In Bombay, goondas speed up to auto-rickshaws, then lean over to yank dangling earrings. If the ear rips, it rips. Never wear jewelry in Bombay: This Sindhi, in the latest Blitz, laid her arm, glittering with gold bangles, on the open window of her car. Men with machetes drove beside her on a dark road, then sped away holding her arm on which those bangles still glittered. Ice-lollies sold by pushcart men are made from filthy water scooped from gutters. “How are they to get municipal water in those cardboard and rag squatter shacks, you tell me now?” Shammi kebabs sold on sidewalks are rotting dead dog, not lamb. “Lamb, huh! As if they’d sell lamb!” Those circus children who soar, spangly and sequined, were, of course, kidnapped. These kidnappers slide a chloroform-soaked handkerchief across the faces of children who stray, you know, just down the road from their parents. They sometimes slice their legs mid-thigh, so they look piteous as they beg on their little skateboards, their masters watching in the shadows, eyes narrowed on the take. This beggar, in The Bombay Herald, died with a lakh of rupees sewn into his mattress; some in rags, and some in bags, and some in velvet gowns. If you take a taxi late at night, the cabbie aimlessly zigzags through the city, or if he sees you are a buddhu, drives around in circles, quite shamelessly grinning at the meter. Sometimes passengers vanish. And wash up out of the Arabian Sea, sans watch, sans wallet, throat slit. Unaccompanied female women are abducted to brothels at Falkland Road–“Did you see those Illustrated Weekly pictures?”–to join the sad prostitutes in their cages.
My grandmother said so. My mother said so.
“But what are brothels?”
“Never you mind.”
(And never mind that Nana never left her Catholic suburb of Bandra for big bad Bombay; in fact, rarely left her own home: drunken bus drivers, bogeymen, beggar-men, thieves).
In my grandmother’s house—which was Bombay as far as we were concerned–almost everything: sliced beetroot, tomato, pineapple, melon, rice, mutton curry, pancakes, or buttered toast was served with a frosting of the sugar forbidden her, a diabetic. In Bombay, Uncle Mervyn appeared with a gigantic brown paper bag from which, with a magician’s flourish, he produced chocolate—Krisp, Five Stars, Gems, Caramello, Bournville, Cadbury’s Raisin, or Fruit and Nut which, beaming with the pleasure of magnanimity, he bestowed on us, voila, responding to my little sister’s delirious delight—“Wow, Uncle Mervyn!”—with an almost eternal “There’s more, baby doll!” until finally, almost incredibly, he came to the last loaf, the last fish, and even our gluttonous eyes realized, without sadness, that there was no more.
On Bombay evenings, Uncle Eustace took me to sit amid flashy acrobatic insects on the verandahs of his laughing friends, to whom he would introduce me with pride and apparent seriousness, “This is my niece, Anita. She goes to St. Mary’s Convent, Nainital,” and “Oooh, an India-famous school!” someone might say with only slightly mock awe, and as befitted someone who went to an India-famous school, I was, in half-jest, offered a drink, which, as befitted someone who went to an India-famous school, I accepted in nonchalant earnest, “Oh yes, I think I’ll have a shandy.” “Say, when.” “When!” I said smartly as the level on the gag beer glasses rose past 3 fl oz. for a lady, 6 oz. for a gentlemen, almost up to the 9 oz. mark, marked PIG, and so after an evening of shandy (beer and lemonade); toddy (fermented coconut juice); feni (moonshine distilled from cashew nuts); or very sweet homemade mulberry wine (which we never considered considering alcohol), I returned, effusive, expansive, in love with the world and everything in it, and most of all with my own cleverness, and how clever my bubbling bon mots were. “Anita!” my mother, grandmother, and Aunt Joyce cried in unison. “Oh,” I said airily, swaying on, but not only because of, my new high-heeled shoes, “I can hold my liquor,” (an expression I’d picked up in those evenings). And everyone cried “Eustace!” while he grinned, his mischievous dancing eyes half-closed and far away. For he on honey-dew hath fed, And drunk the milk of Paradise.
And the sea, the sea! Across the road, shimmering corrugated silver, sea-gulls screeching on the wings of the wind, breakers and waves crashing as in the scarcely noticed background of a dream. Sudden breezes brought the acrid, exhilarating hors d’oevry tang of the fish, “bombay ducks” and bhangra, mackerel, the Koli fisherwoman spread out on the beach to dry –making us forever hungry. “Yes, sea air makes you peckish,” said our grandparents, delighted by slang (as knowing, as pleased, as the German nuns at my Himalayan boarding school were with their elemental dicta: “Mountain air makes you hungry”) hungry even after the table at tea, brilliant with cloying sohn halwa from camel’s milk, and orange, red, yellow and green “Bombay halwas” so rich that flecks of ghee, clarified butter, the creme de la crème, visibly oozed from their pores. Such, such were the joys of our holidays in Bombay.
