Sulwesi Adams

On the train to Delhi, we got into conversation with a young Indian man. It’s a long journey, and we must have heard practically his whole life story.

His name was Sulwesi Adams. I should tell you how to say that: Sull (like pull) – way – ssy (like fussy).

If you think it’s a funny name, you’re not alone – it’s a funny name to an Indian ear, too. His mother died when he was born, and his father left him and his big sister with the local missionary’s wife, Mrs Adams. His father left the village, and they’ve never seen or heard of him since.

Sulwesi’s sister has got a sensible name, Prema, because she had it already. But Mrs Adams gave Sulwesi his name. She could have asked his auntie to give him a proper name, or she could have given him an English name; but no, she would make up what she thought was a nice Indian sounding name.

If it was Indian at all, it would probably be a girl’s name. It would be quite a nice name for a girl.

There’s an island in Indonesia called Sulawesi. Maybe that’s where Mrs Adams got the name, maybe subconsciously. The island used to be called Celebes – at least by Western atlas publishers. Celebes – Sulawesi. Different attempts by Angrezi to pronounce the same word? At least his name is pronounceable, by Indians or by Angrezi.

Mrs Adams could have asked their auntie to look after them too, and they’d have grown up like their cousins. But their father apparently wasn’t on speaking terms with their mother’s family, and he’d asked Mrs Adams to look after them, so she did. No real thought for them – her first concern was about the promise she’d made to their father. Perhaps she thought he’d check up on her, or perhaps she thought that God was watching her carefully and was more concerned with the letter of her promise than the spirit of thoughtfulness and kindness to the children.

She had no real thought for them – in one sense. In another sense, she couldn’t have been kinder. When they were little, they really were treated as part of the family. Sulwesi shared a room with David, and Prema shared a room with Susan. They were just like brothers and sisters.

Then they all went to school together in the little school in the church in the village. The teacher, Pastor Samson, tried his best to treat them all the same. None of them realized until much later that it was more than he could manage to treat the Adams children the same as he treated all the other children from the village. It was just the way things were. In Pastor Samson’s mind, Prema and Sulwesi came somewhere in between the English children and the Indians. At that stage of their lives they were closer to David and Susan than they were to the other Indian children.

At home, Dr Adams gave the four of them extra lessons. All four did exactly the same stuff. They learnt all kinds of geography and English history and grammar that no one else in the village was doing. Their spelling and the breadth of their vocabulary mattered; and of course the conversation in the home was quite different from everyone else’s, but they didn’t realize that until years later. At school they were the four star pupils, but there was never any sign of ill feeling. It was just the way things were. Pastor Samson, himself Indian but raised in a missionary household, taught everything in English, with Hindi just another subject. Their first language was English, but for the other children it was an extra hurdle.

A lady, Muni her name was, used to come up from the village to cook and clean for the Adamses, and sometimes look after the children if Mrs Adams was out or busy. The four children learnt Hindi from Muni when they were little, and looking back Sulwesi thinks she knew it was going to be more important for him and Prema than for the other two, or perhaps she just loved them a little more. Sulwesi and Prema certainly got better at Hindi than Susan and David did. But Muni was illiterate, and it was Dr Adams who taught them Hindi writing and grammar, long before Pastor Samson started on it at school. David and Susan were just as good at written Hindi as Prema and Sulwesi were, but in speech they always sounded like English kids talking Hindi, and Sulwesi thinks he and Prema never did.

The first time Sulwesi and Prema realized that they were not really part of the family was when they all went to Mussoorie to look at the boarding school. David and Susan were going to go there – and Sulwesi and Prema weren’t. You couldn’t really blame the Adamses: the Mission Society was paying the fees, and the Mission Society didn’t accept Sulwesi and Prema as their children. The fees were too much for the Adamses to pay out of their own pocket – they wouldn’t have sent David and Susan if the Mission Society hadn’t been paying. And why should the local church spend a large part of its meagre income sending Sulwesi and Prema to boarding school? Why them rather than any of the other Indian kids?

The final blow came when the Adamses had to go back to England. Mr Adams was too sick to stay in India. The Indian immigration rules had changed, and there wasn’t going to be another English missionary to replace him. The Indian staff were going to have to carry on the work without support from England – not even any money.

Sulwesi and Prema had never been properly adopted. I don’t know if it would have been any different if they had been adopted. They were Indian citizens, and there was no way they were going to be allowed to go to England.

Perhaps they’d have been misfits in England. They didn’t feel much different from David and Susan, but by then those two had had four years in a posh boarding school, while Sulwesi and Prema had carried on in the local school system. They certainly felt like misfits among their Indian peers, but they were probably more Indian than English by then. After David and Susan went to boarding school they were left much more to their own devices, and got to know their real relatives properly for the first time.

