May 30, 2010

On the footplate with Margaret


MARGARET DEEFHOLTS always delights, she is so comfortable, you eventually want to pick up a cup of steaming hot cocoa as you sit reclining on a chair reading her tales. Margaret is back with us again (read her earlier posts HERE and HERE) to share with us her heartwarming recollections of her childhood days in India, and her work as a writer in far away Canada where she now lives. Cheers !!





-------------------------------------------------------
RAVINDRA : You grew up in a railway colony in India during the Raj, then went on to emigrate to Canada where you distinguished yourself as a travel writer. Looking back over the years, would you say that life has been a whirlwind adventure with a pleasant surprise awaiting at each turn?
.
MARGARET : Yes, Life has been a satisfying and exciting journey, and the siren call of unexplored lands beyond the horizon is still a seductive one.
.
As a travel writer you must have traveled extensively.
.
Yes. I’ve been on assignment to several countries – i.e. China, Malaysia, Norway, Mexico, Jordan, India as well as various areas in the USA and across Canada itself. Have recently returned from a trip to Wales and Scotland, and I’m looking forward to experiencing Israel on a press trip in early June. In addition, I’ve travelled on my own dime to Europe, Britain and Australia on several occasions, to Kenya and Tanzania, Egypt, Greece and Turkey. Apart from seeing world renowned cultural and archaeological sites, and discovering afresh the wonder of natural phenomena, one of the best things about travel is meeting and chatting with people; to share even if for just a little while their customs, their traditions, their cuisine, their music and their views.
.
And yet your roots are here in India where you grew up.
.
Absolutely! Although Canada is my home of choice, India will always be part of my blood and bone.
.
Tell us about your school days.
.
I went to several private schools in India as a result of my father’s frequent railway transfers. Some of these were Catholic convents, others were run by Anglican or Anglo-Indian educational trusts – the Girls’ La Martiniere and Pratt Memorial School in Calcutta for example.
.
The teachers were, of course, ‘characters’ in many instances. An irascible math teacher who regularly threw a blackboard duster at a “dunce’s” head. I had to duck this on many occasions. My English Literature teacher in the Pratt whom I both admired and loathed—both feelings being reciprocal—inspired a lifelong fascination with literary works both classic and contemporary. Ena Lawrence, the principal of the Pratt Memorial in the early fifties was a fine administrator and a riveting teacher of geography. And in Nagpur during my two years (pre-Cambridge and Cambridge School Certificate) at St. Joseph’s Convent, was the most gentle and gracious of teachers. Sister Dorothy-Ann (nee Barbara Bent) , a young Anglo-Indian nun in her mid-twenties,. We kept in touch in person (when I was in India) and then regularly by mail when in Canada until her demise about seven years ago. I also had the privilege of working with exceptional piano teachers, to whom I owe my keyboard techniques – now sadly rusty from disuse.
.
When I was a boarder at Loreto Convent, Asansol at the age of 8 or 9, I was desperately homesick! The oppressive discipline, rigidly controlled daily routine, the abysmal food and the lack of freedom to make friends of choice (the nuns seem to have been overly anxious about possible latent Lesbian tendencies - hardly likely in small girls who weren't even aware that such a thing existed!). However, all that has changed immensely since the '50s and friends who attended the school in the 70s and later, tell me that they have very pleasant memories of their boarding school days at Loreto Convent, Asansol.
.
Several years later when in my mid-teens I was a boarder at yet another convent - St. Joseph's Convent, Nagpur. My father had been transferred to Chennai and not wishing to disrupt the process of completing my two-year Senior Cambridge School Leaving Certificate, I was enrolled as a boarder. This was an entirely different experience - and one which I thoroughly enjoyed, and still remember with fondness. I remained in touch for many years with the gentle and affectionate nun who taught me in St. Joseph's until her death about five years ago. The only negative aspect (possibly common to all boarding schools) was the food - bony tough mutton or stringy beef in thin runny gravy ...thick boiled rice, boiled cabbage...and slabs of doughy white bread slathered with stale smelling butter! We called the tea, "ditchwater" diluted with lumpy powdered milk!
