Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Tulasa, 12 years old. Sold into prostitution in Bombay.

 Interview with Dr Gilada

by Sharon Maas

This interview was conducted in 2004, in conjunction with the publication of my novel Peacocks Dancing (later republished as Lost Daughter of India.)
An old story that never grows old. How can men do this?

Dr Ishwarprasad Gilada, founder, General-Secretary and driving force behind the People’s Health Organisation in India, has been fighting against the horrors of the Bombay sex trade for the last two decades.

Sharon: Your crusade against child prostitution in India began with the rescue of Tulasa in 1982; back then, the story made front page headlines in India and Nepal, and opened a viper’s nest of horrors. Who was Tulasa?

Dr I.G.: Tulasa was a 12 year old Nepali girl who in 1982 was kidnapped from her village and sold into prostitution in Bombay. She was systematically raped to make her fit for the trade and then forced to entertain an average of 8 clients a day. I met her 10 months later in the Bombay hospital where I was working at the time. Her tiny body –the body of a child – was completely broken. She was suffering from three types of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), genital warts and brain tuberculosis which left her spastic and wheelchair-bound, and finally killed her. The story she told was horrific. The People’s Health Organisation embarked on a full-fledged “Save Tulasa” campaign, and with the support of the media managed to rescue her. We located her father – her mother had died shortly after her disappearance – and sent her home.

Sharon: You say with the support of the media. Didn’t the police help in the rescue campaign?

Dr. I.G.: Police collusion with the flesh trade was a high point of Tulasa’s revelations. Even today the police and the politicians are in collaboration with the pimp – the profit is huge. Back then, the uproar generated by her story forced the police into action, and in no time 32 persons involved were arrested, including the three brothel owners Tulasa had worked for. The police knew exactly what was going on, and only stepped in when forced to do so. It took them 18 months to ascertain her age and three years to file a charge. And only last January, 18 years later, did the case finally to come to trial. The police were given a month to produce her in court. Only then did we receive a message that Tulasa died two years ago. Meanwhile, her abusers have been running free.

Sharon: After her rescue didn’t she find peace in Nepal?

Dr I.G.: No. At first there had been an outpouring of sympathy for her – offers of adoption and marriage, an invitation to Switzerland, gifts of money and medicine. None of it came to much. Tulasa was rejected by her father’s second wife, and moved into a home. Her father avoided her to keep the family peace. She was in constant pain, but worst of all was the feeling that nobody loved her, that she had been used and abused and finally discarded like a piece of rubbish.

Sharon: Is Tulasa’s story typical of child prostitutes in India’s megacities?

Dr I.G.: Yes. Soon after Tulasa’s rescue the air was abuzz with innumerable stories of girls who were caged and treated like animals in Kamathipura, Bombay’s infamous red-light district. They narrated harrowing tales of torture and abuse. The PHO has rescued more than 130 girls to date directly, and more than 3000 indirectly. The youngest girl we rescued was only eight years old.

Sharon: Has the trafficking with children in Bombay improved since Tulasa’s rescue?

Dr I.G.: Horrifying as it is, Tulasa’s case has had some positive fallout. The episode threw light on the appalling practice of child prostitution - the public outcry was tremendous. As a result, the governments of India and Nepal signed a treaty for the rescue and repatriation of Nepali girls from Indian brothels. In India the sentence for trafficking with minors has been hiked from 7 to 13 years. Child prostitution has been reduced by about 40%.

Sharon: How do children end up as prostitutes in India?

Dr I.G.: About 40% of all child prostitutes have been abducted from villages all over India and Nepal. They are lured away on some pretext or the other: going to movies, cities, temples, making them film stars, lucrative job opportunities, marriage. Another major source of child prostitutes is the Devadasi system. Every year thousands of girls are ceremoniously dedicated to the Goddess „Yellamma”. They are sold to the highest bidder and after a brief period of concubinage turned over to the urban brothels. The system is officially banned but continues to operate clandestinely, contributing up to 20% of urban child prostitutes.

A small proportion of child prostitutes come to the trade after being raped. Others run away from incestuous relationships with family members. Yet others are daughters of prostitutes, who have no other option than to follow their mothers’ profession.

Sharon: What are their living conditions in the brothels?

Dr I.G.: The girls live in unimaginable squalor, usually about 10-12 girls in a small room. The brothels are foul, stinking holes, often overrun with rats and vermin. They eat from filthy cafeterias or vendors, and have to pay twice the price for their food and other necessary commodities. Most of them are forced to abuse drugs, alcohol and nicotine. 75 to 80 percent of the girls suffer from STDs. More than half of the girls are HIV infected.

Sharon:. What is the PHO doing to deal with the situation?

Dr I.G.: The prevention of child prostitution and the containment of AIDS are two of our main aims. We have a Mobile Clinic – donated by a German organisation - and go out into red-light districts several times a week with a team consisting of health workers, social workers, and ex-sex-workers. We distribute free condoms, and provide medical check-ups and counselling on specific health or social problems. In many of the brothels there are prostitutes working for us, helping to educate others so as to prevent the spread of AIDS. We have had considerable success in this area.

