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When my mother was twelve years old, directing imaginary plays from the little outhouse roof in her tenement back yard, she knew that there was absolutely nothing wrong with the world.
Standing by her living room window, catching a brown and watery glimpse of the East River these many years later, she knew it to be a bad place.
Whether this knowledge had gathered little by little over the intervening years—cloud by cloud, regret by regret—and just now let on; or whether it had sprung: gray horizon to horizon upon an unsuspecting sky just moments ago, since breakfast, she couldn’t tell. Only that it was so obvious now.
But she mustn’t let this ruin her day. She slipped into her beige duffle coat, donned her sunglasses, covered her head with a gray and black scarf, patted her coat pocket to hear the keys tinkle, made sure she had her cigarettes, and her lighter, and without as much as a word of good-bye to Claire, headed out for her morning walk.
My mother gave me away when I was two weeks old. Yes: I was a gift. That’s what she later told me: a gift. Of course, I was also the unthinkable, in a world that must never know about me, at least not the world which knew and celebrated her. I was to be hidden from it.
Later I realized that I was also to be hidden from her, the deeper the better.
“And given sounds so much better than hidden, don’t you think?” she said once after I had come to know her. “And so much better than unthinkable.”
The original benefactee—if I can be permitted to invent a word—was my father. His name was Jiddu and at that time (I was born April 10, 1928) he was a reasonably well known mystic. Indeed, he was quite famous in his day, even though today, if remembered at all, he seems more myth than man. Still, he has left a bit of a legacy, along with not a few schools and foundations scattered here and there about the world. But the man on the street, were you to mention his name, would look at you blankly, take his time, and then shake his head.
At first Jiddu argued that she should keep me. “Children should be with their mothers,” he said. “That’s why women give birth and not men.” Besides, would a child not be in his way as much as in hers? This, however, he soon had to admit—even to himself—simply was not true. Sure, to him I would be a burden, an inconvenience and an embarrassment, but to her I would be the end of a career, the end of a successful life.
So in the end he relented—though, from what she later told me, not all that gracefully—and accepted me: a gift to be hidden.
You could plainly see that I was his and her son. The color of my hair and the color of my skin were his; the color of my eyes, and the shape of my nose and mouth were hers. If my father had entertained any thoughts of contesting his involvement, he must have abandoned them the moment he saw me. Very much his, and very much hers. Not that I cared then.
So, he accepted me, but he didn’t keep me around for long. A week or two, from what I’ve been able to piece together; just long enough to realize what a burden I actually was. Then he packed me off to Madanapalle, a small town smack in the middle of Southern India where he had grown up, and where his mother still lived.
The long and the short of it: I was raised by a wonderful Indian woman named Madhuri (who among other things knew how to talk to snakes) in a town not so seldom overrun by rats (not in and around Madhuri’s house of course, her snake friends saw to that) and, for three months of the year, home to inclement weather.
This all happened in the spring of 1928. As I said, I was born in April of that year. In other words, I’m getting on a bit. Well, you do the math, as they say. But I’m doing pretty well, not all that much worse for the wear, if I may say so. This I ascribe to clean air and vegetables.
A month to the day after giving birth to me, and with the embarrassment now safely out of the way (I was en route to India, in fact), principal photography of War in the Dark—which was the working title for The Mysterious Lady, one of my mother’s many films—began in Los Angeles. This was the first time Harriet had been seen in public since she grew too large to be seen at all in December of the year before.
As an aside: I’m afraid that I can’t refer to my mother by her real name for her estate (which does not include me) has trademarked it, and I really can’t be bothered with the legal wrangling it most likely would entail to obtain the right to use it for this little tale. So, instead I’ll use Harriet Brown, her alter-ego, the name she herself used on so many occasions in the (often misplaced) hope of staying unrecognized and out of sight. They didn’t, or couldn’t, trademark that. Besides, strange though it may seem, she was always Harriet to me.
Even though she had exercised hard and showed no evidence whatever of her recent pregnancy, no sagging or stretch marks—she was only 22 years old then, and quite resilient—she nonetheless wanted no one on the set that did not firmly belong there, just in case, and she requested that it be blocked off by a maze of black screens. This request was granted, as were most of her wishes.
She worried unduly. No one did notice, and no one ever found out.
I am mentioned nowhere, by anyone. Not by Beaton, who did know but had given Harriet his word—which he honored—that he would never reveal her secret. Not even by Miss de Acosta who, if indeed she knew—I am sure she suspected—kept me out of her rambling diaries.
Officially, I still don’t exist.
But I came to exist for her, and she for me, and when all is said and done, that is what counts.
Shoes and News
I got my first pair of shoes in 1942. My new school would not hear of bare feet in class, so there you have it. It was not my idea. And of course I had to go to high school, both Harriet and Jiddu insisted apparently, and what was an old useless woman to do, said Madhuri. So, freshly shod, off I went to a private school near Hindupur, two dusty days of travel from Madanapalle and my life so far, to learn how to speak English, and how to wear the damn things.
