I have been writing a memoir of my childhood in India in a desultory fashion, but have now decided to work on it almost every day, and get it done.
And here is the latest chapter, on the Clubs, the centers of social life. I have linked to all the completed chapters at the end of this post.
I’ve Seen the Moon Rock: The Clubs of my Childhood
The astronauts walked on the moon–in other worlds–and everything seemed possible.
“Will we soon have picnics on the moon?” I asked. My father considered it. “Yeeees,” he said, thoughtfully. “I think so.”
I looked at the moon, silent, luminous. It wasn’t too far. Yes, he was probably right.
* * *
In 1970, a travelling exhibition of Apollo 11 souvenirs came to the United Club. We filed through.
In a glass case was a rock that looked like … well, a rock.
As we left, we were given a fluorescent yellow and orange sticker: “I’ve seen the moon rock.”
I stuck it on my vanity case, for I was soon to go to boarding school at St. Mary’s Convent, Nainital–where I showed it off. I was the only girl who had seen the moon rock.
* * *
Community life in Jamshedpur revolved around the two clubs we belonged to–The United Club, walking distance from my house, and the more expensive Beldih Club, formerly the European Club, which required recommendations from members to join.
There were stamp exhibitions: microcosms under glass—triangular stamps, circular stamps, 3-D stamps; series of stamps on butterflies, birds, flowers, Christmas; stamps of countries that no longer existed, or had just begun to. The smaller the country, the bigger and brighter the stamps, the more unusual their shape.
* * *
Once a year, for ten nights, there was a one-act play Festival, open to schools, colleges, and troupes of friends, which presented gripping plays—“The Monkey’s Paw,” “The Bishop’s Candlesticks,” “Overtones,” “Mutatis Mutandis,” or “Mice and Men.” I loved the plays directed by Perin Mehta, the sister-in-law of the German Jewish Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who dwelt in the Elysian realms of real fame and real art–Booker Prize winner, and part of the Merchant Ivory triumvirate.
* * *
And there were quiz competitions– inter-school, family, couple, mother/daughter or faculty/student. The secret of success was getting hold of the books the quiz master used: BBC Mastermind or Quizmaster. My mother and sister prepared feverishly, almost memorizing the book—all our family have an excellent memory—and won.
What was Woody Allen’s real name? Allen Konigsberg. What was the world tree in Norse mythology which ran through the nine worlds? Yggdrasil. What was the cornucopia? The horn of the goat, Amalthea. Whose epitaph was “Here he lies where he longed to be/ Home is the sailor, home from sea,/And the hunter home from the hill.” Robert Louis Stevenson. Where is Timbuktu? Mali.
The quizmaster played snatches of The Jupiter Symphony, The Moonlight Sonata or The Ode to Joy. He projected slides of the Parthenon and Pantheon, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, and Monet’s Water Lilies. Quiz preparation involved a quick listen of my father’s magisterial collection of classical music, and leafing through art and architecture books–surely educational, and not a complete waste of time as my father grumbled when he saw me read quiz books. True knowledge came from reading widely, he said, books, not quiz books
* * *
Every summer, my mother submitted her roses, gerberas, and whimsical ikebana arrangements to the annual flower and vegetable shows. The flowers were over-bred to magnificence–dahlias as big as a dinner plate; chrysanthemums with twirled petals; snapdragons, delphiniums, lupins; exquisite roses hybridized in back gardens into indigo, purple, magenta: most unroselike colours, for every lady gardener had mastered grafting.
After a long period of experimentation with her flower snippers and rags, my mother finally bred an almost black rose, she called The Negrette Rose.
A charming African-American, James Greer, who was visiting TISCO spent a week with us. Both my sister and I were fascinated with our black visitor (and I corresponded with him for years while I was at boarding school, and he returned to the States). As we showed him the garden, my parents froze, their hands to their mouths, as they heard my little sister confide, “My mother calls this a Negrette Rose.” But James Greer observed her love and innocence, and just laughed.
