It is 1927, and after studying in England for several miserable and lonely years, nineteen-year-old Mollie Kaye is joyfully reunited with India, the cherished country where she spent her early years. But the enthusiasm that marks her return dampens when she takes her first steps into the intimidating Delhi social scene. Feeling gawky and plain next to her vivacious, intrepid mother, the etiquette of courtship and society's intricate rules fluster her. Seeking refuge from her public awkwardness, Mollie finds comfort in her Indian friends, her sister Bets and her beloved father Tacklow, her growing talent for watercolors, and above all her ongoing love affair with India itself.
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Being the Second Part of Share of Summer, her Autobiography
By M. M. Kaye
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1997 M. M. Kaye
All rights reserved.
How does one describe Memory? The Shorter Oxford Dictionary, which weighs around six and a half pounds and ought to know, goes into it at some length. According to its compilers, Memory is 'the faculty by which things are remembered'; 'recollection'; 'the fact or condition of being remembered'; 'exemption from oblivion' (I rather fancy that one); and, among other things, 'a memorial writing'; 'a record'; 'a history'; 'a tomb, shrine, chapel, or the like'. And by way of illustration, this information is followed up by a flurry of quotations; notably one from Chaucer (he of The Canterbury Tales, circa AD 1340–1400), which states briefly that he was 'yet in memorie and alyve'.
Well, so for the present, am I. And so much for the Shorter Oxford Dictionary.
I have not consulted the long one, which runs to an incredible number of volumes, but I doubt if it supplies much more information on this head, and I am quite sure that it fails to mention that Memory (mine, at all events) is a chancy thing with a mind of its own. It picks and chooses at random, rejecting any number of names, dates and incidents of (possibly) world-wide importance, which you would have thought it might have had the sense to retain, while preserving instead a whole rag-bag of odds and ends: a few lines of verse read long ago in an old pre-war copy of an American magazine, an almond tree in bloom in the garden of a shabby little Dâk-bungalow above the Kashmir road, and a full moon rising behind the enormous lateen sails of a fleet of Chinese junks setting out at dusk to fish in the Yellow Sea ...
I am not criticizing my memory for its quirkiness in this matter of choice, because I have come to realize that, as memories go, it is Grade A and I am very fortunate in possessing it, since a majority of my friends (and both my daughters) seem unable to remember in any detail anything that happened more than a few years ago. I, on the other hand, have the pleasing illusion that I remember everything. Though I know very well that this cannot possibly be true, and that a great deal must have fallen through the net and been washed away by time; some of it, I suspect, of some importance — or historical importance, anyway. Yet, as I look back along the long road of my life, which in retrospect seems so astonishingly short, I don't regret the choices my memory has made. For even if I remember nothing else, that almond tree, and the autumn moon lighting the fishing junks out into the Yellow Sea, will surely serve as acceptable coin to pay the Ferryman for taking me across that last river. While as for those few lines of verse, they should furnish me with a password on the other side.
But, while I am 'yet in memorie and alyve', I find that remembering stands so high in my list of favourite things that I am astonished by the number of people who say, 'Oh, I never look back! The past is over and done with, and since it can't be altered one should throw it out with the bathwater and forget it. "Always look forward" is my motto!'
Well, all right. But why not do both? What's wrong with looking back? Apart from anything else, I should have thought that some of our more truculent nations and their governments, and/or dictators, might even begin to learn a thing or two by doing so. (Such as, for instance, that taking over Afghanistan isn't really quite as easy as you may think.)
There have been black patches, of course, some very harrowing ones. But we all get those, and, personally, I look back on most of my life with the greatest delight. In particular, on the joyful day of my return to the lovely land of my birth after almost nine years of exile in a boarding-school in England.
I had been so afraid that I would never see it again, and on every day of those interminable years I had badgered God in my nightly prayers to please, please do something about it. But although my brother Bill had managed to return there and was now serving as a gunner in a mountain battery on the North West Frontier, there seemed to be no chance at all of my ever getting back to the lovely land in which I had been born and spent the first ten years of my life. And then, out of a dingy sky in which I could detect no trace of blue, appeared a miracle in the form of an elderly British postman, who bore a letter from the Government of India asking my father, who had retired a few years previously, if he would please undertake the revision of Aitchison's Treaties, a task that would necessitate his return to India for a limited time — probably a year at most.
My father, whom, as I have had occasion to point out before, we always called 'Tacklow' (though we truly hadn't any idea why), accepted. But since he had seen almost nothing of his children during their school-years — in Bill's case a mere ten days between the ages of six and sixteen! — he decided that enough was enough, and that whatever it cost he would take Mother, my sister Bets and me out with him. The miracle that I had prayed for — and I still think of it as one — had actually been granted me and I was going back. It seemed too good to be true.
In September of 1927 the four of us boarded the SS City of London, and now, at last, after three weeks at sea, here was India again. And as I stepped off the police launch that our host in Calcutta, Sir Charles Tegart, Bengal's Chief-of-Police, had sent to take us off the ship, I was sorely tempted to do something that might not seem too over-the-top in these days, since the present Pope has made a habit of it whenever he visits a foreign country. Tempted to fall on my knees and kiss the ground because it was India's soil that my feet were standing on once again.
