December 21, 2019 § Leave a comment

Juna Mahal, Dungarpur, Rajasthan, India

Photographs of India: Click on this link to view a slideshow of photographs I took during my journey to India, January 10-February 11, 2019.

Tracing Roots in Kodaikanal

March 12, 2019 § Leave a comment

(Photograph courtesy of KIS)

I am deeply touched by KIS student Ishita Pandey’s reflections on my visit to Kodaikanal International School during my week-long stay in Kodaikanal last month (February 3-11, 2019). I was so impressed by the students, faculty, staff, and community members I met at KIS. What a blessing to have been so warmly embraced by that lovely community. My own reflections are taking more time to come to fruition, but please stay tuned for those. Meanwhile, I am delighted to share Ishita’s comments here. Thank you, Ishita – I remember well your own beautiful writing in our workshops.

The Flag Green

It is not uncommon for the KIS community to have visitors tracing their genealogy and family history to Kodaikanal. Being in existence for clost to 120 years, KIS has a wealth of historical archival that provides visitors with a treasure chest of stories. We recently had Martha Donovan, on one such quest to research about her mother, a Kodai School Alumnus, for her next memoir. Having Martha in the community provided our students and staff the opportunity to tap her writing expertise through multiple workshop forums. Ishita Pandey from the Class of 2020 was one of the participants in her workshop and had the following to share about her experience with Martha.

Being the historic institution it is, KIS is a place intertwined with the stories of many different personalities, various lives, the ups and downs of each and every person who has been a part of this school, which…

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Strange and Magical

July 28, 2018 § 2 Comments

Kodaikanal, India, c. 1936. (Unknown photographer)

Strange and Magical

This photograph of my mother Beatrice Florence Witter with her parents Ted Volney Witter and Mildred Nasmith Witter has followed me from home to home over the years, resting on my bedside table to remind me of my mother’s strange and magical childhood in rural South India (notice the topee in my mother’s hand).

As I prepare for my trip to India this winter, I am revisiting photographs, writing, and research from a sabbatical project in the fall of 2011. I will be posting material about my mother and her family these next few months before my travel begins.

The Dark Regions Beyond

February 18, 2017 § Leave a comment

The Baptist Missionary Magazine, October 1904


The Dark Regions Beyond

I have become obsessed with the Jackmans, hunting for any clue as to who these people were before the crisis in Sadiya and what became of them after. I imagine they lived a comfortable life in upstate New York, where Mr. Jackman studied the law before his conversion to missionary life in 1904. Just a few years later, based in Sadiya, Assam among the headhunting Abors and Miris, Rev. Jackman reports: The loving Father has most wonderfully kept us. Dangers have come near, but the Master was nearer to ward them off and little harm has come to us (quoted in a section of mission updates at the end of Mary Mead Clark’s memoir A Corner in India). Sometime between 1907 (when little harm had come to them) and 1920 (when Rev. Lyman Ward Beecher Jackman crossed the street to the mission bungalow directly opposite his own and lodged four large bullets in Major H. D. Cloete’s head) something had gone terribly awry.

And why do I care? What difference can this possibly make to me? What do I hope I will learn? And yet I have spent the better part of a day sitting in front of my computer hunting for a photograph of this couple, as if somehow their image will explain to me how a marriage can go so terribly awry.

After hours of searching, I find my way to the October 1904 issue of The Baptist Missionary Magazine and a listing of re-enforcements to missionary fields abroad with accompanying photographs of the husbands and wives. And there they are, Rev. and Mrs. Jackman, an attractive couple. Do I detect a trace of uncertainty in Mrs. Jackman’s eyes, a wistfulness for all that she must soon give up in support of her husband’s dreams? Does she know, already, somehow, the destiny that awaits them in a distant land?

She is a beautiful woman; I can imagine her upswept hair, her delicate neck, her sad eyes enticing others to comfort her. Her husband, on the other hand, seems serious, like my grandfather. I can imagine Rev. Jackman neglecting his wife – not through any willfulness or lack of love but simply because he is driven by a zealousness that blinds him to a different passion he might have chosen.

I look at their photographs and I know they have no idea what is waiting for them in the wilds of Assam, near the border of Tibet, far from family and friends, in the dark regions beyond.

[Note: This is part of an unfinished manuscript I was working on – and which I put aside – when my own marriage unexpectedly fell apart several years ago. I return to this work now in preparation for an upcoming talk on three generations of Witter women in India. My step-greatgrandmother Mary Barss Witter wrote a letter home in 1920 to her four grown children by her first marriage, informing them of Rev. Jackman’s murder of Major Cloete, his friend with whom his wife was having an affair. My greatgrandfather Rev. William E. Witter, a missionary in Assam, had been called up to be the spiritual advisor to Rev. Jackman during his trial for murder.]


February 9, 2017 § Leave a comment

Photograph by Autumn E. Monsees


I am holding my grandmother’s diary of 1940, printed by Caxton Press and sold by C. Coomaraswamy Naidu & Sons of 27 Chinnatambi Street, Madras, India. Pages of printed information explain how to treat sunstroke or the bite of a mad dog or when to expect a full moon or how to write a will. But what I most want to know is what my grandmother felt the day my mother boarded the S.S. President Garfield to begin a long and lonely voyage across the world. I turn to Saturday, July 13 and I am stunned to see nothing – not one word. How can this be?

Perhaps my mother and grandmother were worn out from the long journey from the dusty plains of Podili to the bustling wharves of Bombay, too exhausted to talk. And what could they say, what words could they give to each other that could feed the hunger in their hearts?

Three months later a huge cyclone would sweep through the coast of Bombay, uprooting trees, boats, lives.

[Note: This is one section of my essay “Dangerous Archaeology: A Daughter’s Search for Her Mother (and Others) – A Memoir in Fragments” published in Hayden’s Ferry Review #50, Spring/Summer 2012]


February 8, 2017 § Leave a comment

Theodore Volney Witter and Mildred Nasmith Witter, 1912


Every time I look at this photograph, I half expect Butch Cassidy to appear on his bicycle to steal my grandmother away from her beloved to the sounds of Burt Bacharach’s “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” playing in the background. I have always thought my grandmother looked like the beautiful and sensuous Katharine Ross who played the Sundance Kid’s lover in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. As I look closer, I see that my grandfather might, if he removed his glasses and smiled just a little, be able to pass as a young Paul Newman himself. They are a handsome couple, however you cut it and, while not the sort to rob banks or trains, they are about to board a steamer, leave family and friends behind, and light out for India where they will remain for the better part of their lives.

Aphorism #2

August 4, 2014 § 1 Comment

Mildred Nasmith Witter's diary, carved elephant (Photograph by Martha Andrews Donovan)
Mildred Nasmith Witter’s diary, carved elephant
(Photograph by Martha Andrews Donovan)

Aphorism #2

Remember (re-member) the skin, the bones, the once-pulsing life: breathe, breathe.

We Must Travel Back

August 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

Ceramic Tile
We Must Travel Back

Broadside from Dangerous Archaeology. Photograph by Autumn E. Monsees. Ceramic Tile, Witter Family Artifact.

This is one of sixteen broadsides produced in collaboration with photographer Autumn E. Monsees during the summer and fall of 2011. These broadsides were exhibited at the New England College Art Gallery in February-March of 2012 as part of my mixed-genre work-in-progress Dangerous Archaeology: A Daughter’s Search for Her Mother (and Others) – a memoir in fragments

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