Saturnalia! A Roman holiday! Bombay!
“Come on, Pa, you have leave. Let’s go.”
“Leave!” he snorted. “Of course, I have leave. All my six weeks. And most of last year’s, and the year before that, and…”
“Pa, how meeeean. Why don’t you stay at home and play with us?”
“Huh!” he snorted.
But, we gathered, Bombay it was.
* * *
“Well, if we are going to Bombay, I’ll go to Mangalore and see Ma this year,” my father said with the defiant, tremulous firmness he rarely mustered. When he did however, he was—almost—unassailable.
“Mangalore!” my mother said. She was “a Bombayite,” proud of her citizenship in the metropolis. “Never! I am never going to set foot in Mangalore again. Petit pays, petite gens. Everyone thought the Japanese were behind the Port Dock Explosion of 1942” and so like Blitzed London children, the Bombayites who could evacuate did so. No Narnia though. “When we cried in Mangalore and said we missed our mummy, those Konkani speaking girls asked, ‘And do you miss your puppy?’ ”
“I am a persona non grata in Mangalore,” my mother said, with a pleased, twisted little smile. The Latin, or…? The ill-fated visit. Twenty years ago. My soft-spoken father, Noel, the longed-for son, first-born after “a plague of girls,” five pretty maids all in a row, had returned after eight years in England, with a professional degree, F.C.A., Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants, England and Wales; an accent; rumored romances, never confirmed, never denied; urbanity; high culture—Malcom Sargent’s Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall! Laurence Olivier as Lear at the Old Vic! Joyce, Woolf, Camus, Gide! and rich experience: fruit-picking vacations in Europe; young communist camps in Poland; cricket matches at Lords after which, he said, triumphant West Indians raced onto the field, tossing their cricket bats in the air and singing, “Crick-et, lubberly crick-et.” As far as his mother, grandmother, and sisters were concerned, any bride must necessarily fall short of his glory. My mother, dissenting, never returned to Mangalore, nor met her mother or sisters-in-law again, winning the Pyrrhic battles between mother- and daughter-in-law scripted by centuries of Indian tradition by ignoring as thoroughly as she was ignored, a simple, overlooked strategy (if you can get away with it)!
“Pa, I’m going with you,” I said desperately.
“No!” my mother said, equally desperately. “Your hair will look like the wild woman of Borneo’s. You’ll wear jeans in which your thighs look like the rocks of Gibraltar. You’ll blab family secrets. They’ll ask “Who do you like more, your mummy or your daddy?’ and you will say my father, and they’ll say why, and pump, and pump, and you are such a donk…”
“I’m not a donk.”
“If the cap fits, wear it,” she sang out gleefully.
“Oh, let her come,” my father said. “Or you two will fight all the time. Already next-door, that Gupta, cornered me at work, and said, ‘I hear Anita’s back.’ ”
“Well, she’ll be Mary, Mary, quite contrary in Mangalore too. She’ll say, ‘I’m known as the naughtiest girl in school.’ And they’ll say why, and she’s such a donk, she’ll explain–proudly–and there’ll be a new series of stories, and…” my mother squawked.
“But I want to see Saint Francis Xavier. All the nuns at school said I should since Goa is between Bombay and Mangalore, and the Exposition is only every ten years.” Coup de grace?
“And since when have you had a devotion to Saint Francis Xavier?”
All Indian Catholics talked about The Decennial Exposition of the Sacred Relics of Saint Francis Xavier in Goa, that poor mutilated corpse. He died and was buried in China in 1552; was exhumed months later–his body intact, sweet-smelling, as though he’d been Sleeping Beautifully–to be re-buried in Malacca; then was re-exhumed, still fragrant, to be buried in Goa, where he was exhumed experimentally, again, again; his corpse exquisitely undecayed, despite three burials in three countries, though unburied, poked, prodded; his right arm conveyed to Rome, fragments of his shoulder blade to Cochin, Malacca and Macao; his intestines to Japan; and his toe bitten off by a skeptic (spouting fresh blood).
