'Scenes from Early Life' is the story of one upper-middle-class Bengali family, told in the form of a memoir. It is an autobiography, a novel and, in part, a history of one of the most ferocious of 20th-century civil wars.
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Philip Hensher is a columnist for "The Independent," an arts critic for "The Spectator," and one of "Granta"'s Best of Young British Novelists. He has written one collection of short stories, a book on handwriting called "The Missing Ink," and eight novels, including "The Mulberry Empire," "King of the Badgers," and "The Northern Clemency," which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He lives in South London and Geneva.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
1: At Nana’s House
Even the shit of a dog smells good to you, if it’s English.
( Ingrazi kuttar gu-o tomar khache bhalo.)
My grandmother used to say this to my grandfather. He was very pro-Empire. That was my mother’s father, who used to call me Churchill when I cried. At first I did not know who Churchill was, but my grandfather would explain to me, and after a while I knew who he meant when he said Churchill. He meant me, and often he would ask to have me sit next to him at the lunch table. ‘I want Churchill here,’ he said, and I would be led up by my ayah, not crying at all. I felt very proud. The theory was that when Churchill was a little boy, he used to cry very much. All the time. He was a great reader of biographies, my grandfather.
When he went out to a friend’s house, we would drive there in a big red car – a Vauxhall, I think. He was an income-tax lawyer, the president of the East Pakistan Income Tax Lawyers’ Association. Later, the Bangla Desh Income Tax Lawyers’ Association. There, at one old man’s house or another, I would be allowed to stay in company for a while. He liked to show me off, and would call me Churchill in front of his friends. I don’t believe that, as he said, he thought I would be the Churchill of Bangla Desh when I grew up. I think he mainly called me that because I cried.
My grandfather’s great friend was called, by us, Mr Khandekar-nana. He had been a friend of my grandfather’s from college, all the way back in the British time. They used to share a room when they were at college, a long time ago in the 1930s, and ever afterwards, they were friends with each other. They had gone on being friends when they moved to Calcutta to be lawyers. (That was where they were in 1947.) And afterwards they had both moved to Dacca. My grandfather was Nana to us and his friend was Mr Khandekar-nana.
They both lived in the Dhanmondi area, very close to each other. It was the best place in Dacca to live. Nana’s house was in road number six; Mr Khandekar-nana’s was in road number forty. Both of them were two-storey houses with glass walls to the porch and flat roofs, both intricate and complex in their ground plan. It was only a ten-minute walk from Nana’s house to Mr Khandekar-nana’s, and it was a pleasant walk. The roads of Dhanmondi were quiet, and lined with trees, all painted white to four feet high, to discourage the ants. ‘Ants can’t walk on white,’ my mother used to say. ‘They are frightened of being seen. So that’s why they paint the tree trunks white.’ I still don’t know how true that is. On the walk from Nana’s house to Khandekar-nana’s house, you would see only the occasional ayah, or mother, walking with her children, only the occasional houseboy loafing outside against the high, whitewashed walls of the houses, in those days. But my grandfather had a big red car, a Vauxhall, I think, and we drove the short distance to Mr Khandekar-nana’s house.
Among the keen interests they shared were plants and flowers, and they kept their gardeners up to the mark. In front of their houses were roses, jasmine, dahlias, even sunflowers – English flowers, often. The two of them took pleasure in choosing flowers together, and their gardens were only different in small details. They were planted neatly, in rows, against the neat white Bauhaus style of their houses, and the mosaic in ash and white and green on the ground. The flowerbeds were in the sunniest part of the garden, away from the tamarind tree at the front of my grandfather’s house, the mango tree at the front of Mr Khandekar-nana’s.
The visits to Mr Khandekar-nana’s followed the same sequence. My grandfather and Mr Khandekar-nana would go up to the balcony, shaded by the mango tree, and I would be allowed to go up with them. The tea would arrive and a plate of biscuits. My grandfather and Mr Khandekar-nana would take one biscuit each – one, one, judiciously, carefully, as lawyers do. Then I would be allowed to eat the rest. My grandfather would boast about how many books I had read, and as Khandekar-nana’s wife arrived, to greet us and bring my grandfather up to date with her grandchildren, he would mention that he thought in the end I would be the Churchill of Bangla Desh.
A great friend of mine was the daughter of another friend of my grandfather, a child specialist who lived quite opposite Nana’s house. She was ten years older than I was. When we visited them, she would take me to her living room and feed me biscuits from her own tin. It had English pictures on top of it, of a house with hair for a roof and a pony eating from a lawn. She had a lot of books and a phonogram; still, it is the biscuits that I remember. I wonder now whether I was notorious in the neighbourhood. But I will explain why I was allowed to eat whatever I wanted when I come to it.
