AN INTRODUCTION BY RUMAAN ALAM
I think my favorite thing about Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s stories is that they are short and also somehow sprawling, big, ambitious. In “At the End of the Century,” a new collection of seventeen of her stories, there are telling details, concise descriptions, snatches of dialogue, and they add up to this sense that there is so much more just beyond the story’s confines. I was going to say the stories are like novels distilled into a few pages, but really, they’re like lives distilled into a few pages, which is even more remarkable.
Her story “A Choice of Heritage” begins with an observation that feels like a statement of purpose: “During the latter half of the last century — maybe since the end of the 1939 war — nothing became more common than what are called mixed marriages.”
Jhabvala’s narrator is a half-Indian, half-English woman; her mother died while she was young but she regularly visits her regal grandmother in Delhi, where she comes to know a prominent politician who once knew her mother.
While “Heritage” does not dramatize the author’s own experiences it is, as so much of her work was, informed by the fact that the author was German-born, Jewish, raised in London, and married an Indian man with whom she emigrated to Delhi. The story is representative of her abiding interests in India, in England, in the relationship between those places, and also in love and family and the intimate aspects of human life, wherever it’s lived.
The story’s lens is narrow but manages to take on a scope that is downright cinematic, fitting for a writer who twice won the Oscar (for her adaptations of “A Room with a View” and “Howards End,” both filmed by James Ivory). She was rightly celebrated for her ability to transform the words of Henry James and E.M. Forster and Kazuo Ishiguro, but her own words, too, deserve an audience.
“Heritage” has feints and turns that feel real, instead of like authorial choices. Jhabvala handles the passage of years, the parade of characters, the changes in their circumstance, by giving us the precise detail, the sentence that communicates as much as a chapter. “When she thought something unfit for me to hear,” the narrator says of her grandmother, “she would cover my ears with her long hands full of rings.” I can almost feel them against my own head.
Author of That Kind of Mother
Finding Your Face in Mine
A Choice of Heritage
by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
During the latter half of the last century — maybe since the end of the 1939 war — nothing became more common than what are called mixed marriages. I suppose they are caused by everyone moving more freely around the world, as refugees or emigrants or just out of restless curiosity. Anyway, the result has been at least two generations of people in whom several kinds of heritage are combined: prompting the questions ‘Who am I? Where do I belong?’ that have been the basis of so much self-analysis, almost self-laceration. But I must admit that, although my ancestry is not only mixed but also uncertain, I have never been troubled by such doubts.
Many members of my father’s totally English family have served in what used to be called the colonies — Africa or India — where they had to be very careful to keep within their national and racial boundaries. This was not the case with my father: at the time of his marriage, he had been neither to India nor to Africa. He met my mother in England, where she was a student at the London School of Economics and he was at the beginning of his career in the civil service. She was an Indian Muslim, lively, eager, intelligent and very attractive. She died when I was two, so what I know of her was largely through what my aunts, my father’s sisters, told me. My father rarely spoke of her.
It is through my Indian grandmother, with whom I spent my school holidays, that I have the most vivid impression of my mother. This may be because my grandmother still lived in the house where my mother had grown up, so that I’m familiar with the ambience of her early years. It was situated in the Civil Lines of Old Delhi, where in pre-Independence days British bureaucrats and rich Hindu and Muslim families had built their large villas set in large gardens. This house — with its Persian carpets spread on marble floors, pierced screens, scrolled Victorian sofas alternating with comfortable modern divans upholstered in raw silk — seemed to me a more suitable background to my mother’s personality, or what I knew of it, than the comfortable middle-class English household where I lived with my father.