* * *
I had a special reason for wanting to go, and my father always game for explorations of the supernatural–Sai Baba, Yoga, the charismatic renewal, glossolalia, palmistry, table tapping to summon a recently dead aunt’s spirit–had agreed to take me.
All last winter, I had read all the Greek mythology I could find. The loveliest magic, yet real, the characters vain, vengeful, tricky, greedy, funny, human, criss-crossing, intertwining, popping up in one another’s stories; it felt like the land of Narnia–or Mangalore.
And then: an era-dating idea. The wind chilled ancient people, I read; the earth withheld crops; the sun scorched them, potent, unappeasable. So they named these capricious forces Boreas, Ceres, Apollo, Poseidon and tried to pamper and flatter them into beneficence.
I understood. Was not all religion an attempt to control with carrots the wild horses of the universe?
And why should Christianity be any different?
I am an atheist, I said proudly.
Free. No need to be God-fearing. No God. No heaven. No hell. I could now do anything I liked. I organized a gang, “the bandits,” to raid Modern General Store; “Mr. Modern” cheated us year-round with his high prices, I rationalized.
An atheist. I could no longer walk through cold, flagstoned school corridors on the eve of a Math, Physics or Hindi exam, saying to every nun I passed, “Sis–ter, pray I pass.” My favorite nun, Sister Josephine, used to, in reply, piously quote Thomas More, with a twinkle in her eyes, The things, good Lord, that I pray for, give me the grace to labor for, a bleak functional atheism I had now to adopt. Here I was all on my own. An orphan in “the eternal silence of the infinite spaces.” And when the tumult and opprobrium of being “the naughtiest girl in the school,” wearied, I could not pray for a water-to-wine, road-to-Damascus transformation of the deep structure of my personality. No supernatural consequences imposed by an all-seeing Eye, wonderful!, but no golden deus ex machina, no supernatural rescue from consequence. No miracles. The world seemed bleaker, lonelier. I shivered.
I woke one night to a Presence standing by my bed, golden light. The ghost of my grandfather, I decided. Or could it have been Christ himself, who walked, mysterious and unrecognized with Abraham, wrestled with Jacob, stayed the blaze of Nebuchudnezzar’s flames for the faithful three. Something more. A smiling magic beyond ourselves. Wow! If I could see a miracle, I might believe. If this body did indeed miraculously refuse decay—“Thou shalt not let thy holy one know corruption”—then there might be a miracle-worker, a God. And life could be a true fairy tale; pumpkins, coaches; mice, stallions; the impossible, possible; dreams, reality.
“If I take you, will you behave?” my father frowned severely.
“Oh yes! Prom–ise!”
“Behave! She’ll be quite horrid!” my mother snorted.
* * *
That done, a packing of best clothes, letting out of seams of what I had outgrown, my mother and the cook in the kitchen all day, crafting sweets, or on the terrace, sun-drying prawn and pork pickles for Uncle Eustace who would eat no sweets. We gave each relative we visited a Quality Street tin with dainty flaunting parasoled Quakers, now filled with our very best homemade pink coconut halwa, burgundy guava halwa, green pumpkin halwa, or milk toffee, shaped in our rubber molds into seductive fruits de mer. And the piece de resistance: marzipan fashioned into miniature fruits, perfectly perfect jewels whose beauty made them more desirable: carefully angled bananas; miniature apricots with plump cleavage; oranges with toothpick dimples; yellow apples and pears with a lovingly painted, fading blush of food coloring, dewy with glittering sugar, a miracle of verisimilitude right up to the jaunty little toothpick stem, and green cloth leaf. An imaginary garden with real toads, artistry lavished with the profligacy of creation on a minute of pleasure.
Bombay (like, oddly, almost all our destinations from Jamshedpur, our small North Indian town, whether Nainital in the North, or Madras in the south) demanded a forty-eight hour train journey. Hampers of chili chicken in a sticky marinade of soy, tomatoes and spices. Cards: Whist, or Lexicon, a word building game (like Scrabble). I tossed aside “The Republic,” in disgust. “Don’t take too many books,” my mother said, and so I looked for fat ones. “Don’t show off,” she said, as I picked up The Republic, fruit of one of my father’s bursts of intellectual enthusiasm. “You won’t understand it,” my father said. I opened it. “I know the meaning of every word on this page,” I said indignantly. “You’ll understand the words, but not the meaning,” he retorted. Impossible, I thought, and so I plowed through Plato by will-power, discovering indeed how it was possible to understand the words, but not the meaning.
