(by Anita Mathias)
Bombay to Mangalore. “Pa, Pa, look,” black-faced langur monkeys, a slender lori. Reverse time travel through the ancient hilly rain forests, luna-moth-green valleys and hairpin beds of the Western Ghats. We took a “deluxe” cushiony bus, air-conditioned; but, alas, Emerson’s crack, Murphy’s rub, every air-conditioned coach was also a “video coach.” By day, by night. So while my father and I played determined games of “Twenty Questions,” or “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, Thing,” widows wailed, abandoned women in white wandered, listlessly singing mera jeevan gora kagaj, “my life is a blank sheet of paper,” and coquetteish brilliantly clad nymphs, nasal sopranos, darted around trees fleeing from shaggy satyrs called Amitabh or Rishi–all the while singing.
My father quizzed me, in the style of B.B.C.’s Mastermind, all the rage: “Who painted “The Persistence of Memory?” “Salvador Dali.” “What is Bob Dylan’s real name?” “Robert Zuckerman. He called himself Dylan in homage to Dylan Thomas,” I added gratuitously. “Whose epitaph was, Here he lies where he longed to be; Home is the sailor, home from the sea, And the hunter home from the hill?” Later, in an embarrassing epiphany, I suspected my father asked facts he suspected I knew. Then we practiced debating, my father setting me topics like those in school–“Which is better, newspapers or television?” “An arranged marriage is better than a love marriage,” and five minutes to scribble an introduction, body, and conclusion, and then, hoping he’d notice the brilliant bits, over the raucous screen, I declaimed my speech.
The bus swerved inches from a precipice. I shrieked as I looked up to see, through the mist, a bus barreling towards us, blaring merry Hindi music. On such a night, on this road, my Jesuit uncle, Tony Coelho, who had introduced Zen meditation to the Catholic Church in India, whose smile and gentleness had the ineffable, unmistakable quality of holiness, had died in a head-on collision. He’d offered his seat to a young mother whose baby howled in the draft from the driver’s stubbornly opened window. “He gave his life for us,” she kept repeating; small consolation to those who had loved him.
Every few hours, the bus pulled into a wayside restaurant, no doubt pre-arranged, pre-bribed. And since, my father spent in a hay-making, mouse-playing way in my mother’s absence, I ordered ecstatically: puri pallya, deep-fried fluffy breads with spinach; masala dosas, crisp golden, extending far beyond the plate, stuffed with yellow oniony potatoes and oozing mustard seeds; and kulfi falooda, almond ice cream floating with red jelly, and vermicelli in a rose-syrupy pink milkshake—until even the waiter suggested desisting. My father ordered coffee which came in two stainless steel tumblers. Beaming, the waiter poured the steaming ribbon from one tumbler to another to cool it; not a drop was spilled. “Coffee-by-the-yard,” my father explained, sotto voce. “Order something, Pa.” My father grinned. “I’ll see what you leave, then I’ll order.” “Oh, I’m ravenous!” I gourmandized. Ten minutes later: “I’m full!” satiety like pain. “Eat some more.” “I can’t. I’ll burst,” and my father emptied the almost full dishes, saying as I knew he would, “Wasting! When I was a student in England during the War, there were billboards everywhere showing a plate of half-eaten food. The caption: ‘If you didn’t want it, why did you take it?’” At least I was spared the usual sour cliché: “her eyes are bigger than her stomach.”
At the next stop, Belgaum, close to midnight, my father’s cousin Mavis, came to meet us, bringing, inevitably, sustenance, a tiffin of suji, semolina halwa; patoleo, wheaten dumplings steamed in a plaintain leaf with a jaggery and coconut center, and panpale: flat breads stuffed with sweetened lentils. Her little daughter Nellie, like me, loved to compute roots-entangled, branches-intertwined Mangalorean relationships. “We were second cousins,” we chirped happily. Then I was sent to the bathroom, and returned stricken. “Pa, there were lumps of shit in the squat toilet. I felt like throwing up.” “Okay,” he said, “Hurry. We’ll find bushes.” We walked into the scrub by the side of the road with him on guard duty. “You see the advantages of being a man!” he said, grumpily, as I again squealed, “Pa, is anyone coming?” “I can pee standing up, with my back to the road, and no one will guess what I’m doing.” As if I needed convincing. “The poor parents!” my father’d say when he heard of the birth of a girl. “Girls are a terrible thing. What a responsibility.” “If bandits come up to you and say, ‘Your money or your life,’ always say, ‘Take my money,’ ” he instructed. “Huh! And what would you say, Pa?” “Take my wife,” he grinned.
A rambunctious medical student from Manipal Medical College distributed sugarcane he’d snatched through the bus window from lumbering bullock carts. I crunched the nectary stalks with delight which faded when my father said the load would be weighed at the journey’s end, and the driver, who sat oblivious, switching the magnificent white beasts, would be fined for the short. The student organized the English-speaking passengers into Canterbury riddle-askers, joke-tellers. “Knock, knock.” “Who’s there?” “Amos.” “Amos Who?” “Amos Quito.”
“A Sardarjee went to Bombay craning his neck at skyscrapers. A city slicker says, ‘That’s my building. Pay me a rupee for every storey you looked at.’ Later, the Sardarjee says slyly, ‘I gave him fifteen rupees, but actually–I looked at the whole building.’” Just before the bus left Maharashtra, policemen, rifles in their holster, boarded it, searching luggage. Our heart stopped. The Scotch. Illegally procured as gifts through an army friend (the army had access to choice and subsidized liquor) but contraband in Maharastra: “Dry”–perennial, laudable, doomed social experiment. A drunk man yelled at the officials, who yanked him off the bus. Suddenly sober, he realized he had been arrested, and wept and pleaded with them, touching their feet. “They’ll take every paise he has,” my father said. “What a terrible thing it is to be drunk.”
* * *
The Angelus bells pealed in peace as we pulled in at dawn to Mangalore, our God-haunted ancestral town—a holy town–nuns and priests as common on the streets as secular people; the nunnery and the seminary were traditional refuges for unmarried women of good family, or intellectual men who dreaded “settling down,” and the arid busyness of the world of business. Two thousand nuns, and a thousand priests in Mangalore: a proud statistic we often heard; hence the frequent laughter of liturgical bells.
Mangalore: a tropical English village, unlikely enough to be imaginary, like a Pre-Raphaelite landscape that never was on sea or land: moist, leaf-green, very-green everywhere, as if it has just rained, dew seeping through emerald moss on the contorted roots of mango trees, and dripping from creepers and purple orchids. I have encountered other villages like Mangalore–in Costa Rica, for instance–with a sense of déjà vu, perhaps anticipating the day when all rivers will rush into one river, and all gardens merge into one garden, and the name of that garden shall be Eden.
The tang of the sea was in the air. Steep, shady narrow lanes wound between rambling houses surrounded by gardens dense with palm and jackfruit trees, hibiscus and bougainvillea. Fruit-heavy branches lolled over garden walls, shedding roadside litter: guavas, avocados, and mangoes. Fallen custard apples cracked open, spilling their sweet, white, seedy flesh.
The mossy old manses with their roofs of tunnel-shaped ochre tiles provided a sober counterpoint to the emigrant houses on the outskirts in gay Disneyland pink, turquoise, yellow and purple, extravagant monstrosities sometimes, an irresistible exhibition of the fruits of lonely tropical toil, built–in the grand tradition of returnee housing, whether in Victorian England or colonial Spain–for their families by the thousands of Mangalorean working in the Persian Gulf. “Gulf money” one said wryly, passing them.
* * *
In a little black and yellow auto-rickshaw, or “bone-shaker,” we rattled to “Palm Grove,” my grandmother’s house, secluded in a dark mosquitoey compound sheltered by high walls, surrounded by swishing palm trees up which Billavas shimmied, small sickles around their waists, to retrieve the coconuts she sold them. They parked their bikes, in the town’s shady nooks, roped cascades of green, smooth-skinned coconuts dangling from the handlebars and back-carriers. A swipe of a machete and a straw; they sold passersby the cool, sweet coconut juice, the country’s purest drink, safer even than water. Another swipe, and they returned the split coconut with a chip of its own husk to spoon up the delicate, creamy coconut meat. “Let nothing be wasted.”