My grandmother, no doubt because of her royal style, was known to everyone as the Begum. Every evening she held court in her drawing room, surrounded by male admirers who competed with one another to amuse her and light the cigarettes she endlessly smoked. Her friends had all been at Oxford or Cambridge and spoke English more fluently than their own language. Some of them had wives whom they kept mostly at home; one or two had remained bachelors — for her sake, it was rumored. She was long divorced and lived alone except for her many servants, who were crammed with their families into a row of quarters at the rear of the property. They too vied with each other to be the closest and most important to her, but none of them ever captured this position from her old nurse, known as Amma. It was Amma who had learned to mix the Begum’s vodka and tonic and to serve their favorite drinks to the visitors. During the hot summer months the household moved up into the mountains where there was a similar large sprawling villa and another set of admirers — though they may have been the same ones, except that here they wore flannel trousers and hand-knitted cardigans and came whistling down the mountainside carrying walking sticks over their shoulders like rifles.
There was one visitor who was different from the rest. His name was Muktesh, and when he was expected, she always gave notice to the others to stay away. He had not been to Oxford or Cambridge, and though his English was fluent, it sounded as if he had read rather than heard it. But his Hindi was colloquial, racy, like a language used for one’s most intimate concerns. He was known to be a first-class orator and addressed mammoth rallies all over the country. He was already an important politician when I was a child, and he could never visit the Begum without a guard or two in attendance (later there was a whole posse of them). He was considerate of his escort, and Amma had to serve them tea, which was a nuisance for her. Tea was all he himself ever drank, pouring it in the saucer to cool it. He had simple habits and was also dressed simply in a cotton dhoti that showed his stout calves. His features were broad and articulated like those of a Hindu sculpture; his lips were full, sensual, and his complexion was considerably darker than my grandmother’s or any of her visitors’.
He was definitely not the Begum’s type, yet she appeared to need him. She was very much alone and had been so for years. At the time of Partition she was the only one of her family to stay behind in India while the rest of them migrated to Pakistan; including her husband, who became an important army general there and also the butt of many of the jokes she shared with her friends. They had been separated since the birth of my mother, one year after their marriage. He took another wife in Pakistan, but the Begum never remarried. She preferred the company of her servants and friends to that of a husband.
And Muktesh continued to visit her. He made no attempt to be entertaining but just sat sucking up his tea out of the saucer; solid, stolid, with his thighs apart inside the folds of his dhoti. There were times when he warned her to make arrangements to go to London; and shortly after she left, it usually happened that some situation arose that would have been uncomfortable for her. It is said that Hindu–Muslim riots arise spontaneously, due to some spark that no one can foresee; but Muktesh always appeared to have foreseen it — I don’t know whether this was because he was so highly placed, or that he was exceptionally percipient.
I always enjoyed my grandmother’s visits to London. She stayed at the Ritz and I had tea with her there after school. Sometimes she had tickets for a theatre matinee, but she was usually bored by the interval and we left. Amma accompanied her on her London visits and splashed around in the rain in rubber sandals, the end of her sari trailing in puddles. She grumbled all the time so that the Begum became irritated with her. But actually she herself tired of London very quickly, though she had many admirers here too, including most of the Indian embassy staff. After a time she refused to leave Delhi, in spite of Muktesh’s warnings. ‘Let them come and cut my throat, if that’s what they want,’ she told him with her characteristic laugh, raucous from her constant smoking. And instead of coming to London, she insisted on having me sent to her in India for the whole of my school holidays.
If it had not been that I missed my father so much, I would have been happy to stay in India for ever. I felt it to be a tremendous privilege to be so close to my grandmother, especially as I knew that, except for me, she really didn’t like children. I learned to light her cigarettes and to spray eau de toilette behind her ears. In the evenings when the friends came I helped Amma serve their drinks, and then I would sit with them, on the floor at the Begum’s feet, and listen to the conversation. When she thought something unfit for me to hear, she would cover my ears with her long hands full of rings.
I felt totally at home in Delhi. I had learned to speak the Begum’s refined Urdu as well as the mixture of Hindustani and Punjabi that most people used. All this came in very useful in my later career as a student and translator of Indian literature. I ought to explain that my appearance is entirely Indian, with no trace of my English connections at all. None of them ever commented on this but accepted it completely — accepted me completely, just as I was. And so did the Begum, though I bore no resemblance to her either, or to anyone in her family of Muslim aristocrats. Both she and my mother were slender, with narrow fine limbs, whereas I have a rather chunky build and broad hands and feet. My features are Hindu rather than Muslim — I have the same broad nose and full lips as Muktesh. My complexion too is as dark as his.