.
Yet for all that, it was wonderful to re-visit the school in the mid 90's and to once again share the company of my class teacher - Sister D-A. who still retained her warm personality and impish sense of humour. She took me on a tour of the school and then on a drive around Nagpur to revisit old haunts - particularly the Civil Lines area (where we lived) and through Seminary Hills.
.
The thirties and forties represent a more relaxed, laid back era with a pleasing ambience of its own.
.
I was born in ’41, so the ‘30s only exist for me in the pages of old black and white photograph albums owned by my parents. The 1940s remain in the realm of childhood, with idyllic memories of sprawling railway bungalows with deep verandahs, flower beds lining gravelled driveways, and a veritable orchard of fruit trees in the compound.
.
My dad acquired a “Hillman Minx” car when we lived in Madras in 1956. He was the only one who drove it; my mother tried, but was too terrified to really enjoy the experience, and gave up after two lessons. Neither my sister or myself were of an age when we could legally drive a car; perhaps just as well.
.
Urban traffic consisted mainly of privately owned Ambassador cars and taxis, buses, trams (most in dubious condition), auto rickshaws, cycle rickshaws, hand drawn rickshaws, ekkas and tongas – all of which depended on where you lived at the time.
.
Movies in the 50s and early 60s were Hollywood classics. In Calcutta the movie theatres lobbies were elaborate–carpets, subdued lighting, portrait galleries of Hollywood stars, and in the auditorium, plush seats and velvet curtains lit by a rainbow variety of stage lights. They parted dramatically to display the actual movie screen. The Metro, the New Empire, the Lighthouse and Minerva screened the latest and the best. We went to matinee shows and sighed over the likes of Clark Gable in Gone With The Wind, and savoured musicals like Annie Get Your Gun and South Pacific.
.
Neither the Railway Institute nor any of the Officers’ Clubs had the wherewithal to screen movies. However when we lived in Gauhati (1957 to 1960) the Gauhati Club (not the Railway Officers Club in the Railway colony in Maligaon) screened weekly movies for their members.
.
As far as fashions went – this for us young women was of paramount importance. There were the 50’s trendy skirts (and ‘can-can’ petticoats underlying them) which our darzi’s faithfully reproduced from American catalogues. The skirts swung outwards to great effect whenever we jived! We wore our hair in the latest ‘beehive’ fashions copycatting UK trends.
.
Yet, despite all this so-called sophistication, we lived remarkably sheltered lives during the 50’s and 60’s. Boyfriends were required to meet my parents, pick me up and drop me off after a ‘date’. Only matinee movie shows were permissible, and my sister and I had to be home no later than 8 o’clock. That changed a little bit when we lived and started to work in Bombay, but even so, we were rarely out later than 9 at night on weekdays, and if later on weekends, only provided we were with a group of youngsters whose families were known to my parents! How things have changed!
.
We are told that the Institute was the focal point of social activity and recreation in the railway colony in your time.
.
The Railway Institute was the hub of social life, particularly among the operating staff – drivers, firemen, loco foremen and station staff and their families. It didn’t exclude officers’ families, but most social interaction in regard to the latter took place in the Officers’ Club with its own tennis and badminton courts and rather more formal functions.
.
The Institute was much more interesting and lively. Although I don’t recall attending any Railway Institutes in Dinapur, Jamalpur, Asansol or Howrah – my sister and I were always signed up for children’s events at the Allahabad Institute, as we spent several months in the town through the ‘40s and early ‘50s.
.
As Financial Advisor & Chief Accounts Officer, your father, Mr Gerald F. Penn-Anthony, held a responsible position on the Indian Railways in his day.
.
