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That Ancient Yarn

ISSUE:  Winter 2000

My grandmothers lived in old houses, wonderlands, unlikely treasures inherited and acquired, under every bed, in every cupboard, filling the attic—the chamber pot of my great-great-grandmother from Portugal painted with her name Donna Henrietta Maria Henriques, old silver, old china, useless gifts “of sentimental value,” yellowing documents, fragments of lives. No mornings were marred by the haste and hustle of leaving for work, for no one visibly worked. Languor hung heavy in the air. Trying to get something done was like swimming through treacle. So there was never enough time to clear that house, full of mystery and surprises, of the detritus of years—half-read Eve’s Weeklys and Feminas and pious Catholic Examiners and the Times of India, and old letters and memorabilia. My grandparents and Aunt Janine were like the hobbits or Japanese in their ceaseless exchange of gifts with family and friends. Perfume, wineglasses, and cufflinks passed round and round the inner circle, recirculated like air. These gifts, in their original boxes, piled up in the corners of rooms, in closets, beneath the drapery of lacy tablecloths: ashtrays and towels, ties and handbags, imported electronic appliances, full measure, pressed down, flowing over from heaps and stacks, until my grandparents were crowded out by their own abundance.

Many of these gifts were given to, or because of, my grandfather, Stanislaus Coelho, a retired superintendent of customs, whose integrity was praised in both the Catholic and the Bombay papers after his death.(Customs officials were legendarily corrupt, turning blind for a price as smugglers introduced gold, synthetic sarees, watches, or CD’s into India’s protectionist markets.) “His colleagues own huge beach houses by the sea, but he still rents,” (a huge beach house by the sea in Bombay) my father said. “That’s because he never accepted a bribe.” My tall, lanky, black-spectacled grandfather, whom I remember as invariably dressed in the baggy plaid trousers that were the trademark of old gentlemen of his school, did however help his friends through customs with a judicious word—for in India, friendship conquers rules—and these friends remembered him at Divali with boxes of dried fruit and chocolates, or crystal and clocks, and at Christmas, when my grandfather’s house was the place to be.

My grandfather, gentle, unworldly, nervous, should have been a scholar, but he had 12 siblings, and his father had lost most of his land after rashly standing surety for a friend. My mother foisted the prize books he had won as the best student in English literature at the Jesuit Saint Aloysius’ College, Mangalore, on me, one by one—”your grandfather’s books”—to remain half-read, a biography of Alfred, Lord Tennyson by his son, Hallam, books by Lamb, Macaulay, and soporific Victorians, eminent and otherwise. I look at the dates, 1911, 1913, with vicarious pride, my genes active then, perusing, in the years before—overwhelmed by the sadness of life, the necessity, before women worked, for even the most impractical man to provide for his wife and children—this man who in his 70’s could still recite poetry by the yard, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and the breathless cadences of Milton, gave up reading, abandoning the struggle to find a quiet spot, a quiet hour, in a house with a wife and five children, and tides of friends seeking help and solace and to fill an empty hour. And women were not exempt from being anxious and troubled about many things; they cooked the food their man provided, maintained the house he bought, and reared many children. How does the life of the mind ever thrive? I wonder, as I unpack the boxes of books I’ve inherited from my grandfather, and grandmother, who also had a bachelor’s degree in English from St. Xavier’s College, Bombay, and my mother and her sister and brothers and cousins, all these relatives with degrees in literature whom I’ve rarely seen with a book in their hands, who unloaded them on me, who was once a demon reader, and now, with a toddler and a too-large house and the oppressions of domesticity—scratches on the hardwood, spills on the sofa—gasp for time, and count myself lucky to read three books a month who had read three a week—though unlike my forebears, I still fight.

My grandfather’s house faced the beach, and impetuous breezes filled it with the tang of fish drying on the shingles and the hors d’oeuvry smell of the sea. My sister and I were forbidden to leave the compound unaccompanied, though we could have walked to the beach in three minutes. So we played in the front yard, sorting and resorting the shells that gravelled it, deposited in ages past when the yard was ocean-floor, or the Arabian Sea flooded it in a forgotten tidal wave. We carted the shells into the house, returned, and still there were more, numberless like the descendants promised to Abraham— “as the stars in the sky and as the sand in the seashore”—the latter the most astounding metaphor for countlessness, for in the sultry summer nights when we slept on the verandah, I, every night, attempted to count the stars to put myself to sleep, and it seemed a doable enterprise if one had patience and a system. My sister and I compared our shells, scattered them back, and began again. Time moved slowly, the timeless time of childhood. When the sun made us headachey and dazed, we drifted indoors to gaze at the sentimental images on the ceramic tiles on the window sills: a round-faced, long-haired brunette with bangs, her cheek against a puppy; an English cottage near a watermill by the weir; or the treasures in my grandfather’s display cabinet, an ostrich egg, a delicate blue and gold doll’s china tea set—while hours passed in the deceptive eternity of childhood.