I always took it for granted that it was me whom Muktesh came to visit. It was to me that he mostly spoke, not to the Begum. When I was small, he always brought me some toy he had picked up from a street vendor, or made the figure of a man with a turban out of a handkerchief wound around his thumb to waggle at me. At least once during my stay, he would ask for me to be brought to him, and the Begum sent me accompanied by Amma, who became very haughty as if she were slumming. At that time Muktesh had the downstairs part of a two-story whitewashed structure with bars on the windows. He had three rooms, two of them turned into offices where his personal assistant and a clerk sat with cabinets full of files and a large, very noisy typewriter. The remaining room, where he ate and slept, had the same kind of government-issue furniture standing around on the bare cement floor. The walls were whitewashed, and only the office had some pictures of gods hung up and garlanded by the personal assistant. Muktesh himself didn’t believe in anything like that.
However, he did have a photograph of Mahatma Gandhi in his own room, as well as that of another Indian leader — I believe it was an early Communist who looked rather like Karl Marx. Muktesh explained to me that, though he had never met them, these two had been his political inspiration. At the age of sixteen he had joined the Quit India movement and had gone to jail. That was how he had missed out on his higher education and had had to catch up by himself; first in jail, where other political prisoners had guided him, and afterwards by himself with all these books — these books, he said, indicating them crammed on the shelves and spilling over on to the floor from his table and his narrow cot: tomes of history, economics and political science.
It was through his interest in these subjects that he first developed a friendship with my mother. Since I only knew her through the memories of other people, it has been difficult for me to grasp the dichotomy between my mother’s appearance — her prettiness, her love of dress and good taste in it — and the fact that she was a serious student of economics and political science. Even after her marriage to an Englishman, the development and progress of India remained her most passionate concern. Outwardly, she became more Indian while living in England; she wore only saris or salwar-kameez and her Indian jewelery. She often attended functions at the Indian embassy in London, and it was there that she first met Muktesh. He was a member of a parliamentary delegation — I don’t know the exact purpose of their mission, something to do with tariffs and economic reform, anyway it was a subject on which she had many ideas. Perhaps her ideas interested him, perhaps she did, and he invited her to discuss them with him when she next came to Delhi. Since she was there at least once and usually several times a year to be with the Begum, she was soon able to take him up on his invitation.
They must have had long, intense discussions — about public versus private ownership, economic reform and the expansion of social opportunities. From what I have heard of her, I imagine her doing most of the talking, eager to impart all her theories. She walks up and down with her gold bangles jingling. Getting excited, she strikes her fist into her palm, then laughs and turns around and accuses him of laughing at her. And perhaps Muktesh really does smile — his rare, sweet smile with slightly protruding teeth — but mostly he remains massively still, like a stone sculpture, and only his eyes move under his bushy brows to watch her. This is the way I imagine them together.
I must have been seventeen or eighteen when the Begum first spoke to me about my mother and Muktesh. She came out with it suddenly, one day when he had just left us — as usual with all his security personnel and the convoy of jeeps that accompanied him everywhere (there had been too many assassinations). ‘In those days,’ the Begum said, ‘he didn’t need to have all those idiots hanging around drinking tea at our expense. He and she could just meet somewhere — in the Lodhi tombs, by the fort in Tughlakabad: God only knows where it was they went to be together.’ This was my first intimation of the affair — I had had no suspicion of it, but now the Begum spoke as if I had known or should have known all along.
