She sat in the sunlight streaming through the dining room window, a woman thinking; a study in chiaroscuro with her dark sarees and her fair-skinned, fine-featured, sunken face, her brother Norbert invariably with her, the two old people remarkably alike, both inheriting their pale skin and pendulous ears from their Portuguese grandmother who left Granny an odd, tangible legacy—a chamber pot brought from Portugal with her name painted on it, Donna Henrietta Maria Henderiquez.
As she heard my footsteps, Granny called from the dim dining room where she sat all day, a frail wraith, her voice soft, and tremulous with age, “Anita, come here; talk to me,”—uninvited-fairy incantation, petrifaction.
I slouched into the dining room. Pale and stern, she pointed, “Sit there. Talk to me.” Say something! What to say? My mind froze. The sedge is wither’d from the lake, and no birds sing. “Tell me about your boarding school,” she said. What about my boarding school? I couldn’t think of anything about my boarding school. I sat there, rigor mortis on mind and tongue. After a decent but interminable interval, I escaped.
The air on the verandah felt bright and free. My spirit winged. “Pa, let’s play Scrabble. Let’s play Monopoly,” I panted, diving into the games with ferocious, self-forgetting capitalistic passion. “Noel spends his visit to me playing Monopoly with Anita,” his mother said.
My father said: “What do you mean “you don’t know what to say”? An intelligent person should be able to have an interesting conversation with almost anyone. If all else fails, ask questions.”
* * *
What is your earliest memory, Granny?
Standing in a mulberry field, overhearing a passerby say, “What a beautifulchild!” “And that is how I knew I was beautiful.”
The Fall brings celestial taxation–each blessing: beauty, wealth, great talent conceals hassle in its cracks (as curses reveal a silver thread of blessing).
In an unabashedly light-skinned or fair-is-beautiful culture, Granny was married at seventeen to a man twice her age, as dark as she was light-skinned or “fair,”–my grandfather, Dr. Piedade Felician Mathias, a self-made ambitious surgeon who, through the combined effort of his entire family–and his own brilliance, sweat and resolve–went to medical school.
During an uppity teenage phase of ours, my father scolded, “Now, now, don’t get too snobbish. You don’t know my father’s family. One of them (the one who put Piedade through medical school incidentally) was a tonga-wallah.” He gleefully claimed kinship with the butcher, an apocryphal one we hoped, the baker, the candlestick-maker, while we cried in only partially exaggerated distress as he divulged these origins, “Oh Pa, stoooop.”
Did you like your husband, Granny? I asked, with curiosity which skirted rudeness, as her simplicity skirted senility. “I never liked him,” she said, incredibly. “He had a very bad temper. I was always afraid of him,” an almost sacrilegious statement in India.
(The professed religions of India are deeply, stubbornly, divisive, not so its unvoiced, axiomatic ones: the reverence of wealth and success, the imperatives of hospitality and generosity, and the benevolent religion of family which dictates a pretended affectionate sentimentality towards your blood relatives, a pretence that, of course, they were perfect and, of course, you loved them.)
Where did he work?
(In the days when “the first” was offensively qualified by Indian) he was the first Indian Assistant Surgeon General in Madras, where he was also the first Indian Superintendent and Professor of Surgery of the Stanley Medical College (which still has a Dr. P. F. Mathias ward).
He’d capture my father for company during his long days on the Madras docks where he vetted interminable lines of indentured laborers who, out of desperate poverty and familial love, left India for British colonies, Trinidad, Singapore, Malaya, Burma, Ceylon, Uganda, and Kenya—scenes, decades later, of anti-Indian riots, unknowing sowing the vineyard of the grapes of wrath. The physicals were, perforce, perfunctory: Rasping, rattly lungs: TB; pull down the lower eyelid, too pale, too anemic; open your mouth, good teeth, good general health. Vice-versa. A scribe followed. A minute a man.
* * *
My grandfather, Piedade Felician Mathias, received two imperial decorations, the Kaiser-i-Hind medal in 1921, and, at the Imperial Durbar in 1929, the O.B.E. Lolling in the verandah, I’d read his O.B.E. citation mechanically, dreamily, “We George Fifth, King Emperor of Great Britain, North Ireland, and the British Dominions beyond the Seas, Defender of the Faith, to our Trusty and Well-beloved Piedade Felician Mathias, Greetings…” Or something to that effect.
