Memories and Musings

My memories which have remained with me over so many years, coloured with my thoughts, and tempered by my experiences.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Mrs Daisy Ayre

An Englishwoman whom I admire so much. How -- having married an Indian (in the early 1930s), that too a South Indian Brahmin, steeped in orthodoxy and conventions and rituals, she stayed with her husband against all odds; through thick and thin, bore him four children, and cared and nursed him to his last days when he was struck down with paralysis -- is beyond anyone’s imagination today
I first met Mrs Ayre and her husband (my father-in-law’s cousin) in Delhi in 1945 soon after my arrival there as a young bride, young in every sense, I was not even 18 then. Mr Ayre and my husband were very good friends in spite of their age difference. (When we got married Babuji was just 25 and Ayre was in his late 40s or early 50s. I can only guess at his age, all I remember is to me, he looked very old.) So we used to meet often. What a surprise I had when we visited the Ayres and I saw Mrs Ayre for the first time – an Englishwoman, about my height, slightly built, as fair as any North Indian woman, maybe 10 years younger than her husband, but dressed in a sari, her auburn hair in a bun, with kumkum on her forehead and “thali” too (thali is thirumanglayam which the groom ties around the bride’s neck during the marriage ceremony). Her mother-in-law told me that like any other South Indian daughter-in-law, she used to have a bath every morning before entering the kitchen and for those three days when she had her periods, then too she followed the Brahmin custom of keeping herself away from the kitchen and the pooja room. And I, not even out of my teens, was most impressed by the way she had acclimatised herself to the Indian way of living, cooking and eating habits. And their four children too were more Indian than English, and they all had Indian names.

Ayre was the eldest son of his parents, Seshan (Seshan Kunjappa, Annaji’s father’s younger brother) and his wife Ammalu. He had four brothers and three sisters. But for the youngest sister who ran away with a barber, such a scandal and unheard of thing in those days, I think I have met all the family members, and we were friendly with the immediate younger brother of Ayre, called Amby.

Ayre, Suryanarayana Ayre, named after his paternal grandfather was brought up in a strictly Brahminical culture and orthodox ways. Very conventional, even to the point where cow’s milk, when being boiled, had to bubble over thrice before being removed from the fire. (I came to know of this trait in him at a later date, when Mrs Ayre was staying with us for some days and she was surprised to see me remove the milk from the fire as soon as it started boiling over.) Ayre though did not marry young as convention would have demanded. His marriage was put off till he was 35, as some astrologer had predicted that if was married before he completed his 35th birthday, his bride would die as there was “Kallathra Dosham” in his horoscope.

Mrs Ayre was born in Jamalpur, in Bihar in India, to a Scottish father and an Armenian mother. She was one of four daughters and one son. When she was only 13 years old, she lost her mother. She was first married to one Mr Marshal and had two daughters by him. He died when the children were very young. Then she met Ayre and got married to him. (Not even their daughter, Jasmine, named Parvati at birth, after her grandmother, has any idea of how or where they met. Jasmine is a good friend of mine and I am putting all this on paper after getting certain facts from her. All I know is that Mrs Ayre was working as a stenographer in some army department and Ayre was also in the army, as a member of the Geological Survey of India.) But her married life was not a bed of roses. Ayre did not take kindly or lovingly to the two fatherless girls. So their mother sent them to her only brother who had by this time gone and settled in England, along with his other sisters. (By the way, we met one of these sisters at Jasmine’s place in the 1970s).

Ayre was a jovial, handsome and carefree man with the army bearing stamped all over him. But at the same time, he was no different from the men of that time, mainly their attitude towards women and more specifically, their wives. Wives did not deserve any kindness or sympathy or help at any time or in any circumstances and were there mainly to cook and feed them, and serve and accommodate their husband’s needs under any condition and bring forth children! This is the only aspect in men which has never appealed to me. For, there are many men today also, in good and high positions in society but having the same attitude towards women. What a shame!

Within three of four months of our marriage, life started changing for the Ayres. The boys were sent to school but Ayre thought Jasmine being a girl did not need any education and was not sent to school. Reason One. Reason Two: the Ayres were staying in a friend’s quarters (house allotted by the government), which Amby and his wife also shared for some days – and had to vacate it all of a sudden. So they were homeless. Amby refused to have them with him in his house. So Mrs Ayre left for Calcutta with Jasmine and the youngest son Tim (Narayan) where she had some missionary friends who gave her a home. Both Jasmine and Tim were sent to school and Mrs Ayre started working there.

Ayre and the two elder boys Sonny (Subhash Narayan) and Micky (Mahesh Narayan) came over to stay with us (our place too was not “ours”, it was a friend’s quarters) along with a Malayali cook. They were welcomed with open arms. We all had a nice time and I became very close to the two boys. I was also happy because Ayre along with the cook took charge of the kitchen. After two months of this life we moved to our own new quarters, leaving Ayre and family to continue staying in the house we all shared, for the owner of that house was in no hurry to come back there.

