My father’s sister, Ethel, grandest of the town’s grand old ladies, was nicknamed the Grand-Duchess; (my grandmother was known as the Empress, and Aunt Winnie, the Duchess).
Her face, a mask of hauteur, tight pursed lips, eyebrows and nostrils raised in habitual disdain, resembled a severe ruffed Old Master Renaissance Queen’s, say, Velasquez’s Empress Isabella at the Prado.
The right numbers in marriage’s lottery–and long habit gave her the manner of one to the manor born. Her good fortune came, in its inevitable way, with a catch: a familiar one–the Indian cliché, the villainous mother-in-law.
People whispered: “The horror always lived with them. Ethel never had a proper married life.” “That mother-in-law!” my grandmother had fretted when the proposal came. “Worry not,” the matchmaker, Bella, reassured her. “She’s a sickly old thing. She’ll die any day now, and Ethel will have a happy married life.”
“In fact, the matchmaker died first!” my father said. “Never count on anyone dying. Those perennially on the verge of death live the longest, defying expectations, coddling themselves, being coddled, while the apparently healthy drop dead in an instant.”
* * *
From the egg of inherited coffee estates, Ethel’s only son, Pete created gaggles of golden geese—canning and exporting the goodness of Arabian Ocean, crab, shrimp, lobster, oysters; buying factories, and eventually constructing a real estate empire: entire neighborhoods of apartment buildings becoming, probably, South India’s largest real estate developer.
When, in the universally acknowledged way of single men in possession of a good fortune, he married, Ethel insisted that the bride live with them in the ancestral house, scene of her old travails.
But! “The woman who sleeps next to a man has his ear,” Aunt Ethel said vindictively over her dining table, lavish with lobsters and oysters (which I had for the first time at her house), crab curry, and duck molee in coconut gravy. The ancient, bitter battle of two women for a man’s soul, the younger woman with her age-old biological weapons: youthful beauty, motherhood, and sexual attraction; the older lady with hers: tears, guilt, accusation, and the subliminal glue of primeval bonding and long obedience!
But we have it on the highest authority that the meek (the daughters-in-law), will eventually, temporarily, inherit the earth. An often heard anecdote, perhaps apocryphal: The evil mother-in-law serves herself and her son boiled white rice, giving the daughter-in-law the kunji, the broth or gruel in which the rice had been cooked. The mother and son look sickly, while the daughter-in-law perversely thrives, growing thugda, solid, and strong on the lees–full of the B-vitamins unwittingly boiled out.
Two queen bees? An impossibility. Usually, finally, comes the day of the new queen. Who swarmed. I listened, I listened to the gossip. The world lay before me as various, as beautiful, as new as a longed-for, unread book, and I read it by the golden light of fiction, seeking one to one correspondences between books and life, life and books, seeing uncanny parallels between Maggie Tulliver’s three aunts in The Mill on the Floss, the wealthy formidable Aunt Glegg, doleful Aunt Pullet, and quiet Aunt Dean and my own three aunts, while identifying with Maggie, passionate, harum-scarum, the ugly duckling in a too-small duck pond.
Then to my funny, warm aunt Winnie and her husband, Louis (one of those couples one suspects of a diet as convenient as the Sprats). Louis, dark, simple, slim, always-smiling, was a shadowy presence quite eclipsed by his large, jocose wife; in memory he walks, always, a few steps behind her.
Aunt Winnie had worn whale-bone corsets, a curiosity we gaped at, until she gave up dresses, and her battle with bulges. She now raised her massive arms and let her nieces and nephews jiggle her rolls of fat.
“Remember when you wore Winnie’s dress and rung the front door bell?” Louis asked. My father, who graduated from college in 1937 during the Great Depression, lodged with Winnie in Delhi, while working his first job, clerical, ill-paid—but a job.
And Winnie laughed, “And little Derek did not recognize him, and said, “Mummy, there’s an old lady at the door, asking for you.”
“And how wicked he was, Anita. When we slept on the verandah on hot summer evenings, he’d wait till poor Louis fell asleep, then throw a wooden cotton reel at the fan.”’
“And Louis would wake, jerking his arms and legs into the air, upended spider-like, and say, “What’s that? What’s that?’ ” My father grinned, a little embarrassed. “And I’d wait till he fell asleep, then do it again,” he said.
* * *
In a family in which one or more advanced degrees were a minimum requirement–my grandfather was an F.R.C.S., Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons; my father, an FCA; Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants, England and Wales; my aunt Jessie and Uncle Pat were medical doctor, M.D’s, Uncle Theo had a Ph.D—Winnie gaily presented her credentials, J.C.F., Junior Cambridge Failed. She had sobbed for her mother in boarding school until she was summoned home.
After Louis died, Aunt Winnie became the lachrymose aunt, bursting into tears at the thought of Louis, and she thought of him often. Oh bereavement: perennial pain from a phantom limb, an unthinkable cocktail of guilt, loneliness, and grief!
And then, archeology. “Poor Winnie, all the shocks of the family fell on her. She was the one who went in and discovered Daddy dead—just after he told her to call his lawyer to, at last, write his will. When your aunt Prissie–she was a student at Stanley Medical College–died of sunstroke while swimming, Winnie took the call,” Aunt Ethel said. “When our sister Dora’s—she had eyes like yours, Anita—stiletto heels got stuck in the tram tracks in Madras, and she was crushed to death, Winnie was with her.”
My father’s youngest sister, Juno, a school-teacher with a homely pleasant face, and salt-and-pepper curly hair coiled into her “bun,” lived in a little frond-swished cottage on the grounds of Palm Grove.
She was a favorite among us twenty-seven first cousins–interestingly–for she, detached, self-sufficient, apparently did nothing to court our affections; her breezy will o’ the wisp manner was like the genie curls and whirls from the round-the-clock cigarettes she smoked, and let us puff, so that, mostly, our first acrid, gagging encounter with nicotine was our last. She was, in fact, often preoccupied–with crossword puzzles which she solved obsessively, and with books into which she escaped, unable to sleep until she had read some Graham Greene, even when she returned at 3 a.m. from parties with her beautiful, popular daughter, Veronica.
Joyce’s approach to food was slapdash, her combinations bizarre–canned sardines and strawberry jam. Mackerel and condensed milk. “Mind your own business,” she snapped with unusual acerbity when we commented. Food was a subject on which she, customarily phlegmatic, was touchy.
In a family in which women run to fat, Joyce was haggard. Incredibly, she had shared the family likeness. Her brash Jesuit brother, Theo—christened Theophane (the revelation of God) Archibald, destiny encoded in his name–returned from seminary at Louvain, Belgium to see her playing tennis in shorts. “Joyce!” he cried. “You look like a fat Chettiah women!”
She stopped eating until this was not the case. With raised eyebrows, the fat aunts, her sisters, told the story in unison, in a rhythmic, emphatic chorus. “No rice. No sugar. No fruit juice. No mangoes. Just water with a dash of lemon. And dry bread. Soon she was skin and bones. Tell her, Anita, tell her to eat. We’re soworried about her.”
Start Date—August 27th, 2012
Completion Date—August 31st, 2013
Word Count Goal-120,000
Words per day Goal—515 words a day
Progress (Aiming to write 6 days a week, excluding Sundays)
Day 28—16034 words (69 extra)