Sharon: What success have you had with your other main aim, the prevention of child prostitution? Is it possible to rehabilitate the children you rescue from the brothels?

Dr I.G.: At the moment, the emphasis is on prevention rather than rescue. The problem is, where can they go after they have been rescued, or when they contract AIDS and are thrown out of the brothels? They are often rejected by heir communities and families and cannot return home, and we simply do not have the facilities to look after these girls. We have a 25 acre plot of land on the Bombay-Goa highway, where we had planned to build a home for rescued children, a training centre and a school – but we simply don’t have the funds to carry on. The PHO operates on a shoestring.

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Jonestown: Drinking the KoolAid

19 November 1978: It was my French teacher at the Alliance Française in Paris who first broke the news. “Something terrible has happened in your country,” said Mr Beaulieu at the start of the class, but he didn’t say what. I found out later, like everyone else who read about the almost ghoulish events of the night of the 18th.

Suddenly, Guyana was on the world map. Every Guyanese who has travelled abroad knows the annoying response of foreigners when they first hear the name of your country: “Oh, I’d love to go to Africa!” or some other sentence placing it in the wrong continent.

But now, in November 1978, the whole world knew where and what we were: a little backwater South American country covered in jungle, so remote from modern civilisation that this "bunch of crazies" – and a huge bunch it was too, a thousand all told! – had chosen it to recreate paradise, a paradise that had turned to hell. The photos of hundreds of dead bodies steaming in the rainforest shocked the world.

Jonestown became a code word for every movement that goes off-track; in this case, lethally so.  It was the world’s first mass suicide. In reality it was a massacre; a slow one, created by systematic brainwashing.

They must have been crazy, the world thought, and the world’s media dissected the story and analysed it and probed into the reasons and the motives and the background trying to explain it to themselves and everyone else, and after all of the  cogitation, the only answer they could come up with at the time was the same they had started with: they were a bunch of crazies. Nothing else explained it. Over the years, more and more truths have emerged, though, and we can look at the tragedy with a little more discernment.

Like everyone else I was fascinated, but even more so: this had happened in my own country, not far from  where I too, with a bunch of drop-out friends, had started a commune in the middle of nowhere a few years previously. My friends, in fact, still lived on the farm we had founded. What if? What if I’d still been there and had known these people, these Americans; met them in the early days, before things went so very wrong? After all, we all had the same idea, didn’t we? Escape from a civilisation which, in our eyes, was going so very wrong? When Jonestown's White Night, the night of death, happened,  I tried to understand.

Though I’ll never understand how mothers could poison their own children, I did understand how a beloved leader could turn from saviour to mass murderer. Because to me it was, finally, no longer mass suicide but mass murder. My own background and experience made it all perfectly logical: right up to the final fiasco.

You see, I know first-hand what, in the beginning, drove people to Jim Jones. Everything I have read on the subject suggests to me that Jones started off as a true humanitarian, a charismatic leader, a man of caring and goodwill, a friend of and fighter for the poor and downtrodden. And I, as a young adult, was a seeker, in quest of just such a leader. Someone who could show me a way out of my misery, guide me to a better, more wholesome life. There is nothing wrong with such a longing. It is a healthy need, a natural hunger.

I grew up in Guyana. As a child of divorced middle-class parents, I had a muddled if basically happy childhood. Guyana was a wonderful place to grow up in back then, as anyone who shared that background will agree: Georgetown, an overgrown village, lush and green, a tree-shaded haven where everyone knew everyone else, or at least everyone else’s aunty or second cousin. The Interior was untouched nature, mysterious and vast. Guyana would have been paradise, if not for the political turbulences.

My parents were political, progressive, liberal, leftist. My father, indeed, was a Marxist, for many years Press Secretary to the controversial Opposition Leader Cheddi Jagan. My mother was a leading feminist during feminism’s dawn, an icon of Progress. I grew up with all the “right” ideas on social progress. But something was missing.

My parents were also atheist, and I was raised to be the same; but in the contrary way of 18-year-old youth, I turned away from atheism and embarked on my own spiritual quest. It was a desperate and genuine search, for the political and social theories I’d been raised on could not quench the hunger I felt deep inside: that was spiritual, and could not be satisfied with intellectual explanations. Had Jim Jones come along at the time not only with his social reforms but also showing me a path to God, who knows: I might have been his, heart and soul.

I was luckier than those who did fall for his charisma. My spiritual interests eventual led me along a different path, one that led eastwards, to India and Yoga and the teachings known as Sanatana Dharma. I lived in India for a while, in a place steeped in genuine Vedantic spirituality and wisdom, and there I found the key to the missing Factor X of my life. It had been inside me all the time, and the practice of meditation, taught by reputable teachers, brought me the inner stability and confidence that had thrown me again and again in my younger days.

