Chapter 3 – Priya London
The Humphrey London family were called into conference when all sons had returned from their respective shipping journeys. It had been some time since John’s and Gita’s death but the shock of those combined deaths continued to be felt.
Priya missed her parents terribly and the first few weeks saw the child constantly distressed and losing weight. She clung to her grandfather as the only one who’d, as a regular visitor in her home spent considerable time with her. He apart from her parents was the most familiar love of her life.
Priya was not the only one who needed this closeness. Old Humphrey London felt the loss of his youngest son keenly, and Priya helped him through his agony of soul by her constant need of attention. How he wished his wife was there to support him. It seems like so long ago when she brought cheer to his life. She now lay in the family cemetery on their property.
In his grief he lost a great deal of interest in managing the shipping line. He realized that for the sake of the family it was time for him to take a less important role because of this. At the family conference which included his married daughters the mantle of leadership was passed down to the eldest son. The London family was a close one and there was mutual agreement this was the best course of action.
Out of Humphrey’s twelve children two of the sons had married Indian women of high class families and one daughter had married one of the rulers of an Indian independent kingdom. There were some of the English community in Bombay who were aghast at this and refused to socialize with the London family. But because of the important role London Shipping occupied in the colony they were generally accepted and were important contributors to the leadership of the colony and loyal subjects of a country they’d no knowledge of in spite of the fact their ancestors had plied the Thames River from earliest recorded history. The name London had originally been a reference to their ancestor’s place of river business when only single names were common, but slowly London came to be recognized as their surname.
They were however respected members of the club favoured by the military establishment, both in service and retired. Priya was a constant visitor to the club as she accompanied her grandfather everywhere he went in childhood years.
To replace Humphrey and John it was agreed to elevate two of the sister’s husbands who’d played secondary roles on their ships. There was complete agreement between the sons with these appointments. Humphrey agreed to fill in from time to time should there be a reason one of the ship captains could not fulfil their role.
But his main focus in those declining years would be Priya. He personally supervised the teachers bought in to give her the best of education. He was quite protective of her honour too. Any disparaging remarks about her olive skin would incur the wrath of the grandfather and the effective use of his walking stick. Slowly Priya was accorded the same respect due colonial masters by both foreigners and Indians alike.
John and Gita had instilled into their small child a respect for her Indian heritage and she found this to be an attitude of the London family too. The child extended this respect to servants in her grandfather’s house and they loved her in return. They’d proudly display her in the bazaars pointing to her olive skin and exclaiming, “Sahib London’s!” The bazaar vendors would crowd around her offering fruit and sweet meats examining her jet black hair and puzzling over her blue eyes. She’d been bi-lingual from childhood so had no problem switching between languages as the need arose.
The sahibs at the club would rock her on their knee and marvel over the same physical characteristics. She’d receive presents and acclaim from these different communities and felt quite comfortable in each totally oblivious to the wide differences that separated those communities in reality. But time moved on.
Then one day the London family were shocked by the realization Priya was no longer their cherished child, she was a young woman. One of the Rajas visiting Bombay viewed her as he moved around with his entourage and began to make inquiries as to her background and status. He sent a marriage proposal to Humphrey through one of his palace officers with substantial gifts.
Humphrey was momentarily lost for words. Then his knowledge of India’s timeless customs came to the rescue. To refuse the presents would be a great insult, to accept them would be tantamount to agreement with the proposal. He quickly summoned his servants and prepared equal valued gifts in return. These he handed to the disappointed court official with effusive thanks and good wishes for the Rajah. He’d consider the proposal and let them know in due course. Gift for gift exchange had neutralized obligation and left it open to considered thought.
The settlement of Bombay was rocked by the news. Each community had an opinion to give. The Indian communities in general felt this was an appropriate match. The English community was divided. Some felt that as she’d been educated and raised in their community a husband should be found for her in that community. Others felt the family should consider the proposal with favour. Humphrey as her recognized guardian spent sleepless nights thinking of what would be best for Priya’s future.
But unlike Indian custom of the times Humphrey sought to include Priya in the decision as to who she’d marry. Adjusting to a single culture in either case would be difficult for one raised without the prejudices a racial divide provided. He wanted to ensure the family decided in her best interests.
Humphrey and Priya sat in his favourite reading room that evening while he reported on his meeting with the Rajah’s court official. There was sadness in the air as they talked. Priya’s arrival at womanhood was a reminder to Humphrey he’d not be around to support and protect her forever. He knew his family would rally behind her after he was gone from the scene and that brought him some comfort.
To Priya the thought of eventually having to leave the only family she could remember from childhood depressed her. She’d been aware for some time now there’d never be any contact between her and her maternal grandparents or aunts and uncles, so this family was all she had to fall back on. She’d need to choose her future husband wisely to make sure there’d be no cut off from this family in that marriage, and realized she needed to work along with them as they made that choice together.
Her uncles and aunts visited more frequently to share the excitement and apprehension together and Priya was aware she could always count on their support no matter which direction this sudden proposal took her.
Servants of the house hung around trying to gauge the direction this could take so they could report it around in the bazaars. They conversed in whispers frequently attending to offer help for trivial excuses so they’d be the first to hear and break the news to the community.
An air of expectancy hung in the air.
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