All the Lives We Never Lived
IN MY CHILDHOOD, I was known as the boy whose mother had run off with an Englishman. The man was in fact German, but in small-town India in those days, all white foreigners were largely thought of as British. This unconcern for accuracy annoyed my scholarly father even in circumstances as dire as losing his wife to another man.
The day my mother left was like any other. It was a monsoon morning. I was nine and at St. Joseph’s School, which was not far from our house, only a fifteen-minute cycle ride away. My bicycle was still a little too tall for me. I wore my uniform: white shirt, blue shorts, and shoes that were shiny black in the morning and powdery brown by midday. My hair lay flat to an even, straight line that came down to just above my eyebrows. In the mornings it was a wet cap plastered to my head. My mother used to cut my hair, seating me on a stool in the inner courtyard next to the kitchen, and through the half hour of the haircut the only words spoken were variations on “How much longer?” and “Don’t move.”
Every morning I rang my bicycle’s tinny bell until my mother emerged, nighttime sari rumpled, hair and face fuzzy with sleep. She came and drooped against one of the verandah’s white pillars as if she might fall asleep again, standing. She was a late riser, summer or winter. She lingered in bed for as long as she could in a tight embrace with her pillow. Banno Didi, my ayah, woke me up and got me ready for school, and in turn I woke my mother. She said I was her alarm clock.
My mother didn’t care how she looked, yet she was always striking, dressed up or smeared with color across her forehead. When she painted sitting outside in the sun she wore a wide-brimmed straw hat
with a red ribbon into which she stuck flowers, paintbrushes, feathers, whatever caught her eye. None of my friends had mothers who wore a hat or climbed trees or hitched up their saris and rode a bicycle. Mine did. The first day when she was teaching herself to balance the bicycle, she went on and on, tottering, falling, sucking the blood off her grazes, getting back on again. Screaming with laughter, showing all her teeth like a wolf, my father said. She rode the bicycle into a line of flowerpots along the front verandah, her long hair came loose, her eyes sparkled, her sari was torn at the knee. But she sprang up and went back to the bike.
I don’t remember anything different about my mother in the hours before she ran off with the Englishman who was actually a German. Bulbous slate-gray clouds sat in wait that morning, low enough to touch. When my mother came out to see me off to school, she glanced up at the sky and shut her eyes with a squeal as she was showered by drops of water.
“Last night’s rain is still raining,” she said.
The big trees that shaded the house gleamed and when the wind shook their branches they set off showers from their wet leaves.
“The clouds are so dark, it’ll be a beautiful day. It’ll pour and pour and when the sun comes out there will be a rainbow right from here to the railway station.” She wiped her face with a corner of her sari. “You’d better hurry, you mustn’t get wet. Are you carrying an extra shirt in your bag? You are not to sit in class soaked to the skin, you’ll get fever.” I was about to go when she said, “Wait, leave that bicycle, come here.” She hugged me tight for a long minute, kissed me on the top of my head and then on my forehead. I wriggled to break free, I was not used to sticky displays of affection from her, it made me awkward and self-conscious. But her touch sent a current of joy through me and I cycled away hoping she saw how fast I was going through the puddles, churning up slush.
“Remember what I said!” she cried out. “Don’t be late.”
“I’ll be back in time,” I shouted. “I’ll cycle fast.”
I ran high fevers when I was little, waking with my body on fire, aware that my head was tipped back over a bucket and someone was pouring mug after mug of cold water over it. If the convulsions came, I could recall nothing other than a great exhaustion afterwards, when my skin turned damp and my mother’s voice near my ears said, “Will he get well? Will he get well?” My grandfather said, “Breathe deep,” and put his stethoscope against my chest. He brought his cotton-white head closer and shone a torch into my mouth. “Aaah?” he murmured. After that he made up bitter potions that he put into corked bottles marked with lines. The room was quiet. Shadows floated across it throughout the day and all I could hear was my mother rustling in and out, anxious whispers, the thup of a bottle being put back on a shelf, the splash of water going into a glass. And I slipped into darkness again.
