Authors: Janette Turner Hospital
Janette Turner Hospital grew up in Queensland and was educated there. Since her post-graduate degrees in Canada, she has taught in universities in Canada, Australia, England, France and the United States. She has won a number of prizes for her eight novels and four short-story collections, which have been published in numerous languages. In 2003, she won the Queensland Premier's Literary Award and the Patrick White Award, and received a Doctor of Letters
from the University of Queensland. She is Carolina Distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of South Carolina, where she taught for twelve years. In 2010, she was a visiting professor at Columbia University in New York and is currently Adjunct Professor at the University of Queensland.
Also by Janette Turner Hospital
The Ivory Swing
The Tiger in the Tiger Pit
The Last Magician
North of Nowhere, South of Loss
Due Preparations for the Plague
His Highness is here, of course. He sheds his nylon parka, a drab grey one, to reveal a satin shirt with splendidly billowing sleeves. It is the colour of fresh cream and has pearl buttons. His trousers, of grey flannel, are Etonian. Literally. He was already six feet two at public school and has not grown since. He would prefer not to be so frugal about his wardrobe but is running out of money.
Nalini Mahalingam, wife of the coconut-oil-and-papadam-importer, is here too. One expects to see her in furs, but no, she likes to experiment with the very latest and is wearing one of those quilted eiderdown things in a dusty pink.
I have always thought that padded and cross-thonged snow boots detract, in a rather serious way, from the delicacy of Kashmiri and Benares silk. But what is one to do here? The Canadian winter sets in early, giving no quarter, and one can hardly celebrate
in anything other than one's costliest and most recently imported sari.
we greet one another â or
â depending on regional origins and linguistic affiliations. Hands together before the face, heads momentarily bowed, like Norman Rockwell Christians at prayer. There are even some West Indian families who exchange what I suppose to be a calypso handshake and who are here, one must conclude, because they know which port their great-grandfathers were press-ganged from. Standards are slipping, but we need the membership dues. Already the Gujaratis are gathering in one corner and the Tamils in another. The Bengalis have put themselves in charge of the cultural part of the program and are busy organising everyone else. The Delhi group, always drawing attention to itself, is pining in ostentatious Hindi for Connaught Circus. Only exile and isolation unite us.
The cloakroom (we have rented the auditorium of the local community college for the evening) is impossible, rampant with snow boots. They grow upwards, a tangled and fetid underbrush, toward the jungle of coats and dangling scarf creepers. Everywhere there is a steam of winter breath and damp mittens. One has to struggle, now, for hangers and space, plunging in between nylon and down thickets. I half expect to find Radha herself somewhere deep in there. The dankness, I suppose. The sense of rain forest and fungous murk.
New people keep arriving. As though it were part of the ritual, they place their Corningware casserole dishes â fragrant with Madras curries and Tandoori chicken and
â delicately on the floor. For we are nothing if not small-town-Ontario and this is a pot-luck
which, I suppose, should be no more surprising than the fact that we are using electric candles instead of oil lamps. No doubt the goddess Lakshmi is sufficiently gratified to see her thousand lights bloom in an alien land, whatever the source of their flickering.
The bringers of casserole dishes peel off their Western layers of warmth, and lunge at the bloated coat racks.
Of course we are never surprised by it, not even those of us who grew up Christian. I watch the metamorphosis, gilded
emerging in a flurry of silks, cloth of gold, magentas,
as red as betel juice, blues exotic as Krishna's face or a peacock's breast. Colour, perhaps, is the last thing we let go of.
Two children, five-year-old Sikh boys with their uncut hair in little topknots, dart into the cloakroom shrieking with excitement. There is a sound of shattering. Ochre wavelets of lamb
lap at the snow boots and several people click their tongues in mild annoyance, stepping delicately aside. Someone nudges the shards of Corningware out of the way with one foot. No one thinks of reproving the children or of cleaning up. The fact that I think of these things is a mark of the extent of my displacement; and a measure of the embarrassing degree of sentimentality to which I will submit tonight. If I were to mention the mess, people would look vaguely puzzled. It is not a matter about which one should be concerned. There is always a
to attend to that sort of thing.