So, once again, The Mill on the Floss, read into the night, lying on my stomach beneath the yellow globe of the bulb, with its protective steel mesh and doomed moths. “Over your shoulder on to the book” my father said fiercely, quoting Aldous Huxley who recovered from near blindness by Better Sight without Glasses exercises. Her mother and aunts again carp and harp on the massy shaggy locks of Maggie Tulliver. She impulsively self-shears her long black hair. Jaggedly. Each attempt at evening it renders it more odd. Frying pan, fire.
Across the floor’s surreptitious debris–banana peels, peanut shells, wooden ice-cream spoons, soft drink straws– crawled the inevitable fat dark baby, eyes black-ringed with (reputedly) enlarging kohl, all cheek, on which, judiciously drawn: a black dot to ruin perfect beauty, a safeguard against the envious nazar, evil eye, praise which might provoke the malignity of the universe. With the delight of young children in the even younger, we reflexively cooed, “cho chweet,” a currently “hep” boarding school expression. The mother muttered “Wo mutt bolo. Usko nazar mutt do. Don’t say that. Don’t give her the nazar.” “More beautiful than Juno” was the boast that launched the sea monster against Andromeda, my father explained (showing off: his bete noire); as a safeguard, a slave ran before Caesar in his triumphal processions saying, “Remember: thou too art mortal.”
Fields of brilliant yellow flowering mustard; ponds smothered by the deadly beauty of purple water hyacinths; a man doing surya namskar at the edge of the fields; women squatting, brass lotas at their hands; children in scruffy underwear, standing, legs apart, gawking at the train: the old hypnotic tableau. And then, the slow, grey, grimy approach to the great city: Inventive shacks of tarpaulin, boards, and plastic sheeting–and then, towering walls of tiny apartments, balconies crowded with bicycles and drying clothes.
Bargaining with red uniformed coolies at Victoria Terminus; an “I’m smart, I’m tough” bluff. Take licensed taxis, not moon-lighters. A glare at the taxi meter: Turn it on—then to Bandra where my mother grew up, in which, like an enchanted sleeping kingdom, fashions never changed. Christian women wore one-piece dresses ending just above the knee, a length unchanged from the Raj—right though the fifties when most grown women, my father’s sisters, for instance, shed their anyway unbecoming dresses for saris, for now exposing your legs (“bacon and eggs,” the cognoscenti said in Cockney rhyming slang) suggested you might be Anglo-Indian, (who, the British gone, morphed, in popular imagination, to progeny of the Saturday flings of British Tommies and Indian maids).
* * *
The Coelhos rushed out as we entered the long shell-strewn yard. My tall, lanky, straight-backed grandfather, Stanislaus, wearing the small black-rimmed glasses and baggy tweed trousers and jacket which were the trademark of old gentlemen of his school; he had the long, sunken, suffering face of T. S. Eliot, to whom he bore an uncanny resemblance. “And here comes The Ma-ha-ra-ja,” the middle brother Mervyn drawled, rolling the syllables in gleeful mockery, his voice suave, resonant, rich-timbered as port or Christmas cake, the voice of a born priest! His oldest brother, Eustace (an anomaly in that family of the worried) approached us grinning, raffish as Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind, whom he resembled down to the ironic glint in his languid, heavy-lidded, deceptively sleepy eyes and his debonair mustache. The nick-name–with the truth encrypted in nick-names that take–was a not inapt description of Eustace’s free-spending care-freeness and careless largesse, his flamboyance, his popularity, his indulgence of his family, his friends, and himself. It was however inspired by the logo of Air India at which Eustace was a senior executive: an endomorphic, red-turbanned Maharaja, in his outmoded sherwani and red-striped, plumed turban, deeply bowing, on his mystic flying carpet, his courtly right angle bow to all hoi polloi with a plane ticket.
Ironically, Mervyn, the middle brother, larger each year, physically resembled that Maharaja. His big, round beaming face had a polished sheen; his large, lustrous, slightly squinted eyes sparkled at his own sardonic murmurings; he was always at home, comfy in his trademark T-shirt and baggy Bermuda shorts, shrouded in the mysterious nimbus of the “self-employed.” The youngest brother, Reynald, a Chartered Accountant, sweet-natured, gentle, smiley, was everyone’s favorite, the frequent prerogative of the youngest; the only brother who did marry, late, he still, straight after work, visited his old home, where he was loved-up, lapped-up, listened to before he dragged himself home, tired and talked-out, on the days he had the energy to. The never-seen characters of his office, like his lame polio-stricken boss, Patrick Saldanha, who never missed a day’s work, transport strike, monsoon floods, or riots and their fires, provided vivid, extended-life, soap-operatic gratifications to my grandparents and Aunt Joyce, whose dress was the precise deep-frozen length we had laughed about in the taxi, we realized as she emerged.
