(I am continuing a memoir of my father. The previous parts are
- Polyphemus, the Cyclops: A Memoir of my Father, Noel Joseph Mathias (Part I)
- A Memoir of My Father, Noel Mathias. In England, in the Forties & Fifties
- The Things My Father Said
- At Play with my Father, Part III )
My father claimed that each of his thirty-two teeth, denture or otherwise, was sweet.
At buffets, he went first to the dessert table, even at the posh Taj Intercontinental or Oberoi Sheraton in Bombay, Delhi, or Madras, where—along with his brother, Theo, who was the Director, and his brother Eric–he interviewed applicants to The Xavier Labor Relations Institute at which he taught.
It was only after he had eaten trifle and Black Forest gateau and chocolate eclairs that he ate a little roast beef to refresh his palate. (Probably alone of all inhabitants from Mangalore, his ancestral town, he would not touch pork. He and his Jesuit brother, Theo, were convinced they would contract encephalitis from the tapeworm-ridden pigs that freely roamed around town, their snouts in the open fetid drains.)
And after this token attention, he went back to his now properly “earned” dessert–meringues; macaroons, and pistachio burfi, fudge, until, sweetly tranquilized, he could eat no more.
* * *
Our friend, Father Durt from Belgium, visited him at his office with a box of Belgian chocolates he had bought on furlough.
(My parents had stayed with Fr Durt’s family in Belgium when they visited on my father’s work. After dinner, they reported the little blonde Belgian children washing up, and saying, “We wish we were Indians. We would eat on a plaintain leaf with our fingers, and throw it away. There would be no washing up.”
My father kindly agreed that he did not wash up, not adding that we, ever so westernized, ate with the correct knives and forks, on imported English china, and the cook and maid washed up.)
Each week, as we met the kindly Jesuit at church, his smile grew more strained. Finally, he asked, “Did you enjoy the chocolates?” “Chocolates?” my mother, my sister and I chirped in unison.
“I…I…I…” my father said, flushing, “I have them in my office.” He had eaten a conch just to sample it, he confessed, and then a wentletrap, just meaning to nibble it, and then, slipping, a limpet and a triton and a volute and a periwinkle and the moonshell and scallop until, well, the box of chocolates was… just a box.
Another time, when I was very little, they returned from a party, having quarreled on the way home, My father handsome in his “Madam Know Best” suit, so called because when his tastes differed from hers, the salesman said, “Madam knows best.”
“Baby, baby, look in Pa’s pockets. He has a cake for you,” she said. I looked in high excitement. And wailed, “Pa, why you ate the cake, and brought the papers for Atta?” which because a family “famous last word.” He had brought cake for me, but it had vanished on the way home.
* * *
Despite my mother’s cautions and precautions, my father was regularly pickpocketed when we traveled. Before he and I set off to Mangalore to visit his mother, or to Calcutta, Delhi or Lucknow, where I joined other parties of schoolchildren travelling to Nainital, my mother pinned a confining safety pin over the wallet in his trouser pocket.
We succumbed to the seductions of the journey: Laddoos, sweet orange globes studded with raisins and cloves; pakoras, vegetables deep-fried in chickpea flour; comic books; and deep sapphire peacock feather fans, shimmering with iridescent moons.
And, then, in this midst of our giddy the-cat-is-away-the mice-play spending, as he reached for his wallet on spotting another banyan-leaf, twig-threaded container of gol guppas: light crisp deep-fried spheres, punctured and filled with spicy tamarind water, my father smote his forehead. Walletless!!
As we arrived in Calcutta or Bombay, we’d ask someone on the platform for twenty-five paise to phone my mother’s sister in Bombay, or to my father’s brother’s wife in Calcutta, whose rich cooking I enjoyed, and who my father was unsuccessfully determined to avoid, because of this rich cooking. But there we were, shame-faced, pickpocketed, needing to borrow money for we were pickpocketed, and of course with Indian hospitality, she treated us to a rich meal.
“We look scruffy,” he said on one occasion when we were in Calcutta, and not pickpocketed, “but there are seventeen million people in Calcutta. We’ll never bump into my sister-in-law.” Like all children, I was curious about my relatives and wanted to visit them, so I was sad.
And then we meandered into a bookshop on College Street, where, to my triumphant amusement, we noticed, within minutes, my decidedly unbookish aunt, browsing, and were soon eating delicious batter-fried chicken at her house to the silent annoyance of my father who had taken up yoga, vegetarianism and general health-freakishness at the age of 59.
* * *
As he approached the mandatory retirement age from The Tata Iron and Steel Company–sixty–my father suffered from lumbago, backaches, and hay-fever, and responsible now for two young girls, suddenly cared deeply and passionately about health.
