India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
Verve People
June 24, 2011

Walking The Talk

Text by Vinod Advani. Photographs by Ritam Banerjee

The British Deputy High Commissioner’s wife, Jill Beckingham, rocks, walks, plays golf and paints her way though life. But, discovers Verve, there is purpose to all that she does

“Look!” says Peter Beckingham in his usual friendly voice, pointing his fingers, leading my vision to a couple of paintings on the wall. “These were done by Jill.” His tone is full of pride and affection. I sweep my gaze across an apartment that I have known rather well having visited it often over the past 20 years. Some of its previous occupants, the Currans, the Bates, the Parkinsons, all erstwhile British Deputy High Commissioners had been good friends. Just like their predecessors, the present occupants have refurbished the apartment to suit their personalities.

The sofas are more homely than leathery showpieces, cotton blinds allow mellow light to filter into the room giving it all a friendly rather than official, mi-casa es su casa, lightness of welcome. The two reception halls look larger than before, since the long dining table no more divides the space in between. As comfortable as Peter and Jill are in their own skins, so is the home they inhabit here in Mumbai.

Arranged on a table below Jill’s paintings, are three framed photographs of some really famous people. In one, Brit rockers Duran Duran surround the Beckingham family. In another, Keith Richards (please don’t ask me who HE is, Google him if you must) has his arm on Jill’s shoulders. In the third, Sir Cliff Richard, the ‘bachelor boy’ is in the middle of the happily married Beckinghams.

Rock groupies? Now turned golf fanatics as their attire suggests, ready to tee off immediately after sandwiches, coffee and this interview….

Jill comes in. Immaculately and comfortably dressed, cool as a cucumber, carrying a large plate, announcing, “Sandwiches!” On weekends, awith all domestic help. “It’s so much more comfortable like this, we can do what we want on weekends, isn’t that right love?” asks Jill of Peter who smiles again. He does that a lot. Smile. Broadly. Jill smiles too. And you can see that these two persons are so much at home with each other.

But it’s the lack of it – a home – that bothers Jill. She agonises about children who lack a proper home, shelter, water, electricity. Some of us do care. But unlike most of us, Jill does something about it. In fact has been doing it all her life. Like walking. Jill walks to raise money for charity. A walking which involves your feet and your mind over long distances, in any weather, bright or inclement.

The first big walk that Jill did was to raise money for children who grow up in a dump site in Manila. She had already worked in an NGO that looked after these children. But back in London after the posting was over, Jill once woke up in the middle of the night and shook Peter awake to tell him that she was going to walk and raise money through that walk for the deprived children in the Philippines.

“It was a walk from London to Brighton! Peter thought I was completely bonkers but he supported me. He knew that we had a few years in London in between postings and I just had to do something that was meaningful. To raise money through a walk is not difficult to do in London, because people are used to this idea. I got friends and family to get on to the website and contribute money. And then HSBC in Manila heard about my project and contributed handsomely. So at the end of the walk I had raised 5,000 Pounds Sterling.”

Time out. Pause? Not really. Jill went back to teaching, another activity she has done all her life, starting much before her marriage to Peter. “I used to teach in a school for children in Brixton which in the 1970s was a deprived neighbourhood of London. I worked in a school which had special classes for emotionally disturbed children. Let me tell you the story of one little 12-year-old girl whom I helped to get into a special learning class, which I think is the best thing that I have done. That little girl tried to commit suicide and I was able to help save her life. It was a very strange life for the little girl because she lived with her grandmother and her mother led a glamorous life in the US. Every once in a while the mother would fly over and verbally abuse the child if she did not come up to her expectations. So the little girl tried to put an end to all this.”

How does a concerned teacher deal with such sadness? “By being constant. There is no constancy in the lives of such children. They knew that I would be there every day for them with the same attitude, with the same understanding and kindness. So at least I was the one constant in their lives that would not disappear. I had to become that pillar, that rock.”

Jill’s life as a teacher continued after her marriage to Peter. But why not just be a diplomat’s wife? “In the peripatetic life that we lead, it’s something that one can do anywhere we are posted. It may not always be the same kind of teaching but it will always be for children. You get a lot back from them because you see their development and the fact that I have contributed to that makes it satisfying. Even if they are slow learners you feel encouraged when you see that one step forward which they have taken and you know it’s because of you.” So Jill has done both. Taken part in the official duties and happily supported Peter in his role as a diplomat and he in turn has supported her in whatever she has done.

