An Atlantic “First” by Janette Hospital
Mr. Matthew Thomas owed his name and faith, as well as his lands, to those ancestors of lowly caste whose eyes had seen the salvation of the Lord as offered to South India by the apostolic St. Thomas, and by later waves of Portuguese Jesuits, Dutch Protestants, and British missionaries. Since the bringers of faith had come hand in hand with traders and administrators, the bargain struck by Mr. Thomas’s ancestors had been a good one. Not only did they instantly escape from the cycle of rebirth, receiving eternal salvation in exchange for the horrifying possibility of several more lives as destitute servants or even as animals, but they gained the right to cover the breasts of their womenfolk (a crime, under the Maharajahs of Travancore, punishable by mutilation or amputation of the breasts of a low-caste woman), to educate their children, and to own Christian land.
Now Mr. Matthew Thomas, heir of both East and West, sat quietly in one of the chairs at the crowded Air India office, waiting for his turn. It was necessary to make inquiries on behalf of a cousin of his wife’s, and although his wife had died ten years ago, these family obligations continued. The cousin, whose son was to be sent overseas for a brief period of foreign education, lived in the village of Parassala and could not get down to Trivandrum during the rice harvest. Mr. Matthew Thomas did not mind. He had much to think about on the subject of sons and daughters and foreign travel, and he was glad of this opportunity for quiet contemplation away from the noisy happiness of his son’s house.
It is true that he had been waiting since nine o’clock that morning and it was now half past three in the afternoon. It is also true that things would have been more pleasant if the ceiling fan were turning, for it was that steamy season when the monsoon is petering out, and the air hangs as still and hot and heavy as a mosquito net over a sickbed. But the fan had limped to a halt over an hour ago, stricken by the almost daily power failure, and one simply accepted such little inconveniences.
Besides, Mr. Thomas could look from the comfortable vantage point of today back toward yesterday, which had also been spent at the Air India office, but since he had arrived too late to find a chair it had been necessary to stand all day. At the end of the day, someone had told him that he was supposed to sign his name in the book at the desk and that he would be called when his turn came. Wiser now, he had arrived early in the morning, signed his name, and found a chair. He was confident that his turn would come today, and until it did he could sit and think in comfort. Mr. Thomas was often conscious of God’s goodness to him in such matters. All the gods were the same, he reflected, thinking fondly of the auspicious match which had just been arranged for the daughter of his neighbor Mr. Balakrishnan Pillai. Lord Vishnu. Lord Shiva. The Allah of his friend Mr. Karim, the baker. The One True God of his own church. All protected their faithful. He did not dwell on paradox.
God was merciful. It was sufficient.
The problem which demanded attention, and which Mr. Thomas turned over and over in his mind, peacefully and appraisingly as he might examine one of his coconuts, concerned both his married daughter in Burlington, Vermont, and the white woman waiting in another chair in the Air India office.
Burlingtonvermont. Burlingtonvermont. What a strange word it was. This was how his son-in-law had pronounced it. His daughter had explained in a letter that it was like saying Trivandrum, Kerala. But who would ever say Trivandrum, Kerala? Why would they say it? He had been deeply startled yesterday morning to hear the word suddenly spoken aloud, just when he was thinking of his daughter. Burlingtonvermont. The white woman had said it to the clerk at the counter, and she had been told to write her name in the book and wait for her turn.
This is a strange and wonderful thing, he had thought. And now he understood why God had arranged these two days of waiting. It was ordained so that he would see this woman who came, it seemed, from the place where his daughter was; so that he might have time to study her at leisure and consider what he should do.
He thought of Kumari, his youngest and favorite child. Kumari, who on her wedding day, shyly radiant, had looked so like her dead mother that Mr. Matthew Thomas had had to turn away to hide his tears. What did she do in Burlingtonvermont? He tried to picture her now that she was in her confinement, her silk sari swelling slightly over his grandchild. A terrible thought suddenly presented itself to him. If she had no servants, who was marketing for her at this time when she should not leave the house? Surely she herself was not . . . No. His mind turned from the idea, yet the bothersome riddles accumulated.