My doll-like grandmother, Molly Coelho, stayed at home all day in her knee-length batik housedresses. Still, she had many warnings about a Bombay as phantasmagoric as Rushdie’s where gold jewelry was ripped off necks and ears by ruthless gangs of chain-snatchers who’d slice your hands off for your rings and bracelets; where purse-snatchers and pickpockets lay in wait for innocent- and open-faced people like my father and me; and obvious out-of-towners were whisked away by cab drivers, the women to be sold to prostitutes’ cages in Falkland Road, and the men flung, wallets emptied and throats slit, into the Arabian Sea. Her sweet, square, lined face grew perturbed as she told us that the popsicles sold by vendors in their little pushcarts were made from filthy water scooped from gutters, and the succulent shammi kebabs sold on the sidewalks were rotting dead dogs, not lamb—lamb, huh! As if they’d sell lamb.

The air was polluted; crooks and thieves, malice and wickedness abounded. No wonder she never went there.

We called our grandmother Small Nana not only because she was tiny, wore dresses like a schoolgirl, and was as timid and diffident as one, but to distinguish her from her mother, Alice Rebello, our Big Nana, a mild lady with a constant faint smile. In Nana’s small world of family—in a strange transmutation—she became the child, to be petted, protected, and indulged. Three of her five children never married. They lived at home all their lives, gradually renouncing interest in social life, and even their appearances. Aunt Janine, who had been pretty as a young woman but shrank from marriage, perhaps as a defensive strategy let her hair grow straight and lank, her face become plain and sullen, her figure thicken. When proposals for marriage arrived, Janine—who kept the family ticking, the taken-for-granted-one who did things for everyone else but for whom no one did anything—is supposed to have wrung her hands and wept, how can I leave Mummy? just as I feel sad—Oh Anita, do you have to do this?—when I drop off my toddler Zoe at playschool so I can write. I feel rent between two imperatives, the need to rescue my spirit from stupefaction by making something beautiful that might last, and the wish to worship at the shrine of my baby, content in the familiar castle of home.

In my early childhood, Nana dressed and left the house on two missions only—to hear Mass at St. Andrew’s Church, five steps across the street from her house, and to visit her youngest son, Ronnie, when he personally drove her to his home. Gradually, even these were abandoned—the traffic, haven’t you read of the accidents? these people drive like lunatics; they’ve probably paid a bribe to get their driving licenses; they don’t bother to look at who’s on the street; expect you to run out of their way; how can I run? It’s no longer safe to cross a street in Bombay, she said, definitely. Ronny, who always retained his boyish sweetness and cheerfulness, visited her every evening throughout his life, before he went, tired and talked-out, to his own home. The characters of his office whom they had never seen became as real as neighbors to my grandmother and Aunt Janine as they talked familiarly of Patrick Saldanha, his lame polio-stricken boss who never missed a day’s work, transport strike, monsoon floods, or riots and their fires.

In gradually dawning enlightenment, Nana realized that she need never leave her home. Within it, she had all she wanted: her husband, her children, friends and relatives who’d drop in, the mountain to Mahomet, and her favorite foods. She loved sweets and—despite her diabetes and her doctor’s scoldings—sprinkled sugar liberally on everything, sliced beetroots, tomatoes, melons, avocados, salads, pancakes, or buttered toast. And within the four walls of her home, she lived quite happily, in narrowing circles, gradually renouncing parties, visiting, church, shopping, cooking too, so that, at the last, her world was her room, the bathroom, and the living room.

I think of her, ruefully. I see in myself strands of both families who have given me physique and psyche, heredity and environment: the chicken and the egg. From the Mathiases, ambitious, self-confident, enterprising, without a nerve in their healthy bodies—almost all of whom have fled India to Germany, Australia, New Zealand, England, Canada, or America—came the part of me that got myself to Oxford University, acquired an undergraduate degree there, came to America alone, acquired a graduate degree. From the Coelhos comes the fact that the degrees were in English, and Creative Writing, dreamy disciplines, and that, having got to the Rome, the Promised Land of America, I spend most of my day alone at home, sitting still with a book I’m reading or writing—though my gypsy Mathias blood sends me, once or twice a year, traveling overseas in search of adventure or beauty or rest. And will I too live in increasing renunciation so that my world becomes as narrow and intense as a ray of light under a magnifying glass? I can see myself renouncing sleep and sex and chocolate and cleanliness and friends and family and travel to become a worshiper of literature, a hermit of writing, living alone in a cork-lined room like Proust, and then I think—nah.