After we moved, we learnt that Ayre was getting friendly with a WACCI (Women’s Auxiliary Cadet Corps of India) girl called Malati, from Kerala. She was nothing much to look at but somehow they both started seeing each other more and more and when Ayre was allotted a hutment (temporary army barracks) in Pandara Road, she also moved along and started living with them. And these two boys, Sonny and Micky, in their teens, resented the woman being with them. But they had no say in this matter for they were really frightened of their father, who never had a soft word for them. They used to turn to us for comfort and complain about Malati and her way with their daddy. But we were helpless, could not do a thing.

Five years later: December 1949:

It was a Sunday. My husband had gone for a haircut and I was at home taking care of the cooking and washing and getting the children, a girl (Raji) and a boy (Bala) ready for the day. I had the greatest of surprises when my husband returned home with a lady whom I had no memory of having met before. She was every inch a foreigner, dressed in a skirt and matching sweater, and with short hair. And I just did not believe it when she was introduced as Mrs Ayre. Oh, what a change! She told me that she was visiting Delhi to see her sons. As there were no rooms available in the YWCA, she had come to Lodi Colony to see if she could stay with her brother-in-law, Amby.

By chance and by luck, I would say, it was my husband who spotted her as she stepped out of a bus. After hearing what she had to say, he invited her to our place telling her that she could stay with us as long as she wished, an offer she accepted gratefully.

It was during her stay with us that I came to know Mrs Ayre very well and we became good friends. She was the first Englishwoman – the first foreign woman -- I had come in close contact with, though in Delhi at that time there were many foreign people. I felt she was well-educated and very knowledgeable. We talked about and discussed anything and everything, and talking with her in English helped me to express myself more fluently. She very soon adjusted to our way of life and eating habits, never made any demands and was never stand-offish. We were living in a two-roomed flat and Chippachi (Babuji's brother ) was also living with us, but we never felt with Mrs. Ayre living with us that there was one too many in the house. After all these years I don’t remember what arrangement there was for sleeping but I can tell you honestly we were all happy to have Mrs Ayre with us.

She was a great help to me in all ways. In the kitchen, for example, she helped in cutting vegetables and grinding masala. In those days, let me tell you, grinding masala was not any easy job. There were no grinders or mixers. One had to squat on the floor and do it with the ammi and kozhavi. The masala was placed on the ammi -- a flat stone made for the purpose, one-inch thick and 20 by 10 inches in size -- and it was ground into a paste with the kozhavi, a triangle-shaped stone, 4-inches long, 2-inches high and one-inch wide. Once used to it you become very adept in the job. (I used to do the grinding with that, not only the masalas and coconut but also for adai and neyyappam.) Some days, Mrs Ayre and I used to do the shopping together, and she used to babysit one-year-old Bala when I had to escort Raji to and from school. Staying with us influenced her also; it opened her eyes to the way Brahmins had started to make adjustments to their traditional way of living in many respects and was she surprised to know that my three-year-old daughter Raji was attending school!

During her stay with us, Pappu Mama, a very good friend of ours as well as Ayre, along with my husband, started talking to the two of them separately and at different levels and made them realise that the children, all four of them, needed them both, and at least for their sake, they should live together and set up a home, a loving one in the real sense, for them. It was like talking to a brick wall at first. But simply filling their heads with the children’s welfare, their education, their future, by talking to them every day, they managed to convince them to meet and talk it over.

But the audacity of the WACCI girl, Malati, took Mrs Ayre back to square one. You know, this Malati came over one afternoon to my place and, after greeting me, went straight to Mrs Ayre and said that she was there to invite Mrs Ayre to her house. And to her husband. Oh my god, how this angered Mrs Ayre. And you know she answered Malati not in words but with her chappals, on all parts of her body, and when the chappals broke, took the girl’s head in her hands and started banging it on the wall, and this girl wailing like a banshee all the time. Somehow, I pacified Mrs Ayre and sent the girl away. After this happened, Babuji and Pappu Mama had to exert more pressure on the Ayres and at last they agreed to meet. Gradually they agreed to live together and make a home for the four children. Malati was packed off to her homeland in Kerala. And life went on for the Ayre family as it did for everybody. We used to meet often and we all used to have good times together.

