The latch on the green steel front gates clanged, heralding a visitor; and we children and the dog ran to the verandah to check them out; and the cook or ayah ran to open the gate for the car; and my mother ran in to change out of her “house-coat,” a buttoned dressing gown which most Mangalorean housewives wore all day, into a saree.
Visits were unannounced. To say you were coming was considered rude. The host would then be expected to stay home, and provide respectfully nice snacks for you to eat, whereas if you just showed up, you would be served a tray of delicious food which the hostess would present, apologetically, as if she had just rustled it up.
Most upper-class women did not work. “Our wives don’t work,” my father said flatly, when I inhaled feminism, and insisted that my mother (and we) would be happier if she had a job. For a woman to work implied that her husband had failed, and could not adequately provide for his family–so my father and his brothers believed.
Domestic help was available and affordable; our three servants for a family of four, was lavish, though not terribly unusual. So women had time for sociability and gossip. On an impulse, housework supervised, they jumped into the car, with their children in the mornings, or their husband and children in the evenings, to see who was in. If their friend was engaged on a similar errand, they tried another house, and another. There was no television in Jamshedpur. People were the entertainment.
If we were bored, or liked the visitor, my sister and I sat in the living room during the visit, reducing the women to sharing information in a code of widened or rolled eyes; innuendoes; “you know who’s”, and “You know how so-and-so is…” (and if one did not know before, now, of course, one did). My sister and I listened with heightened attention—our first stories, first introductions to the adult world.
“I sat behind her in church,” Lulu said, “and poor thing, poor thing, you could see dirt behind her ears!” “Who?” I asked. “Nobody,” both ladies said, hastily and improbably.
* * *
The latch clanged. My mother darted in for lipstick, saying, “Oh I do hope it’s not Mrs. Domingo,” a plump, kindly, good-natured woman, my mother’s best friend. “She stays forever.”
Well, well, guess who it was?
My mother emerged smiling, fresh lipstick, fresh saree. “Oh Marie Domingo!” she said, “How lovely to see you. I was hoping it was you.”
In Catechism class, Sister Laeticia explained the difference between mortal and venial sins. “White lies” were venial sins, harmless (as opposed to “black lies,” I suppose).
I raised my eyes from Sister Laeticia’s hands, swollen, empurpled, clawed and misshapen with rheumatoid arthritis.
“When my mother says, “I hope it’s not Mrs Domingo,” and then says, “ Oh Marie, how lovely to see you,” is that a white lie?” I asked, still shocked by the abrupt change in the story.
And do you know what that kindly nun did, she who used to smile at me so fondly, and laugh at all my sayings (though I often could not figure out what was so funny)?
Mrs Domingo appeared again. “Be careful what you say in front of her, Celine,” she warned my mother. “She tells Sister Laetica everything. She said…”
Ah, the betrayal, each betraying the other.
* * *
After a polite interval of small talk, my mother excused herself and vanished. If she explained her errand, the guest would insist, “Oh, we’ve just eaten; please don’t worry. Oh stay and talk to us. We’ve come to see you.” So, the guests, abandoned, talked to us children brightly, kindly, until my mother re-appeared with a tray laden with fresh-squeezed lemonade and snacks, which varied according to the status of the guest, and whether it was imperative to impress them—or not!
People who visited us in gratitude for past favours–a job my father hired or recommended them for–or in hope of future favours were served a tray with parthecums, crisp, deep-fried banana chips; chaklees, deep-fried spirals of spiced flour; or, worse, bought food—sev or ghatias, savoury lentil snacks, or ginger biscuits, which none of us liked, and so could be safely reserved for unexpected visitors.
If the visitor was wealthy, or wealthier than us, or uneasily suspected to be classier, or just a really good friend, then oh those trays!! From the recesses of her large walk-in pantry, a windowless room, my mother produced home-made sweetmeats: chocolate fudge that melted in the mouth; russet guava halwa; pink coconut barfi, or bright red beetroot barfi. There were plates of cold meats we’d cured ourselves: slices of hearty beef we called “corned beef;” slices of pink, home-cured pork; delicious salt tongue, served with a little imported Colemans’s mustard and homemade mayonnaise. And little triangular plates of “cheeslings,” tiny airy cheese crackers, expensive, reserved for guests; or salty Monaco biscuits, served with a dainty topping of imported goodies: little black grains of caviar; laughing cow or baby bell cheese, or sliced pimento olives, with their cheerful red core.