It took me four months and a lot of pleading with incarcerated toes and protesting insteps, along with many a long discussion with stiff leather and slippery soles stiffer still, to use them with even a modicum of comfort. For weeks the greatest thing on Earth, what kept me going, that shining light ahead, was that one moment, that one glorious moment when after hobbling into my room, after closing the door behind me, I could finally sit down on my bed and ease my feet out of their twin prisons. And there I would sit, on the edge of my bed, for minutes without moving, watching these two sore escapees pulse with hurt and indignation. They didn’t care much for the British, did my feet—for these unreasonable English teachers who saw fit to enshoe their Indian pupils without even the fleetest of notions that Indian feet might beg to differ with their stuffy protocol.
Free at last.
Until morning, and what kept me huddled under the blanket until there simply was no putting if off any longer: the painful reintroduction of blistery feet to their dark, constricting cells.
But, as Madhuri told me more than once, everything can be mastered, even shoes apparently, and in the end I tamed them (or they tamed me, one or the other).
By spring the shoe-battle was but memory and I was free to fall in with the many books they gave me to read. And read I did. And read. Which is how I discovered I had a gift for the English language.
Another thing I discovered that spring was that I loved buildings. The grace and mystery of their rising—the British were nothing if not industrious—the alchemy of their conception and design. Seeing marble, or bricks, or plastered, or wooded walls rise around the intricate skeletons of beam and balk to the beat of the architect’s score, a little every day, until one day, new and complete, and with pomp and sometimes a marching band, they almost shone with the long effort, I decided to make buildings my life. And that’s exactly what I’ve done. But now I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
At this time I still did not know who my mother was.
Over the years I had asked Madhuri often enough; pleaded with her for an answer. Especially on those days that the question of my parentage was cruelly raised by those neighborhood boys who knew me to be motherless. But while Madhuri would do all she could to comfort me—she’d cook my favorite meals, tell me wonderful stories, she would even teach me snake talk—she could not answer my question, for she did not know either; Jiddu refused to tell her. But, she’d add, your mother must be someone very special. Just look at your eyes. Look at your beautiful blue eyes, Nachiketa.
In the end it was Jiddu himself who told me, and this on the very day I graduated from college. This was in May of 1951 and I had just turned 23.
“You’ll be going to England now, to attend a real school,” and this he said as if there was something quite the matter with Indian schools, even those run by leftover Englishmen. “I’ve secured you a place at King’s College,” he said. “Oh, and by the way, I know you’ve been pestering Madhuri about it: Your mother is Harriet Brown.”
At first—I’m sure you can imagine—I misunderstood him. What other choice did I have?
“Sorry,” I said. “What did you say? I must have heard you wrongly.”
“No,” he said. “You heard me just fine. Your mother is Harriet Brown, is exactly what I said. And now you’ve heard it correctly, twice.”
Coming from anyone else, I could and would have shrugged this off as the insanity it surely was. Good joke, fine show, and all that. But this was Jiddu Krishnamurti, and the terrifying thing about hearing this from him, and twice now, was that my father, from what I had so far experienced, just didn’t lie. And to make matters worse, Madhuri had told me on more than one occasion that Jiddu was the most truthful person she knew. “Were my son to tell you that the moon would strike the Earth tomorrow,” she’d laugh, “I suggest you find some very solid cover.” And so I had no choice but to assume that his news, no matter how far-fetched, was true.
I had heard of her, of course. All the world had heard of her. And, yes, it would explain my pale blue eyes, the twin mystery of my dark face. Pale Eyes, that’s what they used to call me in elementary school. Motherless Pale Eyes. And had Madhuri not taught me snake talk, I am not sure I would have survived my shoeless Madanapalle school days.
Motherless Pale Eyes, son of a whore or a goat or a dog, bastard son of no mother to be found. And sometimes the larger—or richer—boys, the principal bullies, would then chase me and push me to the ground and kick me, or poke at me with sticks, once or twice even urinate on me. Motherless Pale Eyes. Get out of here. You don’t belong here. Go find your whore mother, if you have one, if she’s still alive, if she didn’t kill herself when she set eyes on you. Find yourself a she goat.
Look at Pale Eyes, crying now for his goat mother.
But I did know snake talk, and in the end, after I had reached my limit of shame and humiliation, it took only one demonstration for the word to get out.
Ganaraj, a fat boy with a very rich and much fatter father, was usually the first to goad, the first to kick, the last to leave me to my misery. One morning they found him not dead but near enough to serve my purpose, bitten not once but thrice by cobras during the night.
Such a thing had never happened before. Not in Madanapalle at any rate, and nowhere else either, that the doctor knew of. Never, he said again. Three bites, and by three different snakes—different spacing between the fangs you see: here, here and here. The wonder was that Ganaraj was still alive. Well, a wonder to them. I had asked the snakes specifically not to kill, only to mark, and they had done exactly that, deep bites with only a trace of venom from each, though even hardly any venom at all had been enough to usher Ganaraj next door to death.
When, the following day, I brought the three perpetrators to school—well, that’s not exactly right: the cobras had agreed to come and appear with me at first recess, which they did—it grew very clear to the children what had happened. Especially after I first told the stunned little crowd that I would, then did ask the three cobras to circle me three times in the dirt and then leave in a straight line—one after the other—for the nearby brush, all of which they, as agreed, did, much to the wide-eyed and still shocked amazement of now very meek bullies and their hangers-on.
