The question was a pressing one, more insistent as the years passed and my mother grew older and frailer. She was Indian and my late father, English, but what was I?
Each time someone asked where I was from, thinking I looked ‘foreign’ because of my olive skin and dark hair, it niggled. It never offended me, I just wasn’t sure what to say.
Sometimes this prompted the excited follow-up question: ‘So you’re Punjabi?’ My heart would sink because my answer could only disappoint. ‘I’m half-Punjabi, but I’ve never been to the Punjab and I don’t speak the language or any Indian languages at all,’ I’d admit.
Marina Wheeler (pictured) delved into her family history for a memoir, after her mother’s health began failing in 2018
Then, in 2017, around the 70th anniversary of Indian Independence, batting away the question suddenly felt wrong. My ignorance about my cultural heritage would have to end.
I knew only snippets from my Sikh mother’s past. Growing up, I was indifferent to it. As an adult, I was too busy. Cassia, then aged 19 and the third of my four children, crystallised this thought when I talked vaguely about writing a book.
‘Nani is getting on,’ she said, referring to my mother, then 85. ‘She has a good story to tell, and this is your chance to write it. If you faff around she’ll get too old to tell it.’
My father Charles Wheeler, the BBC’s longest-serving foreign correspondent, died in 2008 without producing a memoir. After he was diagnosed with cancer, his decline was fast, and although my sister Shirin and I would note down his stories, we didn’t get very far.
Now my mother’s health was failing. Cassia was right: there was no time like the present.
There were other (unspoken) reasons for embarking on a book. When my then husband became foreign secretary, our canal-side house in Islington was declared too difficult to secure. So we moved the family into a gracious government flat overlooking St. James’ Park and filled the antique dressers with our unruly clutter. While I work out my role in all this, writing will be a welcome change of pace, I thought.
I was a barrister, then a newly appointed Queen’s Counsel, and was run ragged. So, in 2018, I cleared the decks to write my mother’s story. Of course — although I was slow to grasp this — it was my story, too.
Although intensely private, my mother consented to the project. But I knew that if I pushed too hard, she might easily pull down the shutters. So, I coaxed a little and cajoled.
I’d visit her often in the West Sussex cottage where she and my father lived once his foreign postings ended. Casually, I’d pop in a question about the past.
Pictured: Charles Wheeler and Dip Singh in early days
She spoke, though more openly about politics, than personal matters. When she’d had enough, she’d light a cigarette, knowing I’d retreat. Or she’d announce it was time for The Archers, gently, but decisively, dismissing me. I had to laugh. It was her story, and I respected her right to tell it as she wished.
So I embarked on an odyssey, a quest to find my roots, and the journey was extraordinary.
My mother lived through the upheaval of India’s Partition. Her family, fearing for their lives, fled the chaos in terror, losing everything, including their family home.
I learned that she had an early, disastrous arranged marriage and, risking huge disapprobation, fled her ‘thuggish’ husband.
Then she fell in love with my father and crossed continents with him as he worked as a foreign correspondent. Not content with being a subservient wife, she forged her own identity, learned new languages and took two degrees.
My mother spent her girlhood, one of five children, in the city of Sargodha in the Punjab. She lived in a lavish mansion, its floors decorated with mosaics of Italian marble, set in grounds filled with fruit trees and perfumed flowers.
It was paradise, she said. Her father was a local bigwig and a distinguished doctor. During outbreaks of plague and influenza, he would ride on horseback past ragged cliffs and over scrubland — home to leopards, hyenas and bandits — to tend the sick.
For this he won plaudits from the colonial authorities. Valiant and altruistic, he later gained an OBE.
But then the idyll of my mother’s young life was cut short. She was 14 years old when, in 1947, India, until then ruled by the British, gained independence and was partitioned into two independent states, India and Pakistan.
The boundary was drawn through the Punjab, where she lived. Political change bred fear, then hate.
Minorities were set upon. Muslims butchered Sikhs and Hindus, and vice versa. Both communities shot and stabbed and killed and raped.
Pictured: Marina and her mother with the family photo album last year
The scope and scale of the carnage cannot be accurately counted, but up to a million people died. Ten million were displaced, abandoning their homes in terror.
My mother and her brother were sent to the mountains before the Punjab became an inferno of violence. It didn’t occur to her she would never see her home again.
Most families who fled hoped, and expected, to return once the madness passed. But too much blood had been shed and return to Pakistan meant converting to Islam: a price too high for a proud Sikh family. So my mother’s paradise was lost.
