Soon after my father arrived in London from India, his homeland was invaded. Solace and comfort came from an unexpected place.
I strolled down the Kings Road in Chelsea on a sunny Sunday afternoon with no particular place to go and came across a road: Edith Grove. The name rang a bell; it was my father’s first address when he arrived in London from India in 1957.
After 10,000 miles and 44 days on a ship, he arrived with suitcase in hand and four pounds in his pocket, suited and booted walking off the gangplank on to the foggy docks of Tilbury.
He found his feet, enrolled on a course in management and got a job at the Indian High Commission in Aldwych.
Finding a room was a problem. London in those years was very different to the vibrant, cosmopolitan city it is today. The city was still recovering from war, food rationing had only just ended, slums were being cleared and these were tough times for people of colour, many of them newly arrived at the behest of the government, from south Asia and the Carribbean. Adverts in shop windows could and would state: “Room to rent. No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish”
He interviewed for a basement room just off the King’s Road in a four story maisonette owned by a Polish family; a kind grandmother called Memosa, her daughter Yanuska and her son, a playful child called Memo.
It was comfortable enough, spartan and small, but how much space does a young man need if his entire worldly belongings fill just one suitcase?
He got the room and his new life in a new country, began.
Keeping in touch with his family back in India was hard. Although there was a small Assamese community in London, it must have been lonely at times for him being so far away from his family. International phone calls were out of the question, they were very expensive and were charged in units of seconds and had to be booked in advance with an operator. Every week he would write ‘air letters’ to his mother which would take 3 weeks to get to India and a further 3 weeks to get a reply.
Memosa would cook for him; they would share Christmas meals as a family, and eat the 12 dishes of the Polish Christmas together (he especially liked pierogi the dumplings stuffed with cabbage.) They took walks altogether in Hyde Park on Sundays . British winters were bitterly cold then (temperatures could hit minus 20C) and on those chilly mornings Yanuska would bring him a brazier of red hot coals.
My father was a music composer and he bought a small harmonium on which he would compose music in the evenings. One evening Memosa listened in to the exotic sounds coming from the basement room, and although she didn’t understand the Assamese words, she could feel the sentiment. She joined in with him, and in return she taught him Polish songs. Music is a language without borders and he must have picked those songs up quick because soon, one Sunday he sang to the local Polish community at the Brompton Oratory bringing the house to tears. No one had ever heard an Indian singing in Polish.
Yes, it’s fair to say that Memosa’s family had an Indian son. And my father had a surrogate family. A Polish family who would help him through the darkest passage of his life.
In October 1962, Chinese troops invaded a part of India called the North East Frontier Agency (today’s state of Arunachal Pradesh) which was marching distance from his family in Assam.
When he heard the news on his radio my father was crest-fallen. He plunged in to mental anguish. He couldn’t sleep or stay focused at work, he was so wracked with worry. He booked phone calls home to speak to his mother, short calls at ungodly hours. Should he return home to be with them? She said the news wasn’t good. Day by day the Chinese army, the PLA, was inching closer to them. There was panic and evacuation in Assam. The Prime Minister of India, Nehru, had been on on All India Radio to bid farewell to Assam. He offered his tears.
I hate to think what questions father must have been thinking then. What would happen to his family if Assam fell? Would they be safe? Would he even see them again? What could he do?
Every morning he listened to his radio for more news. The Chinese army was soon in Bomdila, a small scenic Himalayan town with Buddhist monasteries and apple orchids, just 150 kilometers from Assam.
Memosa saw how my father had become withdrawn. He stopped his singing. She saw the tension on his furrowed brow and how he had aged so much in just a few weeks.
One day at dinner she told him not to worry. She had been there before. She knew exactly how he felt.
Who’s best placed to console a person whose country has been invaded? Someone who’s been in the same situation.
She told him that her country, Poland, had been invaded in 1939 and that too on two fronts by Germany and Russia. She was in London then, away from her own family and like him, everyday she worried the same worries, had the same sleepless nights, the same tension headaches.
London had a small Polish community in the 1940s and when the war started, they had, under Sikorsky a Polish Government in exile. There were even Polish servicemen who took roles in the Battle of Britain (‘303 Squadron’) and in the D Day Landings. They had provided her family back in occupied Poland comfort that there was still a free Poland. And her family took comfort that if the Nazi’s had split them up, they all knew how to get back together again, at Edith Grove, in London. At Memosa’s. She could reunite them.
She told him he too would have such a role. He should stay strong. His family may depend on him.
Solace and empathy are always therapy. More so in times of war. They lifted my father. They kept him going in his darkest hours.
On 21 November 1962 my father heard news on the radio: the Chinese army, despite advances against the Indian army, suddenly announced a unilateral ceasefire. It was a perplexing move. He ran to book a phone call with his mother; he didn’t care how much the phone call cost. Freedom has no price.
By the time the letters from his mother had arrived, letters written weeks before in times of turmoil, the Chinese armies were well back to the pre-invasion border.
I wish I had asked my father more about this part of this life before he passed away. But much of our own personal histories are lost as we study and know more about the histories of others, of ancient Kings and Queens of old for whom we have little sentiment.
I have no photos of my father’s Polish family and I learned about them from scraps of facts gleaned over half a century of half-finished conversations to form a blog post of 1,000 words, prompted by a happenstance down a London side-street. Even the spellings of their names may be wrong, they are just the way they sounded when my father said them to me.
But what hasn’t changed is the sentiment with which my father spoke of them, of the mutual affection, of the strength he got from Memosa, those words of comfort in a time of war.
He moved out of the basement room in Edith Grove shortly afterwards and three months after the invasion, he returned to Assam to marry my mum the pilot, and soon they were both on a ship to Liverpool and then on a train to London. The first people he took her to see were Memosa, Yanuska and Memo and they treated her to a huge Polish meal. They treated her like a daughter-in-law.
Of course they would. This was his other family. His Polish family .