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Interview

The Traveller in Time

In Conversation with Sybil Pretious

Sybil Pretious in Morocco. Photograph provided by Sybil Pretious

She paints. She writes. And she has lived through history. She was born in a country that no longer exists. The borders changed with movements of history. In South Africa in the late 80’s, early 90’s she ran a Nursery School attached to the local Primary School for whites. She lived through Nelson Mandela’s movement. As laws changed she admitted the first black child into the school in 1993. She writes of celebrating the first democratic elections in South Africa: “I felt ecstatic. I realised that it was not only the Africans who had been freed to be equal citizens, but I felt free too. I had been released from the enormous guilt and helplessness that had been part of daily living during apartheid.” She lived through it all and soared out to explore more…

Sybil Pretious is a  woman who has travelled through life with an élan for assimilating the best in all cultures she has lived in, and she has lived in many. She has lived in six countries and travelled to forty. I met her in China, where she was teaching in an international school. She was like a beam of sunshine. She retired and left. Then we met virtually in a world devoid of borders. While she wrote of her travels from China, the part of her life where she lived through incidents we only read of in history remained silent. That is what we set out to explore in this interview. At an age where others retire and complain of aches and pains, she is writing a biography of her mother and looks forward to traveling, painting, and writing more. Now, this traveller in time, with a heart full of compassion, calls herself a South African, lives in United Kingdom and unfolds for us the story of her life.

Tell us about your childhood in South Africa.

My childhood was never spent in South Africa. The first 23 years of my life were spent in Southern Rhodesia/ Rhodesia. Rhodesia joined Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland as the Federation – 1953-1963). Rhodesia declared UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence) from Britain in 1965. This lasted for 13 years and in 1980 after much conflict Rhodesia became Zimbabwe.

Only now, when I look back do I realise how much of an influence my childhood had on my passage through life.

Rhodesia, part of the British empire, a land-locked country almost in the centre of Africa, was first colonised by the BSA Company (British South Africa Company) lead by Cecil Rhodes in 1890 when mineral rights were granted by the chief, Lobengula. The country was named after Rhodes. It had a perfect climate and was known as ‘The Breadbasket of Africa’ for the high-quality food crops the farmers produced. Sadly, now, there are many people who do not have enough to eat in the country.

My parents met and married in in 1934. My dad was born in Rhodesia in 1901. His father had been one of the early pioneers in the 1890’s. My mother travelled from Kimberley in South Africa where she was born, to Rhodesia in 1926.

My dad refused to go to university because his father would not allow him to study Mine Engineering. My mother had little education because she was so involved with helping her mother with her six siblings.

I was born in 1942. Fortunately, my father was too old to enlist for World War II. I arrived six years after my elder brother and sister and my arrival was greeted with joy. I was the centre of attention and loved it, generally revelling in the light shining on me and responding to it. From then on, I tried to please everyone. I was not enamoured when two-and-a-half years after my birth my younger sister made an appearance followed a year after that by my younger brother. Of necessity they became the focus of attention, and I became more of a loner and learnt to enjoy my own company.

My father had a great love of the outdoors, prospecting, and mining for gold. Mum grew to love the peace of the veld in his company. During my parents’ first few years of marriage, they moved often as gold reefs ran out. They also farmed during this period. Eventually when they settled in the capital, Salisbury, and made their money by purchasing land, building a house, living in it for a short while before selling it and moving on to the next project.

This made for a rather interrupted childhood where we changed homes and schools often. I attended four different schools in the first four years of my schooling. When I finally had some settled years in a Primary School, I did well. I was the star of the family, but it put a lot of pressure on me to perform.

As children we found it difficult to make and keep friends, but this constant change equipped us for adapting to many different situations. My elder sister insisted on going to Boarding School just so that she could make friends and I think get away from her three younger siblings.

With the wonderful climate in Rhodesia, I spent much of my free time during childhood out of doors. We had one-acre gardens that were generally virgin veld. They provided many opportunities to explore, invent games, problem solve, and use our imaginations.

I loved going to the library in Salisbury and taking out many books, especially adventure stories and visualised myself in the roles of the characters. I created imaginary people and used the natural world to feature in my make-believe stories. Although we were always moving, there was no lack of childhood company as our cousins lived close by. But of course, they were not the same as friends.

