(This is Part IV from a memoir of my Father, Noel Mathias. Parts I to III are:
- Polyphemus, the Cyclops
- A Memoir of My Father, Noel Mathias. In England, in the Forties & Fifties
- At Play with my Father)
Shake and Shake the Ketchup Bottle
We were never certain if the stories my father told us were truth or invention.
He claimed he responded to an advertisement in The Illustrated Weekly of India: “All mosquitoes eliminated from your house and garden in a day. Guaranteed to work, or your money back.” He sent in his ten rupees and waited. He received two small rocks. Take the mosquito, read the instructions, place it on the lower stone. Cover with the other stone. Crush mosquito.
Another story: A country bumpkin arrives in Bombay, craning his neck at the skyscrapers. A city slicker marches up, “It’s my building. You have to pay me a rupee for every storey you look at?” The bumpkin hands over fifteen rupees, then conspiratorially confesses to the bystanders. “I gave him fifteen rupees, but actually–I looked at the whole building.”
Yeah, his humour leaned towards the verbal though silly. A man leaves his wife. As he crosses the threshold, she wails, “You said you wouldn’t leave, and you’ve left.” He, “I promised to cleave, and I’ve cleft.”
* * *
“Was that really Professor Mathias?” one of his students asked, observing him joke with us on a train. “I have never seen him smile.” “You can only talk to him soberly on sober subjects,” my cousin Dorothy lamented. However,
within the sanctuary of family, my father relaxed into silliness. He’d stroke his pronounced nose and boast, “I have a Roman nose. An aquiline nose.” He was my younger sister, Shalini’s, passion. She sat on my parents’ bed, while my father was at work, and my mother did her mending, and told tales of my father, each ending on a crescendo of exultation–“Dear Pa,” “Silly Pa,” “Swee-eet Pa!”
For instance, Shalini would say, “Do you remember when Pa heard me sound out G-nome,” and claimed, ‘I’m actually a gin-nome.’ I said, ‘Okay, if you are a gin-nome, what’s your name?” and he said, ‘Pixie Silver Cloud,’ so happily” And then, I heard her voice rise in her delighted litany, “Dear Pa! Sil-ly Pa!”
My father’s humor inclined towards the genre of “famous last words,” deflating pretension. He laughed at the family who returned from a trip to England to boast, “Oh the tins we had!” (Canned foods: meats, cheese, fish, generally imported, were a luxury in India and virtually unavailable except for Amul Cheese, made in India.)
On their return from England, the family suddenly eschewed mangoes. My father’s morning routine was to sit on the front verandah and work through a basket of freshly picked mangoes from the six mango trees in our garden, bowling the seed right across the large front lawn into the bushes outside the garden walls, where they served as compost, a trick we greatly admired, along with his ability to peel an apple, without breaking the skin, producing a single triumphant spiral. Now he ate mangoes, mimicking the family’s pseudo-British accent, Oh, mangoes are so messy.
He repeated old jingles with such gusto that we thought he’d invented them. When we struggled with a bottleneck of ketchup, he’d say, Shake and shake the ketchup bottle. None will come and then a lot’ll. I discovered that jingle I thought my father invented in a textbook on writing poetry when I was 25, attributed to Richard Armour, not Noel Mathias.
“I thot I thaw a putty tat cweeping up on me,” “You thot you thaw a putty cat. The putty tat was me,” our father would say with gusto, in high-pitched baby tones. An example of his dearness and foolishness we thought, as we teased him, mimicking the jingle we thought he had made up, ignorant of the provenance, until, one day in America, I saw that tag of doomed innocence on a child’s sweatshirt, and realized, astonished, that my father hadn’t invented it after all.
* * *
He interpolated himself into the stories he told us: He was either the hero or the sidekick. It was, thus, his cousin, Paddy, who rode his bike recklessly, saying, “Look, Ma, no hands. Look Ma, no feet,” and then, deflated and bloodied, “Look Ma. No teeth.”
Once, required as a forfeit in a game of Passing-The-Parcel to tell a joke, Vatsala Khanna told the assembled school this old chestnut, “Once Anita Mathias’s father saw a boy ride a bike…” “Nice joke, Vatsala,” Sister Josephine said later, “But why bring Anita Mathias’s father into it?” Both Vatsala and I looked equally betrayed.
* * *
He had the silliest sense of humour—and it often got me into trouble. Whenever I mentioned my Hindi teacher, Miss Kispota, from India’s Adivasi tribes, he’d murmur “If you want to kiss, kiss Pota.” I said it aloud in class, aged seven, and everyone burst into laughter. “I have taught for seventeen years,” she screamed, as the class giggled, “and I have never seen such a gundi ludki, dirty girl.” And the phrase gundi ladki also became a family joke.
* * *
The rhymes he taught me
King David and King Solomon
Lead merry, merry lives,
With many, many girlfriends
And many, many wives,
And when old age overtook them,
With many, many qualms,
King Solomon wrote the Proverbs,
And King David wrote the Psalms.
“There was once a friar from Siberia,
For whom life grew drearier and drearier,
At last with a yell,
He said “What the hell?”
And eloped with the Mother Superior.”
And, of course, when I went to boarding school, aged nine, I repeated these to my classmates, And, of course, the tattle-tales told the nuns. And so, of course, I was always in trouble.
“Anita Mathias has brought the baad speeret into the class,” Sister Secunda told the girls she hurriedly assembled into the fifth grade classroom. “Who taught you such things, Anita Mathias?” “My father,” I said with perfect truth. They acted horrified, and misbelieving—but in retrospect, they surely believed me!!
* * *
My father invented a wonderful, capacious nonsense rhyme to tease my sister, Shalini: “Shalini, Balini, big fat Shalini,/ High-Bald, Low-Bald, bald-headed Shalini.” It could be twined around any name, I realized. The senselessness of it tormented the victim who suspected a hidden meaning she did not understand.
I ran after the school captain, Setha, a senior, chanting “Setha, Betha, big fat Setha, high-bald, low-bald, bald-headed Setha,” followed by a crowd of little girls, reciting the jingle, until Setha cried and we desisted. With a slightly more awed crowd, I followed Sister Veronique, the Principal of Sacred Heart Convent, my first school, softly rapping the chant, “Veronique, Beronique, big fat Veronique, high-bald, low-bald, bald-headed Veronique.” She spun around.
Unlike Shalini, she was large, and it was rumored was, like all nuns, bald-headed beneath her veil.
“What did you say?” she demanded. A little cowed, I repeated the chant.
“What a filthy rhyme. Who taught it to you girls?”
“My father,” I said.
* * *