OPINION Alys Conran

NWR Issue r31

Dignity: a Letter

Dignity is published on 4 April.

Although many of the social and historical aspects of Dignity come from family experience and other primary and secondary sources, none of its characters are from life. My father’s life, however, ghosts these pages in many ways, though he doesn’t appear in the book. I wrote it whilst grieving for him deeply.

My dad was born in Kharagpur, then ‘British Bengal’. My grandfather was an engineer on the Indian railways and he and my grandmother lived there until just pre-independence. My dad had cerebral palsy and would never have been able to follow his father as an officer of the Raj, even had it continued. Instead of being schooled towards such a career and status, he was brought up by maternal grandparents in Colwyn Bay, north Wales, was sent for a period to a girls school and – though he was well loved and popular – was not really expected to live an independent life or have a family and be successful. His parents still lived in India: he only saw his mother every two years and was unable to see her or his father at all during the whole of WW2.

Perhaps because of being exiled from their colonial British experience, my father turned to Welsh culture as a place of resistance. He became an accomplished poet and a very-esteemed translator of Welsh poetry, and he and my mother brought me up to be a Welsh speaker.

As a kind of counterbalance, I also spent a lot of time with my paternal grandmother, who by then lived nearby: her strange, ex-memsahib habits fascinated me. But from a very young age, hearing her talk about her life during the time of the Raj from my own Welsh perspective made me critical of the way ‘The Empire’ told its story. Later, studying in Edinburgh and Barcelona, my canon of reading became a mixture of minority language literatures and postcolonial writing, which told an entirely different tale: this is what made Dignity politically what it is. While I was writing the book, the referendum on leaving the EU happened, and with it came a terrifying resurgence of the kind of dangerous rhetoric the empire had used, which I recognised so well. What to do about the dehumanising logic of colonialism?

As my father became increasingly paralysed in my late teens and early twenties, our home was, for over fifteen years, full of carers, district nurses, occupational therapists, social workers. The relationships between carers and the cared for are stranger, more intimate, more conflicted and more alive than is usually acknowledged. My father, a funny, vivacious man, became close to many of his carers, and to one of them in particular.
Shallu, a young Punjabi girl of tiny stature and great mirth, was a national level judo player, a keen motor-biker and an absolute force of nature: she put friendship first and didn’t do decorum, health and safety, timetables, formalities of any kind. Their friendship was a source of vital joy to him at the end of his life, and meant a lot to Shallu too, I know. They never stopped laughing together.

She also talked about India to him, cooked him amazing dhal, and made him scrapbooks of pictures and things to look at. Something in this eighty-year-old man had been damaged long ago by that early separation from his parents and from an ayah he couldn’t really remember, and he still smarted at the ways the empire denied lives like his that didn’t fit. Shallu’s easy intimacy with him, and the ways in which she was so uncompromisingly herself, seemed to take him full circle somehow. A kind of narrative healing from which this book would grow.

A few months before he died I went to West Bengal, feeling as if I was carrying a part of him with me as I traced my grandparents’ footsteps and started to write the first bits of material that would become Dignity. We had one last dhal with Shallu after I came home, and a month or so later he was gone.

Shallu became the first female Indian biker to complete the country’s toughest races.

May they both ride on.

Novelist and poet Alys Conran is the author of Dignity and Pigeon. Eluned Gramich assesses the novel in this audio review.

Published with kind permission of Weidenfeld & Nicolson


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