‘One day I cornered him — after all he’s a sensible person, not like your poor mother . . . I told him, “You know how we live here: how everywhere there are a thousand eyes to see, especially when it’s some- one like you . . . ” He waved his hand the way he does when he doesn’t want to hear something, like you’re a fly he’s waving away . . . “Yes,” I said, “it’s fine for you, but what about her? And her husband, the poor chump? And this one — ” meaning you, for you had been born by that time (a very ugly baby, by the way) . . . ’
After this warning, Muktesh seemed to have made some attempt to stay away from my mother. It was hopeless, for when he didn’t show up on the morning of our arrival from England, she commandeered the Begum’s car and drove to his flat and made a scene there in front of his staff. So even if he had been serious about ending the relationship, he never had a chance, and they went on even more recklessly. When he gave a speech in Parliament, she was up in the public gallery, leaning forward to listen to him. She gatecrashed several important diplomatic parties, and if she had difficulty getting in somewhere, she had herself taken there by the Begum, for whom all doors always opened. Consequently, the Begum told me with amusement, a new set of rumors began to float around that it was she, the Begum, who was having an affair with Muktesh. There were all sorts of allegations, which were taken up and embellished by the gossip magazines; and not only those published in Delhi but also in Bombay and Calcutta, for he had already begun to be a national figure. His appearance in these pages was an anomaly — especially in the role of lover, at least to anyone who didn’t know him.
One year, when my mother had come to India with me, my father took leave for a week or two to join us. He gave no notice of his impending arrival beyond a sudden cable announcing it. My mother took it straight away to her mother: ‘Do you think he’s heard something?’ The Begum shrugged: ‘How could he not? The way you’ve been carrying on.’
But if he had, it seemed he gave no sign of it. I have tried to give an impression of Muktesh, and now I must try to do the same for my father. If you think of the traditional Englishman — not of this but of a previous era — then you would have some idea of my father. He was tall, upright and athletic (he had been a rowing blue), with an impassive expression but an alert and piercing look in his light blue eyes. During weekdays in London he wore a dark suit and his old school tie and always carried a rolled umbrella against the weather; in the country, where we spent most weekends, he had a baggy old tweed jacket with leather elbow patches. He smoked a pipe, which he did not take out of his mouth when he cracked one of his puns or jokes, at which he never smiled. He wanted people to think he had no sense of humor. Otherwise he did not care what anyone thought of him. He cared for his duty, for his work, for his country — for these he had, as did Muktesh, a silent deep-seated passion; as he had, of course, again like Muktesh, for my mother.
His time in Delhi was largely spent playing cards with the Begum or doing crosswords with her, finishing them even more quickly than she did. Unfortunately it was the middle of the hot season and, perspiring heavily, he suffered horribly from prickly heat. Like myself in later years, my mother loved the Delhi heat — the mangoes, the scent of fresh jasmine wound around one’s hair and wrists, and sleeping on string cots up on the Begum’s terrace under a velvet sky of blazing stars. My father was very interested in early Hindu architecture, like the amphitheater at Suraj Khund, but on this visit it was much too hot for him to go out there. Since this was a private visit, he did not think it proper to call on any of the senior government officials — his opposite numbers here, whom he knew quite well from their visits to London. I think he himself was relieved when the two weeks were up and he could return home.
The Begum said she certainly was; as for my mother and Muktesh, they never told anyone anything, but no doubt they were glad to have these last few weeks of her stay to themselves. She and I followed my father to England in September, after the monsoon, but we were back again the following January. She could never stay away for long.
During the months in between her visits to India, my mother led a very conventional life at home. I have this information from my father’s two sisters (‘your boring aunts’, the Begum called them). My mother seemed to have charmed them, and they gave the impression that she too had been charmed — by England, by their way of life: the family Christmases, fireworks on Guy Fawkes night, the village pageant of medieval English history. In her country garden she gathered plums and apples from her trees and bottled jams and chutneys; although in India she had, like her mother, hardly been inside a kitchen, she learned to roast, to baste, to bake, with a rattle of the gold bangles that she never took off. Both my aunts had very happy marriages and took their devotion to their husbands too much for granted to feel the need to demonstrate it. But my mother couldn’t do enough to show her love for my father. When he came home from his long day at Whitehall, she would make him sit by the fire, she would light his pipe and bring his slippers and whatever else she had heard or read that English wives did for their husbands. ‘No, let me,’ she would say, ‘let me,’ when he protested, embarrassed at having such a fuss made over him.
