Letters from Nairobi
by Selma Carvalho
She broke a farm fresh egg which the big hen she kept caged in the chicken coup had laid earlier in the morning. To the swirling egg yolk in the bowl, she added coffee, brandy and a palmful of sugar. ‘Generosity can be measured by a woman’s palm,’ she told me, her black eyes shining, ‘open it wide enough and give generously always.’ I listened intently. These were the lessons she taught me before she lost her mind to Alzheimer’s but for now, she was young, domineering and widowed, with no qualms about feeding sugar or coffee or alcohol to children. The coffee had a deep, barely recognisable aroma, perhaps a mixture of cinnamon and cloves. I wasn’t even sure it was coffee, perhaps it was some substitute. She started frenetically whipping the egg mixture until it turned into a creamy yellow paste. She sighed and pushed the bowl under my nose; it smelt like morning. Then she reached across the chipped wooden table, opened the leather pouch where she kept the letters and pulled one out.
In the summer of 1911, my grandmother received three letters from my grandfather, which she kept in a leather pouch hidden at the back of an old chest painted black to look like mahogany, and retrieved them on mornings such as these when she felt inconsolably lonely. She was sixteen when she got married; a young girl of some beauty and certainly of some wealth. Not that wealth meant anything those days. Not like it does today. Her family owned a bakery, a large home and acres of land fronting the sea which neither a sailor nor any sane soul found value in except to cast a net and trawl in mackerels, silver-blue like stars caught in a mesh. That’s what wealth was in those days – the land, the sea and its bounty; but still her family was worth a damned Escudo more than the farmer with just his two water buffaloes or the cobbler who had no land of his own and suffered the indignity of a tenant. My grandfather, nearing forty, slender, wistful looking with a bald patch was a catch for any girl of that generation. He was set to sail by dhow to East Africa where a railway line had been built by the British, and fledgling towns of wood and iron houses had sprung up alongside the stations.
‘My dear Maria,’ she began reading, ‘I am here in this God forsaken country where hardly a proper town exists, just a railway track which runs somewhere into the interior but I’ve never taken it, to see where it ends. Kisumu they tell me. I am here in Nairobi, and I have no wish to go any deeper into the interior. Loneliness clings to me like a dark shadow, following me everywhere. I yearn for your embrace. Here, in Nairobi, we have a few Goans, a little over 500 I think, and I am getting to know them. We live in the Indian part of town, but we tell everyone that we are Goans and we owe our allegiance to Portugal. Although, something tells me that will change soon. Already the Goans act like the British and speak like them.’ She looked at me searching for some sign of understanding in my ten year old face. I understood mostly the sadness written large on her face, which if I looked close enough was tear-stained perhaps for the life she had led or more likely for the life that has passed her by. She was embarrassed that she had intruded into my childhood with her sorrow. She put the letter back into the pouch.
‘We’ll read some more later,’ she said, tucking the white pallu into her sari-skirt. Grandfather had died thirty-five years ago but she still insisted on wearing a ghostly white sari as a sign of respect for the man, and was known in the village as the woman in white. She straightened her bun and headed to the stocked pantry. She came back with two fleshy mandarins and one small over-ripe chikoo.
‘Here,’ she said letting the fruit roll off her thick palm onto my tiny one, ‘go outside and play.’
Outside, the world felt young and fresh, the earth smelt of decaying fruit and dung, and the trees swished in the sky with leaves like shoals of fish swishing in the sea, swishing this way and that, as if their swishing would go on for ever or at least till the rains came and they fell silent and heavy. Old man Miguel, to the left of grandmother’s house, waved to me. Tufts of white hair sprung from either side of his ears making the shiny bald patch in the middle look like an abandoned field. Thin as a reed he was, but strong. He roamed the river banks and the orchards, and at night he roamed the darkness lit up by moons. He was always out there, barefoot, clad in his faded short pants and sleeveless cotton vest, checking on the cows, buffaloes and goats he kept tethered to the dome shaped haystack; the smell of dry hay everywhere. Grandmother said, you wouldn’t know it to look at him, but he was an important man. If ever there was a dispute about water rights or marital discord, he’d be called upon to arbitrate; the unofficial lawmaker of the village. But grandmother had quite a few fights with him because his cows often wandered into her garden, munching unperturbed on her bougainvillea. And because he was always insinuating secrets and scandals about her dead husband.