On the day before he left to the Imperial Durbar, he froze. How exactly does one tie a tie? And so, on the day before his day of exaltation, he humbly went to ask his Portuguese Parish priest.
In whom he had selective faith. My father pointed out the abandoned “haunted” house of his friend and fellow altar-boy Noel Davis, whose sister Jessie was “possessed.” He’d whisper between the Kyrie and the Sanctus, “Noel, does this happen in your house too? It’s terrible! At night, winds blow though our house. Stones fall. Little chalices rain down.”
When the Portuguese Parish priest went to exorcize Jessie, my grandfather snorted, “He can’t cast out demons. He’s too fat. You have to be able to fast to do that.”
* * * *
What else do you remember?
After he successfully operated on a Brother of Saint Gabriel, the Order which ran Montfort, my father’s boarding school, the Superior visited him, saying: “Oh, Dr. Mathias, he was invaluable to the Order; how can we thank you? You saved his life.”
Piedade replied in the Latin of a thousand masses, Non nobis Domine, non nobis, sed nomini tuo da gloriam; “Not to us, O Lord, not to us; but to Thy name give the glory,” Psalm 115.
He was so soaked in Scripture, that when he bled, he bled Scripture. A maid, recommended by the Portuguese Parish Priest, ran away with the gold jewelry which Granny (whose carelessness sounds ruefully familiar) had left on her dressing table, and which represented Piedade’s life savings, gold being a “safe” investment, certain to appreciate as long as men mistake wives for trophies and women are vain. (In good times, your wife bedecks herself to general feminine envy and nagging. In desert times—you can theoretically sell the gold, though few do.)
Tell the priest, track her down? Siphon time from today’s work in a wild gold chase? Dr. Mathias shrugged sadly, quoting Job, The Lord gives, the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord, and went back to work, slowly replacing the treasure trove.
* * *
Wisdom, foresight and prudence became additional themes of his life, as were faith, hard work, and success in his career and financially. He invested in land, buying property with prescient shrewdness (one of those surprisingly uncommon people who could translate high IQ into hard cash) in the center of Mangalore, and in Cubbon Road, the posh heart of Bangalore, near both the Residency, now Raj Bhavan, the Governor’s mansion; and today’s granite Vidhana Soudha, State Legislature, land that, like gold, was unlikely to depreciate—or be stolen.
He died at fifty-eight, intestate, leaving sufficient money for Josephine, a widow for fifty-three years; for college educations for his daughters (Jessie Pais became one of community’s earliest “lady doctors”) as well as his sons; dowries for the girls; start-up funds for the boys; farmland, rental properties, and sixty years of wrangling over them.
He worked God, and God, with mercy and amusement, allowed Himself to be worked. When his private practice dropped, he’d say, aggrieved, accusatory, “Josephine are you giving? Give. You are not giving; that is why I am not getting.” She did; people got sick; he bought land, houses, including her mother’s.
Imprinting. As a widow, on the first Monday of the month, Granny had her chair carried out to her palm grove, where a line of poor people waited for her. To each: a five rupee note, a smile.
“Stop this,” remonstrated her son Eric and grandson David who had taken her in hand, as she extricated the staple from yet another wad of fresh fivers: “For you, and you, and you.”
“If you have to give money away, give it to the parish priest. He’ll know the truly needy.” “No, no!” she said. “He’ll just give it to his own people. I’d rather give it to people I know.”
“How do you know these people are needy?” they asked. “If they weren’t, why would they come?” she retorted with sublime simplicity–and probably correctly.
* * *
My Uncle Morris, the richest of her sons, head of United Breweries International and unofficial adviser and emissary of Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, indulgently sent her, each month, a few hundred rupees—solely to give away. “Give, Ma, give,” he laughed, remembering his father’s powerful, paradoxical economy. “The more you give, the more we get.”
Not satisfied with money, Granny compulsively gave the gourmet cheeses and chocolates (her favorite foods) that Morris sent her from Singapore to her live-in servant Leela’s fair, pretty little girl with whom in her old age, she—who had so coveted boys—ironically fell in love with. “The baby needs it more than I do,” she said, when her carers protested: “They probably haven’t even acquired the taste for cheese and chocolates.”
Realizing that sweet-natured Leela and that adorable toddler would be homeless after her death, reduced to rolling beedis all day (ubiquitous cheap microcigars, “the poor man’s cigarette”; Mangalore Ganesh is India’s largest brand) she promised them her ancestral house, Palm Grove.
