Aunty and the Star People: Documenting Lives

Gerard SmythOne of the most successful films at the New Zealand International Film Festival had a New Zealand author as its focus: Jean WatsonAunty and the star people explores the “fascinating double life” of Jean Watson (author of Stand in the rain) who started a children’s home in Southern India. It was completely sold out during the Festival and will be released in cinemas very soon.

Gerard Smyth (the director of Aunty and the star people) and Jean discussed her life and work in India as part of WORD Christchurch.

28 years ago, Joy Cowley invited Jean to accompany her to India to explore her interest in religion. During the trip, Joy had to rush home but Jean decided to stay. She says she’s been there “ever since, emotionally when not physically”.

For the last 27 years, Jean has set up, funded and run Karunai Illam, a Children’s home in India where children from dysfunctional or destitute homes live and attend school. They now also have a school and vocational training community college. There are currently 43 children in the home and 269 attending the day school. Jean spends about three months a year in India. She says “When I’m there, I forget about here. When I’m here, I can’t forget about there.”

Jean first found literary success with Stand in the Rain, a fictionalised account of her life with Barry Crump. Gerard described this novel as meeting “with huge acclaim”. Jean countered with “Not huge acclaim.” “Some acclaim.” Gerard compromised, Jean clarified with “Well, there weren’t many writers then…” Needless to say, Jean is very humble. She said “my ordinary life seems described as extraordinary in the media, to me it is an ordinary life, maybe I should make it more extraordinary.”

Throughout her career, Jean has met many New Zealand literary luminaries:

  • Bob Lowry: He gave Jean a job after he inadvertently got her fired from the Salvation Army by showing up to visit her in an inebriated state. Jean said he was renowned as the best typographer in New Zealand and taught her how to set up type.
  • Dennis Glover: “Very sort of sarcastic, open person. You could never take offence at him. I remember him calling me a middle aged Ophelia. Whatever that means.”
  • Janet Frame: Jean met her when she was trying to get a reference to get into University from Frank Sargeson. Janet eventually wrote her a reference as well. “Just a young lady with red hair who seemed to me extremely nice and empathetic.”
  • Joy Cowley, long-time friend and Patron of Karunai Illam, said “Unwrapping Jean’s writing takes you to  place beyond words.” Jean now wants to focus on her existential writing, similar to Address to a King, complete her autobiography and write a follow-up chapter for Karunai Illam, her book describing the establishment and running of Karunai Illam. Although her goals may change; when Gerard reminded her that “55 [her age when she started the Illam – ed.] is quite old to start a new life.” She countered with “I don’t know, maybe I’ll start a new one tomorrow. Time is an illusion.”

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