Mathur writes about her own “arrival”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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
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.)
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.
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
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.
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.