Transcripts

26 June 2004: Telegraph Magazine

Dame Diana Rigg Remembers Her Childhood Years in India

I was born in Britain, but my mother took me to India when I was two months old. My father started the first railway works in Bikaner, Rajasthan, and my family lived there until I was eight. I must have been about five when this picture was taken.

My horse was called Araminta. She was very gentle, and I used to ride out every day. I don't remember having any lessons at all - I was just plopped on and we would amble along with one of the syces (grooms) by my side. Generally we weren't allowed to leave the garden which was why getting on the pony was such an excitement. But I rather missed out on grooming the horse or getting the tack ready. Araminta was more like a motorcar being brought to the front of the house.

I was a quick sort of child, not all that easy to handle. Once one of my ayahs (nannies) went to my mother in shock and outrage because I had asked her if her bottom was black like the rest of her body. One of the Hindi phrases I still remember is, 'You're a very naughty girl'.

But then I did not have ambitions to act, as such, but I have one very distinct memory of putting on one of my mother's evening dresses (which was red) and very much liking the transformation in the mirror - I think that sowed the seed.

I was always dressed in a very English way; in pinafores, or lots of smocked dresses with knitted jerseys and sandals. Also it was the done thing in India at that time to try and keep a Western table, so the food we had was disgusting - junkets, things like that. I've got one of my mum's cookbooks from those days and it largely talks about opening tins. I remember seeing wonderful piles of golden jelabi in the bazaars, deep-fried and covered in honey syrups , but I was never allowed one.

My brother and I both had Indian friends, and we both spoke Hindi fluently. It was probably because of our parents, but we had no sense of superiority, no sense of being richer, no sense of being more privileged (which we were). My father was employed by the Indians, not the British, and he was not treated as an outsider - he spoke their language and understood their customs.

I think my mother and father had the happiest period of their life there. They had a wonderful social life. My dad was a very good shot, and he would be invited on the Maharajah's shoots, and they were both invited to the palace dinners. I remember my mum coming back from one and describing the pudding - 'a little basket made of spun sugar with fresh sruit in it, decorated with golf leaf. You picked up your spoon and tapped it very gently and it shattered into hundreds of gold pieces.' Delicious.

I have been back to India three times, with my brother, Hugh, and his wife. The last time we went, two years ago, was the most extraordinary experience. We arrived by train in Bikaner and at the station there was a red carpet and a town band with crowds of people. We were welcomed back like heroes because our father had brought the railway to one of the poorest cities in Rajasthan. A man stepped forward and sang a song in praise of our dad saying he had put food in the mouths of generations of mothers and children. Of course, we were absolutely awash with tears. There was one very old man who said to us, "Your mother taught me to dance', and then looked at my brother and said, 'You walk just like your father.'

It's wonderful when you can pick up the stitches that have been dropped in your life. India was a very formative period of both our lives and we had left it behind.

The picture she is referring to.


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