My pet name was Myshkin, and unlike boyhood names which fade into distant memory along with the people who used them, this one stuck. My grandfather gave me that name because of my convulsions—like the epileptic prince in a book by Dostoevsky, Prince Myshkin in The Idiot, Dada told me.
“I’m not an idiot,” I said.
“When you read The Idiot you’ll want to be one,” he said. “Innocents are what make humankind human.”
My fevers and fits made relatives pity me and ladle out advice that infuriated my mother. Once I was going up the stairs to the roof, and a visiting uncle from Karachi tapped my legs with a ruler and said to my father, “See how the knee flinches? That’s a sure sign of bone disease—no surprise the boy is so puny. I know a man. I’ll give you his address. He sends medicines all over India.”
This uncle had a know-it-all air that my mother detested. Whatever the subject, be it botany or architecture, he spoke with perfect authority. It was never simply a pillar, it had to be Doric or Corinthian, and if he walked past the big church at the corner of Bell Metal Road, he would point out the flying buttresses and then shake his head when I studied the sky to see what was flying. My mother asked him how he knew my bones were weak and he said, “Simple. I was a whisper away from a medical degree. The course was too dull for me.”
He turned from her to me. “Tell me, what’s heavier—a kilo of iron or a kilo of wool?”
I felt myself growing tense, I was sure it was a trick question, but before I could stop to think it through, I had blurted out, “Iron.”
“Think again,” he said, with a smirk. “Think again, my boy. One kilo of a heavy substance is the same weight as one kilo of a light substance.” He tapped my head with his ruler and said, “Can’t be weak everywhere, eh? If the body’s weak, the mind must be made stronger!” I must focus on developing my mind by learning chess, he said. “Alekhine, Tarrasch, Capablanca! Great minds in ailing bodies, all of them.”
I did not know who these chess masters were, nor if they had ailing bodies. I could only nod and search for an escape route, but my mother made sure this uncle never came to stay again. “Myshkin has chicken pox; Banno’s son has measles; the khansama seems to have cholera. One can’t be too careful,” she would write back if there was a letter from him announcing a visit. She made sure the excuse was a long-winded, contagious illness and if anyone pointed out that a string of infectious diseases with a doctor in the family was hardly believable, she would say the more patently false the excuse, the more obvious the truth.
As I grew older, the fevers and convulsions came less often. It was not epilepsy, it turned out. For a few weeks, then months, and then a whole year, there were none. After the second calm year my grandfather stopped pushing thermometers into my mouth at the slightest hint of fatigue in me and relatives no longer suggested quacks who had cured a second cousin twice removed with magic potions to be swallowed on the night of a new moon. After the third year, the fits became a story from my past, although they are in my present: the illness permanently ruined my eyesight. From when I was six I had to have glasses that grew thicker every year. Without my glasses the world became a painting of the kind my mother copied at times: dabs of color against other dabs of color adding up to a sense of a lake with a boat or water lilies in a pond.
Sometimes I take my glasses off to see differently from other people. Colors and words swim into each other, meanings change on the page. In the distance, everything becomes a pastel blur. There is a kind of restfulness in not seeing well that the clear-sighted will never know.
Close to sixty years and maybe half as many pairs of glasses have gone by since then. It is 1992. Things around my house have turned squalid enough to make me take my glasses off more often so that the rubbish heap outside my gate turns into a mass of bright colors and the billboard beyond is a hazy blue-and-yellow rectangle that might have been the bungalow which stood there before blind-eyed apartments replaced it.
What has not changed is the anticipation with which I wait for the postman. The other day I was rewarded, a package arrived. A padded airmail envelope, bulky, and the postmark tells me it has been on its way for three weeks, all the way from Vancouver, Canada. I have put it on the chest of drawers. Every day I bring it down, feel its weight, pick up the knife I will use to slit the envelope open, and then I put it back where it was. The package has something to do with my mother, I know, and I hesitate to open it. What if it contains nothing of consequence?
What if it does?
The morning after it came, I woke to the sound of my dogs howling in unison, who knows at what, and I was overtaken at that instant with the single thought that it was imperative for me to make a will. There are things I want people to remember, and these I must write down. Things I want people to forget that I must burn. A few saplings I still need to plant even if I don’t live to see them grow to trees. I need to see that the dogs are provided for, that Ila has enough on which to survive. She is widowed, she lives in the main house with her daughter and grandchild. Her daughter’s husband is in the merchant navy and is gone half the year. She depends on me.