She was in her third month now, so he knew from the four childbearings of his own wife that she would be craving for sweet mango pickle. He had written to say he would send a package of this delicacy. Dear daddy, she had written back, piease do not send the sweet pickle. I have no need of anything. I am perfectly happy.
How could this be? It was true that her parents-inlaw lived only five kilometers distant in the same city, and her brother-in-law and his wife also lived close by, and of course they would do her marketing and bring her the foods she craved. Of course, they were her true family now that she was married. Even so, when a woman was in the family way, it was a time when she might return to the house of her father, when she would want to eat the delicacies of the house of her birth.
He could not complain of the marriage. He was very happy with the marriages of all four of his children. They had all made alliances with Christian families of high caste. He had been able to provide handsome dowries for his daughters, and the wives of his sons had brought both wealth and beauty with them. God had been good. It was just a little sad that his elder daughter’s husband was chief government engineer for Tamil Nadu instead of Kerala, and was therefore living in Madras. But at least he saw them and his grandchildren at the annual festival of Onam.
It was four years since he had seen Kumari. The week after her wedding her husband and his family had returned to America, where they had been living for many years. Only to arrange the marriages of their sons had they gone back to Kerala. The arrangements had been made through the mail. Mr. Thomas had been content because the family was distantly related on his wife’s side and he had known them many years ago, before they had left for America. Also the son was a professor of chemistry at the university in Burlingtonvermont, which was fitting for his daughter who had her B.A. in English literature. So they had come, the wedding had taken place, and they had gone.
For four years Mr. Matthew Thomas had waited with increasing anxiety. What is a father to think when his daughter does not bear a child in all this time? Now, as God was merciful, a child was coming. Yet she had written: Dear daddy, please do not send the sweet pickle. I am perfectly happy.
It had been the same when he had expressed his shock at her not having servants. Dear daddy, she had written, you do not understand. Here we are not needing servants. The machines are doing everything. Your daughter and your son-in-law are very happy. Of course this was very reassuring, if only he could really believe it. He worried about the snow and the cold. How was it possible to live with such cold? He worried about the food. The food in America is terrible, some businessmen at the Secretariat had told him. It is having no flavor. In America, they are not using any chili peppers. And yet, even at such a time as this, she did not want the sweet pickle. Could it mean that she had changed, that she had become like a Western woman?
He looked steadily and intently at the white woman in the room. Certainly, he thought, my daughter will be one of the most beautiful women in America. White women were so unattractive. It was not just their wheat-colored hair, which did indeed look strange, but they seemed to have no understanding of the proper methods of beauty. They let their hair fly as dry and fluffy as rice chaff at threshing time instead of combing it with coconut oil so that it hung wet and glossy.
The woman was wearing a sari. Certainly that was better than the other Western women he had sometimes seen at the Mascot Hotel, although in fact one rarely saw Westerners in Trivandrum. The ones he had seen usually wore trousers like a man. It was amazing that American men allowed their women to appear so ugly. True, he had heard it said that women in the north of India wore trousers, but Mr. Thomas did not believe it. An Indian woman would not do such a thing. Once he had seen a white woman in a short dress, of the kind worn by little girls, with half her legs brazenly showing. He had turned away in embarrassment.
Mr. Thomas was pleased that the woman from Burlingtonvermont was wearing a sari. Still, it did not look right with pale skin and pale hair. It is the best she can do, he concluded to himself. It is simply not possible for them to look beautiful, no matter what they do.
The thing that was important, and must now be considered, was what to do with this manifestation sent by God. The woman from Burlingtonvermont perhaps had all the answers to his questions. Perhaps she could even explain the matter of the sweet pickle. But what to do? One did not speak to a woman outside of the family. And yet why else would it have been arranged that he should have two days to observe this very woman? God would also arrange the solution, he thought simply. He had only to wait.
As he continued to study that strange pale face an amazing thing happened. A tear rolled slowly down one cheek and fell into the soft folds of the sari. Mr. Thomas was shocked and looked away. After a little while, he looked back again. The woman seemed to be holding herself very tightly, as still as death, he thought. Her hands were clasped together in her lap so rigidly that the knuckles showed white. Her eyes were lowered, but the lashes glistened wetly. It must be a matter of love, he thought. Tragic love. Her parents have forbidden the match. For what other reason could a young woman, scarcely more than a girl, be weeping? Then his name was called and he went to the counter.