However, the first Polish Pope can barely have been born then, and since at that time I was far too young and self-conscious (and, thanks to that English boarding-school, far too British) to indulge in such continental gestures, I could only stand there like a dummy, struggling to swallow the lump in my throat and pretending that I had a bit of grit in my eye, while my parents greeted the Tegarts and shook hands with or embraced the large number of people who had come down to the docks to welcome them back again.
All of these, with one joyful exception, were strangers to me. The exception was Abdul Karim, our ex-abdar-cum-khitmatgar, who, back in that sad, traumatic spring of 1919 when Bets and I had been taken down to Bombay to board the SS Ormond and begin the long years of exile, boarding-school, and separation from our parents, had stood in for Tacklow's old bearer, dear Alum Din of fond memory, who had been absent on sick-leave and whose portrait I included over half a century later in one of my India novels, The Far Pavilions.
Alum Din had died and Abdul Karim had stepped into his shoes. But when Tacklow retired, Abdul had decided that he too would take his pension and return to end his days in his home village, giving as his reason that he had grown old in Kaye-Sahib's service; too old to learn another sahib's ways or face the prospect of working for anyone else. It was, he said, high time that his sons and grandsons shouldered the responsibility of looking after him and let him sit back and take his ease in the shade. But although he and my father had corresponded fairly regularly since then and had been punctilious in the matter of exchanging greetings on feast days and festivals, Tacklow had not written to say that he would shortly be returning. This was largely because he had found himself overwhelmed with an avalanche of chores, but also because Tacklow was afraid that if he wrote to tell Abdul of his return, the old man might regard it as a hint that he should return to work and consider it his duty to do so, even though advancing years, and a long spell of idleness, might well have made this beyond him.
'I'll write to him later on, when we're more settled and know where we are likely to be, and for how long,' said Tacklow. But he had reckoned without India's superbly efficient grapevine. For there, on the dock at Calcutta's Garden Reach, waiting to take us under his wing and boss us around as firmly as ever, stood Abdul Karim.
I am ashamed to say that I didn't recognize him immediately, because he had dyed his beard a ferocious and improbable scarlet, and when I had said goodbye to him all those years ago in Bombay it had been grey. Then, too, he seemed so much smaller than the tall, burly Punjabi I remembered; as though he had shrunk in the passing years. Or was it only because I myself had grown upward — and outward! — during that time, and so no longer had to look up so far when he spoke to me? A bit of both, probably. I recognized him suddenly when he stooped quickly to touch Tacklow's feet, and the two embraced as old friends.
Long ago, a man who had been a friend of Abdul's, Kashmera, Sir Charles Cleveland's shikari and one of the most admired friends of my childhood, had told me that I must not cry in public; it was shurram (shame), and Angrezi-log (English people) never did so! But it seemed that this spartan rule did not apply to men of his own race, for there were tears trickling down Abdul Karim's leathery old cheeks as he took a firm grip of the reins which he had relinquished on the day when Tacklow and Mother had left India for what they, and he, had believed would be the last time.
Now here they were, back again; and in the charming tradition of that most charming of lands, their Indian friends crowded round to garland them with necklaces of flowers or tinsel, which they hung about my parents' necks in such numbers that if Tacklow — who was a small man — had not been wearing the topi he had bought at Simon Artz shop in Port Said, we would not have been able to see the top of his head.
One of his friends, a tubby little Bengali who was a High Court judge, had been thoughtful enough to bring two splendid garlands of jasmine buds and silver tinsel for Bets and me, so that we should not feel left out. I could have kissed that man! Bets and I made namaste and, thus honoured and decorated, we stepped into a second car, together with the overnight suitcases, and set off in the wake of the one that carried our parents and the Tegarts, Abdul Karim following grandly behind in a third, in charge of the heavy luggage.
Calcutta was not part of 'my India', for I had been born some 2,000 miles to the north-west of that great port, in the little hill town of Simla, which lies among the foothills of the Himalayas within sight of the uncharted snows. Here, in the days of the Raj, the Government of India, together with the Viceroy, the Commander-in-Chief, the Governor of the Punjab, and the whole of Army Headquarters — plus innumerable wives, families and holiday-makers — used to spend the months of the hot weather, escaping the intolerable heat of the plains. In autumn, with the coming of the cold weather, we would all descend, bag and baggage, 'Uncle Tom Cobley and all', to those same plains; most of us to Delhi, which by then would be no more than pleasantly warm and no longer sweltering in temperatures of between 115° and 125° in the shade.
By 'Delhi', I mean Old Delhi, for when I was a child New Delhi — the latest (and possibly last) of the cities of Delhi — had yet to be built. My Delhi was the wonderful walled city that the Mogul Emperor Shah Jehan, self-styled 'Ruler of the World', built for himself on the banks of the Jumna river among the ruins of the six previous Delhis that had been built and fallen into ruins on those plains. That was my Delhi, and I loved every stick and stone of it.
