by Meenakshi Bharat
It slipped out of the aging leaves of the well-worn red hard-bound Macmillan edition of Paradise Lost Books One and Two and glided to the ground gently. She bent down to pick up the discoloured envelope. Even now, a hint of the original colour—a delicate lavender hue—was discernible. The glue had sealed it partially…no, no! It was probably air moisture and book pressure that had done that. It was obviously not intended. Else, wouldn’t it have been a completer, neater, more absolute stick?
Something stopped Minni from tearing it open.
Normally, she would have lifted a sealed envelope up to the light hurriedly. Then, she would have impatiently ripped the more transparent portion of the envelope. More often than not, the letter would suffer too. In any case, it was generally useless mail, mostly junk: announcements of sales (how she detested shopping!); invitations to inaugurations, book releases, exhibitions (all a thorough waste of time). She’d quickly scan the unwelcome missive before tossing it off into the wastepaper basket at the base of the study table. Who wrote letters of any use in these days of the email and the SMS? Who had the time to write letters in long hand or use snail mail in these fast-moving days? Heaven knew with what great difficulty she had managed to wriggle out of all her professional engagements for the day. Today, many frenzied months after she’d inherited it, she’d taken time out of her hectic mechanical existence, to catalogue all the books in Nanaji’s library. A much needed task. A labour of love.
She remembered that it was to this room that Nanaji had taken her when she was delivered by the deputy commanding officer of the unit to which her father had been posted, after the death of her parents in a freak accident. Three-year old Minni, clutching her little satchel of picture books, had sunk her head into Nanaji’s shoulder as he sat down in his armchair with her in his arms, and had promptly fallen asleep.
In the years that followed, how many happy hours had she spent in this room with Nanaji! Here, he introduced her to the joys of reading. Here, she had fallen in love with books. She distinctly remembered how he used to run his hands lovingly on the spines of the volumes neatly arrayed on the shelves, before gently pulling one out; how he’d use his slim long middle finger to turn the pages.
When she was little, he would settle down in his armchair with a book and beckon her to join him. She’d perch herself on the arm of the chair and he would read out aloud from it.
She was the only one with whom he was willing to share his library. He spent long hours in the room, shutting out the rest of the world completely. Early on, Minni had been told by the servants, Nani had made some futile attempts to wean him away. Sometimes, by barging in with a complaint about the servants or the children, at others, to make demands for money. But here, he drew the line. He made it absolutely clear that his time here was his own, to do as he liked, and that he would brook no intrusion. With time she had learnt to leave him alone.
Little wonder, Nani never really forgave Minni for the space that Nanaji allowed her in the library, in his life. It was as if the little girl filled the empty spaces in his life, in his heart!
As Minni grew up, both grandfather and granddaughter would retreat into their books, to read in companionable silence. But every so often, she would glance up to find Nanaji looking out of the madhumalti-draped-window with glazed, unseeing eyes. Still and unmoving.
She now squatted down on the weathered marble floor of the study, the envelope still in hand. Yes, there was certainly something about this envelope…it exuded an elegance, a quiet grace and…what was it?… a kind of restraint, an unspoken sanctity compelling respect.
She leant forward and raised herself onto her knees, to lift herself ever so slightly from the floor. She peered over the edge of her neat desk and put out her hand to pick up the Burmese paper knife from its assigned place on the table top. She gently prised the desisting paper leaves apart, managing not to assault its dignified seal. Gingerly, she slipped her fingers in to slide out its contents. Just one rectangular piece of formal paper…a cheque made out in a neat feminine hand in the name of Ram Narain Mishra, Esq. Dated June 6, 1947, drawn on The Bank of Bombay. The amount—rupees one hundred and fifty only. A princely sum for the time! Yet still inexplicably, uncashed?
What had her grandfather done to merit this payment? Why hadn’t he made use of the money? Why…? And she stopped short. Unbidden, questions were racing, tumbling into her mind, tripping over each other in quest for answers that refused to come up to set her agitated mind at rest.
She flew to the bedside of her sole surviving aunt, Nanaji’s eldest child, and shook the old lady awake, ‘Mausi, Mausi, wake up. Uttho!’ and asked her to shed light on this mystery.
Mausi muttered sleepily, in irritation, ‘What is it?’
She would have turned her side and gone back to sleep if Minni hadn’t thrust the old paper into her face, ‘Mausi, look at this! What is this? What was this for?’
Forced to respond to the urgency of Minni’s command, Mausi heaved herself up with great difficulty and slowly reached for her metal-rimmed spectacles. She propped up the pillows behind her and gazed vacantly at the cheque.
‘Oh no, Mausi. Don’t lose it today!’ Minni silently implored. Her aunt had been given to bouts of blankness ever since she’d had that ruinous attack of typhoid.
It seemed Mausi had heard Minni’s prayer. She screwed up her lined face, peered long into the parchment and made a visible effort to rack her brain. After a long silence, she murmured indistinctly and haltingly, ‘It was a long, long time ago. I wonder…?’
‘What, Mausi, what do you wonder?’ Minni prompted, trying not to sound too impatient.
