“Australia gave me a second chance at realising my potential.”
An audio snippet from this interview with Heather Anne:
Heather Anne, could you start by giving us a sense of a typical day for you?
A typical day for me since recent illness forced me to slow down a bit would be getting up rather slowly because mornings are not my best time. Then I would have breakfast and take my medication and do my physio. After showering and dressing I feel like I’m ready to face the day. Each day is different but I try to spend time working on the administration of the charity that I’m involved with in India. I endeavour to fit in some time for writing. I also make sure that I have a walk during the day so that I break up my activities. I have a son who is severely disabled so I am often advocating for him or if not advocating, in touch with the group home where he lives making sure he is happy and checking in on him generally. I have a few hobbies. I play piano when I have time. I have mad little moments doing ballet and yoga around the house, not particularly well but just the movements that I remember. Because of the charity, I began to learn Hindi, which is my mother tongue. We always spoke English at home so it was completely new to me. I love the Devanagnari script and can read at a very basic level. I speak German fluently and I have recently made a friend who not only speaks German but enjoys walking as well so we combine those two things. I have a general love of languages and poetry. So reading, walking, playing the piano, writing books all keep me occupied and out of mischief. I do all the mundane stuff as well but try to do household tasks and general administration mindfully. I have lots of fun with friends in Australia and many friends overseas and I try to keep up with them all.
One of our reasons for coming together was to talk about your migration history. I understand that it began when your family migrated from India to England and then eventually when you came with family to Australia. How old were you when your family left India?
I was three or four years old I think, when we arrived in England in summer and there is a slight memory of arriving at South Hampton docks and thinking how cold it was even though it was summer and that my dress was too thin.
What do you remember of life in India
Mum was one of a pool of secretaries at Vice Regal House in Shimla in the foothills of the Himalayas. The house had many marble pillars and I can remember lying on the floor cooling my body off on hot days and looking up at those grand pillars. So that’s a very early recollection. I have misty memories of ladies in white saris (ayahs) looking after me. I seemed to think that they were mini mothers that had just come to look after me while my mother was working, but Mum was the real Mum. I remember a general feeling of being safe and loved by the community and as she took me and the ayahs to her place of work, I was always in the next room being spoiled by all sorts of people, mainly the staff and servants.
“My mother, my inspiration”: Heather’s mother with a servant.
What was it that brought your family to England?
I have an upcoming book which details the circumstances leading to my parents leaving India. It also tells the story of the present-day project, which was inspired by my mother’s life. The book jacket is being designed and we are attending to the finishing touches at the moment. So watch this space!
(Update: Heather’s new book, Girls are Pearls, was launched on February 8, 2018. See the bottom of this interview for details of how to order a copy.)
I think the most important reason which led to our family leaving for England was that this was just around the time of partition of India from Pakistan and in the aftermath there was a lot of bloodshed and mayhem, rioting and arson. Women were not safe and my mother had a very special concern because I was a Eurasian child and therefore attracted attention. There was some strong anti-British feeling in some quarters. It was not really possible for her to travel in public with me safely. The other reason was that prominent people in the British administration with whom my mother worked were willing to organise the papers we needed to go to England. An arrangement was made that my mother marry my stepdad, Colin. Colin already knew me. He had seen me being pushed around by an ayah. He bent down to look at me and said, “Hello, young lady. How are you?” That was the first contact we had had before they were married. Dad always remembered that as being a pivotal moment. Arrangements were made very quickly. There was only a skeleton staff and presence in India at the time as most troops had withdrawn. After crossing through the Suez Canal and a long sea voyage behind us we docked at South Hampton and from there we went to Hadleigh in Essex when my stepdad’s family lived. I was made very welcome by Grandad who treated me as if I was a biological member of the family and just naturally took over my care. Grandma was not so happy about the whole thing and she made her feelings known. I guess it was a shock when her son arrived home with an Indian bride and a small child. There were sometimes tensions but Mum soon made herself quite indispensable as she earned good money and ran the household. Dad seemed to have had the goal of working hard to get money together and moving out so that we didn’t have to deal with difficult conditions for too many years. I do remember the sense of security Grandad gave me in England. As a little girl I went to a Methodist Church. The congregation and neighbours also acted like a surrogate family to me. A very dear friend came from that church and we are still friends 68 years later.
