Helen Baldwin, born 1917, came out to Lahore in 1945 to work for the Soldiers', Sailors' and Airmen's Families' Association - and she spent the best part of two fun-filled years in the capital of Punjab province. Her upbeat recollection of life there in the run-up to independence and Partition contrasts sharply with that of many Punjabi residents of the city. She was a spry 91-year-old when I met and interviewed her in July 2008, and is holding a photo of herself taken at about the time she was in Lahore. I have posted below a transcript of out conversation.
HELEN BALDWIN: transcript
My name is Helen Baldwin and unfortunately I’ve just become 91 years old. [born] 1917, the 1st of July. … My maiden name was P-R-A-T-T. …
TELL ME HOW YOU CAME TO MAKE THE JOURNEY OUT TO LAHORE
War broke out and I obviously had to do something because I wasn’t working and I saw an advertisement in the paper they wanted secretaries to work with the army welfare officer, and we were living in Rochester. So I volunteered and got the job because I had worked in London, an insurance company in my young days as a secretary so I was trained secretary so I managed to get the job. …
SO HOW DID YOU MANAGE TO MAKE THE JUMP TO LAHORE?
Well, I’d worked probably a year or nearly two, I think until early 1945, and I decided that – my husband had been killed in an air crash – and I decided I wanted to do something else. I didn’t want to stay in and rot (?). So they were asking for volunteers in SSAFA, which Soldiers Sailors and Airmens Families Association, asking for volunteers, either for to Germany or to go to India. And as I had an uncle who had been in India working, I thought I’d like to go because I’d heard stories of India when I was a young girl, a child. So I volunteered and I was posted to Lahore.
SO – A SHIP OUT?
A ship out, yes – in the dark because the war hadn’t ended then. But during our trip, the Japanese war became final
AS YOU WERE AT SEA, THE JAPANESE WAR ENDED
Yes, yes, - and we were all blacked out until then, and we slept on the deck because it was too hot in the cabins.
… WHERE DID YOU SAIL TO?
Oh, Bombay. And we had a week just looking around , getting used to the climate. And then I got a train to Lahore and that’s where I was for two years.
CAN YOU REMEMEBR WHAT YOU THOUGHT OF LAHORE WHEN YOU ARRIVED THERE? AFTER ALL, THIS WAS SO DIFFERENT FROM WHAT YOU WERE USED TO.
I loved it from the beginning. It was wonderful. I mean, the food was super. I hadn’t had fresh things, lovely things to eat, for all the time the war was on. And life was absolutely wonderful and I fitted in with the barracks, the barracks were nice, the chaps were nice.
YOU LIVED IN THE BARRACKS?
No, I lived in the Napier hotel – where we had to live. But the barracks were in the surrounding area of Lahore, and every day we had an office there, we used to go to the office, the officer, my husband-to-be, was the welfare officer for his Suffolk regiment, and he used to come and bring soldiers in who had problems with their wife or they had heard from a friend that their wife was mixing with an American and they wanted something done about it, So we would write a report, send it to our HQ in London, they would send a representative to see the wife, and they would sort things out, if necessary have the American transferred or at least his C.O. would interview him and giving him a dressing down.
SO YOU WERE BASICALLY A MARRIAGE GUIDANCE COUNSELLOR FROM A LONG WAY AWAY
ALSO AS A YOUNG SINGLE WOMAN, YOU MUST HAVE BEEN POPULAR.
Oh yes. Lots of dances, lots of invitations. It was a lovely life.
WHAT DID YOU ENJOY MOST?
Well, it was lovely to go on tour to places I had only read about and didn’t know anything about – Simla, Bangalore [sic], oh, the Himalayas, Kashmir. To all the places I knew about but hadn’t visited.
DID YOU GO TO KASHMIR?
Yes, I went to Kashmir. Yes. And lots of places. (5’00) You saw the photograph with me when I was in … Simla, yes, And also you saw a photograph of me staying at a wonderful house that … I’ve forgotten his name … yes, Wavell.
YOUR JOB WITH SSAFA WAS LOOKING AFTER SIMPLY BRITISH –
No, anybody. But of course there was only British there.
DID YOU HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH THE INDIAN MEMEBRS OF THE BRITISH ARMY, WITH THE PUNJABI FIGHTERS –
No. No. Nothing at all. We were only there to look after the British soldiers.
DID YOU MEET MANY PUNJABIS, OR TO YOU VERY MUCH TO YOURSELVES WITH BRITISH PEOPLE?
Oh no, we mixed. And when they had parties, we used to go to the parties. No, we used to mix because there were some very nice ones, really nice ones. … Military people mostly, yes. I did meet the President of Pakistan, Ayub Khan. And I had a photograph of myself at a party with him, but I can’t find it now unfortunately. (6’40)
AND WHAT WAS THE MOOD LIKE AMONG BRITISH SOLDIERS BECAUSE THE WAR WAS OVER , AND THEY WERE STILL IN LAHORE AND PRESUMABLY THEY WERE ANXIOUS TO GET HOME –
Anxious to get home, but they didn’t get home for at least four more months, I don’t know why – but I went home and Peter was supposed to come home a couple of weeks later but he didn’t come home for about four months later.
