Australian author Valerie Britton-Wilson pens an ode to India
Updated: Mar 20
Valerie Britton-Wilson’s new book A Touch of India: Chutney Mary, Charming Irregularities and an Unlikely Romance is an ode to Indian society. This is her fourth book, and the one she says is most personal. Born at Cambridge in England, Britton-Wilson’s previous three books were research-based non-fiction. She is a social and political researcher, specialising in in-depth interviews and focus groups, and has served on the boards of two leading schools in Australia. Based in Melbourne, Australia, Valerie did a mid-career detour establishing a small business in textiles in India with her friend Sue McFall.
The book highlights Valerie's personal experiences with India and its complexities.
Rami Niranjan Desai (RND): You have written many books before this, this is not your first. What made you write “A Touch of India” and how is this book a different experience considering it involves your family history? I understand your mother Pearl was an Anglo Indian and also wrote for The Times of India, what has been your connection to India?
Valerie Britton- Wilson (VBW): Unlike the other books, such as ‘The Secret life of Money’ or ‘New Faces of Leadership’, this was a much more personal experience. As I was a social scientist, those books were essentially a ‘detached-observer’ process. I didn't need to put myself into them but I did put a lot of myself into this book, which was an unusual thing for me to do. And I found it a bit difficult. For example, the book has a lot of stories about my mother, Pearl, who was an Anglo-Indian, born (1921) and raised in Mumbai, she went to The Cathedral School first and then to St Mary’s in Pune. After leaving school she studied commercial art at the Sir J. J. School of Art, including an apprenticeship in an advertising agency, and then she had a regular column which she both wrote and illustrated in the Weekly Times of India. It was an interesting career for a woman of her times. Later in her life she wrote some vivid pieces describing her experiences as a mixed blood woman in end-of-Empire India. I used these as the kernel of my book.
One of my mother’s ancestors was a Director of the East India Company in the 1750s so I actually have a very long connection to India! My father was English, he was a concert pianist on a scholarship at Cambridge when the War broke out. Next thing you know he was whisked off to the jungles of Burma (Myanmar) to serve in the famous Chindit regiments. The relationship between my mother and my father was carried on through letters which I found midway through writing this book. They were in an envelope that was marked ‘PRIVATE’. So it took me many months to get the courage to open and read the correspondence. I have shared some of that in the book – it’s very personal of course and I was hesitant - but the context is also of historical interest – the War made everything difficult, letters were censored, there were so many challenges they had to overcome as they pursued the relationship and, eventually, marriage in August 1945. And there was an unexpected obstacle too!
RND: You have compared the Anglo-Indians to north easterners, what is your observation of the ‘otherhood’ in India?
VBW: India is obviously a very complex society. It is difficult to understand it as an outsider. Hence the title was just ‘a touch of’ India. But even when you are on the inside there are clearly, as in all societies, insiders and outsiders and every ‘side’ in between. People are very aware of what the distinctions are. So for example, my mother was an Anglo-Indian and I think this accounted for her sharp eye for differences, expressed in her writings and also in her cartoon drawings. But being a keen observer is part of the armory of an outsider. In my over two decades of visits to India I noticed an awkwardness when I mentioned having a ‘touch’ of Indian blood. I put on my hat as a social researcher and tried to understand what lay behind this. I noticed that northeasters, amongst others, were ‘outsidered’ a bit like my mother – Anglo-Indian women were known as a Chutney Marys by the British – north easterners are called names because of their features, or distinguished by their more westernized way of dressing and so on. Indians are extremely good at noticing both the large and small signifiers of differences of upbringing, religion, caste, skin color, education and so on
RND: There is a very tragic yet sweet story of your young driver and his NGO that you support. Tell us more about it.
VBW: We had a driver for a long time and we wanted to know more about his family. We asked him if he was planning an arranged marriage for his son and we could see through the rear view mirror that his eyes welled up with tears. He told us he had arranged marriages for his daughters and one of them was killed for dowry. He didn’t believe in arranged marriage any longer. This son was also our driver and one day when he opened the boot for our suitcases I noticed a very large carton of sanitary napkins. Pretty surprising in the car of a 25–year-old young bachelor! We discovered that he had been driving executives from the Max Foundation and had become actively involved in a project to raise awareness and understanding of the health issues around menstruation. He and a young social planner set up The Ubuntu Foundation. They have made a huge impact in the slum area in which he grew up, as well as beyond, into schools, educating both girls and boys. Now on my recent visit this year I find they also have a transformational waste management program going. It’s called Manbhar Swach (Manbhar named for his beloved deceased sister). So impressive for a young man who left school at 15...
RND: You also started a clothing business from India called Moti which was named after your mother, Pearl (moti in hindi) with your friend Sue. It supported local handlooms in India. What has that been like?
