As someone who was part Indian, part English, what is known as “Indian-English,” Jillian Haslam and her family endured a hard life while living in India. The family was very poor, and Jillian had siblings who died in infancy either because of malnutrition or because of disease. Her young sister, Vanessa, is dear to Jillian’s heart, and the two of them struggle together to help the family. But it’s not starvation or having money to pay rent the family needs to worry about, but the terrible racism they must endure by many native Indian men.
Indian.English. is Jillian’s memoir of what it was like to grow up an Indian-English girl in India. She is treated very harshly because of the color of her skin, but she also must endure extreme hunger and unsanitary living conditions because her parents cannot afford to buy food or rent a home. For the longest time, she, Vanessa and her mother live under a flight of stairs outside of a building while her father recovers from a heart attack in hospital. Her mother is beaten by the cruel women renting them the space under the stairs, and when Jillian and Vanessa are sent to live with a woman, she, too, hurts the children.
For a good portion of Jillian’s early life, it is one struggle after another. She and her sister learn to “keep house” while her parents are away working, and Jillian is even kept out of school so she can help take care of siblings or the home She and Vanessa endure terrible things in order to get food or medical help for the family, and the children struggle to survive from one day to the next with empty bellies and very little to keep them warm. As she grows older, Jillian is often molested and touched by men who consider Indian-English girls to be trashy. I was appalled that so many men openly violated her and saddened by how she was powerless to fight back.
I found it difficult to read about Jillian’s early life because of all the abuse, racism and starvation she and her family endured. But I was very moved by how the whole family had such a strong connection to each other through all the struggles they faced. The mother tried to protect her children and put them somewhere safe, even going without food so that her children could eat, and the father was a source of wisdom, guidance and strength. Indeed, Jillian’s father is her rock through these turbulent storms, and her mother a source of inspiration. The family is so close and they know that despite everything they go through, they still love and appreciate each other. All they have is each other, really.
As Jillian grows older and begins the journey of trying to make a better life for herself and her siblings, she finds that even after she leaves India, her heart is still there. She talks about how grateful she is to the people who did help them, giving them diluted milk or a piece of bread. She remembers all of the poor people in India struggling to survive just as she once did. And her memories of hardship are turned into reminders of the good lessons she learned from them and how far she truly came in life. I was moved by the fact that she even revisited the flight of stairs she once lived under as a child. The place was filthy, with cockroaches and rats, and it seemed like a place better left forgotten about. But Jillian cannot, will not, forget. And even better is that she is strong enough to be able to look back on all that she survived in her life and not let it break her.
This story of how one woman rose from the depths of poverty and racism in India was a true inspiration to read. I applaud how Jillian has survived so much and feel grateful that such a strong, inspirational and beautiful soul is taking the bad she was dealt in life and turning it into something good.
Indian. English. is Jillian Haslam's memoir of growing up an English girl in post-colonial India. Her harrowing yet ultimately redemptive story of living in the dark squalid by-lanes of Calcutta, abused and misunderstood by many, recalls the darkest moments of Angela's Ashes and the inner turmoil of The Glass Castle.
For every atrocity described in Indian. English., however, there is found a parallel kindness - a sacrifice, really - on the part of the poorest of the poor, who helped her family to survive. One cannot overlook those small, seemingly insignificant and mundane acts of human kindness. Within these humble people thrive a grace beyond description that literally saves lives every hour of every day.
Such was the case with Jillian and her family, which suffered through the death of children, abject starvation, trauma and humiliation.
In vivid detail, the author recounts how she learned to look for the positives embedded in the numerous challenges encountered on her path; and how to overcome adversity to be successful. The rich story of her life, of finding the road to success, and how she utilizes her wisdom and vision to help others through her foundation, vividly illustrates how and why Jillian Haslam inspires everyone she meets.