* * *
In 1972, the United Club hosted Dr. Bolar who offered “a nature cure” to reverse myopia. And so everyone became obsessed with the health of their eyes; read Aldous Huxley’s The Art of Seeing; looked at green at every oppotunity; palmed their eyes after half an hour of reading; ate bowls of grated carrots and drank carrot juice at every meal.
Dr. Bolar and his wife, an ill-educated, crude, smiling couple, became the saviours, the Rasputins, to every family whose children had poor eyesight; and there were many in town, dominated by Zorashtrians, an inbred community. They were feted, invited to dinner.
My parents too placed their faith in Dr. Bolar. My father was worried about his own eyesight, but, particularly about my younger sister’s, who had wore thick glasses from the age of six, and had had eye surgery aged ten.
Dr. Bolar entered our living room, looked around at the souvenirs from my father’s years in England, and his travels in Europe, Japan and America; stared at the built-in fireplace (our house had been built for British executives); settled deep into the sofa, and sighed, saying, “Oh, this is just like an English house,” thus endearing himself to my mother.
Dr. Bolar and his wife checked our eyesight at the start of the course, and weekly, declaring remarkable improvement. Then Mrs. Surti took her children to an independent optician. The original readings had indeed been correct; the rest were hopeful inventions. She threatened to sue unless he returned the fees. The “doctor” had typed out eye exercises and dietary recommendations from Bates’ Better Eyesight without Glasses and was no more a doctor, and no more or less knowledgeable than anyone else who had read that book. He returned our money, and slunk back into the outer darkness of Bombay, from whence he came.
* * *
Every Christmas, after a party, at which children gorged on jelebis, laddoos and pastries, Santa appeared in a red fur-lined cape. Ho-ho-ho.
At the Beldih Club, Santa gave presents to all children, choosing the same age-appropriate gift for every girl and boy up to twelve, and impartially wrapping all of them in the same paper. The winter I turned twelve, the end of childhood in India, all the girls got a make-up set, a coveted palette: eye-shadow, eyeliner, mascara, lipstick, and “blush-on.” However, my mother had perhaps Freudianly recorded my age as two, and while toddlers processed up in their frilly dresses, I heard Anita Mathias called on the loudspeaker, and got a large teddy bear to my tears and mortification.
In the United Club, however, the dues did not cover children’s Christmas presents. Parent bought their own presents, gift-wrapped them, and delivered them to the Club office before the party. The poorer children got cheap rip-off Monopoly, Ludo or plastic badminton sets; the nouveau riche got massive presents, bedecked in tinsel and bows and ribbons; the sophisticated got hardbound editions of The Children’s Classics or Illustrated Encylopaedias.
I looked around. Why would Santa give rich kids rich presents, and poor kids poor presents? It just wasn’t fair. An outrageous thought: was the Santa Claus of song and story who knew if we’d been good or bad, and sleighed in from the North Pole, hauled by Rudolf, the red-nosed reindeer; the Santa Claus whom Enid Blyton and my father told us about—was he, incredibly, incredibly–a giant conspiracy by the entire adult world to fool trusting children, a secret even the meanest adult managed to keep?
“There is no Santa Claus?” I asked my father. “Oh really? Why do say that? I think there is,” he said lamely.” Huh!
“There is no Santa Claus,” I informed my sister. “Of course, there is,” she said passionately. “As if Ma and Pa would lie!”
“There is no Santa Claus,” I told my classmates. “It’s our parents.” “Of course, there is,” said those who got a present at the club. The rest were silent.
Logic prevailed. Santa died and I turned seven.
The clubs were the centre of community life— Charminar, a cigarette company sponsored “Made for Each Other” Ballroom dancing competitions, with prizes for “the most charming couple”. There were classes for housewives: Ikebana, Batik, Tie and Dye, oil painting, all of which my mother took; Bharat Natyam Indian dance classes for girls; billiard tables, golf courses, basketball courts and swimming pools.
