The sea, the sea! It shimmered, rippling, corrugated silver a two minute walk across the road from my grandparents’ house. Sudden breezes brought the acrid, exhilarating hors d’oevry tang of the “bombay ducks,” long, silvery fish, and bhangra,mackerel, the Koli fisherwoman sun-dried on the beach–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.
Across the road, washed gold-silver by the setting sun, the ocean battered the sea-wall, beckoning, summoning; sea-gulls screeched on the wings of the wind; breakers and waves crashed as in the background of a dream. But we rarely walked down to the beach; it was verboten, anathema. Couldn’t go without grown-ups: 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 was shells from ages past when all had been ocean-floor, or the Arabian Sea flooded it in a forgotten tidal wave. And after years of careful beach-combing, 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 expression 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 dazed us, 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 sit cross-legged in the dark, lace-curtained living room examining the treasures in my grandfather’s display cabinet, an ostrich egg, a delicate English blue and gold doll’s china tea set; bowls of rose-colored Bohemian crystal, or monogrammed, filigreed silver—while hours passed in the delusive eternity of childhood.
Among the antiques, the beloved, soon-captured book of Master Plots, which I read and re-read—old supplanted classics, Lavengro, Lorna Doone, The Cloister and the Hearth, about the parents of Erasmus, for heaven’s sake; sad French novels, Pere Goriot, Eugenie Grandet full of the misery of miserliness, an apt derivation; and Madame Bovary dead, black arsenic streaming from her lovely mouth.
I desultorily picked others up, acquiring a habit of dipping: G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, my grandparents’ wedding present; Victorians, eminent and otherwise: a biography of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, by his son, Hallam; Lord Macaulay, William Cobbett, 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.
My tall, lanky, straight-backed grandfather, Stanislaus, wore the small black-rimmed glasses and baggy tweed trousers and jacket which were the trademark of old gentlemen of his school, and had the long, sunken, suffering face of T. S. Eliot, to whom he bore an uncanny resemblance.
Stanny, like my father, could recite long passages of poetry, Milton, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats or Tennyson right into his seventies, when he died. Inheriting their ability to memorize easily, almost unconsciously, I learnt snatches of poems, which I loved more for the music than the meaning: The world is too much with us; late and soon,/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers. Milton’s majestic periodic music was also indelibly imprinted on my father’s neurons; once he started declaiming, it flowed, mellifluous honey: Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit/ Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste/ Brought death into the world, and all our woe,/ With loss of Eden…/ Sing, Heav’nly Muse.
The Biblical trio of tempters: the flesh, the devil, and the world that is too much with us, insidiously choking with busyness and distraction the life of the mind, no less than of the spirit. In another world, another time, my grandfather, gentle, unworldly, nervous, would have been a scholar, but he had twelve siblings, and his father, a land-owner, had lost his land after rashly standing surety for a friend.
A man in such a position was expected to earn his living after a first degree (like my early-orphaned father, decades later, who did time decoding classified telegrams in the British Embassy in Afghanistan, before England and his professional degree.) So Stanny bartlebyied his way to the Customs House, eventually becoming Collector of Customs and a much-sought expert in the arcana of the Customs Law of the British Empire, and then of independent India.
And so–overwhelmed by the sad necessity, before women worked, for even the most impractical man to provide for his wife and children–my grandfather who could sweetly and wistfully recite In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree gave up reading, abandoning the struggle to find a quiet spot, a quiet hour, in a house with a wife and five children, and tides of Porlockian friends seeking help and solace and to beguile an empty hour, his creativity now confined to long spidery letters with quirky pen and ink drawings, and infallible recipes like chocolate snowball surprise: mould melted chocolate, condensed milk, desiccated coconut into balls. Though seeing me leaf through his books–“I’ll teach you to love poetry,” he’d say happily.
The living room: lace curtains drawn, dusky, drowsy with lotus-eating languor—“a land in which it seemed always afternoon. And all round the coast, the languid air did swoon.” Trying to get something done was like swimming through treacle. So, naturally, one never rid the corners of rooms of dust-striped, paper piles of delusive good intentions: half-read Eve’s Weeklys and Feminas; clippings clipped who knows when, why, and for who knows whom; and skimmed letters to be re-read and destroyed, whose illicit enchantment I rarely resisted, and, besides, the layered midden of generations, old silver, old china, old cut glass, fragile old jewelry, too treasured, too precious to use, all fearsomely tagged—“of sentimental value.” When he wished to destroy, we were told, the King of Siam sent a glorious white elephant—too sacred to work, an insult to give away–whose upkeep devoured one’s life. White elephants, white elephants everywhere.
The integrity of my grandfather was commented on in the Catholic and secular press after his death, so there was not the blind eye, the murmured word, the friend-of-my-friendship which lubricates Indian life, just honest advice on honest circumnavigation to friends, and the friends of friends—who remembered him at Divali with gift boxes of dried fruit and chocolates, ties and tie-pins, crystal vases and clocks, and at Christmas, when my grandfather’s house was the place to be. These gifts, in their original boxes, piled up above cupboards, under beds or lacy table-cloths, full measure, pressed down, flowing over from heaps and stacks, until my grandparents were imprisoned by their own abundance.