Our holidays were spent mainly in Rhodesia, camping in the Eastern Highlands. I loved camping and still do even at my age. On occasion we travelled to Natal in South Africa or Beira in Mozambique for seaside holidays. In our teens we went in friend’s cars on wonderful picnics to dams where we swam and water-skied. We visited the beautiful outdoor places with names like ‘Mermaid’s Pool’ and Sinoia Caves with its mysterious bottomless pool. We scrambled over rocks and climbed hills and had parties on friends’ farms. It was generally a carefree existence in the open air.

My contact with Africans was mainly when we lived on farms. I enjoyed sitting in the dust with a few of the children and pretending to ‘teach’ them. I had a small blackboard, and I would write a word and say it and they had to repeat it and copy in the sand. I used fingers to indicate numbers and showed them how to count (though I am sure they could do that in their own language). They did not attend our schools and we rarely saw the children or mothers in towns. The African men worked as servants in our homes.

Did you often visit other countries during your childhood?

The only other countries I visited during childhood were South Africa and Mozambique for holidays. I loved reading about other countries and was always fascinated the by different peoples, climates, and lifestyles.

Can you recall a memorable event?

The most memorable day in the whole of my time in Africa must be the day of the first democratic elections in South Africa on 27th April 1994.

On that day I remember rising early, stowing a water bottle, some sandwiches and fruit in my backpack.  The closest polling station was not far from where I lived so I walked. It was a beautiful day. Clear sky, warm sun (though that proved to be hot after many hours of standing). My husband had decided to go later. I was astonished at the long queues that had formed – some literally miles long. I approached and found myself standing behind two Africans and Indian lady. We all greeted each other warmly clasping two hands together and greeting in our own languages. Later as the time wore on in the heat I shared my water, fruit and sandwiches. Our discussions were general – the weather, our families, where we had come from and how glad we were to be there at this historic time.  They had all travelled further than I had but there was no grumbling as we stood patiently.

There was an air of calm euphoria.

I felt ecstatic. I realised that it was not only the Africans who had been freed to be equal citizens, but I felt free too. I had been released from the enormous guilt and helplessness that had been part of daily living during apartheid.  We could only treat the people in our employ with sympathy and fairness, but the rules of apartheid shackled our relationships. It was a day of hope for everyone chatting, showing kindness, laughter and waiting patiently to vote.

There was not one adverse incident throughout the country and foreign journalists were disappointed that violence had not broken out. This day was the greatest example of forgiveness and acceptance that I have ever witnessed. I feel privileged and blessed to have been there.

You are writing your mother’s memoirs tell us about it.

My mother was born in 1904 and lived until 2001. At sixteen, she was the eldest of seven siblings in Kimberly, South Africa, when her mother was tragically killed in a shooting accident which involved her brother. When her father remarried, she felt rejected and left to stay with a friend. With little knowledge except of cooking and shopping for her mother she took on the job of manageress of a bakery and improved her education by reading the newspaper to her friend’s blind father and writing letters for him.

Eventually she decided to relocate to the newly annexed colony of Southern Rhodesia. The story records her many personal challenges in this pioneering country – some sad, some hair raising, some very amusing and others poignant. When she married my father, their resourcefulness was tested to the limit with five children to raise. She is an example of courage, inventiveness, creativity, love and sheer grit in pioneering times. It encompasses family life in a fledgling country.

 I want my children and grandchildren to know about their roots so that they may be as fearless and resourceful as my mother was in very testing circumstances.

Why did you write about your mother specifically?

I wrote about my mother because the first sixteen years of her life were very demanding as she helped her mother with her six siblings at home while missing school.  The death of her mother left her without a purpose in life as the family was dispersed.

She is a shining example of getting on with life no matter the circumstances. Subsequently with her marriage the story includes my father. They have both been inspirational in different ways. My mother for her love, steely determination and creative thinking, my father for his quiet, never-ceasing support of her and us.

My mother, despite her poor schooling manged a bakery, worked in a department store, designed the houses they built, helped build them and was there for her children. She never hired any help to look after us. She was thrifty, made all our clothes and was a tower of strength in our family as well as being adored by her siblings.

She remains the most positive person I have ever known despite having no help with getting over the death of her mother. Her influence on my outlook in life is tremendous and while the story is mainly hers, it honours both of my parents.

How many countries have you lived in?  Tell us a bit about why you moved.

I have lived in six countries but travelled to about forty. My home country is of course Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.

I travelled to UK age 23 and lived here for a year working and travelling.

