Telling family stories


It is also about the im­portance of putting down family histories, because stories should be passed on from one generation to the next before they are lost (Photo: Andrew Redington/Getty Images).
It is also about the im­portance of putting down family histories, because stories should be passed on from one generation to the next before they are lost (Photo: Andrew Redington/Getty Images).

By Amit Roy

IF THESE months of liv­ing through the lockdown have demonstrated any­thing, it has been about the fragility of human life.

It is also about the im­portance of putting down family histories, because stories should be passed on from one generation to the next before they are lost.

At his home in Col­chester, my uncle, the last surviving member of my late father’s generation, but younger to him by many years, has been fin­ishing off his memoirs, which is by way of being a family history.

He has called his book, Not On Your Nelly! be­cause that was the dusty answer he got from my aunt-to-be when he first asked her to marry him.

She was born Shriya Devi in British Guiana, which was renamed Guy­ana after independence in 1966. But she was known as “Sylvia” in Col­chester, where she worked as a senior sister in the now closed maternity hospital. There she at­tended the birth of some 4,000 babies, according to the Essex County Standard, which paid tribute to her after she died from ataxia in 2007.

My uncle’s book con­tains a lot about my fa­ther, who edited several newspapers, including the Indian Nation in Pat­na, Bihar, when India was still under British rule.

At the age of 30, he was foolish enough to write a leader comment, “The heartless governor”, after the Kosi River, known as “the sorrow of Bihar”, flooded, bringing devas­tation. The governor, Sir Thomas Rutherford, called in my father who apparently said, “Your Excellency, I won’t take out a comma.” The gover­nor put pressure on the paper’s owner, the Maha­rajah of Darbhanga, who had no option but to fire my father.

There is also an enter­taining passage about how my uncle had to des­patch a king cobra which had snuggled under my pillow during the mon­soon season.

He is writing the part which, for him, is the most difficult – Sylvia’s funeral. Since there was no Hindu temple in Col­chester, she was in the habit of popping into church. She expressed the wish that her funeral should be a mixed Hindu- Christian service. The lo­cal church agreed, only to then withdraw the offer with an apology after a neighbour objected on the grounds that Sylvia wasn’t Christian.

Ironically, Sylvia had saved the man’s baby, born as a result of an af­fair. Without seeking per­mission from her seniors, she summoned an ambu­lance and accompanied the desperately sick baby to a hospital in London with the medical exper­tise required to save its life. Sylvia was hauled up before a disciplinary committee for breaking the rules – she said there was no time – and only the intervention of my uncle’s friend and solici­tor saved her job.

My uncle is consulting friends as to whether he should include this epi­sode because the neigh­bour is still around and looks a little sheepish when they bump into each other.

All Asian families should encourage their elders to tell their stories. A small tip – a tape re­corder is a marvellous thing. Times passes all too quickly.