Author of Indian English Jillian Haslam born to parents of British ancestry grew up in the slums of Kolkata foraging for food and fending off bullies and tormentors, a life far removed from what you would expect people of their background to lead.
Her parents were born and lived in India all their lives , they chose to stay back in the land they called “home”. Financial conditions and inability to produce ancestral documents required to go back to Britian too played a major role in this decision.
However, life wasn’t rosy for the family as they had to battle poverty and extremely harsh conditions which Jillian believes helped her emerge as a stronger person. The lack of jobs for the British in the free India was evident and because of lack of a constant monetary supply, Jillian recalls the pathetic unsanitary conditions they had to live in. From sharing space with rodents to the backyard of a house, the Haslam family’s residential address changed almost daily as people around weren’t interested in helping an astray white family. The unclean plight had taken a toll on their health and that led to disease and deaths in the family.
Jillian lost four siblings to hunger and poverty. Two of them had to be buried in tea cases because the family could not afford to buy proper coffins.
The circumstances improved by the breadth of a hair and the family shifted to a tiny one-room house in Kidderpore. Here, her father suffered from a number of heart attacks and the family started losing their children one by one to hunger and poverty. Jillian’s mother tried to appeal to various organisations for aid but all her attempts were futile. Jillian and her siblings had to pay a price for being white as they were often a victim of abuses and insults hurled at them which soon turned into physical tortures
From being pelted with water balloons to having chocolate bombs thrown in front of their house during Diwali, Jillian shares the horrifying experiences that had to go through one of which included a meat seller throwing hot oil on her sister. They had nobody they could turn to for help as majority of the British community had retreated back to England, Home bound for most of the day, she recalls sharing the space with pests and vermin. The family had hit an all time low when Jillian’s mother passed away as she decided to give up her share of the food for the children.
However, there was a silver lining for the family when a few Indians chose to help them out of humanity. She vividly remembers the milkman who had saved her sister’s life by not charging any money for the milk he supplied and a vegetable seller who made sure that they had enough food. These small acts of kindness by strangers who had almost nothing to give were the reasons Jillian felt so strongly connected to India.
Succumbing to the challenges and conditions, Jillian recalls her family having accepted her fate. However, she was determined not to as she staunchly endorses that situations aren’t made of steel and can be turned around by a single individual and that’s exactly what she did.
She had a start in that she received free education in a school started by the British in Kolkata. Little by little and one painful step at a time she rose from the quagmire that destiny had willed her, and completely transformed her own life, and that of her family.
She found employment with Bank of America in Delhi, and rising through the ranks made it to the President of the Employee Charity Division, a position she excelled in on account of her own life experiences and her utter empathy for the poorest of the poor This she believed was her turning point.
Left behind with two young ones to look after, she relocated all of them to Delhi. The CEO of the company was impressed by her work and allowed her to work two jobs at once. She also traveled to San Francisco and en route the journey, stopped over at Britain. Here, she chose to fish out the ancestry papers which would allow the family to return back to the country of origin.
She didn’t let bitterness creep in and emerged victorious as a superwoman who is currently changing lives of a million Indians. Once she sent her family back to lead a better life, she realized that she had become a stronger person and she chose to come back to India.
When asked to choose, she claimed that India was the land she was born in and connects with as the country taught her everything she knows today. She considers herself lucky as she stumbled upon the opportunity to give back to the financially weak, who helped her family. Jillian believes that no matter how tough or unending the conditions might seem, one should never forget the virtue of gratitude which is her main inspiration to come back to the little ones in India. Her heart and soul still reside in India and believes that it is her duty to give back to the citizens of India who are living a tough life with zero necessities. Having lived that life herself, she can relate better to those children which keeps the compassion alive in her.
Jillian penned her struggles and thoughts into a book called India.English. which is soon going to become a documentary in order to make her beliefs open to the world. Apart from being a notable author, she runs the Remedia Trust in India which looks after the old, children, and the specially-abled. Remedia aims to give a new meaning to the lives of children forgotten in the lanes of India by educating them and teaching them vocational skills necessary for leading a respectful life.
She ends with saying that if ever she plans to expand her work beyond India, Africa would be her next destination. In 2012 Jillian won the first runner up award for The Asian Woman of the Year in the Social and Humanitarian category,in recognition of her business achievements and charitable contributions.
In April 2015 The Telegraph of Calcutta presented Jillian with a True Legend Award for her exceptional contribution to social and humanitarian causes and in July of 2015 she was presented with the Star Recognition Award in London for ‘Lifting Lives’ and delivering numerous speeches across the UK’s educational institutes. In September 2015 she was nominated by members of the public for ITV’s 2015 Inspirational Woman of the Year award.
In Jillian’s own words, “I am Indian and if I failed to feel that or admit that, despite my ancestry or bloodline, it would be a disgrace. My hope is that my story is able to touch the hearts of people across the world (and whether I’m Indian, English, American or Jewish it does not matter)and to firstly show forgiveness, loyalty and gratitude for what was done for us rather than what was taken from us is the most empowering mindset that anyone can adopt if they wish to succeed but it has to start with me’.
Written byNiharika Nandi
Niharika Nandi is a media trainee who loves exploring the fields of photography and baking simultaneously. She’s a self-proclaimed professional bathroom singer and believes that caffeine runs through her veins. This adrenaline junkie loves to pen down a million thoughts gushing through her mind at any instant and is very vocal about LGBTQ rights.