It is irrational, this certainty that my time is over when I am only in my mid-sixties, but I have felt the earth wobbling on its ungainly axis for a few years now. I could put away my thoughts of gloom and doom and open the parcel, but I decide not to. For the moment there it sits, pulsing with the energy every unopened letter in the world has.
But why not open it? What, after all, will it contain that I don’t know? Am I deferring pleasure or am I afraid of what I might find?
I might find a photograph or drawing of my mother in it—I might not. There was a time in my life long ago—I was thirteen and had just started smoking—when I thought that if I had a picture of her in front of me, I would press the glowing end of a cigarette into the circles of her eyes, as I did into those rubbery gray ticks I found lurking in my dog’s coat. I would blind her. I would kill the spell cast by her absent presence.
Immediately horrified at myself, I would shoot at a bottle with my old airgun or slash a sickle through the long grass at the back of the garden to rid myself of the nausea that came from thinking such thoughts.
For me, making a will should not be as momentous an event as it might for richer, more successful men who have wealth and estates to worry about. I have few possessions. I still live in the house where I was born—not the same building, but the old outbuilding in its grounds. I have never left it except for a few years when I went to New Delhi for my first job, which was to work with an Englishman named Alick Percy-Lancaster who was responsible after independence came for laying out the city’s public gardens, planting the trees that would line its avenues, managing the government plant nurseries. I was twenty when I went and could have made a life there, but I did not stay long. I needed Muntazir, the sense of hills nearby. When Mr. Percy-Lancaster decided in 1956 to go and live in Rhodesia, I came back home. I got an appointment with the district magistrate and told him our town deserved more than a mere municipal department that watered the parks and planted bougainvillea; a horticultural division was required, for the whole district. The work involved ecology, city planning, botany, water management: it was a science that needed someone qualified. I brought with me drawings and city plans that showed how our town could be transformed into a green oasis of tree-filled beauty, how its outlying areas could be turned into watersheds. By the end, I was exhausted by my own loquaciousness.
The district magistrate was a man in his first posting, not much older than I was then, and eager to make a difference. To my surprise,
my persuasion worked and a new department was created. For quite a few years I was its sole member. Superintendent of Horticulture. I had nobody to superintend, and no office, only a desk in one corner of the municipal corporation, but every morning I presided over meetings with half a dozen gardeners, typed up minutes nobody would read, and then walked around the town for the rest of the day making notes, telling myself changing landscapes was slow business.
My horticultural work took me to tea gardens in Assam and orchards in Himachal; once I was a consultant at a butterfly park; another time an ecological advisor at a national park, but I always came back to my own job, glorified gardener in a small town. Where other people have fixed deposits and money and houses to bequeath their descendants, I point to avenues of trees and say, “I am leaving you those.” I show them the line of Ceiba speciosa in front of the courthouse that turns brilliant pink every year. On the roads where I planted alternate white and purple Bauhinia, the orchid-like flowers cover the pitted pavements of the grim little suburbs, transforming them for weeks. Parties of bulbuls and parakeets arrive to feed on the blossoms; stout matrons beg little boys to climb the trees and pluck the buds for them to cook. Now that I am thought of as a crank, I have no compunction charging at the women with my walking stick aloft.
“Leave those buds alone. Let the flowers bloom!”
They break away from the tree, grumbling curses, “Old crackpot, chews up your head for nothing.” They call me a grouch, a humorless pain in the arse.
I don’t mind. This is what I am leaving the world, I think to myself in grandiose moments such as these, when I sit with paper and pen before me, only the words I, Myshkin Chand Rozario written down. I am leaving the world trees that cover the town with shade, fruits, flowers. I am old enough to have watched saplings I planted grow into trees forty feet high.
I thought of the amaltas and gulmohur along Begum Akhtar Marg, a road near the station. I pulled every possible string and wrote off letters to editors and governors to ensure the road had that name. A woman who had given the world passion and music all her troubled
life—and they only name roads after politicians. Afterwards, I planted Delonix regia and Cassia fistula down the length of her avenue—something to reflect the romance and intensity of the singer—and now it is a fireworks display of red and gold through the summer.
