By way of a beginning, I want to tell you about something that happened to me on the flight out to Australia, when our family migrated in 1965. We weren’t well off, we only had a few pounds for a family of four children. I was eleven, the eldest, and for my first time on an aeroplane I was dressed in my very best clothes—my school uniform. I was well aware that most people who flew on international flights could afford something better than a school uniform. But there I was—English school cap, tie and blazer, shirt, long pants and socks all thick enough to cope with the Yorkshire cold. And I was walking down the steps of the plane onto the tarmac at Kolkata Airport. It must have been around 40 degrees.
It was the first time I’d known what ‘hot’ could mean. I had stepped out of the air-conditioned then-state-of-the-art Boeing 707—and right into a blast furnace.
I don’t know how far away the airport building was. It felt like half a mile. I was walking with my dad, and I saw some of the local people. If I had felt that wearing a school uniform on an international flight was a sign of poverty, I was now staring real poverty in the face for the very first time. These people were in rags, leaning into the fence, on the outside, looking in at us. They needed new clothes and a good feed.
The distress in my voice must have been clearly obvious when I mentioned them to my dad. He was a good man; but all he said was ‘Don’t look at them, there’s nothing we can do for them.’
For me, it was too late. I had already looked and I had seen.