YOU SPENT HOW LONG IN LAHORE?
Oh, two years.
WHEN DID YOU CATCH THE BOAT HOME?
About ’47 something like that, ’45 to ’47 I was there.
WERE YOU IN LAHORE AS THINGS GOT WORSE, AS THE VIOLENCE STARTED AND THE TENSION STARTED
No, no. It was perfectly alright when I was there, none of that had started at all.
DID YOU SENSE THE TENSION, THE BEGINNINGS OF THE ANIMOSITIES BETWEEN MUSLIMS AND SIKHS AND HINDUS?
Well, there was always that feeling - if you met them, you had to be careful what you said. Nothing for or against, be quite neutral in any conversation. But I never came across any aggressiveness or anti-Britishness. They were all very, very nice to me.
WERE YOU THERE WHEN MOUNTBATTEN STARTED HIS PERIOD AS VICEROY AND WHEN THE VERY FAST MOVES TOWARDS INDEPENDNCE STARTED TO GATHER PACE?
No, I had left before then, fortunately – because I believe it was very unpleasant.
SO YOU WERE … BACK IN ENGLAND WHEN INDEPENDENCE HAPPENED?
WHAT IS YOUR ABIDING MEMORY OF THAT PERIOD IN LAHORE?
Well, I thought it was absolutely heaven on earth. I mean, I’d been home in the war with food problems and other problems, and there everything was available. I thought it was just heaven on earth. I never came across anybody with any animosity at all.
DID YOU ENJOY YOUR WORK?
Oh yes, I’ve always loved my work, working for the forces.
BUT IT MUST HAVE BEEN DEPRESSING DEALING WITH PEOPLE WHO HAD GOT PROBLMES OF ONE SORT OR ANOTHER
No, I never found it depressing because I felt if I could talk to them and get close to them to tell me exactly what they were worried about, I could help them. Because I could put it in my report and stress what the problem was. And how this man was so unhappy.
WHAT WERE THE PROBLEMS THEY FACED?
Mostly … [their wives] had met an American or some other soldier, and were having an affair. Of course, it was difficult for them I suppose. They had been married and their husbands were away, they were lonely, they met someone and – these things happen don’t they.
DID THAT HAPPEN ON THE OTHER SIDE, DID SOME OF THE MEN BASED IN LAHORE FIND GIRLFRIENDS THERE?
Oh yes, yes, one or two of them did. Yes definitely. They became very friendly with the Anglo-Indian girls – who when they are young are so pretty and slim, but of course when they get older they deteriorate very quickly. … I think they were just fleeting – necessity of man (chuckles).
DID ANY OF THE SOLDIERS STAY IN LAHORE THAT YOU ARE AWARE OF AND NOT COME BACK?
No – no. None of them wanted to stay – they all wanted to get home
DID ANY OF THEM MARRY ANGLO-INDIAN GIRLS AND BRING THEM BACK?
Not to my knowledge. Although when I was coming back, there was an Anglo-Indian girl and she could hardly speak English – which is unusual for Anglo-Indians, they do speak English. And she was coming home to marry a soldier. … I was teaching her some English because she couldn’t speak English and I don’t know how she got on. Anyway, her future husband was there, and the family to meet her. I don’t know what happened after then.
HOW DID MOST OF THE SOLDIERS FIND THEIR TIME OUT IN PUNJAB AFTER THE WAR?
Lahore? Well, of course they had lots of route marches. They had lots of duties to do. Also, … my future husband. he was the welfare officer, and that was his job, to look after the welfare of the troops that were in Lahore, his battalion, the second battalion, and come to me and liaise and try and fix their problems. Oh they had gymkhanas, they had dinner parties, dances, and things like that. When they came out of Burma to Lahore, they did relax. They had been through a horrible time. My husband said that they used to dig leeches out of their legs and arms and bodies with a knife, because they were covered – of course they never got any washing facilities. If there was a river they just happened to come by, no matter what it was like, they would have a swim, or have a dip.
DO YOU THINK THERE WAS A FEELING THEN THAT BRITISH RULE OVER THAT PART OF INDIA WAS SLOWLY COMING TO AN END?
Oh definitely yes. No question about it, yes. There were one or two very educated Indians and Pakistanis who were very arrogant and did a sort of ‘hate British’ thing, ‘Get Britain Out’.
AND YOU FELT THEY WERE GOING TO ACHIEVE THEIR GOAL?
Oh yes, we definitely thought that this was the end, and we’d hand over.
WHAT MADE YOU THNK THAT? WHAT WERE THE SIGNS OF THAT CHANGE?