Magicians sawed a volunteer woman in two, performed mysterious card tricks, produced doves from hats and scarves from sleeves. “How did he do it? How did he do it?” we whispered.
A visiting travelling hypnotist claimed that those who resisted hypnosis most vigorously were the first to succumb. “Who doesn’t believe in hypnosis?” he asked.
Young brash company workers waved their hands. “There’s no way you can hypnotize me,” a young man blustered.
To our horror, we saw those very men raise their hands in the air and keep them there until the hypnotist gave the word. They were given raw potatoes and told they were eating apples; they pronounced them delicious. The trance broken, they spat them out in disgust.
There was a ventriloquist whose art I was determined to learn. I turned my head in delight as his voice, subtly altered, emerged from nooks and crannies around the hall. And I practiced, barks, mews, and wolf calls, projecting my voice while barely moving my lips, and later disrupted physics lessons and music lessons at school by these cat mewls, barks, wolf howls and lion roars.
* * *
In those days before TV, which crept to Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta and Madras, but not yet Jamshedpur, the throbbing magnet heart of the Clubs was, of course, movies.
The love of film united the nation. People passed around their copies of Filmfare and Stardust, the intimate gossip magazines about Indian film stars, who were public property, known by their first names, Dimple, Amitabh, Rishi; their families, marriages, affairs and divorces, all public knowledge. It was not called Bollywood for nothing.
The Beldih Club showed three English language or European films a week, with a children’s film every Friday during the winter when the swimming pool was closed, an offering duplicated by the United Club, which also showed Hindi movies, which no one admitted to liking or seeing–though, in fact, every seat was taken. The clubs staggered days, so you could drive to a movie seven days a week, and we occasionally did!
The movies were shown out of doors on a screen the height of a house, with a covered balcony for the old and cold. Children sat together in the first rows, in bright starlight amid the night chorus of crickets.
The triumphant crow of Woody Woodpecker: Cartoons came first. I did not like them: Bugs Bunny hanging by the ledge while his arms grew longer and longer; Wily Coyote flattened by cars only to pop up again; the heart-pounding chases, ever-present pain and danger, while the audience cruelly laughed.
I looked at the insects flittering in the beams of projected light. And then the MGM lion tossed its mane and roared, transporting us to the African veldt, or downtown Manhattan.
Children’s films were screened again and again. We knew them thoroughly especially The Sound of Music, the English language film for our generation whose songs we knew by heart. “These are a few of my favourite things.” “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” “I am 16 going on 17,” and “Edelweiss.”
Other favourites: Mary Poppins. “Chim, chimney; chim chimney; chim chimney; chim chim.” I used to hold an umbrella and jump down from my dresser, hoping I’d be able to fly. My Fair Lady: Lots of chocolate for me to eat. I will make a duchess of this draggle-tailed guttersnipe. Chocolate Factories! The Three Musketeers, all for one and one for all. To Sir with Love: “Those schoolgirl days, of telling tales and biting nails.” The Man who Knew too Much. Elsa the Lioness who was Born Free.
Movies were either A, Adult, or U, universal. If we wanted to go to an Adult movie, which wasn’t too violent or, well, adult, we wore a saree, and slathered on make up. Mr. Bhardwaj the kindly membership secretary occasionally stood at the entrance, and challenged people, letting me through when I was below 16, but sometimes challenging me when I was older, and I never knew if I should be flattered or offended. We had no ID; they assumed that we, or our parents wouldn’t lie, in full view of the community who had a shrewd idea of our age.
There were Holocaust films and World War II films, during which I fled to the library on the premises, and westerns and thrillers which I disliked. We watched Woody Allen and Truffaut and Bergman: the films were, in a word, eclectic.