A successful recipe made a woman famous— Daphne’s fudge, Mrs Domingo’s Midnight Chocolate Cake; orMrs D’Costa’s nankatis (butter cookies). My mother was famous for her kidney toast: fried chopped lamb’s kidneys with tomatoes, and onions, served with grated Amul Cheese on fried toast. Or her triple-decker sandwiches: a green layer of mint chutney, a red layer of tomato, and a yellow layer of egg mayonnaise.
When guests asked for a recipe, the hostess was hesitant and evasive. My father suspected that the recipes were deliberately garbled in the transmission, so that the imitation never tasted as good as the original, and each woman continued to be famous for her distinctive dishes.
* * *
Coca-Cola closed down its Indian operations in 1977 after the nationalist Janata government required it to be 51% controlled by Indian investors. The government introduced a nationalized substitute in its place, named–after a national competition–Double Seven, 77, commemorating the Janata governemnt’s year of power.
The Catholic housewives of Jamshedpur, believing that they could do whatever their government did tried to duplicate the formula for Coca-Cola; they experimented, shared recipes, experimented again, and once “successful,” guarded their recipes as carefully as the original in a vault at Atlanta.
My mother invented a dark viscous formula of sugar, coffee, vanilla, lime, orange essence, cinnamon, and nutmeg served in soda water. When I arrived home from boarding school in 1977, she asked me and our guests proudly, “Would you like some of my Coca-cola?” It may not have tasted exactly like Coke; there was none to compare it with anyway, but it was good.
* * *
Our hearts sunk when we saw “Masterji” shuffle up the driveway, an elderly, turbanned Bihari gentleman who had taught my parents Hindi when they moved to Jamshedpur, the Hindi-speaking heartland, from Bombay and Mangalore in the South. The second language in their English-medium schools had been French, not Hindi.
One Christmas, my parents offered “Masterji” exquisite marzipan fruits we had handcrafted out of ground almonds and sugar, painting a red blush on the peaches, shading the apples in red, denting the strawberries with toothpicks, completing the verisimilitude with a little wooden stem, and a cloth leaf, bought from a confectioner in Calcutta, and reused each year.
Masterji looked dubiously at the tiny fruits, grabbed a handful, stuffed them all into his mouth, little wooden stem, cloth leaf and all. We watched open-mouthed, collapsing in laughter after he left.
Another time, Masterji arrived just as we returned from the market with a huge bunch of leechis, sold freshly plucked off the tree, leaves and twigs included, expensive coveted fruits, which had just entered their brief season. My mother hurriedly put the bunch on a plate, and offered them to him, expecting him to detach a few. My sister and I watched helplessly as he took the entire bunch as tribute as he left, and shuffled out with it. We burst into tears, for we loved leechis. “We’ll buy you more,” my father promised ineffectually.
* * *
Since families moved in packs, children were dragged along on visits; my sister and I most certainly were, since my parents hated anything unusual.
Little spies, we listened in. “Sssh, Big Ears,” adults said as they whispered about the boy-crazy, scandalous teen, Geraldine, though they generally pretended we were the proverbial monkeys who’d hear or speak no evil. Ha! I listened, I listened, decoding, analyzing, mentally recording as I now record on paper.
During dull patches in the conversation, or while my mother brightly told the same stories, we made repeated trips to our hostess’s centre table laden with snacks. When she thought no one was looking, my mother frowned, made her face small and disapproving, and shook her head emphatically, which meant: “Stop.”
Her grimaces, frowns, and vehement head-shakes were swiftly replaced by a smile when the hostess looked her way. She could not tell us aloud not to have third helpings of the fudge, because the social contract required the hostess to both say, “Oh let her,” and then to effusively and forcefully offer it to me herself. Generosity, natural or feigned, was a virtue, much admired.
“Oh, you ate so much fudge,” my mother reproached me in the car. “I am sure she was very sad. You could see her face fall as she watched.”