I can remember cycling furiously down Begum Akhtar Marg when it was nothing but a barren, baking earthen path on the way from school to the railway station. It was the summer of 1942, and I had to get to the station before a train left because rumor had made its way to our school that it was a train with a cargo never seen before. When I reached the platform it was olive and khaki with soldiers and there was a small crowd staring at the train, a long one with barred windows and policemen standing guard at every door. Heat hummed around the train. I touched one of the coaches and my hand felt as if it had been burnt. A policeman grinned, asked if I wanted to climb in and go to jail too.
Through the windows I could see men who appeared too dazed to do more than look outside with dead eyes. The train had only men. White men. They leaned their heads against the window bars, some of them asleep, others awake but stupefied, tired zoo animals crammed into cages too small for them. Their faces were dirty and drawn, their greasy hair was plastered to their skulls with sweat, flies sat on them but they did nothing about it. In the gloom of the compartments, further inside, there appeared to be more men just like the ones at the windows. Legs and arms dangled limply from the upper bunks, bodies slumped against other sleeping bodies.
We had never seen white people so abject. We were accustomed to Indians being skeletal and diseased but white men were born never to resemble them.
I walked along the platform and then back again as the train waited. Trains with foreign prisoners of war normally went through Muntazir without stopping, and some people said the halt that afternoon had been made for the train to stock up on drinking water and food; some said a few prisoners had died of the heat and their decaying bodies were being offloaded because of the stench.
Muntazir’s train line terminated at the start of the Himalayan
foothills twenty or so miles further ahead, and from there the men would be transported to nearby Dehradun to be imprisoned for the rest of the war. Italian prisoners of war were being sent mainly to Rajasthan, Poles to Jamnagar, and Germans to Dehradun—or so the newspapers said. The camp at Dehradun was the largest and now had prisoners from several countries, thousands of them, sent there from long distances away, even from Africa and the Mediterranean. My grandfather said the world had been replicated in miniature at that camp.
As the train blew a few impatient whistles and set off in a cloud of smoke, one of the men pressed his face against a window. His head was shaven bald and tiny insects buzzed around the many sores on his scalp. I could see a band of gray skin through his open shirt front. The man smiled straight at me. After a second’s hesitation, I started to run alongside the train and pulled out a few boiled sweets I had in my pocket. I passed them to the man through the window. Nobody stopped me, a schoolboy chasing a train. I ran alongside it until the shade of the platform’s tin roof ended, the platform turned to grassy dirt, and I was out under the impassive white-hot sky, my head reeling from the change of light, my sun-blinded eyes swimming with dots of bright color.
What had I hoped to find at the station? I did not know then that the answers to a hundred urgent questions in my head were stored in one man lying in a heatstroke stupor in the coach fourth from the front on that train which was going further and further away from me with every exhalation of soot.
By the time my eyes adjusted to the light, all I could see was the guard’s van in which a soldier stood facing the retreating station, green flag in one hand, jug of water in the other. He tilted his head back and poured the water all over himself, soaking his shirt and his face.
I have long had a habit of noting down the interesting plants and trees that I spot, whether in my daily rounds of this town or when I traveled out, especially during my plant-gathering treks with two friends from my undergraduate class. I find now that my brisk scientific jottings and the drawings that accompany them can bring back particular walks in
mountains and marshland, long nights in flimsy tents, the leopard we once saw perched stone-still on a tree branch, observing us with an expressionless menace that turned our bones to water, the river that almost swept me away as I bent too close to examine a weed, and the cliff on which I lost my footing trying to reach a saxifrage on a rock just out of reach. A botanical journal. A route map of my wanderings. On some days it appears as if all my time on earth has gone like a blurred, inconsequential scene rushing past a moving window, and at such times my jottings slow me down, return me to places, give those places names and meaning. A note about the differences between Datura suaveolens (angel’s trumpet, innocuous) and Datura stramonium (thorn apple, poisonous) brings back the whole scene—snatches of our argument that night about the differences between the two plants, how we cooked rice in our saucepan, then smoked and talked of things one talks of only when one is young and sitting around a fire miles away from home, sheathed in darkness, no sound but rustles in the trees, no smell but the dizzying scent of the datura and our harsh, unfiltered cigarettes. I am of a temperament that needs the written word. For anything to have meaning, it has to be set down, it must live on paper before it is fully alive in my head. It has to be a series of words in sequence in order to reveal a meaning and pattern.