He had a driver, my grandfather, which always very much impressed me. The driver’s name was Rustum. Rustum stayed in the family for fifteen years, living with his family just next to the garage, outside the courtyard of the house. He was always very friendly to us children. I got to know him not because of our Sunday trips to my grandfather’s friends, but because of what happened during the week. My grandmother would often ask Rustum to go to market for her. Rustum, too, liked me, and he would ask me and sometimes my sister to go with him. We always went because he slipped us a lozenge or a jujube at the end of the trip.
It was important that we would slip off with Rustum without mentioning it to anyone – the trip, like the secret jujube, was no fun if the grown-ups knew about it. But when I and my sister Sunchita were missed, my mother would start to shout and panic. My second aunty, Mary-aunty, would start to shout and panic. I know this because when we returned home, they would go on shouting and panicking at us, and at Rustum. ‘Why couldn’t you tell anyone that you were taking the children?’
We were kept under close surveillance, Sunchita and I, because we could never stay still. We were always chasing the chickens, climbing the mango tree in the garden, sneaking off to the market with Rustum, who conspired with us against the grown-ups. In the end, Rustum was sacked by my grandfather and died of tuberculosis.
My grandfather and my grandmother fought a war of attrition over the balcony on the first floor. My grandfather thought it his possession, the place he could retreat to from the noise and crowd elsewhere. He had an image of his balcony as being like Mr Khandekar-nana’s balcony and, I believe, thought of himself sitting on the cool open space, a cup of tea and biscuits to one side while the grandchildren and children, cousins and nephews and visitors from his village on business rampaged through the rest of the house.
There was a wooden armchair on the balcony, an orange-brown plantation chair with extendable limbs on which you could rest your legs. But it was generally pushed to one side, because my grandmother had her own ideas for the balcony. She encouraged the cook to see it as a useful space where things could be stored or placed to dry. Almost always, jolpai and mango were laid out there for drying, covered with dry spice on banana leaves; against the wall, rows of bottled pickles in mustard oil. It drove my grandfather mad with irritation that the balcony was being used in this way. ‘This house is like a pickle factory,’ he would mutter as, once again, he retreated from his balcony and went back downstairs to his library.
My challenge was to get on to the balcony while my grandmother was busy with other things. The tamarind tree was old, and thick-leaved; its boughs thrust beneath the roof and into the balcony’s space. If nobody was about, I climbed the tree and dropped softly on to the balcony. Or sometimes my sister Sunchita and I would conceal ourselves behind a curtain, or underneath a table, waiting for the servants to go by, and then we would run up to my grandfather’s room, and afterwards on to the balcony.
There, we hid. I liked to taste the pickles that had been laid out; I liked the pucker they made on my tongue.
We did not live at my grandfather’s house, but we went there for the weekend, almost every weekend. We especially went there if there was a good movie on television. We knew that there was a movie on television every Sunday afternoon and Saturday evening. It was often a Calcutta movie, an old Satyajit Ray film or something of that sort. Still, my father refused to buy a television for us, and so we went eagerly to Nana’s house.
The television was placed in the dining room, at the end of the polished mahogany table, which could seat, and often did seat, twelve people. Only Grandfather and Grandmother, Nana and Nani, had their own allotted places.
As well as having no television, my parents had, at that time, no car. We would arrive in a rickshaw at lunchtime on Friday – a cycle-rickshaw, with room for four. There was always a fight between me and the younger of my two sisters, Sunchita, over who would get to sit on my mother’s lap. My elder sister was above such things, and my big brother, Zahid, too. He was aloof, and came when he chose.
At lunch on Friday there would be guests from my grandfather’s village, his cousins or sisters, on a journey to Dacca for purposes of their own. The faces came and went. There would be hilsha fish, rice, some of the cook’s pickles, such as a mango pickle from the mango tree at the back of the garden, or jolpai. Jolpai is a small sour berry, about the size of an olive. My grandmother, with her sharp tongue, ruled over the lunch table on Friday. It was a time for children and for the women, of whom there were many in our family.
After lunch, we children went to bed. At night we slept downstairs, but in the afternoon we were put to bed in an aunt’s room, upstairs. It was Mary-aunty’s job to get us to bed, and she shouted at us: ‘Go to bed – take a book.’ But we did not rest. My sister Sunchita and I would spend the time fighting. We always wanted to read the same book, though Sunchita was a better reader than I was. I liked books with pictures in them; Sunchita read a novel by Sharat Chandra Chattapadhaya when she was only eight, a novel for adults. (‘Why are you reading this book? This book is not for you,’ my grandfather said, surprised but not angry.) In the hour of rest, I would demand that Sunchita read her book out to me, or if I was crotchety, that she give it to me. And so we fought.