At mid-day, when the shadows had lengthened, I went in. Victoria the maid, had laid out lunch: a plateful of unevenly heaped rice, deep fried semolina crusted fish and a fierce looking orangey-red curry. There were jars of pickles lined on the side; mangos in brine, brinjals in chilli and fish soaked in vinegar. Victoria, who had come to live with us as a seven year old child, was twenty-seven, with at least three front teeth missing, a taut bosom and thick thighs and ankles, which thanks to grandmother’s sense of modesty were always covered in pleated dresses. But her round, black eyes placed above rather fine cheekbones made her a comely girl who doubled up as my childhood companion and grandmother’s caretaker.
My mother, grandmother’s only child, had never married. She had paid for her folly of fornication by being incarcerated at the Holy Spirit Convent all through her adolescent years and had departed for Bombay at the first instance of freedom. She left me in the care of these two women who were so disembowelled by their own sadness that I became their only solace. They prayed feverishly at odd hours of the day, fishing out of their pockets, pictures of martyred saints, wooden crucifixes and rosaries, rubbing them furiously and breaking into incoherent utterances, sometimes together but usually in solitude. When they weren’t united in their quest for redemptive suffering, Victoria bore the brunt of grandmother’s moods. Grandmother believed her menials were to be treated with as much disdain as her conscience would allow but occasionally she would surprise Victoria with some mouldy biscuits or fabric recycled from an old curtain for a new dress. In those times, the orphan Victoria believed she was loved, and grandmother felt assured of a place in heaven.
Grandmother sat next to me. She still had her pouch of letters and I implored her to read some more.
‘There is trouble at the Goan Institute,’ she read, pausing theatrically. She had read this letter to me a hundred times and yet it seemed – by that look of conspiratorial glee shared by fellow voyeurs glimpsing into a life not their own – as if something astounding would be revealed at any moment.
‘A few of the Goan cooks, butlers and tailors are creating trouble for the Goan Institute,’ she went on, ‘these people cannot ever hope to join the institute. The institute here in Nairobi is meant for us, the educated clerks. We manage all the correspondence and affairs of the British empire. There are some British officers who don’t even know how to read or write. We have to teach them. And as for the Africans, they are like little children who have to be guided in everything. But coming back to the institute, these cooks and butlers want to join the institute and we simply cannot allow it.’
‘But why can’t they join?’ I asked grandmother, my heart brimming with the naïve hopefulness of a child.
‘It’s because they are of a lower caste,’ she said without blinking. It would take me many years to understand the full implication of her statement; to understand that all men were not created equal; that certain people couldn’t enter our house through the front door or drink from the same water pitcher as us or sit at the table with us; that they had to keep their heads bowed as they spoke to us and know their place. Catholic Goans had preserved the caste system even after converting from Hinduism. All this escaped my callous, childish understanding of life. I knew only the joy of catching monarch butterflies as they flew over flowers or chasing cackling black hens into shallow puddles, something which seemed to completely overwhelm their world and delight mine.
I had finished eating my rice when Victoria cleared the table, emptying the leftovers into her own copper plate and squatting on the floor to have her lunch. Grandmother had more fruit for me; this time a jackfruit had been cut in half, its rubbery oyster-like flesh scooped out and piled into a pyramid. I scrunched up my nose in distaste and grandmother seeing my disappointment promised me rice pudding for my evening tea, sweetened with sugarcane jaggery. Once again, she put the letters away but I knew another reading would be scheduled at tea-time. This was the letter which always made grandmother cry, and I, fumbling with the helplessness of childhood, afraid that her uncontrollable sobbing would lead to her sudden death, would fling my arms around her bulky bosom and beg her to stop.
Grandmother napped in the afternoons, uncomfortably shifting her large, cumbersome body on her cot, which I shared with her at night. Then, we would curl up against each other, drawing what warmth and comfort we could from one another. Often the moon would hide from us, plunging us into total darkness, and grandmother would imagine burglars running around although it was just scrawny rats not as afraid of the dark as we were.
I decided to go outside and join the knot of children who gambolled in the afternoons on the open playing field, playing the games of childhood – of petty torture and great escapes – and in some inexplicable way preparing for adulthood. There was skinny-kneed Savio, Sebastiao, Elvis, Georgina and Joao Pedro who really didn’t fit in because he stuttered and tended to birds caught in traps. He was kind like that. I imagined one day I would marry Joao Pedro, but he was as black as a crow and fair people did not marry black people unless they were virtuous in some other aspect.