When I married in 1967 my husband was from Swaziland, so we lived this beautiful mountainous country for three years. Our first precious daughter was born there.

We moved to South Africa in 1971 and lived mainly in Durban and Johannesburg in the next 30 years. Our precious two younger daughters were born in Durban. This was during the apartheid years. In 1988, we bought a trading store in the rural cane farming area out of Durban and with no experience plunged into that way of life. Our customers were mainly Zulu farm workers. During that time, I started a Pre-School and admitted the first African child. These were the years leading up to the first democratic election and there were many tumultuous incidents during that time. Our venture failed and we returned to Johannesburg to recoup our losses.

While I was teaching, I studied for my BA by correspondence, and did a Remedial Teaching qualification.

 In 2003, I obtained a teaching post at an International School in Maputo, Mozambique, commuting back to Durban during the holidays. After two years, I realised that I needed to be on my own and in 2005 our divorce went through.

 In 2006, I secured a teaching post at an international school in Suzhou, China. I spent the next six years in this fascinating country. This was a really special time in my teaching career and life and fuelled my passion for travel. Precious people in a spectacular country, they will always remain dear to me. In 2012, I had no choice but to retire at age 70.

I have not taught since moving to the UK but have enjoyed the history, walking in gentle countryside, painting, singing in a choir, Circle Dancing and of course writing. This has been a beautiful retirement.

Which country has been the most memorable and why?

Many people ask me which is the best country I have ever been to or lived in. My answer is simple:

“The best country in the world is wherever I am.”

Of course, no one is satisfied with that answer even though it is perfectly true. I look for the best in each country I go to and tell the people I meet.

I generally find that it is then very easy to settle into a new place.  

If I was forced to choose a country, my home country would be the one – wonderful people, perfect climate and terrain and a relaxed lifestyle.

What has been your learning from all your travels?

I have learnt that there is no substitute for my own very special daughters. While on my travels they and their families were so often in my thoughts, and I have learnt that sacrifices are made when you are away from your family.

I have learnt to welcome differences instead of looking for similarities in cultures.

I have learnt that you need not speak a language to communicate. Communication comes in many forms.

I have learnt to go with the unexpected as wonderful surprises often ensue.

I have learnt that the way in which you approach people is usually what will be returned to you.

I have learnt that this world of ours is infinitely beautiful in so many different ways.

I have learnt that we need to take better care of our precious planet.

I have learnt to take risks and not to fear the unknown.

And I have learnt to appreciate and understand differences and similarities in countries and peoples.

How did you get impacted by the pandemic? How did you tackle it?

I did not weather the pandemic very well during the first lockdown in 2020. In 2019, I had just moved into a new complex, gone through winter, then spent a month in South Africa with my family so had little time to meet people and settle in. I returned to UK the day that lockdown started. My youngest daughter and family lived fairly close, but I was unable to see much of them.

I am usually positive in most situations, but my mind appeared to lockdown during this time.

I gave up painting, playing the ukulele and at times writing during those months. I cleared out a lot of stuff that I didn’t really need so that was good, but it was a very frustrating time for me as I was considered too old to volunteer for anything. I didn’t consider myself vulnerable and resented being told what was supposedly ‘good for me’. By the time the second lock down came in 2021, I had inherited my granddaughter’s little dachshund called Hope. She has indeed brought hope and joy to my life. And now that we are almost back to normal, I seem to be re-igniting my creativity.

Do you see any commonality among people across different cultures and in different places?

People are people throughout the world. Unfortunately, borders are created by governments. Wherever I have travelled my reception has always been generous and helpful. People are curious and show exceptional interest in the differences between our cultures. Laughter often follows explanations. I have been asked to give a speech at a Chinese wedding and had toasts in my honour. I have slept on beds with bamboo pillows and climbed mountains with local people. I feel blessed for the acceptance I have experienced.

Travelling without expecting other cultures to mimic your own; expecting and experiencing exciting and interesting differences is the most gratifying point of travel. I have been privileged to be accepted into the homes of local people in many countries which is why I like to travel on my own or perhaps with one other. The real joy of travel and culture is to be found in local places with local people, not in hotels and on organised tours.

Click here to read the adventures of the Backpacking Granny – Sybil Pretious.