Long past our bedtime, we watched Shakespeare beneath the stars; Anne Boleyn laid her lovely head on the block; Mammy crunched Scarlett O’Hara’s waist to seventeen inches, and the Scarlet Pimpernel kissed the earth where his disdainful wife had walked. The sun, a blazing orange ball sinking below the horizon, when we left for the Club was replaced by the gleaming moon.
I drifted to sleep on the back seat amid a lingering after-glow of images: Hera and Zeus settled the Trojan War in a game of chess, and Christ—in one of the frequent Bible movies screened–stretched his arms across the screen: “Lo, I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.”
* * *
INTERVAL: giant yellow words flashed across the screen. We darted to the tables with the carbon-leaved pads.
Across the lawn, the white-uniformed bearers in their bag-shaped white hats were mobbed by a crowd. Everyone brandished their chits over other people’s heads, yelling orders for pakoras, slivers of vegetables deep-fried in chickpea batter; or dinner rolls filled with “Beldih Spread” (my mother cajoled the recipe out of the chef to the envy of her circle): shredded chicken, cooked with onions and coriander in a sauce of mayonnaise, mustard and ketchup.
We hollered for the golden, crisp, freshly fried, salty potato “chips,” as they are universally called in Indian English. The management of the Beldih Club, however, craftily decided to officially dub the potato chips (or crisps) which sold for 0.60 paise “potato wafers,” and christen “French fries” which sold for Rs. 1.85 “potato chips” in the British style. From force of habit, both we children and our father signed a chit for “potato chips;” the bearers, understanding what we meant, gave us the crisp chips, and we were billed Rs. 1.85 for the French fries, to the irritation of my mother.
* * *
My sister and I realized the semi-illiterate and harried bearers never looked at what we’d written, just gave us what we yelled for. Also, they had no means of checking our signatures.
Ah-ha! Using the think-differently gifts we both later used in (legitimate) business, we ordered wildly, and at the bottom, tidily wrote our neighbour’s name, Mrs Cherian.
“Are you sure we won’t get caught?” my sister occasionally asked anxiously. “How could we?” I said.
We sipped ice-cold Fanta, had fresh potato wafers and potato chips. “Mrs. Cherian” signed.
“Celine,” came an irate cry, at the end of the month. It was irascible Mrs. Elsie Cherian–an American Jew, who had married a quiet, conservative Indian University student at Berkeley, and followed him to India, becoming completely Indianized, wearing sarees, and cooking traditional Malayali food.
Mrs Cherian, six feet tall, stood at the hedge that divided our house from hers, into which she and my mother had cut a path, through which the children could pass back and forth. She held out a wad of chits.
At the end of our bloated month, Mrs. Cherian opened her bill to discover that, apparently, all month, she had gorged on Coca-Cola and Fanta, and every snack on the menu, all signed for in childish handwriting, Mrs Cherian (instead of Elsie Cherian, as we hadn’t realized she would have signed).
“Oh, if the ground could have opened and swallowed me up.” My mother groped for metaphors
Mrs. Cherian paid the bill; my parents repaid her.
We just had chips (sorry, potato wafers!) now and again, and, sometimes, ice-cold bubbly Fanta, then the taste of heaven, but the days of entire menu were over. And so too was our career as master forgers.
5 My maternal grandmother, Molly Coelho, “Small Nana;” 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; Decembers in Gay Bombay.
6 Travels with my Father. Mangalore, my ancestral hometown. Dread Evening Prayers at my Grandmother’s House. My great-uncle Norbert, a pious crook; My grandmother, Josephine, and my grandfather, Dr. Piedade Felician Mathias, OBE. Christmas in Mangalore, and Mandatory Visits to all our nun relatives. My aunts, Ethel, the Empress, Winnie, the Grand Duchess, and Joyce, the Duchess. Mandatory Christmas visits. My saintly Great-Aunt Rosie, and her Rebel Daughter Marie. Arranged Marriages, and the Consequences of Small Town Inbreeding