In 1954, we went South and were there till 1963. When we came back to Delhi, we learnt that the Ayres had left Delhi in the meantime and somehow we lost track of each other. We learnt from Jasmine, who was by now married to Jain Uncle and the mother of three lovely kids, a boy and two girls, that Ayre had taken voluntary retirement from the Army as he was not keeping good health and had moved to Bhilai where Jasmine was living. We learnt he had taken his wife to his hometown Trichur for the first time, to meet the members of his family there and then to Bombay also, to meet his brothers and sisters. He had suffered one stroke by that time but he was not much affected. In 1963, he had another stroke which affected his right side. Three years later, he suffered another one, this time affecting his left side. He was completely bedridden.

All this news saddened us, particularly Babuji. But however much he wanted, he was not able to go and see the Ayres as he had too many responsibilities, at office and at home also.

And we were very much grieved when we received a letter written by Mrs Ayre herself informing us of the passing away of Ayre Thatha (that is what the children called him) on the 24th of May, the very same day Jasmine’s second son Tunu was born. She herself wrote the letter for she knew how much we both loved and cared for them.

But the saddest part was – and this Mrs Ayre told me at a later date when we met -- that till the end, both Malati and Ayre Thatha were communicating with each other with the help of a Malayali friend of his, and that Ayre Thatha even had a gold chain made and sent to that woman. And for the lady who married him and was with him till the end, nursed him in his last days and was there at the receiving end of all his moods, anger, temper and frustration and what not, there was nothing. Nothing, but a life of worry, misery and fighting, for the survival of her children and herself.

After Ayre Thatha’s death, Mrs Ayre came to Delhi to spend some time with Jasmine and to meet us. Then she left for England where her sons, Sonny and Micky had settled down, and stayed there for a long time, but not with her sons. She lived in her own small apartment in London and, with a little help (financially) from her children, she was able to manage and live comfortably. And peacefully.

In the early 1990s, Sonny migrated to Australia and Mrs Ayre came to Delhi and stayed with Jasmine and was there till her end in 1996.

What a life she lived and how much she suffered. But her willpower and her strength of mind and character helped her to sail through the rough waters and keep her head high, very high, above all these. I am sure she has found peace and comfort in the afterlife.

May her soul rest in peace.

11 Comments:

  • At 12:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    That man Ayre! He makes me so mad.

     
  • At 8:24 PM, Anonymous shalini said…

    Dear Maiji, many thanks for introducing us to Daisy Ayre. Your memoir of her gives strength to woman power.
    Daisy Ayre is the symbol of a woman’s strength which invariably lies in her patience and perseverance. As opposite to her so called stronger counterpart – her Man , who often stands rock solid on his views, often to the extent of stubbornness, she is like soft yet strong elastic , pliable hence easily molded even in most sever conditions to survive and survive better.
    With charan sparsh, just regards is not enough for I feel for you.

     
  • At 8:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

     
  • At 7:00 AM, Anonymous Baggy said…

    Dear Aunty,

    This piece was mesmerising; you really know how to tell a story. I'm so glad Gowri forwarded us the link to your blogspot. Don't stop, Aunty. Tell us more.

    Loads and loads of love,
    Baggy.

     
  • At 11:16 PM, Blogger damo said…

    Dear aunty,
    God bless Gowri for forwarding your blogspot to us.
    Great writing.Feels even greater connecting back with you after all these years.
    Love and keep writing
    damo

     
  • At 3:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

     
  • At 11:19 AM, Blogger MK said…

    Dear Maiji,

    Raji Chithi showed me your blog and I have really enjoyed reading your musings. Sharing your perspectives and experiences with us allows us to better understand our own. Your stories of courage are a testament to the courage with which you also live your life and inspire others. I am so happy to be connected to your stories and you in this way.

    Love,
    Lakshmi

     
  • At 11:22 AM, Blogger MK said…

    Dear Maiji,

    Raji Chithi introduced your blog to me during her recent visit. Thank you so much for sharing your stories and perspectives. Through those, we learn about the collective courage within all of us. In sharing them and your perspectives, we also gain insight into your courage and strength.

    Thank you for that.

    Love,
    Lakshmi

     
  • At 1:15 AM, Blogger Ashvin said…

    "Ayre was a jovial, handsome and carefree man with the army bearing stamped all over him. But at the same time, he was no different from the men of that time, mainly their attitude towards women and more specifically, their wives. Wives did not deserve any kindness or sympathy or help at any time or in any circumstances and were there mainly to cook and feed them, and serve and accommodate their husband’s needs under any condition and bring forth children! This is the only aspect in men which has never appealed to me. For, there are many men today also, in good and high positions in society but having the same attitude towards women. What a shame!"

    Truly, Maiji, well said. However, like the saying goes, I hope in your next life you are re-born a woman, because you are too valuable to be wasted as a man.

     
  • At 1:12 AM, Blogger Maiji said…

    This comment has been removed by the author.

     
  • At 1:14 AM, Blogger Maiji said…

    Dear Ashvin, Thank you for the kind words. I appreciate your attitude. Thank you and God Bless you.

     

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