A ‘Strictly Personal’ Common Experience

Recently I was reading ‘Strictly Personal’ an account of the lives of Dr. Manmohan Singh and Mrs. Gurcharan Singh, by their daughter Daman Singh.

The-then Mr. Manmohan Singh went to Oxford in the early ‘60s. He was joined in a few months by his wife and daughter. He was there for about 2 years. He was there to do his Ph.D

My father went to London in the early ‘60s, He was joined in a few months by his wife and children. He was there for about 2 years. He was deputed there by the Defence Research and Development Organization to train at the Royal Marsden Hospital, towards helping in the operationalization of the Institute of Nuclear Medicine and Allied Sciences (INMAS), which was to be involved in nuclear medicine research, and response to nuclear accidents and explosions.

What amazed me was the commonality between the experience that the book talks about, and the stories which are a part of my family history.

First and foremost, the travails of living on a very limited budget. It was literally hand-to-mouth! My mother recalls that at times, there were not enough pennies to put into the home-heater, and we all spent the day huddled in our woollies. The free milk that my brother and I were eligible for as children was a major saviour. It was not that the pay and allowances were so bad (they were not generous, but adequate). It was that they simply did not come for the first 3 months, till the bureaucratic wheels started moving. And even after, the money came in by fits and starts. One incident which was etched deep into my parents’ memories was a visit to Veerasway, UK’s oldest Indian restaurant. Yearning for other-than-home Indian food, they, with the two of us in tow, ventured in one day. Only to beat a hasty retreat on learning that the cover charge was £ 1 per head!

The book quotes Mrs, Singh as saying ‘We were quite hard up. I don’t know how many pounds a week we got. We had to survive within that. It was not a great, handsome scholarship.’

To the question ‘did you wear Western clothes?’ Mrs. Singh responds ‘No, no, no, never.’ But at least she may have worn salwar kameez. My poor mother stuck to saries through the freezing windy days, walking through hail and snow to the shops or to drop or pick up my brother from the school bus. I fully attribute her getting arthritis by the age of 35 to this exposure to the terrible cold and wet.

Food may have been a bigger problem for my strictly vegetarian family. My mother, on one of her initial trips to the super market, brought home margarine, which an English friend had suggested as a cheaper substitute for butter. It was only after her return home that she read the packaging and realized it was made from pork fat. The trauma stayed with her for life!

The Singhs lived in Oxford. Apart from one trip to London and one to Stratford-upon-Avon, they saw nothing of England. Maybe to that extent we were luckier. Living in London, we at least got to see the sights there—the few family pics taken with my father’s precious camera bought there show us at Trafalgar Square, outside the Buckingham Palace, the Tower, Westminster Abbey etc. The penguin show and the Chimpanzees’ Tea Party (discontinued in the ‘70s) were the highlights of the zoo visit.

The SInghs did not have a TV, and went to a neighbour’s to watch. We did have a television and the show that my parents talked about, which still sticks in my memory is ‘Saturday Night at the London Palladium’, a long-running variety show.

Peter Rabbit Milk Mug
My Peter Rabbit Milk Mug: A Precious Relic

Equally, the things they chose to buy and bring back. Both Mrs. Singh and my mother brought back Baby Belling ovens—a part of British history. The Belling company was established in 1912 and manufactured electric heaters. The first complete domestic electric cooker was made in 1919 and the first Baby Belling oven was manufactured in 1929. The company still exists but is not the gold standard for ovens that it obviously was in mid twentieth century. The other significant item to accompany the Singhs back were three saucepans. In my parents’ case, it was a mixie—a Braun Liquidizer, if I recall. This was my mother’s most precious possession. In fact, when a mischievous visiting child was on the verge of pushing it over, she caught the machine, and her hand was badly slashed, requiring stiches! Mrs. Singh’s oven served her for 3 decades, as did my mother’s mixie!

I think this would be the story of all professionals who went to the UK in those days. But interesting to see that a PM’s family and mine were in the same straits! (We were in other similar ‘straits’, more about which next week.)

In today’s world, all this sounds so strange! Life is so international today, our exposure is great, that nothing really comes as a surprise even when we go to the farthest part of the world. Purchasing power is not a problem, except maybe when there are threats of taxing international credit card payments. Not only are we more international in our eating, Indian food of every variety is available everywhere.

But how did they handle it back then—landing in a country familiar only through books, with few support systems or networks, with little money, inadequate warm clothes, unfamiliar food. They were certainly adventurous, maybe much more than we are today!


One thought on “A ‘Strictly Personal’ Common Experience

  1. Nostalgia!!! Coincidences!! Life time experiences and memories to cherish! Feeling good after reading just because had a chance for 10 day trip to London that includes a visit to Oxford. A flashback of memories.

    Liked by 1 person

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