At the counter, Mr. Chandrashekharan Nair consulted the timetables and folders which would answer the queries of Mr. Matthew Thomas. He handled his sheaves of printed information reverently, occasionally pausing to make a small notation in ink in one of the margins, or to dignify a page with one of his rubber stamps. It always gave him a sense of pleasurable power. It was so fitting that the Nairs, who had from ancient times guarded the Maharajah of Travancore and defended his lands, should be as it were the guardians of Kerala in this modern age, watchmen over all the means of entry and egress.
It had given him particular pleasure to announce the name of Mr. Matthew Thomas. It was like the pleasure which comes after a summer’s day of torpid discomfort, when the air is as damp and still as funeral bindings until the monsoon suddenly bursts in a torrent of cool blessing. Just such a salvific release from several days of tension had come when he passed over the name of Miss Jennifer Harper to announce instead that of Mr. Matthew Thomas.
Life was distressingly complicated at the moment for Chandrashekharan Nair, who was twenty-six years old, and who owed his present position to his master’s degree in economics as well as to his uncle who was a regional manager for Air India. The trouble was that two years ago, when he was still a student at the University of Kerala, he had joined one of the Marxist student groups. Well, in a sense joined. They had been an interesting bunch, livelier than other students. Mostly low-caste of course, even Harijans, not the sort of people one usually associated with, and this gave a risqué sense of exhilaration. But the leaders had all been decent fellows from the right families—Nairs, Pillais, lyers. They read a bit too much for his liking, but the demonstrations had been rather fun, milling along Mahatma Gandhi Road in front of the Secretariat, confusing the traffic, making the withered old buffalo cart drivers curse, jeering at the occasional American tourist. It was a student sort of thing to do. He had not expected that they would hang on to him in this way. It was beginning to become very embarrassing.
Of course he was all for progress. He agreed that more had to be done for the poor people. He felt that when he had his own household he would not expect so much from the peon as his father did. They really should not make the boy walk five kilometers each noontime to take young Hari’s lunch to him at college, he thought. It was too much for a twelve-year-old boy.
In theory he also agreed with the Marxists about dowry. Nevertheless, when he had studied so hard for his master’s degree, he felt he could expect a lakh of rupees from his bride’s family. That was simple justice. He would be providing her with security and prestige. He had earned the money. Strictly speaking, it was not dowry. Dowries were illegal anyway. It was simply that a girl’s family would be embarrassed not to provide well for her, and a bridegroom from a good family, with a master’s degree into the bargain, had every right to expect that they provide for her in a manner suited to his status.
Chandrashekharan Nair’s marriage, and his lakh of rupees, was all but arranged. There was one slight problem. The girl’s family was raising questions about his association with the Marxists. His father had assured them that this had been the passing fancy of a student, wild oats only, but they wanted something more, a public statement or action.
Chandrashekharan Nair was nervous. One of his cousins, who had held an influential position in the Congress party of Kerala, was now under attack in the newspapers. It was possible that he would have to stand trial for obscure things, and his career would be ruined. It did not seem likely that the Marxists would gain total power again in Kerala, but they were becoming stronger all the time and one should not take chances. It was not wise to be on record for any political opinion, for or against anything. One should always appear knowing but vague, erudite but equivocal.
Chandrashekharan Nair leafed through the problems in his mind day after day as he leafed through the papers on his desk. The girl’s family was waiting. His own family was waiting. His father was becoming annoyed. It was simply not fair that he should be forced into such a dangerous position. Three days ago some of his former Marxist friends had come to the office. They were jubilant about the Coca-Cola business, and had just erected near the Secretariat a huge billboard showing Coca-Cola bottles toppling onto lots of little American businessmen who were scattering like ants. There was to be a major demonstration and they wanted him to take part.