And so, word got out and I had no problems with bullies after that.
Of course, Madhuri soon put two and two together, and while she understood why I had done what I did, she did not approve. She never said anything, though, not as such, but her eyes, usually warm, turned cold and sympathetic both—if that’s a possible mix.
And so they remained—reproachful and loving, both—until she finally spoke with the perpetrators herself and learned that the cobras had indeed agreed that something had to be done about my unfair treatment at school and were only too glad to do my bidding. Not that this made her approve, but it softened her considerably, and that night she hugged me again, and read me some more of her stories.
They are a wise race, cobras. More of that later.
Ganaraj was nursed back to life, but he was never quite the same after that. There was nothing wrong physically, is what they said, but every now and then, especially when he saw me, seems he had trouble working his tongue and he would grow hard to understand. He also had some problem controlling his bladder whenever snakes were mentioned. As you may have already gathered, he never called me Pale Eyes again, and neither did anyone else. Nor was I called motherless, by anyone.
There was a downside to this, however: I now found myself alone, left to myself even by those who had been my friends, few though they were; they were now afraid of me. Which left me and Madhuri, with a lot of time on our hands. “Perhaps not such a bad thing,” she said. “I have a lot to teach you.”
So, “Oh, and by the way, I know you’ve been pestering Madhuri about it: Your mother is Harriet Brown.”
I still held his hand in mine. The light curtains upon which many white suns and golden moons danced in a repeating pattern swayed slowly in the open window and I could hear many people moving about outside, some talking, some laughing, some taking what sounded like tearful leave of each other. We, too (though now suddenly stranded), were in the middle of a goodbye. Jiddu was off to somewhere again, America I believe, or Japan, I could never keep track; well, I could, but chose not to. At least he had come for my graduation, that was something, but now he was off again.
He was always formal with me, always shaking hands, never embracing, just hand embracing hand.
“Sorry,” I said. “What did you say? I must have heard you wrongly.”
“No,” he said. “You heard me just fine. Your mother is Harriet Brown, is exactly what I said. And now you’ve heard it correctly, twice.”
“The Harriet Brown.”
I still held onto his hand, no longer in farewell, but for support. The curtains still moved with the breeze, still swelling with light, but everything beyond them had gone silent, as if the world outside had simply emptied, or as if everybody in it had suddenly frozen in place, holding their breath, the better to hear.
“But of course,” he went on, as if all this were well-known to me, “no one knows, or must know. You have no mother, Nachiketa. Officially. You know that, of course. You cannot tell anyone.”
I didn’t know that, of course, at all, but I said yes, of course, of course.
He then, with some difficulty, let go of my hand—or rather, made my hand, which now seemed to suffer some strange rigor mortis, let go of his. And with my hand now left clutching the air, he turned and walked out.
“Take care of yourself,” he said as he reached the door, and with that quick, dark backward glance of his that I had come to dislike, he left.
The door closed behind him with a light squeak and a soft click, leaving me still clutching his hand, or so my hand seemed to think. Left me thinking of Harriet Brown and her blue eyes and of me and my blue eyes and of Jiddu leaving me to pack my books and clothes and not so many other things and travel back to Madanapalle on my own, and of me and who I was, and who I had suddenly become: no longer motherless; though I had no mother, of course. Officially.
Three days later, safely back in Madanapalle after a blistering and a little too eventful a journey, I told Madhuri. By this time Jiddu had told her as well, because she hugged me and cried and spoke to me first in snake talk (which she always used when she wanted to show how special I was to her and how precious was our relationship) then—snake talk no longer up to the task at hand—in our normal tongue about how unfair the world had been to me and about how much I looked like Harriet Brown, really, if you paid no mind to my black hair (it was so black by then it was nearly blue), or my dark face, and looked at me as I would look had I been born a Scandinavian prince, which is what Madhuri said I was, wasn’t I? And would I please to take off my shoes in her house, if I didn’t mind so very much. Her house was not a Hindupur school for snobby boys, you now.
We didn’t mind so very much at all, neither me nor my feet.
And Harriet Brown was my mother. My mother. Harriet Brown was my mother. Now that Madhuri said so too, it was wholly true. Completely, if not officially.
But no matter how true it was, you might as well have sat me down and told me that Devaki was my mother and that Lord Krishna and I were indeed brothers, the news could not have been stranger to me. Born to a living Hollywood goddess. Jiddu, as my father, yes, that made sense—at least he looked like me—and I knew that Madhuri was my grandmother, some things you just know. But Harriet Brown. That would take some getting used to, to put it mildly.
Scandinavian prince: pale blue eyes looked back at me from the bathroom mirror. Scandinavian eyes, perhaps, yes, but that was about all. All that made any sense.
Naturally, I became not a little obsessed with her. Especially once I arrived in England and could see, over and over, her many films.
Harriet Brown: my mother.
Still, there were studies to attend to, and perhaps luckily so, for they took my mind off her, sometimes for hours at a stretch. And so my days passed, and my years.