Her hair hung lank, her make-up was perfunctory, her figure had thickened; as a young girl, however, she had been pretty. At proposals from the most eligible bachelors, she sobbed, “but I don’t want to leave Mummy.” Others came from rich men who, when the Portuguese began to convert our ancestral town of Mangalore nearly five centuries ago, had not, unlike my grandparents, been Brahmins. (The Brahmins, the most influential caste, had been converted first, with each extended family given a Portuguese surname, so that even today, surnames are a rough, though not infallible, guide to caste and class; and, anyway, the community remembers). My grandfather was aghast, “How can you even consider it? Centuries of dirt flowing in his veins!” And so Joyce remained in the house of her youth, a dragonfly in amber, nervous, harassed by the day’s Sisyphean worries, whom I remember, like a cautionary tale, when I shiver on the shores of the great river.
Slowly, very slowly, my grandmother, Molly, emerged, whom we called Small Nana, not just because she was as diminutive and cute as a doll which—timid and diffident, four feet something, in her perennial mid-calf batik dresses–she was; but to distinguish her from Big Nana, Alice Rebello, her mother, my great-grandmother, frail, mild, with a constant, faint, gentle smile who, miraculously on every visit, slipped my mother an exquisite piece of jewelry for us “when we grew up,” delicate confections of diamonds, pearls and tiny rubies, or large Burma rubies with deep gleaming depths set in rings and earrings bought for her, in Persia, by my great-grandfather, a veterinary surgeon, attending the British army, or, more precisely, its horses. (“Horse-doctor’s granddaughter,” we’d tease my mother, forgetting our two degrees of connection.) Big Nana slipped these to us when unobserved by her son and daughter-in-law, who had moved in with her, an ex-nun of whom my father said, “She’s a virago.” (“What is a virago?” “Oh never mind.” Another word for my childhood Kabbalah: What are Free Masons? What is a Cabaret? –the flashing neon words over pictures of dancing girls divesting, whispered by my classmates: Daddy went to the cabaret). Jewelry so beautiful, and atavistically desired in a culture in which, traditionally, jewelry was a woman’s only inalienable possession, yet with the power to rend relationships as it rent the earth in its emergence–for one might have children in multiples, but not jewelry, so every piece given to Petra renders Paulina bitter, for jewelry—like food—often equals love in the heart’s secret algebra.
“The drivers these days, maniacs! Probably bought their driver’s licence with a bribe; couldn’t be bothered about pedestrians; expect you to run out of their way; how can I run? It’s no longer safe to cross a street in Bombay,” Nana said with finality. So she only left the house on rare and select missions: to visit her mother, Alice, or her grandmother, Flora Coelho (my great-great-grandmother, in a confusion-inducing swirl of modifiers, still alive in my early childhood, famous for her fourteen children, “The Holy Family,” of whom nine became nuns or Jesuits of outstanding piety–“the ginger beards,” a stray Portuguese gene, tinting their beards auburn—while the married children produced a slew of eminent churchmen and churchwomen.) Another exception: when Reynald treated us to spring rolls, sweet ‘n sour, and vast cloying pastries in Bandra’s sophisticated, upper-crusty MacRonnels whose green-lit and aromatic oriental ambience made you hungry the instant you entered.
The final exception: the perilous Sunday morning crossing of the street to the massive St. Andrew’s Church, directly opposite her house, its floor, gravestones of glorious mismatched marble—deep peacock purple; onion circles of pale green; dark red tree-rings, or the calm beauty of the sheerest white–a paving of crazy geometry, color and good intentions, bleating belated praises to generations of Coelhos, Rebellos, Lobos, Saldanhas and Noronhas, all of whom, apparently, were dearly beloved paragons, exemplary husbands and fathers, wives and mothers, and if those engraved lauds and laurels were a quarter-true, the final musing would be all too true, “The earth shall not see their like again.” And in the courtyard, amid amiable huge-winged marble angels and antique urns, the oceanside family grave in which my elder brother Gerard, who died as an infant three days old, was buried, a spot of fascination, yet dread of the inevitable unruly adult emotion.