My uncle Melchiore, who lived all his life with my grandparents in Bombay, worshipped two gods, food and money. He was one of those Mangalorean sons who—in a sub-culture in which children not impelled to conquer the world, and grab a mate and fame and fortune for themselves, are coddled—somehow never found their niche. On our childhood visits there he was a tubby man, fatter every year, at home all day in his loose knee-length shorts and undershirt, surrounded in his heaped “office” by his collection of typewriters and shortwave radios which he twiddled with fingers compulsive as those bewitched by Rubik’s cube. And so he was often the first to hear late-breaking news—the rescue of Israeli hostages in those 90 minutes at Entebbe, and, closer to home, late one evening in 1978, he heard of the Air-India jet wrecked on the beach three minutes away, and of course we rushed out, and behind the ropes that cordoned off the treacherous rocks and the sea from the curious and the greedy, saw the rescuers haul in the wrecked suitcases and bodies and the jaunty rubber doll that bobbed above the waves among other fragments of dreams.

Money was champagne to Uncle Melchiore. I overheard him talk—stocks, bonds, interest income, and my accountant mind, incongruously lodged in what I imagine is an artistic temperament, calculated along: double your money in seven years at 10 percent with Binny’s, but with Larsen and Toubro, double your money in less than five years at 15 percent, but more risk. I listened while he and my father canvassed ways of multiplying their wealth, and dreamed of how I’d explode my own little nest egg with the miracle of compound interest, feeling the addiction, the romance of money, being fruitful, increasing and multiplying as though of its own volition. But each time, I’d back off from this obsession, heady no doubt in its wild mathematics, but ultimately—for what? No, I would hug another passion. To be a writer? A saint? I could not decide.

Like the rest of my family, Melchiore enjoyed playing Lord Bountiful, believed in noblesse oblige. The illiterate Kohli fisher-families in the neighborhood frequented the house seeking his help with getting a job or opening a bank account. He often sent the young unemployed boys to buy him the expensive sweetened mango juice he drank instead of water. “Fetch me a crate of Mangola,” he said, his voice full-bodied and luscious, rich and fruity as port or Christmas cake. He slipped an extra five rupees into their hands. “The lakhpati!” my aunt Janine exclaimed, “he behaves like a lakhpati. Give me what you give them; I’ll be a lakhpati too.” (A lakhpati is the possessor of the blessed sum of a lakh, a hundred thousand rupees. Uncle Melchiore, this man who never worked a regular job, died with 50 of them, five million rupees).

I remember Uncle Melchiore—how typical of the greedy and selfish young!—chiefly for his random acts of generosity. He appeared one evening drawing bars of chocolate from a gigantic brown paper bag, bestowing them on us, one by one—Five Star, Krisp, Gems, Caramello, and a constellation of Cadbury’s—Milk, Dark, Raisin, Fruit and Nut, loaves and fishes multiplying forever. “Wow, Uncle Mel-chi-ore!” my little sister exclaimed as each appeared, “Uncle Melchiore!” “There’s more, baby doll,” he said, beaming with the vast pleasure of his magnanimity, cherishing each moment, “there’s more, baby doll,” until finally, almost incredibly, he came to the last bar, and even our gluttonous eyes realized, without sadness, that there was no more.

The table at tea, rainbowed with Indian milk sweets; the table at lunch, odorous with sarpatel, archetypal Mangalorean delicacy, pig simmered, skin, fat and all, in its own blood—such were the joys of our holidays in Bombay. Melchiore had special relationships with genteel ladies who had fallen upon hard times; for costs and a small fee, they cooked him the conjurings of his fervid brain. He didn’t need a wife to eat well. Edith, a serious, middle-aged lady with neat curled hair, cat’s eyes glasses and sashed polyester dresses, served as his personal short order cook. When a craving came upon him, he gave her an order for the Anglo-Indian cuisine we thought of as English, but which I’ve never encountered in England: “potato chops”—”mincemeat,” spicy ground beef in a mashed potato patty, fried in egg and crumbs; or pan rolls—crepes with a mincemeat filling, paper thin and bristly with bread crumbs. And “milk toffee:” fudge lovingly shaped into seashells; or marzipan fashioned into miniature pears, apples, and oranges, realistically painted with food coloring, like jewelry, and glazed with glistening sugar, a miracle of verisimilitude down to the jaunty little toothpick stem, and green cloth leaf—artistry squandered on what would be wolfed down in an instant, and wolfed whole.

