More than most of us, the Fates had woven the pattern for Jamila Gavin’s life long before she was born in 1941. Britain was at war; in 1947 India would signal the end of the British Empire, and the agony of partition would follow. Looking back, she sees her parents’ marriage and her early years reflecting the history of Britain and India, and the Gandhian movement in which her father was so heavily involved.
It was the memory, the feel, of those years, unconsciously absorbed as a child or rooted out from family reminiscences and photos, that simmered beneath the surface ‘for years and years and years’ while she struggled to find the medium to express it.
‘I’m not a natural diary keeper, and my memory is not detailed for autobiography. But fiction allows you to invent! The Wheel of Surya used material from the first five years of my life, and I made up the rest or gleaned it from all sorts of sources.’ It’s brought both excitement and a kind of peace to dig at last into this fertile ground.
The Fates spun together two threads from opposite ends of the world. Jamila’s (pronounced Jameela) mother was a Staffordshire girl, born of a pottery background, who won a scholarship to the local girls’ school and on to history at Cambridge. ‘She wanted to teach, and her itchy feet also made her want to break away, so she got her training at the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in London and was sent out to Persia. There she met my father, who had done the same thing from the other side of the world.’
Her father’s family had been Christian for several generations: the story goes that his great-great-grandfather, a soldier in the British Army, saved the life of a British officer called Phillips and got converted for his pains. ‘Traditionally, if you’re converted to Christianity you change your name to a Christian one, so all my family in India are Phillips.’ ‘No,’ she responds to my cries of ‘Overtones of slavery!’, ‘it’s not so much a sign of subservience as a way of marking yourself out from the rest of the community. You can tell who’s a Sikh, who’s a Muslim, a Hindu, a Parsee, by their surnames, so he wouldn’t have been identified as a Christian if he had kept his Indian name.’
These two young people met in the Bishop’s house in Tehran amid, she assumes, ‘an extraordinarily liberal atmosphere, for these were the days when it was completely unacceptable for a white woman to marry a dark-skinned man, and she was not trying to make great statements about life or anything.’
Her father and his young wife were posted to Batala, in the Punjab, living in an abandoned three-tiered palace, a hunting lodge of the son of the last Rajah of the Punjab. But Jamila happened to be born in Mussooorie, just over the border in Uttar Pradesh, in the foothills of the Himalayas where her mother had gone to escape the August heat.
‘The British in India, people like Curzon, seem to have been genuinely interested in the whole culture, its architecture, flora and fauna, listing and protecting its monuments, temples and palaces. And around 1856, Frances Baring, a young man serving as a missionary-teacher who had met an extraordinary woman called Maria Tucker – another Englishwoman Doing Her Duty – came across Batala. They wanted to set up schools for the children of the Punjab, and finally all over India.
‘Maria Tucker was known as A Lady of England, and of course, being India, this was immediately put into initials, ALOE. What they meant was quickly forgotten – they became just letters after her name. When recently I went back to the graveyard’ (where Jamila’s younger infant brother is also buried) ‘it was pillaged, barely recognisable with cattle roaming over it, but there was this little grave, its marble and lettering intact: Maria Tucker ALOE.
‘This was the legacy my father inherited, Batala Primary School ALOE. Yes, the teacher in The Eye of the Horse who gets the school going again could have been my father, but is more like Baring, who moved all sorts of little heavens and hells to get funding for his school there.’ Later her father, foreseeing India’s future independence and a need for education, guided the palace into becoming Baring Christian College for training teachers up to the age of 16; he became its Head and the family moved into the bungalow.
On that visit, she found the palace, the road, the lake, unchanged, just as in The Wheel of Surya, but with later years superimposed – new buildings have grown round it, the water drained away. But up the steps that used to lead to her nursery, out on to the upper balcony, she could still look across to the lake. Did anyone drown in it? Not children, but teenage boys, students of her father: ‘I must have been no more than five, and for some reason I never did tell my parents I’d been there, seen the frantic efforts to recover the bodies, the wailing and so on. And there’s the taboo about touching dead bodies, affecting resuscitation – that’s why in my story, to Marvinder’s despair, no one would touch Jaspal.’
Her life seemed governed by the whim of history. In 1944, during a misleading lull in the war, P & O sent a liner to India, and her mother, anxious about her own parents, took Jamila and her older brother to London in time for the next wave of bombing. In 1947 her pregnant mother, tuned in to the atmosphere of danger (Batala slipped in and out of Pakistan as maps were constantly redrawn), returned with them again to Ealing, where her sister was born.
At home, their father, struggling to keep the school going and helping refugees, repeatedly had miraculous escapes. He has never really spoken of the scenes he lived through. When Jamila gave him a draft of those Wheel of Surya chapters, his first reaction – ‘You can’t begin to know what it was like!’ – told her she had failed; his final comment on the rewritten version – ‘How did you know all this?’ – was her reward. ‘I hadn’t wanted to go too far, but if I didn’t get the essence of the horror I would be betraying the whole reality.’
