So I’m going to start with a quote from Oscar Wilde who said, “Children begin by loving parents, as they grow older, they judge them. Sometimes they forgive them.” So I guess my story is a story of love, and judgement, and forgiveness. And bandits, because you’ve all been leered here with the promise of bandits, I have to talk about bandits. I was seven years old when I woke up one morning and looked out the window of my childhood garden. I grew up in a small town in India, called Jabalpur. And he had a—it was like an L-shaped house with a garden.
So, I looked out one morning and I saw a man with a gun and a moustache looking back at me. He was really polite and he kind of bowed. And I don’t know what to make of this. And there was another man, and another and, quite quickly my backyard was filled with seven men, perhaps six or seven men with moustaches and guns. And then beyond them I could see some women in really colourful sarees, and some children. Now, even by my family’s standards, this was quite an unusual sight. And so, I did the only thing that I could, which was run to the kitchen to find my mum and say, “Mum there’s men with hair and guns in the garden.” And I remember her shouting and I remember her calling my father by his first name. Which again was usual because women of my mum’s generation did not—in India—refer to their husbands by their first name. So I knew something serious was going on. And she said, “I told you not to bring those dangerous men home” and he said, “Well they’re not home, they’re in the garden.” So dad was like that, he liked to make distinctions. Very pedantic. And mum kept shouting, “I’ve told you I have a husband, and girls and old women, I cannot have dangerous men hanging around.” And he just laughed I think, well I have a memory of him laughing. Which is probably about eighty percent accurate. He tended not to take us very seriously at all. Which would explain why we had bandits in the garden.
Now the reason there were bandits in the garden was because my dad was a criminal defence lawyer, and he had a reputation for taking on people, and cases that nobody else would. So we did have—my childhood was a steady parade of the weird and the wonderful. And the bandits were actually by far the most colourful and even the most benign sort of people I remember encountering. So perhaps from the guns and the moustaches, and the smoking—they used to smoke the Indian version of cigarettes—they’re called beedis. So they’re like hand-rolled and really foul, you really didn’t want to be in like breathing distance of the stuff. And, the women smoked too which is another thing that I remember quite strongly because—again growing up in India and in the context of where I was living, women certainly did not smoke. They didn’t address their husbands by their first name, and they certainly did not smoke.
I didn’t have the skills then to differentiate between the life of privilege that I was leading in my home with a garden and a window that I could look out, and the people who were there in the garden.
As an adult women now I think—and I say to my absent father, “What were you thinking?” But at the time it was just something that was part of life. I know I certainly wouldn’t want my young daughter anywhere near, any type of bandit, you know, benign or otherwise. But there we were, in a small town in India with bandits in the garden. I think they probably stayed somewhere between three or four weeks to maybe two or three months. They colonised the garden completely. They flattened out the grass. They built a sort of makeshift camp and they used to cook there. I remember their cooking smells, particularly because it was so different to my mother’s cooking smells. My mother’s cooking smells was quite similar to what you smelled as you walked in, with Caroline’s beautiful food wafting through. So, you know it was elaborate and it was beautiful, and lots of thought and several hundred spices had been mixed together and roasted carefully before they were added to the food. Whereas these people used to make rotis, which are the bread that you would have had. So something similar to that they would make on an open fire, and they would eat those rotis with whatever came to hand. Including really long red chilies, which they offered me one time and I was about to take a bite when one of the women swiped it out of my hand, scolded the woman who had offered me—a roti wrapped in chilli—and said, “You can’t do that she is a child.” Or, what’s to that effect.
