On a fine day in 1925 Ronald and Richard set sail on the Raj Patan with their parents, Alfred and Sarah, from the port of Karachi in India to return to England. This marked the very start of their adventure. Their “home” in England was not really their home, as the two boys and their mother had been born in India, and its backdrop of palm trees and brightly-coloured birds and flowers was quite ordinary and familiar to them. But to the boys especially, England lured them with a weird kind of exoticism and for weeks beforehand they dreamed of apple orchards, country churches and soft summer rain on dry, red bricks as if these were jewels from the orient.
Richard (left) and Ronald (right)
Alfred had decided to bring the family to England for the very reasons that Ronald and Richard thrived in India. The boys received no formal education and spent their days in the care of their ayah or mother, scrambling freely around the dusty garden, enjoying trips to the beach in Karachi or sailing to the nearby island of Minora in the family’s yacht. The island was magical and unspoilt, nothing but sand and an outlook to miles of ocean. After dark the moon and stars reflecting off the waves distorted the pale night-time hues and coloured the surrounding landscape an eerie shade of blue. By day, picnics on the beach were a regular occurrence. A crude canvas windbreaker would be hauled up to shade the party from the heat. They would sit for hours there, the family and their extended group of friends, their picnic spread out on a pristine white tablecloth, which soon became stained with sand and mud, sipping tea from bone china cups and saucers and mixing dates and mangoes with fruitcake and scones.
Picnic on Minora
Alfred, back row, second right, and factory staff
The house in Karachi was spacious and cool, and had the luxury of a garden where Sarah would sit in the late afternoons reading. Although the climate was almost rainless, proximity to the coast meant that it was possible, with some coaxing, to grow bougainvilleas, rhododendrons and other tropical plants and flowers, and the odd fruit or sandalwood tree, and so the air would be scented in layers, in much the same way that expensive perfumes would be put together. To Alfred, used to the more restrained English gardens, these plants seemed menacing, but to Ronald and Richard they provided perfect hiding places and fuelled their imaginative games.
My grandmother, Sarah
The garden, tropical and beautiful, was far from peaceful. Apart from the shouts of the boys as they played with the servants’ children, the supernatural echoes of nameless birds and insects would reverberate day and night. Parakeets could often be seen perched in the trees. They were far from shy, and had been known to swoop onto the veranda and interrupt afternoon tea to steal a treat. Every evening they would gather in a coven high above the treetops chattering, screeching and chanting until they tired and would settle to sleep, emitting the odd squawk as night caught up with them.
The family’s pet lemur, Felix, presided over the garden. Felix was a pet far superior to any ordinary cat or dog. He would happily balance on one’s shoulders and be carried aloft with quite a regal air. Apart from being kingly, he could be naughty too. He would snatch a banana or other treat from innocent hands and position himself on the veranda, taunting its original owner.
Felix the lemur on my grandfather’s shoulder
The boys were quite familiar with the local people who worked for the family, and Richard was especially fond of his ayah. Her husband also worked for the family and Richard would often warn him that if he didn’t look after his wife then he would take her off and marry her himself. This freedom made Alfred decide that the boys were growing wild and needed the discipline of an English education to set them up in life, and so the family packed up and headed for a more subdued climate.
The journey back to England was an adventure in itself, and for the majority of the trip the weather remained as clement as the family was used to. Occasional stopovers would be made along the way, and Alfred would often bring back treasures from the local markets. One time, when the ship stopped in Egypt, he returned from the souk with an octagonal wooden table inlaid with brass and coloured enamel. It became a favourite piece of furniture back in England, perhaps because it always seemed to radiate warmth from the polished wood and reflect light from the metal. As the ship sailed closer to Europe, colours became more muted and the climate chillier. Arrival in Southampton couldn’t have been more disheartening. The day was cold and the fog was everywhere and nowhere, unseen but snapping at the boys’ heels and filling their lungs. Over time the sparkling colours and sounds of India faded in the boys’ memories, and the black and white photographs became even more monotone, but the unexpected heat of an English midsummer day would occasionally revive these impressions with tantalising intensity.
Back in England
None of my family returned to the subcontinent after this, a source of much regret to my grandmother, Sarah, who spoke Hindi as well as she spoke English. That is, until my sister and I went on our own adventure to Pakistan and India a few years ago, where we found the site of our grandparents’ (long-since demolished) house in Karachi, bought a wedding dress, and shouted, “Pakistan zindabad!” at Wagah. And just to square the circle, I married a man from Karachi!