Personally, I always find interviewing a writer a little daunting especially faced with one such as Aline Dobbie who is a real authority on her subject. However, despite these initial fears, these interviews can often be the most rewarding especially when the interviewee is willing to share her passion.
Words: Nichola Hunter
When one thinks of India, the first thing that springs to mind would not be an elegant, well spoken lady living in a pretty house in the countryside. There are a few clues to Aline’s Indian connections – the Buddha on the floor in the sitting room, the richly coloured wall hanging in the dining room and of course, Aline’s‘dimunitive little prince’ her cat – Raju!
Aline, who lives with her husband Graham on the outskirts of Biggar, are huge animal lovers and indeed her second book India: The Tiger’s Roar highlights the plight of the tigers in India, but I digress. After the Dobbie’s cat had to be put to sleep, Aline and Graham decided they needed another pet to fill the void as Aline recalls: “I had resolved to find a little cat or kitten to which I could give a loving home. My prayers were answered when I read the local paper that afternoon and found an article about a beautiful little black kitten that had been found deserted wandering on the M74 motorway. He had been given temporary shelter at the Peebles & Biggar Cats' Protection Society's kennels nearby and was being advertised as in need of a home.” That was in 1998 and Raju now enjoys a very pampered existence, indeed I’m sure the M74 is now a very distant memory for him!
I had read the story about Raju on Aline’s website before I met the author of India: The Peacock’s Call, India: The Tiger’s Roar and India: The Elephant’s Blessing and I was intrigued to find out more about the lady behind these books and of course to meet the infamous Raju.
Compassionate, warm, friendly but with a hint of feistiness lurking beneath the surface we took tea and perused Aline’s photo albums (of which there are many) before we touched properly on the topic of India and once we started, the floodgates were opened. I think I could now write three books about Aline’s studies of India, there’s just so much to cover and we barely scratched the surface during our chat. Now when I see Aline’s name I find it difficult to disassociate Aline from India.
Which is in some respects how Aline came to the subject of India herself. Unable to forget the wonderful childhood she spent in the country up until the age of 16, she finally returned in 1997 at the age of 50 with her husband Graham, but why did it take her so long to return?
The daughter of Lieutenant Colonel Frank Rose, a highly admired and brave, British officer in the IXth Jat Regiment of the Indian Army, Aline was born in Indian Army barracks in 1947. Her father was quite the hero, being the only British officer to bring his Indian men back from the fall of Singapore during the war. However, when her father retired in 1963, she returned to Scotland as she explains: “I was sad to leave India – it had been part of my life for so long.
“If you’re a thinking, feeling person and you have an enjoyable time there, which I did, I had had a very happy childhood there, it’s bound to call you back. It was just that life hadn’t allowed me to return sooner. After I married Graham in Edinburgh we went out to South Africa where Graham set up a veterinary practice. We eventually left South Africa because we found the situation abhorrent but we didn’t have the money to go swanning off to India. I wanted to bring up my children and I didn’t want to work and India is not the sort of place you visit for a week – really three weeks is the minimum. So the opportunity didn’t present itself until ten years ago.
“Graham and I decided that we would go to India for her 50th year of Nationhood. We did this wonderful three week trip in November of 1997. It’s always advisable to go between October and April as you don’t want to go in searing heat or monsoon season if you can help it. I popped out again in March 1998 for two weeks to travel and then again in the May of 1998. However, in the autumn of 1998, our eldest son, Hamish who was by then an officer in the British Army was returning to Bosnia. We had very nearly lost him on an earlier tour and to take my mind off him going back I started to write a book about our recent visit to India. And I just wrote it, that was it. India: The Peacock’s Call was published in June 2002.
“I know everyone and their dog writes a book nowadays but if you’re going to write a book about an ancient civilisation, I think you have to have some wisdom,” Aline continues. “I couldn’t have written what I have at the age of 21. It’s the nature of life; you can’t know at 21 what you do at 31, 41 and so on. I think it was just the right thing to do it that way.”
Aline’s first book was well received and as result she decided to write another two as she recalls: “After the feedback Graham asked: ‘what do you want to do now’ and I said as people like it, I’d like to write three books. The logical thing was that essentially the first book was about Northern India so the second would be about central India and the third about southern India.”
India: The Tiger’s Roar followed in 2003 and India: The Elephant’s Blessing in 2006 after which Aline was awarded the Pride of India Gold Award by the NRI Institute. All three books have been well received, both here and in India and looking through Aline’s photo albums and reviews; one gets the impression that Aline is regarded as something of a national treasure in India.
This comes as no surprise as Aline’s attitude to the country is empathising yet practical and fond yet realistic. “It’s now India’s 60th anniversary of Nationhood and she has so much of which to be proud,” says Aline. “She’s had her challenges and God knows they haven’t gone, there’s huge poverty still but in this last decade she’s surged ahead and what’s interesting is 50% of the population is under 30. They have enormous aspirations to achieve things and I hope that the present government will direct that wealth to the poor.
“I’ve travelled all over India and the people in the heartland are very kind, very sweet and if they can, they always give you some kind of hospitality. They all want to touch you and talk to you. They always want to ask if your rings are gold – that’s very important to them – silver doesn’t cut it! Then they want to know your name, are you married, do you have children, how many of them are sons? I’m very lucky as I have two boys which they love to hear. They’re just very sweet people even though their lives are so hard.”
Things are getting better however, as Aline has observed: “In the decade that I’ve been travelling in India, the sanitation has improved and you can see all the water pumps now. The technology is there too and Indians definitely have an affinity with computers. You’re still likely to come across a boy with a stick bringing the cattle home and carts with wooden wheels and it looks just like 50 years ago but now if you look closer you’ll see that the boy is talking on a mobile phone!”
The political arena is changing too. “People are now talking about corruption and they are really cross about it,” says Aline. “In the past, this would have been swept under the carpet but nepotism and corruption are no longer being tolerated. Unfortunately, the caste system is still in operation but that is something that is not going to change. It is the average person and how he conducts himself that will make the difference – whether it is social apartheid or racial apartheid.
“India is going to be one of the great economies of this century which I said in my second book in 2003 and now everyone is saying it. The Indian Diaspora is taking their knowledge around the world. It’s terribly important that these huge countries and us little countries understand that we can help each other. India and Scotland already have a history doing that and we should continue this sharing of knowledge and helping each other.”
If you’ve never visited India before, a good place to start your understanding of this complex and fascinating country is to read Aline’s books. They’re not an autobiography but they are incredibly personal and they’re not just travel tomes either. They’re more like having a very knowledgeable guide who will take you through the country step by step but who will let you in on some great local secrets if you behave nicely and ask politely!