Then onto the long, shady verandah of Palm Grove, dark, cavernous, its high ceilings and stone floors keeping it cool as a morgue. Its red tiles, like those of many old houses in town, said Mssrs. Joseph Lobo and Son, from the factory of Granny’s father who left it to his naïve, sweet young third wife and widow, my great-grandmother Julianna. Julianna, baffled, sold it to her nephew for “a song”—the factory and the goodwill, as her son Norman discovered when he tried to establish a tile company with the family name. “The goodwill? Yes, I signed that. He said that meant I had no bad feelings.” When Julianna’s debts to my grandfather Piedade grew beyond hope of repayment, she signed over Palm Grove to her son-in-law; so Norman did not even inherit the ancestral home. Sad, guilty about this, my grandmother invited her younger brother to stay with her in his straitened old age, obviously deriving great comfort from her end being so close to her beginning.
Wiry, ectomorphic Norman was nimble, spry, Old Father William, a familiar sight around Mangalore, as, until his death at 102, he hopped on and off buses. A brusque old man with a savage, ironic wit. “How obsequious they were; now, when we pass the paddy fields, they show us their bums,”—he rudely demonstrated—talking of land Granny had lost to her tenant farmers under India’s socialist land-to-the-tillers legislation intended to crush the power of the zamindars, feudal landowners, who kept peasants in generational virtual serfdom. (A trivial unsinister debt at absurdly high interest to be paid off by unpaid labor, which meant further borrowing, further labor, a viciously circular debt, inherited by one’s children, and grandchildren, that two generations later goes up; there are fifteen million bonded child laborers in India.) Land ceiling, an excellent idea—my other grandmother in Bombay gained a flat through similar urban legislation–though the real feudal landowners, the unscrupulous and bullies with their hired thugs, retained their land through fraud and chicanery. I remember my classmate Vanita in high school, pulled out of class to doll up in a saree, makeup and bun of false hair, and, assisted by her own portliness, be presented in court as Mrs. Sabhrawal, independent farmer, thus evading the fifty acre per family land ceiling). Meanwhile the decent, the honorable, the clueless—the cartoonist, R.K. Lakshman’s Common Man, unversed in the second language of the law—lost their land.
I dashed towards the dog on the verandah who strained towards me, snarling steel chain taut, teeth bared. I boasted that I could gentle even savage Cave Canem watch dogs, talking to them at a distance, going ever closer, my outstretched hand just out of biting range, talking, talking, until the warming eyes told me I could stroke him. But–can any crime be uglier than mutating the natural sweetness of an animal or a child?–Tibby had been deliberately brutalized.
And now memory cowers, as at the knowledge of a impending burn, and the memoirist’s task is at its most whyish. In the lazy afternoons, Norman, siesta-rested, took his walking stick to methodically, savagely, beat the cowering dog who, with high broken-hearted yelps of desperation, helplessly bent his head, screwing his eyes shut in terror, as if blindness might shield him from pain. At any moment, the dog could have swerved and bitten the man’s leg, but did not; humane, brutish, imprecise adjectives. I rushed out, near hysteria; my father holding me back, muttered, “It is his dog.” “Why?” I asked the terrifying old man. Norman stalked off, glaring, mumbling. To render the dog furious, ferocious, so that, when unchained at night to prowl the grounds, he would instantly bite a burglar—following his new-grafted instincts.
* * *
We walked through the dark living room with its de rigueur shrine: on a crocheted tablecloth, a pious assemblage of souvenirs from other people’s trips to Rome, Lourdes, Fatima or our native Velankanni—cloudy bottles of holy water, silver cameo triptychs of the holy family, mortuary cards, holy pictures. The “Sacred Heart,” smiled, revealing his thorn-pierced heart. Rainbow lights twinkled around a blue-sashed haloed Virgin who, cupped in one’s hands, glowed–eerie phosphorous in the conjured darkness. The red glow of a Martian flame-shaped bulb bathed rosaries with gold and silver beads, luminous rosaries, and lingering figurines from the crib such as the recumbent Infant Jesus of Prague who kicked his silver legs in baby glee. “Everyday should be Christmas,” a popular sermon. Indeed!
The most frequent spiritual experience of my Catholic childhood was not the numinous–when the veil parts, and you glimpse the elegance of the Grandmaster, and time stands still while you are wracked by joy. That came, but later. My most common emotion was boredom—doing continuous mental calculations: the ratio of Hail Marys said to Hail Marys left. Of the Mass said to the Mass unsaid. In fractions, in decimals.
As I walked through Palm Grove, Norman growled from rooms away. “Anita, don’t drag your feet.” “How disgraceful him having to scold you so often,” my mother said later. “Why do you drag your feet?”
I dragged them to evening prayers at the family altar, squirmy phrase. Each evening, as darkness fell, Norman knelt on the cold stone floor to lead us in the rosary, his head tilted backwards to gaze at the Virgin, his arms outstretched like the crucified Christ (a quite unnecessary, unprescribed piety; wherever did he get the idea from?) outstretched rigidly, as sixty-six slow rosary beads dripped through his fingers, Credo, Pater Noster, Ave Maria, Gloria. “Hail Mary, full of grace,” he proclaimed, hints of admonishment in his brisk gusto: “See me, so old; see my reverence. And yours?” Or so I read the language of his body, as he trawled us through the rosary, a present purgatory to abbreviate a future one. My father knelt, which he never did at home, unwilling to be shamed by his uncle’s piety, or perhaps because he expected it was expected. A frown and downward tilt of his head suggested that I do likewise, which I did not, the embarrassment of conforming to this atypical sanctimoniousness being roughly equal to the embarrassment of refusing to.
“Holy Mary,” my father muttered, frowning grimly as he did under curious critical eyes, as he did whenever I was in the vicinity of a nun or a smiling gossip. And so it went on, sempiternal, Chinese water torture. Mosquitoes buzzed in the darkness; I wanted to itch. I wanted to bay. Though my grandmother, Josephine, sat primly in her rocking chair, gazing at her rosary beads, serious and contemplative as a Van Gogh woman, I wondered if she was enduring it as much as my father was, as much as I was, this flamboyant fervency imposed on us by Norman.
In the gathering darkness of the compound, dhoti-clad men, respectful of Norman’s communion with the Almighty, waited. They watched the gaunt man kneel, cruciform, his El Greco face taut. “Arre Baap. He must be ninety .”
How bland would pastures be without baa-baa black sheep, and boring cupboards without their skeleton.
“Someone.” Isn’t every one someone? Apparently not. And so the toxic small town quest to ensure you belong to “everybody who is anybody.”
An in, an in; he said he had an in. Everyone’s secret fear: that this is exactly how the world works, always an inner circle inner-er than your own; the kingdom, the power and the glory transmitted through loops closed to you. Mention my name, people say airily, perpetuating this impression, gaining free advertising. Norman knew someone who could swiftly procure passports, visas, jobs in the Gulf, literally Mecca to those who, though scornfully treated by arrogant Arabs, returned in airplanes uncomfortably overfull with food processors, color televisions and V.C.R.’s, having put money in their purse for neon houses, their children’s education, their own old age. “But hurry, hurry,” his friend had only twenty-one openings.
“Hurry,” a cautionary red hot poker–as the once-burned learn.
Shimmering hope. Documents signed without reading, a frenzy of borrowing, and other no-nos as they glimpse this beautiful shore on which one will be rich, and one will be glorious. Of course.
He got his twenty-one. Who, daily, weekly, waited outside the columned porticos of Palm Grove for news of their emigration. His mind filled with holy harmonies—Father, forgive them, he goes out to meet them, radiant, reproachful, a Lord of the manor to recalcitrant serfs. “O, ye of little faith.” Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. They wait, clutching hope. And how could one suspect that octogenarian?–a foot morphing to dust, gold-dusted with legitimacy: his lengthy prayers, his silver hair, and his “good family,” who in bank, boardroom, or monastery, serving God or serving mammon, rose to the top, through nature and nurture–their dominant spiritual gene (a genetic trait, I suspect) and “the three I’s: intelligence, integrity and industry,” Mangalorean virtues, the community told itself complacently.
