found inspiration from the wastepaper basket.
“We were making confetti,” she explained later with an air of surprise, because apart from ignorant adults, everyone knew that’s what little girls do when they are ensconced under a desk in close proximity to scrap paper. But no wild feat of imagination could explain how so many tiny shreds of paper got into so many cracks and crevices in one small room.
Somehow the responsibility for their behaviour was laid at my door.
As were several other legacies that resulted from my early birth. My mother lost her opportunity to follow the pattern established by my grandmother; the obstetrician’s best golf game ever was spoilt – a point he re-emphasised each time I met him in church in subsequent years until he left Kanpur to try his golfing prowess in greener pastures; and for causing the midwife to attend the St Andrew’s Day dance wearing the previous year’s dress. She insisted that was the sole reason her boyfriend Alex McKenzie married her best friend instead of her, and was later killed serving on the North West Frontier. The implication was that I was ultimately responsible for the midwife’s ex-best friend’s early widowhood.
I take a deep breath, recognising I’ve talked a lot. Should I continue? I’m supremely aware that I’m baring my soul to someone I’ve never set eyes on before. Sitting on the stone bench beside me he continues to look towards the church and appears comfortable and at ease.
I stretch my legs and look up at the cobalt sky of Goa, so alike and yet so different from the skies of Kanpur.
Maybe I’ve said too much? As though he can read my mind, my companion chuckles.
I pause for a moment.
Then I chuckle too. “You know, my family come from Goa,” I tell him. “In fact, from this very village.”
“Tell us a story, Daddy. Tell us about when you came from Goa.” Lorraine, Lily and I were past masters at pestering our father.
My father sighed. Repeated renditions had robbed the story of all romance. “I was born in Kanpur,” he said, “in this very house. So was your Aunt Arabella, Uncle Claude, Aunt Moira and Uncle Richard. Our ancestors came from Goa and settled here a long time ago. Our name, ‘de Souza’, comes from Goa.”
“Why?” That ubiquitous question that all children ask.
“I don’t know why they left Goa. It was around a hundred years ago so the story is forgotten. I presume it was grinding poverty. It must have been, for why else would anyone leave their home that is dear and familiar, to come to…this?” Sitting on the front verandah on hot summer days he’d shake his head in disbelief as we looked out on the dry, dispirited plains that couldn’t support a blade of grass.
But a different theory came from my Great Uncle Hugh who had independent rooms in our house and therefore was a pronounced influence on our lives. “It was probably adven- ture and enterprise that drove them. Goa is fifteen hundred miles southwest of Kanpur so not a journey for the foolhardy, especially in those days.” Opening the atlas, he pointed out the journey they would have taken.
“And when you consider that everything was so different for them. They spoke Konkani not Hindi, which is spoken here. We’re Catholics whereas the local people here are Hindus, their culture was different, this horrendous climate was… eh…horrendous, and yet they flourished. It says some- thing favourable about the calibre of our ancestors.” Uncle Hugh looked lost in thought over that epic journey.
At the time Goa had been a Portuguese colony for over 300 years, since 1510, and development had been stymied. In such a climate it only takes one restless person to stand on tiptoe, yearning for a glimpse of the worlds hidden beyond his horizon; one person with the hunger for adventure and the excitement of the unknown; one person with persuasive lead- ership to inspire his brothers, and family history is rewritten.
It only took one person – and that one person was my grandfather.
Or was it his grandfather? Or the one in between?
When a girl grows up steeped in family history details get lost. Like most children, my sisters and I took our background for granted.
My father took up the story, “Your great-grandfather [plus or minus one or two] gathered his chattels into a single box and made the long, perilous journey north into what, for him, was the unknown. He walked for three days to reach the port of Panjim where he found a rowboat to get him to the mainland. A bullock cart carried him to the edge of the hot, dry plains of Central India which he crossed by camel caravan. Another long walk took him through the last stage of his journey – a journey that was to change his life forever and the lives of his children and his children's children.
The enormity of the undertaking kept us silent for a while until Lorraine asked, “Wasn’t he sad to leave his home?”
My father considered this. “I don’t know what he felt as distance shrank the view of his family and home. I don’t know if he realised he’d never speak his melodious language again or that his children would adopt a different culture, a ludi- crous language and never call Goa home.”
My father looked so distracted over the poignancy of the story that all three of us sensed the desolation a mother would feel when she realised she’d go to her grave without another sight of her son; that her family, who had thrived on their Goan plains for hundreds of years, was dying out, their songs forever silent, their dances long forgotten and their home- distilled feni undrunk.
"Why did he come so far?
“Kanpur had been decimated after the First War of Indian Independence in eighteen fifty-seven so there was a flurry of activity to rebuild. The fertile soil and abundant water just six hundred feet underground meant the town was ripe for development. Kanpur’s position on the Ganges made trade easy. There would have been opportunities galore.”
Taking advantage of every opening my great-grandfather (plus or minus one or two) showed rare genius and pros- pered. He must have been an honourable man because, as he found his feet, he sent for his nephews from Goa and set them up with their own futures so the number of relations living around the Kanpur cantonments increased and I grew up surrounded by an odd assortment of aunts – and a few even odder uncles.
We’d heard this legend many times before and now, at the age of eight, Lorraine made connections beyond our tiny world.
“Are you glad they came to Kanpur?”
My father answered promptly. “I’m grateful for their success, which gave me opportunities I wouldn’t otherwise have had. I’m grateful I can provide magical lives for my precious daughters. But now I’m worried because though we are native by blood, birth and skin colour we are foreign by language, creed and culture. Our mother tongue has been English for generations, we’re Judeo-Christian in our beliefs and values and we dress in western clothes. Though the British Empire is now defunct old sins cast long shadows so the local people see us as remnants of their oppressive regime with no place in a modern India.”
In the national upheaval and chaos that invariably follows the demise of a great power, some of the local people found interesting ways to convey this message to us so that we lived with ever-present threats to our personal safety. That made us prisoners in our own home: willing porisoners, but prisoners nevertheless, isolated from people around us and marked as different. With dwindling fortunes our lives were a portrait of sepia, little more than witness to an iridescent past.
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