Yet her visits to India became more frequent, and longer. He made no objection, perfectly understood that she wanted to see her mother, was homesick for India. How could she not be? And he was grateful that, while she was with him in England, she gave no indication of her longing for that other, different place. During her absence, he wrote her long letters — which she did not open. The Begum kept them, also without opening them, so I have been the first person ever to read them.
And having read them, I can understand my mother’s reluctance to do so. They express him completely, his personality shining through the small neat civil service script and his longing for her through his deadpan account of domestic trifles: how Mrs Parrot the housekeeper and the milkman had got into a fight over some cream that had prematurely gone off; how he had tried to have a quiet dinner at his club but had been caught by a very tiresome chap who knew all about India; how he had rescued a sparrow from the jaws of next door’s cat and had given it water and a worm till it was calm enough to fly away . . . Each letter said not once but several times that everything was fine, he was muddling through, and yes of course not to think of coming home till the Begum had perfectly recovered from her bout of flu.
My mother died of cholera — not in India but in England, where this disease had been wiped out so long ago that English doctors failed to identify it in time. One of my aunts took me away to her house and kept me for several months until my father was able to have me back. Although my aunts loved to talk about my father’s happy marriage to my mother, they never spoke of her death and how it affected him. It was as if they didn’t want to remember their brother — so calm, so anchored — as he was during that year. They were reluctant to return me to him but he insisted. He never remarried. My mother’s portrait, painted by an Indian woman artist, hung in our living-room in the country, an enlarged photograph in the flat in town. In the former she is pensive, with sad eyes, in the latter she is smiling. Perhaps the painter wasn’t very good but, to me, the portrait conveys less of her than does the photograph. Or it may be that to smile — to be lively and alive — was more characteristic of her, of the way that people told me that she was.
Muktesh never married, which is very unusual for an Indian. He spent his days and nights — he rarely slept more than a few hours — in the service of his party, of Parliament, of politics. When he said he had no time to get married, it was true. He rarely managed to get to see his old mother in Bikaner. He used to tell me how she despaired at his lack of a wife: ‘And when you’re sick, who will look after you?’ He would smile and point upward in a direction he didn’t believe in but she did. He didn’t get sick but he didn’t get married either. Year after year, more and more desperately, she found brides for him — girls of their own caste, modest, domesticated. But he was used to my mother, who argued with him about subjects of vital concern to them both. When they took long car rides together, he whiled away the time composing poetry; she worked on her PhD thesis that she didn’t live to present.
Their last long car ride together was to Bikaner. He had to go to a meeting of his election committee in the district from which he was returned year after year. They travelled for a day and a night, across long stretches of desert. They got very thirsty and drank whatever was available — the glasses of over-sweet and milky tea that Muktesh was so fond of, or buttermilk churned out of fly-spotted curds. Once, when there was nothing else, they made do with stagnant water out of an old well. Neither of them ever had a thought for disease, she out of recklessness (the Begum called it stupidity), he out of his optimistic fatalism.
I have only his account of that day in Bikaner, and he was busy till it was time to set off again the same night. All day he had left her in his mother’s house, with no comment other than that she should be looked after. His mother was used to his arrival with all sorts of people and had learned to ask no questions. She was an orthodox Hindu, and for all she knew he might have brought her untouchables, beef-eaters; but from him she accepted everything and everyone. By the time he had finished his meetings and returned to the house, he found his mother, and mine, sitting comfortably together on a cot in the courtyard, eating bread and pickle. The neighbors were peering in at them, and his mother seemed proud to be entertaining this exotic visitor — her fair- complexioned face uncovered and her vivacious eyes darting around the unfamiliar surroundings, taking everything in with pleasure the way she did everywhere.