I got to go back and see Madhuri during the summer of 1953; Jiddu even paid for aeroplane tickets this time, but other than that, it seems I did nothing but study and watch Harriet movies for four years.
And yes, of course, my love for buildings grew: somewhere along the way I had decided to become an architect.
I receive an unexpected phone call in the summer of 1955.
I have just moved from Cambridge to London, where the endlessly well-connected Jiddu has found me a simply wonderful flat. The weather is warm and sunny and I’m looking for work as an apprentice architect, though not too hard, not yet anyway.
Truth be told, Jiddu has already found me a position with the well-respected, if rather stuffy, architectural firm of Grason and Hewitt, but I have already had second (and third) thoughts about that firm. To Jiddu’s credit he seems to understand why and has given me time to look elsewhere for something more to my taste, as he put it, before a final decision. I’m not looking too hard, though—Jiddu is very generous that way, and he’s given me until the fall to find something else. Meanwhile he’s paying my bills, so I am not starving.
This is the summer that the papers confirm that Harriet is no longer making pictures but lives in an apartment in New York and does not see anyone; and it is the summer when, as I said, I receive this telephone call.
The call is from a man who introduces himself as Mr. Beaton, and who, with little preamble, then proceeds to not so much invite as to order me to accompany him to Greece: We’re leaving in two days, he informs me, he has already purchased the tickets. Someone there wants to see me. This he says with a mixture of confidence and significance, as if letting me in on a vital secret.
Naturally, never having heard of the man, I decline and protest that some mistake has been made, so he finally gets around to explaining that the someone who wants to see me is Harriet, and that he is a friend of hers.
We left two days later. It was a Friday.
I had never been to Greece—only to India and England, and to America if you count the first two eventful weeks of this curious life of mine, which I don’t. Neither had I ever set foot on a boat quite as beautiful as the Christina. I say boat. That’s the wrong word. She was a ship. She must have been over a hundred meters long. The only boat I had seen up close before this was the Andromeda, the passenger freighter which brought me from India to England and King’s College. They were both seagoing vessels by definition, the Christina and the Andromeda, but that’s pretty much where their likeness ends.
White, sleek, and, well, dangerous is the word that came to mind, she lay quite still, although testing her mooring lines—which protested by creaking—as if impatient to get away, as if insulted by being tied to the dock. All I could do was gawk at her, a child again before a wonder of the world.
Mr. Beaton, so English that the moon falling down in his back yard would not have ruffled a single one of his feathers, was not quite as impressed, apparently, and left me to my gawking for a while to see about getting aboard, as he put it.
In my experience, there’s wealth, and then there’s wealth. And then there’s the Christina. What I had trouble reconciling, as I stood gawking on the dock, was how any one man—for Beaton had briefed me that the ship belonged to Mr. Onassis, one of the richest men in the world—could possess, privately, what surely should belong to nations. He owned many boats, Beaton had explained, the Christina just one of them. How does any one man amass such a fortune? And in one lifetime? There was no getting my wits around this, and I was still grappling with it as Mr. Beaton returned, trailing a short man who turned out to be Mr. Onassis himself, and who—much to my surprise—came at me with arms outstretched in welcome. Then he embraced me, and patted me on my back several times, fatherly: Welcome, welcome, welcome, kissed me quite wetly on both cheeks (to my continued amazement), then turned and led the way up the long gangway. Mr. Beaton fell in behind him and I, still stunned—the assault of welcome more like an unexpected whirlwind than anything else—brought up the rear.
Once aboard, we were guided by Mr. Onassis through a maze of dark, oak paneled passageways to finally arrive at a light brown, highly polished door marked: Lesvos.
He knocked, then again, then entered, closing the door behind him. After a short while he returned and signaled for me to go in. I hesitated, as if for confirmation, and he nodded, yes, you can, then stood aside and again gestured for me to enter. I finally did, alone, and I heard the door shut softly behind me.
I found myself in a large cabin—a stateroom is what they call it—with several large, rectangular portholes facing the sunlit sea. The cabin was very light, and smelled faintly of lemon. She was sitting in a low armchair, her face at first hard to perceive, an outline against the bright light of the sea behind her, but as my eyes adjusted, her features materialized, one by one.
She sat very still, looking in my direction, and did not rise to greet me.
Once I could see all of her properly, she struck me as an unfriendly woman with largish feet—I tend to notice feet, foundations.
Then, as her eyes met mine, she struck me as a very lonely woman.
Then, as she briefly looked away—although age had made some inroads—she struck me as the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.
This was my mother.
Still, she did not greet me. Nor rise.
Instead, she said, “Let me look at you, Nachiketa.”
I said nothing.
“Turn around,” she said. “Turn around.” And she signaled with her hand the little swirl she wanted me to perform.
I performed it.
“Again,” she said.
“Who picked your clothes?” she asked.
I wore a brown suit with a blue shirt, open at the neck. Jiddu had bought them for me during my second year at Cambridge. I thought they suited me rather nicely. “Jiddu,” I said.
“Your father.” Perhaps it was a question.