Emerging by Sybil Pretious

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty)

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
A Special Tribute

Gandhi & Our Future

Bapu or Gandhi (2 October 1869 – 30 January 1948) on India’s currency. Courtesy: Creative commons

Gandhi with his call to combat violence and hatred with non- violence and truth is perhaps a voice that needs to be  recalled out of history books on dusty shelves. His ideals cry out to be retrieved beyond the reach of currency notes, statues, buildings, names of parks and roads. Like Tagore, we may not agree with all his ideas but he put together an ideology which, perhaps, could be realised and implemented to make a better world across borders. If peace is forced by nuclear warheads and the ruthless are allowed a field day to govern any country because they have the might, perhaps it is time to question the efficacy of manmade constructs created through history, especially after the Second World War. Do we want bloodshed, chaos and the pandemic to be part of our daily news? Or, can we explore the philosophy of a man who mingled the best from the East and the West to create a system which has impacted many across the world? Leaders and great statesmen learnt from him — Martin Luther King Junior, Nelson Mandela, Al Gore, Barack Obama, John Lennon and Albert Einstein to name a few — just as he had learnt from greats across the world. 

Today, in an attempt to recall the best in Gandhi’s philosophy, we wanted to present to you a selection that tries to connect us with his ideals — give a glimpse of his dreams that might have led to a better world if we only had listened and acted. Of the pieces we are showcasing here, some have painted a world that needs a Gandhi while others have written what they imbibed from his ideals into their own lives. Can we ride on the crescendo with these voices to achieve a better future for our children by embedding and internalising his values?

Interview

Santosh Bakaya interviews Tushar Gandhi, great-grandson of Mahatma Gandhi. Click here to read.

Poetry

Gandhi & the Robot

A poem relooking at Gandhi’s ideology in the present context, written in Manipuri by Thangjam Ibopishak and translated by Robin S Ngangom. Click here to read.

A Poem for Dreamers

Michael R Burch wrote this poem under the spell of the famed “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Junior, an ardent practitioner of  Gandhi’s ideology, a student and disciple of the Mahatma. Click here to read.

Fiction

In Bapu, Denied, Sunil Sharma pulls Gandhi down from a pedestal and explores his ideals in the current world. Click here to read.

Non-Fiction

What Gandhi Teaches Me

Candice Louisa Daquin applies Gandhiism to her own lived experiences. Click here to read.

When West meets East, Greatness Blooms

From our treasury, Debraj Mookerjee reflects on how syncretism impacts greats like Gandhi, Tagore, Tolstoy, Emerson, Martin Luther King Jr and many more. Click here to read.

Categories
Interview

In conversation with Devaki Jain

Devaki Jain: With Permission from Devaki Jain and Speaking Tiger Books

A woman who at eighty-eight brought out her autobiography based on the urgings of among others, Alice Walker, author of  the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Colour Purple , and  Doris Lessing, the Nobel Laureate — only much later. Like Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, her biography is called The Brass Notebook. Does it talk anti-war or feminism or womanism? I am not sure. What it does show is a woman who despite being surrounded by patriarchal norms managed to live her life as she wanted without resorting to schools of ‘isms’ or feeling injured. In the process, she met many great people and tried to bring in changes or reforms.

Devaki Jain, born in 1933,  graduated in economics and philosophy from St Anne’s College, Oxford and is an Honorary Fellow of the college. She is a recipient of the Padma Bhushan (2006) and an honorary doctorate from the University of Westville, Durban, South Africa.

Needless to say the best introduction to her work and her person comes from well-known feminist journalist,  Gloria Steinem: “Your heart and world will be opened by reading The Brass Notebook the intimate and political life of Devaki Jain, a young woman who dares to become independent even as a country of India does. Because she’s also my oldest friend I can tell you there is no one like her, yet only here in her writings have I learned the depth, breadth and universality of adventures.”

The interview probably reinforces her non-conformist outlook. In an age when intellectuals bicker over terminology and social media becomes the fulcrum of our lives, she lives by her convictions. Despite writing an absolutely gripping autobiography, she has revealed only a bit of herself. Through the interview, I tried to entice more but I got only a very brief glimmer. Her autobiography painted a liberal, liberated and open thinker who fearlessly fought her way against patriarchal and colonial mindsets. In this exclusive, I invite you to savour her spirit at a stage in life when most talk mainly of geriatric issues. Devaki Jain for you —

You were a very independent lady for your times. Could you find parallels of women like yourself in diverse cultures?