All of Chandrashekharan Nair’s anxiety became focused on the American girl who had walked into his office yesterday. It was her fault, the fault of Americans and their Coca-Cola and their independent women that all these problems had come to plague his life. And then the glimmer of a solution appeared to him. He would make a public statement about Coca-Cola. He would praise the new Indian drink and the name chosen for it. He would mention Gandhi, he would say that this nonviolent method, following in Gandhiji’s footsteps, was the correct political way for India. All this was quite safe. Morarji Desai and Raj Narain were saying it in the newspapers every day. The girl’s family would be satisfied. But he would also say a few carefully ambiguous words about American businessmen that would please the Marxists. And as he slid easily over Miss Jennifer Harper’s name, he thought with a surge of delight of how he would tell his Marxist friends in private of his personal triumphant struggle with an imperialist in the Air India office.
He saw the tear run down Miss Jennifer Harper’s cheek and frowned with disgust. He felt vindicated. Integrated. Both Hindu and Marxist teachings agreed: compassion and sentiment were signs of weakness. The West was indeed decadent.
Jennifer Harper concentrated all her energy on waiting. There is just this one last ordeal, she promised herself, and even if I have to wait all tomorrow too, it must come to an end. I will not let the staring upset me. There is just this last time.
She wondered how long it would be before her sleep was free of Indian eyes staring the endless incurious stare of spectators at a circus. Or at a traffic accident. If one saw the bloodied remains of a total stranger spread across a road, one watched in just that way— with a fascinated absorption, yet removed, essentially unaffected.
She looked up at the counter with mute resignation. Surely her turn would come today. Inadvertently, she became aware of the intent gaze of the gentleman who had arrived next after her that morning. He also had waited all yesterday, but it did not seem to ruffle him. Nor did he show any sign of the exhausted dejection she had felt. Time means nothing to them, she thought with irritation. She decided to meet his gaze evenly, to stare him into submission.
He did not seem to notice. Her eyes bounced back off a stare as impenetrable as the packed red clay beneath the coconut palms. She felt as stupid and insignificant as a coconut, a stray green coconut that falls before its time, thuds onto the unyielding earth, and lies ignored, ineffectual, something for the scavenger dogs. It was intolerable. She could feel tears pricking her eyes.
Damn, damn, damn, she thought, pressing her hands together with all the force of her desire not to fall apart. Just this one last little thing, she pleaded with her self-respect. Then a name was called, and the impertinent staring gentleman went to the counter. They had missed her name by accident. But what would be the good of attempting to protest? Communication would be a shambles. The clerk would be confident that he was speaking English but would be virtually unintelligible. He would understand almost nothing she was trying to explain. Then she would try her halting Malayalam, but all her velar and palatal r’s and l’s, and all those impossible d’s and t’s, would get mixed up, and the people in the room would stare and giggle. Better to wait. He would soon notice that he had omitted a name.
Mr. Matthew Thomas was right in a way. The tears that Jennifer Harper choked back were for a love tragically crossed. She wept inwardly because she had wanted to love India. She wept because she had come as a student to learn Malayalam and to study Indian literature, and she had been inundated with forms and frustrations and delays so that it had taken two weeks of dedicated full-time waiting just to register. It had taken more forms and more days of waiting in lines to get a university bus pass. She wept because none of the students had heard of R. K. Narayan or Kamala Markandaya. They did know of T. S. Pillai, who wrote in Malayalam, but only because they had seen the movie of his novel Chemmeen. They all revered Tagore of course, but few seemed to have read him. They all knew by rote the sonnets of Keats and numerous quotations from Shakespeare and Milton, but rarely had a clear idea of the work from which the quotations were taken. The lectures reminded her of high school, and the students copied them down verbatim and memorized them for the exam.
She wept because she had intended to stay for a year, and after three months she could stand it no longer. She could not endure filling out any more forms for the bank, for the library, for anything one needed to do. She could not endure any longer the segregation, the waiting in the women’s line while the men filed on and off the buses first, the being shunted into the strained silence of the women’s living room when she visited the families of other students.
She wept because she was a child of the sixties, of the counterculture and the antiwar demonstrations, of caring about and participating in the life of the Third World. And there was no place for her in India. She was the token imperialist for the Marxist demonstrators who had jeered at her in the streets. She was nothing at all to the other students and their families, many of whom were far wealthier than anyone she knew in affluent America. They showed a self-absorption and a lack of curiosity about any world beyond the family circle so total as to be incomprehensible to her.