You have begun to tell me a little bit about what life was like in England. How old were you when you left England?
So, I’m actually asking about a big span of time. What was life like in England for someone who had come from India?
I was quite an observant child. I was watching people all the time to see what the British reaction was to everything. So I learnt that you shouldn’t wear clashing colours, that you should dress more discreetly and quietly. I didn’t like this at all because I liked vivid colours and jewellery. My mother never made me feel I had to conform in that way and neither did Grandad. Basically, I kept my long hair and my beautiful dresses and the lovely clothes we wore.
No. Just beautiful textiles and colours and things that could represent India for us and we needed that I think. We were true Anglo Indians who took what we liked from each culture and discarded the rest! I was made extremely welcome by many Sunday School teachers and teachers at school. Teachers were very fond of me. I was a conscientious student as I loved learning, especially languages, history and art subjects. I was occasionally bullied and didn’t know how to react and basically I think that was because there was a huge emphasis on behaving in a ladylike fashion. It probably wasn’t in my nature to fight back. I think of our household as an orderly one. It was well run. There were a lot of people living in the house: beside my grandmother and grandfather, there was my mother, father, me, then my little brother, an aunt and uncle on my dad’s side, another aunt who was a single lady, and three boarders, but they were all accepting and delighted to have young children in the household.
How was it that you came to be living in Australia?
Well, we had been through a few problems and I had very poor health in England as a child so I was constantly coping with things like bronchitis and asthma and pleurisy and then I came very close to death in the Asian flu epidemic. In fact my best friend died in that epidemic.
Not the dear friend who you told who was still alive 68 years later?
Maybe I should say I had lots of good friends (laughter) and I considered them all special in their own way. So anyway, this lovely, talented girl died and every winter I was down with health problems and mother was always keeping an anxious eye on my health. I missed a lot of school and teachers were supportive, sending homework to me which I would send back to them but I spent a lot of time in bed and the doctor used to come every week to check on me. Bed rest was the thing in those days but I now think it wasn’t the most positive way to treat a sick child. I am a great fan of physiotherapy and shiatsu massage, which I have had a lot of in Australia during many periods of ill health, and I think it has kept me going and taught me to be more resilient.
It was later as a young wife and mother, I’d been reading the newspaper. I was reading something about walking tall in Australia, just as you do reading the headlines out loud and my now ex-husband heard it and said, “Oh we should go to Australia”. It was a toss-up between Leicester and Australia because he’d been offered a job in Leicester and Australia sounded to him much more exotic and interesting than Leicester. No offence to Leicester! Dad was very enthused about the idea. I was not as enthusiastic as the men as I had little baby boy who was showing signs of not developing normally, so I was more concerned about his welfare than anything else. My mother would never have left me and I wouldn’t have left her either so we all immigrated. We got there first and then my parents came afterwards but we were a family unit.
Heather Anne, how old you are now?
I am 72.
Again I’m asking about a very big space of time but how did life change for you coming here from England?
I think firstly when I came to Australia my concern about my son’s welfare was the number one priority for me. My ex-husband had other priorities which were getting a job and getting settled. My parents chipped in financially because it was obvious to everybody that I would be home with Laurence and would be very unlikely to be able to work outside the home. As time went on we were noticing that he didn’t become toilet trained, he never spoke, and he was hyperactive. All sorts of symptoms were showing themselves and I could see it was going to be a lifetime task and my parents saw themselves as being a backstop. So they paid a deposit on a house for us. We wouldn’t even have dreamt of getting a house ourselves in England. We were living in rented accommodation there. So Mum and Dad put a deposit down on two cheaper houses so that we could both have a home. Home ownership is something I never would have anticipated before we came. So I stayed home with Laurence for basically eighteen years looking after him and it was a huge chunk of my life.