So I answered, just in case, “Yes.”
“I thought he had better taste than that,” she said.
I did not know what to say to that.
“You know who I am, of course,” she said, which I thought was an arrogant thing to say.
“Yes,” I said. “I know who you are.”
“And you know that I can never be your mother.”
“But you are my mother,” I answered. “Are you not?”
“I am, yes, of course I am, but can never be,” she said.
“Officially, you mean?”
“Yes. That is what I mean. Officially.”
“Jiddu told me.”
“He is right.”
To which, again, I had no reply.
“Tell me about your school,” she said. “What subjects are your favorites?”
“Actually,” I informed her, “I live in London now, I’m finished with school.”
“But I went to Cambridge. And to answer your question, my favorite subject was Architecture. Medieval Architecture, to be precise.” As she studied me, I felt not a little judged and I found that I did not like her very much.
“Yes, yes” she said, as if I were wearing on her patience a little. “I remember. Jiddu told me. You are an architect. That is what you know, how to make buildings. You design them.”
“Not quite yet,” I said. “I am an apprentice. I am learning.”
To which she made no reply. Instead she said, “What else do you know?” This struck me as an odd question, deserving of an odd answer.
“Snakes,” I said.
Which she ignored. Then, after some apparent deliberation, she said, “Buildings are good things. They don’t fly away.”
“Ma’am?” I said.
“It’s a good career, designing buildings.”
“There is much value in buildings,” she went on. “Good things to own. They stay put, buildings do. They don’t fly away. Or age; not very fast anyway.”
“I wouldn’t own the buildings,” I said. “I would only design them.”
“I know,” she said.
She looked me over again, from head to toe, then her eyes reached my face and settled on mine. Held them for quite a while. In silence. I could make nothing of her expression. Then, as if she suddenly had lost interest in me, she found and lit a cigarette with a gold Ronson lighter. She inhaled deeply, looked back at me, then asked, through a cloud of smoke, “Why such old buildings?”
“Ma’am?” I said again.
“Medieval. It means old?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Why did you study such old buildings?”
“It’s a way of—” how was I to put this, now that I realized that her English was not the best? “To me it was a way of grasping the fundamentals of the subject,” I said. “Like examining its foundation. What modern architecture is based on. The roots.”
She studied me through the sunlit smoke for a brief moment, then squinted a little while she removed a small flake of tobacco from her tongue with practiced fingers. Tongue once again tobacco-less, she said, “I understand.” I was glad to see that she did.
Then, before I could say anything in turn, she asked, “Snakes? What do you mean, you know snakes?”
“I grew up with them.”
“Yes, there are many snakes in India, I know that. But you said you know snakes. How can you know snakes?”
When I didn’t answer right away, she said, “What is there to know about them?”
“There’s a lot to know about them,” I said.
“Snakes are snakes,” she declared for my benefit.
“No, snakes are not just snakes. There’s a lot more to them.”
“They are not much understood,” I said. “Much maligned.”
“Spoken badly of,” I explained.
“Well, they should be. They are horrible creatures.”
“No, ma’am, they are not.”
Again, it was as if she had simply not heard me, for instead of answering she said, “What else?”
“What other things did you study?”
“Oh, Mathematics. Literature. Some Religion.”
“What sort of literature?”
“Indian, and American. And some English authors too.”
“You have read Hemingway?”
“I am a friend of his.” With some pride.
Before I had a chance to reply, she continued down the list. “How about Henry James?”
“You have read him?”
“Do you like him?”
“I find him boring.”
And this was the first time I heard her laugh; and the first time I glimpsed the person behind that beautiful face. “That’s because he is boring,” she said. “His sentences are far too long, and they twist and turn too much. I can never make out what he’s talking about and by the time I come to the end of one of those long slithery things I don’t remember how it began and I have to start all over.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “he is a little convoluted.”
“What does that mean? Convoluted?”
“Twisting too much,” I said.
“Yes, yes,” she said.
Then she said convoluted several times to herself. Looked up at me. “That’s how you say it? Convoluted?”
“Yes,” I said. “That’s how you say it.”
“It is a good word, convoluted.”
I agreed. It is a good word.
In the long silence that followed she looked down at her wristwatch, then up at a beautiful and painstakingly polished brass clock on the teak wall to the right of me, as if to confirm her initial reading. Then sighed. Whether from regret or for show, I could not quite tell.
“We’re about to sail,” she said. “You must leave now.”
When I said nothing, she added, “Cecil will take you back.”
“Back to where?” I found my voice again.
“To England,” she said.
When again my voice went missing, she realized correctly that her sudden announcement had quite stunned me, and added—and I can only assume by way of comfort—“I will send for you.”
I stood still for several more moments, not sure what to do, still surprised at the sudden dismissal. Then I took a step towards her, to shake her hand perhaps, maybe even to embrace, I’m not really sure what I had expected or even hoped. But I stopped when she did not make to rise but instead waived her right hand at me, “Tell Cecil to get you some decent clothes.”
Then she turned her face towards the nearest porthole, and made a show of surveying the glass and the sky beyond. The audience was definitely over.
