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Category: Diaspora Date: 28 May 95

Ira Mathur writes about her own “arrival”


It had been a long flight, 23rd May 1975. An ex Indian army officer, an engineer, stepped off the plane at Crown Point Airport and was driven to the nearby Crown Reef Hotel. The day after, he began work as the coordinator for the Scarborough Parkway Project, now Claude Noel Highway, at the Works Division in Tobago.


My father, Mahendra Nath Mathur, had left behind his uniforms and badges, his army valet, his regiment, early morning horse rides, his officers’ mess with its bridge sessions, swimming galas, brunches in the rose garden, rounds of formal dinners and cocktail parties, his family, the crowded cities and villages. He had left his beloved India for which he had staked his life thrice - against China in 1962 and against Pakistan in 1965, and 1971.


Before he embraced the nomad life of the army, he lived in the town of Aligargh, in Utter Pradesh. His father, Amar Nath Mathur, my grandfather, belonged to a zamedar (landowner) family in the north of India. My father was the third of six children. Always bookish he was not popular with his more fun-loving siblings. Young Mahendra however found solace in books and Hindu philosophy. He’d always wanted more than the crowded town life of Aligarh, and was disappointed at not being sent to the nearby Allahabad University for economic reasons.


At 17, my father attended Aligarh Muslim University where he resisted attempts to convert him to Islam. It was here, ironically that his fierce sense of nationalism was born. He would remember India’s independence in 1947 with anger and sorrow over the mass killings that partition brought about. Hindus were being slaughtered in Pakistan, and Muslims in Punjab. His heroes, Gandhi and Nehru, also fell from grace when, after resolutely declaring for years that there would be no partition of India, they quietly gave in to Mohammed Ali Jinnah and conceded Pakistan.


In 1953 he enrolled in the Indian Army in the corps of Engineers. It was when he was posted to Bangalore as a young Major that he met a young girl of blue blood at the officers mess. She was Anvar Zia Sultana, the granddaughter of the Nawab of Savanur, and great grand daughter of the Begum of Bhopal. A very secret courtship led to the young Hindu army officer and the sheltered aristocratic Muslim girl eloping. In 1960, they were married in Birla temple, and then celebrated with a champagne lunch at the officers mess. Her family was absent.


Army life was pleasant, urban, unconnected with the extended family or civilian life. We were used to postings which would mean changing friends, schools and homes every three years. In addition, we would travel around India during summer vacations. I remember most vividly the years in Simla, a hill station from which you could see a range of mountains. The snowy Himalayas loomed over the valley with its skating rink, redbricked colonial homes, delicate mountain flowers, pine trees, sharp mountain air, sun flower gardens, the convent to which I traveled in a huge army truck every day, the “upper mall” with its shops, clubs and cinemas. It was “little England” for the British who retired there in the summer to get away from the heat of the south.


In the “lower mall,” green eyed wiry coolies bent under their loads, while smells of hot fried potato and jalebi and loud film music assailed milling shoppers in the dense market which sold everything from meat to bangles. The drive out of Simla was terrifying. Huge buses tore through narrow winding strips of roads to Kalka, the nearest train station. Carcasses of buses could be glimpsed in the fir inclines below. My mother would pray for our safety as we meandered past goatherds and huts; Tibetan refugees breaking stones with crude tools on road works while their children scraped food from crude tin pots. And in the summer, there were the flowers; in the winter, snow covered valleys.


In train stations, coolies jostled to carry our luggage. A slight nod and they would swoop down and quickly balance hefty steel trunks on the filthy coils of cloth around their heads. We would run to keep up with them. They had incredible balance, and necks of steel. Years later in Tobago, when a colleague in second form in Bishops High School called me “coolie,” I was puzzled. “But I don’t carry loads on my head,” I said. Philosophical disenchantment with the army career after 21 years service, an insatiable curiosity about the outside world and a sense of adventure led my father here. A casual inquiry at the Trinidad & Tobago High Commission in New Delhi was to reshape our lives.


