Betty Keyes, born 1930, was - when I met her - living alone just off Chowringhee Road in Calcutta. I was alerted to her story by an article about her written by Rinku Datta and published in Himal magazine in 2006. There are discrepancies between what she told Rinku and recited to me - but the basic story of a young Anglo-Indian woman in Calcutta at Partition, and her account of Anglo-Indian attitudes towards independence, is fairly consistent. I have posted a transcript of our conversation below.
BETTY KEYES: transcript
Lives on Chowringhee (Jawaharlal Nehru) Road, Kolkata 7001 – where she has lived for 40 years. One high ceilinged ground-floor room divided into bedroom, and small living roon, with a small adjoining bathroom. On ground floor, in a block off Chowringhee – very close to Cathedral – mainly now a medical facility.
Born 1930, she is petite, grey haired and frail, with a clouded right eye. Lives alone, and has no close family – a nephew in the UK is the only one in regular contact. Anglo-Indian – keen to emphasise that English is her mother tongue, and goes to the (CNI) St Paul’s cathedral opposite every Sunday morning at 7.30. Gets a small pension, and some help from the church and from neighbours.
Featured in an article by Rinku Datta in ‘Himal’ – but says she told her some ‘lies’, and her nephew was cross. She didn’t marry in 1946, or indeed at all. She met her enduring friend, Frank Leadon – an Irishman who retired as commissioner of police, she says – at a party in Cal in 1951.
His photo in uniform is in display, tucked behind a much bigger photo of her, looking glamorous with hair done, pears, and in swimming top. She says this was taken c1951 by Frank. She says she sometimes pretends the photo is of her sister (her only sister died in childhood) – and that a copy was printed in ‘Himal’, and that Rinku photographed the photo.
ARE YOU GOING TO TELL ME WHO YOU ARE?
AND WAS THAT THE NAME YOU WERE BORN WITH?
Yes. … I was baptised in … St Thomas’s Church, Free School Street. … My grandfather was British and my father was born there in England. … My grandfather was on the railway – he was a guard. … My father came out and he was educated in St Thomas’s [brief gap] school here and then he went to [gap] Allahabad or somewhere. … He was educated there. He passed out over there. Then he joined the railway and he became a driver, and after a driver he got promoted to an in charge on the railway … of a section called Tarkisha [ph] [in West Bengal] … My mother was from … Portugal. … She was born in India. … She was Mona White. … They called her Alice Mona White. That was why I was named Elizabeth Alice Faye Keyes.
YOU WERE BORN IN 1930?
Tarkisha, that’s where my father was working. … We were all – no Anglo-Indians in that station, so I learnt a little Hindi. … Then I joined the telephone office, I learned Bangla. I speak Bengali a little bit … [English] that’s my mother tongue. My father was English. … I am an Anglo, born out here. Those years, we were all Anglo Indians. The good Anglo-Indians are gone – emigrated. … To Australia, England. There were a lot of Anglo-Indians here. … Some of them have gone out of the world also, dead and gone.
BUT THERE ARE STILL QUITE A LOT OF ANGLOS LEFT
Yes, but not the good types. You know what I mean. You know. …
WHEN DID YOU MOVE TO CALCUTTA
Well, I was at Tarkisha. I was born there. Then my mother died when I was five years old – my brother died, he died at childbirth. I had a sister, she was after me, she died when she was three years old. She died of diphtheria. … I am the eldest. … I am the only one survived. … My grandmother, that is my father’s mother, and my aunt was at the telephones, but my father was on the railways – he couldn’t take care of me. So he left me with his sister and mother and they took care of me and brought me up.
WHERE WAS THAT?
In Marquis Street [[very close to Sudder Street and Chowringhee Lane]] … I was living there.
WHICH SCHOOL DID YOU GO TO?
Calcutta Girls High School. … I didn’t study very hard, after the seventh only. We were badly off so my aunt being in the telephones, she took me out and pushed me into the telephones to support my father - and my mother’s brother who was never married and was very fond of me, because he lived with us, brought me up as a baby. My father was on duty all the time. So he would look after me. … I was at the telephones as an operator then I became a senior supervisor. I retired in 1985. … There were lots of Anglos [at telephone bhavan]. They’ve all gone and left the country, they’ve gone out of the world. Only a few are left. I get a pension, so we meet in Park Street Post Office all that are the leftovers.
WHEN THE INDIA-PAKISTAN BUSINESS STARTED –
WHAT DID YOU FEEL ABOUT THAT?
Oh, it was terrible. I saw the killing. … Ah, the Hindus and the Muslims couldn’t agree. They were killing people as they were coming – the Muslims were putting, you know, their sticks [?] [6’50] in their stomach, and the Hindus were killing. They were carrying dead bodies in the truck, the police were just lifting them up and taking them. Then the, all the shopkeepers that were one Wellesley Street, furniture shops, they were selling furniture like tables and almirahs, they were killed, they were stabbed. Oh it was terrible.
WHERE WERE YOU LIVING AT THAT TIME?
Marquis Street. … It was a nice place, I had one room. … My father was alive then. My father died in ’54. … One room, one kitchen and one bathroom.
DID YOU SEE ANY OF THE TROUBLES?