Mr. Beaton and I watched the Christina pull away from the dock, happy to be untied at last, and head out into the Mediterranean. Harriet was not on deck, there was no one waving in our direction. All we saw aboard her were deck hands, busy pulling in and storing the thick lines that had tied her to the dock.
We spent the afternoon at our hotel and flew back to London the following morning. Two days later Mr. Beaton, who must have gotten word from Harriet, pulled up in a black and gray Bentley and brought me to his tailor. Time to spiff me up, he said. Harriet’s footing the bill.
His tailor was a man who fussed and mumbled a lot, but who really knew what he was doing. He measured me for what must have been an hour before letting me go. Back into the Bentley, for shirts, coats, and shoes, and a “decent umbrella,” as he put it.
Three suits were delivered a week later, and I must admit that Mr. Beaton (and his mumbling tailor) knew clothes. Spiffy indeed. I examined myself in the closet mirror. Absolutely nothing wrong with these suits. I looked rather smashing, what.
The new wardrobe also came in handy as I continued to look for positions at firms other than Grason and Hewitt. I had returned to that outfit twice, once to meet the partners and a second time to meet some of the senior architects, but each visit had left me with an ever stronger sense of mothballed and spider-webbed antiquity.
G&H—which is how Jiddu referred to them when he called on the phone to see how I was getting along—was a very proper firm, and was well regarded throughout London. It was certainly a good place to start a career, but I had yet to be convinced that they actually designed buildings at that place.
Yes, they talked about designing, and drafting, and about building permits, and structural integrity, but by my—admittedly limited—observation they seemed to spend most of their days over meals with clients where no such things were discussed; instead the topics ranged from hunting to gardening to cricket to the damn rain, good for the grass though, don’t you think? No, honestly, G&H was not for me.
Late August I finally found an apprentice position. It was with a small firm in Kensington called Hawkes and Rand, and it was exactly what I had been looking for: A place where architecture was indeed practiced. Evidenced everywhere. Every horizontal surface covered with designs, tubes of drawings littering floors and corners. Cigarettes and coffee. Laughter. Late nights. Dedication to craft. Home.
Apart from Mr. Hawkes and Mr. Rand, both of whom were still active in the firm, we were four architects, including me, the apprentice. Add to that two draftsmen and two secretaries, and you had the lot of us.
It was a busy and productive place and you could tell that the founding partners got along well by their adjoining offices, doors often left open so they could shout to (and sometimes at) each other rather than using the telephone. I fit in well. To my surprise, Jiddu was fine with my choice, too. He’d checked them out, he said. Perhaps not the port and brandy club, but up and coming, he said. Bright people, he added.
They taught me well, Hawkes and Rand did, and I think back to that time often and fondly.
As for Harriet: I thought of her often, but she apparently did not return that favor. I did not hear from her again for over three years.
Cecil Beaton called me at work in the early afternoon of December 18, 1958. Harriet, he informed me, wanted me to come see her in New York.
“For more than ten minutes, this time?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he answered, ignoring, or oblivious to, my sarcasm. “I will pick you up tomorrow morning at eight,” he said. “I already have your ticket.”
“Are you going, too?” I asked.
“No, only you. But I’ve arranged for someone to meet you at the airport with a car.”
Turns out my mother had paid for, and Mr. Beaton had booked me, a first class flight to New York International Airport (which Mr. Beaton referred to as Idlewild Airport, something to do with golf he said when I asked). The flight was very pleasant.
The someone sent with a car to meet me was a man in a black uniform—so worn it was shiny in places—who held up a large sign which read Nashiketa, misspelling my name. I walked up to him and told him I was Nachiketa, and he told me his name was Jack Larson, and that Harriet had sent him. He was tall and blond and did not shake hands. Instead he asked about my luggage, and I told him I had checked one suitcase. Brown, leather. This way, he said then, and led me through to the luggage retrieval. After a while my case came tumbling down and he, expertly—he had certainly done this before—fished it out of the rapidly growing jumble of luggage, and then carried it for me to the car. He was a very polite man, if a bit on the silent side. He had brought a large blue American car, with, as it turned out, an extremely soft suspension.
And off we went.
This was my first time in America—not counting those first two weeks—and it all struck me as quite unreal, more like a very large movie set than anything else. The forests of giant billboards, one even puffing smoke to show you how delectable Lucky Strikes were (odd choice of word that, I thought, delectable), at light-up time, as they put it.
And all the cars, all these big American cars. Just like in the movies. And more billboards.
My first sight of Manhattan stunned me. It was getting towards evening when we got over that hump on the Queensboro Bridge where the Manhattan skyline suddenly springs on you, and being all lit up it struck me as the most magnificent view I had ever seen (before or since, as it turns out). Mr. Larson, who hadn’t said much during the ride, must have heard me gasp at the sight of the city, for at that point he finally turned to me and smiled, “Quite a sight, isn’t it?”
I couldn’t find words to reply with. I only nodded: yes, yes.
I recognized the Empire State Building and a few others, though I could not name them. As we drew closer, the city seemed to me something not of this earth, like a giant spacecraft recently landed, refueling perhaps, just as likely to lift at any moment, leaving behind her just so much rock at the foot of the bridge.
