Excerpts from a Longer Essay by Sylvia Staub
To reach my childhood home, my dreams and memories must breach a distance of over 11,000 miles and a time span of several decades. The house still stands, I am told, but who owns it now I do not know and do not wish to know, for that would simply be too painful.
It was built by my grandparents early in the 20th century on the outskirts of a country town some 90 miles from Calcutta. A brick villa built in a late-Victorian style, its tiled roof flamed red against a rich green canopy of mahogany trees. The trees had been planted from seed by my father to mark the boundary between our property and the paddies that stretched beyond, finally to fade in a haze of heat into jungle. That was, of course, long before my birth. The villa’s rooms were amply proportioned, their ceilings high. My family took pride in the fact that all of the wood used in its construction was teak imported from Burma, so planned to foil the voracious appetite of white ants and the rot of Bengal’s climate, its fierce sun and torrential rains. With its façade so studied an expression of the symmetry and orderliness of the Victorian era, our family home in far off India might well have been a transplant from the southeast of Britain: bay windows, decorative gray verticals in a Greek-key design scaling the rosy brick of its walls, white fascia boards, and a porch with wrought-iron railings and fancy woodwork fronting wide front doors of highly polished wood. Those stout doors and the impressive sunburst pattern set atop them yet again, in my view, conveyed to all who approached the solidarity of the family and the exuberant optimism of the Victorians, which extended into and through the Edwardian period of my grandparents.
I am of mixed ancestry, a child of two very different worlds, East and West. The males in my lineage were “army”, having come to India from Britain with Victorian regiments. They, and later their sons, married women of dual ancestry. I am of the fourth generation of those two family lines that began in the latter half of the 19th century and made their home in India. As my granddad used to say, “Originally, everyone came here from somewhere else; we are merely the last to have arrived.”
My grandmother ran our home from a rocker, the artifacts of her daily use neatly deployed on a table at her side—a yellow Parker fountain pen and a writing tablet in a tapestry cover; the 11″ x 5″ hisap (accounts) ledger; her knitting bag, with needles protruding from a half-finished sweater; the book she was reading. And I hear again the shuffle of my granddad’s slippers, wandering restless through the house, pausing now and then at the front door. He is expecting a parcel of homeopathic remedies. My childhood was punctuated by doses of Kalimer and Natrumphos, and any of a dozen other natural salts and tinctures. Granddad’s homeopathic paraphernalia included a mysterious black box to which a couple of electric chords were attached, ending in hand grips. On hot afternoons, when the others were asleep, he would entice us youngsters into his small workshop with pieces of rock candy. There, amid its clutter of tools, old yellowing newspapers, pills in tiny bottles, and his beloved “scientific” tomes, he would talk us into taking hold of those hand grips. As we stood, each in turn, gripping the grips, Granddad would throw a switch that sent a mild electrical charge through our bodies, making them vibrate like chattering teeth. It was scary but exciting, and tacitly secret.
At sundown each day, he would stand on our driveway with his hands locked behind him and his legs slightly apart, as though “at ease” on a parade ground. His boyhood was spent in the Andaman Islands, in a British army camp where his father was a bandmaster. Granddad had no bugle on which to play taps, but as he faced the dying sun I would hear him softly singing: “Day is done/Gone the sun/From the sea, from the hills, from the sky/All is well, safely rest/God is nigh.” I have to thank him for nurturing my lively young imagination with bedtime stories to rival “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and for my lifelong love of the stars. On dark nights, when the constellations were at their brightest, he would take me into our garden and teach me their names.
In Tucson, Arizona, where street lighting is minimal as an accommodation to the Mt. Kit observatory, the stars hang low. Often, as I look up at them, I think back to starry nights in our garden in India and the old man who taught me to love them. Here, in the shadow of the Catalinas, I am recreating my Indian childhood. I have planted the plants that grew in my grandmother’s garden: bougainvillea in several voluptuous shades; bright-leaved crotons; ferns and oleanders and bushes of jasmine; and watery plants with huge serrated leaves like the torn ears of elephants. In summer our back porch is the locus of pots of marigolds and hanging baskets of pinks and portulaca. There is much in this Sonoran Desert town to remind me of my roots: brilliant sunsets and the inky silhouettes of palms; one-story houses whose soft-colored adobe exteriors are not unlike the stucco facades of my homeland; people whose color varies from bronze to beige to white; the dancing heat of summer and the same winter chill; and, from July to September, lightning and thunder of Wagnerian dimension, followed by monsoonal rains. After the rain, the sodden earth releases the same aromatic fragrance. Here, where time moves as gently as in my childhood, remembering is easy.
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© Copyright 2003, Sylvia Staub