This story is drawn from the interview with Duncan Ross by Eithne Nightingale as part of her research into child migration to East London.
The Brown Sheep of the Family
Duncan’s family lived on the first floor of a block of flats where a leper used to sleep in the doorway. “It wasn’t the poorest area… it was middle of the road Calcutta.”
Duncan experienced the street from the first floor balcony as he was not allowed to play outside. He remembers the clamour of the chai sellers, lean rickshaw pullers, trams with overhead wires, bicycles tottering under heavy loads and Hindu festivals. “Holi, holi… oh, it scared the wits out of me. A huge wonderful, colourful, chaotic mess, where people would throw coloured powder and coloured water at each other. It was an anarchy and we were very controlled.”
The flat was on a borderline between the Hindu and Muslim communities and riots were common.“This was post partition. Hindus and Muslims had got on brilliantly beforehand. [Sighs] Ah, bless you lot, with respect, partition happened, Britain withdrew, high and dry, countries are split. It never did get sorted, really.”
The location of the flat meant that Duncan experienced more terrifying sights than people throwing coloured paints at each other and Hindu goddesses with too many arms. “There were people who would get wheelbarrows, open the manholes, load rotting bodies on, wheel them about and demand money to take them away from outside your house.”
One day Duncan watched a boy being pulled off his bike and killed. “Whether he was Hindu or Muslim, I don’t know.” Duncan was pulled back into the flat and sat back shaking, cradling his trembling dog. Duncan still suffers from flashbacks from that incident – “a hand with the whole palm covered in blood…. as a child you don’t have the means to deal with this stuff.”
One day the riots were particularly bad so his family urged his mother not to go to work. Ignoring the warning she left the house hoping the official flag of her chauffeur-driven car would provide some protection. But “the car was surrounded by very violent rioting youths who gave the driver two options, ‘One you stay in the car and we burn you all to death, all the women and you, or you get out and we kill you.’ So he (the driver) had the presence of mind to put his foot on the accelerator and plough his way through the mob.”
Duncan’s mother escaped with her life but the incident changed the direction of all their lives. “And I have this clear memory…..of my mum, who was really quite a timid woman, coming home, standing in the doorway, icy cold, determined, saying, ‘I’m leaving. You can come with me if you want, or you can stay here. Enough.’”
As they prepared to leave for the ‘motherland’ Duncan became more and more excited. “I knew there would be a thatched cottage. I knew I would have a garden to play in.” Two years after the incident when his mother was nearly killed the family crossed India by train and embarked on a PO liner. Their ship was near the end of the last convoy to go through the Suez Canal before the Suez crisis erupted. “And the left side was all desert and the right side was green …and men on horseback with guns. It was all terribly exciting. This was, oh, the peak, the pinnacle. Britain, going to Britain”
A friend picked up the family from Tilbury Dock on a cold September day in 1956 and they all drove to Clapton. On the way an excited eight year-old Duncan bombarded his parents with questions.“Can I play in the garden when we get there?” “Will there be smoke coming out of the chimney?” “Will there be, will there be…?”
Duncan soon realized his future was not going to be as he imagined. “I remember my head pressed up against the taxi window and the total silence in the cab. And the growing up that happened between Tilbury Dock and Clapton. All this processing in my little eight year old mind.”
Duncan walked up dark stairs to a Clapton flat. “It wasn’t this thatched cottage. It was basically one room, and another room which was best, which we never used, and a kitchen.”
Five years later the family were able to put a mortgage down on a house without a thatched roof near Clapton station. Duncan had, not only his own bedroom, but a garden where he could put up his huge six-foot telescope, something he keeps to this day.
Duncan went to Northwold Primary School where he did well. His education at the prestigious La Martiniere school in Calcutta served him well. He then went onto Hackney Downs where over half the students were Jewish. School was everything to him and he, along with his friends, thrived academically. “We were East End kids. It didn’t mean we had patched, ragged trousers and went core blimey. We were bright, but East End kids.”
Joe Brearley, the deputy head teacher who taught Russian O level, was just one of the teachers who inspired not only Duncan, but Harold Pinter, a former pupil.“He (Joe Brearley) taught us the instrumental case in Russ, by him getting the whole class up, walking us around Hackney Downs in the snow, plonking an instrument with us, chanting the endings, ‘som, soi, som, sami.” Over 50 years Duncan has still not forgotten the instrumental case in Russian.
Duncan’s complexion was darker than that of his parents and sister, something he was unaware of until he came to Britain.“I didn’t know in India I was brown….my mum and dad and sister basically are white. I’m clearly brown, so way, way, way back, way back somewhere almost certainly there was an Indian woman. It would never have been an Indian man who would dared to have taken up with an English woman.”
As the, “brown sheep of the family” he experienced a level of racism in Clapton unknown in Calcutta.
It was many years before Duncan took an active interest in his Indian heritage.”I didn’t go back to India for 47 years and I then realised I’d been having flashbacks of looking out our balcony window…I had to go back three times over the three visits. And finally, got it into my head that actually there’s a road barrier where that boy was. He isn’t being killed anymore.” He has also returned to the place where he believes his mother’s car was surrounded in the riots.
Duncan’s early experiences have given him some insight into what other young migrants might have suffered.“Some of our Somali lads, who first came over, kept themselves to themselves. And I had this heart and feeling for them. They wouldn’t speak to me, but just thinking you guys have seen some awful, awful stuff as children, you know.”
Those early experiences have also influenced his approach as a Church of England priest. “Growing up along all these fault lines, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, non-Christian, Catholic, there was a determination in me somewhere, and I never knew I was going to be a priest, that never ever would I do anything to foster division.”
Despite his popularity and the respect with which he is held in East London Duncan still feels that he has never totally belonged, that he will be rumbled one day. “That the ice I walk on is quite thin, and when Farage starts, and you see people gathering ..I just suddenly feel, there’s a horrible feeling they’re going to send me back.”
You can hear Duncan and excerpts from his story below and on Soundcloud. You can also read Duncan’s blog post describing his involvement with this project.