But then there was no more bridge and we suddenly found ourselves in the engine of things, and the city’s ethereal beauty dissolved into noise and shadow.
My mother lived on the fifth floor in the building at 450 East 52nd Street they called the Campanile. It was the building—I later discovered—that Dorothy Parker had dubbed Wit’s End, which I found amusing. I didn’t know that then, of course, as we turned left on 2nd Avenue and drove down to 52nd Street. Then we turned left again and for a moment the city almost looked like London, for the street narrowed between naked trees and somber brownstones. That impression, however, took wing the moment I stepped out of the car, for then I could see, again, the towering giants beyond and above, all lit up. This was New York, it could be no other place.
The elevator was small and slow. Mr. Larson—as I said, quite a large man—and I with my suitcase, used up most of the room. I could hear the elevator cable rattle and hum above me, pulling me closer. It was strange to think that my mother was waiting somewhere above me, getting closer and closer at about two inches a minute. How long, I wondered, was I to stay this time: a day, a week? Surely longer than last time, or Mr. Beaton would not have suggested I bring a suitcase.
Finally. The elevator shuddered a little as it came to a halt, glad to be done with the lifting, I think.
Mr. Larson pressed the doorbell button and I heard a faint gong from deep within the apartment, almost as if from a different floor. It took quite a little while before the door opened, and there she was: Harriet Brown, my mother. She smiled. A tentative but oh, so beautiful smile. “Welcome,” she said, then stood back to let us in. I entered first. Mr. Larson, however, did not follow. Instead he shut the door softly behind me, just like Mr. Onassis had done aboard the Christina.
The hallway was well lit with a warm yellow light and she was all there for me to see, not hiding against a sunlit sea this time.
She had aged more than three years since then, that was my first impression. She has been sick recently, that was my second impression. Then—as if unsure whether she should—she made as if to embrace me, thought better of it, then changed her mind again: yes, she should. It was a tentative hug that I thought wanted to pull me closer to her but in the end didn’t. I hugged her back, as lightly, as if I too were feeling my way.
Then she stood back and smiled, like a mother this time. “Let me look at you, Nachiketa.” She did not ask me to turn around. “You look very nice,” she said.
“Thank you,” I answered.
“Here, let me take that,” she said, and reached for my suitcase. “No, please, don’t worry,” I said. That she ignored; instead she picked up the case, seemingly with little effort. “Come,” she said, and walked off down the hallway with it. I followed.
She turned right at the end of the hallway into another short passage and a door on the left which led to a smallish but very comfortable bedroom. She put my suitcase by the bed, and turned around to face me.
“Are you hungry?” she asked.
“No, thank you, I am fine,” I answered.
“Well, then,” she said, looking around the room and then back at me. “I know what it’s like to fly to New York from Europe. You are very tired. I can tell. I must leave you alone to settle in.” At that she made to leave.
A step from the door she held up and turned to me again, as if just remembering something. “The toilet and shower are in here,” she pointed to the white door on her right. “Claire has put in clean towels.” She surveyed the room again. “And clean sheets, yes, and a warm comforter,” she added, as if going down a short checklist. “Everything you need, yes?”
“I’ll be fine, I’m sure,” I said.
“Then I’ll say goodnight,” she said, and smiled. Then turned and left and I didn’t see her again until morning.
Although she was right—I was indeed tired—I had trouble falling asleep. I think I was too tired, and also not a little overwhelmed by the city and its many noises—I found myself inside a large, breathing creature, which, even if at rest at this hour, was quite discernible—and by the knowledge that Harriet, much more like my mother this time, was expecting me to stay with her for a while. I finally did fall asleep but soon (or so it felt) woke again to realize—after some rudimentary math that involved fingers in my state—that while it was three in the morning here, this meant well past eight in London. Rise and shine time.
My attempts at returning to sleep proved mostly fruitless; still, I did manage another hour or two.
There was a loud knock on the door. It opened before I had a chance to respond.
“What do you eat for breakfast?” she asked. I was still in bed, and still tired. And I guess still a little stunned at where I found myself.
“I usually only drink some juice,” I managed to answered.
She entered the room and withdrew the curtains, letting the morning sun in through the window. She stood for a moment looking out towards what I later learned was the East River, then she turned to me.
“I’m sure I have some juice,” she said. “You look tired,” she added. “Did you not sleep?”
“Some,” I said. “Though not enough, I think. I’m still on London time.”
She nodded, but said nothing in reply. Looked at me, almost smiling.
“I’ll go look for the juice,” she said and left me. She didn’t shut the door behind her.
I fell back on the pillow and looked up at the ceiling. Clean, and off-white. A beautiful lamp—Scandinavian, surely, I thought—smack in the middle of it. It appeared mathematically centered; someone had measured it to perfection, at least to my eye. Through the open door I could hear Harriet’s voice from some distant kitchen. She was talking to someone who responded now and then. Then a blender or a juicer sprang to life, and within a minute or two Harriet returned with a tray. A glass of juice, a cup of coffee, and two hard little breads she called rusks, or skorpor in Swedish—she explained. “They are very good for the digestion,” she added.