On Mondays, I returned to St. Andrew’s, with my aunt Joyce and her friend Laura, to count the Sunday collection, tens of thousands of rupees, the mite of widows, paupers, princes, golden lads and lasses… The gleam and chink of money! Engineering feats: symmetrical towers of pentagonal five paise coins; hexagonal twenties with Asoka’s lions; round rupee coins, and eleven-sided twos. I counted in paise, my aunt in annas, six paise, a superseded unit my mother’s family clove to, despite our decimalized post-Independence currency, counting in four and eight annas rather than twenty-five and fifty paise, to the confusion of children and vendors whose sweet transactions entailed such change. And when the Parish wanted money: Housie: jaldi five; two fat ladies, 88; one and six, sweet 16; all the sixes, 66; hockey sticks, 77; top of the house, 90, and sudden jubilation—Housie!
In dawning enlightenment, Nana realized she need never leave home. Within it, she had all she wanted: husband, children, and friends who’d drop in with the sweets she craved, delectable hemlock. And so she lived contentedly, in narrowing circles, a life-long voluntary house arrest, gradually renouncing parties, visiting, church, shopping, cooking, her world shrinking to ever fewer rooms.
And in this small world of family, in an odd transmutation, she became the child to be petted and indulged. My sister tricked Nana so often that surely she was counter-tricked. Eating a delicacy specially prepared for her, brain cutlets, tongue curry, she’d say, “Nana, this food is not nice.” “And Nana’s face fell,” she’d recount, “And then I said ‘It Is Delicious.’” (She’d wave her hand in front of her mouth in agony, crying, “It’s hot.” “Fire-hot or chili-hot?” they’d all ask, leaning forward solicitously). And so, protected, Nana floated, so passive she could never remember to cut her toe-nails; they grew, long, yellow, ridged, gnarled keratin, until the doctor paid a home-visit to cut them for her.
51 Chimbai Road: The front door, spirals of wrought iron over wood with flaking paint, opened onto a foyer where, behind those screens with which Indians, like Japanese, create new rooms, my Uncle Mervyn, a self-employed stock-broker, worked—not entirely an overstatement, for, sporadically though the day, little old Catholic ladies in their immutable Bandra shapeless flowery dresses, visited with anxious portfolios, inherited from fathers, bachelor brothers, or dead husbands: tenuous lifelines, everything hinging on the prompt passage of their dividends through the chancy arteries of the mail. The mail, the mail man, objects of sad, strained aquiline eyes; Bandra’s Boggart took the form of bags of mail floating on monsoon flooded streets, washed out from alley refuse heaps into which they’d been dumped on bored and lazy days. (“Has TISCO sent you your dividend?” “I haven’t received my dividend from Glaxo.”)
A commute down the corridor, work from home, set your own hours—glamorous, alluring lures. Once a month however, Mervyn, scrubbed and glowing, in his dazzling starched terrycot shirt and pants, a strand of long hair pulled over his balding head; his huge, hazel eyes bulging with importance as his briefcase was with paperwork to be filed in person, and in triplicate–got ready for his tram trip to the Stock Exchange at Bombay while his mother and sister clucked admonition around him. Though Bandra was Bombay to us, to my grandparents, inveterate homebodies, the commute from the safe suburb to Bombay, den of iniquity, nest of vipers, sepulcher of the righteous, great Gomorrah was nasty, fraught, rare, dreaded in inverse proportion to its frequency: goondas, accidents, murders, muggings. “But Nana, everyone doesn’t get murdered, robbed or kidnapped,” I reasoned, reasonably. “Why should we?” “Why shouldn’t you?” they asked, their bleak law of probability. And the fact that my father was pick-pocketed—three times—when he went to Bombay, and that we, invariably, got ourselves lost, and that once, in our haste to catch the subway, jumped into a first class compartment with a second class ticket, and were heavily fined—unreceipted—did not increase her confidence in us, or in the monster city.
Sanctity, they say, has an aroma, the fragrance of roses around the corpse of Francis Xavier, or Padre Pio; so too does sadness, so too does failure. Molecules of its mournful cologne mouldered on Uncle Mervyn. Perhaps this scent of sadness came from the leaching of life’s romances—both minor: the romance of reading everything, the romance of travel, of the achievement of ambition, of, say, “writing a book,” and major: parent love, erotic love, the love of God. When his siblings mocked his early yearning to become a priest, his secret celebration of improvised masses, complete with missal, bell, candles, censer, and liturgical Latin, he gravitated towards the most common default romance: Money, the bracken, the brush, the wilderness, the weeds that so often chokes our saddest ruins—abandoned dreams.
