Family Memoirs

Judy Norbury collaborates with her mother to share their unique story…

Judy Norbury recounts her upbringing, her relationship with her mother, Mary, and her return trip to her birthplace in the recently published ‘Come Back, Judy Baba: Memoirs of India.’

Our relationship wasn’t always plain sailing by any means,” says the vivacious curly-haired woman from her wheelchair. The speaker is Judy Norbury, a well-known local singer-songwriter, and she is speaking of her mother, Mary Hargreaves Norbury.

“My mom was of the old school, you might say,” she continues. “Appearances and ‘what will people think’ were high on her agenda concerning all she did, and as her children, she felt what we did was a reflection on her.”

Judy recently found herself in a unique position, exploring her intimate relationship with her mother in a deep way. She decided to add her portion to the story her mother had written documenting their family life in India, where Judy was born. These joint memoirs have recently been published as Come Back, Judy Baba: Memoirs of India.

In 1948, Mary Hargreaves Norbury moved from Vancouver, to a small village near Mirzapur in northern India to marry an English carpet manufacturer. The book is her fascinating account of life as a post-Raj Memsahib. Mary gave birth to two daughters at the Mussoorie hill station. But the privileged, pampered life the Norburys’ led in India came to an abrupt halt when Judy contracted polio at the age of four. Soon after, Mary, Judy and her younger sister, Rosamund, moved back to Vancouver. But India had imbued the young child with its mysterious magic, however, and Judy felt the emotional pull to return all her adult life.

“It was a huge loss to me, I think,” says Judy, now 59. “I had been cared for by a devoted servant—Dukharan—and I was wrenched from him without the chance to say goodbye. He remained in my emotional makeup forever. I had known of the existence of my mom’s story for most of my life, of course, but I hadn’t really read it with intent until I decided to go back to India. Then, I was reading everything I could about India, and so I dug out the story and spent some time putting it onto computer, from my mom’s original typewritten manuscript. Reading about Dukharan brought up huge amounts of tears and sorrow—he had been my best friend and constant companion for the first four years of my life. Once I left, he just vanished out of my life and I often experienced a great feeling of loss as a child which I couldn’t explain. I believe it was that first loss of someone I loved that caused it.”

That trip in 1997 was a watershed in Judy’s life—literally as well as figuratively. “I cried copious amounts of tears,” she says with a rueful grin. “When I arrived in the train station in Mirzapur it was all so painfully familiar; we would have taken the train from there many times, and I felt an immediate connection. Even before we arrived, my tears were triggered by hearing a woman on the train with us speaking Hindi to her child. I burst into floods of tears when we pulled into Mirzapur. The achingly familiar landscape of mud huts, buffaloes, boys and men on huge Hero bicycles was blurred by weeping. What I wrote in my story was that the recognition I felt for these scenes was shocking and profound.”

Mary Norbury, like almost all the European women living in India at that time—the 1940s—escaped the heat of the south for cooler northern climes. Judy would have left and arrived at the Mirzapur train station many times in her life.

When Judy visited in 1997, the stately bungalow that had been the family home had not been lived in for some time and was a ruin. Intense baking heat and torrential monsoon rains quickly destroy buildings, and as part of the roof had collapsed, the rooms showed water stained walls with rotted woodwork. Judy was carried through the house on the back of her own daughter, Belinda, then a strapping 12-year-old. Judy was travelling with Belinda and their roommate, Ross.

“I felt glad my mother hadn’t seen the bungalow she so loved in such a ruined state; it would have broken her heart,” says Judy. The gardens felt more familiar to Judy and she knew she would have spent many hours there with Dukharan. “I can remember Dukharan squatting down to pee and severely wagging his finger at me not to look— which of course, I did!”

She laughs. “Indian men pee anywhere and everywhere as I discovered on my journey there as an adult, so it wouldn’t have been unusual.”
Dukharan was dead by the time Judy and her daughter returned, but she did meet up with another servant, Laloo, who was by then in his 60s. Laloo was 19 years old when Judy last saw him as a child.

Judy was able to fulfill her father’s wish of having his ashes cast into the Ganges on this trip. “The mighty Ganga, or Ganges, is one of India’s most holy rivers, and it ran right past the bungalow. I wasn’t able to get down the steep bank, but Laloo rented a boat and scattered my dad’s ashes on the river. I knew they would float downstream through the ancient, holy city of Benares, not far from Mirzapur. Many Indians come to Benares when they feel close to death as it’s considered the special city of Lord Shiva. They believe that if they die in Benares, they go straight to Shiva, stepping off the wheel of reincarnation. My dad lived in India for 23 years, having moved there to work for a carpet manufacturing company when he was 18.” Judy smiles, and adds simply. “He loved India.”

In some ways, Judy’s account of her return to India brings her mother’s story to a conclusion. “Mom tried to have [her memoirs] published, I believe,” says Judy, “however it was perceived as too sad. Mom’s story ends when she returned to Vancouver with me unable to walk; I picked it up from there.”

Judy may not have been able to walk due to the polio, but it didn’t deter her in the slightest from fulfilling her creative and inquisitive urges. “My parents never allowed me any special concessions because of my inability to walk, and I had to pull my weight. My mom was fierce in not treating me any differently than a fully-abled child.”

Judy recounts how her mother sang in the house while doing housework, and it seems Judy did likewise. “I think I sang most of the time as a child and in fact can remember my dad asking me for a bit of quiet, on one occasion.”

Music has been a constant in Judy’s life. She learned to play the guitar while living in a communal house with five friends in her late teens. Flower power was in full blossom and Judy embraced it wholeheartedly. “We had great fun in that house,” she recalls “Gourmet dinners, parties and constant music—rock, folk, Indian, we sucked it all in.”