An Englishwoman's search for people and places that might be connected with her grandmother, born in Vepery in 1902. Vaishna Roy catches up with Susan Clark
When Susan Clark and I fix up a meeting over the phone, she tells me she’ll be the large white woman; I tell her I’ll be the small brown one. That settled, when we finally sit down across cups of coffee, she tells me the story of how her very British great-grandparents decided to cross the seas and settle down in hot and faraway Madras. It’s a common enough story but no less nostalgic for that, and Susan is part of a legion of English people who come to India looking for their roots; for graves, homes or other reminders of their forebears from the Raj era.
Susan has brought with her beautiful pictures from the family albums, sepia-tinted images of an era gone by — horse-drawn buggies with footmen in attendance, stunning bungalows, or posing with the ayah’s children in traditional paavadai-sattai.
She has not been very lucky in her search — not one of the lovely houses or gardens can be traced today. The scribbled notes on the backs of the fading pictures just say Vepery, or name the studio as R. Venkiah Bros., not really much to go on.
When Ellen and Herbert Lakin arrived in Madras in 1900, Herbert took up a job in Brady Textiles (which I tried googling but drew a blank) and a house in Vepery. Their two children were Edith and Herbert. And Susan is Edith’s grand-daughter. None of these lines were so clearly drawn when Susan embarked on this trip and it took an aunt (one of those genealogically inclined ones that every family has) to remind her.
Now in Madras, Susan talks of how the images she encounters everyday stir memories of her grandmother — stories heard as a child; showcases with ivory elephants or wooden horses; or even a certain way her grandmother’s rooms were decorated.
“Her home was always full of beautiful fabrics. I see colourful tablecloths and drapes and I remember them in her home.”
We peer at the photographs and wonder how Ellen and Herbert could have possibly endured those high stiff collars, those full lacy sleeves, and the corsets in the heat of Madras.
And when they went back to cold, wet Manchester in the 1920s, to a post-War England, it must have been another culture shock. No more carriages and bungalows, banquets, ayahs or glorious sunshine but the reality of queues, rations and endless grey rain. In fact, says Susan, her grandmother Edith got the reputation of being a bit of an oddity with her talk of mansions and servants and suchlike.
Susan inherited from her grandmother a little box of trinkets, which she hoarded but never really paid much attention to.
“Now in Chennai, when I see the women around, I realise how many of those pieces are from here,” she says. Beads, seeds and shells, Susan is finally able to put a name to her baubles. And it’s clear that she is charmed by this whole remembrance of things past that she is doing on this trip.
I leave her busily making plans to see if she can find a mention of her grandparents in the old wedding registry at St. Mary’s Church.