I wouldn’t have suspected Norman. Neither did they, as they handed over borrowed money. The days became months, interest inexorably compounding, compounding. The would-be émigrés suspect; are smooth-talked, white-haired, blue-blooded out of their suspicions–furiously suspect–know. They visited his niece Eunice, a well-known plantation-owner, weeping: “How can God let this happen to us?” And, ‘What a disgrace,” my Aunt Eunice said with widened eyes. “One of them committed suicide.” A clerk in the electricity board who had handed over the small dowry accumulated during a quarter century of penny-saved-penny-gained, scrimping, shaving, saving, short-shrift thrift begun at the birth of his five daughters. How replace the nest-egg he’d gathered, painful paise by paise? How face beginning again? His body swung metronomically from a ceiling fan. Then, a copycat suicide. His nephews confront Norman. “What money?” he asks, the injured, sinned-against, his role played so long that he forgot it was a role. (The bare-faced liar, the red-handed thief are as insulted by accusation as the snowy-lily-handed.)
Norman warns against tormenting him because God has been for him, visiting strange calamities on previous persecutors. But ultimately, “I don’t have it.” He didn’t–still the simple rainment, starched white cotton shirt and pants; he still skipped off and on buses; ate abstemiously at his sister’s table. But where was the money? Good cop, bad cop, cajoling, threats. Private detectives. My very own Agatha Christie. I pumped, overheard, circuitously questioned, sat still as the proverbial owl: “The more he listened the more he knew, and oh, how wise that little owl grew.” He had donated the money to the local cloistered nuns whose prayers, behind high walls, rose like incense as they ceaselessly interceded for the sins of the world.
To the nuns. “A fool and his money are soon parted:” my father’s rueful lamentation when he spotted money in my purse (as inevitably as graffiti provoked the reflection, “The names of fools, like their faces, are often seen in public places.”) The nuns were not fools. “But how do you know the money he gave us was that money? And anyway, we have spent it.” Good cop, bad cop, threats, cajoling to retrieve blood-money from the treasury. When I left the country,Norman, then ninety-two, was with Barnum Bailey inventiveness, blood-sucking fresh suckers.
* * *
She sat in the sunlight streaming through the dining room window, a woman thinking; a study in chiaroscuro with her dark sarees and her fair-skinned, fine-featured, sunken face, her brother Norman invariably with her, the two old people remarkably alike, both inheriting their pale skin and pendulous ears from their Portuguese grandmother, from whom she had but one, odd, tangible legacy—a chamber pot brought from Portugal, her name painted on it, Donna Henrietta Maria Henderiquez.
As she heard me drag my feet, Granny called from the dim dining room where she sat all day, a frail wraith, her voice soft, and tremulous with age, “Anita, come; talk to me,”—uninvited-fairy incantation, petrifaction. I slouched into the dining room. Pale and stern, she pointed to a hard-backed chair near the rocking chair where she sat. “Sit there. Talk to me.” Say something! What to say? My mind froze. The sedge is wither’d from the lake, and no birds sing. “Tell me about your boarding school,” she said. But I could think of nothing about my boarding school. I sat there, rigor mortis on mind and tongue. After a decent but interminable interval, I escaped. How bright the air on the verandah was; my heart winged. “Pa, let’s play Scrabble. Let’s play Monopoly,” I panted, diving into the games with ferocious, self-forgetting capitalistic passion. “Noel spends his visit to me playing Monopoly with Anita,” his mother said.
My father said: “What do you mean you don’t know what to say? An intelligent person should be able to have an interesting conversation with almost anyone. If all else fails, ask questions.”
* * *
What is your earliest memory, Granny?
Standing in a mulberry field, overhearing a passerby say, “What a beautiful child!” “And that is how I knew I was beautiful.” The Fall, and so, celestial taxation–each blessing: beauty, wealth, great talent conceals some curse and hassle in its cracks (as curses reveal a silver thread of blessing). In an unabashedly fair-is-beautiful culture, Granny was married at seventeen to a man twice her age, as dark as she was “fair,” my grandfather, Dr. Piedade Felician Mathias, a self-made Icarian surgeon who through the combined effort of his entire family–and his own brilliance, sweat, resolve–went to medical school. During an uppity teenage phase, my father scolded, “Now, now, don’t get too snobbish. You don’t know my father’s family. One of them, (the one who put Piedade through medical school incidentally) was a tonga-wallah.” He gleefully claimed kinship with the butcher, an apocryphal one we hoped, the baker, the candlestick-maker, while we creased our faces in only partially exaggerated distress, crying, “Oh Pa, stoooop.”
Did you like your husband, Granny? I asked with curiosity which skirted rudeness as her simplicity perhaps skirted senility. “I never liked him,” she said, incredibly. “He had a very bad temper. I was always afraid of him,” an almost sacrilegious statement in India. The professed religions of India are deeply, stubbornly, divisive; not so its unvoiced, axiomatic ones: the reverence of wealth, the imperatives of success, hospitality, generosity and the benevolent religion of family which dictates, in one’s discourse, at least, a mawkish sentimentality towards your blood relatives, a pretence that, of course, they were perfect and, of course, you loved them.
Where did he work?
In the days when “the first” was offensively qualified by Indian, he was the first Indian Assistant Surgeon General in Madras; the first Indian Superintendent of the Stanley Medical College and Hospital, Royapuram, Madras, where he was also Professor of Surgery (and which still has a Dr. P.F. Mathias Ward). He’d capture my father for company during his long days on the Madras docks where he vetted interminable lines of indentured laborers who, out of desperate poverty and familial love, left India for British colonies, Trinidad, Singapore, Malaya, Burma, Ceylon, Uganda, Kenya—scenes, decades later, of Anti-Indian riots, unknowing sowing the vineyard of the grapes of wrath. The physicals were, perforce, perfunctory: Rasping, rattly lungs: TB; pull down the lower eyelid, too pale, too anemic; open your mouth, good teeth, good general health. And vice-versa. A scribe followed. A minute a man.
He received two imperial decorations, the Kaiser-i-Hind medal in 1921, and, at the Imperial Durbar in 1929, the O.B.E. Suddenly: How exactly does one tie a tie? And so, on the day before his day of glory, he went to his Portuguese Parish priest to learn. Lolling in the verandah, I’d read his O.B.E. citation mechanically, dreamily, “We George Fifth, King Emperor of Great Britain, North Ireland, and the British Dominions beyond the Seas, Defender of the Faith, to our Trusty and Well-beloved Piedade Felician Mathias, Greetings…” Or something to that effect.
What else do you remember?
He loved Scripture. After he successfully operated on a Brother of Saint Gabriel (the Order which ran Montfort, my father’s boarding school), the Superior visited him: “Oh, Dr. Mathias, he was invaluable to the Order; how can we thank you? You saved his life.” Piedade replied in the Latin of a thousand masses, Non nobis Domine, non nobis, sed nomini tuo da gloriam; “Not to us, O Lord, not to us; but to Thy name give the glory,” Psalm 115.
And he bled Scripture. A servant girl, recommended by the said Parish Priest, ran away with the gold jewelry which Granny (with a carelessness which sounds ruefully familiar) had left on her dressing table, and which represented Piedade’s life savings, gold being a “safe” investment, certain to appreciate as long as men mistake wives for trophies and women are vain. (In good times, your wife bedecks herself to general feminine envy, and nagging. In turbulent times–let’s not think about that.) Tell the priest, track her down? Siphon time from today’s work in a wild gold chase? Dr. Mathias shrugged sadly, quoting Job, The Lord gives, the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord, and went back to work, slowly replacing the trove, piece by piece.
However, wisdom and prudence became themes of his life, as were faith, hard work, success in his career and financially. He invested in land, which could only be lost in crooked courts, buying property with prescient shrewdness (one of those surprisingly uncommon people who could translate high IQ into hard cash) in the center of Mangalore, and in Cubbon Road, the posh heart of Bangalore, near the erstwhile Residency, now Raj Bhavan, the Governor’s residence; and the neo-Dravidian granite Vidhana Soudha, the state legislature, land that, like gold, was unlikely to depreciate, whatever the fate of the Bank of England. He died, at fifty-eight, intestate, leaving sufficient money for Josephine, a widow for fifty-three years; for college educations for his daughters (Jessie became one of community’s earliest “lady doctors”) as well as his sons; dowries for the girls; start-up funds for the boys; as well as farmland, rental properties, and sixty years of wrangling over them.
He worked God, and God, with mercy and amusement, allowed Himself to be worked. When his private practice dropped, he’d say, aggrieved, accusatory, “Josephine are you giving? Give. You are not giving; that is why I am not getting.” She did; people got sick; he bought land, houses, including her mother’s.