Laurence was finally diagnosed at the Royal Children’s Hospital with a very profound form of autism. There was also speculation about possible brain damage due to the cord being around his neck when he was born, maybe briefly cutting off his oxygen supply.
Fortunately, I had a very wonderful minister who understood the problems we faced and did everything he could to try to ameliorate them. If there was anything he could do to make our lives easier he did it, including putting his name on the roster and coming around to go shopping with me or shower Laurence or wash his hair: any task that was required, on his day off. So we had a really wonderful church community then and I don’t think I would have become an activist as I did in Australia if we had stayed in England. I think it was more set out for you at that time, the path you were to take. It was through coming to Australia and meeting somebody like that priest and the Bishop who helped me and taught me how advocate for the disabled and how to agitate politically for their rights. I learnt how to speak publicly about all these things and I started writing articles. Ita Buttrose wrote me a letter once in response to an article I had written for the Australian Woman’s Weekly and it was a surprise to me. She said she thought I had talent and she encouraged me to think about doing something with my life other than caring for the family. It never occurred to me that I had promise and gifts to use before that point. It helped to think that life wouldn’t always be like this where I would be looking after a disabled child and that at some stage in my life I might be able to go to work.
I think educationally being in Australia was a great help because I got a second chance. I’d been a high school dropout because of other issues in England and so I was able to do my HSC as an adult then I did a training course with the Anglican Church. I became an accredited marriage and family counsellor working for the Church. I worked with clients in the city of Knox in the family planning clinic and also in the city opposite the Cathedral. I had a really good career while I lived here in Australia, satisfying because it was helping others and personally because I was using the skills I had attained during training. This all came towards the time that Laurence went into care so I was preparing for it in those last few years. My ex-husband and I divorced after Laurence went into care but have remained in contact with regard to the care of the children. The only difference now is that our lovely daughter died unexpectedly age 43, a loss which still impacts hugely on both of us.
I think Australia gave me a second chance at realising my potential and then that helped me when I made a later move to Germany with my second husband Gerhard. It also taught me courage as the second time around starting a new life came more easily and was not intertwined with the long and arduous saga of trying to care for a profoundly disabled child as well as navigating through the immigration and settlement process. Another obvious advantage of living in Australia is the splendid health care I have received. Despite an unpromising long-term prognosis, I have survived to this age and have become more resilient and able to manage several serious health conditions.
How long were you in Germany?
What was it like for you as an Australian, living in Germany?
I think I must have arrived in the best situation anyone could possibly find because we went to live in Heidelberg, which is a very beautiful city with a wonderful history and a great university. I was able to continue learning, going to night school, and also attending lectures at the University of Maryland which has a campus there. I was able to keep improving myself. At the same time I attended a German language school and started to build on the German that I learnt at high school. While I was there they asked me if I would become a teacher and teach English to diverse people in Germany. English teachers were in great demand at that time. My employer was the Cambridge School. So their representative came over from the UK to interview me and after this I was sent to many different firms. I was working in factories and in the corporate world, sometimes with apprentices, sometimes with the directors and also secretaries. I also helped with technical English, working with different cultures as their products were sent out worldwide, even down to tips on diplomacy and the best ways to go about making respectful business contacts with foreign customers. The Cambridge School also put me to work at a rehabilitation centre with people recovering from accidents, alcoholism or drug dependency.
I also worked with clients from the American army and from the English church Heidelberg through referrals from the minister. I was able to combine my counselling skills as well as teaching a language, keeping both tracks going. That was a joy to me because I love working. I would occasionally run the discussion group at the Deutsch Amerikaner Institute (set up to help the American and Germans to break down barriers after World War 2). It also assisted Germans who wished to improve their fluency in English. We would discuss all manner of topics. I filled in occasionally for someone for whom it was a permanent job.