Only with the servants of the houses on her street did she share a tentative and largely wordless friendship. They became alarmed and nervous when they saw her doing the things they were supposed to do. They smiled back, but sidled away without speaking. She wept because now she could not even shut the endless Indian stare out of her sleep. The nights were crammed with eyes.
There was a blare of loudspeakers passing the office. No one paid any attention to it. Every day some demonstration or other muddled the already chaotic traffic of Trivandrum’s main road. If it was not the Marxists, it would be the student unions of the Congress party or the Janata party marching to protest one another’s corruptions. Or it would be the bus drivers on strike, or the teachers picketing the Secretariat, or the rubber workers clamoring for attention, or perhaps just a flower-strewn palanquin bearing the image of some guru or deity.
The blast from the loudspeaker was so close that those at the counter could not hear one another speak. There was a milling crowd at the Air India doors, which gave way suddenly to the pressure of bodies. Mr. Chandrashekharan Nair blanched to see several Marxist leaders. He was going to have to make some snap decision that might have frightening repercussions for the rest of his life. He breathed a prayer to Lord Vishnu. Mr. Matthew Thomas, who knew that the ways of God were inscrutable but wise, felt that something important was about to happen and waited calmly for it. Jennifer Harper thought with despair that the office would now be closed and she would have to come back again the next day.
The student leader made an impassioned speech in Malayalam, which culminated in a sweeping accusatory gesture toward Jennifer. She rose to her feet as if in the dock. The student advanced threateningly, glared, and said in heavily accented English: “Imperialists out of India!” In equally amateur Malayalam, and in a voice from which she was unable to keep a slight trembling, Jennifer replied, “I agree with you. But I am not an imperialist.”
There was a wave of laughter, but whether it was directed at her accent or her politics she could not say. Several things happened so quickly that she could never quite remember the order afterward. First, she thought, the gentleman who had stared so hard stepped between herself and the student. “This woman is being friend of my daughter in America,” he said. “She is good woman.”
At the same time, the clerk at the desk had said, with a rather puzzling sense of importance, that he had been especially arranging for the American woman to leave the country as quickly as possible. At any rate, she was now in a taxi on her way to the airport with nothing but her return ticket and her pocketbook. Next to the driver in the front seat was the gentleman who had defended her. She was thinking how sweet and easy and simple it was to sacrifice the few clothes and books, the purchased batiks and brasses, left back at the hostel. But the gentleman was saying something.
“My name is Matthew Thomas and I am having a daughter in Burlingtonvermont. I am hearing you say this place yesterday, and I am thinking perhaps you are knowing my daughter?”
She shook her head and smiled gently.
“My daughter . . . I am missing her very much . . . She is having a child . . . There are many things I am not understanding . .
They talked then, waiting at the airport where the fans were not working and the air was thick with the stench of the public latrines and the plane was late. When the call came, Jennifer said, “I will visit your daughter, and I will write. I will be quite truthful. I understand all the things you want to know.”
Mr. Matthew Thomas put his arms around her in a courteous formal embrace. She was startled and moved. No one had shown her any affection in three months in India. She had felt the touch of another body only as the rude shoving on suicidally crowded buses. “It is because you are the age of my daughter,” he said, “and because you go to where she is. You have become part of my family.”
Mr. Chandrashekharan Nair watched the plane circle overhead. He was on his way to the temple of Sree Padmanabhaswamy to receive prasadam and to give thanks to Lord Vishnu. He had just made a most satisfactory report of the incident to the newspaper reporter, and had been able to link it rather nicely to the Coca-Cola issue. It was a most auspicious day.
The ways of God are truly remarkable, thought Mr. Matthew Thomas as he left the airport. To think that the whole purpose behind the education of his wife’s cousin’s son had been the answer to his prayers about Kumari.
India is redeemed, thought Jennifer Harper as she watched the red-tiled flat roofs and the coconut plantations and the rice paddies dwindle into her past. Oh yes, she would say casually in Burlington, Vermont. India. A remarkable country.