Over the years my personal bullshit-detector developed nicely; I can now tell the wheat from the chaff, the Pied Piper teachers (and there are hundreds of them!) from the genuine ones almost at the moment they open their mouths. But how different it could have been had I, as a young, eager, naïve and spiritually hungry teenager, stumbled across the wrong teacher! One driven not by the selfless need to lift up others, but by a power-hungry ego? One out to make a fortune? One who seduces his devotees, especially young, pretty, female ones? Would I, in my youthful naivety, have noticed that moment when things began to go wrong? Or would I have been drawn into the web of deceit, manipulation and control that surrounds such teachers? When I hear some of these stories I often think, there but for the Grace of God, go I. I’m not at all certain I could have peeled myself away in time.

And that’s why “the bunch of crazies” label used to describe the Jonestown victims has never sat well with me. These were hungry people desperate for real food, hungry for spiritual nourishment -- just as I had once been. Along came a charismatic leader, wrapping them with affection and goodwill and giving them a sense of security and family; we call it love-bombing for a reason. Love is addictive – and very easily faked. These people were sponges for love, but were given a pseudo-deal, offered by a man who used them to develop his own power and dominance over them -- as power-hungry men (and women) tend to do.

We are not trained to tell the difference. We cannot see it, feel it, taste it. Fake meat, I’m told, tastes very much like the real thing. There’s a huge market for fake cheese, and to those who’ve never tasted a true Brie or Gruyère, developed a palate for the genuine thing, it might even be delicious. And therein lies the danger.

Unless we can put ourselves in their situation – not the situation in November 1978, but the situation years before – we have no right to judge. These people were like the legendary frog in slowly heating water; unable to jump when the water turned hot. It was a case of slow brainwashing. The ability to discern comes only through experience and the passing of time; the ability to stand back and say, wait a minute. Something’s wrong. For most of the over 900 victims who died at Jim Jones’ bidding, it was like being slowly blinded with one veil after the other; their sight for truth growing dimmer as time went on, so that in the end they were completely blind.

Today we’d call it mass psychosis. There are many other examples: Branch Davidians (Waco), the Manson Murders, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Jim Jones used mental and physical abuse, blackmail, humiliation, and threats to break down the members of his community to get them to do his bidding. He convinced them that he and he alone was their redeemer. Peoples Temple was no longer a church; it was a cult with Jim Jones at its helm as their saviour, with those who weren’t persuaded simply too terrified to leave.

Even close family members were told to spy on each other. Anyone expressing doubt or rebellion could be denounced by friends or relatives. Extreme punishments were the order of the day, such as electric shocks and being locked in an underground box. Many had to sign blank power of attorney forms and false confessions to crimes, including child molestation and abuse. Children were beaten and removed from their parents. Jim Jones was their saviour who had to be obeyed absolutely.

This is the horrific process I wanted to highlight in my novel, The Girl from Jonestown. I wrote it many years ago under the title White Night, precisely with the question in my mind: how could this happen? Could it have happened to me? For fifteen years, I tried to get that book published, with varied results. One literary agent from a major US agency loved it and even found an editor at a major publisher who also loved it – but it was rejected at the critical sales and marketing team meeting. Another top US agent asked for the manuscript after reading the first few chapters – but in the end turned it down without ever reading it: “after all, we know the outcome.”
Yes, we do. But this novel is not about outcomes, (and anyway, the “mass suicide” does not end the book). It’s about understanding. It’s about compassion. It’s about being able to learn from what happened and then promise ourselves: I will always keep my eyes open, always look to the messenger as well as the message. Who is behind it all? Money, sex and power: one or more of those three are always the motivating factors when it comes to cultish abuse. With Jim Jones, it was all three.

And so we all need to stay awake and aware. We need to be able to see through the inviting cult propaganda to the naked and unpleasant truth beneath. It’s about self-preservation: waking up in time to spot the rot. I hope this book will help a few people to open their eyes. To be aware.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Return to Gaschurn, Sixty Years Later. Part Two. Haus in der Sonne

 Continued from Return to Gaschurn, Part One

Up, up, up along the winding road into the mountains, and there we were. The village was nothing like I remembered it; but then, I remembered very little, at the most those quaint solid-wood chalets. I kept an eye out for Haus in der Sonne while driving through, but as I'd suspected it was long gone; yes, I'd looked it up online and no Pension of that name existed. The buildings in the village centre were modern, of brick, with a few chalets in between and on the hillside above. 

I wasn't quite sure what I was doing in Gaschurn. Retracing my steps, yes; but how? I didn't know a single person there, and I didn't have a plan. I needed a plan.  Haus in der Sonne had to be central to that plan. I also needed a hook; how would I explain myself?

On the way up it had all seemed pretty clear. My plan would be to find someone, an older person who remembered Haus in der Sonne, and to have a chat about the old days. The hook would be the photograph. This one, found again after rummaging through a shoebox of old photos.