Even well into her sixties, the Begum continued to be surrounded by admirers. They came in the evenings and had their usual drinks, no longer served by Amma but by Amma’s granddaughter. Otherwise everything was unchanged — including the Begum herself who still chain-smoked. At home she was always in slacks and a silk shirt and her hair was cut short and shingled; but there was something languid and feminine about her. She relaxed in a long chair with her narrow feet up and crossed at the ankles while she joked and gossiped with friends. They had two favorite targets: the crude contemporary politicians who amassed fortunes to cover their fat wives and daughters with fat jewels, and the wooden-headed army generals, one of whom had long ago had the misfortune to be her husband. ‘What did I know?’ she still lamented. ‘My family said his family was okay — meaning they had as much money and land as we had — and at seventeen I liked his uniform though by eighteen I couldn’t stand the fool inside it.’
It was only in Muktesh’s presence that she was not exactly tense — that would have been impossible for her — but less relaxed. By this time he was very important indeed and his visits involved elaborate security arrangements. He himself, in hand-spun dhoti and rough wool waist- coat, remained unchanged. Whenever I was there, he came as often as he could, mostly very late at night, after a cabinet meeting or a state banquet. The Begum, saying she was very tired, went to bed. I knew she didn’t sleep but kept reading for many hours, propped up by pillows, smoking and turning the pages of her books. She read only male authors and went through whole sets of them — ten volumes of Proust, all the later novels of Henry James, existentialist writers like Sartre and Camus whom everyone had been reading when she was young and traveling in Europe, usually with a lover.
Muktesh talked to me about the reforms he was trying to push through; he spoke of dams, monetary loans, protest groups, obstructive opposition parties and rebels within his own party. He spoke to me of his concerns in the way he must have done with my mother; but his mood was different. When he was young, he said, he could afford to have theories, high principles. Now he didn’t have time for anything except politics; and he drew his hand down his face as if to wipe away his weariness. But I felt that, though his mind and days were swallowed up by business and compromise, the ideals formed in his youth were still there, the ground on which he stood. And I might as well say here that, in a country where every public figure was suspected of giving and receiving favors, his integrity was unquestioned, unspoken even. It wasn’t an attribute with him, it was an essence: his essence.
Whenever Muktesh came on one of his official visits to London, he took off an hour or two to be with me and my father. We usually met in an Indian restaurant, a sophisticated place with potted palms and Bombay-Victorian furniture and a mixed clientele of rich Indians and British Indophiles who liked their curry hot. In later years, there were always several security people seated at a discreet distance from our table. My father was the host — he insisted, and Muktesh, though always ready to pick up bills and pay for everyone, gracefully yielded. He and my father were both generous in an unobtrusive way, and it was not the only quality they shared. My father was as English as it was possible to be and Muktesh as Indian, but when I was with them, I felt each to be the counterpart of the other. Although they had many subjects of interest to them both, there were long silences while each prepared carefully to present a point to the other. ftey both spoke slowly — my father habitually and Muktesh because he was expressing himself in English, which he had first learned as a teenager in jail. Muktesh ate rapidly the way Indians do, neatly scooping up food with his fingers, and he was already dabbling them in a bowl with a rose petal floating in it, while my father was still following his Gladstonian ideal of chewing each mouthful thirty-two times. Occasionally they turned to me, in affectionate courtesy, to ask my opinion — as if I had any! I wasn’t even listening to their conversation. I knew nothing of the checks and counterbalances between an elected government and a highly trained bureaucracy — one of their favorite subjects — but I loved to look from one to the other. The evening always ended early because Muktesh had to return to the embassy to prepare papers for his next day’s meetings. When we got up, so did the security personnel. Several diners recognized Muktesh and greeted him, and he joined his hands to them and addressed them by name if he remembered them, which as a good politician was surprisingly often. A splendid doorman bowed as he opened the doors to the street for him. ‘Aren’t you cold?’ I asked Muktesh, for even in the London winter he wore the same cotton clothes as in India, with only a rough shawl thrown over him. He laughed at my question and drew me close to say goodbye. I could feel the warmth of his chest streaming through the thin shirt and his strong heart beating inside it.