Gerald F. Penn-Anthony
Yes, he started right after his probation period as a junior officer on what is now the Central Railway headquarters in Bombay. We then moved to Calcutta and a series of up-country railway towns in Bihar and the U.P., winding up in Chittaranjan (at its inception) in the late ‘40s/early ‘50s and thence to Lilloah when my father went to work at Fairlie Place. Dad was then seconded to the Indian Civil Service as Assistant Coal Commissioner in Calcutta for three years. 1954 saw us in Nagpur where he was Accountant General for Madhya Pradesh for a year. Then it was back to the Railways as Deputy Financial Advisor and Chief Accounts Officer (a weighty title!) with the Southern Railway in Madras (now, of course Chennai); thence as FA&CAO in Maligaon (Assam) in late 1957 at a time when the railway-cum-highway bridge across the Brahmaputra was in its earliest construction stage. We stayed in a bungalow leased by the North East Frontier Railway in Gauhati, as the officers’ quarters in Maligaon were still in the process of construction. Dad was transferred to Bombay in the early 60s – first to the Central Railway, then to the Western Railway, and then back once more to the Central Railway from which he retired in 1973. His career thus came full circle, having started and ended in the Central Railway offices at Bombay VT.
.
In HAUNTING INDIA you have said: “Probably the most delightful part of railway life for me as a child (apart from the fun of exploring yet another new bungalow and town) was the unmitigated thrill of traveling on the rails.” You surely don’t mean to say that you actually enjoyed rail travel while those puffing billies of old were in action?
.
What could be more romantic than those wonderful old coal fired “Puffing Billies” and the rhythm of the wheels singing what my ayah said was “Chay-chay paise, chal Calcutta,” Yes, the engines were dreadful air polluters as they belched black smoke over everything, and black grit lay on scalps and in fingernails. But the old railway compartments (Officers’ Carriages) were wide and comfortable with well upholstered berths, and whirring fans. Each was sufficient to itself with its own attached toilet – unlike today’s first class a/c travel with cubicles off a common corridor. Later, travelling in a HOD’ (Head of Department) saloon was a treat all by itself. The engines by then were diesel and the trains glided over smooth tracks – and I rather missed being rocked to sleep by the rough jolting, the shrill scream of the engine whistle and the clatter of wheels on the rails.
.
In HAUNTING INDIA you also tell us that your father sometimes took you along when he went on tour to one of the outlying stations within his jurisdiction. How did you and your sister spend the day while your dad went about doing his work ?
.
My mother, my sister and I would saunter through shops, linger in places of interest and sample little tea shops for nibbles. For example when Dad was on a working two day trip to Kurseong, we stayed at the Railway Officers' Guest House and the three of us took the "toy train" up to Darjeeling for the day and enjoyed walking to several look out points, people-watching and taking in all attractive (sometimes gaudy!) offerings by Nepalese street vendors - necklaces, bracelets, embroidered blouses, knitted caps etc.
.
If we were in a location where there was no Railway Officers temporary residential facilities, we were happy to 'camp' in the Officers' carriage or the H.O.D.'s saloon sitting on a siding, and stroll - or more often - take a rickshaw or tonga to the main mofussil area, and perhaps buy a small box of specialty sweets or snacks to take back with us. Quite often we'd meet up with other Railway wives - some of their husbands were colleagues in the Accounts Department - and they would take us on little sightseeing trips (most of this by cycle rickshaw as not everyone had, or could even afford, a car back then) around the area.
.
Many old timers get carried away while reminiscing over long-forgotten gadgets they had once used a long time ago.
.
True enough! Where are the little clay cups that we drank chai out of when the train stopped at a railway station? The painted clay toys in the shape of animals and birds that hawkers sold to kids? Do kulfi-wallahs still go door to door in the warm dusky evenings and twist out those creamy contents out of metal cones? With refrigeration the old “doolies” or wooden meat safes with mesh sides have probably all but disappeared. Does anyone still have large clay chatties to store drinking water? Gone forever are the railway bearers with their crested turbans, starched tunics and buckled cummerbunds. Do the Railway station first class restaurants still boast embossed railway china-ware, silver cutlery and linen table cloths and serviettes? I wonder.
