অচেনাকে ভয় করে উঠবে জীবন ভরে জানি জানি আমার চেনা কোনো কালেই ফুরাবে না।
চিন্নহারা পথে আমে টানবে অচিন ডরে।।
ছিল আমার মা অচেনা
নিল আমে কলে
সকল প্রেমই অচেনা গ , তাই তো হৃদয় দলে।
অচেনা এই ভুবন মাঝে কত সুরেই হৃদয় বাজে
Why fear the unkown, my dearest?
Must my life contain fear of the unkown, because the familiar shall never deplete.
On an empty, signless road, the unknown welcomes me towards unfamiliar horizons
Unknown was my mother to myself
Took me unto her lap
Love in itself is thy unfamiliar
In the midst of this unfamilar world, so many hearts sway
Unknown is this life, yet I roam about within its confines.
Rabindranath Tagore, Gitbitan
It was a cold and early morning in the town of Blair Atholl in Perthshire. The night before I danced in a Celidih celebrating the wedding of a Punjabi-Dutch couple in the Blair Atholl Castle. Care to speak of fusion? I trudged into the warmth of the East Coast train carriage partly hungover, partly just sleepy with the tunes of last night’s Bagpipe and Bhangra replaying over and over. All I could think about was a a quick snooze before getting back to work in Edinburgh, but it seemed as though fate had other more interesting plans for me.
“Sit here, come have a seat here,” she said invitingly. I looked around to inspect this beckoning. Was it another force, which I was hallucinating after all that single malt? No. It was an elderly lady, may be 60-65 ish, smartly dressed in a black outfit, silk scarf and silver earrings. She was poised so nicely, polishing a smile, while pointing to the empty seats opposite her as if she was welcoming me as a gracious hostess, I could only bask in her modern day resemblance of my favorite matriarch Violet Crawford of Downton Abbey (Maggie Smith in real life).
It is within my culture, within my upbringing and beliefs that when someone invites you, you do not insult them by not showing up. Gurudev’s little song about trust in the unknown quite bespoke here. I took that seat and said Good morning.She replied “You are from India, aren’t you?” she asked and before I could respond asserted “I know a lot about you people.”
“I see, have you been to India? Do you like studying India? Want to know about our blog/ journal?”At that, she waved her hands rejecting my questions and with a look of dejection, said “Bullock! It is nothing but my fate, that I have learnt so much about India.” For me that was an instant turn on. This lady, let us call her Ann, as I do not have her name (further explained later).
The backdrop outside the train of the plush Highlands in all its summer glory is a piece of heaven. However, my conversation with this lady of fate was much more enthralling.
She elaborated that she is a carer, a care giver to the elderly. She is posted by her company to homes all over the UK, to take care of the terminally ill until they expire. This being a private care company is free to those who cannot afford it, but extremely expensive for those who cannot. Hence, only the most well-heeled have had the luxury of her care. Apparently, before departing this life patients who are able to like to summarize this life and tell tales of their best era(s) whether that be childhood, youth or December days. This is how she learnt about the magical India.
It is in her fate to learn about us Indian looking people because she has been posted to the homes, mansions and estates of former colonists, colonial officers, etc. After making their fortune in the colonies they returned to Britain building up their own establishments. According to Ann, most of these mansions are spread across the Western Coast of Scotland.
As soon as Ann walks into one of these houses, she knows it’s an “India” family. There are tiger heads on the wall as well as tiger skin on the floor. Rich silk and armours are other common symbols which indicate a Raj connection. While explaining she took out an embroidered pouch bag and emptied its contents on the table that separated us. Broaches, rings, lapels and coins depicting the British Raj. They have been given to her by patients over the years. Many of these ornaments included the emblem of the British Raj, embossed with the slogan “Heaven’s Light our Guide” encircled by a star and rays of the sun.
Since Ann started out around 40 years ago, her patients then may have been from 85 to 100. Subtract 140 years from now and you fit into the criteria of finding colonialists. One lady said she was born in India and hated Britain, because the servants never listened to the Babus in the same manner. Another one said her first memories were of fleeing trouble in Bengal; her father used to wrap her in a blanket and put her in a basket amongst vegetables and ride on top of elephants. I asked her how old this person was when she died and when Ann had met her. I put two in two to find out that at her death in 1990 in her late 90’s, tells me she was born in Bengal roughly around the turn of the century, this equals her first memories to be during the Swadeshi Revolution.
One civil servant on his death bed kept on uttering about the hurry to transfer files, as they had to leave India very soon. “We must make the best of our work. From tomorrow, there will be none of us. Hurry” was all this man could say. Ann showed me the 1919 British Indian coins that had been given to her by this gentleman.
An army officer recalled his power, not as a military man but as an expert hunter of panthers, leopards and tigers. This officer had given Ann a ring with the symbol of the Bombay Army, hence I am guessing he may have been part of that regiment.
At the end of the story, the train pulled into Edinburgh Haymarket. I asked for her name and contact information. She refused. I puppy faced and even that did not help. She refused to give me any vital signs of her existence. I asked to do an article and she said go ahead, but not with her. Her rejection like everything else I noticed was very elegant, just as Violet Crawford would have. The name Ann I added for clearance.
I am not 80, but I have been blessed to have loads of acquaintances of interest. This is amongst the precious ones, not to mention the most enthralling train ride. I am deeply interested in colonial history, especially the lifestyle aspects of colonial times, I love David Burton’s “Raj at the Table” and other books to relive the arts and practices of that era. How is it possible, that I met this Ann who has seen the Briton’s legacy, the remnants of the Raj era and heard all about it?
I think it is my fate. Gurudev would probably say it is the trust in the unknown, which is the only known.
Written and Experienced by Saad Quasem
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 UK: Scotland License.