~ ~ ~
During these visits, parents bragged about their genius children, prodigies all, who could sing, dance, paint flowers on water glasses, barbecue, and were absolutely brilliant (if they would only work harder) and “stood first in class,” each of them, all of them–if the parents could plausibly get away with the claim.
The other parents listened with broad, admiring smiles, murmured praise, and passive aggressive encouragement. “Anita writes well? Perhaps she will win the Noble Prize.” “Your son can do mental maths. Perhaps he will win the Fields Medal.” “She’s good at Bharat Natyam. Well, she should tour Europe!” they said.
Were they encouraging your ambition or putting you in your place by suggesting unachievable ambitions? Who knew!
And then the dread moment—to all but the parents of the performing child. “Oh Shalini, do you want to do your Bharat Natyram dance for the Saldanhas?” my mother would say. “Yes, dooo,” the victims declared with feigned enthusiasm, “Do!”
And, if we were at home, my sister put on her gungaroos, little belled anklets, poised her legs in the traditional diamond pose, put her hands together, forefinger and thumb joined, other fingers splayed out, and flinging out her arms, danced Bharat Natyam, the ancient temple dance, thaam-thut-thaam; thaay-tut-thaay; thaam-thut-thaam; thaay-tut-thaay; her lips fixed in the large, bright traditional smile; making ritualized seductive eye-movements, pupils swerving to and fro. She danced without music, or music heard so deeply that it was not heard at all.
“Oh Shalini sings and plays her guitar so well,” my mother said brightly, and Shalini took out her guitar and sung “LA International Airport,” or a Paul Anka song, “Every night my papa would/ Tuck me in my bed/Kiss me on my head/
After all my prayers were said./ Your children live through you.”
Shalini, not having gone to boarding school, had acquired all the feminine accomplishments, painting, batik, singing, dancing, playing guitar. I did not sing, I did not dance and I did not paint, but I did recite. The first Shakespeare speeches I memorized, when I was eleven, were “Friends, Romans, Countryman,” or “Pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,” from Julius Caesar followed by “Is this a dagger I see before me?” from Macbeth, or the perfect iambics of “To be, or no to be.” I recited “If I were lord of Tartary” by Walter de la Mare, “Tyger, Tyger Burning Bright,” and “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” poems which have become part of my inner rhythms, the buried treasure of words within me.
And, believe me, the guests earned every square of their fudge and milk toffee as we in turn earned ours when we listened to them boast about their prodigy children, boasting, boasting until all were busted by adulthood when the golden boy or girl became perfectly ordinary, in Yeats’ phrase, a sixty year old smiling public man.
Parents of only children were particularly galling. Admire Nicolette’s handwriting; read the letters she’d written home; listen to her sing, admire her light skin colouring and her curls… We did so, all the while, secretly suspecting that we were smarter and more gifted.
My father rarely participated in the general showing off. “I’ve achieved much more in school and you never mention it,” I’d grumble. He shrugged. “I just don’t like to show off” he said quietly. His eight years in England had heightened his natural reticence.
When I got bored, I pointedly looked at my watch every few minutes.
“Poor thing, she wants to go,” the hostess eventually commiserated, probably when she was entirely of one mind with me on the subject.
* * *
This is a slow-growing memoir, but here are the chapters I’ve written
My Grandmother, Small Nana, Molly Coelho; My Grandfather who lived by the sea and taught me to love poetry; My Uncle Eustace, The Maharaja; My Uncle Mervyn; My Maiden Aunt, Joyce; Youpee or UP, my Grandparents’ Formidable Landlady; Decembers in Gay Bombay
Travels with my Father; Mangalore: My Ancestral Hometown, Dreaded Family Evening Prayers at my Grandmother’s House; My Great-Uncle Norbert, a Pious Crook, My Grandmother, Josephine, and My Grandfather, Dr. Piedade Felician Mathias, My Father’s Sisters: Ethel the Grand Duchess, and Winnie, the Duchess; Christmas in Mangalore, and Mandatory Visits to All our Nun Relatives; And Mandatory Visits to Everyone Else, My saintly great-aunt Rosie, and her rebel daughter Marie; Arranged Marriages and the Consequences of Small Town Inbreeding.