The book “Raj & Norah” by Peter R. Kohli and his daughter Shaina Kohli Russo details the love story of Peter R. Kohli’s parents.
When World War II broke out in 1939, twenty-year-old Rajendra Kohli was studying in England. He joined the British army, and when injured, found himself in Naples for treatment, where he met Norah Elizabeth Eggleton, a nurse with Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service. But as their love story began, Raj was sent to London, Norah was posted to a hospital in Rome, and they wondered if they would ever see each other again.
This story will captivate and move readers around the world, and the book is a fitting homage to an extraordinary couple who lived through extraordinary times.
Read an excerpt from the book below.
The Leinster began its Mediterranean voyage. Bright, sunny, cloudless, hot days were followed by clear nights, calm waters and a peasant moon.
The staff of the hospital ship took advantage of the empty days by enjoying some sunbathing, which eventually always resulted in a nap (or two) on deck.
Norah was thinking about how it was yet another perfectly sunny day at sea as she made her way up to the deck, accompanied by the book of John Keats’ poems. She looked out upon the calm sea, seeing nothing but stretches of bright blue water that shimmered back at her. This peace and calmness weighed heavily on Norah. She knew there was a war going on – she just didn’t feel a part of it. She remembered the newsreels that played at the movies back home, showing the horror of war, and all she could think about was when would the war start for her? Her country had injected fervour into recruiting everyday people to fight for the good cause, deeming it an honour to serve. She signed up to be a heroine, to do her part for her country and the world, to be of service. She felt a restlessness within her. All she seemed to be doing for the moment was sunbathing day in and day out. It didn’t feel right.
She took intermittent breaks from reading to fan herself with its cover, all the while subconsciously fixing her tropical hat, fearful that too much sun would cause her skin to burn. As she indulged in an internal debate about whether or not to go inside to find shelter from the heat, Ruth, plopped into a chair next to her.
‘Norah,’ said Ruth, taking Norah’s hat from her as she examined it. ‘How interesting. Have you written the names of the ports we’ve been to around the rim?’
Norah laughed, ‘Yes, but don’t think of it as clever, it’s just so that when I’m an old maid, I won’t forget where I’ve been.’ The fear of sunburn ever looming, she grabbed her hat and tugged it on tightly.
So far, it was adorned with only a few names: Scotland, June 1943 – Gibraltar. Norah planned on completely filling the rim with all the exotic places she’d adventure to while on the ship. She wanted to properly remember all the details of where she’d been so as to easily recount to her friends and family when she got back home. She was anxious and excited as she thought about the stories she’d have to tell.
‘Hopefully, you won’t have too many places to write.’ Ruth gestured to the calm turquoise sea that stretched on for miles and miles before them. ‘You know, when Mikey and I volunteered for the war, we foolishly thought it would be romantic. We could serve on a ship together. Sail around the world together. Little did we know that he’d be sent off to serve on the St David as an orderly and me on this very-different-than-his ship.’ Ruth lay back in her wicker chair, gently pulled her sunglasses up over her eyes, delicately crossed her hands, and let out a deep sigh. ‘Might as well enjoy this bout of boring … I just wish they’d get on with it and finish this damn war. I want to get home, see my gruff husband and start having children. You know, Norah, the mundane things of life.’
Norah agreed. ‘What I would give to just have another Sunday roast with my father, brothers and sisters again.’ With a slight laugh, her mind drifted to one of those weekly lunches where fond chaos always ensued due to the sheer number of those taking part in the meal: Norah and her sister Muriel giggling about their brother John’s rumoured fascination with a young woman, Emily, who lived a few doors down; her father’s booming voice rising above all other sounds as he lovingly lectured their youngest sister Betty about life; all of which tended to be interrupted by the second youngest, Peter, who painstakingly detailed the cricket match he had heard that afternoon on the radio; the orchestra of clinking bowls and serving trays as they passed the food back and forth between one another – roast lamb in all its glorious juices, peas, roast potatoes and gravy…
‘Mikey always said I was a wonderful cook – better than his mother, he said.’ Ruth raised her eyebrows before sharing a scandalous secret. ‘You know, he wants to have children as soon as we return home. “We aren’t going to wait on that, Ruthie,” he would always say.’ She let out a laugh. ‘Mikey, he never had patience for anything.’
‘With a schedule like that, I guess you won’t be going back to St Mary’s after the war then, will you?’ Norah asked.