Like the hobbits or Japanese, however, they indefatigably exchanged never-used gifts, mathoms in Hobbitish; electric sandwich-makers and cuff links, ash-trays and tea-trays, vanity cases and brief cases recirculated around the inner circle, or—awaiting resurrection at wedding, christening, or birthday—moldered in large steel almirahs along with their carefully folded wrapping paper, bows, and ribbons. Abundance can be as oppressive as poverty, but neither compare with the guilty oppressions of thrift.
I returned home to Jamshedpur with a old suitcase, given by Uncle Eustace who had given up traveling, full of old books given to me by those who had given up reading. I cried over these books with fading cloth binding but still inviting gilt titles, Adam Bede, Silas Marner, or off-the-beaten-track Hardy, The Trumpet Major and Two on a Tower, prize books, text books, the books of their youth, given to me by my aunt’s friends, Laura and Chrissie (along with guilty advice: always look up an unfamiliar word, and, soon, you’ll rarely meet a word you don’t know). Since a college degree in English literature was a tradition in my mother’s family, I returned too with books ex libris of my mother’s brothers and sisters, her cousin, Marjorie, her father, Stanislaus, and my grandmother, Molly, who, surprisingly for one so timid, was among the first Indian women to study at a co-educational college, the Jesuit St. Xavier’s College in Bombay.
In Bandra, I was known as “the girl who’s always reading,” “who writes so beautifully,” and much faded hope and abandoned longing was displaced onto me by family and their friends who out of Saharas of shriveled ambition, the sky now out of limits, cheered me on as they pointed to bright and morning stars they no longer pursued. So many relatives we visited, confronted by the megalopolis, had made peace with small lives, and with an apparent lack of restlessness, and a sad surrender of aspiration, just lived to live, each tomorrow the same, creeping in a petty pace.
Is ambition indeed “the last infirmity of noble minds?” Or is it the force that through the green fuse drives the flower, the wine of life, both path and north star through trackless wastes of desert days? The boat that swirls you from bogs and swamps into the great river?
One still had ambition. My grandfather’s nephew, Albert.
Everyone had a back-story, summed up in a line or two, Rosetta clue to everything. Albert’s was the time his irate mother marching in to the office to berate her husband in front of his colleagues. And he, highly-strung, too shamed to return, wandered daily by the river, by the weeping willows, an objective correlative. Was there a slip of the foot, or of the will? He drowned. Those are pearls that were his eyes. Of his bones are coral made.
W. H. Auden, in a complicated genetic diagram, shows how a nephew can be the true descendant of an uncle in temperament, physique, gifts, all that matters. That was certainly true of my grandfather and Albert, who, brilliant and spiritual as none of his own sons were, was sent, by his diocese to study in the Pontifical Seminary at Rome.
He returned to pay his beloved uncle a surprise visit. Surprises: A self-indulgence, cheating the beneficiary of the joy of anticipation. Sometimes dangerously.
My grandfather shuffled to the doorbell. Albert! His hand to his heart. A mild stroke; a heart attack? The doctor, summoned, said, “You’ll have to have an ECG, Mr. Coelho.” “An ECG?” he protested. “I had one in 1954.”
“The doctor looked at him quizzically,” my grandmother said. “They knew he had a very good sense of humor. You could never tell if he was joking.”
“Mr. Coelho, that was twenty years ago,” the doctor said firmly. “The heart changes from minute to minute.” A new much-quoted “famous last word,” like the Jamshedpur tailor’s stern pronouncement when my father protested against the suit my mother chose, “Sir, Madam knows best.”
My father and I would go into Bombay after breakfast with an itinerary: purchases enjoined upon us by my mother; Juhu Beach; a visit to my father’s cousins, Joy and Gladys. Our proud travelers’ tales on our return resembled no blue-print: hunted for the perfect Chola Bhatura, saw Anne of a Thousand Days…
For even pleasurable adventures, once planned, seem like a have-to, making me want to do something different, surprising even myself. “But, but, but…” spluttered my grandmother and Joyce. My father grinned, putting his tongue on his upper lip, a tic when extremely pleased with himself. “What to do?” he said. “A woman’s mind changes from minute to minute.”
Soon after Albert’s visit, my grandfather died. Albert returned to Rome. Was never heard of or from. His sister in Kuwait offered rewards; there were sightings. Interpol helped. Fruitlessly. He had vanished–murdered, amnesic following a head injury, or, perhaps, in an unimaginable declaration of independence, he had slashed the fraying Gordian cords which tied him to his family, and reinvented himself.
Start Date—August 27th, 2012
Completion Date—September 1st, 2013
Word Count Goal-120,000
Words per day Goal—400
Day 10—5118 words—1118 ahead of goal J