I learnt a lot from the German women I encountered in the different firms I was sent to teach English. Some of them were secretaries. They were friendly and took me on outings. One of the ladies had a beautiful house in Baden Baden, a very expensive area in Germany where people went to sanitoriums and rehabilitation. She asked me, “Did you have a contract with your husband when you married him?” I said, “No”. She asked, “Oh, what would you do if anything happened… if he ran off … I don’t know what … any conceivable thing that could happen … what would you do?” I said, “I’d probably be alright and looked after in some way”. She said, “Oh, no. We like to make contracts. I’m going out with a man right now and we’ve already made a contract in the event of anything going on so that my interests are covered”. Then I talked to other women and they told me that, yes, they took quite a business-like attitude to relationships and they were amazed that I thought just being in love and getting married was sufficient. You don’t just take the word of your spouse that things would be okay. Now I think they were right. But my husband was so kind and generous that I don’t regret trusting him. He made every provision for my welfare and independence in Germany.
As time went on I came to value those women so much. They always made me laugh and pulled me up when they considered I’d done something “last century” in terms of the society that Germany was at that time. There was my old-fashioned attitude to the sauna, for example. There everyone goes nude, something I wasn’t going to do. It didn’t fit in with my cultural background. I remember the first time it happened. I was asked to go and when I carefully checked, “Is it going to be naked?” and I was told, “Yes”, I said, “I don’t think I’ll be going to that then, because I wouldn’t be comfortable.” I really didn’t want to see my students naked or vice versa. One of them just smiled and said in German, “You have so many inhibitions.” It made me realise that even in sexual attitudes the way we are brought up really has such an impact on us and I understood they were just much more matter-of-fact about nudity. It wasn’t a big deal to them at all. I, however, wasn’t going to change my views on that one!
It was very interesting and happy time for me. I also got to do some travelling that I’d never done as a young person so that was great, going all over the continent. It was a really good time for me and full of fond memories.
How would you say that your experience of migration has shaped you as a person?
I think it’s make me observant. In each place as there were certain things that stuck with me because they were different and it meant I had to learn them or at least understand them. So in South East England I had to learn not to be quite so impetuous when hugging and kissing people (laughter) and to hold back a little bit because they were quite reserved. Nevertheless I was very loved by all the people in the village. I appreciated that it took a different form but they were very fond of me. My own father was a constant source of wonder because he was the image of Prince Philip and he even walked like him. He had that really British understatement and irony. Just listening to him speak was quite interesting sometimes because you caught that hidden meaning rather than the actual words. It’s made me observant and made me listen deeply and observe body language, I think.
Coming to Australia was another change. I had always been a village girl. I think I like living in villages. I found it very hard living in a suburb and very lonely during the day because I had Laurence and he couldn’t speak and I was busy all the time while I stayed home with him. They were probably the hardest years. I only managed to change that through education and through George the priest. He pushed me out of the house and then he got me to talk to politicians. Also the young wives group. I couldn’t actually go to meetings but they made me an honorary member and I had a lot of contact with them. I couldn’t go to the prayer group very often but they stayed in touch with me all the time by telephone, visiting and cards, so I had a feeling that people were very, very caring. I didn’t really adapt to the Aussie sport thing at all. I was told by many people that you should pretend to have a football team and pretend that you barracked for them but I decided I wasn’t going to do that. For me Australia shines because of the fact that we have the basic necessities of a good medical system, housing, education and a reasonable amount of fairness in society (but this is not to forget the people who fall through the cracks even in the lucky country).
