This is the first chapter of the memoir I am writing. I hope you enjoy it, and I would be grateful for any feedback 🙂
I was born in Jamshedpur, Bihar, India, where the great Gangetic plains lope up to the foothills of the Himalayas.
Buddha was born here, six centuries before Christ, as was Mahavira, founder of Jainism, though syncretic Hinduism later absorbed both.
But my birth in Jamshedpur had nothing to do with it being the birthplace of great religions. I was born there because of steel.
The soil was red with tiny balls of murram, iron ore, visible signs of the hidden lodes which in 1901 drew Zoroastrian industrialist, Jamshedji Nusserjani Tata, to found Jamshedpur, The Steel City.
There blast furnaces daily belched blackness to the bleared skies, and you woke and heard the birds cough as iron ore was refined to shining steel by The Tata Iron and Steel Company, one of the world’s largest steel companies, which, in 1952, lured my father, a Chartered Account, from still racist London: “Our accountant is Indian; is that a problem?” his boss had to ask, and sometimes it was. Now, he was the Controller of Accounts, and–as he ambitiously installed computers which hogged a wall– Manager of Data Processing. And “What is that?” everyone asked.
He then married, aged 38, and after a decade of infertility and the death of their infant first-born son, I was born, hovering between life and death, ill with the dysentery which killed my brother.
And so, in an emergency baptism with rapidly blessed hospital water, in Jamshedpur, the heart of the Hindu heartland, I was christened Anita Mary Mathias, daughter of Noel Joseph Mathias and Celine Mary Mathias, the incongruous surname given our family when the Portuguese occupied my ancestral town of Mangalore on the coast of the Arabian Sea in 1510, converting the population to Roman Catholicism with the carrot of government jobs, and the stick of the Inquisition, Counter Reformation fires reaching even the tropics.
Which explains why a child born in the Hindu heartland, had grandparents called Piedade Felician Mathias and Josephine Lobo, and Stanislaus and Molly Coelho and great grandmothers called Greta Lasrado and Julianna Juao, though on my mother’s side, everyone was a Coelho, for Coelhos, as the thirteen branches of that family observe proudly, Coelhos, if possible, only marry Coelhos.
A few years later, when I was known as the naughtiest girl in the school, the nuns asked, “Why are you so naughty when your sister is so good?” Flummoxed, I guessed, “Because she was baptized by a cardinal, and I was baptized by a priest?” The amused Cardinal summoned me when he next visited the school and explained that I could not be baptized twice, but I could receive a special blessing, and to that blessing he later attributed everything good which ever happened to me.