Imprinting. As a widow, on the first Monday of the month, Granny had her chair carried out to her palm grove, where—word spreading on the wings of the wind—there waited the blind, the halt, the merely poor. To each: a five rupee note, a smile. “Stop this,” remonstrated the son and grandson who had taken her in hand, agonized, as she extricated the staple from yet another wad of fresh fivers: “To you, and you, and you.” “If you have to give money away, give it to the parish priest to distribute. He’ll know the truly needy cases.” “No, no!” she said. “He’ll just give it to his own people. I’d rather give it to people I know.” “And how do you know these people are needy?” they asked. “If they weren’t, why would they come?” she retorted with sublime simplicity–and probably correctly.
Morris, the richest of her sons, indulgently sent her, each month, a few hundred rupees—to give away. “Give, Ma, give,” he urged, remembering his father’s powerful, paradoxical economy. “The more you give, the more we get.” She gave the gourmet cheeses and chocolates, (her favorite foods) that Morris sent her from Singapore to her live-in servant Leela’s fair, pretty little girl with whom in her old age, she—who had so coveted boys—fell in love. “The baby needs it more than I do,” she said, when her carers protested: “They probably don’t even like it.” And not just cholesterol. Realizing that sweet-natured Leela and that adorable toddler would be homeless after her death, reduced to rolling beedis all day (ubiquitous cheap microcigars, “the poor man’s cigarette”; Mangalore Ganesh is India’s largest brand) she promised them her ancestral house, Palm Grove. Non compos mentis, law suit, some daughters muttered darkly, suspecting she would leave her property to her bossiest son–as she did. If they’d heard of this! Leela stayed on at Palm Grove after Granny’s death, maintaining, despite the flourished will, “She gave me the house.” Threats, cajoling, reluctant refusals to police and goondas who appeared: “You want her out; leave it to us. It will be …” until the house was sold, the ayah still in it, lured out with some of the proceeds, “sharing the inheritance as one of the brothers.”
Did you want so many children, Granny? I asked, skidding on the slippery slope of personal questions. “No,” she said simply, Topsy-like. “I never wanted so many. I just had them.” A rare admission, particularly in a culture of gushing and glorying over children, and guilt-inducingly missing them.
Celestial economics, celestial medicine. In the days when amniocentesis must have sounded like a wish-fulfillment fantasy, my grandfather used prayer to select gender. At first, unsuccessfully. Eunice, Minnie, Jessie, Dora, Priscilla, five unwanted maids all in a row, each pregnancy commencing with “Pray. Pray for a boy,” and culminating with “Another girl! That’s because you did not pray hard enough,” and so they did, desperately, and then: eight pretty boys all in a row, the Mangalorean gold standard of blessing.
Fourteen children, pepper and salt, some fair like their mother (“I was pulled over for speeding in the States, and the cop wrote race: white”); others, dark-skinned, and–irritatingly unpolitically correctly—the lighter-skinned, my father among them, were mild, phlegmatic, scholarly, urbane, while, generally, the darker tended to be pugnacious, aggressive, tilting at the windmills of the business world, a little frightening.
Piedade and Josephine, at great expense, sent their children, to the Montfort School in Yercaud, run by Belgian Brothers, where they received a classical education: Latin, French, Shakespeare, poetry; the alumni became doctors, lawyers, judges, senior civil servants, especially after Independence. The parents’ intention: an alchemical transmutation into something like Macaulay’s conceited conceit of the brown-skinned gentlemen; a class of persons, Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. Again: initial disappointment. Josephine described her sons in her much-threatened, then much-quoted letter to the Brothers. “They blow into their coffee; they pour it into their saucers; they take a mile on each side of them. They are boors.”
The boors got the haircuts they deserved. Josephine, once a month, lined her fourteen pretty children all in a row, placed a mixing bowl on their heads, and cut their hair like a Gordian knot, shearing all erring curls. My father, her first-born son, faced a different Scylla: His mother could not bear to cut his Absalom ringlets, which curled below his shoulders, stroked by the old, pulled by the young. And so, in the kind of irony which must make God smile, the coveted boy looked girlish. His sisters recited their mother’s litany, with an undercurrent of bitterness beneath the mirth: “Eunice, Minnie, comb Noel’s hair; Eunice, Minnie, put on Noel’s shoes.” Even his forbidding father pampered him, buying him a pony called Paddy, and a donkey called Ned.
From her still point in front of the sunny dining room window, where she gazed at the sun-bright backyard pond (near which her three year old son, Charlie, had often lain mesmerized, watching the lotus bloom, and the bright carp flash, and where his drowned body was found, floating limp among the flowers) Granny cooked–in a manner of speaking. My mother, as a young bride experimenting with the recommended below-the-belt routes to a man’s heart, asked for the recipes my father wisted over. “Golden Syrup on toast,” he longed. “Treacle on toast.” “How do you make Golden Syrup?” she enquired. And where in India does one find a treacle well? Golden syrup, treacle were unavailable; India then sensibly banned imports of consumer goods to nurture its nascent industries (which sadly under iniquitous World Trade Organization rules it can no longer do, leading to suicides of farmers who cannot afford payments to Ricetec in America when they plant the newly patented Basmati.) “Golden Syrup? I boiled sugar in water, and fed it to those bounders when they returned ravenous from boarding school,” Granny replied. “I called it Golden Syrup, and they were happy.” Syrup rendered golden by boyhood’s unappeasable hunger, my father’s mythopoeic memory, and the magic of language! She would not be drawn into more talk of recipes. “I cook by instinct,” she said, a statement my mother mimicked in a hoity-toity, eyebrows-raised voice. And so she did, by instinct, memory, and remote control, summoning the cook, describing a Platonic curry, prescribing a recipe. The cook brought her a taste in a small stainless steel dish. “More salt, more coriander, a little grated coconut, let it thicken for another, oh…seven minutes” until imagination became curry, and appeared before us, and we tasted its glory.
In her household, one slid backwards in time. The water from the backyard well looked yellow, and tasted stale, contradicting the properties of water I’d learnt in chemistry: colorless, odorless, tasteless. Baths were a more fraught enterprise than switching on a geyser at home where the only admonition was “Don’t let it overheat, or it will explode. So-and-so died when their geyser exploded.” Here, double, double toil and trouble; fire burn, and cauldron bubble; you told Granny, who told the servant, who lit the nest of firewood beneath the smoldering copper cauldron, which fumed and hissed as you dipped your bronze urn, a chembu into it, as gingerly (particularly during power cuts) as if that smoke-blackened bathing room were Bluebeard’s den, careful not to topple the cauldron, or blister your hands on its sides. “The cauldron tipped on R.. Terrible scarring. Her parents will have to pay for plastic surgery or she’ll never get married.”
The coffee at breakfast was rich-sweet with golden-brown lumps of jaggery or gur, eschewed by my parents because of the occasional embedded straw or suspect pellets acquired from the dirt floor of country barns on which it had congealed. (My dreams of wealth and adulthood included all the gur I cared to eat). And with the coffee, Kube, cockles in a coconut and jaggery curry. Eating seashells, extricating elusive sea-worms from the lovely homes they hefted around—a moralist’s object lesson on the misery of possessions—was more trouble than it was worth, much like eating the marrow of mutton bones, “the best part,” the old ladies said, as they passed around their hairpins.
What are you reading, Granny?
For she always was: a biography of Francis Xavier… and each week, cover to cover, the international edition of Time magazine Morris sent her, her opinions on world politics incisive, decisive, shared as freely as her gnomic social maxims. “Don’t get a Ph.D. Nobody marries a woman better educated than they are. If you get a Ph. D., who will you find to marry you?” or “Family is more important than the boy. Don’t look at the boy so much as the family,” or, oddly, exactly what Mother Teresa said to me a decade later, “You can’t remain single; get married or become a nun.”
Once, as she sat reading…one of my mother’s most reproachful “your mother” reproaches. Sister Columba, my mother’s beloved eightyish great-aunt, affectionate, inoffensive, gentle, completely sweet, rattled across Mangalore in an uncomfortable “bone-shaker,” to see us. The tiny nun walked up the verandah stairs to my grandmother, whose house it, after all, was, arms outstretched, smiling with every evidence of delight, chirping in the over-accentuated, effusive, mellifluous Mangalorean style, in the high-pitched cooing intonations of socialese the world over, “Jose–phine, It’s An–niie. Do you remember me? We were classmates.” They had not met for seventy years.