.
We had an apartment sized Electrolux fridge that worked off the electrical mains. Dad had a Kodak box camera. I never owned a camera until I was in my mid-twenties and working so could afford to buy this luxury item. Our radio bought in 1945 (when we lived in Jamalpur) was a Philips – and had a ‘magic eye’ that had to warm up when you turned it on. The radio was in use all through the 50s and 60s, and my sister and I would to tune pop music into the Listeners’ Request programme or the Binaca Hit Parade on Radio Ceylon. Radio India broadcast two western classical music programs which I also listened to on weekends.
.
Speaking of music, we had a “His Master’s Voice” gramophone in the 40s – it had to be wound up to play ’78 rpm records and the steel needles needed to be changed frequently. The sound-box was tinny. In the early ‘50’s we graduated to a ‘pick-up’ box where the wires from the receiver were plugged into the radio thus improving the sound and we acquired red-tipped long playing needles that would last for about ten records. When we moved to Bombay, we acquired the latest in sophisticated sound reproduction – an audio player with a turntable that played not only ‘78s but also ‘45s and 33 rpm long playing records. The speakers were powerful and had volume as well as bass and treble control knobs. The old wind-up gramophone was relegated to the attic, and I think eventually sold to a door-to-door bikri-wallah. Today it would be worth something more than a few annas as a relic of a bygone era! I also had a Grundig reel-to-reel tape recorder and although the small one I once owned has gone the way of the Dodo, reel-to-reel tapes are still used for professional recordings. Funny to think of all this now with the way sound technology has progressed!
.
My mother rarely needed to cook, but as a wedding anniversary present one year my Dad presented her with an oven. It was just a metal box that sat over a gas burner, but my mother was thrilled. The resulting experimental cakes and puddings weren’t always entirely what she’d intended, but we were all very sporting about eating our way through whatever emerged…some slightly charred offerings, others on the somewhat sludgy uncooked side!
.
Life was simple back then; our young lives revolved around school and family. The seasons came and went – cool winters, torrid summers and torrential monsoons. We moved a great deal, with surprisingly little trauma at the changes between cities, schools and environments. The warm nights cradled our dreams, and we dozed off under mosquito nets to the lullaby of croaking frogs and shrill crickets.
.
There was always tomorrow, with its rewards, and its disappointments, its triumphs or dashed hopes – and in that regard, I suppose even after all these sixty-plus years, nothing’s changed!
.
And then leaving everything behind, you finally migrated to Canada. Did your parents accompany you?
.
My parents joined us in Canada in 1978 – a year after my husband, myself and our two children arrived in British Columbia. My only sibling, a sister, had immigrated to Canada back in 1968 – so with my parents’ arrival we were once again together as a family.
.
What made you turn to writing?
.
I was always a scribbler – even back in school. In the mid ‘80s and through the early ‘90s I wrote and sent off a series of short stories to various publications and was encouraged by the fact that many of them were prize winners in fiction contests throughout Canada, while others were selected for publication in short story anthologies.
.
As a genre, travel writing appears to have an aura of romance associated with it, conjuring up images of long vacations on a remote island on the Pacific, mixing up with local tribes and peoples, digging up historical details....
.
It sounds more romantic than it actually is! A press trip isn’t anything like being on a carefree holiday. It’s work! One needs to cover a considerable amount of research prior to a media trip, and be prepared for long hours ‘on the road’ juggling cameras, notebooks, voice recorders etc. It means making absolutely sure that you ask pertinent questions and cover all bases, as there are no second chances getting information once you are back home, specially since, more often than not, the person you interviewed isn’t available to clear up any ambiguities. On returning from a trip it sometimes takes days or even weeks to sort out images, transcribe notes and craft articles. Marketing is another issue altogether, and an immensely time consuming (often frustrating) one at that.
.
