Starfish publisher Peter Rigby was at Woollies recently when he ran into a favourite aunt, Sue Glasfurd. Newly returned from India, her eyes lit up as she recounted the adventures she and other family members had as they’d set out to explore the sub-continent and find the small town named after their relatives. Their adventure even made headlines in Indian newspapers! “I have written something about this for the family – I’ll send it to you,” she enthused. Once we read it, we found it so fascinating we thought you may enjoy it too:
By Susan Glasfurd OAM
This is a family tale, of three people on a mission.
We grew up in a joyful, sometimes chaotic family home of three boys and one girl living on a large farming property in Western Australia. A long way from the sub-continent: but India has had a huge role in our family background.
Our father had been born in Pune. His father and two uncles had been born in Matheran. His father’s father was also born in India, as were earlier generations.
Many were the tales our father told. His stories were never ending; but then we knew he was a great raconteur, a great yarn spinner…and where was this place India anyway? As children, this land seemed just another element of his exciting fairy tales.
And so it was that in our 80s, my brother Peter, his wife Jennifer and I finally went to India together to retrace our family history.
It’s a history of explorers, the military, fleets of sailing ships and the spice trade. Of surgeons, surveyors, engineers, magistrates and commissioners, of forts and unknown tribal people, of deities and gods. We wanted to understand the steps that they took, the paths they trod, the places they lived – and why they developed an undying love for India.
While there, they made regular trips back to their ancestral homes in Scotland. But they had a homesickness for their adopted country, which at times became overwhelming.
What and who we are, and what we are not, we never know without following history. It was this history of ours that we wished to follow.
We’d found in books and ancient family diaries that most of this history seemed to point towards India.
We gave ourselves four short weeks to find out about their lives and times, and to retrace any recoverable, tangible family history.
We went to India with a sense that it was where we belonged. It would be our own adventure, as we did not know what we would find, where our journey would take us, or where it would end.
The question was where to start? After much detective work we knew of houses that had been built in a village named after our great grandfather, Charles Lamont Robertson Glasfurd, an engineer and surveyor and Commissioner in India.
We planned to try and discover the village and some of the houses (if they still existed). By chance, or was it fate, we met a lovely Indian family who helped us considerably.
The village, Glasfard Petha, was found to be fairly close to Sironcha and the whereabouts of two houses supposedly nearby were mapped out approximately. We decided to tackle the village first.
Of course, communication would be a problem, as we only spoke English and they would probably only speak their tribal language. Undaunted we carried on, our vehicle dutifully installed with a driver and guide who spoke various Indian languages, both of whom had been recommended by our India travel agent, who had joined enthusiastically in our pursuit.
Our first port of call was to be Glasfurd Petha. An internal plane trip, a stay over night and a long car drive eventually got us heading along a road in need of much repair, winding in and out through the jungle.
Then suddenly we came to a halt. We were there. There at Glasfard Petha. And what a welcome we received!
We arrived unannounced to a bewildered and bemused group of men and boys. Then many more came running towards us. Soon there was a mob. We were surrounded. Who were these strange people?
We got out of the car smiling and tried a rather pathetic attempt at sign language. Of course, verbal communication on our part was impossible, however our interpreter got into the act immediately, explaining who we were and why we were there.
The excitement was infectious and the mob grew bigger; men, women and children speaking excitedly, merging into one collective gleeful crowd. Cameras on mobile phones flashed constantly, the children goggle-eyed, it was as though we were from another planet.
We asked through our interpreter to see the head man, who spoke for a while about the village and its history, and then asked could we look around.
Oddly enough, just a few months prior to our arrival, a historian had come to the village speaking to them on this very subject, and so it was that they knew our name. Once again it seems that it was fate. We also asked to meet the school teacher, as we hoped he may have further knowledge to impart.
We walked slowly with the head man and the school teacher along the track between the houses, noting it was a tidy and clean little village. Our conversation went back and forth between the head man, teacher, interpreter and us. Following us and surrounding us with their ever-clicking phones were the villagers, more joining us as we moved along.
We were ushered into the head man’s garden. Three chairs had been placed on the verandah and we found ourselves seated as honoured guests. The head man’s wife, now in her best sari, then presented each of us with garlands of beautiful flowers. All the while the cameras were still clicking – and still more were arriving!
We spoke for some time – a very emotional time for us all – and then it was time to go.
The whole village escorted us back to the car. After many farewells, and promises to keep in touch we slowly drove away, surrounded on each side and behind by a crowd of villagers who had gathered to see us off.
As we accelerated slightly, a few of the young men and children started running after us laughing and waving. As we sped up, one ran beside us keeping pace with the car, while others gave in to the inevitability of our departure. We looked back to see him come to a halt, exhausted but still grinning.
The next stop was not so far away: the Police Station. We arrived at the gate to another very bemused group, this time the local police complete with rifles. The premises in which they were located was one of the homes that Charles had resided in while doing important business in the area.
Our uniformed friends gave us a complete tour of the building and pointed out the old well that was used for drinking water. Much more clicking of cameras, chatter and laughter followed..
On we drove. We had previously discovered Charles had built a house on the highest point of Sironcha from the stones of a derelict ruin, and sure enough there is was in all its glory, still standing, and now a Government Guest House.
We managed a full tour of this house as well, with its marble floors, soaring ceilings, staircase and wide terraced portico with steps winding up to the third floor and roof garden. This was where, no doubt, Charles would sit drinking his gin and tonic in the cool of the Indian summer evenings.
Altogether an eventful day. We’d come here find history from fragments of historical notes, to piece them together and create a story for our family history. And we’d learned so very much, at last uncovering why our ancestors had such emotionally strong ties to India.
Our Indian holiday and adventure will remain in our hearts forever.