My grandmother looked up, a shade contemptuously, “You’ve not come to see me. You’ve come to see Anita and Noel,” turned on her heel, marched in. Sister Columba’s small face puckered in hurt and bewilderment. She nervously clasped and unclasped her hands. When had she last encountered sheer rudeness? Perhaps never. “Poor thing,” my mother said, reliving the scene, growing, each time, more upset.
Since successful men married the youngest, prettiest bedfellows they could find, prodigious bearers of children, nurses in old age, widowhood was an inevitability universally acknowledged. My great-grandmother, Julianna, who bore six children in her brief years as a wife, was a widow for seventy-three years; Granny–widowed in her forties, her fourteenth child a newborn—for fifty-three. The pants, the bacon, it made one tough. If Granny had ever tolerated foolishness, that foolishness had long been leached out. A rusty old spade was a spade, and–in a culture which valued courtesy, sweetness, graciousness, excellent traits in women–she, though gentle of face and voice, refused to call it a silver spoon or a golden rule.
When I fought with my mother, my father shook his head. “I would never have dared to speak to my mother like that,” he said. “If she gave me an order even today, I would obey her. One night she punished my bother, Michael at dinner by making him kneel on the dining table. When she came down to breakfast the next morning, having quite forgotten about Michael, there he was, asleep, swaying on his knees.”
* * *
At last, Christmas. Open air Midnight Mass. Gloria in Excelsius Deo resounded full-bodied from thousands of silk-saried women, and smart-suited men. I shivered. Traditional post-midnight Mass sweet homemade wine. My father’s sisters arrived the next day, with potato chops and lamb cutlets freshly prepared by their cooks for their mother. And with small gifts for me. “She prayed for good Christmas presents last night,” my father laughed, while I hissed “Pa,” as embarrassed as his richest sister, who gave me a single chocolate bar, a serendipitously gold-foil-wrapped Five Star, a pink ribbon tied around it. I innocently and sententiously mused, a little later, recycling a just-heard epigram, “The world is divided into givers and takers.” “I’m a giver,” she said swiftly. Afterwards, my father chuckled later, “Fitzgerald said, ‘The rich are the rich because they spend less money.’ ”
A sacrosanct tradition probably borrowed from the Portuguese: visiting all one’s friends and family in the twelve days, before the sixth of January, the Feast of the Epiphany, The Visit of the Magi to Bethlehem, the official end of the season. Nuns first: my great-grandmother Alice Rebello’s siblings, Sister Columba at the Apostolic Carmel, a mainly Mangalorean teaching order; Sister Marie Agnes at the Cloistered Carmel; and the eldest, Sister Marie Therese at the Home of the Little Sisters of the Poor, at whose growing decrepitude my father was, each year, appalled. “She looked terrible–wizened,” he’d report. “Those nuns don’t look after her. All her teeth have fallen out, and they haven’t got her dentures. How can she eat meat?” His mother, and the old ladies who sat with her in the evenings, listened–with prurient avidity, the arena of competition shifted from beauty-spouse-wealth-success, to one’s childrens’ plummy college- spouse-job, to “the one who dies last wins”—and in the rapid-fire questions and veneer-thin concern with which one ancient enquires about another’s detached retina, open heart surgery, deafness, diabetes, aneurysms, you hear a note of schadenfreude (why doesn’t English have a word for it?); pride–“I’ve escaped;” and fear–“for now.”
Sister Marie Therese escorted us around the wards and grounds, Virgilianly, as if we were visitors from a sun-bright world, pointing out, thumb-nail sketching the inmates–old, sick, destitute or disabled. My smile, expected, felt as awkward as I did. And then, dreaded Pew, the blind man, the Sisters of Charity’s living sermon. He sat on the floor in shorts, spindly legs crossed. “Sing, Joseph,” they told him, “Sing.” He sang in a high-pitched, nasal, slightly cracked voice, the pupils of his eyes rolling, his head tilted at an unnatural angle: When upon life’s billows you are tempest-tossed,/ When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,/ Count your blessings; count them one by one/ And it will surprise you what the good Lord has done./ Count your blessings…
I knew I was expected to think, and, slightly irritated, I thought it: “Look at this poor blind man counting his blessings, though he has so few. And how much more should I…?
And then, customary culmination: my father took out his checkbook. The Superior was summoned. Christmas-eve electricity. The nuns surrounded us, beaming at me, as if the benefaction bestowed swan-feathers, a gilding, absolution.
“How much, Pa?” I asked on our way home. “Two hundred rupees.” “Pa! Two hundred rupees. And Ma said I couldn’t have those high-heeled mirror-worked, embroidered Rajasthani sandals.” My sister’s pair were her most treasured possession; her first words, as she came out of anesthesia after eye surgery at ten, were, “Where are my sandals?” “Be quiet, Anita,” he said. “You don’t need high-heeled mirror-worked, embroidered Rajasthani sandals. Didn’t you hear Granny tell us how Grandpa shared especially when he needed money. Don’t you read the Sermon on the Mount? It’s a promise. ‘Give and you shall receive, full measure, pressed down, flowing over, for the measure you give is the measure you receive.’ ”
Measure for Measure. “Acting on that really takes faith,” I thought. “Okay,” I said, “Okay.” Though I still wanted the high-heeled shoes.
My great-aunt, Sister Mary Agnes was the (first Indian) prioress of the Cloistered Carmel Convent, whose nuns, cloistered for life, bound by vows of silence, knew most of what went on upstairs and downstairs and in my lady’s chamber in all the houses of the town, from the least to the greatest. The town could, of course, pray for itself; professionals were inessential; however, the wise realized that the work of prayer was more exacting, more wrenching than mere work. So, supported by honey brought by worker bees to the heart of the heart of the hive, the nuns lived as birds, bees and lilies do, on faith, hope and love, a economy which works for those with the guts for it. And the town was unusually prosperous: many successful citizens, its families close-knit, generous with loans, jobs and shelter to their weaker members–so those hidden bees probably did produce palpable sweetness.
They had prayed with and for my parents though their seven year struggle to conceive; through the birth of a son, that greatest blessing, through his death three days later, and my birth a year after that. I was “the child of their prayers,” and as tidings of my visit swished through silent corridors, a collage of brown-swathed faces formed around the grille. Sister Gabrielle, a jolly, fat French nun whose particular prayer project I was, corresponded with me in idiosyncratic Franglish for years. “Sister pray, I’m dieting. Again.” “I will, but promenade.” In my soulful phases, I replied with soulful musings, which were the truth, nothing but the truth–I was God-fearing–but not, alas, the whole truth. I read her reply in flourishes and capitals to my father, “You are the Pearl of the Orient,” then regretted that spot of showing off when he irritatingly, persistently, dubbed me Pearly.
The Cloistered Carmel was the repository of the town’s secrets and I, unworthily, satisfied my idle curiosity once I learnt the cryptology of the face: the quizzical glance, the faint ironic smile with the double-underlining of names and phrases, a language of intonation and implication common to religious people. “Pray for X; he really needs your prayers.” And why prithee? And when you bared your soul, if you could think the unthinkable: that you might not be more special and beloved than all the other sad, striving, desperate “Sister pray for me’s,” you might reluctantly make an inference. The portress alone had relatively untrammeled access to the outer world. (My aunt, joined the Cloistered Carmel in 1903, aged eighteen. When she attended a Convention of Cloistered Carmel Prioresses in 1954, she rode in a car to the train, neither of which she’d seen before!) In my last visit before I left India, the portress, in a startling reversal, startled me with her whispered advice, “Never marry a foreigner; they are like dogs running after a hundred bitches”–the wild west of nunnish fantasy.
We visited my grandmother Josephine’s brother, Jerome Lobo, a hardy, burly, bearded Jesuit in his eighties, Professor of Latin at St. Aloysius, who had just visited Saint Francis Xavier in Goa, traveling third class, sleeping on a hard wooden bunk (whereas I…a raised eyebrow, an unfinished sentence, a morality tale pregnant with unspoken meaning). Their sister Catherine, now Mother Ambrose, a Good Shepherd nun, had blood-boiling accounts of the indignities of inter-racial convents. The white nuns made the Indian nuns wear different habits, sit in a different section of the chapel, undertake the menial chores, the kitchen, the laundry, much like lay brothers in medieval monasteries. I think of The Last Battle, Lewis’s final chilling Narnia novel, about the exploitation and suffering inflicted by those who claim to speak for Aslan, on the trusting ones who love Aslan, and so endure them for his dear sake.
