In 1956 I spent my sixth birthday on a ship travelling to Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon). My Anglo-Indian father was in the British Royal Air Force (RAF) and we had been posted to RAF Katunayake – now the site of Bandaranaike International airport near Colombo. Sri Lanka had become independent from the UK in 1948, but the newly-elected socialist government that year had accelerated the withdrawal of external defence forces, and my father was to assist with the handover between the RAF and the Royal Ceylon Air Force. We were to live there for three years.
At the time we lived on an air base called Upavon in Wiltshire, and I was used to families leaving the camp, the children with name labels. Now it was to be us: mum, dad my brother Ken aged two and a half, and myself. I remember a very long and tiring journey to Liverpool to catch the ship and a night spent in a hotel, where I was ill. The boat was named the SS Prome and it was a cargo-passenger ship that sailed from Liverpool to Australia via Rangoon in Burma. The usual shipping route was through the Suez Canal, but this was closed for the Suez Crisis of 1956, making for a very long journey that sailed around the continent of Africa. My mother used to say ‘..it took 51 days and I was seasick for 49 of them!…’. She had a dreadful time and after our return by boat in 1960, never again travelled by boat except for a journey on the Isle of Wight ferry in the UK, just 40 minutes long.
Travelling by ship was exciting for us children, and we were not sea sick. We did not mind the rough seas of the Bay of Biscay that enabled us to slide on the floor from one side of the cabin to the other. I had to attend morning school classes run by volunteers, where my father taught the geography lessons. This left plenty of time for fun and games. There were a few other expatriate children going to Sri Lanka to live and I made friends. The decks and lifeboats made great hiding places and dens.
We watched the crew celebrating crossing the equator by dressing up as King Neptune and others, and throwing each other into a makeshift pool. We were delighted to see the tropical fish the crew caught, and we got some time on dry land when the boat called at ports such as Cape Town in South Africa and Aden in Yemen. I also had my first (and only) experience of sexual abuse – very mild thank goodness and not in the least damaging, but I do remember it. Sailors on the ship would expose themselves to us small girls, and ask us to touch them. I remember refusing and running away, thinking it was weird, but I can’t remember telling anyone, or that it happened frequently. Only as an adult did I recognise it for what it was.
Sri Lanka was a culture shock, mainly because of the poverty we encountered, with beggars everywhere and diseases like leprosy and elephantiasis rampant. We were less cocooned than if we lived on the air force camp, which was a good thing as we learned about privilege and inequality.
We loved our time there. For my mother, it was more like the way she had lived at home in Karachi, with warm weather, a good social life and domestic help in the house, including babysitting in the evenings. For the only time in her married life, she also worked part-time on the air force camp, and I am sure this contributed to her happiness. As my father was on secondment from the RAF to the Ceylon air force, we did not live on the base camp itself for most of our stay, although I went to school there and my brother attended kindergarten part-time. We were in a malaria zone but all escaped the disease, probably thanks to the diligent (but toxic) DDT spraying that happened regularly. My only recall of medical treatment was after I had been bitten by a dog and needed a tetanus injection, and being taken into hospital for a couple of nights with suspected dysentery.
Joining school aged six gave me another first and thankfully rare experience of direct racism from a teacher. Miss Wilson did not like me and I could not understand why, when I was an enthusiastic student and could read well. I remember eventually thinking it must be because my skin was a different colour from hers and the majority of children in the school. Her anger at me when I accidentally closed a toilet door on another child’s fingers, and the injustice I felt at being accused of deliberately hurting her, remains with me still. But mostly school was good and I did well so escaped the corporal punishment that was a regular occurrence in schools at that time. I made a lifelong friend, another RAF girl of Indian Goan background, and that made me happy. There were Chinese families we mixed with as well as the English. We got to know the restaurant owners and our favourite family meal out was to have fish and chips and pineapple juice at a Chinese restaurant.
