After the BBC documentary aired in the UK, Ramai Santhirapala interviewed series editor David Vallance and participants Jan Leeming and Patti Boulaye
David, how did you choose the participants? We were looking for a cast with bags of character and charisma, each with different life experiences to bring to the table. We found the diversity worked brilliantly—bonds that were unlikely in “the real world” were formed and we aimed for the viewers to find something relatable or inspiring in the cast members. The fantastic thing about producing shows like this is how much you learn about people. The cast were funny and heart-warming, honest and vivacious. What I took away was how important it is to embrace life to the full in your later years and how much more you still have to learn and to give.
What most touched the cast? Many were touched by the way that religion is a part of the natural everyday life in India. The participants were also really touched by the warm welcome received in India. They were equally welcomed into a palace as a slum —with both places being equally generous places in different ways.
What do you think we can learn from spirituality in India? Many Indian citizens take time to clear their minds, enjoying arts like yoga as a key part of time. Here in the UK we tend to always be on the go. It became clear there is much value in finding the time to remain in touch with yourself and to empty your mind of the constant dialogue that forms part of most people’s lives in the West.
What advice would you offer to our readers about the pros and cons of retiring in India? India is colorful, hot, hectic, and can really feed the soul. If you enjoy this environment you can really thrive. It’s a fantastic place to explore and spend some time. A couple of our cast explored retirement in the last episode, looking at how it could work practically. The visa situation and property laws do make things tricky but we met many people who had made it work.
COURTESY OF BBC/TWOFOUR
Jan, what inspired you to participate? My reason for signing up was that my father was born and brought up in Southern India and only left a few years before Partition. The Atkins family had been in India since the time of Clive of India around 1750. Although I could afford a holiday in India, I wouldn’t want to go on my own. So Marigold was a golden opportunity.
What were your preconceptions of India? I didn’t really have any preconceptions. I was quite open in my approach. What hit me with a force was the gentleness of the people, respect for the elderly, the color and the noise and the organised chaos on the roads. Our driver said that to drive in Jaipur you needed the three G’s—Good Brakes, Good Horn and Good Luck.
Does spirituality play a part in your day-to-day life? I have a fascination with Eastern religion and India is rich in its diversity. There are so many Hindu Gods you can hardly count them—in fact there’s a claim that there is one for every day of the year. Whether that is true or not, there are certainly many and predominant among them appears to be the Monkey God. I simply do not have the erudition to even attempt to précis the explanation of Hinduism so yet again, if you are interested, look it up on Wikipedia. It is fascinating and claims that the Hindu religion is the oldest in the world.
What did you learn about yourself during the experience? I learned that I simply could not live communally. I am gregarious and like company but having been single for over a decade. I also quite like my own space and found having to live with seven “strangers” rather trying. I know I am curious and eager to learn about other cultures and India offered a unique experience.
Can you identify an experience or event in India that had a profound impact on you? While filming in India I was talking to a lovely English woman who rents an apartment in the haveli of an Indian Princess. At the end of the interview I happened to say that we’d been working so hard we’d not had time to shop and I very much wanted to buy a saree. The Princess/landlady left the room and returned carrying a pink saree which she gave to me as a gift. A beautiful gift from a stranger. I was very touched.
Can you share a special moment? We were fortunate enough to be in Jaipur at the time of the Ganesh Festival. In the early evening we were taken to the Temple of Ganesh where we went to pray. We walked barefoot and I covered my head as a mark of respect. After the temple we went to the Gates of the Pink City to await the parade of elephants, camels and horses. While we were walking alongside the procession, a groom indicated that I could mount one of the horses. I have never ridden in my life but the pace was so sedate that I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity. It is something I will remember forever. I don’t know if the crowd thought I was someone special but they were all holding up their hands to touch mine and holding up their babies to me. I felt incredibly honoured, humbled, and close to tears. What a wonderful experience.
Are there any aspects of Hinduism that you identify with or have trouble comprehending? I am not what you would call a religious person but I do have belief in a power beyond us and more and more I am beginning to believe in karma —what goes around comes around. Trouble comprehending? We all have to die and cremation is becoming the predominant choice in the West, but we do it a trifle more discreetly. I find it bad enough leaving the crematorium, seeing the curtains close, and knowing what comes next and that, unfortunately, has been a regular experience in recent months with my father, mother, stepmother and many friends dying. So I guess that hindered my understanding of why Hindus are so blatant about death.
What about yoga and meditation? I’ve tried to practice yoga and meditation, but I just find my mind won’t sit still and I simply cannot focus. A few of us were sent to a laughter yoga club and that was fun. It is based on yoga but you only have to concentrate on laughing which, when done correctly, can exercise every part of your body. And what a fun exercise that is to execute.