Uncle Edward, who looked as raffish as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind, whom he resembled down to the ironic glint in his eyes and his jaunty mustache, was, in the frequent way of siblings, everything his brother Melchiore was not—as lithe as the other was lumbersome, as energetic as the other was torpid, and visibly successful whereas the other wore the sad odor of failure. With the truth embodied in nicknames, Melchiore called him the Maharaja, after the Air-India logo, a red-turbanned Maharaja beaming on his mystic flying carpet—Edward, an executive at Air-India, often flew around the world on plush assignments—and Edward was indeed princely in his careless largesse, his indulgence of his family, his friends, and himself.

His chief delight was not food, but drink (except for the deadly 40 days of Lent when he and his buddies together went on a gloomy retreat, then clambered onto the wagon, repenting and renouncing their gluttony, drunkenness, and prodigality forever, or at least until the bubbly seas of Easter), In the evenings, Edward took me and my little sister, Shalini, around the neighborhoods of Bandra to visit his friends, all “gay” in the original sense, fun-loving bachelors and spinsters, who revelled in good food and drink and teasing banter— Merylyn with a white poodle and a pseudo-English accent which she put on in company and which gradually faded; Lourdes with dyed orange hair; Hilda, swollen with elephantiasis; Hector, a painter, and Dennis who, like Edward, was drunk every evening. Edward was welcome in every house, the Crastos, the Lobos, the Sequieras, the Vazes, and everyone knowing him, offered him a drink, and in every house he drank, his speech slurring as the evening wore on, his eyes drifting—dreamy, glinting, and far away as the lotus-eaters, symptoms of intoxication. I was oblivious of then, but recognize now as I visualize my Uncle Edward. “What’s your net worth, Edward?” his friends asked. “How much money have you saved? Let us invest your money for you.” Or sometimes, “Can you lend me 500 rupees? Unexpected expense. Will return soon.” Did he realize he was being exploited, and did he care? Or did he view the greed of his friends with a shrugging tolerance? A friend can be a friend, though he may try to get what he can get.

And in every house, I was offered alcohol too, as a half-joke, though it was often just shandy, beer and lemonade; toddy, fermented coconut juice; feni, moonshine; or very sweet homemade mulberry wine that it was hard to think of as alcohol. And in every house I said with feigned sophistication, “Oh yes, I think I’ll have a shandy,” or toddy, or feni, or wine, and so I returned home with Uncle Edward after an evening of carousing—swaying—which was not a function of my high-heeled shoes. “Anita!” my mother, grandmother, and Aunt Janine cried in unison. “I can hold my liquor,” I said, an expression I’d picked up in those evenings. “Edward!” they cried. He smiled, his eyes half-closed and far away, delight and mischief on his face. He considered getting his spunky niece drunk as a joke, whereas I, early initiated into hangovers, was proud to be the buddy of my dashing uncle.

Uncle Edward strode into the house in the evenings, asking, “What musti have you been up to? Have you created a shindy?” He spirited us away to Juhu beach where he let us race fully clothed into the salt of the waves, scorning the fuss of swimsuits. Once he was stung by a jellyfish, and went limp in paralysis, and we laughed, believing him to be faking and did not swim out to help him. When he took us to Bombay’s Zoo in the Jijamata Garden on a sweltering day, I burst into tears to see the hippopotamus lie limp and gasping in a thin, filthy film of water. The newspaper article framed on its cage listed the things the vet who’d operated on its stomach had removed: rubber sandals, Coca-cola bottles, pens, plastic dolls, and rocks heaved into its hungry, expectant jaws. “Hippopotamus means ‘river horse, ’ Papa said. It’s wrong to keep it so dry and hot,” I sobbed. Edward took me to protest to his friend, Hector Crasto, a city councilor who sat amid his malodorous cages of white rabbits. Hector and Edward laughed as I once more burst into tears at the plight of the hippopotamus. Henceforth, the hippopotamus’s pool would be filled with water, Hector promised. He would issue orders. And the next time I went to Bombay Zoo, I went straight to the hippo’s pool, and there it was, somewhat more content, the ripples lap-lapping up to the high-water mark.