I remember that pullover well: Mrs Williamson had knitted it for me, and I loved it. Here I am, gazing up into the mountains that so impressed me at the time. It can’t have been cold as I wasn’t wearing a jacket, or gloves, or a cap. To my surprise, up there wasn’t very cold at all.

And so, armed with just a photo, I put my plan into motion. I needed to meet someone, an older Gaschurner, but as we parked the car and stepped out into the street it seemed a vain hope: the street was empty. Not a single person in sight. And so my first reaction was disappointment. Had I come all this way in vain?

I hadn't planned a 2022 return to Gaschurn. It seemed that the stars had all aligned to bring the visit about organically.

My son had been working on a farm just outside the Austrian town of Dornbirn, which is the largest city in the Austrian state of Vorarlberg, close to the Swiss border.
Now, in March 2022, he had quit his job and needed to return home to Ireland; which meant packing all his belongings into his car and driving back to Ireland through Switzerland and France. He'd then take the Cherbourg-Dublin Ferry. A very long and exhausting drive, and he'd been ill. Someone to drive back with him, to take the wheel now and again, would be an enormous help.

It was the opportunity I'd been waiting for...

Vorarlberg. Yes, that memory popped up: crisp outline of white mountains against a brilliant blue sky, snow glistening in the sunshine. My son loved Vorarlberg. His reaction to the beauty of those mountains, that sunshine, that sky, was similar to mine: a beauty so intense tears would come to his eyes.

Gaschurn was not even an hour's drive from Dornbirn. The time had come to return. So one sunny morning we did; and here we were. I was back. 

Now, as we left the car. the village seemed deserted. We had parked in front of the Tourist Information office, but even that was closed. We set off to meet someone, anyone.

Walking along the empty main village street: nobody. Not a soul in sight. I knew that in Germany and Austria the Mittagspause, midday pause, is almost a holy thing: the shops close down as people take their precious lunch break; lunch being the biggest meal of the day.

But there was nobody on the street. Strange, I thought. Where is everyone? I thought this was a major tourist resort these days?

Finally we did spot someone, a young man with a backpack. We spoke to him; it turned out he was an English tourist. He pointed us in the direction of a restaurant, down the road that led into the valley. 'That's also where you can get the cable car up to the mountain,'  he said. We parted company, and made our way to the restaurant, a modern pizzeria. Perhaps there I'd meet the "older person" who would answer my questions; questions I hadn't  properly formulated, not even to myself. As usual, I was in ‘play it by ear’ mode, but by now slightly frustrated.

We went into the restaurant and ordered drinks, and while doing so I addressed the staff member behind the bar. 'Do you know of any older person from Gaschurn?' I asked. 'Someone who has lived here a long time?'

The barman, who turned out to be Albanian, pointed to a man sitting alone at a table. 'Talk to him,' he said. So we sat down at that table.

 I pulled out my photo and showed it to him. 

'Do you recognise the place where this photo was taken?' I asked.

 He looked at it for a while, and then he said:

 'Yes. This was taken at the Silvretta lake dam.’ He pointed to something in the photo: ‘See: there's the dam wall.'

As soon as he said it, another memory opened up. That word 'Silvretta': it rang a loud bell loud and clear, and suddenly it all came back to me: yes, we had been up to the Silvretta Lake, Mrs Williamson and I. That's where the photo had been taken.

So finally I had my older person; but he wasn’t quite old enough. ‘Do you know of a pension called Haus in der Sonne?’ I asked. ‘That’s where we stayed in 1963.’

‘Wait a moment,’ he said, and whipped out his phone, dialled. ‘Can you come to the pizzeria?’ he said into the phone, and then, ‘now. Right now.’

Within minutes, another man turned up at our table. The first man introduced us; his name was Mr Tschofen.

The first man told the second man of our mission. ‘They are looking for someone who knows Haus in der Sonne!’ he said.

‘My parents used to own that guest house!’ said Mr Tschofen, and my jaw dropped to the floor in the biggest Wow! of the day, of the holiday.

And so I had found my connection. Mr Tschofen could tell us all we wanted to know. His parents had owned the building; before becoming a pension in the early 60s it had been a Kindererholungsheim, a health-restoration home for children needing rest and recovery: Germanic culture is excellent at that sort of thing.

Next, Mr Tschofen whipped out his own phone and, opening his photos, showed us an album full of the pre-pension Haus in der Sonne, complete with the children having their holiday. And so I made the connection to the past. Mr Tschofen is younger than I am so he would not have encountered me on that 1963 trip, but he had stories to tell and he turned out to be the missing link I had come here for. The circle had closed.

There were photos of the children playing outside the house, and getting ready to ski

Mr Tschofen’s photos of Haus in der Sonne brought it all back: yes! That was where we’d stayed, Mrs Williamson and I. I remembered the rack for skis at the side of the house. I remembered the lobby, the stairs, the massive wooden walls, the wood-burning stove…

He even had a photo of the kitchen. It was all there!