There are some things that I find especially harsh in today’s climate – the treatment of asylum seekers on Manus Island for example – but on the whole I would say that the standard of living has been very good in Australia. I have a lot of Australian friends and I quite like the volunteer ethic, which was quite new to me. I don’t mean that neighbours didn’t do individual acts of kindness in other countries because they did but I just found this whole idea of volunteering as a matter of fact thing that people did very commendable. I also made full use of volunteers in the things that I set up myself, like the charity in India and so on.
The charity helps impoverished Indian women learn work skills so that they can be empowered and able to earn their own money. It also provides crèches for their children and there is a centre for disabled children and adults. There are rural and slum projects and women of all castes and religions are accepted. It has been running for over 17 years with the help of Australian volunteers and fundraisers.
One of the things that I often hear … this has only been in the last few years since our attitudes … Australia’s attitudes towards refugees and so on … there’ve been big changes in the last few years … and one of the things I sometimes hear, and sometimes quite angrily, is that the standard of English should be so much better and that the English test should be hard. My experience is that even when you have quite a good working knowledge of language there are many things that are difficult to understand in another culture. When I went to Germany I thought, “Oh well I speak German. I learnt German at school,” but it was in no way sufficient for all the situations I met. It’s because I love language that I kept working at it. Also, I spoke High German, which was what we were taught in school but I lived in an area where many people spoke three different dialects so I would make a comment in High German but I couldn’t always understand what was said back to me. It took me some years to understand those different dialects.
I think people are very unfair when they think about the impact of coming thousands of miles from another country and culture and you are trying to get over trauma and find a job and go to work and find your place in society, and they expect very good English. It’s just too early for that generation, I think. The second generation of course is not going to have so much of a problem. I’ve had many conversations in broken English with Italians, Greeks, all sorts of people on the streets and sign language is pretty good too and a hug or a smile goes a long way. Survival English, which can basically cover their needs, is a high enough standard at that particular stage of finding their place in a new society. It doesn’t really matter if people speak broken English and have to have things explained to them. It’s good for us to do that for them; it is something that we can do and help with. I feel quite sad at the way things have changed. When we came from England, we came as £10 POMS, because my Dad was British. It was easy for us. We spoke the language. We didn’t have to learn a new language. People kept saying, “Oh, you are new Australians”, and we had no reason to think we weren’t wanted. In fact, Australia wanted people (especially British migrants) in those years. The attitude has hardened so much in the last little while. That’s the only sad thing about Australia that has impacted on me over these past few years. I’ve made a point of greeting every person I meet wearing a headscarf, just to make them know that for some of us they are welcome. Sometimes it might be good idea for us to think how privileged we are in this place. We have roofs over our heads, we drive around in cars, have plenty, are never hungry, and have possibilities to better ourselves. With all that privilege, I think we should be able to share and there are many ways of sharing. Country towns could be revitalised by people from overseas and they would be. I think that has happened in some places but we could do so much more with that.
Before we started this interview, you mentioned that coming to Australia was important in your journey towards becoming a writer. Could you say more about that?
I had always written small articles and things like that since coming to Australia. I would write articles and send them off to magazines or newspapers or the church news. So I did write things but I never would have thought of writing a book and I think it’s only because of the experiences I’ve had as a result of having better educated myself in Australia that have given me such an interesting life. It’s given me something very rich to fall back on when it comes to writing. I do seem to have some creativity and inspirations and I just think I would not have had the confidence as a young adult in England to write a book.
Could you tell us about your book?