Non compos mentis, law suit, some daughters muttered darkly, suspecting she would leave her share of the property to her bossiest son–as she did. If they’d heard of this! Leela stayed on at Palm Grove after Granny’s death, maintaining, despite the flourished will, “She gave me the house.” Threats, cajoling, reluctant refusals to police and goondas who appeared: “You want her out; leave it to us. It will cost …” until the house was sold, the ayah still in it, lured out with some of the proceeds, “sharing the inheritance as one of the brothers.”
* * *
Did you want so many children, Granny? I asked, skidding on the slippery slope of personal questions. “No,” she said simply, Topsy-like. “I never wanted so many. I just had them.” A rare admission, particularly in a culture of gushing and glorying over children, and guilt-inducingly “missing” them.
Celestial economics, celestial medicine. In the days when amniocentesis must have sounded like a wish-fulfillment fantasy, my grandfather tried to select gender by prayer. At first, unsuccessfully. Eunice, Minnie, Jessie, Dora, Priscilla, five unwanted maids all in a row, each pregnancy commencing with “Pray. Pray for a boy,” and bitterly culminating with “Another girl! That’s because you did not pray hard enough,”and so they did, desperately, and then: eight pretty boys all in a row, the Mangalorean gold standard of blessing.
Fourteen children, pepper and salt, some “fair” like their mother; others, dark-skinned, and–interestingly—the lighter-skinned, my father among them, inherited their mother’s temperament and were mild, phlegmatic, scholarly, urbane, while, the darker tended to be pugnacious, aggressive, tilting at the windmills of the business world, a little frightening.
Piedade and Josephine, at great expense, sent their children to boarding school, to the Montfort School in Yercaud, run by Belgian Brothers, where they received a classical education: Latin, French, Shakespeare, poetry; the alumni became doctors, lawyers, judges, senior civil servants, especially after Independence. The parents’ intention: an alchemical transmutation into something like Macaulay’s conceited conceit of the brown-skinned gentlemen; a class of persons, Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. Again: initial disappointment. Josephine described her sons in her much-threatened, then much-quoted letter to the Brothers. “They blow in their coffee; they pour it into their saucers; they take a mile on each side of them. They are boors.”
The boors got the haircuts they deserved. Josephine, once a month, lined her fourteen pretty children all in a row, placed a mixing bowl on their heads, and cut their hair like a Gordian knot, shearing all erring curls.
My father, her first-born son, faced a different Scylla: His mother could not bear to cut his Absalom ringlets, which curled below his shoulders, stroked by the old, pulled by the young. And so, in the kind of irony which must make God smile, the coveted boy looked girlish.
His sisters recited their perpetual mother’s litany, with an undercurrent of bitterness beneath the mirth: “Eunice, Minnie, comb Noel’s hair; Eunice, Minnie, put on Noel’s shoes.” Even his forbidding father pampered him, buying him a pony called Paddy, and a donkey called Ned.
* * *
From her still point in front of the sunny dining room window, where she gazed at the sun-bright backyard pond (near which her three year old son, Charlie, had lain mesmerized, watching the lotus bloom, and the bright carp flash, and where his drowned body was found, floating limp among the flowers) Granny cooked–in a manner of speaking.
My mother, as a young bride experimenting with the recommended below-the-belt routes to a man’s heart, asked for the recipes my father wistfully remembered. “Golden Syrup on toast,” he longed. “Treacle on toast.” “How do you make Golden Syrup?” she enquired. And where in India does one find a treacle well? Neither love nor money could conjure up Golden Syrup or treacle; India then sensibly banned imports of consumer goods to nurture its nascent industries.)
“Golden Syrup? I boiled sugar in water, and fed it to those bounders when they returned ravenous from boarding school,” Granny replied. “I called it Golden Syrup, and they were happy.” Syrup rendered golden by boyhood’s unappeasable hunger, my father’s mythopoeic memory, and the magic of language! She would not be drawn into more talk of recipes. “I cook by instinct,” she said, a statement my mother mimicked in a hoity-toity, eyebrows-raised voice.
And so she did, by instinct, memory, and remote control, summoning the cook, describing a Platonic curry, prescribing a recipe. The cook brought her a taste in a small stainless steel dish. “More salt, more coriander, a little grated coconut, let it thicken for another, oh…seven minutes” until imagination became curry, and appeared before us, and we tasted its glory.