 We sat and chatted with the two men for a while and then, on their advice, walked down to the bottom of the valley and that was where we found the people. Not only shops that were open– a supermarket, a tourist shop, a ski-equipment shop – but the cable car office and, most importantly, people, swarms of them, all in their winter-sport gear and many of them carrying skis on their shoulders.

We parked the car in a huge car-park that was so full we had trouble finding an empty slot.                                                                           We bought cable-car tickets and rode the bubble up to the top of the mountain, a journey that seemed endless. All around us snow-covered slopes, people skiing down them, people on skis being dragged up in order to ski down again.

There at the top we found the people, and the party. This was why the village was empty. There’s a  restaurant up there; the outside tables were packed full and loudspeakers blasted out loud, energetic music. The sun shone brilliantly into a cloudless blue sky.

 The view was spectacular:  miles of white fields undulating into the distance, dotted with what looked like moving insects, but was actually people, people on skis, people sidling up and sliding down the slopes.

However, this wasn’t the Silvretta Lake; it was Montafon, the skiing area just above Gaschurn. Silvretta, where I had been as a child and where the photo had been taken, was further down the valley, accessible with a different cable car. 

                                                                        We didn’t stay long up there. 

Not being a fan of loud music, I had no inclination to join the partying guests at the restaurant. I’d have preferred the silence of the mountains; after all, I had come to make peace with the place, and peace is to  be found in silence rather than noise. But I did have my photo taken:
 Gaschurn, Sixty Years Later.

But peace can also be found within. Just being here, meeting two friendly men who could reconnect me with the past, had done the trick. The ghosts of the past were finally dispelled. Who cared what had happened in 1963? That was another time, another culture, another era. This was now, and Gaschurn, the mountains that surrounded it, the vast blue sky and the pristine white of the valley, had done their cleansing work. I was free.

As we drove away I saw the modern day Haus in der Sonne. It is at the entrance to the village, next to the police station. I would have stopped to take a photo, but my camera was out of charge. That seemed somehow right.


Sunday, April 17, 2022

Return to Gaschurn, Sixty Years Later. Part One.

Many years ago -- 59 years to be exact -- my then guardian Mrs Williamson asked me a crucial question. ‘Where shall we go, Jo?’ she asked. ‘Would you like a summer or a winter holiday?’

(Why she called me Jo – well, that’s all part of my recently published childhood memoir, The Girl from Lamaha Street).  I was, at the time, attending a girls’ boarding school in Harrogate; Mrs Williamson, who ran a riding school in the north-west county of Cumberland, was the woman my mother, back in Guyana, had appointed to look after me during the school holidays. Mum  had offered us both a holiday, and I could choose the destination.

The answer to that question was easy and obvious: ‘Winter!’ I replied immediately, without a second thought.

 I hated winter. I hated the cold and the icy wind and the sleet the grey skies. For two years now, I’d longed for sunshine – proper, hot, sunshine, white beaches, blue skies and aquamarine seas. I longed for the Caribbean, or if not the Caribbean, for the familiar warmth of the ambiance and the people of my own country Guyana: people who looked and talked just like me, who knew what I was about. Yes, I was beginning to feel homesick.

 So the shock was huge when, a few months later, Mrs Williamson announced our destination: Austria, a skiing trip, in the snow-covered mountains! She had misunderstood my choice of destination. She thought I wanted a winter-sport holiday.

Being the shy, introverted girl I was, I did not show my shock, and did not object. I accepted her choice. And so December 1963 found us both flying off to Basle airport in Switzerland. From Basle we took the train and the bus to the quaint little village of Gaschurn, nestled into a valley in the eastern Austrian province Vorarlberg.

I remember being dazzled by the glorious mountains that surrounded us, jagged and white, etched against the brilliant blue of the sky, the snow glistening and sparkling in brilliant sunshine. I remember thinking this was the most beautiful place in the world; being overwhelmed by the majesty and magnificence of the Alpine landscape. 

At first everything was fine. Mrs Williamson and I, and another friend who had travelled with us, stayed in a Pension -- German for Bread-and-Breakfast – called Haus in der Sonne at the edge of the village. I loved it there. The house fascinated me mostly because it was all of wood: actual massive logs, not planks painted white as in my native Georgetown but in the typical traditional chalet style so prevalent not only in Austria but in the Alpine regions of Germany and Switzerland.

The chalet had a cosy atmosphere, with a wood-burning stove lending an sense of Gemütlichkeit– a wonderful and untranslatable German word which combines that very cosiness with warmth, relaxing with good friends or family, and a deep sense of spiritual wellbeing.

I started to learn German; I had always loved learning new languages and this one fascinated me. I learned to ask for the translation dictionary in German, and to count to one hundred. I had made my peace with this unwanted holiday, with snow, with skiing, with having to wait a year or two for my yearned-for tropical beach.

