I’ve just finished checking the proofs for my new book, Journeys Without a Map — almost ready now to go to the printers. I’ve been surrounded by the people in it, real people, who have made my life what it is, and inspired my stories.
This one goes back to 1977, when we had recently arrived in Britain, casualties of a political crisis in Zambia where we had been living. It’s called ‘Ruth Warren’s Notebook’ ….
I owed my job – organising English language classes for adults – to an extraordinary elderly American woman, Ruth Warren. She walked with a stick, lopsided, but determinedly getting about. She had spent most of her adult life as a missionary in India, married an English missionary, retired with him to Croydon, and was now a widow. If you happened to have preconceptions about missionaries, she quietly undermined them. She spoke Hindi, Punjabi, Gujarati and Urdu, and when she met women in saris or shalwar and kameez waiting at bus stops she stopped to talk to them. They were delighted to be able to talk in their own language to this friendly old lady. They invited her home, plied her with spiced tea and pakora, and told her that their children learned English at school and their husbands at work, but they were stuck at home, not even able to to talk to their neighbours. Ruth said she would see what she could do.
She got herself a small notebook for names and addresses, and went around talking to church groups, calling in her friends. Their names and addresses too went into the notebook, potential learners from the front, potential tutors from the back. She paired them off, and when she had made a good match, committed the surprised tutors to visiting every week. She knew about loving her neighbour and was not afraid to tell other people how to do it.
Then she started knocking on official doors. The Community Relations Council. The Adult Education Department. I can picture it, busy men confronted by this bent-over woman, gently spoken but unshakeably persistent as she explained to them what they ought to be doing … Until it became easier to do something than to keep turning her away. The Education Department put up a salary for a full-time organiser —
I am given a small office, an empty filing cabinet, no budget, and the promise of a half-time assistant. The Director of Adult Education briefs me on my role. It is unilluminating. He really hasn’t an idea. You’ll need to find out from Mrs Warren, he says.
I visit her. She receives me in a small front room of a semi- detached house with lace curtains that doesn’t in any way fit with her. I’m sure she was more at home in the dust of the Punjab, dressed like the women around her. This is the house of her step granddaughter, who joins us with a tea tray. Ruth is retiring to California, she says. She’s just here until she goes.
She has the notebook on the coffee table between us. We go through it together, and she tells me something about each of the people in it. My head is buzzing with detail but it doesn’t seem the right moment to be taking notes. I’ll get the general idea and learn more from them each when I meet them. Most of the volunteers have come from her talks to church groups, of many different denominations. I ask, in passing, which is hers. She says vaguely that she doesn’t have one any more, by which I understand that the business of doctrines and ritual and membership has become irrelevant.
‘When do you leave?’ I ask, hoping it is not soon.
‘As soon as I’ve had my hip replaced,’ she says. Then, with a smile as if to excuse herself, ‘I’ve been needing to go for a good while, my dear.’
‘Tell her,’ the step granddaughter prompts; and then she does it for her. ‘She’s been on the waiting list for a year, and every time they say she can have it, she says she’s not ready. She has been waiting to hand over to you.’
‘And you took your time coming,’ Ruth says drily. ‘
It seems this was the second time they had advertised. There were people in the first round that the Director of Adult Education thought could have done it, but Ruth wouldn’t have any of them. ‘They were all too professional,’ she says, ‘I couldn’t see any of them visiting the women in their homes.’
So I got the job not because I was professionally qualified, but despite it. It is the greatest compliment.
She hands me the notebook.
For a few months I saw her regularly, as she took me around introducing me to people, handing over relationship by relationship. She was consistently warm and open, but nobody’s push-over. Of one potential volunteer, a self-important man who invited us to a meal (elaborate, produced by his wife) she said drily afterwards that he was primarily interested in the status that would attach to being a tutor, and unlikely to be of any use to anyone else. There was a woman recently widowed whom she was particularly concerned for. Ruth herself had been visiting every week, and though she left the decision to me, it was clear she didn’t want me to find anyone else to teach her, she wanted me to do it myself. So I did, for most of a year, and it was the highlight of my week.
