“And here comes The Ma-ha-ra-ja,” my mother’s middle brother Mervyn drawled as he caught sight of his oldest brother, Eustace, rolling the syllables in gleeful mockery, his voice melodious, resonant, rich-timbered as port or Christmas cake, the voice of a born priest.
His oldest brother, Eustace, appeared, grinning, (perennially cheerful, an anomaly in that family of the worried) raffish as 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.
His nick-name, The Maharaja–like all nicknames that take–well described 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 an 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.
On Bombay evenings, Uncle Eustace took me to sit amid flashy acrobatic insects on the verandahs of his laughing friends, Hilda, with hennaed hair, one leg amputated, the other swollen with elephantiasis; Helen (called Helen of Troy, inevitably) with a white poodle and a crisp pseudo-English accent which slowly faded; and giggly Dennis, his best friend and drinking partner—called, of course, “Dennis the Menace.”
He introduced 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 posh school, I was, in half-jest, offered a drink, which I accepted in nonchalant earnest.
“Yes, I think I’ll have a shandy,” I said, hoping I sounded impressively grown-up. “Say, when.” “When!” I said smart-aleckly as they filled the gag beer mugs past 3 oz. for a lady, 6 oz. for a gentlemen, almost up to the 9 oz. mark, marked PIG.
“What’s your net worth, Edward? How much have you saved? What man, let us invest it for you,” they said as his eyes grew dreamy, benevolent, cat-and-creamy. Or “Can you lend five hundred rupees? Unexpected expense…will return soon.” All evening, banter–“Oh come off it, men,” arm-pushing, back-slapping hilarity until your cheeks ached with the continual smiling at the continual badinage.
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 the brilliance of my bubbling bon mots.
“Anita!” my mother, grandmother, and Aunt Joyce cried in unison. “Oh,” I said airily, swaying, and not just 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.
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At Lent, however, Eustace and his friends, Catholics all, together went on a preached retreat, thought of God, their souls, and the fires of hell, and renounced the spirits, which brought them such sparkle, and were the bedrock of their friendship, forswore all spirits but the Holy One, for the forty days of Lent and forever and ever after that–or least until bubbly Easter.
Eustace’s lanky, skinny father, Stanislaus, also remembered, all too well, the dusty gloom of Ash Wednesday, Holy Day of Fast and Abstinence, first of the Lenten forty. So: anticipatory pangs well before Shrove Tuesday, when he returned, freshly shriven, to Mangalorean pancakes stuffed with freshly grated tender coconut in a date-palm jaggery syrup– which preemptively used all the butter, eggs, and milk in the house, increasing the odds of a spartan Lent.
Stanny said, “Oh Molly, make a few sannas for Shrove Tuesday,” (fluffy, discus shaped, steamed rice-flour dumplings, with no Western correlative). “Oh, and a little pork vindaloo with that, Molly,” and (orgetting he had asked for sannas) “appas,” (pancakes, with toddy) “and your mutton and lentil curry, Molly, the godachi mutli. And coconut and bimli (a uniquely tasteless squash—one of India’s vegetables, like ambade and tamarind, which grow on trees!) And your beef with grated coconut that goes with bimli. We’ll be fasting all Wednesday, Molly; so can you make pole (rice pancakes) with it …?”
Thus fortified, he set his face like flint for Ash Wednesday, keeping a word-perfect fast, as well he might.
Completion Date—September 1st, 2013
Start Date—August 27th, 2012
Word Count Goal-120,000
Words per day Goal—400
Day 3—1960 words (760 ahead of goal, since I’m at a conference for the next three days.