Oh yes. …I saw, the milkman came, that part I know. And my dad told him – of course, my mother was dead by that time, she died when I was five years old – any my father told the milkman: why did you come when all this trouble. And he said: never mind. As he came out of the house, they killed him.
WAS HE A MUSLIM OR A HINDU?
Hindu. The Muslim killed him. …
HOW DID YOU FEEL WHEN YOU SAW THAT?
Oh God. We were taken in trucks to the office and kept there for days – because we were telephones, essential service.
SO YOU ACTUALLY HAD TO STAY IN THE OFFICE?
And my dad would get upset. Worried naturally. I’m the only child left.
AND YOU HAD TO SLEEP IN THE OFFICE?
Yes. They gave us good food and all. That time was English days. The food was very good. …
DO YOU THINK THINGS WERE BETTER IN THE ENGLISH DAYS?
Oh definitely. Now it’s gone down. …
WHAT DID YOU THINK OF THE VIOLENCE?
Horrible. I was very young, I was not old then.
WERE YOU SCARED?
Oh yes, naturally. … I was scared because I would leave my father alone, what might happen to him. Then they had no respect for girls or anybody at that time. But the office took care of us.
WERE YOU AWARE OF ALL THE POLITICAL THINGS THAT WERE BEING SAID … ?
No. I didn’t think of all that at that time. (10’00)
WHEN INDEPENDENCE STARTED TO GET NEAR, WHAT WAS YOUR FEELING?
I was a bit nervous thinking that we might be told to go. Because we joined in the British time. But it so happened, the agreement was – whoever the old hands was was to be kept on.
SO YOU THOUGHT YOU MIGHT LOSE YOUR JOB?
Yes, so I retired in 1985.
OTHERWISE WERE YOU HAPPY ABOUT INDEPENDENCE?
It will never be what the British was. Now look at the prices of things. At that time, bread sixteen loaves for a rupee. …
DO YOU FEEL THAT YOU ARE MORE BRITISH OR MORE INDIAN?
Well, I’m born out here. I consider myself Anglo-Indian.
HAVE YOU EVER BEEN TO BRITAIN?
No I didn’t go to Britain. But I went abroad. I went to Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore – I went on a tour. …
NOW TELL ME ABOUT FRANK? YOU MET FRANK –
I met Frank. He was in the Calcutta Police. He was Commissioner of Police. [sic] … Lal Bazaar [Irish, born in Ireland]
THERE’S A PHOTO OVER THERE PROBABLY FROM THE EARLY 1950s, YOU LOOK VERY GLAMOROUS.
I was. Now I’m old and ugly.
DID YOU HAVE AN EXCITING TIME AS A YOUNG GIRL?
No. I was very reserved type – a bit quiet. I went to house parties, with my friends when they had a party. And that’s how I met him. In a party. … His sister was in [gap] Park Lane.
BUT YOU DIDN’T GET MARRIED
Never got married. Because he died of cancer. … ’77. So that was my luck. So now I’m an old hag. A spinster.
YOU DIDN’T GET MARRIED BUT YOU WERE VERY CLOSE FRIENDS FOR A LONG, LONG TIME –
Yes, because he helped me a lot in my troubles. And my father liked him a lot. But he was a very good hearted man. He helped a lot of people.
DID YOU HAVE ANY CHILDREN?
No. That was the unfortunate part. I had a son or maybe they would help me today. Not financial, but they would have looked after me. But I’m getting a pension which is carrying on my work … [LENGTHY DIGRESSION] I sit here and I cry quite a lot. … Why? Because I’m alone… I’ve got no friends. I haven’t got my own family. … Calcutta, I’m the only Keyes left here. … [LENGTHY DIGRESSION] …
WHAT DID YOU THINK WHEN IT WAS CLEAR THAT THE BRITISH WERE GOINT TO LEAVE? …
I was scared and I was very upset about it – not knowing what our future would be. …
CAN YOU REMEMBER THE INDEPENDENCE DAY, AUGUST 15 1947?
WHAT DID YOU DO?
There were all celebrating, the flags went up. We didn’t celebrate … [reminiscences about Japanese bombers, air raid shelters, ‘fair’ ‘good looking men’ American soldiers] … I didn’t bother. I was too upset. … Trouble in the house. Forty rupees a month, supporting the house. Rent was only fifteen rupees, sweeper was five rupees. …
WERE YOU PLEASED THAT INDIA BECAME INDEPENDENT?
I didn’t care. I wished it was the British times. I was a bit disappointed, but what to do. I was scared because I thought my job will go, but thank God they kept us on. … [LENGTHY DIGRESSION] …
TELL ME HOW THAT PHOTOGRAPH CAME TO BE TAKEN – IT’S SUCH A TREMENDOUS PHOTOGRAPH OF YOU WHEN YOU WERE IN YOUR EARLY 20s? …
My friend, he took it.
BECAUSE YOU’RE WEARING QUITE A DARING DRESS.
I went for a swim with my cousins. And they were taking photos, and they took that.
BUT YOU’RE WEARING A NECKLACE?
Yes, but I didn’t go into the tank. I just put that on to take the photo. …
DID YOU AND FRANK EVER LIVE AS MAN AND WIFE OR –
No, no. He would come and visit me and take me out – a little entertainment, to a hotel and give me dinner or take me to the police club or for an evening drive. That’s all. (25’00)