Archives For India

There are websites galore devoted to the expatriate life and how to make the most of it. How to choose the right school. How to recreate oneself as an accompanying spouse. How to make friends in a foreign land. How to have a baby overseas – that one always makes smile. I believe the answer is the same anywhere in the world – you push. 

Living a life abroad is not difficult. And as the world shrinks with the ease of travel and the omnipresence of the internet it has without doubt become easier. In some ways though the very ease of communication and the ability to see films and TV shows from any country,  has created a belief that we are one giant homogenous world with little separating us – a sort of Bollywood comes to Hollywood. And that can lead to unrealistic expectations, to a lack of cultural awareness, a lack of willingness to accept and, mostly, embrace our differences.

It is a privilege to be invited to share in someone else’s customs and traditions. To travel, and to spend significant time in another country encourages us to become more compassionate, more open to inevitable differences, to understand that there is no single way to do many things. It is also too easy to forget issues that may arise whilst living in a foreign country might well have arisen when living in the village of one’s birth, surrounded by family. It is easy to blame external factors for internal problems though like everything there are exceptions.

I think a global perspective helps make us more accepting and in some ways kinder.

What travel most certainly does is introduce new words and phrases into our lexicon that are used without thought in our daily speech, without remembering those to whom we are speaking might be utterly confused.

My 60th birthday was shared with seven girlfriends with whom I have celebrated for over ten years and who, last week, flew in to St Croix from mainland USA and Britain. Sitting on the gallery one evening I looked at these wonderful women who I had met around the world and wondered how many countries had been lived in. A quick tally was 24 countries, and that wasn’t counting overlaps where some of us had lived in the same country. Had we included those the total would have been 42.

Not surprisingly those multiple countries and languages have spawned many phrases in our personal dictionaries. Growing up in Malaysia the word cukup and tidak were daily admonitions from, it sometimes seemed, most adults in my life. Meaning “enough” and “no”. Makan siap called us to the table – the bahasa melayu equivalent of “grub’s up”. Papua New Guinea added em tasol and means “that’s all”. Genoeg and tot ziens came from Holland, another “enough”, and “see you later”. My children, raised initially in Thailand, were quick to learn mai pen rai – “it doesn’t matter”. 

But the phrase I had completely forgotten from my childhood was huggery buggery!

I had left the house early to go and prepare the table at Cafe Christine’s for 14 lovely ladies joining me for lunch. Unbeknownst to me, those staying with me had plans to decorate the house in my absence. (I later understood why everyone kept asking me “when are you going?”, or “what time do you want us there?” I had also been mildly surprised to note my Cruzan friends, who often work to a Caribbean clock, arrived on time and my houseguests all late.)

But back to huggery buggery.

Apparently whilst hustling to decorate the house with all manner of glitzy banners, streamers and balloons proclaiming my advanced age, my multi-lingual pals were searching for sellotape.

“Well she must have a huggery-buggery drawer somewhere!” said Trish, continuing to pull open cupboard doors and tug recalcitrant drawers swollen by humidity.

“What?” The query came from five women.

“The huggery buggery drawer. You know, bits and bobs, odds and ends. Everyone has one.”

Relating this to me later over yet more bubbles, I laughed. It was a phrase used by my paternal grandmother and my father, learned from their days in India. Sometimes it is best not look too deeply into the etymology of a word but goodness it is descriptive. And whilst Trish has never lived in India, she learnt it from an Indian ayah whilst living in Dubai.

Writing this blog brought to mind the teenage glee with which a friend and I, then living in Papua New Guinea, would call her dog to heel. Her travel history included South Africa and her amusingly non-pc parents had named the mutt who appeared one day at their door, Voetsek. Voetsek in Afrikaans is a not terribly polite way of saying, “get lost”.

And so along with kindness comes humour. Two things necessary wherever we live but which is sometimes needed in larger doses when living a global life. Some of the things we build into big events or issues are really very unimportant in the greater scheme of life, and we need a take a kecil out of the huggery-buggery drawer and learn to realize that for most things, mai pen rai!