I felt culturally integrated – a concept that had never concerned me back then. People, almost all adults, fellow guests at the Pension, were friendly and I was a part of it all.

And yes, at first everything was fine. I began my children's skiing lessons.
I was in a children’s beginner group on the gentle slopes. I put away my original reluctant prejudice and applied myself to learning to ski: sidling up the slope, whooshing down again. To my surprise it all turned out to be quite enjoyable...

It hadn’t really registered that I was in any way a foreigner, different. I was used to being the odd one out, skin-colour-wise, having lived in a very white England now for two years. Yes, I was, as the cover or my memoir hints, the only brown girl in an English boarding school. As one reviewer of my memoir puts it:

At this point the reader is conditioned to expect a tale of prejudice and discrimination but in fact Sharon was happy at the school and did well academically and socially, being accepted in spite of her colour.

But now, in Gaschurn I was to be given a rude awakening.

I hadn’t even realised I was different to everyone else. Or rather, I wasn’t different, but I looked different. The children of Gaschurn must have decided among themselves that I needed to be informed of how terrible it was to look different, because one afternoon, on my way home alone from the slopes, they gathered, about twenty of them – or maybe it just seemed like twenty or more, I didn’t count. I just know that I was suddenly the centre of a circle of children, all chanting: ‘Negerlein! Negerlein! Negerlein!’

Once again, I didn’t need a translation. I already knew that the suffix -lein is a diminutive. So I was a little one of those N’s.

I stood there in their midst, shocked to the core, and when they dispersed, I walked back to Haus in der Sonne, tears misting my eyes, trying to comprehend and make sense of what had just happened.

I never forgot that incident; neither did I speak of it at first. I never told Mrs Williamson or my mother or any adult, for that matter, and it was years before I spoke of it to friends. I'm of the "sticks and stones might break my bones but words will never hurt me generation", and I tucked it away in my mind as just one of those things.

But it had hurt. It did hurt. Yes, these kinds of wounds don't bleed, and nobody will see them and sympathise if you don't talk about them. If you don't tell others, they remain your own problem, the kind of wound that you need to address yourself, deal with yourself, heal yourself. And Mother Nature has generously gifted us all with the inner means to do so; that's how we develop resilience and inner strength. 

We have all heard anecdotes of people who went through horrendous childhood experiences who nevertheless grow up not only unscathed but strong; strong for having gone through hard times and come out the other side, mature and resilient, even without adult assistance. Even young children learn to do this, teach themselves to do this. I certainly had, and I was already pretty tough, and as far as bullying experiences go, this one was pretty mild.

 So yes: it had hurt. No, I hadn't been traumatised, as a friend once conjectured, but certainly my self-confidence, once so unassailable, had taken a pounding. And  its remnants were still there, in the form of an ugly memory niggling at the back of my mind, a memory that left me with a feeling of coldness, being shut out, an alien, unwanted. 

Frozen out, when everything in me yearned for belonging.

Years, decades, passed. I married a German citizen, a cellist from Frankfurt, and then, after divorce, another German. I became a German citizen. I lived in Germany for over forty years. I became fluent in German.  

Over the years I visited neighbouring Austria several times, at first on holiday, later to visit my oldest granddaughter, who is Austrian. I was in her hometown Salzburg at her birth, and returned there year after year. 

In both Germany and Austria I navigated through many an incident which could be called racist, and learnt to deal with them, small, inconsequential things I could easily shrug off. But I never once encountered anything as blatant as what I later referred to as the Negerlein drama. And I never went back to the idyllic village of Gaschurn in Vorarlburg.

But that drama gnawed at the back of my mind, and I always knew that one day Gaschurn would beckon me back. I needed closure.

Last March, I did return.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

The British Guiana One Cent Magenta: so who, then, was E.D.W.?

Update: This blog post was originally posted back in June 2014, after the last Sotheby's auction. This year, in June 2021, after a heated auction the stamp was won by Stanley Gibbons. It is now in the UK and will be on public display at a future date. The Stanley Gibbons website has more about the stamp's history, here. In the meantime, this is what I wrote back then.

Back in 1856, my great-great-grandfather, a postal clerk named Edmund Dalziel Wight, signed his initials to a cheap little postage stamp in British Guiana, South America, a measure taken to ensure its authenticity. Last Tuesday, over 150 years later, that tiny scrap of paper with the innocuous “EDW” squiggle went under the hammer at Sotheby’s, raising £5.6 million for its previous owner.


 Which, unfortunately, is not me. E.D.Wight turned out to have a Midas touch, albeit unwittingly and posthumously. That postage stamp, known as the British Guiana One Cent Black on Magenta (BoM), went on to become the Holy Grail of postage stamps, to become not only the most expensive stamp in the world but also, by weight, the most expensive object ever made.     
But for philatelists the value of the British Guiana One Cent Magenta is of a spiritual nature: it really is one-of-a-kind, a freak, unlike any other stamp in any other collection. And it’s quite literally the human touch, those initials, that creates this uniqueness and breathes life into it. The story of E.D.Wight’s role in the creation of the British Guiana One Cent Black on Magenta is a family legend. it fueled my imagination and inspired me to write a novel around the most exclusive stamp in the world.