My mother Zia, sister Rashmi who was brought up by my grandmother, brother Varun who was in Bishops Cotton Boarding School and I remained in Bangalore at my grandmother’s home while Daddy settled down in Tobago. It felt as if my father was off on another posting. My sister and I went to Sacred Heart Convent, my mother’s old school. I especially love the solidity of being with my grandmother after a spell of being moved around wherever my father happened to be posted.


Our lives were a peculiar mix of ancient and colonised India. We spoke fluent English (mandatory in schools) and Hindi (the official national language) and smatterings of Tamil (language of South India) and Urdu (spoken by the Muslims of India). An Ayah (maid) would drop us to school, a block away, complete with giant umbrellas to protect us from the gentle Bangalore sun. At lunchtime she would return with a hamper of food and crockery, knives and forks, and a table cloth which would be spread on tables under the trees.


On our return we had an enforced afternoon nap, then it was time for tea, with cake and potted meat sandwiches, followed by piano lessons. Twice a week an ancient man in a beard and kurta pajama would teach us the Arabic script which is also used to write Urdu. Dinner was always typically North Indian with freshly ground spices and plenty of yogurt. (Years later I would eat Trinidadian Indian food which was different from anything I had eaten in India. We marveled at the huge rotis made here and curried mangoes is definitely a Trinidadian invention.)


After dinner, my grandmother would play the piano. She loved Beethoven, Chopin, old Negro spirituals and Dr Zhivago. I was always moved to tears at the beauty and vigor of her playing and singing voice. And bedtime stories would always be stories from Arabian nights and India as my grandmother knew it. Her father was the Nawab of the princely state of Savanur in the south of India. Pre-independent India (before 1947) was ruled by princes, and divided up into their states made up of scores of villages. My great grandfather owned 75. The Muslims were Nawabs and, and Hindus Maharajas. The Nizam of Hyderabad was the wealthiest and most powerful of all. They collected taxes which went into a personal treasury, provided the infrastructure for their kingdoms, and had the power of hanging. Many went to Sandhurst, Oxford and Cambridge. The only sovereignty they recognised was Queen Victoria’s British Empire, and Governor Generals such as Lord Mountbatten; otherwise they were independent. For the most part they had a good relationship with the British.


My background, although I didn’t realise it at the time, was a reflection in miniature of India itself, with our Hindu and Muslim parents, one who exposed us to Indian military nationalism and another to class-conscious Muslim aristocrats. The British and Indian influences meshed naturally. We read Jane Austen, but also spoke fluent Hindi and taught Urdu, Sanskrit, and Tamil and were comfortable with my father’s traditional Hindu joint family. We are children of India but if you asked us “where in India?” we would look bewildered, and reply “everywhere.” And which religion? Well we couldn’t forsake either, for to do so would be to reject our past.


The tenderness I feel at the sight of Trinidad’s Northern Range in the green lush rainy season, and now burning with bush fires reminds me that I have a new home. My husband and my children’s grandparents are Trinidadian. I arrived 20 years ago as a shy and awkward girl with two plaits, with my mother and brother to a dusky humid Piarco Airport. My sister was to follow some months later. I feel Trinidad can teach that mighty continental country India some valuable lessons. In Ayodyha, while Hindus and Muslims kill one another over a mosque originally a temple pillaged by Muslims, Hindus in Trinidad have religious functions which Muslims help organise and attend.


While riots take place in Bombay, which is now ruled by a Hindu Nationalist Party, resulting in an exodus of Muslims from that cosmopolitan city; in Trinidad, Prisons Commissioner Michael Hercules has a shrine dedicated to the Hindu Goddess Lakshmi; where people with the surnames of Mohammed and Narayan are Presbyterian; where Hindu/Muslim marriages are welcomed; where each year I witness living art and harmony of races at Carnival.


Here, we live in a “new world”, and my children can celebrate their Indian-ness as well as partake of the rich heritage of Europe, Africa and the Middle East. For here gave birth to both VS Naipaul and Brian Lara; and is a place that is second home to a Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott who writes both of Ramleela and the Odyssey. Here to be Indian is secondary to the fact that I have now arrived in a New World where I can put down my roots. When I touch down at Piarco now, in the dusty dusk, among palm trees and airplane fuel, I know I’m home.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur