The author with Charlotte Hayward: Memory revisited
When charlotte hayward entered our drawing room for the very first time a few months ago, my 92-year-old mother was heard to remark that Charlotte reminded her of the upper-class British ladies like Lady Pugh or Lady Rankin whom she had met in the 30s in Calcutta. Mother had seen something that revived her memories of the past. Charlotte’s deportment, finesse, attractive face, smiling eyes and an air of natural affability made her eminently acceptable, even irresistible. We had hardly been introduced when we observed all this with increasing excitement. An old-world English charm is an indefinable quality but one can recognise its contours. The initiated know it for what it is worth. She was the very embodiment of graciousness.
Charlotte’s father, Anthony Hayward, was intimately connected with Shaw Wallace for many years and stayed on in India long after the other British mercantile chiefs had left. Charlotte was born and brought up in Calcutta and spent quite a few years imbibing the Indian ethos before she was sent to school in England. Those formative years left a deep impression on her mind and there was something in the ambience here that she couldn’t quite get out of her system.
During the Raj, life was orderly, seemly, privacy-oriented. I can imagine Mr Hayward carving out a niche for himself and his family from where he functioned with a sense of self-sufficiency. Indian servants in those days had a tremendous sense of loyalty and efficiency and understood the habits and demands of their employers only too well. There was never a false step, no lapses likely to cause any consternation. Charlotte grew up in this world where certain basic assumptions were never questioned.
Talking to Charlotte, my wife and I discovered how very involved she was mentally with certain aspects of Indian life. She wanted to know what we felt about our Indian minions, what backgrounds they came from, what sort of work they were especially good at, how long they lasted and the reasons for the frequent change of jobs. Her interests were far flung, covering an immense range of subjects. The very fact that she came back to Calcutta to take copious notes about what she saw and felt and heard, made us realise her emotional attachment to this city. She wanted to produce a book on India where her personal discoveries would find a suitable resting place.
When we pointed out the derelict nature of Calcutta, the decrepitude that we saw around us, the endless traffic jams that clogged our lives, the palpable erosion of law and order and the colossal inertia that left the city gasping for breath, she wasn’t put off by our tirades. Although agreeing with the points we were trying to make, Charlotte never dismissed anything out of hand and did not believe in outright condemnation. She refused to be judgmental and dogmatic, which was one of her most endearing qualities. She looked for compensations and redeeming features even where she saw the sandcastles crumbling and poor governance reducing a great city to a state of utter hopelessness.
She went to Santiniketan to discover the power and glory of nature and the town’s aesthetic qualities. She couldn’t have spent her stay more profitably, walking miles on her own and visiting some old inhabitants as well as Tagore’s houses, which reflected his various moods. Charlotte was so much in love with Santiniketan that she wanted us to return there just to breathe in the fresh scents. She also went to Mirzapur to study the carpet-making industry and talk to the old Muslim artisans devoted to their craft. It was so easy for her to establish a rapport with different types of people and I can imagine how the workers must have warmed to her compassionate personality.
While she was in Calcutta and the heat was at its peak, she went to Chitpore to chat up the pavement typists and find out what made them tick and how drudgery did not obliterate their stamina. It’s the same thirst for novel contacts that made her converse with odd people in railway compartments. A smattering of “Hindustani” enabled her to open up with her fellow passengers. She visited Mother Teresa’s home for abandoned babies almost every day. Whatever she did, there was no fanfare involved. The more you praised her efforts, the more self-effacing she became.
Charlotte liked reading all sorts of books and seemed to know an awful lot about British writers like Philip Woodruff, Michael Edwards and Percival Spears who wrote about India knowledgeably, furnishing exciting details about India’s administration and cultural heritage. She had finished George Elliot’s Middlemarch while she was here and dipped into Dalrymple’s White Nabobs. She also had a sound knowledge of psychology and must have got to grips with Jung and Freud when she was teaching children with special needs in London.
Charlotte never confined herself to the brandy-and-cigar circuit. Her exploratory instincts took her far and wide, away from the constricting influences of club life and mindless revelry. Was her life one long round of epiphanies, blinding discoveries and transfiguring experiences' Whenever she came to have tea with us we spoke animatedly for hours and the ticking of the clock became inaudible. Her impeccable Oxbridge accent was a feast for the ears. She always mulled over what we said while we also listened to her pertinent observations and serious comments with concentration. Whenever I mimicked people whose follies made them vulnerable, Charlotte was in stitches and her infectious laughter livened the tempo. With her, my wife and I entered a serene yet throbbing world where we did not need garnishes. There was no topic we couldn’t discuss with her, there was no anecdote she didn’t want to listen to.
Charlotte believed that life was a glorious feast where everyone has a right to participate. The table wasn’t reserved for the chosen few. At the end of the day when its time for some kind of summing up, this is what I have to say about Charlotte and the way she took us all by storm
“Woh aye bazm mein, itna to Mir ne dekha
Phir uske baad chiraghon mein raushni na rahi
(Mir saw her join the assembly out of the corner of his eye; all the lamps were extinguished, leaving only her resplendent).”
Charlotte brought with her just those resonances and flavours which had enriched our lives during the heyday of the Raj.