When Reginald Cartwright arrived in London it was a wet foggy day. Smoke was mixed with the fog from thousands of fires lit to keep the cold at bay and there was an acidic taint to the air that Reg later learned was from factories spread through the length and breadth of the city. What a contrast to the sunshine and colourful atmosphere of his India. He’d seen poverty firsthand in his childhood days but was surprised to find poverty was present in England his parents had described in such positive terms. There was an unacknowledged caste system of a different kind here. It was social rather than religious.
They’d described the greenery and beauty of the country well he had to admit it was beautiful as his relatives who’d met him at the docks took him onward for the trip to Oxford where they maintained their major residence. They maintained a residence in London as well and often stayed there to enjoy dances and entertainment for the rich. Their servants had a different culture and there were lots of them, so his Father’s brother had obviously done well during his years with the East India Company.
The Colonel’s brother ruled his household with a rod of iron and his cousins were kept on a tight rein, particularly the girls. Reg felt the displeasure of his Uncle on many occasions until he learned to adjust to English culture. His heart ached for his home and family in India. Uncle arranged for him to be billeted in one of the residence halls at Oxford and it was there he learned what it was like to be a junior student and slave to the senior students. Teachers were exacting expecting nothing but the highest performance from classes. Only the best of the best was good enough at Oxford.
Reg pushed himself into the academic and sports programs at Oxford as a counter to his unhappiness. His Mother would write to him frequently, but letters would arrive months after the events described had passed. He was surprised to learn in one of these letters Shireen had been persuaded to let Titali go on to St John’s Girls Higher Secondary School in Calcutta a newly established school run by a missionary woman. The same tutor that had guided Reg in his foundational studies had been used to educate Titali when she was of young age but in India of those times it was not usual for girls to receive more than basic education. He was even more surprised on his nineteenth birthday to receive a letter from Titali in excellent English expression wishing a happy birthday to her brother and asking if he intended to remain in England or return to India. It was formal but it bought back happy memories of their time growing up together. He wondered if Uncle Shireen as he knew him from childhood would be making plans for her marriage. She was three years younger than he was and at that age it was custom that a serious proposal should have already been forthcoming.
Reg had pushed himself academically as he yearned for the sunshine and culture of what he was sure was to be his lifetime home and could now see graduation on the horizon within the year. He wrote to his parents and asked them to arrange for his trip home and assured them he’d come back with a degree granting him the opportunity of public service there. British political control had been taken from the East India Company earlier and a degree from England would sit well as he sought employment in the service of the Raj. This time his Father wrote back welcoming the soon to be return of his son and assuring him he’d use his influence to seek employment for him.
It was at this point the Colonel’s brother made some written suggestions. An Englishman needed an English woman as a wife to avoid being tempted by the local women many of whom could be beautiful and desirable, but it was improper. The Colonel hadn’t thought about marriage and asked his brother what suggestions he had and if these could be passed on with full details of the English women being recommended. Having received those, he wrote to his son recommending he meet these women and see if he had any interest in any of them.
Reg was horrified at the thought of getting married. It had not entered his mind at all. Any attempts by young ladies in the Oxford area to get his interest hadn’t been reciprocated as he sought to finish studies early. Girl cousins had been conscripted as go between, but Reg had laughed at their suggestions until they gave up trying.
This greatly frustrated his Uncle who communicated his unhappiness to the Colonel. Colonel Cartwright shrugged off his brother’s displeasure. If Reg wasn’t ready that could wait until he was inclined to marry.
The remaining months under his Uncles guardianship were strained and it was with a great deal of relief Reg waved his cousins off from London as the ship left for its forward trip to India. His excitement grew with each day closer to Bombay and even the occasional severe storms on the way didn’t dampen his enthusiasm. He was heading home.
At last after lengthy travel his straining eyes could see a dim outline of the Indian coast in the distance and he watched transfixed as that shoreline grew more pronounced until the settlement of Bombay loomed on the horizon. Within hours of that first sighting the ship was docking while he looked anxiously for any family member who may have been there to meet him.
On the dock there was one person he recognized. It was Uncle Shireen still standing tall and proud but with a tinge of white hair beginning to show. He looked anxiously to see if his Mother or Father were there.
It took a couple of hours for luggage to be unloaded and passengers permitted to disembark. He directed coolies to where his uncle was standing waiting and without hesitation stooped to touch Shireen’s feet as a mark of respect. Shireen pulled him up with a smile.
“You are now Sahib not chota Sahib. Sahibs don’t do that.” But Shireen was deeply moved with this display of affection. England had not spoiled him.
“Is my Father and Mother alright Uncle? I thought they may come to meet me.”
“Your Mother was too unwell to accompany me this time and your Father is out of station dealing with some issues on the border. I should have been with him, but he requested me to welcome you home so we must hasten on our long journey home so I can join him. He will need my help with the tribal insurrection.”
Within a week and through many forms of transportation they were home in Dehradun and Reg rushed through the doorway asking the servants where his Mother was. They pointed to her bedroom. The servants had informed Noorzia of her husband’s arrival and she met Reg in the hallway smiling broadly. “I must see to my husband’s needs as he prepares to leave to join your father. Titali will care for your Mother while I’m away.
As he entered the room he gasped in surprise. Titali was no longer a child but a well-developed beautiful woman. He stopped in his tracks to look at her. It had been five years and that five years had produced a miracle. Titali smiled the smile of a woman who knew who she was and was proud of it. She greeted him in English. “Hello brother! I hope your trip was not too difficult. Welcome home.”
His Mother raised herself from the bed and studied him as he took in the beauty of womanhood Titali now revealed. She smiled. “Welcome home Son, I think I have the fever so you should not come nearer. Isn’t Titali beautiful?”
Reg stammered as he replied. “She really is Mother!” He offered namaste to his Mother and then turned to Titali again offering namaste.
Titali was pleased with his reaction. She spoke softly with the lilting English of her Calcutta education. I need to apply remedies to your Mother so perhaps you should go as we need to do that in private. I will look forward to meeting you later.
To be continued
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