All things considered, however, being a travel writer has brought me a great deal of satisfaction in terms of both experiencing countries that I would otherwise never have seen, and in finding outlets for my articles.
.
You were honoured with the ‘Best Foreign Travel Writer’ award from Tourism Malaysia in 2003. How does it feel like to be conferred with an international award?
.
Wonderful! Malaysia Tourism pulled out all the stops – flew me business class to and from Kuala Lumpur to attend a huge Oscar-awards-type glitzy prize-giving ceremony (this was to honour all manner of travel industry people – hoteliers, tourist agencies, tourism public relations personnel etc. – not just local and international journalists) in a swanky six-star hotel. They then provided me with a car and driver-guide to take me on a five-day all-expenses paid VIP trip up to the Cameron Highlands, the only part of Malaysia that I hadn’t seen on earlier press trips.
.
Tell us about your writing career. Which were the first magazines to publish your short stories?
.
The first magazines were local publications - Slice of Life (short fiction); Travel Impulse (humour column on the lighter side of travel); Canadian Writers' Journal (short fiction); Canadian Storyteller Magazine (distributed Canada wide; short fiction), Anglos in the Wind (quarterly periodical published in Chennai:short fiction and non-fiction essays) and then articles published in anthologies: A piece on Rohinton Mistry's Bombay ( Literary Trips - Following in the Footsteps of Fame) and In All Directions (short fiction). The Surrey International Writers' Conference also produce an anthology of prize winning fiction and poetry, and on a couple of occasions, I was fortunate enough to win first prize in the short fiction category.
.
And your themes?
.
India and/or Canada provides the setting for much of my short fiction pieces. I also write stories about identity conflict arising out of displacement as felt by first generation immigrants. Most of the time the narratives end on a positive, but sometimes bitter-sweet, note.
.
Have you ever considered writing a novel?
.
Yes - I started a historical novel many years ago - a generational family saga set against the background of India's first war of Independence (in British eyes, the "Indian Mutiny"!), which I set out to write as part of a trilogy, ending in contemporary India at the turn of the Millennium. However, my writing career branched into travel journalism, so the novel has languished on the back burner.
.
Tell us about Haunting India.
.
Blair Williams who runs a USA based charity for less fortunate Anglo-Indians in India approached me with a proposal to compile a book of my previously published short fiction, travel and memoirs. It would be a joint publishing venture, and I would agree to donate 50% of the proceeds towards the Tiljallah Relief fund. A win-win situation all round. Portions of the book have been reproduced by various organizations, and although the copyright rests with me, the only request that I make is that some donation be made – be it large or small – to the Tiljallah Relief fund. This is of course, entirely voluntary.
.
So no matter where you are, India will ever remain at the back of your mind like a warm patch of sunshine?
.
Nicely put. Yes!
.
Do you have any relics left over from Raj days which arouse nostalgia and are treasured possessions even today ?
.
I have two cane morahs that are still in use in my home today. They have drawn comments from visitors from India who have smiled in fond recognition. I also have a carom board which we included in our shipment from India when we left in 1977. My walls host three water colour reproductions of scenes of Old Calcutta in the 1700s, Moghul miniature reproductions, and a couple of portrait paintings on silk of venerable elders from Nepal. A large decorative paan box with metal trimmings and semi precious stones, and a framed picture with inlay work from the Delhi/Agra region grace my living room.
.
Given the chance would you like to return to India?
.
I do return to India on a frequent basis – at least once every three years. I’m hoping to be back in January 2011 along with my son, Glenn, and my Australia-based cousin and her husband. We plan on spending about two months or more travelling across the sub-continent.
.
Would I return to India permanently? Probably not. My family ties are all here in Canada, and after thirty three years the country now fits me like a second skin. I have every reason to appreciate the country of my adoption: Canada opened up remunerative career opportunities that might not have been so easily available had I stayed on in India. My corporate job paid well – it enabled me to travel widely and to eventually opt for a comfortable early retirement in my mid-fifties in order to pursue what I really wanted to do - i.e. travel and write.