The BBC followed Ashra and her family from their home in the U.K. to India as part of the Documentary ‘Passengers’ recounting the story of Indians arriving in the 1950’s. Ashra shares her story:
Its been at least 5 years since I lasted visited India, the place where I was born and lived my first 4 and half years of life. I wanted to catch up with my maternal uncle, who is the last surviving member of my family and is now in his eighties, still fit and every day he went to the local market to get fruit and veg on his scooter. And also to get to know the newer members of his family. As well as visiting family members from my dad’s side. My aim was to try and visit as many of my family members in India as I could on this two month trip, especially as they were not located in one place. The majority of my family in India live in the Punjab region, in Jullunder, others live in New Delhi and Himachal Pradesh in the north.
I based myself in Jullunder at my uncle’s house and the family were helpful in organising my trips.
One of my nieces used to take me to the local markets on her scooter, which was a bit scary as there is so much traffic in India, but I soon got used to it. Also there was always a member of the family who went with me, so I felt really cared for. I was also given a room to myself and it was no problem for them to make me vegan food. Uncle’s house is absolutely gorgeous, situated on the edge of the village with a huge sun roof. One of the views from the roof is of a little Hindu temple and often at night you could hear the women chanting. He shares the house with his wife, two sons and their families. It was my aunt who taught me lots of new cooking techniques and told me stories of where my brother and I played. She told me that the little house my mum grew up in still existed, it was only 15 minutes away and she had the key to it. She said that there may even be some old photographs of me, mum and dad and also my grandparents. So one afternoon I arranged a visit there with my niece. It was located in a snake-like tiny alleyway and it had a huge wooden front door. We opened the old lock with some difficulty and entered into the tiny hallway. The walls were crumbling, it was very dusty, there were lots of spider webs and yet it felt like home. We were told that the photographs could be in an upstairs bedroom, so we headed up the yellow stained stairway which led onto a tiny veranda, then up again to the two bedrooms.
There was a small old steel unlocked chest, we lifted up the heavy top and inside found school photographs of me, my sister and brothers. I am the eldest and there was one of me when I was 14 years old, smiling with me wearing my school shirt and tie. I never had a picture in my school uniform so it was such a find . We also found an old photograph of my maternal grandparents just before they died. And a college photograph of my first cousin. We shrieked with delight and quickly headed back. I couldn’t wait to show them to the family. I was able to gain a lot of information from my uncle too who told me that my mum was happy and excited to leave India to live with my dad in Liverpool. He had gone there first, and after two years had bought a house and found the funds to bring my mum, me and my 18 month younger brother over. She was only 22 years old and I thought how brave of my mum to leave her family and friends and do the journey alone on a ship which took over 3 weeks to arrive in Southampton. I remember being on the ship called the Batory in 1957 and being very sea sick too.
Since the last visit, there is now a direct flight from Birmingham to Amritsar which took only 7 hours , a very comfortable journey, unlike my last visits where I usually had to stop at least once and change flights and could take up to 15 hours, it was very exhausting.
From my uncle’s house where I visited my cousin, who lived half an hour away by scooter. My cousin has set up a men’s tailoring business within his house. It’s a three story house with a sun roof and is located right in the heart of the bustling market town. He has been a tailor since he was 15 years old and has now has a very successful business making formal trousers and jackets for the local army base not far from his house. He also makes suits for the local police force. He always has plenty of work. I used to sit with him for hours and watch how he skilfully cut the cloth and how he made intricate collars on his sewing machine. He took orders from his clients and he was so witty with them, always smiling and enjoying his work. He even had time to make some posh chef jackets in traditional embroidered material for my son who owns an urban street food business in England.
My cousins wife, and her new daughter-in-law took me around the thriving small market town and showed me modern goods as well as traditional stalls of kitchenware, garments, handbags, shoes and beauty parlours. This market town sold everything and at the end of the street was a big fruit and veg market, which we visited every day, so the food was always fresh. We always had fresh coconut juice from the big green coconuts. I really enjoyed this market town and every day there was so much to see.
I often went to Jullunder City Centre on the scooter with my neice Kimmi. She showed me the new western designer shops and new shopping malls and I saw loads of pizza and burger places, so different to five years ago. It was becoming so modern, and as a result the smaller traders and markets were being pushed out. I also noticed that everything was very high tech, it appears that India very much wants to mimic Engand and America. This is apparent from watching Indian television, with soap operas and ads. Fortunately we could still come across, smaller shops and stalls and street sellers, selling wonderful fabrics, spices, bangles and hand carved furniture. There are still lots of old buildings, with huge wooden doors and petal shaped windows as well as lots of old temples.
My visit to the Himalayan mountains in Himachal to see yet another family was wonderful. It was a four hour journey by car, every view was spectacular, with lots of white faced monkeys sitting on the side of the road waiting to be fed. The weather was much cooler too, which made a delightful change from the heat and pollution of Punjab. My cousin’s house overlooked a huge field full of wild flowers with a pond in the centre. From the back of her small house you could see the white diamond shaped mountains covered in snow, and you felt that you could touch them. It was here that I visited Dharmshala which is surrounded by cedar forests on the edge of the Himalays and is the home to the Dalai Lama and saw many beautiful Tibetan temples and monasteries. I also visited a place nearby called Achar Kund Dham.
Devotees visit this Hindu Temple and bathe in the waterfall located at the top of the temple to seek fulfilment and relief from disease. My mother made a trek from Punjab and bathed at this holy place when she was pregnant with me. She had lost two babies before me and was advised by a guru to go to ensure that I survived. So as you can imagine it was a very emotional trip for me and I stood next to the waterfall, feeling the cold splashes of water on my feet and cheeks and feeling my mothers prescence.
My mother then soon after made the journey by ship to England. Very recently and out of the blue, a BBC film producer contacted me to ask if I would take part in a three part documentary called ‘Passenger’ which is about how Indian families arrived by ship to the UK to settle and stories of how they did this. The BBC had found my mothers name and my name as well as my younger brother on the 1957 Passenger List of the Batory ship which sailed from India to England. This was so exciting, as my brother and I were filmed, outside our old house in Bootle, Liverpool, the Liverpool docks, and our local beach where my dad used to sell ice cream. Our parents would have been so proud of us being part of this important historical documentary. It will be shown on BBC in July or August, so do look out for the journey of the Burman family!
Ashra Kumari Burman