So who, then, was the man whose innocent initials, over a century later, upgraded the little stamp now worth a small fortune?

Mary Elizabeth Wight with her son Carl
Unfortunately, even we, his descendants, know very little about him, and no photo survives. According to the research of one of my far-flung cousins, Philip Wight, he was white, of Scottish ancestry; he married twice, and with and his second wife, Gertrude, had ten children. One of these was Edward Mar Wight, who married Mary Elizabeth, who was half Amerindian; we do have a photo of her.

Edward and Mary Elizabeth had ten children: nine sons and one daughter,  Miriam, known as Mirri. Mirri was my grandmother, the mother of my mother, Eileen Cox, who became a legend in her own right in Guyana, more famous even than the great-grandfather known to the world as E.D.W., the signatory of the BG BoM.

Edward's other descendants spread out over the world; they live in Australia and Scotland, England, Germany and the USA, and one or two even remain in Guyana. For all of us, the story of the BG BoM lifts E.D.W. out of the anonymity of shadowy ancestry. He's our family legend. Even more far-flung are the descendants of Edmund, the originator of the Black on Magenta. Remember, Edward was just one of ten children! And just maybe this little scrap of paper worth so very much will bring some of us together.

Very often as a child my mother told me the story of her great-grandfather signing the stamp that was to become the most famous in the world. He was Chief Clerk at the Georgetown Post Office, and, apparently, later ran our local branch at the corner of Lamaha and
Lamaha and Carmichael St Post Office
Carmichael Streets—we lived just a block away in Lamaha St, and Mum would point out the building. Was it here that the stamp was signed? We don't know, and she can't remember.

The story of the innocent signing of a stamp that would go on to earn a fortune has always fueled my imagination. What if another one of those stamps survived within the family, I asked myself; what if great-grandad Edmund had kept one as a souvenir, and it turned up in one of those drawers packed with old junk I used to burrow through as a child? Hardly likely. The following extract from Sotheby's website paints a picture of a man heartily indifferent to the stamp he made famous:

Wight had little tolerance for the philatelic celebrity achieved by British Guiana’s early stamps. In 1889, Edward Denny Bacon, one of the first philatelists to write about the stamps of the colony, reported that E. C. Luard had told him that “Mr. Wight is still alive and living in the colony but he is in his dotage and either cannot or will not remember anything about these old stamps except that he initialed them. He has been so pestered on the subject that the mention of old stamps to him is like a red rag to a bull.

The Georgetown Main Post Office in EDW's day

This makes him sound like my sort sort of man; down-to-earth and modest and not given to the kind of publicity-seeking attention-hunger we see so much of today. He saw no need to be famous just for the mundane act of signing an ordinary postage-stamp, and he wasn't interested in five minutes of fame, or, as history would have it, centuries of the same. He did not try to capitalise on the kerfuffle being made of that "old stamp"; in fact, it annoyed him. He probably wasn't impressed with the huge amounts on money spent on a little scrap of paper (think of the starving children those millions could feed!) 

And very likely he wasn't "in his dotage" at all; after all, he had married his second wife Gertrude just five years previously, so it was probably more a case of "will not" remember rather than "cannot remember".
Postman in British Guiana

But the “what if” never left me. There's a wonderful story in there somewhere. And so, after the publication of two of my first three novels, it became the inspiration for a story in which just such a stamp turns up: a family heirloom worth millions. What if someone's cantankerous grandmother was in possession of such a stamp? What if...? So many what ifs followed. Greed, possessiveness, sentimentality: the stuff of human interaction. The Small Fortune of Dorothea Q was the result. 

When I first wrote it in 2008 it did not find a  publisher, but early this year I pulled it out, dusted it off, repaired and polished it, and prepared it for late summer publication with my present publisher, Bookouture. It seems my timing was perfect; the original stamp is now hot news, my novel timely.

I hope that E.D.W. would approve; he might not have saved us a stamp, but he has given me a story.

Recent Articles on the Sotheby's Auction:

Red-letter day for most expensive stamp  Telegraph
The ‘Mona Lisa’ of Stamps to Be Auctioned at Sotheby’s New York Times
Sotheby's to auction rare stamp British Guiana One-Cent  BBC
'Holy Grail' of stamps, British Guiana 1c Magenta, to fetch Daily Mail
British Guiana stamp could fetch $20m, says Sotheby's Economic Times/India Times
Rare stamp from murderer's estate may set record at auction ... Chicago Tribune
Remarkable story of the £12m stamp owned by a millionaire murderer that is about to become one of the most expensive objects ever sold... The Independent

Lamaha and Carmichael Street Post Office photo: © Amanda Richards
Old photos of Main Post Office and Postman with thanks to Dmitri Allicock.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Eileen Cox: a Feisty Fifties Feminist


Eileen Cox – A Feisty Fifties Feminist


By Sharon Maas

 It’s quite  a responsibility, being the daughter of Eileen Cox. She remains an icon of Guyana,  always held up to me as a model; someone whose footsteps I should follow, even as she grew old and frail. This was never so clear to me as that day at the Republic Bank; she needed me, or rather, my arm. I helped her out of the taxi and, at a snail’s pace, she hobbled up to the bank entrance on Water Street, hooked onto my elbow with one hand, her walking stick in the other.

