Book review: Home Lands: The History of a Friendship, by Chitra Ramaswamy

This moving book tells the remarkable story of Henry Wuga, a gentle man with “a talent for happiness”, writes Fiona Shepherd

PIC: Chitra Ramaswamy PIC: Robert Perry
PIC: Chitra Ramaswamy PIC: Robert Perry

More often than not, friendship rests on connection – shared backgrounds, shared interests, shared experiences. But the wonder of human relationships is the myriad, unusual ways those connections are discovered and established. Writer Chitra Ramaswamy is a fortysomething British Indian living in Edinburgh. Henry Wuga is a ninetysomething Bavarian Jew who arrived in Britain in the late 1930s on the Kindertransport, fleeing Nazi Germany with so many of his peers. He has lived on the southside of Glasgow for most of his life, and that life is the subject for this book. Ramaswamy and Wuga’s ten year friendship is the springboard.

The unlikely chums first met when Ramaswamy was sent to interview Wuga and his late wife Ingrid for this paper – ostensibly the subject was refugees who had made their home in Scotland. Henry had worked as a baker and a sous chef in some of Glasgow’s grandest establishments before running a kosher catering company with Ingrid for 30 years. Both lovers of classical music, they attended the Edinburgh International Festival every year. In their retirement, the couple became Holocaust educators and ski instructors, which is quite a skillset.

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The connection was made and a friendship developed which was almost familial – Ramaswamy will quite happily introduce Wuga as her “adopted Jewish grandfather.” Ramaswamy never really knew her grandparents, who lived in India. Instead she found common cause with a couple who considered themselves Scots as much or even more than Germans. The resonances are strong enough to justify weaving elements of Ramaswamy’s own biography into the narrative – she writes particularly movingly about her mother, who died a few months before Ingrid in 2020.

Home Lands by Chitra Ramaswamy

But it is Henry’s life story which is the gripping heart of the matter, unfolding in non-chronological order, and in immersive present tense. Wuga is a fastidious archiver and Ramaswamy honours this with lyrical sidebars on people, places and events suggested by Wuga’s collection of photographs, documents and memorabilia. These strands are tied together carefully (not neatly, that’s the wrong word), building a personalised picture of the immigrant experience, from his childhood in Nuremberg – where he lived on the same street as subsequent trial venue the Palace of Justice – to teenage evacuee to suspected Communist spy and enemy alien, shunted around internment camps for two years after the war broke out, to settled domesticity.

The use of the present tense doesn’t just lend an immediacy to his biography – Ramaswamy is involving the reader in her own experience of researching Wuga’s life. Brexit, the Windrush scandal and the Covid pandemic are all folded into the narrative, our present turmoils acknowledged while never overshadowing the titanic trauma of the Holocaust nor the long, remarkable life of a gentle man with “a talent for happiness”.

Home Lands: The History of a Friendship by Chitra Ramaswamy, Canongate, £16.99

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