The book was called, The War Against Apathy: A family’s battle with autism (2013). It’s a kind of memoir in a way and it’s about our experiences bringing up a severely disabled son on the very lowest end of the autistic spectrum. He had no speech and was completely vulnerable. He had no understanding of danger and would turn on water and electrical switches and put things down the back of televisions, among other things. He had a habit of absconding and his self-harming got worse as he got older. So basically, the book is about his life, the army of volunteers who came into his life and helped the government understand that there was a need to set up small group homes. At the time most children who were as afflicted as he was would have gone into an institution at an early age. Having visited the institutions I felt that was something I couldn’t in all conscience allow to happen and so therefore we decided we were going to be as active as we could in running a media campaign and talking to politicians and sending off the submission. I had volunteers helping with all sorts of things. We had a little kindergarten. It was not used on Saturdays so we asked the kindergarten if we could borrow the premises and many disabled children were taken for the day to this kindergarten and volunteers from the church would look after them. It was organised like a crèche. All the children had special needs and this was the way of helping to prop up families until we could get something more substantial in place. We did lots of things in those early years and I think the whole process took from 1980 to 1985, until the first home was up and running. Then of course the Department of Human Services took over and from that point on I had to be Laurence’s advocate. This is the story is about how all that happened and about the impact that having a child like Laurence has in the community. One of the things I wanted to bring out was that without in anyway denying how difficult and how stressful it is for families, in ways that I think are not even apparent to people, at the same time I would say that a child like Laurence provides employment. So many people have had work because of him: carers, social workers and psychologists, doctors and even psychiatrists. All these people have benefited from what is really an industry because there are these homes all over Victoria and Australia. It’s a good thing for the economy. In another way, everyone I have ever met has always said that this has helped them grow and become a better person through working with the disabled. I think a lot of that is about intangible lessons. I have noticed that people grow in character when they have to understand somebody who can’t speak for themselves and need to try to work out ways to make their lives more comfortable and safe. Even then, we’ve had some horrendous times and some big worries around the absconding. On one occasion, he was missing for eight hours in the Dandenongs and another more recent occasion it was a couple of hours at Mornington Peninsula. It’s at a time like that where we don’t know where he is and you’re absolutely terrified that he might meet with an accident or just get in some random stranger’s car or walk out into the sea or get lost in the undergrowth in the Dandenongs – anything could happen – that you realise how precious these people are to their families and also to the community. I say also to the community, judging by the wonderful people who have searched for him and the kindly way he has been treated by the police, who speak to him gently, give him food and drink and restore him to the people who love him.
A different sort of question. If someone saw you in the street who didn’t know you, what is something they might be surprised to know about you?
Well, I think they probably be surprised to know that I stayed home for 18 years and cared for a child like Laurence and that it was for many hours a day and night as he didn’t sleep for more than 2 hours and was very hyperactive. There was no time off unless I became ill and was hospitalised. This had an enormous impact on our family and great sacrifice was required. While I appreciate that today couples in this situation may receive more help and support at an earlier age, with early intervention, it is still a very hard job, even with the supports that they get. When I look back now I even surprise myself that I stuck it out for all that time. I used to tell myself, “Let’s do it one day at a time”.
Is there anything else that you like the reader to know about you?
I think I’ve always made the best of any place that I’ve lived and I sort of made a family wherever I’ve gone. I think I’ve been really fortunate. It may not look like it on the outside because people would see that I’ve been uprooted, survived a difficult 48 years as the mother of a severely autistic person and experienced intense grief, losing parents, a husband and a child. On the other side of the scales, if you were to weigh them up, I would say that I’ve had the most wonderful experiences, including through the people that I’ve met in my travels. I wouldn’t be without those experiences. One lady said to me, “Your life is like a Greek drama. I can’t think why you haven’t killed yourself” (laughing), and I remember thinking, “There is joy”. There is joy that she may not have understood. Maybe many people would just see it as a very difficult and arduous kind of life and I’m not avoiding that or colouring it in a different way than it is – it is what it is – but I think there’s also another side which isn’t recognised.
There is so much happiness and meaning in following the path that is set out for you and accepting precious gems of friendship along the way.
To order a copy of Heather’s new book, Girls are Pearls, or her earlier book, The War against Apathy, readers can be in touch with her on firstname.lastname@example.org.
This interview is part of the This Is Us Australia project. If you are interested in taking part, please read our Project Description and use our Contact page or email us at thisisusaustralia at gmail.com.