I used to believe everything my father told me. I lived in a strange, magical world. His cook before I was born was a Cyclops, he said. He had a single eye in the middle of his forehead. And his name was Polyphemus.
Wow! My father had patiently read me the tales of Arthur and Robin Hood, Grimm, Andersen, and in children’s versions, The Ramayana, The Mahabharata and The Odyssey. And now I learned that, in our own servants’ quarters, in our own backyard, at 6 C Road East, Jamshedpur, Bihar, India, we had once had living: a Cyclops.
* * *
I took this news to school. I could not be good at school, and the nuns could not make me. Every day, after school, while the ayah sent to walk me home waited outside, I had to record all my transgressions in the Principal’s office. Some sheets survive. I climbed on the roof, and announced, ‘I am the queen of the school,’ and then, looking down, was too scared to descend; the gardener fetched a ladder, while the massed children below, giggled, gasped, and pointed.
Or things like–I ate my lunch during singing class. I ran away from school and darted across the street to the graveyard, looking for familiar names. I jumped up during Hindi class, grabbed an item from each child’s desk, and then ran through the classroom, depositing them on other children’s desks. The children dashed around the classroom looking for their things.
When the list of misdemeanors, which I recorded with legalistic, fatalistic honesty, exceeded twenty in a day, my parents were called in for a conference. My father, a shy man, who was on the School Board, and was the school’s honorary treasurer, hated them.
Sister Veronique, the Principal said, “Well, Anita’s very imaginative. She’s obviously bright, but a little… You know what she told Sister Desiree. That you had a one-eyed monster, a Cyclops, living in your backyard called, called, Poly… Poly…”
“Polyphemus. We did, we really did. Papa told me.”
“What nonsense!” he said, flushing, putting his tongue on his upper lip, as he did when both amused and embarrassed. Sister Veronique, observing him, dropped the subject.
“Anita, what do you mean, calling poor Hanif a Cyclops?” my mother said in the car. “The poor man was blind in one eye, that was all.”
“But Pa told me. Pa, don’t deny it.”
He laughed helplessly, his eyes fixed on the road.
“Family jokes!” my mother muttered, defeated, but not about to change her victim. “Anita, why must you always tell family secrets?”
But his mythological allusions continued to get me into trouble. When invited to dinner with Lancelot and Iris Rebello, he told me, “Lancie has a brother called Arthur. They eat off a round table,” and so I looked and looked for it. When XLRI, brought a new brother on board, he said, “They have hired a wizard. His name is Merlin,” and so I looked at Merlin with big, awed eyes.
* * *
My father was born in 1916, a longed-for first-born son, born after five daughters, to Dr. P. F. Mathias, a surgeon, and Josephine. His older sisters, Ethel, Winnie, Jessie, Dora, and Prissie recounted, resentfully, how they were exhorted, “Pray, pray for a boy,” each time Josephine’s belly swelled, and how, as girl after girl appeared, they were upbraided, “It’s your fault. You didn’t pray hard enough.”
My father, due to be a Christmas baby, arrived on January 2nd, was named Noel after the season, and doted on. The sisters remembered their mother’s litany, “Ethel, Winnie, comb Noel’s hair; Ethel, Winnie, put on Noel’s shoes;”–his mother refused to shear his baby curls. He was the favorite of his forbidding bad-tempered father, who petted him, and bought him a pony, Paddy, and a donkey, Ned.
* * *
Since India was then part of the British Empire, the affluent (particularly Catholics and Parsees) rapidly became anglicized. My father and his brothers went to a small elite boarding school–just a hundred boys–Montfort School, in Yercaud, Tamil Nadu, run by a Belgian order, the Brothers of St. Gabriel. (The girls evidently learnt to pray, for seven boys followed my father: Pat, Theo, Eric, Morris, Michael, Charlie and Joe)
With fourteen children, hand-me-downs were a fact of life. My father and his brother Pat first went to boarding school at Montfort School, Yercaud, wearing the large overcoats of their older sisters, Ethel and Winnie. My father described how, as frightened new boys, they huddled together while the horde of old boys descended on them, and pulled at the huge, baggy coats, first from one direction, then from another. (He couldn’t wait to pass the coat on. He claimed people in Mangalore said, “I saw Theo, he was wearing that coat. I saw Eric; he was wearing that coat. And so with Morris, Michael and Joe!