I have put aside my unmade will.
The package is before me, still sealed, the image of a god with powers I cannot fathom. Before I make preparations for a tidy ending to my life, it appears necessary to write down whatever strikes me as significant about the beginning.
When I began to put down the words that follow, trying to make my growing-up years coherent to myself, I found I had only a hazy notion of the time or the weather on the particular day I was writing about, or the words that were spoken, or the sequence of events. Yet many things I want to forget remain painfully vivid. Images pass through my mind like flashes of light enveloped by darkness. At first I tried to be diligent. I got in touch with my two trekking mates from college, I asked Dinu questions: Do you remember this? Don’t you remember that? His recollections so often differed from mine that our conversations ended
in arguments. I returned to the places of my childhood to check—was there really a cave by the river or a Gothic mansion at the corner of Hafizabagh where my grandfather took me once? We had seen two horses grazing on the front lawns and inside the cavernous house were four-poster beds, enameled washbasins, jardinières, and a ballroom with a sprung floor where the wild-eyed Nawab of Hafizabagh had appeared in a grimy cotton vest and lungi and begged my grandfather to sell everything in the house for him because he had no money.
At the riverbank I found a power plant, its four monstrous chimneys throwing out smoke that drained the sky of color. The mansion in Hafizabagh was still there, although half of it had become a pile of fallen masonry and what stood was blackened by time, wind, rain.
In telling the story of any life, and certainly when telling our own, we cannot pretend we are narrating everything just as it happened. Our memories come to us as images, feelings, glimpses, sometimes fleshed out, sometimes in outline. Time solidifies as well as dissolves. We have no precise recollection of how long things took: a few days, weeks, a month? Chunks of time are a blank, while others grow to be momentous in retrospect. I believe this is true for most people. Over the years, when friends contradicted me over details, my uncertain hold over my memories began to make me think I would no longer recognize myself in old photographs, the person in those black-and-white images was somebody else. Think too hard and you might think yourself into lunacy.
In one of his poems Rabindranath Tagore says:
I cannot remember my mother
But when in the early autumn morning
The fragrance of the shiuli floats in the air
The scent of the morning prayers in the
temple comes to me as a scent of my mother.
The poet lost his mother when he was fourteen; I was only nine the year my mother left. How can it be, then, that she is as close to me
as my own reflection in the mirror? Present in every detail and yet imprisoned in a different element, unreachable. Entire conversations come back to me, incidents, arguments, the way she would line her eyes with kajal, the fresh flowers in her hair, the circle of red kumkum on her forehead which was invariably smudged by mid-afternoon. How she recited rhymes to make me memorize them, how her skin was the color of beaten gold and her eyes slanted, how those slanted eyes had an impish gleam. I am certain I truly remember these things and have not built impressions up from stories and photographs.
Yet the older I grow, the less certain I am of certainty.
One of my mother’s contemporaries—of whom I will have more to say later—wrote a book in which she recalled events from forty-two years before. I can make no more than a clumsy translation of how she describes the machinery of time in the working of memory.
“As I went down the stairs my body was trembling . . .” she writes, and then interrupts herself to ask:
Did it happen that very day? I can’t be sure. I kept no journal, I am writing neither from a diary nor from memory. I cannot tell if I am writing these events as they happened, one by one. But what appeared then as if they happened one by one—now they have neither beginning nor end. Now these days are simultaneously in my present—oh, I cannot explain. Why is it hard to explain? After all, Arjuna saw all of the universe, past and present, in Sri Krishna’s opened mouth. I too see things in that way. You have to believe me. These are not memories, these are my present. At every moment I am getting closer to the year 1930. I can feel the year 1930 on my skin.
It is the year 1937 that I feel on my skin.