‘No, probably not. Probably go up to his village in Yorkshire and pop out babies, one after another.’
They both laughed and Norah patted Ruth on her back. It was fun to joke with Ruth, and the levity momentarily helped take her mind off the uncertainty that lay ahead.
‘At least you have someone.’ Norah folded her book shut and began to fan herself again. ‘I am insistently reminded by my sister Muriel, in her letters to me, that I don’t have a husband.’
‘I thought you had someone.’ Ruth looked puzzled.
‘Who? Cecil? No, that relationship’s over.’ Norah shifted her hat. ‘We grew too far apart from each other when I left Kidlington for London.’
‘No, the professor, silly.’ Ruth rolled her eyes.
Norah let out a nervous laugh. ‘Oh, Norman? I had quite forgotten about him, Ruthie.’ She extravagantly swatted her hand, brushing the thought away, as if it was too ridiculous to bring attention to.
It wasn’t ridiculous, however, and Norah knew it. How could she forget about him? She was reading the book he had gifted her, after all. The book that routinely occupied the top of her nightstand. His memory lingered fondly and seeped into her dreams every night. She often found herself imagining a future with Professor Norman, a future filled with poems, fantastical evenings with his friends, who were as brilliant as he was – a very comfortable future.
She shook away the thought as she took a deep breath. I think he likes me more than I like him anyhow, she thought. Norah hesitated for a minute, her thoughts drifting back to the last time they saw each other. They were in the café, their café. The way he touched her hand gently, his piercing green eyes staring into hers as he tried to persuade her. ‘Don’t go,’ he had said. ‘War is awful, it will change you forever.’ Norah didn’t disagree as she played out his words in her head. She hadn’t seen much damage yet, but she knew it was only a matter of time.
‘Come on, let’s go and get a cuppa, Ruthie!’
And with that, they both walked arm in arm across the deck and down to the canteen, where they were greeted by Robert, the cook.
Robert was always a delight to be around. He took it upon himself to care for everyone on board as if he had known them his whole life, as if they were all just long-lost cousins. He was often found with a spatula in one hand attending to a hot pan of greasy sausages, with the other hand ceremoniously tipping a bottle of brandy to his lips for indulgent swigs, all the while joyously belting out yet another traditional Celtic song. Along with an extremely strong Scottish accent, his words always seemed to get lost or at least stuck in his unkempt bushy red beard. This made for an amusing game that the medical staff would partake in, each taking turns guessing what Robert could possibly be saying.
‘Gud aftahnun, laydies!’ his voice boomed at the sight of them walking down the stairs. ‘Whe ken eh gaytcha?’ he said as he wiped his hands on his apron.
‘Good afternoon, Robert.’ Norah smiled. ‘Just a cup of tea, please.’
He hurried off to the kitchen and returned quickly with a piping hot kettle and a basket of biscuits.
As Robert excitedly poured Ruth and Norah their afternoon tea, he started to tell them what he had overheard a few minutes ago from the captain. ‘Yer’d neyvar gahs, baht wi’d gawtin eh mehsauge frruhm te Eymericun’ sheep! Envightin’ te Lyenester tew eh pertay unn berd tear sheep!’
Norah and Ruth were at a real loss with this round, and it was a nearby doctor who came to their rescue and translated for them: ‘An American ship has invited us aboard. Turns out they’re having a party.’
‘Das whe eh sehd!’ Robert took the kettle and his excitement with him as he poured tea for a table on the other side of the canteen, no doubt sharing the same news.
Norah and Ruth giggled as they imagined what an American party might entail, and were caught up in the excitement when Matron Edge walked by and Ruth stopped her to ask, ‘Matron, did you hear about the American party?’
The matron sighed. ‘Ah, yes, on the Seminole. The radioman told me. Are you sisters going to join in the American fun?’
Ruth’s eyes were wide with enthusiasm. ‘We’re allowed, are we not?’
The matron crossed her arms. ‘I suppose a little fun here and there wouldn’t spoil anything. Just do be careful, I’ve heard Americans’ – she hesitated, searching for the correct words – ‘take their partying very seriously … and liberally.’
Unsure of what the matron meant, but eager to find out, Ruth and Norah hurriedly went to their respective cabins to get ready for such a soirée.
Excerpted with permission from Raj & Norah: A True Story of Love Lost and Found in World War II, Peter R. Kohli and Shaina Kohli Russo, HarperCollins India. Read more about the book here and buy it here.