* * *
In her household, one slid backwards in time. The water from the backyard well looked yellow, and tasted stale, contradicting the properties of water I’d learnt in chemistry: colorless, odorless, tasteless. Baths were a more fraught enterprise than switching on a geyser at home where the only admonition was “Don’t let it overheat, or it will explode. So-and-so died when their geyser exploded.”
Here, double, double toil and trouble; fire burn, and cauldron bubble. When you wanted a bath, you told Granny, who told the servant, who lit the nest of firewood beneath the smoldering copper cauldron, which fumed and hissed as you dipped your bronze urn, a chembu into it, as gingerly (particularly during power cuts) as if that smoke-blackened bathing room were Bluebeard’s den, careful not to topple the cauldron, or blister your hands on its sides. “The cauldron tipped on Ramona. Terrible scarring. Her parents will have to pay for plastic surgery, or she’ll never get married.”
The coffee at breakfast was rich-sweet with golden lumps of jaggery or gur, unrefined sugar, eschewed by my parents because of the occasional embedded straw or suspect pellets acquired from the dirt floor of country barns on which it had congealed. (My dreams of wealth and adulthood included all the gur I cared to eat).
And with the coffee, Kube, cockles in a coconut and jaggery curry. Eating seashells, extricating elusive sea-worms from the lovely homes they hefted around was more trouble than it was worth, much like eating the marrow of mutton bones, “the best part,” the old ladies said, as they passed around their hairpins.
* * *
What are you reading, Granny?
For she always was: a biography of Francis Xavier, perhaps, and each week, cover to cover, the international edition of Timemagazine which Morris sent her, her opinions on world politics incisive, decisive, shared as freely as her gnomic social maxims.
“Don’t get a Ph.D. Nobody marries a woman better educated than they are. If you get a Ph. D., who will you find to marry you?” or “Family is more important than the boy. Don’t look at the boy so much as the family,” or, oddly, exactly what Mother Teresa told me a decade later, “You can’t remain single; get married or become a nun.”
Once, as Granny sat reading–one of my mother’s most reproachful “your mother” reproaches– Sister Columba, my mother’s beloved eightyish great-aunt, affectionate, gentle, completely sweet, rattled across Mangalore in an uncomfortable “bone-shaker” to see us. The tiny nun walked up the verandah stairs to my grandmother, whose house it, after all, was, arms outstretched, smiling with every evidence of delight, chirping in the over-accentuated, effusive, mellifluous Mangalorean style, in the high-pitched cooing intonations of socialese the world over, “Jose–phine, It’s An–niie. Do you remember me? We were classmates.” They had not met for seventy years.
My grandmother looked up, a shade contemptuously, “You’ve not come to see me. You’ve come to see Anita and Noel,” turned on her heel, marched in. Sister Columba’s small face puckered in hurt and bewilderment. She nervously clasped and unclasped her hands. When had she last encountered sheer rudeness? Perhaps never. “Poor thing,” my mother said, reliving the scene, growing, each time, more upset.
* * *
Since successful men married the youngest, prettiest bedfellows they could find, prodigious bearers of children, nurses in old age, widowhood was an inevitability universally acknowledged. My great-grandmother, Julianna, who bore six children in her brief years as a wife, was a widow for seventy-three years; Granny–widowed in her forties, with her fourteenth child a newborn—for fifty-three.
Wearing the pants, safeguarding the bacon, it made one tough. If Granny had ever tolerated foolishness, such foolishness had long been leached out. A rusty old spade was a spade, and–in a culture which valued courtesy, sweetness, graciousness, excellent traits in women–she, though gentle of face and voice, refused to call a spade a silver spoon or a golden rule.
When I fought with my mother, fierce-tongued and ferocious, my father shook his head. “I would never have dared to speak to my mother like that,” he said. “If she gave me an order even today, I would obey her. One night she punished my brother, Michael at dinner by making him kneel on the dining table. When she came down to breakfast the next morning, having quite forgotten about Michael, there he was, asleep, swaying on his knees.”
Start Date—August 27th, 2012
Completion Date—August 31st, 2013
Word Count Goal-120,000
Words per day Goal—490
Progress (Aiming to write 6 days a week, excluding Sundays)
Day 28—13814 words written (94 extra)