The stasis of old people, old money bored my father by the middle of December. He said, “This year, let’s all go to Mangalore”—the sleepy town where his mother and sisters lived.“Mangalore!” my mother said. She was “a Bombayite,” proud of her citizenship in the metropolis. “Never!” Sometimes, miraculously, my father asserted himself. “Well, if you don’t want to go, don’t go,” he said. “I’m going on my own.” “I’ll come with you, Pa!” I jumped up in excitement. “I too!” my younger sister echoed. A conclave late at night, behind closed doors. My parents never argued in front of us, but arrived at decisions mysteriously, the rougher ones attributed to our father, our idol, whom we never blamed. And I, my father’s favorite, who could not spend an hour with my mother without being savagely criticized and bursting out of the room with my bitter chant, “You big-fat-mean-horrible-thing; I hate you,” (big and fat modified mean and horrible; my mother was slender) was to go to Mangalore with my father. “My people have a sense of humor,” he bragged. “They understand Anita.”

Reunited after a month, my sister and I compared notes. While we were the only grandchildren of a bachelor and spinster family on the Coelho side, we were but another two among the 27 Mathias grandchildren. When I stayed up late on Christmas Eve in Mangalore, praying for good presents, my prayer fell on rocky soil, but not Shalini’s. The winds of family love wafted her toys and cash and clothes and candy while I got 25 rupees from my grandmother to split with my sister, and chocolate from the aunts. And Aunt Eunice of fabled wealth, from whom I hoped for the greatest largesse, gave me a single candy bar, a Five Star, bow-tied with a pink hair ribbon—an early initiation into the truth of F.Scott Fitzgerald’s bon mot, “The rich are the rich because they spend less money.” To forestall my 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 when I was 11, and got them—and then, as if to counteract the spoils and spoiling of Bombay, 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, Juhu, and Nariman Point, rather than Fleet Street, Chelsea, and the Strand. “I got Monopoly; you got Trade.

The 24-hour bus journey from Bombay to Mangalore, through the tapestry of the Western Ghats, its rich, wild greens, was like retreating 50 years in a conveyance of science fiction to a more pristine world. At dawn, the bus pulled into our ancestral town of Mangalore on the west coast of India that was converted to Roman Catholicism in the mid-16th century by Portuguese missionaries, backed by the power of the Inquisition. It hummed with roosters and Angelus bells, prelude to the exuberance of day. Mangalore reminds me, in a free associative way, of a tropical English village. It was lush, green, and pretty, yet nature seemed safe there, domesticated. Mangalore felt moist and dewy, as if it had just rained. The air was pure, and tanged by the sea and the smell of drying salted fish. Steep narrow lanes wound between rambling houses surrounded by gardens dense with palms, fruit trees, tuberoses, canna and dahlias. Leafy branches laden with fruit lounged over the high walls, shading the road and littering it with mangoes, jackfruit, guavas, and avocados. Fallen knobby custard apples cracked open, spilling their sweet, white, black-seeded flesh. Most houses were old, ancestral, and roofed with tunnel-shaped red tiles. Tile-making was Mangalore’s leading industry; my great-grandmother had owned a tile factory which she lost to a cheating nephew after being widowed, which served as living proof to me that women should be educated, canny, and intimately conversant with the family’s finances. The green hills around Mangalore were terraced with coffee plantations, owned by “the old families,” the Coelhoes, the Gonsalveses, and the Saldanhas, to which my husband belongs, while the sea provided entrepreneurs like my cousin new opportunities: he canned and exported their bounty—crab, shrimp, and oysters. Mangalore was a holy town, nuns and priests on the streets as common as secular people. It harbored dozens of Roman Catholic religious congregations, including an indigenous congregation, the Apostolic Carmel. Eventually, the garishness of new wealth intruded on the town, brought by once impoverished people who worked menial jobs in the Gulf States and came back rich, to erect on the outskirts of town pink, green, and yellow multistoried monstrosities, which clashed with the sober red brick of the old houses.

We set off on our morning and evening round of social visits as the impulse seized us; someone was sure to be in. The people we visited were affluent and lived on income generated without dressing up and leaving your house—money from ancestral coffee plantations, and factories, or dividends from stocks.(“Has TISCO sent you your dividend?” “I haven’t received my dividend from Glaxo,” our hosts said; they all invested in the same blue chips). And what else did we talk about? People, the great continuous soap opera around us: whose in-laws were making a nuisance of themselves, whose daughter was “running around” or dangerously “boy-crazy,” the politics of our relatives’ careers, the progress of their diseases; and now and then, a truly juicy scandal—a baby out of wedlock, a wife in the madhouse, a violent drunk. Good news, bad news, just news, and running through it, schadenfreude—why doesn’t English have a word for it?—pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.