When the CMS left Batala, her father took up a teacher-training headship in Poona, where Jamila went to school. She was 12 when the musical talent, which was to dominate most of her life, became unmistakable: her mother had been secretary for Trinity College, and visiting examiners who stayed with them would tell her to send her child to England. Anxious, anyway, about her children’s education, she moved for the last time to London; with tourism on the point of developing, her husband left teaching to open up a London office, eventually running the Government of India Tourist Office. They were all together in England.
‘Music in those days was all I wanted to do, especially composing.’ Notting Hill and Ealing High School got her a junior exhibition for Saturday study at Trinity, where they began to channel her into a solo career. But she has always been captivated by the theatre, too, taking speech and drama – management and writing more than acting – as her subsidiary at college. ‘I’d have loved to have directed – I was very bossy.’ (Bossy? This sweet-faced, soft-voiced woman? Well, she says so.)
All the family had been talented, her mother’s piano shifted on a bullock cart every time they moved. ‘But what I never had in all those years was indigenous Indian culture, because this wretched Christian side of my father’s family meant it was completely Western-orientated: we spoke English and went to English-medium schools, though I once had smatterings of Punjabi, Urdu and Hindi through playing with children. So of course I am more comfortable in Western culture. I don’t live in an area of tension, and people don’t find me foreign to meet, so I forget I’m actually a different colour – it’s a shock when in some way I step out of line and get the “Go-back-where-you-came-from” treatment.’
A scholarship to Trinity as a pianist was followed by conservatoires in Paris and Berlin. But, uncertain about being confined, she recalled the thrill of two teenage opportunities (playing Scarlatti for Huw Wheldon on live TV, and recording a ‘complete aural diary of India’, for radio and the BBC archives), and on returning to London began a studio manager’s job with the BBC in 1964 – talks and current affairs, but specialising in music. Even supplemented with TV documentary scripts, this came to seem restricting, and at 26 she managed to move across to television production and directing for Music and Arts.
There she met a young producer, Barry Gavin, who was to become a respected director of concert programmes and contemporary music throughout Europe; their children, Rohan (Sanskrit for ‘musical scale’) and Indra, are now in their early twenties. But that old feeling of frustration returned: a Cotswold home in Chalford meant a peaceful sanctuary for Barry but an isolating trap for her, and they parted five years ago. Today she lives in Stroud, in a Victorian terrace of narrow, steep-staired little cottages that look over to Laurie Lee’s Slad valley, marvelling at the chance at last to express her own creativity. Working alone – the piano or writing – combines with the renewed pleasure of teamwork arising from the Cheltenham Festival Committee.
She had begun writing seriously for publication in 1979, with The Orange Tree. A plan for an educational series – about an Indian family moving to Kenya and then England, centring on young Jaspal – collapsed but later Methuen’s Miriam Hodgson saw in the material a much more ambitious book. ‘Suddenly in The Wheel of Surya I was able to express the very thing I had loved, everything that has haunted me through my life.’ Here was the key at last.
There will be a third book for Jaspal and Marvinder, and The Eye of the Horse’s shiveringly emotional ending deliberately spells nothing out. ‘Beryl has gone off to America, and Jaspal is a damaged boy harbouring a lot of anger – all the seeds of terrorism are there. I don’t actually know their fates. I used to get up excited in the morning, not knowing what the next bit would be. It felt like sleep-walking, and I wasn’t sure I could handle it. I needed Miriam, and she was brilliant.’
Written amid the ordinariness of an English country town, these latest novels (starting perhaps with The Singing Bowls) pulse with the symbols of India. ‘The wild child is India in pieces, broken by partition – could it be brought back, tamed? Everyone has made mistakes, with promises and hopes everywhere betrayed, but the white horse is not only a bridal symbol, it is the Horse of Penance.’ Powerful feelings, recollected in tranquillity, have brought fulfilment.
Some of Jamila Gavin’s books:
The Wheel of Surya, Methuen, 0 416 18572 X, £9.99; Mammoth, 0 7497 1582 0, £2.99 pbk
The Eye of the Horse, Methuen, 0 416 18875 3, £9.99
The Singing Bowls, Mammoth, 0 7497 0332 6, £2.50 pbk
Grandpa Chatterji, Methuen, 0 416 19021 9, £6.99; Mammoth, 0 7497 1716 5, £2.99 pbk
I Want to be an Angel, Mammoth, 0 7497 0987 1, £2.99 pbk
Deadly Friend, Heinemann ‘Banana’, 0 434 96623 1, £3.99
Kamla and Kate, Mammoth, 0 7497 0581 7, £2.99 pbk
Kamla and Kate Again, Mammoth, 0 7497 1050 0, £2.99 pbk