My mother has dementia. Fiercely independent, she lives in conditions that healthy people might call squalid. She has not been well for the last couple of weeks. She has chest and urinary infections and, though she protests otherwise, it is clear that she has not been eating or drinking, She will cheerfully tell me that she has made her porridge for breakfast or masala rice for her lunch and she probably believes that this is the truth. In fact her condition is such that she probably actually believes what she is telling me.
As I write, my mother is “blocking” a bed in the surgical ward of our local hospital, having been admitted from A&E yesterday. She is utterly frustrated. More so since, as I discovered this afternoon, somehow her hearing aid has gone missing and her precious lifeline to any sense of reality has been cut. Apparently, she is medically “stable” and ready to be discharged but in fact if she refuses to eat or drink and cannot remember whether or not she has taken her medication, it is difficult to know how her care can be managed until I can take her to India next week. She wants to come and live with me and is furious that I will not say yes to this. I can understand how awful things must be for her.
But yesterday, when I cast an eye over her filthy sofa cushions, trying to decide what she should take to hospital, I found this letter tucked away in the corner. A scrap of pale blue airmail paper, amazingly well preserved for 53 years. I’d never seen it before and it moved me profoundly. It was written in 1961 when my mother was 26, on the P&O ship S.S. Strathnaver, on her way to join my father, who had moved to the UK as a student 9 years previously. He had gone back to India to find a bride, seen her ad in the paper, married within days and then left again for the UK. My mother had no idea what awaited her in the UK. She has always said that she was ready to work to fund her return home if my dad had not been at Tilbury to meet her. This is what she wrote in what, we should remember, was then her third language, to a man she barely knew:
I received your letter of 20th and am eagerly waiting for receiving from you another which I will have towards evening when the ship will reach to Marselles. One thing I want to let you know beforehand that I am having two baggages with me, I will reach to Tilbury Dock at 12.45pm, Those who are travelling independently will disembark first that means at 3.30pm, so I will allow to get down at 3.30pm. As you told I did not purchased any ticket for London and it is good that if you will reach to meet me at Tilbury towards 3pm. Don’t you think so?
I purchased cigars, widies (on ship) and the rest things you have told me but I am sorry that I could not help myself in purchasing the Camera you want, as you know I hardly collected 75 Rs with me. I could not ask to your father as well as my father too. Whatever I owes, I managed to start with that only. Howsoever my father gave me 100 Rs intime. Really speaking I don’t want to explain all this at all but I hope you will agree that the essential things I ought to buy I spend money.
Did you get the remaining sum back from Cooks? We have the problem what hour and when to be returned. You can return it soon. I know that I must not worry but when I seems a thing is to be done (especiall of money) I starts thinking over that. I am your partner, no? Then it is clear that I too must partake the problem which you have to solve.
I left Port Said on 24th I felt sea-sick too much. For two days I was absolutely bed-ridden, no tea, no food, nothing. But now I am getting used of this sort. It is too cold outside. I had
fourthree cardigans with me, but no idea what will be there when I reach to Tilbury. Now sea is quiet and I am thinking about our future, ‘Keshav’ really I cried and cried when I left Bombay and your father too. I promised him that I will come back soon but do not know quite when!
Here on the ship everything is quite nice, (food too. Of course I am vegeterian I do not like any of that but still I realise what is an English food suppose to be, Tur Dal or Mug Dal is available there? If so will you have it so that soon I will be in our home I will manage to cook. This evening we will reach Marselles. I will get ashore just to have a look, but return soon anxiously for having your letter.
Keshav I really do not know how to express my thoughts, I want to see you, to meet you, to be with you and to be in our home but when? I am counting hours, minutes and passing my days. I am yours