Hear Uma’s Extraordinary recollections of growing up in India with Enid Blyton, Russian dolls and the little girl from the village.
Growing up in India.
Uma was born in India in 1957. She was raised in India and did not emigrate to the UK until after she had married – at 28 years old.
“I had a very happy childhood. I was the youngest of seven siblings, and all of them were much older than me. The sister immediately after me was five years older, so the others were a good ten, fifteen, seventeen years older than I. I remember my father being a very busy man but always there for us in a very positive way. And my mum having a very domesticated role and running the home with the help of the typical post-colonial Indian-style servants and gardeners and cooks and what-have-you, and her job was to supervise all of them and make sure we were well-fed, well-clothed and looked after.”
“Yes, it was really nice, and I had my older sister who was both a sister and a mother figure in my life. I only saw my older siblings during the Diwali and summer holidays because they were all packed off to boarding schools; the boys used to go to ‘the houses of gurus’ as they were called, but they were in fact boarding schools.”
Uma’s father worked in the civil services and his job required them to move frequently. She identified the constant moving as a defining feature of her childhood.
“Now when I look back on it, I think that’s the thing that sticks most in my memory, the fact that we didn’t settle in one place for long enough. Because my dad had a job in the civil services, we changed cities and towns almost on a yearly basis. And although it was a lot of varied experience in different types of schools and different types of India and so on, it was in a way unsettling as well because I was one of those introverts that didn’t settle immediately and didn’t make friends immediately, and by the time I settled and made friends, it was time to move on to the next place.”
Uma’s parents. “My beautiful Ba and Bapuji.”
Enid Blyton and the little girl from the village.
As Uma described her childhood in India it was interesting to learn that Enid Blyton’s stories had been a significant part of her world. In childhood, I too (like my parents before me, and my son after me) had lost myself in the adventures of the “Famous Five” and “Secret Seven.” Uma eloquently explained what she felt drew her to Enid Blyton’s stories.
“I would sit and read all my Enid Blyton books. I was a voracious reader [laughs]. All her imagination was about Cornish coasts [laughter] and little children that had such adventurous times, so unlike my really tame childhood!”
In her childhood, Uma’s mother brought her a ‘companion’ from the village, a little girl, who left her family of nine sisters and came to live with them.
“My mother brought a little girl from the village as a companion to me because all my siblings were far away, and she was the same age as me. She came to us when she was about eight years old, leaving her family from the village. She followed us wherever we went, whichever city we went to, and she became part of the family.”
“Mum used to treat her as a servant, and I used to have a lot of conflict about this with my mum because of the way she thought and the way I thought was very different. So, this little girl – whose name means ‘swan’ – and I were best of friends. I was determined to take her to my little world of stories and imagination. And every story that I read of the ‘Famous Five’ and the ‘Secret Seven’ was relayed to her in the greatest detail [laughter]!”
The little girl would go on to marry, in her early twenties, and Uma recalls that she became a successful businesswoman, who now owns a factory in Ahmedabad importing and exporting clothing.
Uma felt that the little girl’s life had not played out in a way that is typical for a poor village girl in India. “She must have been liberated in her thinking in some way because how does an uneducated village girl go on to become a factory owner in India?”
“The last time I went to India, a very rich businessman’s wife walked in to give an invitation to her daughter’s wedding. And I just sat there, did ‘namaste,’ and sat reading my book while my mum talked. Then mum said, “Do you know who this is?” and I said “No.” And it was her (!) [the little girl from the village], we both leapt and ran towards each other, hugged each other and cried [laughs], it was just so sweet. I met her again after decades!”
Brass rabbits and Russian dolls.
Uma reflected on the possessions that have meant the most to her over the course of her life – a small, brass rabbit and an incomplete set of Russian dolls came to mind. The narrative behind our most treasured possessions can be a window to deeper feelings. Uma told us about her only toy as a child.
“How strange that you should say so. I probably have two or three artefacts in the whole of my house that help me remember my life. One of them is a little brass rabbit that was my only toy as a child. Can you imagine, a two or three-year-old having a solitary brass rabbit in the hand of your palm [laughter] as your only toy?! That was my only toy! And so, it stands proudly next to my shrine. I don’t know what my rabbit is doing there, but it’s there.”