* * *
My aunt Eunice, grandest of the town’s grand old ladies, was nicknamed the Grand-Duchess in my Uncle Sonny’s irreverent trinity (with my grandmother, the Empress, and Aunt Minnie, the Duchess). Her face, a mask of hauteur, tight pursed lips, eyebrows and nostrils raised in habitual disdain, resembled that a severe ruffed Old Master Renaissance Queen, 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, however, in its insidious way, came with a catch: a familiar one–the Indian cliché, the villainous mother-in-law. The whisper: “The horror always lived with them. Eunice never had a proper married life.” “The 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 Eunice will have a happy married life.” “It was the matchmaker who died!” my father said. “Never count on anyone dying. Those on the verge of death linger there, coddling themselves, being coddled, while the apparently healthy drop dead in an instant.”
From the egg of inherited coffee estates, Eunice’s only son created gaggles of golden geese—canning and exporting the goodness of the seas around Mangalore, crab, shrimp, lobster, oysters; buying factories, and slowly 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, Eunice 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 Eunice 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, antique welder of incalculable power; the older lady with hers: tears, guilt, accusation, and the subliminal glue of primeval bonding and long obedience.
We have it on the highest authority that the meek, (the daughters-in-law), will eventually, temporarily, inherit the earth. A jokey anecdote, true in spirit, at least. The evil mother-in-law serves herself and her son boiled white rice, giving the daughter-in-law the kunji, strained water. The mother and son look sickly, while the daughter-in-law perversely thrived, 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; the world lay before me as various, as beautiful, as new as a longed-for, unread book; and I navigated it by the golden light of fiction, constantly seeking correspondences between books and life, life and books, seeing, for instance, 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 Deane and my own aunts, while identifying with Maggie, passionate, harum-scarum, odd and square in a too small, too round duck pond.
Then to my funny, warm aunt, Minnie and her husband, Laurie (one of those couples one suspects of a diet convenient as the Sprats). Laurie, 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 Minnie 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 wore Minnie’s dress and rung the front door bell?” Laurie asked. My father, who graduated from college in 1937 during the Great Depression, lodged with Minnie in Delhi, while working his first job, clerical, ill-paid—but a job.
And Minnie 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 Laurie fell asleep, then throw a wooden cotton reel at the fan.”’
“And Laurie would wake with a jerk, his arms and legs 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.”
In a family in which post-name letters were a minimum requirement–my grandfather, 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; and siblings with an M.D. or Ph.D.–Minnie gaily presented her credentials, J.C.F., Junior Cambridge Failed. She had sobbed for her mother in boarding school until she was allowed to leave.
After Laurie died, Aunt Minnie suddenly became the lachrymose aunt, bursting into tears at the thought of Laurie, and she thought of him often. Bereavement: horrid cocktail of guilt, grief, loneliness, perennial pain from a phantom limb. Then, archeology. “Poor Minnie, 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 StanleyMedical College–died of sunstroke while swimming, Minnie took the call,” Aunt Eunice said. “When Dora’s—she had eyes like yours, Anita—stiletto heels got stuck in the tram tracks in Madras, and she was crushed by the tram, Minnie was with her.”
My father’s youngest sister, Juno, a school-teacher with a homely pleasant face, and salt-and-pepper hair straying from a 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 whirls and curls from the round-the-clock cigarettes she smoked, and let us puff, so that, mostly, our first acrid, choking 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.
Juno’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 were moved to comment, food, a subject on which she, customarily phlegmatic, was touchy.
In a family in which women run to fat, Juno was haggard. Incredibly, she had once shared the family likeness. Her brash Jesuit brother, Theo, returned from seminary at Louvain in Belgium to see her playing tennis in shorts. “Juno!” he cried. “You look like a fat Chettiah women!” She stopped eating until this was not the case. With raised eyebrows, the aunts told the story in unison, in a rhythmic, emphatic chorus. “No rice. No sugar. No fruit juice. 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 so worried about her.”
* * *
Appolina, Celine, Anita, Tara. Mangalorean names continually changed. Once Portuguese: My great-grandparents were Ligouri and Appolina Coelho, Jao Lobo, Salvador Mathias. Babies were, unimaginatively, given the name of the Parish Priest or the saint of the day–no matter how outlandish or otherworldly; we had a friend called Tarasius! With the British Empire entrenched, Portuguese names faded, giving place to starched Victorian ones. My father’s siblings include Ethel, Winifred, Priscilla, and Theophane Archibald, revelation of God, (who became a Jesuit, destiny somehow encoded in his name), while he, born on the second of January, a Christmas baby who never was, is Noel. Fanciful raids on Shakespeare, Chaucer, Coleridge, and Greek mythology yielded Claudius, Ophelia, Griselda, Christabel, Sybil and Nereus, the old man of the sea. A set of war siblings were, impartially, named Adolph (Dolphie), Winston and Joseph, hedging bets. Some played a single string, Oswald, Oscar, Orville, Odile Domingo; or Denise, Danny, Diane, Douggie, Denzil, and David, children of Dougie and Daphne Diaz. Or rhymed: the triplets, Asha, Isha, Usha; or the Pintos, Gilbert, Albert, Humbert, Cuthbert, Egbert and Norbert. A Mathias family named children alphabetically, like hurricanes, reluctantly stopping at Quentin, their seventeenth.
Those were the days of prodigious families, mothers and children pregnant together, nephews older than uncles. My father’s neighbors, the P.G. D’Souzas (“the Blind Pig”) had seventeen children, interchangeable with the fourteen Mathiases. Spotting my uncle Joe at her dining table, Mrs. D’Souza said vaguely, “Joe! you must come and stay with us some time.” “I’ve been here for the last three days,” he said. Neither mother had noticed!
In independent India, Anglicized names, Melroy, Gertrude, were passé. “What graveyard names!” my father groaned when he heard them. Under Hindu hegemony, many discovered ancestral memories of being Brahmin before their conversion half a millennium ago, and adopted old Brahminical surnames, so that a Mangalorean Kamath or Prabhu, say, probably indicates a Catholic. (Oddly, an extraordinary number of Catholic families claim descent from Tippu Sultan, the last ruler of the princely state of Mysore, progeny of “hanky-panky” in barns when he fled from the British.) Hindu first names or nicknames were in. My sister and cousins are Shalini, Nirmala, Ashok, Malati, Premila, though each has a nickname, originating in parental endearments, so the inner circle would knew that Popsy was Premila; Chicky was Malati; Chippy, “a chip off the old block,” was Michael like his father, and Veronica was Buddie (old woman), her father Sonny’s teasing nick-name when she was a gawky gap-toothed six year old, ossified longer than baby teeth. Now, in the emigration generation, children mostly have “international names,” Indian, but transcultural: Tara, Rohan, Sheila, Maya, Natasha, Anita, and, thanks to the Waste Land, Shanti.
So we visited all the family and friends, loved or hated, with whom we were on speaking terms, arriving unannounced, like the Magi–as was considered good manners: calling ahead would put the onus of preparation on the unoffending host, whereas if you just showed up, you took their manger or mansion as you found it. And like the Magi, we brought gifts–not frankincense, gold and myrrh, but halwa, pedas, and burfis. Someone was sure to be in. The people we visited lived on milk and honey, golden syrup and treacle, from stocks, factories, or the ancestral terraced plantations of cashew-nuts, pepper and coffee in the green hills around Mangalore on which the fortunes of several “old families” were built. All morning, all evening, we ate neurios, little coconut-stuffed pasties; chacklees, spicy gram flour deep-fried in bristly snail spirals; parthecums, spicy banana chips; kulkuls, fried sugary dough rolled into shells on the back of a comb, and Christmas fruit cake with marzipan icing, as we sat opposite plastic trees, sparkly with glittering neon orbs, wreathed with popcorn or cotton wool snow, celebrating the weather of England rather than Bethlehem.
And we talked of many things. Of blue chips, prices, politics, people, a great continuing Ring. Rhinegold: “Your uncle Morris is Director of United Breweries International, Singapore now. Did you see the newspaper article about how that secretive Lee Kuan Yew sends him on private missions to Bombay?” Valkyries: “Your friend Faye, I remember when her mother eloped with that Protestant, a Soames, with only the clothes she had on. I had to give her even my blouses and petticoats.” And in a conventionally lowered voice. “Your cousin Bernice’s youngest boy; he doesn’t resemble Hubert at all, have you noticed?” “Yes.” “Her lover’s from a former princely family, she says. And poor Hubert’s off in the god-forsaken northeast.”
