Written for The Guardian:
In the weeks before our lives changed for ever, my grandfather disappeared and my grandmother became seriously ill. We drove the length of the country through snow and ice to fetch her. Already much reduced by arthritis, she could walk only with great difficulty. She would be staying in the room we called the music room, because she could not negotiate the stairs and because there was a log fire by which she could sit.
My grandmother was perpetually cold. It was the task of the children to fetch fresh wood from the log pile and then to keep her company through the endless winter evenings, talking of tigers, of elephants and the Raj. I was 13, my brothers and sisters all younger; we did not realise that she had come to our Cheshire home to die.
As a child, you consider your world to be the only possible world; and as we understood things then, my mother’s family story was interesting, though without secrets. My grandfather – a man who had given his entire life to building a fine career in the army: the subcontinent, the second world war, Berlin, Africa, Hong Kong – had met my grandmother in India. My grandfather’s family was an old English one – soldiers all, and proud of it.
My grandmother, meanwhile, was a Brahmin, a wealthy and high-caste Indian (also proud of it) from near Hyderabad. She had fallen in love with her soldier and married him against the wishes of her family. When they left India for postwar Germany, she was cut off. She carried with her only her multicoloured saris and her jewellery. She never returned.