Of course, they were lucky — they escaped with their lives. They had family in Delhi where they rebuilt their lives. But my grandfather made clear: they should never speak of what they had lost. So they did not.
Growing up, my mother never discussed Partition and its impact on their lives with us. If it was raised, she shut it down.
She remembered sitting with her brother on languid summer days, flicking clover leaves into the canal and watching them turn silver. But her recall of the most apocalyptic event in her nation’s history was hazy. It was as if a thick fog had descended and settled there.
In Delhi, the family were given shelter in a half-built hotel. In the circumstances, an offer of marriage seemed like good fortune. My mother was 17, her husband 27. She had no dowry, while he came from an influential, wealthy family which they knew well.
So my mother — bright but unworldly — moved into her parents-in-law’s mansion, a splendid structure designed by Lutyens, where the newlyweds had a suite of rooms with a balcony terrace overlooking an expansive garden.
My mother hated talking of this unhappy time. The couple were chalk and cheese, a relative explained. He wanted to rise in politics and cared for little else. He was thuggish and uncouth, another offered.
So, within a couple of years, she left. Steeling herself and taking nothing more than a small square suitcase, one day she glided down the mansion’s magnificent staircase — and was gone. The marriage was never consummated, she said, although she was willing. She didn’t admire her husband and he showed her no regard. Surely that gave her licence to leave?
Pictured: A 17-year-old Dip, on the day of her first marriage in Delhi, 1950
Family members were silent, but it was a momentous moment. In those days, in that milieu, wives did not generally walk out. My mother first sought sanctuary with her sister Anup in Bombay rather than returning to her parents in Delhi. There, resourceful and clever as she was, she found work: first as a tourist guide, then as a secretary.
Later, she returned to Delhi and moved in with her parents again, often playing tennis on the manicured courts of the Gymkhana Club, in a seriously short skirt, I was told by an evident admirer.
My mother talked her way into a job as social secretary to the high commissioner for Canada and flourished on Delhi’s diplomatic circuit.
These were carefree, joyous days and she shared memories of dancing the tango by moonlight, to a wind-up gramophone, atop a majestic Mughal monument.
She did not expect to find love or marry again until, that is, my father walked into her life.
It was 1960 and she was a guest at a lunch for the then Chinese prime minister who was visiting Delhi. And there, too, was my father, at the time the BBC’s Delhi-based South Asia correspondent.
Handsome, full of vitality, yet rather shy, he suggested lunch the following day, at his place. That was the beginning. She was 28, he ten years older and, like my mother, he had been married before.
She brandished a bottle of ketchup and we watched, entranced, as Dad’s grey hair turned shocking red
Their first date was unusual. One of prime minister Nehru’s first great projects was the Bhakra-Nangal Dam in the Punjab. My mother, full of patriotic fervour, suggested they see it. I picture them standing there gazing as thousands of tons of water thunder down.
A date at a dam! I imagine my father leaning in close to my mother so she can hear above the water’s roar, his breath on her cheek.
The next excursion was to a lake in Kashmir. They stayed on a houseboat with carved wooden ceilings, chandeliers, carpets and a clutch of servants. In the morning, they woke to the rocking of the boat. Outside were snow-topped mountains, fields of saffron and apple orchards.
‘Did you go alone?’ I asked my mother boldly. ‘We said we were going with (our friends) the Jhabvalas. It was before we were married,’ she parried. So yes, they snuck off alone: a daring tryst.
On March 29, 1962, my parents married. My grandfather had argued strongly against my mother’s divorce, saying it would show disrespect to an honourable family which had generously helped hers when in need. But, once introduced, my father won him over. My grandfather pointed proudly to the climbing rose he had trained up a trellis in the garden of the Delhi house. My father spoke of his own love of roses. ‘A man who grows roses must be a good man,’ declared my grandfather approvingly.
A month after their wedding, my father was posted to Berlin. The bougainvillea trees were in bloom as my mother wondered what clothes to wear in a cold European climate.
The shock of married life in Germany was profound. Having always lived in a household with servants, she had never cooked a meal. ‘I didn’t even know how to tell when water was boiling!’ she confessed.
And then there was the language. My father had grown up in Germany and was fluent in German. Although my mother spoke Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, and better English than most native English speakers, she had no German. Undeterred she took classes. An early encounter with Teutonic officialdom confirmed how quickly she had picked it up.