But, mostly, Gotterdamerung, crepuscular death, decay, doom. “I saw Debby, even weirder.” “Debby?” “Debby C.—who married her first cousin, and had a breakdown on her honeymoon in Europe, after which she lived secluded on the family coffee estate, to which he occasionally returned to get her, once more, pregnant, while she grew stranger, dreamier.” “Benita miscarried. So sad, her mother-in-law forced her to scrub the bathroom floors while she was pregnant.” “S. has never recovered from his wife’s death. On their honeymoon! Stepped into the elevator, expecting to find it there; fell into the shaft, broke her neck.” “The Fathers have taken that drunken Willie in hand. Imagine, he beat up his sister, after she gave Anita those old classics.” “Francis Xavier just had a heart attack.” “Oh no! I’ll never forget how he passed out at his daughter’s grand engagement party–you know to that jerk from the US who dumped her. ‘Sugar,’ he called– he’s diabetic–and poured it into his mouth, straight from the bowl.” “You know that druggie, Angelo. Goes to an ashram, declares himself a vegetarian, sits on his bed in some sort of trance; when he visited his aunt, Margie, she, poor thing, took a plate of kichdi to him with just the tiniest bit of meat. He flung it on the floor, then continued staring at her with fixed, glassy eyes.”
All this, good news, bad news, just news in English. Konkani–a hybrid of Portuguese and Marathi only spoken in Mangalore and Goa–is the nominal mother -tongue I neither speak nor understand; neither does my father. Since the nineteenth century, Catholic schools and universities have taught only in English. Their products—everyone we visited–spoke it as, or almost as, a first language.
“I’ll never retire in Mangalore,” my father said. “A sneeze at one end of the town is analyzed at the other.” We visited my mother’s aunt, Rosie Coelho (who seemed too good to be true, though she was true), smiling broadly with genuine sweetness, a woman in whom it was impossible to imagine guile or malice; benevolent, generous, gift-exchanging, to our embarrassment, the little box of sweets we gave her with a big basket of mangoes from her garden. And then, Mangalore is bright, benign Hobbiton.
But, many a time in the age of innocence, I naively, idiotically, walked into the sticky, tricky parlor of a Black Widow, who even into her eighties, smiles and smiles and giggles girlishly, exuding sympathy and charm, offering appetizers with the “you know…” assumption of shared wisdom and virtue, sucking all of interest about you, about everyone you know, to then villainously disseminate relationship-wrecking rumors; who combats the loss of status, interestingness and power that age and widowhood bring by weaving a web of whispers and malignant lies, whom people placate lest they become her next meal–futile–for it is the nature of black widows to bite, except, sometimes, some of their children. Bitter? Bitten. For when I hear my blithe words bloodied, mangled, regurgitated almost unrecognizably from another black widow in her treacly web, I feel that I am in the land of Mordor where the shadows lie, and that small town was no Shire, but the old sow that eats its farrow, whose claustrophobia I must escape to live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life!
Rosie’s daughter, Martha, her grin wide, ingenuous, emerged in a housecoat, the Mangalorean woman’s unbecoming at-home garb. She, toothless and wrinkled, didn’t look much younger than her mother; like a baby or a saint, she was, without artifice, entirely herself. Ecstatic, electrifying gossip about Martha abounded; in fact, she told it herself.
“Ah Baa (Konkani for dearie). I can tell how shocked you are at how I look. I will not lie to you, Baa. It’s because of my diet. I have beer for breakfast everyday, and Mummy sends for a little” (thumb and forefinger in a square bracket sign) “whiskey for lunch and rum for dinner. But no more than that.”
“But if I don’t have that, I feel sick.” Martha’s sweet-faced Mummy stood by, like a statue of acceptant love, smiling a somewhat absent smile, as if she hadn’t really heard what was being said, wasn’t entirely there. My father and I listened, amazed; Martha, improbably, was the first cousin of my mother, whose most frequent expression, like that of her family’s, was WWPT, “What will people think?”
Virginia Woolf, imagining the ignominy and madness that would have befallen Shakespeare’s sister had she written, postulated, “Whenever we see a witch or a mad woman or a suicide, we see a thwarted poet.” Martha muttered in her sleep in rhythm and rhyme. She got into a lawsuit with the Bishop who’d asked her to leave the house she rented from him; sheltering behind tenant-protection laws, she refused. She wrote to his minion in doggerel: “Father Digby is a knave and goon; Father Digby has sealed his doom.” “I wanted to write an anonymous letter, baa, but then–I signed it.” Hired ruffians appeared, the usual way recalcitrant renters are evicted. “Baa, the walls were splattered with my blood. I lost all my front teeth.”
The witch that came (the withered hag)/ Was once the beauty Abhishag… Her cousins told us Martha’s story with a kind of rage. She was, ominously, the best-natured of the cousins, honest, childlike, full of joie de vivre. Marie, smart, cheeky and charming as a young woman, had been the favorite of her father, my grandfather’s brother, Dr. Coelho, Professor of Dermatology, revered, decorated, and famous for treating lepers for free. (He had left instructions for the most spartan of funerals to avoid that guilty one-upmanship with baked meats that sometimes plunges a grieving family into penury and debt—thus giving people “permission” to go and do likewise. “If Dr. Coelho’s family could…”). When she was young, married, well-connected, and Cabinet Ministers, even the Chief Minister of Karnataka, came to her parties, nuns and priests crowded her. “Come with us to the Chief Minister, Martha,” they said. “Come to the Housing Minister. We have a request.” She went. As an honored guest, she was served alcohol—which (in common with many Mangaloreans) was her Achille’s-heel, Siegfried’s linden-leaf weakness. She drank–to be dropped as her beauty vanished and her marriage, her money and connections, everything but her mother. No memory of having starred/ Can atone for later disregard/ Or keep the end from being hard.
“I’d glad you behaved,” my father grinned. “Aunt Rosie’s sister, Dotty, was there.” How young men and women giggled about the community’s match-maker, plump, comfortable, uncomfortably named Dotty, and her little red Domesday Book, with vital stats about every Mangalorean girl or boy, who was anyone (giggled until they needed her services). Then parental whispers in corners, and gnomic Delphic utterances: “Tell her to lose weight.” “Tell him to get a green card.”
Dottie did not charge–“It gives me something to do; I like to help”–but, at weddings, she was a guest of honor, the bride’s family gave her costly silk Kanjeeveram sarees, and…oh, nothing was too much before the couple who stood before the altar, beaming at each other with tenderness and wild hope, fully prepared to live happily ever after (which, surprisingly often, they did) rode off into the sunset with pleased punchy Cheshire cat smiles, as if it had all been their idea.
The dragon-guarded strait path to golden bliss: so much depended on sheer luck. Two small town sisters or cousins: one might marry a successful physician or entrepreneur, in the U.S., say, and file among the world’s spiffiest tax returns; her kids are successful; the other’s spouse stays put, never realizes his ambitions, loses his small job, his health, drinks, drifts. And whose fault was that? “Behind, beneath, every successful man…”
Tricky algebraic negotiations, seeking equilibrium between the ideal child-in-law and a realistically achievable one. Generations of family laundry, clean, dirty, lingered in communal memory; stalagmites of reputation grew from birth. Serpentine whispers doom: “His mother drinks.” “A little…” a discreet tapping of the temples. Drunkenness, retardation, instability, insanity, were genetic, everyone knew; let the chattering classes chatter about heredity and environment; nature and nurture; Edwards and Jukes. Desiderata: in a boy, good family, money, a upwardly mobile career, “a sweet boy.” In a girl: family, money, then, in that order, fairness and beauty; sundry accomplishments; “very sweet.” Those with the greatest sum total of these married their counterparts. Which is probably what would have happened, though less scientifically, had the young people had been left to their own devices.
Dowry, receiving it, giving it, was banned by the Indian Supreme Court in 1961; sure! “The boy’s family had all the expense of educating the boy; he’ll look after the girl. Why shouldn’t the girl’s family contribute?” “But the girl’s educated too!”
A snort, a shrug. That’s the way things are.
No fixed figure. While Ms. Plain-Jane’s parents might, as she neared the last-chance late twenties, in desperation offer a farm, in the seventies, it was generally some or all of the “4 F’s”, phone, fridge, Fiat, flat (now videophones, medical clinics, resorts) jewelry and money, an invisible price tag that was somehow became known, sometimes blatantly: my father told of a jeep ride through estates with a bride-seeking brother, “this will be yours, and this.”