In what was to be the last year of his life, he wanted to take me to meet his mother. But when I told the Begum of this plan, she shouted ‘No!’ in a way I had never heard her shout before. She lit a new cigarette and I saw that her hands were shaking. She always hated to show emotion — it was what made her appear so proud and contemptuous; and it was also one of the reasons, a physical as well as emotional distancing, that she didn’t like to be touched. I knew that her present emotion, the mixture of anger and fear, was a revival of the past, when my mother had returned from her visit to Bikaner — travel-stained, exhausted and with the beginning of the sickness that would flare up on her journey back to England. I tried to reassure the Begum: ‘You know Muktesh doesn’t travel that way any more — ’ for nowadays there was always a special plane and a retinue of attendants.
But it wasn’t only fear of the journey that upset the Begum: ‘God only knows where and how she lives.’
‘And she must be ninety years old now, probably can’t see or hear and won’t care a damn who you are or why he brought you.’ Although this was her first reference to the possible alternative of my begetting, she cut it short, dismissed it immediately — ‘Well, go then, if that’s what he wants — but if you dare to eat or drink a thing in that place, I’ll kill you.’ She had a way of gnashing her teeth, not with anger but with a pain that was as alive now as it had been these last twenty years. Or if there was anger, it was at herself for not being able to hide it, or at me for witnessing even the smallest crack in her stoical surface. ‘All right,’ I said, ‘I promise,’ and I kissed her face quickly before she had time to turn it away.
But my other grandmother — if that was what she was — liked to touch and to be touched. She sat very close to me and kept running her fingers over my hair, my hands, my face. Muktesh had gone off to his meetings and left me with her the way he had left my mother, without explanation. Or had he told her something about me — and if so, what had she understood that made her so happy in my presence? We were in the same house and courtyard that my mother had visited, maybe even sitting on the same string cot, now several decades older and more tattered. Many years ago, to save his mother from the usual lot of a Hindu widow, Muktesh had taken a loan to buy this little house for her. The town had grown around it, new and much taller buildings pressing in on it so that it seemed to have sunk into the ground the way she herself had done. As the Begum had guessed, she was almost blind. The iris of one eye had completely disappeared and with the other she kept peering into my face while running her fingers over it. At the same time she tried to explain something to me in her Rajasthani dialect that I couldn’t understand. When at last Muktesh reappeared, with all his convoy of police and jeeps, she chattered to him in great excitement. Muktesh agreed with what she said, maybe to humor her, or maybe because it really was true. When I asked him to interpret, he hesitated but then said — ‘She’s comparing you with all her female relatives — your nose, your chin — and your hands — ’ she had taken one of them into her own bird claw and was turning it over and over — ‘your hands,’ Muktesh said, ‘are mine.’ ‘Bless you, son, bless you, my son!’ she shouted. He bent down to touch her feet, and the people watching us — neighbors had crowded every window and some were up on the walls — all let out a gasp of approval to see this son of their soil, this great national leader, bow down to his ancient mother in the traditional gesture of respect.
A university press had commissioned me to bring out a volume of modern Hindi poetry. When I asked Muktesh if he had any poems for me to translate, he smiled and shook his head: what time did he have for poetry? Yes, sometimes on his way to a rally, he might compose a little couplet to liven up a speech. That wasn’t poetry, he said, it was propaganda, not worth remembering. And there was nothing else, nothing of his own? He shrugged, he smiled — perhaps he might at some time, in the heat of the moment, have scribbled something of that kind, maybe in a letter long since destroyed.
I knew that the Begum had some of his poems addressed to my mother. On my return from Bikaner, when it was time for me to return to my teaching job in London, I asked her to let me take those poems with me. At first she hesitated — I knew that it wasn’t because she was reluctant to part with them, but that she didn’t want me to take them away to England, where they did not belong. I had heard some of what he called his ‘propaganda’ verses — I had seen him write them, in a car while being driven from one election meeting to another. They were all poems with a social theme, humorous, sarcastic, homely, with a sudden twist at the end that drew amused appreciation from his audience. His poems to my mother were completely different, yet if you knew him — really knew him — it was recognizably he who breathed in them. And not only he but poets dead a thousand years, for he belonged to their tradition of Sanskrit love poetry steeped in sensuality. As they did, he loved women — or rather, a woman: my mother, and with her the whole of life as he knew it, the whole of nature as he knew it, with its sights and smells of fruits and flowers. He wrote of the rumpled bedsheets from which she rose as the Sanskrit poet did of the bed of straw on which his mistress had made love; of the scent of her hair, the mango shape of her breasts. He longed to bed and to be embedded in her. His love was completely physical — to such an extent that it included the metaphysical without ever mentioning it, the way the sky is known to be above the earth even if you don’t look up at it.