Pictured: Charles Wheeler and Dip Singh in 2015
When my father forgot (allegedly) to pay a bill, two bailiffs called. Her husband was away, she said, and dealt with that kind of thing so she knew nothing about it. Returning home, my father was furious: apparently he had paid the bill; besides, he told the bailiffs, they shouldn’t have bothered his foreign wife who could not speak the language.
‘But Herr Wheeler, your wife speaks fluent German!’ they replied. My mother’s satisfaction was plain as she recalled this. ‘Fliessend,’ she added (the German for fluent) — just in case I had missed it.
By 1965, my parents were on the move again. This time my father was posted to Washington DC.
I was a baby and my sister, Shirin, a toddler. Home was a big house with azaleas, a cherry tree and neighbours who welcomed us with home-baked blueberry pie.
By then, my mother was on top of being what the Americans call a ‘homemaker’ and, equipped with a new car, began to spread her wings. She enrolled at the American University and took a Russian degree.
On the hectic dinner party circuit, she was a popular guest in her own right, said a friend: ‘Beautiful and articulate, she could puncture pomposity with a few smiling words.’
But her accomplishments did not extend to cooking. Thinking of her signature, dinner-party dish still makes me squirm. I see shiny white squeaky spheres floating on the surface of a thick, brown liquid. Prawn and egg curry. Unforgettable. Unforgivable, if you dislike eggs.
After my parents left India in 1962 they returned only three times. As a result, I never really knew her parents and wonder if my blurry memory of them is actually a memory at all, or something conjured from a photograph.
My paternal grandparents, meanwhile, lived in a village near East Grinstead in West Sussex. To me, it seemed quintessentially English.
They had an affectionate golden labrador called Kim, a dresser stacked with blue and white china, a lush, green lawn and a fruit cage with gooseberries and raspberries.
From the late 1960s, my father appeared often on the BBC Nine O’Clock News reporting on American politics. Once in a while, my mother would get a crackly phone call. ‘Tell the boy to cut his hair!’ her father-in-law would bellow.
We left America in 1973 and my father was posted to Brussels, just after Britain joined the EEC. My mother struggled there: she felt isolated in what felt like a socially conservative, parochial place.
Even so, she helped set up a helpline for sufferers of abuse or depression. She was also introduced to what was then called the Women’s Liberation Movement, which, I think now, sowed the seeds for what we called, in the family, Ketchupgate.
One day, at supper, we all had to say what we were good at. At my mother’s turn, my father offered: ‘You’re good at cleaning the lavatory.’ A joke, of course, but it felt demeaning. Suddenly, she was standing over him brandishing a ketchup bottle. We watched, entranced, as a sticky gloop travelled down his forehead and his grey hair turned shocking red.
She was an extraordinary wife and mother. She put us first. To relieve the domestic monotony she took an Experimental Psychology degree. She planned to be an educational psychologist, but training involved undergoing analysis and that wasn’t on. She had sealed up the past and had no intention of letting in the light. So she became a researcher at Amnesty International — that helped others but left her carefully crafted equilibrium undisturbed.
After my father died, I spoke daily to my mother on the phone. ‘I’m fine,’ she would insist, in a tone which suggested otherwise. I feel though, that reliving the good times, brought a sense of peace. One evening, she said to me: ‘I suppose it wasn’t bad, getting all those degrees.’
It wasn’t bad at all, I told her, it was mightily impressive.
Undoubtedly, the journey into my mother’s past enriched my life, too. Visiting Sargodha, with my son Milo, I didn’t find all that I had hoped.
The Homestead has gone. But we found my mother’s school — and a maternity unit, once the Female Hospital, Sargodha, which my grandfather helped found in 1938.
When the resident gynaecologist shook my hand, and said: ‘Your grandfather did a wonderful thing,’ I could not have been more moved.
At the end of 2019, my mother was diagnosed with cancer and died in February this year.
I am sorry she isn’t here to see the finished book, but writing it brought us both so much.
Shirin and I were with our mother to the end, in the cottage. Living there, with my father, she said, had replaced the paradise she lost.
We buried her ashes beneath a weeping beech, next to my father, under the weeping pear.
My parents cared deeply about other people and the world. As a broadcaster, my father gained fame and acclaim, while my mother stood back. She was graceful, wise and loving.
I miss her deeply but am happy that, with this book, she can now step forward and shine a little.
The Lost Homestead: My Mother, Partition And the Punjab by Marina Wheeler, Hodder & Stoughton.