Too soon Ruth was gone, and I was on my own. I felt her mantle on my shoulders many times in the years that followed … As I visited Asian women and got drawn in to their lives. As I put up posters and went around to local groups inviting new volunteers. As I cycled around town, getting to know each street, and thought about Ruth moving from one region of India and Pakistan to another, long enough in each to become fluent in four languages. At moments of unexpected challenge, when I thought, ‘I wonder what Ruth would have done?’ —
A middle-aged man arrived at one of the class centres. With him was his young sister, Rashida, who had recently come from Pakistan. He explained that she had had meningitis and become profoundly deaf. He was long settled in Britain, and had brought her here in the hope that doctors could reverse the damage to her hearing, but nothing could be done. Now, he had applied for permission for her to stay; and she needed to learn to speak English.
How would that be possible? She had almost never heard it spoken. But her teacher made it possible, skilfully adjusting her teaching style while an Urdu-speaking volunteer sat next to Rashida, transcribing in Urdu script the English words being taught so that Rashida could attempt to pronounce them. She made extraordinary progress. Soon she went on to take a range of other practical courses, and inspired us all with what is possible.
Then the Immigration Department refused her permission to stay in the UK. Her brother was a British citizen, devoted to Rashida, and desperately wanted to keep her here and support her. If she were sent back to Pakistan, she would have none of the opportunities she had here. He sought legal advice. If she had been his wife, he would have had the right to keep her with him. He told them he had no intention of marrying. Could he not keep her here instead? But as his sister she had no right to stay. The legal adviser said the only thing that might help would be to ask for a concession on compassionate grounds, and that would only have a chance if he could get a lot of people to press for it. So he came to see me. Could I organise a campaign?
It was one of those moments when life throws at you a challenge you really don’t want to have to think about. With a full-time job and young children I had enough to do just keeping the family-work-life show on the road. I was also nervous. My own family’s immigration status was not yet sorted, and I didn’t want to draw the officials’ attention to myself. For several nights my sleep was disturbed by dreams of calamities of one kind or another. But how to say no? Rashida was an example to all of us, in determination, in making the best of what life had handed her. How could I do nothing?
I spoke to her class teacher, Mary, and we decided we would try. ‘We’ started out as her and me, other teachers and friends, but gradually it extended to a whole lot of other people who heard her story. We made leaflets, with ‘Let Rashida Stay’ as the strap-line. We started a petition, and people took it to adult education classes, churches, work places, wherever they could talk to people and get signatures. I contacted the Royal Association for Deaf People and they circulated the story to their members, country wide. The numbers signing the petition grew, and went on growing. We organised a public meeting which Rashida herself addressed in English, choking us all up. She had almost never heard the language spoken and here, a year and a half after joining our classes, she was talking to an audience of 150 people. I remember still how she began, asking our patience that her way of speaking might sound strange to us, because ‘deaf people cannot hear their own voice’. Our local MP, Bernard Weatherill, was there. He was Speaker of the House of Commons and his position meant he couldn’t take up the case in Parliament but he got a fellow MP to do it. A group of us went to listen on the night it was being discussed, and heard the answer. No exception could be made.
Through all those months we swung repeatedly from hope to despondency. Then just when we thought it was all hopeless, Rashida got a letter granting her permission to stay.
We never knew what caused the change. Had someone senior in the Home Office been touched by her case? Or had we become too much of a nuisance, and it was easier to say ‘Yes’ than to keep having to say ‘No’? —
Like Ruth, knocking on official doors eight years earlier?
Ten years after I first met Ruth, A Language in Common was published, a set of fictional short stories inspired by my experiences in Croydon. I sent her a copy. She wrote back in delighted appreciation, saying, ‘You are obviously having a good time!’ We had taken the work, she said, beyond where she could have imagined it going. ‘In my day it was all so simple. Now so many things are involved.’
Perhaps, but we were simply doing what she had taught by her example, responding to the people in front of us.
The last time I heard from her was after she had had her leg amputated, and wrote a reflection about the experience which she sent to her friends:
What did it cost?
Lots of money
Lots of time.
But little is really lost.
I’ve lost one of my physical abilities
(Can’t hop, skip and jump any more)
But nothing else is changed.
The eternally faithful loving-kindness of God —
The warm closeness of friends and their deep caring —
Sights and tastes and fragrances —
My ancestry, heritage, education, ability to think.
Adapted from a chapter in my book, Journeys Without a Map: A Writer’s Life, to be published on 28th September, in paperback and e-book. To see early reviews: https://www.troubador.co.uk/bookshop/autobiography/journeys-without-a-map/
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