The Angelus bells pealed in peace as, at dawn, we entered Mangalore, our
God-haunted ancestral town—a holy town, nuns and priests as common on
the streets as secular people, like statue-studded ancient Athens in whose streets,
it was said, one was as likely to encounter a God as a man.
The nunnery and the seminary were traditional refuges for unmarried women of good family, or intellectual men who dreaded “settling down,” and the arid busyness of the world of business. Two thousand nuns, and a thousand priests in Mangalore: a proud statistic we often heard, and so the steady, joyful bursts of church bells.
Mangalore: moist, leaf-green, very-green everywhere, as if it has just rained, dew seeping through emerald moss on the contorted roots of mango trees, and dripping from creepers and purple orchids. I have encountered other villages like Mangalore–in Costa Rica, for instance–with a sense of déjà vu, perhaps anticipating the day when all rivers will rush into one river, and all gardens merge into one garden, and the name of that garden shall be Eden.
* * *
There was sea tang in the air. Steep, shady lanes wound between rambling houses surrounded by gardens dense with palm and jackfruit trees, hibiscus and bougainvillea. Fruit-heavy branches lolled over garden walls, shedding roadside litter: guavas, avocados, mangoes. Fallen custard apples cracked open, spilling their sweet, white, seedy flesh.
The mossy old manses with their roofs of tunnel-shaped ochre tiles provided a sober counterpoint to the returned-emigrant houses on the outskirts in Disneyland pink, turquoise, yellow and purple, extravagant monstrosities often, an irresistible exhibition of the fruits of lonely tropical toil, built–in the grand tradition of returnee housing, whether in Victorian England or colonial Spain–for their families by the thousands of Mangalorean working in the Persian Gulf. “Gulf money,” one said wryly, passing them.
* * *
In a little black and yellow auto-rickshaw, or “bone-shaker,” we rattled to “Palm Grove,” my grandmother’s house, which was secluded in a tree-shaded mosquitoey compound sheltered by high walls, and surrounded by swishing palm trees up which Billavas shimmied, small sickles around their waists, to retrieve the coconuts she sold them. They parked their bikes in the town’s shady nooks, roped cascades of green, smooth-skinned coconuts dangling from the handlebars and back-carriers.
A swipe of a machete and a straw; they sold passersby the cool, sweet coconut juice, the country’s purest drink, safer even than water. Another swipe, and they returned the split coconut with a chip of its own husk to spoon up the delicate, creamy coconut meat. “Let nothing be wasted.”
Then, we ascended the steps to the long, shady verandah of Palm Grove, dark and cavernous, its high ceilings and stone floors keeping it as cool as a morgue. Its red tiles, like those of many old houses in town, were stamped Mssrs. Joseph Lobo and Son, the factory of my Granny’s father who left it to his naïve, sweet young third wife and widow, my great-grandmother Julianna.
Julianna, baffled, sold it to her nephew for “a song”—the factory and the goodwill, as her son Norman discovered when he tried to establish a tile company with the family name. “The goodwill? Yes, I signed that. He said that meant I had no bad feelings.”
When Julianna’s debts to my grandfather Piedade grew beyond hope of repayment, she signed over Palm Grove to her son-in-law. So Norman did not even inherit the ancestral home. Sad, guilty about this, my grandmother, Josephine, Julianna’s daughter, invited her younger brother to stay with her in his straitened old age, obviously deriving great comfort from her end being so close to her beginning.
Wiry, ectomorphic Norman was nimble, spry, Old Father William, a familiar sight around Mangalore, as he hopped on and off buses almost until his death at 102. A brusque old man with a savage wit. “How obsequious they were; now, when we pass the paddy fields, they show us their bums,”—he rudely demonstrated—talking of land Granny had lost to her tenant farmers under India’s socialist land-to-the-tillers legislation intended to crush the power of the zamindars, feudal landowners, who kept peasants in generational virtual serfdom. (A trivial unsinister debt at absurdly high interest to be paid off by unpaid labor, which meant further borrowing, further labor, a viciously circular debt, inherited by one’s children and grandchildren, that two generations later goes up; there are fifteen million bonded child labourers in India.)
Land ceiling: an excellent idea (my grandmother in Bombay gained a flat through an urban variety of such legislation) though the real feudal landowners, the unscrupulous and bullies with their hired thugs, retained their land through fraud and chicanery. I remember my classmate, Vanita, pulled out of class to doll up in a saree, makeup and bun of false hair, and, assisted by her own portliness, be presented in court as Mrs. Sabhrawal, independent farmer, thus evading the fifty acre per family land ceiling). Meanwhile the decent, the honorable, the clueless—the cartoonist, R.K. Lakshman’s Common Man, unversed in the second language of the law—lost their land.
Start Date—August 27th, 2012
Completion Date—August 31st, 2013
Word Count Goal-120,000
Words per day Goal—460
Progress (Aiming to write 6 days a week, excluding Sundays)
Sept 18th Day 20—9204 words written (4 extra)