‘I think, beta, wasn’t it about that time that Bauji went to the Collectorate to teach Urdu to the Collector Memsahib? This may be…just could be, payment for his services.’ Mausi apparently had no more light to shed. ‘It was a long, long time ago.’
A little wiser and a great deal curiouser, as Alice would say, Minni withdrew into the study again. She rummaged around for the microscope that she’d bought on a whim on one of her many official visits to the capital, bought not because she needed it, but because it was something that every household ought to have. She found it with some difficulty because she had never really used it. She cleaned the lens with the square of chamois that she kept in the inner corner of the top drawer of her desk to clean her laptop. Then putting it to her eye, examined the faint graceful signature at the bottom right hand corner…clearly, a feminine hand…E. Mamden…no, Marsden. And ‘E’? What did the ‘E’ stand for? Edna? Ellen? Edwina? She liked the sound of the last, possibly because of the romance surrounding the name of the last Viceroy’s wife, and immediately stopped thinking of any more names with the letter E.
Yes, Edwina it would be.
Edwina it was.
But why was Edwina Memsahib learning Urdu? Was it because of a genuine scholar’s thirst for knowledge? Or, was it simply something to do in this dreary distant colony? How did one fill in the long vacant hours that came of being the wife of the Burra Sahib? Being the ‘Burra’ Memsahib couldn’t have been an easy task for a thinking woman. Was it then, the unbearable monotony of ‘Burra’ wifely existence that had spurred the interest in Urdu? The option that Minni had taken to get out of a lacklustre marriage to an upwardly mobile young banker possibly was not open to a young woman, miles away from home, in Victoria’s ‘First’ colony.
Or, had the dynamic personality of the tall, attractive, rather good-looking young Munshi have something to do with it?
Minni found herself audaciously slipping into the pages of the past. The picture of the arresting figure of her quiet Nanaji took shape in her mind. He must have been married then. May have even been a father. Yes, he certainly must have been, since Mausi was well over eighty now. It all added up! Those days, boys and girls married early.
What must his feelings for his firangi pupil have been? A lady, at that? Moreover, an attractive one! And intelligent, to boot. Edwina Marsden had to be beautiful…with a name like that you couldn’t be anything but. Smart too, she had to be, to even contemplate a venture into the Urdu language which kept even native speakers on their intellectual toes. And, she was even writing out cheques in 1947!
It went without saying that Nanaji couldn’t have even contemplated saying no to the ‘white’ request even if he had wanted to. Had he thought of this tutoring as a necessary burden? Had he chafed against it? Or had he felt proud at being the chosen one?
Nanaji had had the qualifications, of course. Highly educated, he was one of the first Indians to receive a doctorate in English Literature during the Raj. He had been blessed with a photographic memory which enabled him to recall Urdu poetry at will. In fact, his command over both Urdu and English was impeccable. He had even dabbled in writing poetry…in both the languages. With these credentials, he would have been an obvious choice for a teacher. For the Burra Memsahib! And so, he must have been able to communicate with Edwina quite easily and quite happily.
Minni fondly remembered her intense grandfather lecturing her on a comparison between Urdu shayari and Gray’s Elegy. Was his deep interest in English literature part of a larger interest in the culture of different lands? Or did she have something to do with his extensive knowledge of Shakespeare, Tennyson and Dickens. Till date, Minni hadn’t found anyone who had a deeper knowledge of literature that her grandfather. She should know, having been a sterling student of English Literature herself!
Minni could picture the two of them, the white Mem and the Indian teacher, sitting at a table on hot sultry mornings in the book-shaded recesses of the library. Or, under the mango tree on pleasant cool March mornings, concentrating on the alifs and the bés.
Had they finally been able to converse in Urdu and discuss Urdu poetry with each other? About the intricacies of the sher, the qasida, the nazm? Had he been successful in transforming her into an Urdu scholar? Would these classes have led to the growth of a special teacher-student bond between the two?
And then, what of the day when accounts had to be squared…the day this cheque was cut out as payment, in recognition of the painstaking efforts of the young dedicated teacher? Marking the end of the relationship. Signalling a goodbye. Had he felt pain? Sorrow? She couldn’t believe that he hadn’t felt something. That the cheque must have meant a great deal to him was amply clear by the fact that he had never thought to cash it. It was too large an amount to slip out of his mind…out of anyone’s mind for that matter, in those days. Why had he given it the ultimate reverence of ensconcing it amongst the leaves of a book that he loved, a book that he would read and thumb through, over and over again, a book that he knew by rote, almost?
He had obviously never told his wife about it. Minni was certain that Nani had never known. She knew the kind of person that Nani had been…she had never one to let a golden opportunity go by. She would never have rested in peace. Or, for that matter, allowed anyone else to rest in peace, when there was such booty at hand, lying sorely unused. With such a great deal of money waiting to be cashed, waiting to be fittingly used for buying the exquisite, exclusive jewellery from Sarafan di Hatti in Dabbi Bazar for the dowries of her three daughters, how could she have kept quiet? No, no, she was certainly not the type to allow things to rest until the money finally came into her hands.