Food and money, ancient Biblical idols. Money, the commonest collection; food, the easiest comfort. Steaming savory mirages drifted into Mervyn’s memory; he dialed one of his genteel neighborhood friends with more time than money. At lunch, for a small fee, his fantasies lay incarnated before us through the conjurations of Edith, a serious, middle-aged lady, with a neat shoulder-length perm, cat’s eyes glasses and tight-sashed floral dresses: the Anglo-Indian cuisine we thought of as English, but which I have never encountered in England (or anywhere else): “potato chops”—mashed potato croquettes, fried in egg and bread-crumbs, stuffed with spicy minced beef; or “pan rolls,” crepes with a minced meat filling, fried golden with bread crumb bristles, an East-West fusion for our mildly Westernized palates.
Or sometimes, sarpatel, archetypal Mangalorean delicacy, chunks of pork beneath inches of fat and chewy, rubbery rind, simmered in a sauce of spices, wine and blood. A shibboleth. “Is your father Mangalorean?” a wedding hostess asked as I got him food while he chuckled over the lyrics floating from the house where the bride was bathed in coconut milk for her roce, her wedding shower, while her friends sung the saddest, oddest dirges, until she cried, which meant: Good Luck! “Oh, you poor thing,” they sang. “That mother-in-law! When you visit her, she’ll be vegetarian; when she’s visits you, she’ll be non-vegetarian. Her visits will be almost eternal. And when she leaves, so will your most precious possessions.” “Oh, good, he’s Mangalorean,” the hostess said, freely loading his plate. “Then he loves sarpatel.” My near-vegetarian father nearly wailed. He eschewed pork: free-ranging, gutter-feeding, its tape-worm spreading meningitis, its round worm causing the recent epidemic of encephalitis.
Mervyn eschewed water with equal rigor, drinking only Mangola, expensive, sweetened bottled mango juice. When the neighborhood’s illiterate Koli fisher-families sent their sons to the house for help in getting a job or decoding their bank passbook, he’d say, “Fetch me a crate of Mangola,” his voice full-bodied, luscious, ripe-fruity, and slip an extra fiver into their hands, noblesse oblige. “The lakhpati!” my aunt Joyce exclaimed sarcastically, “He behaves like a lakhpati. Give me what you give them; I’ll be a lakhpati too.” (A lakh, a hundred thousand rupees–like a crore, ten million–is a specifically Indian unit in an inflationary economy. For all Joyce’s teasing, Mervyn, who never worked a regular job, died with a collection of them.)
My father and Uncle Mervyn twirled crystal Maharaja-engraved champagne goblets of Mangola over lunch, inhaled the bouquet of fizzy wealth, drunk deep of it. I listened—stocks, bonds, dividends, while the accountant regions of my mind calculated along: double your money in seven years at ten percent with Binny’s, but with Larsen and Toubro, double your money in five years at fifteen percent, but with more risk. I planned, importantly, to explode my own little nest egg with the miracle of compound interest (100 rupees, 110, 121, 133; ten percent at the rule of 72, too slow, let’s try…) hearing the tick-tock of money being fruitful, implacably increasing and multiplying. Oh, I’d become a millionaire off the abundance encoded in creation for the diligent and imaginative—encrypted in a single tomato seed (plant, plants: farm); an egg (a chicken, eggs: a chicken empire). “I know what, Ma. I’ll have a fudge stall at school; you cook the fudge and I’ll….” “Your head I will.” But, always, I’d back off from this obsession, heady in its wild mathematics, its astrophysical immensity–but, for what? So what? Oh, I’d be a millionaire too, I decided. All things are possible: childhood’s birthright.
Food and money, ancient idols, food, money and the news. As the cocky pre-dawn crow of backyard chanticleers competed with the muezzin to awake the dawn, Mervyn’s radio’s purred while he monitored the world with The Blitz, The Bombay Herald, The Times of India and the morning coffee, each addiction equally potent. Bribery, corruption, politicians and other crooks, and the unnerving rise to power of the Shiv Sena who wanted Bombay called Mumbai, for heaven’s sake, and a Hindustan for Hindus– as if those rooted in the land through race, and immemorial residence should belong any less to it because of a private faith adopted fuzzy centuries ago by fuzzy ancestors.
