July 10, 2020

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Son's love resonates in biography

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/4/2017 (1189 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Some books that tell of difficult childhoods can be depressing. This is not one of them.

"My cup runneth over," Helen Forrester wrote of her life in a postscript for one of her memoirs. But the early life of this English author, who penned many memoirs and 11 novels while living in Edmonton for more than 50 years, was hardly pleasant. And it is a testament to her tremendously positive outlook, her determination and her intelligence that she was, in her later years, able to sum up her life that way.

Six years after Forrester’s death, her son, Edmontonian Robert Bhatia, has come out with a biography of his mother’s life that is compelling, ultimately uplifting and inspiring. He tells us that as much as possible he has used his mother’s "own words from previously unpublished letters and speeches, adding my memories of her recollections and of events to which I was privy."

Much of this book is, in fact, comprised of Forrester’s letters and excerpts from speeches, with only little bits of background information provided by Bhatia which add to and complement the story. It is expressed simply and in straightforward prose.

Forrester, a pen name — her real name was June Bhatia — wrote four memoirs, published in the 1970s and ’80s. But they covered only the first 15 years of her life, her son says, and left the complete story untold.

At the heart of it, this is a love story — partly because Bhatia has written it out of obvious admiration for his mother, but also because it focuses mostly on the love story between his mother and father, Avadh Bhatia, an Indian academic and theoretical physicist. "It was a love story which lasted 34 years, and I cannot imagine life without him," Forrester wrote later to her cousin. The story begins with the writer’s difficult early years, from the time of her birth in England in 1919 up to the end of the Second World War.

Forrester’s life is plagued by hunger, poverty and neglect when her father is forced to claim bankruptcy and loses his job. He then moves his wife and seven children to Liverpool, naively hoping to find work.

Forrester’s parents fight constantly and are financially inept. She is kept home and not allowed to go to school so she can look after the younger children.

Somehow she makes it through, only to lose two fiancés to the war. When she later meets Bhatia, who has travelled from India to Liverpool to complete his PhD, the two fall in love. But trouble again looms on the horizon, as one obstacle after another threatens to yet again shatter her elusive dream of happiness.

Their story is told through a series of exchanged love letters.

Forrester ends up travelling to India in 1950, just a few years after India had achieved independence from British rule. She loves the country, and when the two eventually move to Edmonton, she misses the colour, the culture, the liveliness and the people.

It is in Canada where she begins to write both novels and memoirs, but sadly she often felt lonely on the Prairies. Her first memoir about her poverty-stricken childhood, Twopence to Cross the Mersey, became very popular in England, where many of her readers lived. At one point, Bhatia writes, sales of her memoirs during a publicity tour there in 1983 reached 2,000 books per hour.

At the end of his prologue Bhatia writes "it has been a joy for me to piece together the rest of her story."

It is a joy that shows — and his story of this remarkable woman is truly a joy to read.

Cheryl Girard is a Winnipeg writer who also hails from England but has been a prairie girl from childhood.

Cheryl Girard

Cheryl Girard
West Kildonan community correspondent

Cheryl Girard is a community correspondent for West Kildonan.

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