by PETER GRACE
New Zealand author Jean Watson was in her 50s when she started a life in India, helping
She and New Zealand author Joy Cowley travelled together to India about 30 years ago. The trip was cut short for Ms Cowley when she had to unexpectedly return home.
Soon after, Jean Watson met Subbiah, an encounter that would change her life.
He was a young man trying to help orphans in southern India.
Ever since, Wellington’s “Jean Aunty” has been changing the fortunes of the poorest of children of Tamil Nadu, in southern India.
Much of the narration is by Joy Cowley and much by Jean Watson herself.
Some of the commentary is direct to the film crew. Aunty and the Star People, directed and produced by Gerard Smyth (When a City Falls, Barefoot Cinema), starts by showing Jean literally immersed in the culture (getting into the sea). It shows her visiting two “illam” that she
has created about a kilometre apart — one for boys and one for girls.
An illam is a children’s home. Watson also talks about how they want to build a new home, to bring the boys and girls into the one building.
In Berhampore, Wellington, she is shown recalling growing up in Northland. She talks of her partnership with Barry Crump, her career as a writer, and how she and Crump were
alike in their restlessness.
She also talks, sadly, of their two children being adopted out, and later of the death of a son at the age of two-and-a-half. Do these losses in some unconscious way fire and inspire her work in India?
Jean Watson explains that to help set up the illam, she sold her Wellington house — bought from the proceeds of her book sales. But because foreigners cannot own land, title was vested in Subbiah.
However, some years down the track, she discovered that Subbiah was working behind her back to transfer ownership of the trust property to himself.
She turned to a large corporation, which agreed to support the trust. However, by then Subbiah
had gained ownership of 4 of the 8 acres of property.
Jean Watson shares an Indian saying: “Beyond the matter of right and wrong, there
is a field. Let us meet there.” However, she also says he has gone and they have no idea
where he is — and that is a good thing.
The film is striking for the amount of walking, and sometimes cycling, Jean Watson does when in
India. This 80-year-old woman must be remarkably fit.
Old friend and peer Joy Cowley declares Jean to be a saint. Jean objects. “Oh no, I get
angry, I get grumpy.”
This New Zealand woman doesn’t know how many children she has helped. But she has clearly helped hundreds, and probably thousands.
The film is to go to general release on September 11.