Nameless Souls on Sepia

They were just nameless souls on sepia, staring out seemingly into space:  a peer into a time long since past and now, not often remembered with any degree of regularity. With its jagged edges it was evident that part of the photograph had been torn away, why is a mystery?  Someone in the family, though I cannot recall who, had once mentioned that there had been a rift within the family back in the days when they used to gather at the beautiful hill station of Mussoorie, when escaping the harrowing heat of the city. That was as much as was known. There was no accompanying documentation, and nothing written down to suggest who the people in the picture may have been. That they were ancestors seemed a little more than likely. The photograph depicted a wedding scene. Three people remained in the frame. Two seated and one standing or rather two standing but as one had been unceremoniously decapitated, he could not be counted. He could have been anyone. The bride wore a lavish wedding gown of lace with what appeared to be a full layered veil laid lightly and carefully, so as not to interfere with her elegant upswept hair which was so fashionable in the early 1900s. Seated beside her was an older man with a head of thick snow-white wavy hair and sporting a long white beard: a little like Santa Claus in a suit. Beneath the hairy façade was a man not unlike my father. In fact, but for the beard it could have been my father sitting beside the bride.  It was the eyes that gave it away. They were the same eyes that had watched over me all my life. Only my father’s eyes had seen different things to those of the apparently stoic figure of the man pictured here. Their worlds were far apart but their narrative of origin was one and the same.

Aunty Paddy had been a gifted and animated storyteller who had a penchant for making colourless characters come to life. She would captivate us with stories of heroes, heroines and travellers’ tales. “Children…. are you listening carefully?” would be our queue to gather round to hear how our ancestors had sailed across oceans in search of fame and fortune. The story told so eloquently and consistently by Aunty Paddy, revealed that long ago when great vessels with billowing sails ruled the waves, travelling the trade routes carrying spices, silks and other luxury commodities, and when George III was King; two or possibly three brothers had set sail from bonny Scotland for the far off and exotic land of India. One of them or maybe all of them had been seduced by what the East had to offer, fallen madly in love with and married an Indian princess, and lived out his days happily ever after in India. This was perhaps a rather romanticised account, but this was how the story had been told and retold. One brother had perhaps been a doctor, one a sea captain and the third, if indeed there was a third could have been anything Paddy decided him to be. Such is the power of the narrator. The stories were most likely a mixture of myth and reality but to us as children they were fact rather than fiction, impressing upon our imagination that we were indelibly connected to this mysterious and mystical other world where gods were more than one, and princes were one and many; a world that had captured the hearts and souls of our forefathers and that was forever in our blood.

Shared experiences, cultures, customs and habits all go some way to forging our identities. What we are told as children often stays with us as adults. However, there are other commonalities that can engender an inherent sense of identity and belonging, such as the idea of shared stories and myths. There is no hard definition of myth. Myth is sometimes seen as being synonymous with fantasy and fairy stories and little to do with fact. The notion of myth often conjures up images of superheroes and superhuman beings that create an idealised view of where we come from, therefore adding to our sense of worth. To us, these pioneers were real life superheroes; they represented the true to life fodder of fairy tales and fiction that filled our minds with the machinations of an ‘Other’ world. 

Linking myth to the narrative form is relevant, especially when considering Anglo-Indian narratives of origin because their change in circumstances and the transitions they underwent in adapting to a colonial and a post-colonial era both in Indian and in British society is shrouded with princesses both real and imagined. Of particular interest is what has become known as the princess myth which seems to circulate in many Anglo-Indian families. The myth suggests the presence of a noble ancestral connection and more specifically an Indian princess. What is of importance is why this myth has been created and the reason why some families lay claim to a princess in their midst.

Aunty Paddy’s version of events is echoed in a letter dated 19th December 2004 written by Marjorie Williams to her niece;

     …thank you so much for sending me a copy of the family tree…It’s very interesting that so many Howatsons lived in India. Where does the Scottish side come in? I suppose Thomas Howatson who was originally married to (an Indian Princess)? So, I heard. My story was that two brothers, Thomas and George set sail from Scotland – one a doctor and the other a sailor or captain of a ship. I can’t tell you where I got this story from – maybe Paddy…

The letter demonstrates firstly that we find our narratives of origin appealing at any age. Marjorie Williams was 81 when she wrote the letter. She is unable to remember where she got the story from, ‘…maybe Paddy’ she asserts. Paddy was her elder sister who had died some years earlier and who it is purported knew more about the history of the family than anyone else. When Paddy passed away, so too did much of the family narrative.