The griefs of the world unfurled over the newspapery breakfasts Mervyn masterminded. From the neighborhood’s only cold storage, the Koli boys fetched, in waxy cerements, the not easily obtainable luxury meats of my childhood, ham, bacon, sausages, salami, luncheon meat. These were served with “Nana’s scrambled eggs,” the only thing she personally cooked, fried rich golden in ghee, with onion, coriander and mint. Eustace surveyed this gastronomic indulgence coolly, while he ate, or rather drank, standing up, his unvarying breakfast—two raw beaten eggs, which I found impossible to swallow despite my great admiration of his jauntiness.
All morning, in his office cluttered with cherished typewriters, and an expanding universe of shortwave radios, Mervyn twiddled knobs with fingers as compulsive as those bewitched by Rubik’s cube, extracting flickering stations, the B. B. C; the Voice of America, and, most of all, jazzy Radio Ceylon so that he knew the lyrics of ABBA, Cliff Richards, or Simon and Garfunkel as well as the coolest girls at school. And in the naked night, I saw/Ten thousand people, maybe more. /People talking without speaking, /People hearing without listening, /People writing songs that voices never share/and no one dare/Disturb the sound of silence.
And now and again: Scoop! He knew, before the news, of the rescue of Israeli hostages in those ninety minutes at Entebbe, and, closer to home, late one evening, he heard of the 757 wrecked on the beach three minutes away, and, of course, we scrambled over slippery algae-covered rocks and fishing nets spread out to dry, arriving at the scene with the rescue workers, and behind the ropes that cordoned off the treacherous rocks and the sea from the curious and the greedy, watched them haul in the wrecked suitcases and bodies and the jaunty rubber doll that bobbed above the waves among other fragments of dreams.
Always, across the road, the savory ocean, washed gold-silver by the setting sun, battered the sea-wall, beckoning, summoning. Obstat, verboten, anathema. Couldn’t go without them: kidnappers, speeders, and the never-voiced danger of rape. Couldn’t go with them: inside, somnolence reigned. So, silver bells and cockle shells, we played in the long barren front yard, its soil, shells from ages past when it had all been ocean-floor, or the Arabian Sea had flooded it in a forgotten tidal wave. And after years of beach-combing it, still: conch, wentletrap, periwinkle, whelk, shells that sang of ancient seas, aliens and strangers on the earth. “Look, Shalini, look; I found a joined shell.” “But I found a green shell.” “Huh! ‘She sells sea shells on the sea shore. The sea shells that she sells are sea shore shells.’ Now you say it.” She couldn’t, though her teacher made her daily recite a lisp poem: “the ambitious Brussels sprout,” until ambississ become a family expressions of half-forgotten provenance.
Shells of mystery, shells of marvel, sirens of forbidden seas; we carted them into the house, returned, and still there were more, numberless as the descendants promised to Abraham—“as the stars in the sky and the sand in the seashore”—the latter the most staggering metaphor for infinity, for in the sultry summer nights when we slept on the verandah, I, every night, attempted to count the stars to seduce sleep, and it seemed a doable enterprise, if one had patience and a system. Time moved slowly, the timeless time of childhood. When the sun made us head-achey and dazed, we drifted indoors to gaze absently at the pretty-pretty ceramic tiles on the window sills: an English cottage near a watermill; a plump-cheeked English girl, her hair spilling from her headband, framing her face, her cheek against a puppy; or we sat cross-legged in the dark, lace-curtained living room examining the treasures in my grandfather’s display cabinet, an ostrich egg, a delicate blue and gold doll’s china tea set for play tea parties, bowls of rose-colored Bohemian crystal, or monogrammed, filigreed silver—while hours passed in the deceptive eternity of childhood. And at my back, I did not hear time’s winged chariot drawing near, and had I—I would have leapt into it.
Among the antiques, the beloved, soon-captured book of Master Plots, which I read and re-read–supplanted classics, The Cloister and the Hearth about the parents of Erasmus, for heaven’s sake; Lavengro, Lorna Doone; sad French novels, Pere Goriot, Eugenie Grandet full of the misery of miserliness, an apt derivation, and Madame Bovary dead, vomit of black arsenic streaming from her lovely mouth. I desultorily picked up others, entrenching a habit of dipping: G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, my grandparents’ wedding present; and Victorians, eminent and otherwise: a biography of Albert, Lord Tennyson by his son, Hallam; Lord Macaulay, William Cobbett, (who’s he?), undergraduate best student prizes in English literature that my grandfather, Stanislaus, had won at the Jesuit Saint Aloysius’ College in Mangalore in 1912, 1913, and 1914.