Women have been revolutionaries, radical thinkers, resistance leaders, dissenters for centuries. There are not many records of this but one of my colleagues found that there were groups of women, for example, in China even as far as the 12th century who were dissenters. Therefore, the knowledge may not have been recorded but striking for independence and striking for justice has been a part of women’s lives for centuries. 

What drove you to be as you were? What made you feel that marriage was not the ultimate aim of all existence in the 1950s and 1960s?

(a)What drives people to do things differently? This is not an easy question to answer, people are born differently with different aspirations and different nervous systems. It is like asking an artist what helped you to be such a brilliant artist. Such questions are not appropriate. 

(b) I think this question is badly framed that I felt that marriage was not the ultimate aim, it was not like that. It was just that I felt there were other things that I wanted to do.

A young Devaki Jain. With permission from Devaki Jain & Speaking Tiger Books

How supportive was your family, especially your father, of your sense of independence?

My father was an enigma, while he wanted to submit to orthodoxy, he was also very respectful of those who wanted to do things differently. So, in a sense, I think he was supportive of my desire for independence. 

You did face some amount of familial sexual harassment. Did it scar you for life? How did you get over the trauma?

My uncle’s sexual assault on me did not scar me for life, there was no particular need to get over the trauma. In a situation of living in cloisters with family bounds there is no space for lifelong traumas.

You spoke of how funding went inadvertently hand in hand with a different kind of colonial outlook. Would you say that is still true?

No, currently I think both the donors and the receivers have understood the difference and respect the difference.

Womanism is a term you have spoken of in your book. How is this different from feminism in your perspective?

I was basically supporting Alice Walker’s definition and I support her perspective. Please refer to my quotation from Alice Walker*.

[*Alice Walker quote from Pg 173-174, The Brass Notebook, Speaking Tiger, 2020: “As long as the world is dominated by racial ideology that places whites above people of colour, the angle of vision of the womanist, coming from a culture of colour, will be of a deeper, more radical penetration. This is only logical. Generally speaking, for instance, white feminists are dealing with the oppression they receive from white men, while women of colour are oppressed by men of colour as well as white men, as well as by many white women. But on the joyful side, which we must insist on honouring, the womanist is, like the creator of the word, intent on connecting with the earth and cosmos, with dance and song. With roundness, thankfulness and joy. Given a fighting chance at living her own life, under oppression that she resists, the womanist has no or few complaints. Her history has been so rough—captured from her home, centuries of enslavement, apartheid, etc—she honours Harriet Tubman by daily choosing freedom over the fetters of any internalized slavery she might find still lurking within herself. Whatever women’s liberation is called, it is about freedom. This she knows. Having said this, I have no problem being called “feminist” or “womanist.” In coining the term, I was simply trying myself to see more clearly what sets women of colour apart in the rainbow that is a world movement of women who have had enough of being second–and third–class citizens of the earth. One day, if earth and our species survive, we will again be called sacred and free. Our proper names.”]

Do you think women’s issues across the world are similar? How should they be dealt with?

It is believed that women’s oppression comes from patriarchy which of course is worldwide. I do not think I can answer the second part of the question – “how should it be dealt with?” — except writing three other books.

With Fidel Castro in Cuba as a member of the South Commission. With permission from Devaki Jain & Speaking Tiger Books

You have spoken of how the South Commission fell through. Can you tell us why? Is this what happens very often?

The South Commission fell apart because of a failure of solidarity between the south countries. It was a political statement to join the South together as an economic platform. When it failed, it failed all that. 

You tried to bring many changes for the welfare of women across India and beyond. Will you tell us a bit about the perceived problems and solutions that we could find?

I do not think I attempted to bring changes for the welfare of women. I think I was basically pointing out the contribution that women made to the economy and how they were being discriminated against. 

What are your future plans, presuming you are going to be a grand dame of 150 years?

I would like to write, write and write.

What would be the advice you would like to give young women living in today’s world?

Follow your dreams and don’t be frightened of orthodoxy. 

Thank you for giving us some of your time.

Nelson Mandela, Graca Machel, Devaki Jain, Lakshmi Jain at a reception. With permission of Devaki Jain & Speaking Tiger
With Dr Julius Nyere (centre) in Cuba, 1989. With permission from Devaki Jain & Speaking Tiger Books
With Desmond & Leah Tutu, Pretoria, 1998. with permission from Devaki Jain & Speaking Tiger Books

All the photographs are published with thanks to the author, Devaki Jain, and the publisher, Speaking Tiger Books.

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This has been an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL