Review by David Hebblethwaite
In 2011, journalist Chitra Ramaswamy was sent to interview Henry and Ingrid Wuga, a Jewish couple who had fled Nazi Germany and, by then in their 80s, lived in Scotland. They got on well, and the Wugas invited Chitra to lunch several weeks later. So began a friendship that continues to this day: Ingrid died in 2020, but Henry is now aged 98.
Henry comes across as a striking figure. Here is how Ramaswamy describes him when she joins him at Glasgow University, where he’s due to give a talk to the Jewish Society:
A gentleman, the kind one still comes across now and then in all the major cities of the world. Standing on a pavement, carrying nothing it seems but the clothes on his back. Often wearing a hat. The kind of man one struggles to imagine dressed in anything other than a suit. The kind who seems to have walked here directly from the past. Who, chameleon-like, blends into whatever landscape he happens to be crossing while remaining irrefutably himself.
In a sense, Henry might be seen as a figure out of time. But he’s also a figure fully within his time, as his life spans most of the 20th century, and has been shaped by some of its pivotal events. Henry’s life story is compelling in Ramaswamy’s telling of it: sent to Glasgow on the Kindertransport as a teenager, but interned soon after as a suspected spy when he wrote a letter home… and this is only to scratch the surface.
On the face of it, Chitra and Henry might seem an unlikely pair of friends, “a middle-aged Indian woman [and] a white nonagenarian gentleman”. But Ramaswamy explores her own life as well as Wuga’s in Homelands, finding echoes and points of connection – aspects of their lives that rhyme, if you will.
For example, in their different ways, both friends are between two cultures. Henry was forced to leave Germany behind and refrain from speaking German out of necessity. Even by the time Ramaswamy knew him, he would speak English with his family. Chitra herself was born in London, and her family chose not to pass on their mother tongue. She’s aware of being considered “too Indian in Britain, too British in India.”
Chitra eventually finds a way to reflect on what it is to be between:
In the future I will start to understand that belonging lies in the search. That disorientation is the true birthplace of millions of us. That ambivalence is my identity and concealment my natural habitat. That making myself at home in this bewilderness will be a life’s work. And that I am not alone.
Having moved to Scotland, she decides to help her family put down new roots by naming her children after Scottish glens. It will take time, but their names will connect them to the place and a sense of belonging will follow.
As the present day approaches, both Ingrid and Chitra’s mother fall terminally ill, and of course this loss makes the parallels between the two friends’ lives even sharper. There are a few powerful chapters towards the end in which Ramaswamy addresses her mother directly. It’s a reminder that Homelands is not just a historical biography, but also a living one – an account of lives still unfolding. Homelands is a moving and compelling piece of work.
David blogs at David’s Book World.
Chitra Ramaswamy, Homelands: The History of a Friendship (Canongate, 2022). 978-1838852665, 360pp., hardback.