In addition, the letter typifies the element of the ‘Indian princess’ myth that circulates in many Anglo-Indian families. Marjorie Williams is Anglo-Indian. Her father was Hugh William Howatson born in Calcutta, India, in 1886, habitually resident in India until about 1900 when he was sent to Britain to finish his education and later to follow a successful career in medicine. It was in Scotland that he met, fell in love with and married his own princess. His princess was Annie. It was close to one hundred years earlier, when Hugh William’s great grandfather Thomas Howatson had set sail for India. What Thomas would have thought of the Britain that his great grandson Hugh returned to can only be guessed at. It is known that following an irregular marriage in Glasgow, Hugh and Annie journeyed to India and travelled about with their young family for a few years, only to return permanently to Britain later. The reasons for their movements between these two great lands, is unknown. The Diaspora to other lands following partition and independence is well documented but what of those who returned to the fatherland beforehand. What are their stories? Our sense of ‘self’ is governed by what is going on the world and is in a constant state of flux. 

It is only by telling our stories and passing them on to our children that we can preserve the memories and myths of past lives. Many stories are passed down between one generation and another, while other stories remain untold and are lost forever. So next time, when you are gathered cosily around the dining table after a sumptuous Sunday lunch as is quite common among families, laughing at the crazy antics of dad’s schooldays,  finding out about grandma’s culinary gifts or hearing of an aunt’s penchant for telling tales, take note and listen carefully to the snippets and anecdotes of your elders for these are your stories, your narratives of origin: savour every word and share!

© Liola Lee 2009



“…then I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house in”, bellowed the big bad wolf in the most ferocious, and gruffest of voices that he could muster. This, he did to the first, the second, and the third little pig. Such is the stuff and nonsense that fills children’s fairytales some may say, but not I and maybe not you either. Most of the tales, stories, and fables we heard as children, and in our turn tell our own children have an important message rooted somewhere within. Something that needs to be said but in a way that young minds can relate to. Oftentimes, the message is crystal clear quite early on, and near the beginning even.  At others it is for the reader to discover as the story unfolds word by word, page by page, picture by picture.  Stories are repeated, over, and over again, and possibly, and most likely become ingrained in the young subconscious mind, a seed waiting to grow and realise the lesson when the lesson needs to be learnt somewhere along the line that is life. Let’s face it, most children love being read to. Many parents and children of all ages get to share a special time, with storybook characters who may be good, bad, beautiful, ugly, and changeable.  Story time is a time for make believe, play and characterisation. There’s many a parent out there who puts on their best funny, happy, angry, sad voice. I know I did, and my husband too. Our children loved all the verbal playacting and if we did the voices differently as happened on occasion, the little loves would say “no, not like that, like this” as they piped in with how you had said it last time.  It’s part of the fun!  Part of the ritual.

So where was I? Oh yes, I was talking about the inherent lesson that lurks within, between and beneath the lines. In the aforementioned tale of ‘The Three Little Pigs’ which was accredited to James Orchard Halliwell (later Halliwell-Phillips) the lesson is about how hard work pays off, and how by working hard, putting in the time and effort and building strong foundations, you can achieve a safe and secure world for yourself where you can ‘keep the wolf from the door’ as it were. Of course, it is a good lesson, and there is much to be said for working hard, and reaping the rewards of one’s efforts, and the idea of a sound structure speaks for itself. However, you must remember that this story was supposedly written in the mid 1800s, therefore Victorian times. People, or at least the working masses did have to work hard in those times to literally put bread on the table.  If you did not work hard, you may starve. So, in this particular story the message is clear. That said, I think if the story had been written today, there may have been another angle that said that yes, it’s good to work hard but that play is just as important. I think today the onus would be on striving for and achieving balance. We all want to avoid the clutches of the big bad scary wolf which may appear in many guises, but all work and no play pushes us too far near the edge, and if we are not careful, we may trip over and fall into a quagmire.

Another thing that springs to my mind regarding the ‘fantasy’ of fairytales and may be food for thought is how much a story can change through the telling as it is passed down from person to person or from one generation to another. In one version of the above, the antagonist is a cunning fox rather than a big bad wolf. There is, it seems a version too where the three little pigs have names, and individual personality traits but that is another story. Where the changes in stories take place is often not known and is lost somewhere in the telling. My point is that stories whether fairytale, fiction or reality should be told. We are the storytellers, and it is for us to ensure that those who follow in our footsteps know the stories so that they too can pass them down when it is their time to tell. So perhaps today or tonight put down that extension of your arm that is your mobile phone, pick up a storybook and share it with young ears. In years to come, you will be glad that you did! 