And so, aged 59, my father learnt yoga from, ironically, an Australian yogi, who gave lessons at work to Tata executives. And he persevered in this discipline of an hour of daily yoga until he died–a robust eighty-nine year old.
Our mornings became dramatic, punctuated by the unnerving roar of the lion pose, simhasana, or we would come upon him, legs in the air in a shoulder stand, or apparently dead in savasan, the corpse position of deep relaxation.
He gleefully described the position in Surya Namaskar in which the guru had the executives lie on their bellies, thrust their bottoms in the air, and then release the gas in their systems; and the sulfurous stench as the officers of the Tata Iron and Steel Company farted in unison.
He became a vegetarian, unaccompanied in this heroism by his family, eating a large bowl of crisp green salad for lunch everyday.
My father would not allow the cook to make his salads, as he feared that Durga would not wash his hands with soap, before touching the raw vegetables. My mother would not make them, and so everyday, when he returned home between sessions at his office for lunch and his midday siesta, he first made a crisp cucumber and lettuce salad with fresh squeezed lemon juice, while Durga told him the scores of the morning’s Cricket Test match against the Marylebone Cricket Club, to which he listened on his radio as he cooked our chicken, pork or lamb curries, for all of which my father now professed disgust. So fatty.
I am today inspired by the determination with which he took responsibility for his own health. He quietly ate his own totally healthy, totally savourless ragi, millet porridge each morning, while we ate bacon, sausages and fried eggs–So fatty, he said—which necessitated a trip to the only “deep freeze’ in town, at the westernized Beldih Club.
* * *
Though a rationalist in many ways, my father was not immune to superstition. “Seven years of bad luck,” my parents lamented whenever a mirror broke, and, incredibly, seemed to almost believe it. They were reluctant to buy those gorgeous fans of peacock feathers, also meant to be unlucky (providentially for the peacocks!).
My father smiled uneasily when I used the white lie of his illness to escape from a social commitment. “He’s sad. Now he fears he will get sick,” my mother said. He shook his head when I boasted that I never got sick, having developed robust health through the spartan regimen and mountain air of St. Mary’s Convent, my boarding school in the Himalayas: “Don’t say you never get sick, Anita. You will get sick!”
He similarly shuddered when he overheard the boasts of his younger brother Theo, an energetic and brilliant Jesuit (whose assignments ranged from Chaplain to the Allied soldiers in Germany after the Second World War; advisor on restructuring the educational system of Papua New Guinea after its independence; India’s representative in the General Assembly of the United Nations in the seventies; and Director of an elite Jesuit Business School)
“Retire?” Theo said when asked about his plans as he turned sixty. “Retire? I am good for another twenty-five years,” Theo declared (and he indeed was.) “Theo shouldn’t show off,” my father said. “Who knows what could happen?” And, sure enough, Theo suffered a retina detachment, and was required to lie motionless at the famous eye hospital in Aligarh, across North India, where my father went to read to him and to spoon-feed him. “I don’t know why Theo said that,” he said, “I shuddered when he said that.”
A common dread in India: that if you boast of a ship not even God can sink, God will sink it; where people touch wood whenever they mention a run of luck to placate any listening deity who may be offended by their hubris; and people are offended if a child is praised effusively, fearing that jealous people are trying to give them the nazar, the evil eye, so that malevolent listening deities, jealous of the rosy child’s beauty, would pinch the bud in its prime. The parents quickly touch wood, or in its absence, in self-mockery, their own heads. (The sense of a malignancy in a universe is universal. When Cassiopeia boasted of her daughter Andromeda’s beauty, Aphrodite sent a sea monster to ravage the town. A slave ran before the Roman Emperors in their triumphal progress, proclaiming, “Remember that thou too art human.”)
* * *
I thought of my father while reading of the French-Canadian described by Thoreau, “so quiet and so happy withal; a well of good humor and contentment which overflowed at his eyes…cousin to the pine and the rock. He never tried to write thoughts–no, he could not, he could not tell what to put first, it would kill him.”
“I sweat blood when I have to write a letter,” my father claimed. Every letter he wrote was drafted in long hand, pondered over and corrected, before he copied out the final version. Though he took upon himself the Gethsemenean duty of writing to his mother once a month when he sent her a support check, from my teens onward, he often talked me into drafting it for him, so that he had but to mechanically copy it out. “Write me a draft, Anita. I’ll tell you all my news. Just write it in my style.” And so I did, unconsciously developing the art of observing and mimicking style.
Start Date—August 27th, 2012
Completion Date—August 31st, 2013
Word Count Goal-120,000
Words per day Goal—550 words a day
Progress (Aiming to write 6 days a week, excluding Sundays)
Day 64—27805 (7395 words behind, whoa!!)