In Mangalore, my father said, a sneeze at one end of town would soon be analyzed at the other. People’s opinions pressed on you, like that old torture of being crushed beneath weights. “What will people think?”—my family wrung their hands at my every eccentricity of speech, dress, behavior, or opinion. This invisible pressure made a terror of visibly descending in the world. Aunt Eunice, the oldest of my father’s three regal sisters, who were nicknamed the Empress, the Grand Duchess, and the Duchess, kept a car and a chauffeur into advanced old age, while lamenting the expense, for she left her house but rarely.(Fixed points of the whirling world magnetize people to themselves; visitors came to her, bringing some gossip, taking some, so that her store constantly grew.) “Sell the car. Dismiss the chauffeur. Take a bus,” I said, brandishing Alexander’s sword. “I can’t do that,” she said. “People will say: the old girl has come down in the world.”

Eunice resembled Titian’s Empress Isabel in the Prado. Her face was a mask of hauteur—a long nose, tight lips, eyebrows and nostrils slightly raised in a habitual expression of disdain. Except for Jessie, a doctor, the fortunes of my father’s sisters hinged upon whom they were married off to. Eunice, the only one who married into significant wealth, acquired a coffee estate and a large house through the shortcut of marriage. Her mother-in-law was reputed to be a weasel of a woman, her words venom-tongued, brightness scorched from her vision. “The mother-in-law,” my grandmother fretted when the proposal came. “They say she is a mean old lady. A bitch. And she lives with the son.” “Oh, don’t worry,” 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.” “She didn’t die. Outlived the matchmaker! Outlived her son! Always lived with Eunice, and made her miserable. Eunice never had a real married life, poor thing,” my father said. “Never count on anyone dying. The sickliest live the longest. They coddle themselves, and require the same coddling from those around them. It’s the apparently healthy who drop dead in a moment.”

Eunice had an only son, Roger, an entrepreneur, who with imagination and obsession created gaggles of golden geese—seafood canning factories, export-import businesses, and a real estate empire: entire neighborhoods of apartment buildings—from the egg of his inherited coffee estates. When Roger, in the way of single men of good fortune, took a wife, Eunice insisted that the bride live with them in the ancestral house, the scene of her old travails. And in the irony of history I watched when I traveled in the West Bank, the erstwhile oppressed became the oppressor, using tactics learnt in a hard and bitter school. Eunice interfered with the young people, attempting to dominate the bride. The old struggle of two women for a man’s soul, fought with tears, accusations, and feminine wiles. And, as given time she usually does, the younger woman won. “The woman who sleeps next to a man has his ear,” Aunt Eunice muttered. Over her dinner table lavished with lobsters and oysters, seashells, shrimp, crab, beef cutlets, and duck molee in coconut gravy, I listened to her diatribes against her daughter-in-law and her ruminations—family politics, wills, lawsuits, the virtues of coffee estates rather than small businesses as cash cows, the importance of investing in gold, “gold is gold,” but then later, “land is gold.” Money, human relationships, my extended family, the Mangalorean community, the ticktock of society, these were mysteries to me in the cloister of boarding school, and I concentrated on Aunt Eunice’s chatter, for the world around me was as full of mysteries and secrets as a fat book. Listening and books, golden balls through the labyrinth of the life ahead of me.

The minefield of family life probably robbed some of the pleasure of her wealth, though I believe what Aunt Eunice valued most about her money was not the spending of it, certainly not, but the fact that people respected her for her riches; they talked to her deferentially, as to an authority. A cheap, easily-won respect. “Why do people suck up to Aunt Eunice just because she is the richest woman in town?” I asked my father. “She’s also the most careful with her money, and they will never get a penny off her for all their fawning.” “Wealth sheds luster,” he explained. “It gives the aura of the princess of fairy tales.” Later, I understood F.Scott Fitzgerald, and the dazzled, wistful gaze with which he regarded the beautiful people, burning bright.

Palm Grove, my grandmother Josephine Mathias’s red brick, tile-roofed house, was large, dark, cool, and rambling; a grove of palm trees swished and whispered around it. I thought of my grandmother’s life as medieval. She made money off coconut palms whereas, until he retired to become a professor at a Jesuit Business School, my father’s designation (which I had memorized in reply to the snobby boarding school question “What does your father do?”) was controller of accounts and manager of data processing for the Tata Iron and Steel Company, the largest in India, to which he had introduced computers after study-visits to large companies in the U.S., Canada, England, Europe, and Japan. Granny also rented out paddy fields until she lost them under India’s socialistic legislation—intended to crush feudalism—that required land to revert to those who had tilled it for years. The real feudal landowners, of course, retained their land through chicanery. I remember my classmates in high school dressing up, sophisticated in sarees, makeup and buns of false hair, to present themselves in court as independent farmers. It was generally the small landowners—the cartoonist R.K.Laksman’s common man, not versed in the second language of the law—who lost their land.