So these people that lived in the bottom of the garden, were there because they needed legal representation, and my dad provided that legal representation. They were also—I don’t know how many people have been familiar with the whole Bollywood concept of bandits—there’s a movie made a few years ago called The Bandit Queen. That is an extremely glamorized and romanticised version of what these people really were. There was nothing glamorous or romantic about these people—again as an adult woman and because I’m currently writing a book where a fictional bandit will inhabit the pages of my fictional book—when it gets written. I realised that there was nothing at all pleasant about that; these people were destitute and they were desperate. They had been dispossessed of their land which is why they were bandits—they were farmers whose lands had been taken away and they had no resources. So joining gangs seemed to be something that they were able to do. And they—especially the people in my childhood garden—they probably weren’t very good bandits because they had obviously been caught. And they needed to get out of whatever scrape they had gotten themselves in. Which also reminds me, that from a moral point of view—again, what was my dad thinking—they had no money they were eating rotis with chili. So how did he think they were going to pay him?
So, I don’t think they would have been in any position to pay him. So I don’t know what transpired—but they were there they made our garden their home. Mum kept grumbling, dad kept laughing, my sister kept slapping me around the head every time she saw me because I thought they were really interesting and spent a lot of time with them. Their kids were particularly interesting. I was the youngest in our family of four—I was virtually ignored—because you know, “Don’t talk. Just don’t talk. Stop talking. Why are you still talking?”—was about the general attitude I copped. So these people were really good fun, they listened to me, they gestured and they made a place for me in their makeshift home. They shared their food with me and even as a child I understood that that was pretty special. They didn’t have much I could see that. And what little they had they were prepared to share with me. So that kind of is the story of finding bandits in the garden.
What happened after that they just disappeared one day, I remember looking out and they weren’t there and as usual I ran around the house asking what happened to the bandits? Where are they? I even had names for some of them because they weren’t a generic group of bandits. Women they actually had names they were individuals. I even recognised each moustached man was different somehow. It was interesting that they all gave themselves the title, the men that is—they all gave themselves the title of Singh. Now Singh is—means lion really. And in India, the Sikhs use Singh as sort of a title—because they’re warriors, and none of these men were warriors but they all granted themselves the title of a warrior. So there must have been some sense that they were doing some enactment of their lives that they were performing at that stage.
As I said I don’t know what happened to them. And as is often the case when I grow up and start thinking about these things—and what if, what if they were actually dangerous? What if they had slit our throats while we slept? What if?—so all those things come to mind now. But the point of fact is that nothing like that happened as far as I remember we were perfectly safe with these honest band of men, women and children. They disappeared from our lives. When I asked dad what happened he said, “Oh yes that’s all sorted.” So I said, “So will they go back to being bandits?” he says, “Probably.” I said, “Didn’t you tell them this was a bad thing to be doing?” and he says, “No.” And so it just became one of those things—part of my family’s mythmaking I think, and it just stayed there. We don’t have conversations about the bandits, we have conversations about other things; about the arguments; about the—”you remember when that strange person came and lived with us for two months?” And those sorts of things. Because the bandits were actually out of the house—the rest of the time we had people living in the house; my father’s clients, who came from far flung places. And he just offered them a room in the house. And you’d wake up and find some random wandering through.
We didn’t feel very safe growing up. Because we never knew who we would find wandering through our house, garden, kitchen, etcetera. So it was—again now, this is hindsight—as an adult woman I realise that was probably not safe, wise, or conventional. Because I know that’s not how I would provide a home for my kids. Certainly a paranoid mother—I know how paranoid I was. There didn’t seem to be those barriers or ground rules even, or any of that. That we didn’t come to any harm is more luck than anything. It wasn’t because anyone especially tried to keep us safe. It wasn’t especially that my father tried to keep us safe. I did say it was a story about love, judgement and forgiveness. So here’s the judgement bit.
What was he thinking? However, we didn’t come to any harm. More or less—most of the time. So here I am now, talking about this really quite usually if not bizarre episode in my childhood. And wondering what to do with this knowledge because it has brought up other things. As in; who was that strange man when I was ten. And who was—you know—exceedingly strange people when I was thirteen. And so it was a steady succession of people that were brought into—without introduction if you like—without context, they were just placed in our lives, in our homes, it was a very intimate thing to come to terms with as a child, as a young adult, and we did. We coped somehow. So that’s it pretty much.