My grandmother’s house, Palm Grove, was 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 third wife and young widow, my great-grandmother Julianna.
Julianna, baffled, sold it to her nephew for “a song”—the factory and the goodwill, as her son Norbert 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 Norbert did not even inherit the ancestral home. Sad, guilty about this, my grandmother, Josephine, Julianna’s daughter, invited Norbert, 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 Norbert 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.
(In this excerpt, I tell how each Norbert said the whole rosary, aloud, kneeling, hands outstretched cruciform. When yet, he beat and brutalized his dog sheerly make him a savage watchdog. And while he prayed….)
In the gathering darkness of the compound, dhoti-clad men, respectful of Norbert’s communion with the Almighty, waited. They watched the gaunt man kneel, cruciform, his El Greco face taut. “Arre Baap. He must be ninety.”
How bland would pastures be without baa-baa black sheep, and how boring cupboards without their skeleton.
An in, an in; Norbert claimed he had an in. Everyone’s secret fear: that this is exactly how the world works, always an inner circle inner-er than your own; the kingdom, the power and the glory transmitted through loops closed to you.
Norbert said knew someone who could swiftly get them passports, visas, jobs in the Gulf, quite literally Mecca to those who, though scornfully treated by arrogant Arabs, returned in airplanes uncomfortably overfull with food processors, color televisions and VCR’s, and having saved for neon houses, their children’s education, and their own old age. “But hurry, hurry,” his friend had only twenty-one openings.
Being told to “Hurry,” should be a signal to “pause”–as the once-burned learn. But with shimmering hope, they sign documents without reading them, embark on a frenzy of borrowing, and other no-nos as they glimpse this beautiful shore on which one will be rich, and one will be glorious. Of course.
He got his twenty-one. Who daily, weekly, waited outside the columned porticoes of Palm Grove for news of their emigration. His mind filled with holy harmonies—Father, forgive them, he goes out to meet them after evening prayers, radiant, reproachful, a Lord of the manor to recalcitrant serfs. “O ye of little faith.” Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. They wait, clutching hope.
And who would suspect that octogenarian, validated by his lengthy prayers, his silver hair, and his “good family,” who in bank, boardroom, or monastery, serving God or mammon, rose to the top through nature and nurture–their dominant spiritual gene (a genetic trait, I suspect) and “the three I’s: intelligence, integrity and industry,” which the community told itself complacently were Mangalorean virtues.
I wouldn’t have suspected Norbert. Neither did they, as they handed over borrowed money. The days became months, interest inexorably compounding, compounding. The would-be émigrés suspect; are smooth-talked, white-haired, blue-blooded out of their suspicions–furiously suspect–know.
They visited his niece Ethel, a well-known plantation-owner, weeping: “How can God let this happen to us?” And, “What a disgrace,” my Aunt Ethel said with widened eyes. “One of them committed suicide.”
A clerk in the electricity board who had handed over the small dowry garnered during a quarter century of penny-saved-penny-gained, scrimping, shaving, saving, short-shrift thrift begun with the birth of his five daughters. How replace the nest-egg he’d gathered, painful paise by paise? How face beginning again? His body swung metronomically from a ceiling fan.
Then, a copycat suicide. His nephews confront Norbert. “What money?” he asks, the injured, sinned-against, his role played so long that he forgot it was a role. (The bare-faced liar, the red-handed thief are as insulted by accusation as the lily-handed.)
Norbert warns against tormenting him because God has been for him, visiting strange calamities on past persecutors. But ultimately: “I don’t have it.” He didn’t–still the simple rainment, starched white cotton shirt and pants; he still skipped off and on buses; ate abstemiously at his sister’s table.
But where was the money? Good cop, bad cop, cajoling, threats. Private detectives. How exciting! I felt I was observing my very own Agatha Christie novel. I pumped, overheard, circuitously questioned, sat still as the proverbial owl: “The more he listened the more he knew, and oh, how wise that little owl grew.”
He had donated the money to the local cloistered nuns whose prayers, behind high walls, rose like incense as they ceaselessly interceded for the sins of the world!!
My aunts and uncles visited the nuns. A fool and his money are soon parted,” my father lamented ruefully when he spotted money in my purse (just as he reflexively said when we saw graffiti, “The names of fools, like their faces, are often seen in public places.”)
The nuns were not fools. “But how do you know the money he gave us was that money? And anyway, we have spent it.” Good cop, bad cop, cajoling, threats, to retrieve blood-money from the treasury. With no success.
When I left the country, Norbert, then ninety-two, was still, with variegated inventiveness, blood-sucking fresh suckers.
Start Date—August 27th, 2012
Completion Date—August 31st, 2013
Word Count Goal-120,000
Words per day Goal—470
Progress (Aiming to write 6 days a week, excluding Sundays)
Day 24—10652 words written (388 behind)