My grandfather came home from his lawyer’s chambers at five, or half past five. The creak and gong-like echo of the opening gate; then his red car, a Vauxhall, driven by Rustum, with its engine noise unlike any other engine noise; and then my grandfather’s voice downstairs. ‘Is anyone here?’ he said, his voice hardly above conversation pitch. But, of course, there was always somebody there. It was a game between him and me. Of all the people in the house, I called, ‘Nana, I am here.’
Then he would say, ‘Churchill! You are here. When did you arrive?’ That was the signal to get up and go to greet my grandfather.
My grandfather was a very competitive person, and once he had changed out of his Western suit into what he liked to wear in the evening, a white Panjabi and white pyjamas, he might tease my mother with stories of what my father, his son-in-law, had got up to during the day. As my father and my grandfather were both lawyers in the same field of income-tax law, they sometimes found themselves on opposite sides of a case. My grandfather never let this opportunity fall.
‘Mahmood tried to be very intelligent today,’ he would say, waiting for the tea, biscuits and nuts – he was very fond of nuts – to arrive. ‘But it all fell very flat.’
‘Which case was that?’ my mother asked. Before she married, she, too, had started to train as a lawyer; she still helped out with legal research. She liked to talk about the law with my father, and her father, too. My grandfather explained, going into detail. ‘I’m sure he made a very good case,’ my mother said loyally.
‘Mahmood tried to be very intelligent today,’ my grandfather said, laughing, ‘but it didn’t succeed at all.’
These are the names of the aunts who came to dinner at Nana’s house almost every Friday night.
Mira-aunty had moved to Canada, so she did not come.
Nadira-aunty was in England, in Sheffield, with her husband.
And Boro-mama, Big-uncle, the eldest of Nana’s children, had his own house in Dacca and his own family, so he did not come, although he had left one of his sons behind with Nana and Nani, as if absent-mindedly.
Those aunts and that uncle did not come for dinner.
But Nana sat at the head of the table, and to his left sat Nani, my grandmother. She had a highly polished teak stool for her leg to rest on; it had a long hollow on it, which I used to imagine had been worn away by her leg, over hundreds, thousands, of family dinners. But I think it was really made that way. From time to time she would call for a servant to give her a massage in the middle of dinner.
My grandmother loved to talk about food, though for her the best food was always food she had eaten in the past, and not the food she had just eaten. She allowed a certain amount of time to pass – years, usually – before she would award a compliment. The only daughter who loved food as much as she did was Bubbly, and they could keep up conversations about individual long-ago dishes for hours. Bubbly could remember, in quite specific detail, the dishes her sisters had had at their weddings, and she and her mother would happily go over them, or food they had eaten at other times.
‘Do you remember?’ Nani would say, her leg resting on the teak footrest. ‘Do you remember the steamed rui that Sharmin taught Ahmed how to make when everyone was living here? Do you remember, Bubbly? It was so good, that steamed rui with lemon and ginger. And she taught him, and he never got it right afterwards. I don’t know why. But it was never so delicious ever again. He didn’t listen properly, or he made some changes of his own, wretched boy, and completely spoiled the dish. Oh, I loved to eat that steamed rui. I could have eaten it every day.’
‘It was so clever of her,’ Dahlia would say, calling from half a table away. ‘It is so strange that it was her to be so clever with fish, being Bihari, and not liking fish as much as we do.’
‘Well, Dahlia,’ Nani said. ‘She didn’t like fish at the beginning. But she came to like it because your big brother likes it so much. And now she likes it as much as anyone, and she has such clever ways with it.’
‘Because, of course,’ Bubbly said, taking no notice of her mother, ‘there was not always a great choice of things to eat, that year, but you could often get rui when there was no other fish to be had. I wish Sharmin would come back and teach Ahmed how to make it again, but she says she can’t remember, and she says she doesn’t know what’s wrong with the way Ahmed cooks it, so that would really be a fool’s errand.’
Nani and Nana had the best view of the television, which was at the far end of the table, on the sideboard next to a little fridge for all sorts of odds and ends. Dinner took place at eight, because that was when the television news was on.
Next to my grandmother sat Mary-aunty. She was the eldest of the sisters, after my mother. It was her job to keep the children under control, but she could often be tearful when faced with determined opposition, and I wonder if she was very good at her household task.
Next to her sat Shibli, who was Boro-mama’s son. I was very jealous of Shibli. Whereas we only came to visit Nani and Nana at weekends, Shibli lived with them...
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