VBW: Moti was started by us firstly as a reason to come to India regularly! We wanted to showcase Indian handlooms in Australia. We designed a small range of clothes using these lovely fabrics, but in shapes and colours that suited western body shapes and western skin colours. I’m afraid we commissioned hundreds of meters of plain black handloom because people in Melbourne wear a lot of black! Seems a bit mad when India is a riot of fabulous colour! Our business had a great response. Of course we had to explain to people not to expect perfection because these were handwoven materials and it’s not possible to have standardization. The variations and the imperfections were what made it special. We called them ‘charming irregularities’. (Though we did find that sometimes they weren’t all that charming!) After we visited India the first time as tourists, both of us really wanted to come back more often but we needed a reason and Moti became that reason.
RND: What do you think the difficulties of working in India have been? Do you think that China has eaten up some of the Indian business?
VBW: India has its own pace. India has its own way of doing things. One problem was that nobody liked to say no. Even though sometimes they were not able to deliver on what they had committed to. We had to learn to be patient, to understand cultural issues that affect production of goods made by hand, usually in homes in small towns. To navigate China is more difficult than India where so many people speak English. And there is something about the people of India that is very warm and welcoming. And between Australia and India, apart from the obvious similarities and shared interests, most important is a shared sense of humour. We came across westerners who had moved business to China to set up more efficient or more streamlined operations or production, only to find they missed the warmth of relationships, the humour and even the chaos! For us, our business was all about relationships.
RND: In your book there was a chapter discussing westernization in India. There’s the clothing people are wearing as well as other things?
VBW: The decline of Indian handlooms has already begun. Things are changing very fast partly because of the clothes that people are wearing – Indian men in cities have moved to western-style clothing for some time now but in recent years in the big cities we see saris less and less, and even salwar kameez seem to be disappearing! Such a pity because they were so distinctive, often so colourful. And also more comfortable than jeans and a kurti or tee shirt!! So that means less demand for traditional fabrics, and especially handlooms. It has become more difficult to find the fabric ‘mangalgiri’ that we used all the time when we first started the business two decades ago. It made our garments distinctively Indian even when our styles were western. The feel of those traditional Indian cottons like khadi is so lovely. And our customers in Australia really appreciate handmade goods just as some Indians do. But the pressures to standardize, to produce to a predictable timeline – these pressures are hard to resist when a powerloomed fabric for example can be churned out reliably fast and perfect – but utterly without charm!
And I’m a bit sad that in restaurants and hotels over the past decade menus have often dropped Indian desserts in favour of creme caramel or tiramisu! And the shopping malls are convenient but could be anywhere in the world, and international chains dominate. Of course these are big city phenomena, and bring advantages for people and the economy presumably, but there are ramifications across the country and the decline of handmade goods may be one such -
RND: I've noticed that in the book you've made some very very nuanced observations, almost like an insider. You said that in India you prefer to live in guest houses and not hotels. Was it because on your first visit, the Oberoi hotel in Mumbai lost your white nightie which you had mentioned in the book?
VBW: [Hearty laughter] Yes there are instances in my book that are amusing but the real reason we love being in India is the people to people connection. Guest houses are smaller and more personal and over a period of time you get to know the owners, the staff, the other guests and this is so enjoyable. People we have been meeting over the years, including our suppliers, our drivers, have become friends and this is very important to me and my business partner, Sue.
Perhaps because I was a professional social researcher my antennae are quite finely tuned to pick up nuances, the small things that make a difference, the small observations. I hope that has helped with some insights.
RND: What do you think is important about the India-Australia relationship and how can it be maximised?
VBW: The biggest commonality between India and Australia is the people. There is a laid back attitude about Australians which is similar to Indians. We can joke and laugh together, which is important, a similar sense of humour really helps! The interpersonal relationships allow the India -Australia relationship to develop very quickly. For example, as we speak the Prime Ministers of both the countries are at the stadium watching an India-Australia cricket match. The two leaders are at opposite ends of the political spectrum but other factors, not only cricket and curry, can unite us.
There are the obvious shared histories as British Commonwealth countries, India and Australia are both federations, both parliamentary democracies, both with independent judiciaries and, importantly, free press. It’s vital that all these attributes continue to be strong in each country as they also facilitate the ease of relationship. And are in contrast to other countries in the Indo-Pacific region.
Indians are now the largest migrant group in my State of Victoria, contributing hugely to all our lives there, especially – or most visibly – in hospitality, nursing and aged care. Also IT of course. The Quad is encouraging country to country interaction even more, as will the recent announcement of recognition of Indian qualifications by Australia.
RND: For our readers, would you like to tell us if your book is also available in India?
VBW: From a selfish point of view I’d like more shared publishing rights! I’d love to see an Indian co-publication of my book, hopefully that will come...