It was only after the Adamses left that Sulwesi and Prema discovered that the Adamses had been paying fees for them at the local school. All the other kids who passed their exams were getting their fees paid by the Government under a tribal support scheme; but they weren’t tribal – not so far as the authorities were concerned. Their parents were English and therefore not tribal; more to the point, they were regarded as rich kids. When the Adamses left they felt like orphans. Who was going to pay their fees now?

Auntie sorted that one out. She just filled the forms in for them as Prema and Suleman, with her own surname instead of Adams, and that was that. Their headmaster knew, but he also knew why. After that, everyone called Sulwesi Suleman for years, which he was quite happy about because it saved a lot of explaining, but he still felt like Sulwesi inside.

They’d had a good start in their education, of course, so they did well. They passed all their exams and got every scholarship that was going, and they’ve both ended up in good posts. Sulwesi’s in Delhi now and Prema’s in Bhopal, and they see each other whenever they can, and write to each other a lot. They keep hoping Prema will be able to get a transfer to Delhi but there never seems to be a chance. Both of them miss their Auntie and their cousins a great deal. They only manage to see them once a year.

For a long time they missed the Adamses too. David and Susan had promised they’d write to them, but they never did, and Prema and Sulwesi didn’t even have their address. Dr Adams sent them Christmas cards for years, but he never thought of giving them his address. The first few times he wrote a few lines of family news, but then it was just a card, and then it stopped coming altogether – or maybe Auntie started hiding them and pretending they hadn’t come, because she knew how much they always upset Sulwesi and Prema.

Sulwesi wondered what would happen if he was too sick to stay in India, or Prema was. It was a purely rhetorical question, of course: what happens to anyone who’s too sick for the available health service to cope with?

I promised to try to trace the Adamses for Sulwesi. He probably thought that nothing would come of it, but I’m not like that. I did manage to trace them.

When I found them, I wasn’t sure whether to tell him their news, but decided that however badly it might affect him and his sister, I’d better keep to my word. I didn’t know whether that was the right decision, but it’s what I did.

The easiest way to tell the story is to copy part of my letter to him:

The Adamses were in a car crash five years ago, and David was killed. Dr Adams has been in a wheelchair ever since, but Susan and Mrs Adams weren’t seriously hurt. Dr Adams has kept on sending you Christmas cards, so presumably Auntie has been hiding them. He is old and frail now. His mind is still sharp, but Mrs Adams isn’t all there at all. How they manage at all is a miracle: he’s her brains, and she’s his feet.

Dr Adams never managed to get a job after they came back to England, so they’ve not been well off at all. Mrs Adams did a cleaning job for a few years, and then she worked as a school dinner lady until she got too confused to cope. David started at University but dropped out. He did a couple of dead-end jobs, then he was training as an electrician until he was killed. Susan went to University and got a degree, and now she’s married and has two small children.

Dr Adams was very pleased to hear how well you two are doing. I gave him your address in Delhi so that he could avoid the Auntie trap, but he was very unsure about whether it would be a good thing to write to you, after so long, or not. Like I say, he was very pleased to hear how you were doing, but he’d made a decision when they left that it would be fairer to you two not to let you have their address, and force you to find your own way. He knew you’d have to anyway, and he thought it would be better for you not to have an illusory lifeline.

I don’t know how to put this, but he still seems to think the same way a bit. He asked me not to give you his address, and let him make his own mind up.

It seems to me that you have more to offer him than vice versa these days, but that’s really equally illusory. He can no more go to live in India again than you could have come to England, and even though you’re well off in India, you can’t send him money. Even if you could, a lot of rupees doesn’t come to many pounds and would go nowhere in England at English prices.

I gave Sulwesi my own address. It was a while before he replied. Amongst other things he wrote was this:

Auntie was funny. After all those years of pretending not to have had any post from the Adamses, and without me saying anything, she told us this year that Dr Adams hadn’t sent a card – and went and got the old ones. She’d kept them all. She thought that perhaps Dr Adams had died, and I told her about you, and all the news. She cried when she heard about David and Dr Adams.

What upset her most, though, was the fact that in England, Dr and Mrs Adams are obviously nobody special at all.

We’ve been corresponding ever since, and we’ve met in Delhi again a couple of times. A quite charming young man, now with an equally charming young wife.

Dr Adams died a couple of years later, and Mrs Adams went to live with Susan and her family. Susan found my address in Dr Adams’s papers and wrote to me to let me know. I gave Susan Sulwesi’s address and she wrote to Sulwesi too, and asked him to tell Prema – as if she needed to tell him! Sulwesi told me that it was strange to read Susan’s letter, and it made him feel very peculiar. He said that her handwriting was just the same as it used to be, but he could tell that her way of thinking had changed completely. At long last, she sent him her address.

Nowadays apparently the Christmas cards go both ways, with little bits of news. Sulwesi wonders if he and Prema will ever see Susan again – to quote one of his letters to me, ‘Changed though she is, she seems a very nice person.’

I’ve never met Susan myself – I met Dr and Mrs Adams just once.