In the auditorium, foil cut-outs of the Hindi letters for
each about two feet high, are strung across the front of the stage where they dance gracefully in convection currents eddying up from the radiators. Old and solid, the radiators are the coiled water-circulating kind, metal sculptures in their own right. I think, with a terrible pang of longing, of the cast iron ornamentation of the Queen Isabella Hotel in Goa.
From across the aisle, His Highness, standing as though on guard for all that keeps slipping away between our fingers, inclines his head and upper body slightly toward me. I make
in response. I persist in South Indian ways, a pledge of allegiance. We are all of us addicted to nostalgia, and it is here, at the annual celebration of
(a Hindu festival alien to both of us, strictly speaking), that His Highness and I give way to our addiction. We indulge. We lay in (to use a metaphor of Canadians, which is what we now are, if documentation is anything to go by), we lay in, as it were, supplies of the necessary mythic warmth against the coming winter.
His Highness, Prince Sana'ullah, is actually the great grandson of a ruler who was deposed by “a wicked cousin” well before the abolition of the princely states, those “dark places of the earth”, as Kipling called them, the numerous tiny feudal kingdoms that dotted pre-Independence India. The prince's great-grandfather was not merely deposed. He was beheaded. This has cast a permanent aura of romantic tragedy upon his descendants, and naturally even the wicked cousin and his successors felt obliged to see to it that all family members lived and were educated in a style befitting Moghul royalty.
But then the privy purses were abolished (though not of course before certain sums had been removed to England and Switzerland against just such contingencies). Prince Sana'ullah was given his obligatory British public school education, following which he was asked by his father, who had his own lifestyle to maintain, to consider life in the colonies, where both royalty and public school backgrounds were much rarer and consequently more revered. There is still a small trust fund, though it is rumoured that from time to time, when His Highness goes into seclusion, he has actually found it necessary to disappear into the more shadowy sections of Old Montreal to wait on tables.
I am not sure where I heard this. It is the kind of information one receives by intuition. We would never speak of it publicly.
I left Goa at the age of fifteen with one suitcase, a Parsi family name, a saint's Christian name (in Goa we are all named for the saint on whose day we were born), a history of family acrimony, and a Goan's happy nonchalance with it all. It is wise to acquire imperturbability with a name like Perpetua Engine-wallah. Anyway, I do not believe it is possible to grow up in the moist tropics without an instinctive and insouciant hedonism. It is quite possible to grow up in the dry tropics, in Mysore, say, or Hyderabad, or Allahabad, or Delhi, and be ascetic to the core. But those of us who drew childhood and adolescent breath on the dank monsoon side of the Western Ghats â whether we are Catholic, Parsi, Muslim, Syrian, Hindu, or Church of South India â know how to celebrate given bounty: of food, drink, ocean, beaches, the body.
So when I speak of family acrimony, I mean only this: the two halves of my family had no intercourse with each other, a state of affairs which is aberrant in India. My mother's family, Goan and Catholic, never acknowledged the existence of my father's family in Bombay. And vice versa. I think I recall that once our family priest told me that Zoroaster was the false prophet in the pit of hell who is referred to in the Book of Revelation. Just the same. Father Diego and my father used to drink tea together on the verandah of the Queen Isabella, quoting Shakespeare interminably and competitively. Their tea was laced with brandy, and at about the time the sandalwood flares and mosquito coils were being lit, they would become somewhat more contentious. Father Diego reciting from
The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius
and my father declaiming Persian and Urdu poetry in a caramel voice rich with vibrato.
My father taught English literature at San Miguel College (which shows how tolerant the Goan religious orders had become) until he gave a paper on “Zoroastrian Intimations in Marlowe's
Tamburlaine the Great”
at an international conference in Delhi. After this he received an invitation to teach at a prairie university in Canada and went. My mother refused to accompany him.
