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Tell Your Own Story

Anu’s Story by Shabnam Vasisht

Article by Shabnam Vasisht ©.
Posted in the Magazine (Tell Your Own Story: , ).
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When my mother, Anu, emigrated from India to Ireland at the age of 74, people marvelled at how quickly she settled into her new life. I often thought that if they knew her story, they would realise this was the easiest link in the chain of her life.

Anu was born in 1920 during the British Raj, into the Christian faith. Her childhood in the north Indian city of Allahabad was secure and loving, in a large house named ‘Kanchan Villa’ after her mother. Allahabad is best known for Sangam, the confluence of the two mighty rivers – Ganges and Jamuna – where a religious fair attracts millions of pilgrim campers along the banks of the rivers.  Anu attended a convent school where English was the medium of instruction and Urdu, the language of the Moghuls, the second language. Her far-sighted father believed that India was nearing independence and when that happened, Urdu would be replaced by the language of India, Hindi. He withdrew his children from school for a year and employed a private tutor to teach them Hindi. Thus, Anu became fluent in the three languages as well as Bengali, which was spoken at home. She was prepared for the independence of her country.

Readers of my books are often surprised to learn that Indian women went to university in the 1940s.  Anu read History in Allahabad University where many students were involved in the struggle for independence. Freedom fighters urged students to boycott British institutions and often lay across the gates to prevent entry into the campus. Little did Anu realise that one of those prostrate bodies would eventually become Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi.

Having acquired a Master’s Degree and three specialisations, Anu became involved in Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘Basic Education Programme’ to bring literacy to the masses. In 1947, the euphoria of Independence brought the horrors of Partition in its wake. Many of Anu’s friends were affected.

At a party in Allahabad Fort, Anu fell in love with a dashing army captain. Her husband was a Brahmin, the highest Hindu caste, whose upbringing was far removed from Anu’s. Surprisingly, neither family opposed the mixed-faith union but the wedding was delayed due to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.  When the period of national mourning was over, the civil ceremony took place in Kanchan Villa’s drawing room.

Life as an army wife was adventurous and nomadic, requiring Anu to adapt quickly to new situations. With three little children in tow, this was not always easy but it prepared her – and them – for the many twists and turns of life.

Anu travelled in bullock carts, horse-drawn ‘tongas’, army trucks, cars, boats, trains and airplanes, often with an entourage of orderly, ayah, cook and sundry helpers. She encountered scorpions, cobras, hyenas and other wild creatures. She survived the blistering heat of the south; the sodden rice-fields of the east; the freezing temperatures of the north; and the dizzy altitudes of hill stations. She lived in cantonment houses, military tents and houseboats. When her husband was posted to the Indian Military Mission in Kathmandu, Anu lived in a palace. (On a recent visit to Nepal, my sister found our old home and was outraged that the Gurkha sentries would not allow entry as it was now the HQ of the Nepalese army.) The nicest posting by far was a garrison base in the Western Ghats – a range of lush, cool hills along the coast.

Sadly, these idyllic surroundings could not mend the breach in Anu’s ailing marriage. Returning to her ancestral home with her children, Anu braced herself for the biggest battle of her life. Scorpions and cobras paled in comparison to the political power of her in-laws. Embroiled in court cases, Anu’s greatest terror was losing her children. But she faced every fear with her typical courage  . . . and won. She returned to work in education and raised her children single-handedly, unusual in the India of the time.

Although it was not surprising that Anu quickly reached the top of the career ladder, jealousies and betrayals dogged her professional life. Despite her struggles, Anu raised her three daughters into independent women, instilling in them self-belief and a sense of adventure that took them all over the world.

Anu lived alone for 10 years before eventually succumbing to her daughters’ pleas to live with one of them. She chose to come to Ireland where I had made my home. Given her gregarious personality and adaptability, she quickly settled into her new environment. Compared to the obstacle race of her life so far, Ireland was a delightful egg-and-spoon one. In Dublin, she gathered many friends from various countries (mostly younger than herself) and approached each new experience with curiosity and enthusiasm. Anu was in more stately homes, government buildings, private clubs and embassies than I will ever be in.

She travelled abroad regularly and delighted in her only grandchild, handwriting her life story for him. It was the discovery of these notes that inspired me to record Anu’s experiences for the family. When her friends expressed an interest in reading them, I changed tack, explaining Indian terms and customs. By the time I had finished her life under British rule, there was enough material to produce a book. ‘Anu, the Raj Years’ was published. There followed four more books, each ending at a natural break in Anu’s life. Some parts were difficult to write when emotions overcame me. There were long lulls before I felt ready to tackle the manuscript again. It took 10 years to write the five books, the last all the harder for obvious reasons.

Anu kept her brain well-oiled to the end with her daily dose of prayer books and newspapers, filling numerous notebooks with her writings (and wry comments), solving crosswords, Sudokus and puzzles and playing scrabble and mah jong. We also sang together – hymns, Bollywood songs, Beatle songs, Elvis songs, childhood songs and rude songs.

She lived with me for nearly 20 years, the last few needing full-time care due to a botched routine operation. I once met an elderly man in the Indian Embassy who, when he heard I was my mother’s carer, exclaimed, ‘How lucky you are that God has chosen you to serve Him in this way!’.

For Anu’s 90th birthday in 2010, her family and friends travelled from abroad to join in the long celebrations. She lived for another three years.

As in life, Anu died on her own terms – peacefully, in her own bed, surrounded by family, the last beat of her pulse lingering on her doctor grandson’s fingers. Deeply religious, she had chosen the hymns and psalm for her funeral, after which she was cremated. The ‘Meeting of the Waters’ in Co Wicklow was the closest parallel to the confluence of rivers in Anu’s hometown of Allahabad and a fitting choice for her final journey where the Avoca River’s laughing and gurgling waters carried her away.

Anu left me a wonderful legacy of friends, some of whom I have visited in their homes abroad. Completing the ‘Anu project’ has been therapeutic and fulfilling for me. But, most of all, it has told a story that had to be told.

(c) Shabnam Vasisht

About ANU The Celtic Years:

Anu was 74 years old when she crossed deep water to settle on the other side of the world.

Embracing Ireland’s ‘One hundred thousand welcomes’, she quickly built an interesting life for herself, adapted to the weather and assembled a large circle of friends, most of them younger than her.

Her insatiable curiosity attracted her to many new situations, all of which were carefully recorded in her writings. She kept her brilliant mind well-oiled until the very end.

Anu’s story came to an end when she was 93 years old. She left me a wonderful legacy of friends, some of whom I have visited in their homes abroad.

Anu’s vibrant spirit is everywhere.

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Shabnam Vasisht was born and brought up in India but has lived in Ireland for nearly 40 years. A dress-designer by profession, she is also a visual artist, having exhibited her art in several countries. Shabnam's mother, Anu, lived with her for 19 years but, sadly, passed away at the age of 93. Mother and daughter often reminisced about India and Anu's memories inspired Shabnam to record them for family. When Anu's friends expressed an interest in reading them, Shabnam decided to write her mother's biography for a wider readership, explaining Indian words and phrases. Taking advantage of natural breaks in her mother's life, Shabnam divided the story into five distinct parts.