There was much that Nanaji kept from his wife…as the favourite grandchild, Minni had been privy to many a harmless secret…the occasional pink buddhi māi ke bāl, candy floss that they bought from Kelu Ram on the way back from their walk in the park, that both licked to the accompaniment of conspiratorial glances at each other; or the half hour spent sipping tea in Lalaji’s courtyard (Nani couldn’t stand the loquacious rotund Lalaji who wouldn’t allow her to get a word in any conversation if he was around.) Or the covert story sessions in the little room on the roof when he told and she listened; when Nanaji was supposed to be out buying monthly rations or vegetables for the day. These were the spots of time that the little Minni had loved best of all. Somehow, these moments had made her little heart put aside the loss of her parents. Somehow, brought the sun back into her life.
But there must have been many secrets that even she could not have known. Much that a little girl could not be told.
‘Had they returned to England?’ Minni was back to her persistent questions. ‘Mausi, tell me. Did the Memsahib and her Collector husband return to England when we gained independence? Mausi, think back. Try to remember?’
Mausi was not pleased at this intrusive insistence on her niece’s part. At this age, even thinking was tiring! But ever since her own children had flown off on a cold winter Delhi morning in the January of 1993 to embrace the heat of the Australian summer, this orphan niece had been her only solace. She hadn’t even gone to visit her children—one in Perth and the other in Sydney—till the nine-year old had grown up into a young woman, able to manage on her own.
‘Actually, it’s funny, they too had gone off to Australia…’ obviously she was thinking of her own two children. ‘I remember Bauji and Lalaji discussing the inexplicable choice of choosing to go Down Under where the summers were scorching, rather than return to the comfort of home, the countryside they knew so well. Apparently, they had just met Mr Sealy, the school teacher, who too had been toying with the idea of migrating to Australia because of the trouble that was brewing in India at the time. It was he who had given them the news. Apparently, the only thing putting Mr Sealy off was that he’d heard that summer temperatures in Australia could be killing. Mr Sealy said that he had heard that in 1939, there had been a severe heat wave in Australia, the worst that the world had seen in known history. And hundreds of people had died!’
Mausi was on a roll. A rare day. “And you know what?’ she said after a pause, ‘they didn’t even wait for more comfortable carriers to take them there! They took the first ship out. Along with a whole lot of Anglo Indians. The Mannanoor or some such name the ship had. Funny, why this detail should stick in my head. I remember Bauji had sounded quite perturbed. He had asked around and found out that ship was rather plain…not the kind of liner that a lady and a gentleman should travel in…okay for the dim-witted, workmen Anglos but..‘
Mausi became silent. After a long pause, she thoughtfully said, ‘Even when Rina and Nikhil were to leave for Australia, something happened to Bauji. He was quite agitated. After they left, he just fell quiet. I think he only spoke to you after you came to live here. I wonder…’ Mausi was exhausted by this time and, drawing a deep breath, she sank back into her armchair to shut Minni out.
‘I wonder…’ Minni’s mind echoed, silently picking up the cues from Mausi’s reluctant narrative.
What must he have felt, thought, as he thanked the Sahib and the Memsahib, and retreated to the discreet corner of the garden where he had leant his bicycle aslant against the wall? And what went on in his mind on the long bicycle journey back home? Why did the Angrez family’s move away to Australia touch him so deeply? That he investigated into the conditions of the migrant voyage on the Manoora…Minni had followed up with her own research on the history of British migration, the urge to fill in the gaps, compulsive and urgent.
And what, during the years that followed?
A hundred and one questions?
Questions leading to questions?
And no answers.
None at all.
Did those long silences when Nanaji sat looking at something beyond the window when he thought no was looking, have anything to do with the Urdu lessons to Edwina Marsden? And with her subsequent disappearance across the southern seas?
Minni opened her mouth for a sharp intake of air. Why couldn’t she breathe? She gulped painfully and admonished herself for her unfruitful romantic meandering.
Rubbishing all conjectures, she moved on to the other gold and leather tomes on the library shelves.
But not before she slid the envelope back to page fifty of Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Meenakshi Bharat, writer, translator, reviewer and cultural theorist, teaches in the University of Delhi. Her wide and variegated writing, both creative and critical, is spurred by contemporary concerns. She has co-edited four Indo-Australian Short Fiction anthologies (Fear Factor: Terror Incognito, Alien Shores: Asylum Seekers and Refugees, Only Connect: Technology and Us, Glass Walls: Stories of Tolerance and Intolerance), which have variously taken on the burning issues of terrorism, asylum seekers, technology and us and tolerance and intolerance. Her most recent publications are a children’s book in Hindi, Nanhe haathi ki daawat (2020) and a monograph, Shooting Terror:: Terrorism and the Hindi Film (2020) from Routledge. She served as President of the International Federation of Modern Languages and Literatures (FILLM, UNESCO, 2014-2017) and continues to be a Bureau member. A former Treasurer of the Indian Association for the Study of Australia, she is still an active member of the Executive.