* * *
It is now forty minutes after the hour designated as starting time on the
invitations and we are probably drawing close to a beginning. Talk is muted. Children wander up and down the aisles in their new clothes, chattering to one another in English, a jasmine chain of fresh young faces. A timing discourse is still going on between the sitar player and the tabla player, but they are beginning to nod their heads and smile and murmur
to each other.
They are sitting on a low platform, about the size of an overturned backyard sandbox, which has been placed on the stage and draped with Kashmiri rugs. The sitar player is barefoot and the tabla player is wearing black socks, one of which has a rather large hole at the heel. Both men are wearing dark Western trousers, loose cotton Punjabi tunics not tucked in, and Kashmiri vests, richly embroidered, that look oddly tiny over the ample tunics â like Day-Glo identifying colours daubed on the upper reaches of billowing sails. It is an eclectic mix that strikes me as being just right for the occasion.
Deftly the tabla player turns his drums and taps at the pegs with his little mallet.
the drums respond softly, like bleating oxen giving mournful answer when the cart driver twists their tails to force a little more speed over dusty roads. The copper
which he plays with his left hand, pleases the tabla player. He bends over it, smiling, as though conferring a blessing, patting its skin gently â
pampetty pam pam
â with his fingers. And the sitar player answers, caressing his seven strings in congratulation. Oneness of pitch has been achieved.
But there is still a problem with the
the drum for the right hand. It is made of wood and suffers from the dry air of central heating.
it says, faltering, sliding in and out of the desired pitch. The gourd of the sitar is also troubled by the dryness and two strings have strayed again. Tap, tap. Strum. Pegs turned, eyes closed, heads tilted sideways. I think of seagulls on the white sands of the Malabar coast, heads cocked into the wind, waiting, their patience endless.
It is a curious ritual, this. I wonder what the other Canadians would make of it, the ones who dispose of pre-concert tuning in a few hurried minutes as though it were something furtive and shameful. Of course this inability to perceive the wholeness of things is endemic to the Western mind. The very word foreplay, for instance. Suggesting a brief obligation to be got out of the way before the main event. They are strange people, Westerners.
But it is silly of me to say
to Indians far more often. And I have learned to love Western music, I even have subscription tickets to the local symphony series, though there are things I will never get used to: that neurotic preoccupation with beginning on the dot of the advertised hour, coupled with the truly extraordinary custom of the blockade, of actually
to anyone who arrives after the arbitrary moment in time when â in the opinion of an usher â a piece has officially begun. This is beyond comprehension. As is the puzzling absence of young children from concerts.
No sense of wholeness. That is what strikes me about the West. No awareness of the languid beauty of the tuning, ceremony, of how it flows into the first
whose sounds will curl into the ears and the veins of the little children like soft mists smoking up between the coconut palms when the monsoon pauses. And the mists will cling and the children will grow into the sounds and the memory of them, and the notes will flower into the gift of listening. And for some chosen few into the gift of creating new music.
Oh the lingering. The long soft scars left by music. I remember the concert my father took me to when I was four. It began at dusk and lasted most of the night and it comes back to me through all my senses: the sandalwood flares, the smell of musk and jasmine, the rustle of saris, the sounds of babies crying and children whispering and giggling, the soft shuffle of people arriving and leaving throughout the performance, the feel of my father's shoulder when my head finally sank there in sleep. Everything. For a
cannot be separate from the hour of its playing or the sounds of its setting.
has reached agreement with its brother drum now. The players make
to the audience, parents gather their children onto their laps. The sitar player, who has been brought from Montreal for this occasion, chants a brief invocation and announces the
It flows around us. The radiators contribute metallic hiccups of expansion and occasional obbligatos of steam. Periodically the microphone (placed on the stage floor in front of the performance platform) speaks with a piercing electronic coloratura. Each time, someone in the front row gets up and fiddles with it and the soft magnified boom of his hand movements punctuates the
like distant cannon.
We are dimly conscious of these separate details of sound. They are all part of the
of an early winter evening in Canada, an unrepeatable performance, as each