© Liola Lee 2019

Scapegoats & Witch Hunts

‘It’s always darkest before the dawn’ ~ Florence and the Machine

As Florence quite beautifully sings, “…it’s hard to dance with the Devil on your back.” I have to say I agree, though that Devil sometimes shows up on your shoulder, whispering in your ear. You name it, that Devil can pop up all over the place, and sometimes those damned devils, demons and dark lords are in disguise and don’t look or sound like devils at all. In fact, often they look rather respectable and sound uncannily convincing, and sometimes they are friendly and seemingly charming but in reality, so two faced. You must be a bit savvy about such things. Sometimes those devils look disarmingly un-devil like but then of course it largely depends on what your notion of a devil is. I’m thinking here of a Devil in disguise.

That’s the thing about disguises! Note the definition of disguise, and I quote is, ‘give (someone or oneself) a different appearance in order to conceal one’s identity’. It can be literal, figurative, metaphorical. We often trust those who look the part, who hold positions purportedly of trust, and who ‘act’ as though they have our best interests at heart BUT and here’s the thing, they don’t have our best interest at heart at all. In fact, they misuse us, accuse us, abuse us even. They target us, single us out, alienate us, isolate us, segregate us, lie to us and when push comes to shove, they do their best to turn us in to scapegoats to save their own skin for their own systemic flaws. 

I am thinking of uniformed bodies. Corporate Wolves in Sheep’s’ clothing as it were. You know, those Corporate Institutional establishments in our society that hide behind a badge, acronym of some sort that they think somehow means they can instigate a witch-hunt whenever they feel threatened, when they fear losing face. They are not transparent and can be seen in their true colours when they find themselves cornered. Now, I’ll not mention any specific organisation. I’ll leave it up to your imagination to come up with an example or two. 

You’d think that Witch Hunts were a thing of the distant past, belonging to bygone eras but I can tell you that they are still very much a thing of our current times. Witch Finder Generals move among us looking to point their long pointy finger at you in accusatory fashion. It’s a way of deflecting attention away from themselves. Often a fall guy or girl is needed as a sort of sacrificial gesture to maintain the status quo. The status quo needs shaking up and shaking out! Bringing down and booting out!

Membership of ‘old boy networks’ have them hiding behind a facade of Officiality and officialdom, fabricating fables, and fictitious claptrap, to cover up their own tracks, their cracks, burying their BS and diverting attention elsewhere for fear of being found out for the conniving, cowardly hypocrites they are, covering up their own inadequacies. Furious, fuming; ready for a fight anyone? Someone must stand up to a system, a failing system at that! A system which allows the top brass to close ranks and select someone to shoulder the blame for their own shortcomings. These persons of rank and privilege select their lamb for the sacrificial slaughter and determine that said lamb is expendable, replaceable and of no real consequence being but just a lowly lamb. As long as they save face.

If you’re anything like me, you try hard to be specific, stick to the details, the facts, the figures, and the reality behind the letters, and in between the lines. Some things are listed and twisted. Some things are pure conjecture. Some things are set to confuse, and unfortunately some things are set to create a smoke screen away from what is really going on. 

Let’s return to the Witch Hunt. If you’ve ever born witness to one of these, you’ll know that the Accusers know no bounds and will go to great lengths to burn, drown, or hang the Witch. I studied the History of The Witch. We use to hang witches, or should I say women and girls, and men and boys too. Didn’t matter that they were innocent and had committed no crime. Hanging is another issue I could discuss regarding the Witch Hunters but that’s perhaps for another time.

For now, I just want to re-emphasise the existence of modern day Witch Hunts. They’re real, they’re happening. The burning, the drowning and the hanging take on a different slant, though not always, in our so called civilised society, but the gist and the fallout remain the same. Tears are shed, lives are destroyed, careers ruined, trust diminished and all in the name of what? So, that some corrupt corporate entity can uphold a reputation that is in fact imagined rather than real. 

I mention no names. I’ll wait and see what the Witch Finder General comes up with next, and I’ll be waiting in the wings ready to defend the truth. 

© Liola Lee 2023