In writing this memoir, I combined my two loves, journalism and creative writing.
The journalist’s task is to find the dark corners of the world of injustice and sadness and illuminate them. The bigger job is to be the watchdog of democracies, to ensure there are checks and balances in governance on behalf of the people.
If there is one thing it taught me is that humans are essentially the same. Everyone is looking for a way to survive the dark days of our mortality and the trials of being human, whether they are gangsters who end up getting shot at 20 and buried with gold chains down to their stomachs; or priests who have lived ascetic lives; or indeed, families around the commonwealth navigating the damage of Empire.
It was with this understanding that I began to write a memoir.
As an immigrant to Tobago, where my parents moved when I was a child, and later to Trinidad, I felt the past was being cut away from me.
My son was born, and I had begun forgetting words in Urdu and Hindi. As an immigrant to Trinidad, I started feeling the past was being cut away from me. I wrote it to remember the past and understand the present of the glittering islands of Trinidad and Tobago, where my parents moved when I was a child.
As I wrote about my experience as a journalist, somebody who chronicles the events that shape a country, I realised that my past was not unique. My grandmother told me how my ancestor was brought from Uzbekistan to put down the mutiny in India in 1856. As a recruited member of the British Army, he was forced to shoot his fellow Muslims, something he regretted till he died. I began making connections. It was also the story of colonial islands in the new world, where people were stripped of language. The narrative continued with my parents travelling to Trinidad and Tobago, which also has a complicated history of colonisation by the French Spanish and English. That interested me – how the personal can be so political, how the unravelling of one family living under decades of colonialism can echo a crumbling empire.
The overall theme of the crumbling Empire is relevant, especially now; after the death of Queen Elizabeth 11, we can see how similar post-colonial worlds are. The history of brutality was identical. In India, we grew up with stories of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar Puja when General Dyer ordered the British
Indian Army to open fire on over a thousand unarmed, nonviolent protestors, Churchill’s active role in perpetuating the Bengal famine, or the signs my mother remembers in exclusive clubs that read “No Dogs or Indians” and the sly inroads of the East India Company. In Trinidad, as in much of South America, there is the brutal history of slavery, indentureship and genocide of millions of native Indians. In India from 1765 to 1938. the British got an estimated 45 trillion U.S. dollars’ worth of goods like textiles, rice, iron, and timbre, not to mention jewels from the Raj, which are housed in
British museums today. Similarly, Caribbean islands like ours were looted for sugar and cocoa. It’s a shared history of exploitation.
When my grandmother left India to join our family in Trinidad, she told me stories about a vanished India of the British Raj. She told me of generations of women born into Muslim Indian princely families of Bhopal and Savanur. I had to infer the calamity upon her life when my mother broke hundreds of years of tradition and understand why my grandmother disinherited my mother for marrying a Hindu army officer.
There were unanswered questions. I wondered why my grandmother ended up alone and penniless despite all her privileges- born a princess into Indian royalty, beauty, and musical talent.
As I wrote the story, the puzzle came together. I began to understand how patterns are created in how we treat our daughters and how that damages the people we love. At my grandmother’s funeral, I was aware of how incongruous this was, a woman born in colonial India dying in the new world so far from everything she grew up with and knew. It was a way of bringing tother the old and new worlds and introducing the question of how and why this happened. How did a princess of the Raj die in Trinidad?
The colonial idea that subjugation, cruelty and even corporal punishment can be justified for the greater good filtered down to how people in colonies viewed their children.– how neglect, abandonment or abuse is passed on to their daughters and that pattern is continued.
Migration is also a very personal issue. At the funeral of the late Queen Elizabeth, dozens of security guards were of South Asian origin. According to an Indian Ministry of External Affairs report, 32 million Non-Resident Indians live outside India, overseas Indians comprise the world’s largest overseas diaspora, and over 2.4 million Indians migrate overseas yearly. Our family was just one in this ocean of movement. So the themes aren’t heavy, but
illustrates how politics always becomes personal and affects families.
When I wrote it, I did not expect it to resonate with so many people across continents. Michael Portillo for Times Radio was moved by the story of Poppet, the child in the book. Anita Rani of Times Radio was moved by the story of migration. The Observer found it was reminiscent of the times of the Raj in India, which has connected India and Britain for generations.
About the Author
Ira Mathur is the author of Love The Dark Days – a Peepal Tree published a memoir on the emotional ruins of Empire on three generations of women set in Trinidad, St Lucia, India and the U.K., bookended with a weekend with Derek Walcott. Love The Dark Days was selected as a UK Guardian Best Book of the Year 2022 ( Memoir and Biography)
Mathur is an Indian-born Trinidadian multimedia journalist and columnist with a body of writing that includes over 800 columns over 20 years. (www.irasroom.org) She was longlisted for the 2021 Bath Novel Award for Touching Dr Simone. (Out in 2023)
Mathur studied creative writing in London with The University of East Anglia/Guardian & the Faber Academy with Gillian Slovo, Maggie Gee, and James Scudamore. In 2019 Mathur was longlisted for the Johnson and Amoy Achong Caribbean Writers Prize. She holds degrees in literature, law and journalism.
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