Melbourne author on India, Anglo-Indians & a wartime romance

By Our Reporter

A new book on the life stories of two Anglo-Indian women provide an insight into end-of-empire Bombay, dramatic views of the Partition of India in 1947, the White Australia Policy and takes a look at middle class India then and now.

A Touch of India by Dr Valerie Britton-Wilson delves into the entwined stories of two generations of mixed-race women who made Australia home.

One of the inspirations for Dr Britton-Wilson’s latest book was a bundle of wartime love letters from her father to her mother, sent to then Bombay from the jungles of Burma.

A Touch of India not only explores this romance and end-of-Empire India, it provides observations about life in contemporary India. There are fascinating moments from the author’s and her mother’s lives, each of them confronting the ups and downs of India as successful independent Anglo-Indian women, yet decades apart.

A Touch of India: Chutney Mary, Charming Irregularities and an Unlikely Romance by Valerie Britton-Wilson

As a Melbourne author and social researcher, A Touch of India: Chutney Mary, Charming Irregularities and an Unlikely Romance, is Dr Britton-Wilson’s fourth book, having previously published three non-fiction works including The Secret Life of Money and New Faces of Leadership.

Melbourne author Dr Valerie Britton-Wilson

The 300-page memoir includes more than 85 historic and family photographs including the author’s great grandfather who was a Lt Colonel in the British Army (and grandson of a knighted Director of the East India Company) and her great grandmother, a French vicomtesse. They moved to India in the mid-nineteenth century to set up a tea plantation.

Writer of the love letters, Valerie’s father, Donald Britton, was an English concert pianist turned commando officer who fought in Burma in the famous Chindit brigades during WW2. After the war he married the author’s mother, Pearl Creed, a journalist, writing and illustrating her own weekly column in the Times of India, then one of the largest circulating newspapers in the world. Donald became the Director of Music at Melbourne Grammar and later, working in Queensland, received an OAM for his services to music.

As the history unfolds, the author shares the stories that Pearl wrote to pass on to her children. One of these related to the White Australia Policy and an official from Australia House who visited the Britton family in England to check on their ‘whiteness’.

The book dissects what it means to be a ‘Chutney Mary’, influenced by skin colour, race, caste and social position, issues that have relevance outside India, such as in multicultural Australia. It also provides a wealth of observation, knowledge and insight: from horrendous accounts of the 1947 partition, to a dowry murder, to chronic corruption.

Anglo-Indian Pearl (Val’s mother) and British husband Donald. Edward (Pearl’s father is top right). Pic supplied.

Intertwined with vivid pieces about episodes in Pearl’s life, are her daughter’s own experiences in contemporary India. For two decades, Valerie Britton-Wilson and her friend Sue McFall would visit India at least once a year.

“We established a textile and clothing business to justify our trips and we’d explore a new part of India on each visit,” she said.

“The range included limited-edition women’s fashion clothing, bedlinen and accessories that we would sell in an annual ‘pop-up’ shop, a term that hadn’t even been coined when we started.

“This business venture spawned the book’s subtitle ‘charming irregularities’. Both the charm and kindness of people we encountered, as well as the challenges of dealing with unfamiliar customs and business practices.

“For people who have been to India, it will revive memories of its colour, flavours and smells. For armchair travellers who are fascinated by India, A Touch of India is a wonderful introduction,” Valerie Britton-Wilson added.

The charms and challenges of modern India are many, encapsulated in this biographic memoir that is a potpourri of travelogue, genealogy, socio-political commentary and Indian cuisine: always informative, sometimes funny and often poignant.

A Touch of India is published by Bloomings Books and distributed by Thames & Hudson. It has an RRP of $32.99 and is available in all good bookstores and can also be purchased directly via the book’s website.

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