After his retirement, my father lived mostly in the country, and I joined him whenever I was free from my teaching assignments. It was there that I did most of my translations, and I was working on one of Muktesh’s poems when the news of his assassination reached us. My father heard it on the little radio he kept in the kitchen. He came upstairs to my bedroom, which was also my study. He sat on my bed, holding his pipe though he had knocked out the ashes before coming upstairs. I turned around to look at him. At last he said, ‘Muktesh.’ He was not looking back at me but out of my bedroom window. My father’s eyes were of a very light blue that seemed to reflect the mild and pleasant place where he lived. Instinctively, I put my hand on Muktesh’s poem. It was too alive and present with a passion I wanted to hide from my father, who had all my life hidden his knowledge of it from me.
My next visit to India coincided with the beginning of the trial of Muktesh’s assassins, and every day the newspapers carried front-page stories of it, together with their photographs. Muktesh had been shot at the moment of leaving a function to commemorate the birth date of Mahatma Gandhi. Although one man had carried out the murder, it had been planned by a group of conspirators, including two accomplices ready to do the deed if the first one failed. They were all very young men — the youngest seventeen, the eldest twenty-four — all of them religious fanatics with tousled pitch-black hair and staring pitch- black eyes. If they had been older, their views might have been less intransigent, might even have approached Muktesh’s tolerance (for which they had killed him). And as I read about their lives — their impoverished youth, their impassioned studies, their wild ideas — I felt I could have been reading about the young Muktesh himself. And when I went to court to look at his assassins on trial for their lives, it could have been the young Muktesh standing there — as defiant as they, fierce and fervent in dedication to a cause.
But I knew there were other sides to him. I knew it from translating his poems, and also from his manner with me. He was as reticent about my singular appearance as the rest of my family. Yet sometimes he gazed into my face the same way my father did — I knew what for: for some trace, some echo of something lost and precious. He never found it, any more than did my father, but like him Muktesh showed no disappointment. Instead he smiled at me to show his pleasure in me, his approval, his acceptance and his love, which was as deep in his way as my father’s was in his, and the Begum’s in hers.
She of course had her own manner of showing it. Ever since I was small, she insisted on going through my hair with a louse-comb. ‘Your mother used to come home every day from school with something,’ she told me to explain this practice, which she extended right into my adult years. I think she just liked to do it, it made up for the other intimate gestures that she so disdained. My hair is coarse and deeply black, quite different from my mother’s, so she said, which had been silky like the Begum’s own and with auburn lights in it (by this time the Begum’s had turned almost red with constant dyeing). Sometimes, while wield- ing her louse-comb, she commented, ‘Who knows where you got this hair — it’s certainly not ours.’ After a while she said, ‘But who knows where anything comes from, and who the hell cares?’ Tossing the comb to Amma’s granddaughter with instructions to wash it in disinfectant, she began on a story about her ex-husband’s family. His mother, my great-grandmother, had for thirty years had a wonderful cook:
‘A very lusty fellow from Bihar who made the most delicate rotis I’ve ever eaten. Which may have been the reason why my mother-in-law couldn’t bear to be parted from him for a day. May have been — and anyway, who knows what goes on in those long hot afternoons when everyone is fast asleep?’
‘Did this cook have hair like mine?’
‘I couldn’t tell you,’ she said, ‘he always wore a cap.’ She made a face and then she said, ‘Ridiculous,’ dismissing the whole subject as unworthy of further discussion.