At tea-time, grandmother and I sat across the table, eating our rice-pudding and drinking our rose-scented black tea; the tea leaves floating in the cup like debris. An uncomfortable silence slid into the room. The pouch of letters lay sullenly on the table; grandmother stared at them. I couldn’t deny her the cathartic release she sought. I urged her to read the last one; the one that always made her cry. She drew a deep breath; she suddenly looked old, the lines on her face etched deep, the bitterness around it obvious.
‘My dear Maria,’ she began, ‘something terrible has happened. I have been accused of stealing money from petty cash. There were only two people in the office, Mr P. Rogers and myself, who had the keys to the safe. Rogers is really not any better than me. He’s an Anglo-Indian, fortunate enough to be born with green eyes and sandy coloured hair. I swear to you, I swear on my life, that I never took that money. I said to the head clerk, I don’t know anything about it. I hinted that Rogers had been seen drinking like a fish at Souza’s bar. But no one will listen. It is his word against mine. In this land, I suppose, half an Englishman is better than all the brown skinned babus put together. The Goans are known all over Africa for their honesty and loyalty. I have betrayed them, they say at the institute. They want me to leave the institute and pay back the missing money. I don’t know what to do. Only thoughts of you and our baby in your belly keep me alive. Otherwise, I would kill myself.’
Grandmother stopped reading. She put the letter back in the pouch and began crying, softly at first and then without restraint; her head face-down on the table. I got up from the bench, lay my cheek on her head and tried to soothe away her pain as best as a child could. There were no more letters from grandfather. Two years later, with a child in her arms, Grandmother arranged a funeral mass for him and had him declared dead.
Grandmother died at the age of ninety, withered like an old vine. Mother didn’t attend the funeral. She worked for a Parsi barrister in Bombay and found the bus ride to Goa intolerable. I inherited Grandmother’s black wooden chest and her pouch of letters. She made me promise, I would read them often. At her funeral, it rained and the villagers said, it was nature mourning. They all turned up, the entire village, for the dead woman in white and the priest gave a touching eulogy about the loneliness of being abandoned so early in life. Victoria now as ashen as grandmother- her memories suitably adjusted for nostalgia – sat beside me, crying into an embroidered handkerchief and muttering how kind the old lady had been to her. When I came home, I went straight to grandfather’s letters. My hands shook and my heart pounded so hard, I thought it would lunge from my chest in protest. I was alone, peering into a private past which although part of me was never mine. I held the letters in my hand and there it was – a fourth letter dated two years after the last one.
‘My dear Maria,’ it read, ‘there are things one does which one is deeply ashamed of. There are things which can only be explained as madness. I am both ashamed and mad. I ran away from my office, Maria. One night, I took the train and got off at a station, I can’t even remember which but it was well into the interior. I could no longer bear the shame of being accused of robbery. I walked and walked, I might have died out there but I arrived at a remote district, my face covered in sand and ant bites and the British district officer took me for an honest, Christian Goan who had lost his way and his memory, and gave me shelter. He hired me as his cook. I am adjusting to my new life. I am glad there are no Goans here. I have a one year old son born to Dinka, an African woman working at the coffee plantation. My son is a black, skinny boy with tight curly hair but his face is that of a Goan. Of that I am certain. I am sorry Maria, I truly am, but you understand why I can never return to Goa. Sweet Jesus! I know how unfair life has been to you. May you and God forgive me.‘
I sank to the floor. It dawned on me that Grandmother had prayed all her life not for her own redemption but that of her husband.
Selma Carvalho is the author of (nonfiction) Into the Diaspora Wilderness, and A Railway Runs Through: Goans of British East Africa, 1865 – 1980. Between 2011-2014, she headed the Oral Histories of British Goans project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, UK which recorded and archived at the British Library, UK the diasporic voices of East African Goans residing in Britain. She has been widely published regionally and nationally published in Saffronart, DNA India, Himal Southasian, Muse India and Times of India. She is a regular columnist at The Goan. Her short fiction ‘Anatomy of Desire’ was shortlisted by Almond Press UK, in their 2015 short story competition and published in the anthology ‘Apocalypse Chronicles’. She is currently working on an illustrated history of Goan pioneers in East Africa entitled ‘Butcher, baker, doctor, diplomat’. Of Goan origin, she lives in London with her husband and daughter.