Uma’s brass rabbit
Her incomplete set of Russian dolls also meant a lot to her.
“And another thing that’s really precious to me is those Russian dolls. When I was 11 or 12, we used to live in Calcutta because my dad was leading the team of engineers that was going to design the first underground railway in Calcutta. A team of Russian engineers had come to work alongside them, and they left this Russian doll with my dad as a gift, and my dad used to value that doll so much; it had pride of place in the living room in one of the cupboards of the living room. And when I first went back to India from Bristol with my little son, my dad gave that doll to him as a gift. I knew that it meant a lot to him, and he was giving it to my son – so it’s always been very special to me.”
Uma’s Russian dolls.
Conflicts, challenges, and regrets.
Uma talked about an adolescence and young adulthood where she felt overprotected and cosseted, to the point that she would often rebel and ‘push back.’
“I used to have a lot of conflicts with my mum and my dad. I wouldn’t be allowed to attend parties. I wouldn’t be allowed to go out with my friends after school and my dad would say it’s unsafe, and my mum would say “No, this is not what we ‘Rajput’ girls do!” and things like that. I used to rebel so much. At the age of 16 when I went to university, I think one of the ways I rebelled was I began smoking, which is something nobody ever did in India. And another thing I did was I had a lot of male friends; I always got on much better with men and boys than I did with the womenfolk, so I used to have a lot of male friends. And I used to go about on motorbikes with them and scooters. I remember having a really nasty motorbike accident where the motorbike. But I dare not go home and say, “I’ve been in a motorbike accident when I went out with this guy!”
“I must have been such a misfit in Indian society,” she reflects.
“I think I’ve got a lot of regrets too. There was a lot of pressure to get married in India, and normally women would get married at 19, 20, 21. I was 28 when I got married, so I was treated by cousins and all of them very delicately because they thought I was ‘on the shelf.’ I was shown an endless, endless line of prospective grooms, and either they didn’t like me, or I didn’t like them, and nothing came of it. And I think in some ways I felt ‘coerced’ into getting married – by the overall social pressure of things.”
“I think if I could live my life again, I would say I’d rather be single and independent and wait until I meet somebody that I’d like to spend my life with. Yes, that is one of the big regrets of my life.”
Relationships and the meaning of life.
As Uma reflected on her life it quickly became apparent that she has, in a relational sense, been lucky. Her life, from the very beginning, has involved her being surrounded by warm, loving, meaningful connections. Of course, as tends to be the case with close connections, they have posed their challenges, created their fair share of conflict, and at times felt infuriating. But Uma clearly recognises the value of these close bonds.
“I have unbelievably close ties with every one of my siblings, and my mum and dad. And strangely enough, even some of the cousins that I spent so much of my childhood with, my first cousins. We don’t have the word ‘cousins’ in Gujarati, we call them ‘bhai’ and ‘bahan,’ which means ‘sister’ and ‘brother,’ and that’s exactly what they were to me.”
“Yes, I came from a really close-knit and very, very loving family, and that was really huge to me – family bond and family relationships. And then my friends played a huge role in my life too. I only had four or five very close friends, but they were really, really big in my life. And then when I came here [to England], I just carried on with the trend I’d started in India and made my family here a big part of my life too. And then of course my children came and overtook everything else and became paramount [laughs].”
For Uma, the meaning of life and what makes it worth living is intimately connected to relationships.
“Yes, it’s relationships that make life worth living, isn’t it? And I think if you measure success in that way, I would say I’ve had an immensely successful life and I’ve had the most amazing relationships at every stage in my life, throughout my journey I’ve met some amazing people and [laughs] it makes me think “Oh god, life is such a wonderful miracle, I’m so glad I’m alive [Laughs].”
Leaving India for the UK has been hard for Uma because she left such warm, close, and nurturing relationships behind. She told us that she doesn’t have many physical artefacts to remind her of the relationships and connections in India.
“They are in my memory, where nobody can take them away. Where it can’t disintegrate. Oh, you make me want to cry. [Crying] I think you never, ever talk about these things, so I think it’s just making me realise all the really precious things I left behind to come here, in search of god alone knows what. “
“And that’s something only an immigrant probably understands.”