The year was 2012. She was 94, a fragile, bent old woman, physically a shadow of what she once was, but mentally still as sharp as a razor. By this time, Mum rarely left her home in Subryanville; indeed, she rarely ever left her bedroom, but sat there all day, near the bedside phone, because, then as ever, she was still President of the Guyana Consumers Association, and people still turned to her for advice. I lived far away, in Germany, and visited when I could, usually once a year to check on things. But that day, she had business at the bank.

  As is usual in the morning, the Republic Bank lobby was crowded. People milled about, having pulled a number, and waited to be seated, while those seated waited to be called to the counter.  But then a whisper went up: It’s Eileen Cox! And the crowd before us parted like the Red Sea, and we made our slow way forward, down a corridor of smiling faces, past calls of “Good morning Miss Cox!” and “Hello Miss Cox!”; past autograph books held out for her to sign --- oh wait, I got carried away there; that didn’t happen. But it really did feel like arriving with some celebrity at the Oscars, walking up the red carpet with my shuffling mother on my arm. Mum was served first, and nobody minded.

And Mum was, in her own way, a celebrity in Guyana. I’m afraid that in my younger years I never really appreciated her; I took her for granted, as young daughters often do. But whenever I returned to Guyana and people realized she was my mother, they never failed to tell me how much she meant to them. How much she helped them. How they listened out for her on the radio, or read her Consumer Advocate columns in the Stabroek News. How they loved her. “She was a phenomenon!”  “An icon!” Taxi drivers who dropped me off at her home would say, “Wait, you’re Eileen Cox’s daughter? I drove her once!” 

So yes, I am the daughter of a Guyanese celebrity: the real kind, the deserving kind, the kind who really DID something to deserve her fame and wasn’t just famous for fame's sake. Mum was internationally respected for her consumer activity, invited to Consumer seminars and conferences around the world, from Chile to India to Canada.

She lived a public life, and her accomplishments are well known: starting with her activities as women's rights activist as a young married women, advocating for the rights of women i Public Service to keep their jobs after marriage. After her divorce when I was three, she must have been one of the very first single working mothers in the colony. Later, she was active in the Public Service Union and in the Credit Union, but it was in founding the Consumers Association that she found her final calling. She remained  the GCA's President of right up to her resignation aged 93.

As a public figure she was outspoken and very direct; but she had another side to her, a private side, that others did not see.
 It would be true to say that though she was not a Christian in name, she very much embodied true Christian values and ideals. She has always lived a most simple life, never expecting special favours, never living beyond her means. She loved flowers, nature, the fresh air of the sea wall. Up to her very last day, when she could no longer walk, her carer Sego would carry her downstairs so that she could enjoy the evening Atlantic breeze.

Photo below: Mum with Guyana President Dr Cheddi Jagan

With Guyana's President, Cheddi Jagan

She never wanted more than what she had. She cared about people regardless of race, religion, political affiliation, sex. As Hansard Editor at Guyana’s Parliament she worked hard all her life, supporting not only me but other members of her extended family – the breadwinner of the family. She was without wile and without guile; a divorcee by choice, she was married to her mission, the well-being of every single person in Guyana. At times, when I was a child, I was even jealous because I thought she spent more time helping others than being with me. But in the end it was all good, because it gave me a sense of independence and adventure, of daring to seek the unconventional. I learned that selflessness, not selfishness, is the true secret to a fulfilled life.

 Which doesn't mean being a doormat.  She taught me that there is strength and dignity in humility, in putting the needs of others before your own, in caring, in serving. These are the values she truly lived  all her life. Though she was not typical for women of her generation, these are all typically female strengths, subtle strengths that tend to go unnoticed and undervalued, crushed by the typically male "strengths" of domination and aggression, which are not strengths at all as they accomplish nothing.

Yet water wears away stone, and women have at all times and all places been the very backbone of society, precisely through those quieter strengths and values. For Mum, these strengths brought results. Men adored, respected, and bowed before her.

Yes: Mum was Guyanese royalty, for it is the heart that really rules. She died in her sleep in November 2014. She lives on in the hearts of many.


Sharon Maas is the author of  The Far Away Girl, The Sugar Planter’s Daughter and several other novels set in Guyana, India, France, Germany and England.

 See also:  Eileen Cox: a Tribute to my Mother