However, “the marriage market” was a human transaction, not a sheer matter of the stock market, stock-breeding, and so the best stocked apple-carts of mother-in-laws and matchmakers gang oft agley. An infatuation with a long-lashed Adonis or with a girl’s beauty or bubbliness, might prevail despite the best advice. A double standard: as is universally true, plainness, or downright ugliness was far more of a handicap for a woman. Our friends sent their daughter Odette to the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford to have her harelip corrected before she entered the marriage market. Her father, escorting her, had the surgery at the same time, though his had never mattered; he was an engineer. Here, as everywhere, a woman whose face was her fortune married “better” than her class or accomplishments might warrant, and a rich woman did better than if her face had been her fortune. A few, as I did myself, side-stepped the whole thing and had “love marriages.” And “He was caught,” everyone says bitterly.
Unlike Hindus who seek their true love through the Via Galactea, horoscopes, classified ads, grapevines through an entire state, an entire nation, Mangalorean Catholics have pretty much married Mangalorean Catholics, local or diasporic, since they were converted in the early sixteenth century, and, what’s more, pretty much married within their own snobbily defined class (often their own cousins) within which any two individuals, my husband and I, say, can trace multiple relationships. This carefully engineered eugenic mating over centuries, artificial selection in Darwin’s terms, has, as intended, disproportionately strengthened desired traits: the coveted lighter skin and good features; intelligence; the ingenuity, doggedness, flair, or whatever, that produces wealth.
And the accidental, inevitable consequence: a community in which “the mad woman in the attic” is not a mere literary stock character. “Look up discreetly,” my father murmured as we passed the mansion of an old, wealthy, respected family. “Who was that Pa? She wasn’t wearing….?
“Ssh. M.’s daughter, Margaret. She never mentions her daughter. Neither does anyone else. Though everyone knows. She keeps her locked up, though sometimes she gets to the window and…you saw.”
Outwardly, the moonlight slept sweet upon the bank, and in the soft stillness and night, there was sweet harmony. Outwardly. But often, a missing child, even in the snootiest families, insane like Margaret (whose mother, cutting flowers, alerted by the gaping of passersby, ran upstairs to apprehend her); mildly retarded, or multiply disabled, called “spastic” euphemistically, the fruit of genes bruised by five hundred years of a small, much-pooled gene pool, attributed to birth traumas. Siblings need to get married.
Almost every old inbred Mangalorean family, nervous, genteel, had their Peter Pan, called Baba or Baby into middle age, for whom the twentieth century proved too much; a coddled son or daughter, once of great promise, the community’s pride, who, unwilling or unable to grab the trophy spouse, the trophies, still, in a chronic dazed breakdown, lived with Mummy in the bomb shelter of the family home they would eventually inherit. There were, here as elsewhere, sad spinsters and wistful bachelors who somehow missed “two for joy,” and square pegs who slipped through cracked round holes, whose petrifying Medusa reflection parents and “well-wishers” brandished in a burnished shield before the rare eccentric. Beware. Beware.
I too have seen some of the best minds of my generation destroyed. Angelo, my cousin, famous among the nuns and priests of India, guinea-pigged by many Orders, subjected to every quack and craze, Charismatic healer, yogi, positive thinker, transaction analyst; to Gestalt, psychiatry, psychotherapy, inner healing. One misstep, a state chess champion, a proclaimed genius, as the promising young often are; achieving the highest aggregate in the State school-leaving exams, but failing in Hindi, which meant a re-take, which never happened; instead, drugs, theosophy, a fling at being a rishi in an ashram, the occult; deep open-eyed trances; some swore he levitated. He looked like Death-in-Life, like one possessed, as he stared out of terrible, blighted eyes, hearing hissing Erinyes as the plagues piled up, his mind’s circuits slowly blowing, frustration, violence, institutionalization, suicide.
And, in Jamshedpur, the gentle, mop-topped androgynous Mangalorian, Osbert, on whom every girl had a crush, long-fringed, long-haired, long-lashed like Paul McCartney, like the Beatles, who he sang, twangy-voiced, strumming on his guitar, who went to England on a Commonwealth scholarship (where, adding to his small town fame, he met the Duke of Edinburgh), who dabbled with drugs (for the impressionable: Beatles, drugs, rock and roll were all one, while the cannier adopted the music, the hair-cuts, the batik, the cool until they took their place among the elders at the city gates). Drugs, adulterated?, excessive, which whispered words of wisdom, let it be, let it be, destroyed his mind, his fiber; now, study, work, a steadyjob: pipe dreams. So like others kept afloat by their parents’ guilty broken hearts, he vanished behind his newspaper, lived with them until they died, their ironic silver lining, his immense good nature still evident on his blighted lost boy face, whose fine features had grown flabby, for, eventually, character tells its tale. Once orphaned, he floated around town, a middle-aged wraith, chain-smoking, chain-drinking tea in grimy dhabas, finally growing so disheveled, shaggy, unwashed, sun-scorched, that, when he tried to visit my parents, the guard would not let him past the gate. Another sixties refrain: Joan Baez, And there but for fortune, go you or I, mmm, mmm.
* * *
Once again, my father pointed out the abandoned, “haunted” house of his friend and fellow altar-boy Noel Davis, whose sister Jessie was “possessed.” Between the Kyrie and the Sanctus, he’d whisper, “Noel, does this happen in your house? It’s terrible! At night, winds blow though our house. Stones fall. Little chalices rain down.” When the Portuguese Parish priest went to exorcize Jessie, my father overheard his father snort, “He can’t cast out demons. He’s too fat. You have to be able to fast to do that.”
In Mangalore: tales of illness and ill-fortune dogging families who finally found a lock of hair or a crude carved likeness buried in the foundations. Black magic, voodoo, curses, if they worked, then there must be a devil, and if a devil, then, probably, a God, for a devil could not have made a world so fair. I thought nostalgically of the velvety purple Himalayan iris, its calligraphic feathery veins, deep yellow flaming at its heart. Of walking (perforce) to early Morning mass at school, while Angelus bells sang through a misty Himalayan sunrise, in a world turned snow-white, frost icing the fir trees, its crystals like tiny spiky forests.
Reunited after a month, my sister and I compared notes. We were then the only Coelho grandchildren, but just another two among the twenty-seven Mathias cousins. While my Christmas Eve prayers for good presents fell on rocky soil, producing twenty-five rupees from my grandmother to split with my sister and that Five Star bar, the trade winds of family love wafted Shalini toys and cash, clothes and candy. To forestall inevitable tears, my father, each Christmas in Mangalore, flashed a Learian promise, “Ask for whatever you want, and I’ll give it to you.” “Four slabs of Cadbury’s chocolate, four Agatha Christies, and a Monopoly set!” I stipulated, and got them–and then, as if to counteract the spoils and spoiling ofBombay, he forgot to get my sister a present. “But look what Pa gave me!” I said, gazing sadly at her presents. “What did Pa give you?” She cried; my mother glared at him, and dispatched him to get her a present, but since we already had Monopoly, he got her a cheaper Indian version, Trade, with Bombay properties, Nepean Sea Drive, Malabar Hill and Juhu Beach, rather than Fleet Street, Chelsea, and the Strand. “I got Monopoly; you got Trade.”
Chugga Chugga, choo choo. Re-reading The Mill on the Floss on the train home to Jamshedpur. Maggie transcends her impoverished, narrow life by turning her vision upward and outward; seeks, instinctively as a sunflower, the sunshine, the showers of another Presence to drench her world in beauty; listens to a quiet inner voice that brings companionship, comfort and constant guidance to the days that must be lived and the tedium of their tasks–which in this light-change now seem something rich and strange.
It would be nice, like Maggie, to know that which turns bitter waters sweet, to step through the door of faith into a secret sunlit garden, fragrance with roses, where birds sing, butterflies float, and dragonflies shimmer on iridescent wings. If such a God-bathed world existed.
“Go to sleep.” “I can’t.” “Father Jerome at eighty went to Goa third class to see Francis Xavier — sleeping on a hard bunk without a complaint.” Francis Xavier. I had not seen him in the end. Not seen miracles. So I still didn’t know. If there was a God, then magic was possible, I thought sleepily, anything was possible. Leaping over thorns, bounding over briars, one might come, his kiss awakening me from boredom. The Rider on the white horse who is called Faithful and True.