Calcutta, on the Hoogly, not only lay a long, dusty, two and a half days' train journey to the south-east (no aeroplanes in those days) but was the capital city of Bengal. And there are a good many differences between Bengalis and the Himalayan hill folk; or, come to that, between the people of the UP — the United Provinces. But I couldn't have cared less, as the car whisked us away from Garden Reach to the city that was once no more than a slimy mudflat, almost covered with water at every tide — for the Hoogly is a tidal river.
As far back as 1690 the mudflat had been given, in no kindly spirit (the gift had, in fact, been intended as a deliberate insult), by the local overlord, one Nawab Ibrahim Khan, to a Mr Job Charnock of the East India Company, in response to a petition for a site on which to build a small trading-post. Charnock had swallowed the insult and, having accepted the mudflat with every appearance of gratitude, landed on it at low tide accompanied by thirty of the Company's soldiers, whom he set to work raising an enclosing wall, inside which they then built strong fortifications which Job named Fort William for the then King of England, William of Orange.
That erstwhile mudflat was destined to become the great city of Calcutta — which to this day can often carry a distinct smell of sewage; as it must have done on the day that Mr Charnock and his long-suffering thirty began shovelling up the mud and the mudworms and banking up the stuff against the returning tide.
Perhaps because of its beginnings, Calcutta has the reputation of being one of India's more insalubrious cities, and nowadays, despite the almost fanatical loyalty and affection in which a majority of its citizens hold it, there is no denying that much of it is a major eyesore. But as we drove through its streets on that memorable evening it seemed, to my infatuated gaze, the most beautiful city in the world, populated by the most colourful and enchanting people and smelling of everything that I had missed for so long: sandalwood, incense and spices; masala, mustard oil, garlic and ghee; the heady smell of smoke from dung fires and the never-to-be-forgotten one of water sprinkled on sun-scorched ground. And, underneath it all, that faint, pervasive odour of sewage and rotting vegetable matter which is apt to haunt the bazaars and the poorer quarters of any Indian city, but which that afternoon was subdued by the sweet scent of fresh flowers — roses and marigolds and frangipani, and the jasmine blossoms in the garlands about my neck.
The Tegarts' house was a tall three-storey mansion that must have dated back to the latter days of the East India Company. It stood among trees in a quiet road well out of earshot of the roar and bustle of Chowringhi, Calcutta's main street, where the European shops and big hotels stand looking out across a stream of traffic to the wide spaces of the maidan and the massive white marble Victoria Memorial, that pretentious would-be Taj Mahal housing a museum that is — or was — very well worth visiting.
One of the Tegarts' house servants took Bets and me up to our bedrooms, which were on the top storey, and I shall never forget the feeling of pure rapture with which I looked around that room, knowing that I had come home again ... No more cluttered British bedrooms with their heavily lined curtains and hideous Axminster carpets. No more frilled or flounced pelmets and cumbersome mahogany furniture, squashy, eiderdowned beds, or fireplaces. No more patterned wallpaper liberally adorned with gilt-framed pictures. They were all in the past — over and done with. This was what the bedrooms of my childhood had looked like, and here once more were those familiar boltless doors, 'and the high ceiled rooms that the Trade blows through' that Kipling had written of, and remembered to the end of his life ...
This room was high and very spacious, with whitewashed walls that were innocent of pictures, and in the centre of it, directly underneath the large, white-painted ceiling-fan, stood a single iron bedstead fitted with poles and a mosquito-net. The polished chunam floor was covered with matting and the furniture consisted of an almirah (a cupboard made from cretonne and criss-crossed slats of wood), a marble-topped dressing-table, a morah (a stool made of reeds), a cheval-glass and a couple of cane chairs. That, apart from a small bedside table, was all. But I wouldn't have added to it or altered it for anything in the world. This was what a proper bedroom ought to look like. It was heaven!
Bets's room opened off it and was slightly smaller than mine. She came running back to me shouting, 'Mouse, do come and look!' and dragged me into her bathroom (there was one to each room). Despite the fact that we were on the top floor, and that there was actually a cold water tap, the bathrooms too were of the old, familiar pattern. The tin tub stood in a stone-paved section ringed off by a brick rim a few inches high, so that when the bath was emptied by being tipped up, the water did not flood the entire floor but drained away through an outlet pipe in one of the corners of the enclosed space. There was a wooden towel-horse and an old-fashioned washstand complete with china fittings, a box-commode, and, standing beside the tin tub, an enormous earthenware chatti (jar) full of cold water, and a tin dipper for ladling it out; the only modern innovation in the room being that single cold tap, from which the chatti was filled. There were wooden jalousies over the windows, and through them we could see the dense green foliage of the trees that towered up outside and filled the high-ceilinged room with a shimmering, watery light, flecked with blobs and ripples of gold as the leaves stirred in the evening breeze.
Excerpted from Golden Afternoon by M. M. Kaye. Copyright © 1997 M. M. Kaye. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. 'Exemption from oblivion',
2. 'Me and my shadow',
3. 'My blue heaven',
5. 'Tales of far Kashmir',
6. 'Song of India',
7. 'Life is just a bowl of cherries',
ALSO BY M. M. KAYE,
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