A few years later, the Beckinghams got posted to Mumbai. It was time for another walk. “I kept seeing entire families living on the street under The Kemps Corner Flyover. It bothered me so I decided to raise money for them with the help of NGOs. How could I do this? By walking. It had to be a special walk. So the obvious one was the Dandi Salt March. It forms, as you know, a historic link between the two countries because it was done by Mahatma Gandhi as a protest against the British Salt Tax. So when we were in Baroda, I broached this subject with the association of British scholars based there who immediately offered to work out the logistics. It finally became a much bigger thing than originally planned because it now involved three NGOs in Baroda and three in Mumbai.”

It took Jill 17 days to accomplish her mission. She walked for 14 days, starting on November 18th 2010. It was a distance of 357 kms from Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad to Dandi and it was, “the most wonderful experience I have ever had in my life.” Some friends came over from the UK and accompanied Jill part of the way. Peter walked beside his wife for nine days. An ashram resident accompanied Jill from start to finish. Where did she sleep at night? They hired two Bollywood 40-feet-long vans which lessened the discomfort of sleeping in tents. Some people slept in temples along the way. Did Jill? She laughs, “No, I prefer the comfort of a mattress.”

They collected nearly a crore of rupees, which was split between the six NGOs and Jill makes it a point to tell me, “You must remember that I asked everyone to donate directly into the central fund.” When Jill recounts her narratives, it seems to me, the listener, that she is more than just talking about her experiences. One gets so involved in the imagery of her projects that I just want to get up and do something, feeling inadequate, that I have not participated in even 10 per cent of similar activities.

So, how has this experience changed her? “Let me tell you a small story which will explain my state of mind. A 97-year-old man took public transport and travelled for over 100 kms to come and give me his personal donation. How did he know about this? I don’t know. But just imagine. He was in prison with Mahatma Gandhi himself and now, in his really old age, was compelled to come and personally hand over his donation. So, when you ask how changed am I – that is your answer. It was just so emotionally moving and a gesture which I will repeat in my narrative again and again. Every day was special. Once we had leprosy patients walk along beside us an entire day. Another day we had deaf children do the same. On the last day, we had one thousand, yes one thousand tribal people marching with us into Dandi! Each day was a memory and I just wish I could do this every year.”

This then, is the key to Jill. The reason she always looks so serene and so composed is not a social veneer. This is her perfect world, a perfect world of happiness, a world so complete within itself because Jill has the gift of giving. Giving without any expectations. Giving to strangers just because she was born to give. Think about it. How many people do you meet in life who just give because they are born to give. “I feel fulfilled and that’s it.” That actually is not it, because as you read this article right now, Jill is already planning her next project. What is it you ask her with amazement and she shakes her head to indicate she is not yet ready to reveal the details.

Her decades of dedication to social causes are reflective of the role that genteel wives of career diplomats once did as a matter of course. Times have changed and such spouses have other things to do socially, rather than in a charitable sense. Like playing golf which Jill also does. Like playing host to ministers and trade delegations which Jill also does. But when you listen to Jill talk about her motivation to help the less fortunate, it is amply clear that more than anything else, this is the activity that defines her as a human being. And Jill is doubly blessed, because Peter supports her every step of the way.

Does she ever relax, like just flop out and do nothing? “I think getting involved with an NGO is the most fulfilling for me. And relaxing too. A couple of weeks ago, I had a few days of social activity. I played tennis, I played golf, I went to lunch, I went to a book club, I met friends. I had a really pleasant week. Friday night I sat down and said to myself that was good but it was not meaningful enough for me. So painting is a hobby, as is golf, both very pleasant but not meaningful enough. That’s what Peter and I discuss nowadays. What are we going to do when we retire? Along with the holidays and travelling that we will do, how will we also find a meaningful activity?”

Such dilemmas are still a few years ahead. Meanwhile, the monsoons are blowing towards our shores and the Beckinghams will no doubt look for alternatives to their golfing. Jill will probably announce another astounding project for charity when the storm clouds blow over. Hello October, it’s time for Jill to take another walk. And another group of the lesser fortunates will find a reason to smile.

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