We had a number of homes outside the main RAF camp. The first house we lived in was basic and we spent our first Christmas there. I only remember three things; the bed collapsing; getting a doll in a cot for a present, and the kindness of our neighbours bringing us string hoppers (a kind of steamed rice flour pancake) for breakfast. At another house I remember an English neighbour who constantly shouted at her two boys; the beautiful bulbul birds in our garden; and cutting my hand badly when helping my mum peel potatoes. At one of the homes we stayed long enough to make local friends. Our neighbours were a family from Mauritius with children our age, and we spent hours playing together. My brother and I inherited a dog with the house, and adopted his female stray mate. Buster and Whisky became our loving friends and had more than one litter of puppies. We had a gas fridge – a luxury in the 1950s, but our water came from a well and lighting from kerosene lamps. The wildlife was amazing. We lived next to a copra yard so were regularly visited by cobra snakes, mongoose and terrifyingly large and noisy beetles as the house had no mesh screening. We kept chickens for food, and as well as our two dogs we had a pet chipmunk, mynah bird and parrot. We had a cook, a gardener and a nanny who were all Sinhalese Buddhists. One evening my parents came home from a night out to find Charlotte our nanny sitting down in the house nursing a scorpion bite. Her beliefs meant she would not kill the creature and she had not been able to seek help. My parents had to get rid of the scorpion and arrange medical treatment for her.
The coast was nearby and we spent time on the beach, though it was not a tourist place then but a working stretch of water. We had a lovely holiday with a friend of my parents’ who had a car and drove us to Kandy and Nuwara Eliya in the hills. We visited sacred Buddhist sites, beautiful gardens and were intrigued at needing to wear a cardigan in the cool evenings; the only time in three years.
Sri Lanka was quite close to where some members of my mother’s and my father’s family lived at the time, and we had an adventure at the end of 1957 when we flew on an aeroplane to attend my aunt and uncle’s wedding in Karachi. I was a flower girl and during our visit I met my great-grandmother on my mother’s side, and stayed in the flat where my mother had lived until she married my father and came to England. This was the one and only time I connected with my mother’s past and it was memorable. Later, we had the pleasure of visits from my grandmother from Karachi, and my dad’s brother, sister in law and two children from Chennai. A few years later in 1962 the majority of my mother and father’s families came to the UK, arriving just before the British government put in place restrictive immigration laws that would have kept them out, despite having British passports.
Our journey back to the UK after three years was much shorter, as the Suez Canal was open. It took just three weeks and we sailed on what felt like a luxury liner, the SS Orcades. This was a ship that regularly made the journey between Australia and the UK, taking ‘£10 poms’ – those (whites only) citizens with assisted passages going to make a new life in Australia. We had a member of staff allocated to our family, who took care of us and amused us as children. We visited Egypt and spent a long day in Naples where we visited Pompeii and Sorrento, a cameo factory and ate the most delicious doughnuts I can ever remember. We saw snow in Marseilles in France and returned home to 1960’s England in the winter.
On returning we lived with my aunt and uncle in Twickenham London for six months whilst waiting for accommodation at our next posting in North Devon. I attended school aged nine and remember being puzzled when some of the children in the class treated me as an outsider, because of my skin colour and also because I had returned from Sri Lanka. A couple of years later aged 11, I was also puzzled and hurt at the hostile comments I received on an essay I wrote about my time in Sri Lanka. For example, I had written about drinking juice from a fresh king coconut and scooping and eating the flesh from inside, and my teacher said I should have explained what a king coconut was, but wrote it in a hostile way. This was 1962, but on an Air Force base where the children were regular travellers, so I feel I was treated more harshly than others for being an ‘outsider’.
This experience of living overseas was to be the only one we had as a family. We were due to be posted again within five years, but my father had two severe heart attacks in 1964 which meant he had to leave the air force and take up a civilian job. However, those three years had been formative for me as a child and so we were pleased that history repeated itself and we were able to spend three years in Solomon Islands when our daughter was between three and six years old. Those years have proved formative for her as well.