Now I wonder if there’s an expat website for that!

Note: I’ve just been told that huggery-muggery is listed in a 1700 Scottish dictionary so it seems India borrowed and adapted from the Scots!

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Saturday, 1st February 1969 was the first time I wore jodhpurs. This I know for a fact as it was my first Saturday at boarding school – NEGS (New England Girls School, Armidale, NSW, Australia). It was the only day pupils were allowed to wear trousers and ironically, at the time, NEGS did not have the world class equestrian centre it now has. 

Last weekend, and quite by chance also a Saturday, I visited the MFAH (Museum of Fine Arts Houston) to view their lavish exhibition, Peacock in the Desert: the Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India. It was magnificent. Featuring masterpieces from the kingdom of Marwar-Jodhpur in Rajasthan. Ceremonial swords and regalia, camel guns, daggers. One hall was filled with a 17th century court tent made of intricately stitched drapes, another showed a moveable wooden-framed tent used for picnics – the floor of that was covered with a rug made from slithers of ivory interwoven with fabric. Turban adornments shimmered with diamonds on the front and the finest enamel work on the back – so fine I was convinced they were also gems, tiny sparkling emerald and ruby chips rather enamel. It was a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the Rathore dynasty and how the latter day maharaja, Gaj Singh, has transformed the royal palaces and forts on the edge of the Thar, the Great Indian Desert, into self-sustaining monuments for now and the future.

The superficial glamour of the maharaja’s life hides the seriousness of his role in keeping this part of India from crumbling into ruins and crushing debt, and he believes the conservation of buildings and the wonderful works of art inside them is an important bridge between history and modernity. Gaj Singh might officially be a maharaja in name only but that is not how the people of Jodhpur see him, and they call him Bapji – father in their tribal tongue of Marwari.

Dad_IndiaAnd my father is why I care about Rajasthan in India and Waziristan in Pakistan.

Sent to India, as his father, his maternal grandfather and great grandfather were, to serve in the Indian Army (sometimes now referred to as the British Indian Army), Dad was there during Partition in 1947 in one of the Frontier Corps regiments and he remained as one of the few British army officers in the newly formed Pakistani Army.

I grew up to stories of derring-do on the North West Frontier and about his commanding officer, the first Pakistani CO of the South Waziristan Scouts, Colonel Khushwaqt-ul-Mulk, but who I knew as Khushi. Gilgit, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Wāna, Jaipur, Calcutta, Jodphur were all names that swirled around me with romantic abandon as a child even though we lived in neither India nor Pakistan. The first nursery rhyme I learnt was from the sub-continent – aye aye tonga-wallah, tonga-wallah idera (?), aye aye tonga-wallah, Queen Victoria very fine man!

My father’s time in both India and Pakistan were arguably his happiest days and the men with whom he served, whether British, Indian or Pakistani, were men he stayed in contact with throughout his life. When Dad died in 2010 one of the condolence letters I received was from Khushi’s son – his father having died in February of the same year.

And so I’ve almost come full circle – Saturdays, Jodhpur and Dad – but to close that gap I have to go to Waziristan. That part of Pakistan is riven, still, with violence – 71 years since Partition. And still from the same quarter. Then, the SWS gashts (patrols) were spent defending the frontier with Afghanistan against dissident tribesmen hoping to create a new independent country to be known as Pukhtunistan. Now it is the Taliban causing chaos.

I wonder was it serendipity that sent me to the museum on Saturday to see the Jodhpur exhibition? That reawakened a life-long desire to see those places albeit almost three-quarters of a century after Dad was there. Most of Dad’s ashes currently reside in my son’s London flat – awaiting the ‘right’ time to scatter them in the place which held his fascination and part of his heart for all those years. Perhaps that time is now, one Saturday very soon. 

Daddy would like that!