My grandmother lived to the age of 101, but for me what defined her most were the years she spent in India during the Second World War. As a child I plagued her with questions about this exotic interlude, made all the more remarkable by the air of quiet conventionality that she exuded in later life.
In the sitting-room of her small house in the town where I was born, her white hair carefully curled, she passed round biscuits and poured tea, stirring gently with a silver teaspoon as she asked me about school, then college, then university. It was hard to imagine that she had once been my age, and that two years later at the age of 28 she had boarded a ship headed east, and said goodbye to her family for the foreseeable future.
She was born in the winter of 1914, just as the first war was beginning, to a family of prosperous farmers in Worcestershire. I had long assumed that it was the second war that had jolted her out of her provincial existence, but I was wrong. She told me that by the late 1930s she had already done her training as a nurse and in fact was planning to go west, to the prairies of the United States, where nurses were in short supply. She would have travelled between towns on horseback, dispensing medicine and bandages to grateful pioneer folk. ‘It all sounded terribly romantic!’ she said, smoothing the napkin on her lap.
But then the war came, and immediately it was clear that she was needed elsewhere. The nurses on the troopship going east were unsure where they were headed, but when the news came through that Singapore had fallen they knew that India was their destination.
India! The story of her time there was told in snippets. She had to be pressed to recall significant events, although she would occasionally mention, offhand, an anecdote about her experiences, through which I built up a vague timeline. The main facts of the matter were these. She had worked as a nurse in India for almost four years, in several locations in
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