The school was meant to turn them into Macaulay’s “brown-skinned gentleman”–in his ethnocentric definition: “a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.”
My grandmother was disappointed at the slowness of their metamorphosis into brown- or any-skinned, gentlemen. With growing dismay, she observed her sons over the dinner table where the fourteen Mathiases were frequently joined by some of seventeen children of the P.G. D’Souza family next door. She wrote to the Brothers, “They blow into their coffee, they pour it into their saucers, their elbows take a mile on each side. They are boors.” And, for decades, the sons, whom she called “the bounders” quoted her letter with glee!
My father’s memories of school lingered as one-liners that passed into family oral history. The Tamilian waiter who caught a boy stealing an extra banana, and said, with the common substitution of p for f, “Cunning fella, flicketh the flantain, fut in the focket.” Two Anglo-Indian boys tormented by the others, huddling together for comfort; the elder tells the younger, “Burr it up till Tata comes” (Bear it up till Daddy comes.) My father’s mischievous little brother, Theo Mathias, later to become an eminent Jesuit who introduced a goat into the dormitory, to be caught by a sadistic Belgian brother, who twisted his ear, saying–and here we have an imitated accent–“you may larrf, you may gr-ii-n, you sm-ii-le, but we see aff-ter.”
* * *
My father loved poetry, drama and fiction; he could effortlessly recite Wordsworth and Milton, especially the stunning prologue to Paradise Lost, and knew numerous Shakespearean passages by heart–which he encouraged me to memorize, and I did.
However, as the eldest son in a family of eight, bright, ambitious boys, it was unthinkable for him to study something as ethereal as English Literature in college, as my maternal grandfather and uncles did.
He had, unfortunately, the example of his distinguished father, Dr. P. F. Mathias, who died when my father was sixteen–a famous surgeon, who was decorated with the Kaiser-i-Hind medal in 1921, and the O.B.E. in 1929, and was the first Indian Superintendent of the Stanley Medical College and Hospital in Madras.
My father sat on the front porch day after day waiting for the postman to deliver his admission letter to Stanley Medical College (where a ward was named after his father!) while his mother, watching him writhe in agony, had but a single comment: Had you studied, you’d be a happier boy today.
He laughed, repeating it, but said basically the same thing to me, as I sometimes sadly say to my daughters–in the other generational inheritance passed along with genes. At other times, however, he would tell us his abysmal grades at university, and we’d squeal in horror for we were ambitious, driven children.
He never did hear from Medical College; he was later told an uncle from a rival branch of the family, who worked in the admissions office, had purloined his application. At any rate, it had gone missing. When he was offered a place mid-semester for his father’s sake, he decided that he actually didn’t want to be a doctor. He didn’t like to be around sick people. He couldn’t stand the sight of blood. However, still under the thrall of his father’s influence, he studied physics and chemistry at Madras University, as his father did–and in which he had no interest.
He graduated during the Depression when jobs were scarce. In that he was unlucky. His first job was a clerical one in Delhi, where he stayed with his elder sister Winnie and her husband Louis Mascarenhas, whom he subjected to a stream of practical jokes. Wearing his sister’s clothes, he rung the front door bell, and croaked a request for Mrs. Winnie. Flabbergasted at the apparition, not recognizing him, her son, Derek, went and told his mother, “There’s an old lady asking for you.” When the family slept out in the verandah on sweltering summer evenings, he waited till his sweet, simple brother-in-law fell asleep, and then tossed wooden cotton reels at the rotating ceiling fan. Louis woke up with a start, arms flailing, “Winnie, what is that? What is that, Winnie?” My father waited till he fell asleep, then flicked another cotton reel upwards.
To be continued…
Start Date—August 27th, 2012
Completion Date—August 31st, 2013
Word Count Goal-120,000
Words per day Goal—535 words a day
Progress (Aiming to write 6 days a week, excluding Sundays)
Day 40—21092 (308 words short)