There was a pond in the backyard into which Granny’s youngest son, three-year-old Charlie would stare mesmerized, lying on the parapet, watching the lotus jeweled with droplets bloom, and the bright carp and catfish flash; his drowned body was found there, floating limp among the flowers. Every morning, the servants drew drinking and bathwater from a well in the backyard. It looked yellow and tasted muddy and stale to my city palate, defying the properties of water learnt in chemistry: odorless, tasteless, colorless. The coffee at breakfast was sweetened, not with sugar cubes as at home, but with golden-brown lumps of jaggery or gur, raw, unrefined sugar, which gave our coffee a rich, full-bodied taste, much like spooning in molasses. Gur, formed from boiling hot sugar cane syrup poured on the dirt floor of country barns to congeal, often contained bits of straw, grass, or suspect pellets; it raised my parents’ hackles. Along with the molasses-flavored coffee, Granny served exotic Mangalorean dishes for breakfast such as cockles in a coconut curry. Eating seashells, forcing those elusive sea-worms with the tine of a fork out of the elaborate homes they fashioned and 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 the mutton, beef or pork bones, “the best part of the dish,” the older ladies said, as they passed around their hairpins, and instructions on how to suck or dig out the marrow.

My father’s mother, Josephine Mathias, had finely chiseled features—high cheekbones, clear, unblinking eyes, the decided mouth and chin of a woman of strong opinions, incisively uttered. She spoke in maxims. “When the time comes to get married, don’t look at the boy; look at the family. The family is more important than the boy. Blood will out.” (I laughed, but when I finally married, in 1989, I married Roy Mathias, my first cousin, her grandson, a choice of which she would have heartily approved.) When I fought with my mother, fierce-tongued and ferocious, no holds barred, except violence, and, now and again, not even that, 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.” Granny ruled her children with a quiet despotism; all 14 felt in awe of her. They tell of the night she punished 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 and swaying on his knees.

My mother, as a young bride experimenting with that recommended shortcut to a man’s heart, his stomach, asked her mother-in-law for the recipes my father raved about. “Golden Syrup on toast,” she said, “treacle on toast.” “How do you make Golden Syrup?” my mother enquired. It was no longer on the market; soon after Independence, India banned imports of consumer goods so as to boost its own industries. “I boiled sugar in water, and fed it to the bounders,” Granny replied. “I called it Golden Syrup and they were happy. Those bounders were ravenous when they returned from boarding school; they’d eat anything.” So that was the Golden Syrup of my father’s mythopoeic memory. Granny did not attempt to share her other recipes. “I cook by instinct,” she wrote, a statement my mother mimicked in a hoity-toity voice. However, watching Granny in action, I saw it was true.

Granny sat in the dim dining room all day, a fair-skinned, frail wraith in a housecoat. From her chair in the dark dining room, she controlled the house, and from it she cooked, in a manner of speaking. She summoned the cook, and described a recipe from memory and imagination. Every few minutes as the curry simmered, the cook brought her a taste in a small stainless steel dish. More salt, more coconut, more coriander, let it thicken for another eight minutes, she’d say, until it appeared on the table, a curry to her satisfaction. I’ve inherited this gift, and—though I seldom cook—can invent detailed recipes from imagination, which, as Plato says, houses the perfection of which everything material is a shadow. I describe these recipes to Roy, an almost infallible cook, whose Ph. mathematics gives him a sixth sense in gauging the ideal ratio of coriander to cumin to mint, and who can reproduce them accurately without the aid of a taster.

I dreaded hearing Granny’s sepulchral voice call, “Anita, come talk to me.” I slouched into the dining room. “Don’t drag your feet,” growled Norbert, her bullying brother who lived with her. She pointed to a stool next to the rocking chair where she sat, pale, stern, dark-clothed. “Sit there. Talk to me.” And I’d be struck dumb, as by a wizard’s wand, every idea or memory evaporated. What should I say? “Tell me about your boarding school,” she said. Tell her about my boarding school. What about my boarding school? I could not think of a single thing about my boarding school. I sat there, rigor mortis on mind and tongue. After a decent but interminable interval, I escaped. The air on the verandah felt bright, free. I could have flown. “Pa,” I exhaled. “Let’s play Scrabble. Let’s play Monopoly.” I dived into the games with ferocious, self-forgetting capitalistic passion, trying to shake those memories of gawky awkwardness— which I never did. Right into my 20’s when she died, she remained the one person to whom I could not easily talk, near whom thought froze. Conversation was like trying to push an iceberg up Everest. “Noel spends his entire visit to me playing Scrabble with his daughter Anita” she complained, but that was inevitable. Love flows downwards. We forget our parents in our rapture with our children, as our children in turn will forget us in their dumb, unreasoning adoration of our grandchildren.