Is it feasible for Brits to retire in India? We are all living so much longer and for many of us the pensions don’t stretch that far , so, retiring to a warm climate where the medical service is excellent and the pound goes five times as far is a very attractive proposition.
It would be delightful to spend a few months of our winter in India—but it is not as easy as it seems. It wasn’t until I read an interview with Bobbie—the darts player—that I realised you can’t just go and live there. If you wish to buy, you must have an Indian partner. If you want to stay for a period, you have to get a special visa—not easy. Let’s face it—in India there are over a billion people and even if you can afford to pay for your health, I’m sure the Indian middle classes won’t want to see their private hospitals full of bed-blocking Brits! Another problem is the extreme heat and humidity. Who would want to be in such a beautiful, colorful country but spend most of one’s time in an air conditioned building. I think I shall have to content myself with the occasional holiday in India.
Patti, what inspired you to participate? I wanted to go on a spiritual journey and reconnect with the value of respect and consideration for others. If people actually understood the fact that they are part of the universe and that everything they do affects somebody else, they might act differently. When I got to India, it was wonderful. It was like going home. I liked the respect, and the unity of the extended family.
Did you have any preconceptions? No, I didn’t have any preconceptions. I went with an open mind. Whatever I get, I get. Whatever I see, I see. I’m glad I didn’t go with any preconceptions because what I saw were people who practice and live their religion and spirituality. You could see it in the joy of the people irrespective of seeming material prosperity. We stopped at a Lord Hanuman temple, and there was a woman who was a cleaner standing at the entrance in a beautiful saree. She was regal, absolutely regal. She had an inner strength that radiated out.
Does spirituality play a part in your day-to-day life? I have never doubted the existence of God. My mother described me, “You have the faith of a child. It does not go to the left, it does not go to the right. It is absolutely solid.” India strengthened my spirituality, because it’s good to know that there are millions of people who share this spirituality. I can actually see it and feel it. When I got back to the UK, it actually made me want to go out there and talk to people about their spirituality. It gave me the confidence to do that. Karma, I believe in. Reincarnation, I believe in. Hindus have different words to describe these concepts but I believe in them. When I went to India and I realized I really like that Hinduism is all encompassing. It actually welcomes my thought that we are all God’s children on different paths to Him. Sometimes it is challenging to keep hold of your spirituality in life back home. In India I find that they manage to keep a strong bond with their spiritual nature.
Was there any special moment? We visited the home shrine of the family we were living with and I watched the puja. That was profound, like a temple at home. I am Catholic and there were similarities. There is the bell, like the Catholic Church, there is the incense, like the Catholic Church, and I quietly thought the worship of God does not change. Watching the brahmins performing puja at Varanasi was magical. There were three young men in perfect synchrony. The movement, and I know something about choreographed dance, was exceptional.
How would you compare your Nigerian upbringing and Indian culture? Women are held in great reverence in Nigerian culture. When the woman looses her place, society goes to pieces. I had a very orthodox upbringing based on virtues and values, and this is similar in India. I was taught to respect everyone, and listen to elders. It was wonderful to see this respect still holds a place in India. Family unity is important in Nigeria, and it was beautiful to see large extended families sharing experiences together in India. In India, you find out who they are before you find out what they do. Similarly, in Nigeria you encounter humility even in those who head large organisations.
How did early morning yoga go for you? That was the first time I did yoga. I had learnt meditation prior to this trip. I could have done yoga for a long time as I really enjoyed it. Unfortunately, we only had the yoga teacher for an hour. Once I’m settled back home, I’m going to look for a good yoga teacher, somebody who knows the spiritual basis of yoga.
What would you tell readers about retiring in India? I think the first thing to do is to understand the culture and language. Don’t go trying to change a culture that has been long established over many thousands of years, because that is arrogant and disrespectful. Understand the respect for spirituality and be considerate, then yes, you can retire to India. The real stars of the show were the beautiful Indian women. The way they walk, they way they go about their business—so graceful. I think if you are going to retire to India, try and think beautifully, try and act beautifully, try and speak beautifully because India is filled with beautiful people. I am not talking of the physical sense but the beauty that comes from the soul.
Say a few words about your Ambassador for Peace role. My drive on that is to bridge the gap. I think dialogue, ecumenism comes from training the next generation to be accepting of all cultures. Most of our interfaith problems originate from fear of the unknown, fear of another culture. Hinduism teaches religious tolerance and is a leader in ecumenical actions.