Well, the people were changing – they were so pro-British and no they were becoming anti-British, going back to thinking we ruled them, we took all their money, we did nothing for them, and these were the people who were saying: we’ve taken everything and given nothing back. But they forget: where did they get the railways from – we British; we did they get all the other things from – we British. Who taught them English, who got them schools – the British did all this for them but it was all forgotten.
AND HOW DID YOU AND THE BRITISH COMMUNITY IN LAHORE VIEW THIS CHANGE OF MOOD?
Just thought it was inevitable, and it had to come – that was it.
DID YOU MIX MUCH WITH BRITISH PEOPLE WHO HAD LIVED THEIR WHOLE LIVES OUT THERE?
One or two, yes – we had a very nice dentist, and a very nice doctor, and they’d lived out there. But they thought that, not immediately, but eventually they would have to come home because it wouldn’t work.
ALL THESE PARTIES AND GYMKHANAS AND EVENTS LIKE THIS, WERE THESE JUST FOR OFFICERS OR FOR EVERYBODY?
Oh no only the regiment and the regiment’s friends – not for outsiders. … Officers only and then the ORs also had parties and things of their own, and then of course they would invite the Anglo-Indian girls, and that was nothing to do with us.
DID YOU SEE MUCH OF THE ANGLO-INDIAN COMMUNITY IN LAHORE?
Saw them when you went shopping or when you went out, or sometimes I would go to an ORs dance party, and I’d meet them and say hello and be friendly. Always friendly with them, but they didn’t mix with the officer community.
WERE THE ANGLO-INDIANS LOOKED DOWN A LITTLE BIT ON?
(Sighs) I couldn’t say so really, because there was nothing wrong with them. They couldn’t help being half-half. No, that never came – never thought about that. It’s just that you didn’t mix.
BUT THE OTHER RANKS WOULDN’T MIX WITH PUNJABI GIRLS, SIKH GIRLS?
No, I think they would. Might have a night out with them and have a good time.
WHERE WOULD YOU GO FOR A GOOD TIME IN LAHORE WHEN YOU WERE THERE?
Oh well, lovely Faletti’s restaurant, lovely meal, gorgeous food. And dance. Lovely. (16’00) And of course the other thing was the – we used to have gymkhanas, we used to have lovely parties in the mess, that sort of thing.
WHAT SORT OF DANCES WOULD THESE BE, WITH ORCHESTRAS OR DANCE BANDS?
No, just – well at Faletti’s there was an orchestra of course, a band. But in the mess, they just had a few people who could play, mostly the piano, and we had two lovely boys from the Royal Engineers who sang beautifully – someone would play the piano and they would have a classical evening, which was lovely.
AND WHEN YOU WENT ON TOUR, WHEREABOUTS WOULD YOU GO?
Pindi. I went to Kashmir, Bangalore, where else? Can’t remember all the places I went to. … Kashmir was lovely. Srinagar, Ooty, beautiful then … (travelled to Kashmir by bus, frightening) … There was a hotel there [in Srinagar] where they used to stay for officers only, and that’s where I used to stay. … We just looked around, had a boat, have a look and see what was happening, just looking around to see what Kashmir was like. …
HOW DO YOU LOOK BACK ON THAT PERIOD OF YOUR LIFE, OUT IN INDIA?
Oh, I loved every minute of it. I loved every minute. It was a wonderful life. Mostly I suppose because I was spoilt. I was (a) an English girl and they all spoilt me. They would have spoilt anybody else. Lovely life. …
(Details of marriage in UK in Nov 1949 and husband, and going to Madras c1950 for 20 years.)
I don’t feel sad about any of my memories because they were all lovely (21’50) I loved my life out there and I was young and life was lovely. …
TELL ME ABOUT CAPTAIN GEORGINA
The person who had been doing forces programmes, that’s a programme for the forces which came out of Lahore and it was at 10 every Wednesday, and the chap left and they wanted someone to do this programme, and I volunteered because I hadn’t done any broadcasting before but I was very interested. And so I took on the programme, I would work out all the songs that I thought the forces would like, and when I was on the air I asked them to ring me or write to me and say what they wanted, which they did, and I have kept some of the letters as you’ve seen in my book. It was lovely because I felt I was doing something for the forces, and any messages I would send on to whoever they wanted me to send them to. …
It wasn’t jazz like hot pop music, it was more classical music or songs from shows and things that they’d been to when they were home and they wanted to hear the music to bring back memories. It was bring back memories programme really.
(Broadcast from Lahore studio, All India Radio). … I was taken every week by car. … I had to prepare it and type it all out so that I knew – and I had to time it all because I only had thirty minutes and I had to time it exactly that I would get what I wanted to say in between and time all the music.
IT WAS LIVE WAS IT?
Oh yes, yes. … All the forces, they used to tune in at night, 10 o’clock – hear Georgina. … My first husband’s name was George so I said Georgina, just a silly little memory. … (Had programme) For the two years I was there, every Wednesday. …