Granny loved giving things away—money mostly, but she’d also give the gourmet cheeses and chocolates sent to her by her son Morris in Singapore, the president of United Breweries International, to her servant Leela’s fair, pretty little girl with whom in her old age, Granny—who had coveted boys, and bewailed each of her six daughters—fell in love. “The baby needs it more than I do,” she said when scolded by her son Eric who had moved in ostensibly to look after her, and that was, after all, true. Distressed that the servant and her adorable toddler might be homeless after her death, Granny impulsively promised them her ancestral house, Palm Grove. Leela stayed on at Palm Grove after Granny’s death, insisting—despite the will, leaving all to Eric—that she had been given the house. All Eric’s cajolings or threats could not get her to leave. The police, and goondas appeared on his doorstep offering help for a price, but their methods were brutal, sometimes bloody. He finally—and heftily— bought Leela out.

On the first Monday of every month, Granny had her chair brought out to her back garden amid her palm grove to hand out five rupees to everyone who lined up there. Eric tried to halt this munificence. “If you have to give money away, give it to the parish priest to distribute. He’ll know the truly needy cases,” he remonstrated. “No,” she said. “He’ll just give it to his favorites. I’d rather give it to people I know.” “How do you know that these people are needy?” he asked. “If they were not needy, why would they come?” she countered with sublime simplicity. Her son, Morris came to the rescue, sending her a few hundred rupees each month—to give away. “Give Ma, give,” he said. “The more you give, the more we get.”

Granny was withdrawn from school at 17 to be married off to my grandfather, Piedade Felician Mathias, a self-made man who through the combined efforts of his entire family went to medical school, and then, as was typical of upwardly mobile men, married a bride from an old, established family, and very fair-skinned in the bargain, another sought-after trait. My grandfather was a distinguished surgeon, a winner of the O.B.E.(Order of the British Empire) and the Kaiser-e-hind, the first Indian civil surgeon in the Empire, after whom wards in the Stanley Medical College and the Madras Medical College are still named. The marriage was not happy.

I asked Granny about her arranged marriage, which I thought medieval and unthinkable, though my parents had one, and all their friends, and many of my cousins. “We first get married, then fall in love,” they explained. And, to be honest, the “love marriages” I saw around me didn’t seem more or less happy than the arranged. Each set had some obviously and publicly unhappy marriages—and some examples of serendipitous chemistry. I suppose the metamorphoses within the secret castle of marriage, beauty to beast, beast to beauty, are the same, love marriage or arranged. “Did you like your husband?” I asked Granny. “No,” she said. “I never liked him. He had a very bad temper. I was always afraid of him.” This was an observation I’d never heard from any of their 14 children, who idealized him.(Whatever their other religions, Indians believe in the religion of family, a benevolent mythology in which every blood relation is perfect. Its creed demands that you honor your father and mother, grandfather and grandmother, uncles and aunts; jealously guard family secrets; speak no evil of any blood relation to any one outside the extended family, and no evil of your nuclear family to any one at all.) Emboldened, I proceeded to my next curiosity about Granny. “Why did you have so many children?” I asked. “I didn’t want so many,” she said wryly. “I just had them.” Pregnant again, acquiescing as in a dream, almost quiescent before the generation within me, rollicking, promising, coaxing, wanting out, I smile.

I think of these women, my mother, my grandmothers, my great-grandmothers. I wear their jewelry every day, my great-grandmother’s ruby earrings, my grandmother’s wedding ring and bracelets, my mother’s gold chain and cross. I have too the hair, eyes, and coloring, the IQ and temperament their DNA has given me. A brooding pronouncement in Deuteronomy: “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” How might this work naturalistically? According to Lamarck’s gospel of hope, your hours in the gym give your future children strong bodies; the math problems you solve elevates their intelligence, as “the forelegs and necks of giraffes have become lengthened through the habit of browsing.” Though, of course, Darwin debunked this hopeful—or terrifying—theory, Lamarck but described what he observed: that families do transmit acquired traits, appetites for work or food or religion or the arts, for community or solitude. Your family is the amniotic sea in which you swim. Its ideas seep through you as though by osmosis—though you may leap and frolic out of it like a dolphin, flipper away from it like an antic sea lion, or breech out of it like a whale to sing a high, pure, anguished song. Families hand you a weaving of genes and aspirations, hand-me-down wisdom, prejudices, and the morality tale of the living drama of human lives. All your life, you will alternately wrap this weaving around you for security and warmth—or unravel it to fashion with that ancient yarn, a new woman.


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