She placed the tray on the small table by my bed and sat down in a simple beech-colored armchair by the window which, in the morning light, struck me as an Alvar Aalto design. I looked again, a little harder this time.
“Is that an Aalto?” I said.
“Sure,” she answered. Pleased, I think, that I recognized it. Proud, even: either to own it, or to have a son who recognized it.
I drank my juice and replaced the glass on the tray.
“More?” she asked.
“No, thanks. I’m fine.”
The coffee smelled invigorating and my eyes went looking for the sugar, for I took it sweet. I found none. Just the coffee mug, the empty juice glass and the rusks. “You wouldn’t have any sugar, would you?” I asked.
“It’s not good for you,” she answered. And that, as they say, was that. I have not used sugar in my hot drinks since.
I didn’t answer, but instead sipped the hot coffee, which at first tasted bitter but which mellowed with each sip. Despite, or perhaps because of, the missing sugar—or maybe it was because of the now fully awake New York City just outside—or maybe it was because my mother was sitting not eight feet away from me, not quite smiling and not quite not smiling—this struck me as an amazingly real cup of coffee, and as I said (as if to hold on to it), I’ve not sweetened my coffee since.
“You’re Jiddu’s son,” she said.
I wasn’t quite sure what to say to that. “Yes, I know,” is what finally arrived.
“No, well, yes, of course you know,” she said. “What I meant is that if anybody asks, you must be Jiddu’s son. Not mine.”
“Yes, of course,” I said. “I know.”
“I’d like you to stay for Christmas,” she said.
“That is what I had hoped to do,” I said.
“So that’s settled then,” she said.
I was taking another sip of the strong coffee, and didn’t answer immediately. “That’s good,” she said, more to herself this time, and rose.
She looked out the window. “It’s nice outside. Let’s go for a walk when you’re ready,” she said without turning.
“I’d like that,” I said.
She turned from the window to face me. “I’ll leave you to it then,” she said. “We’ll leave as soon as you’re ready.” Then she left. She closed the door this time.
From my low bed I could see nothing but sky through the window. It was light blue and looked cold. As if on cue, the radiator moaned a little as if to remind me what a good job it was doing—the room was rather warm, bordering on a little too warm. The cold sky made for an odd contrast.
I tried one of the hard, crispy things she had called skorpor and found it oddly, if plainly, tasty. Hard to eat though without getting crumbs all over.
She later showed me how you’re supposed to eat them: you dunk them in what she called saft. There’s no good English word for it, she said, and I would have to agree. Saft is not juice, it’s more like a fruit-syrup to which you add a generous helping of water, which then colors and sweetens. And, she was right, when you dunk the rusk in this mix, and then suck the saft from it, you find the rusk very soft and tasty—and sweet from the saft, of course—and not at all crumbly. She laughed when she saw that I got the hang of it, all the while busy dunking her own rusk in her own strawberry saft.
But this was my first New York morning, and I had yet to have such lessons. Which meant crumbs all over my blanket.
I found the kitchen and in it a lady up to her elbows (literally) in dishes who introduced herself as Claire. “The maid,” she added with a smile. I was carrying the tray and was looking for a place to put it down. “Over there,” she said, and nodded in the direction of a counter top that looked like marble. I did, then made as if to shake hands but she held up her wet and sudsy ones and shook her head. “Forget it,” she said.
“Harriet?” I asked.
“She’s getting ready,” she answered.
“I’m Nachiketa,” I said.
“You’re Jiddu’s son,” she confirmed, stressing Jiddu’s ever so slightly, as if to let me know that she knew the truth, but that it mustn’t out.
“She’s talked about you a lot.”
When I didn’t answer, she added, as if in confidence, “She’s talked about little else these last few days, getting ready for your arrival. Frankly, she’s been a pest.”
I smiled, both at the news and at her wry face.
“She’s very happy you’re here,” she added. “And a little nervous I think,” with a friendly wink.
“I’m happy to be here as well,” I said for lack of something better. “And a little nervous myself, thank you.”
She was about to say something else, about to impart some advice I think, but at that point Harriet arrived and Claire returned to her dishes, her advice ungiven.
“Ready?” asked Harriet.
“Will I need a jacket?” I wondered; more by habit, I think, than anything else.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “Heavens, yes.”
I had brought two jackets. Back in my room, she held them up, inspecting them, shook her head. “Perhaps they’ll keep the London winter out, but they won’t do the job here,” she said. “I’ll find you something better.”
And she did.
The elevator seemed larger this morning. Well, there was no suitcase, I thought. And, of course, Harriet was nowhere near the size of Mr. Larson.
Once outside I could see my own breath, and I realized how right she had been about my London weather jackets. I may have looked a little ridiculous in one of her coats, but I was warm, and very appreciative.
My mother set out at a brisk pace and it was all I could do to keep up, and I had to pay attention. That, however, was easier said than done. Too much to see. People, yes, in all sizes and shapes, but I was used to people from London, and from India. But I was not used to these buildings, to these cars and taxis and buses, to billowing steam rising from grated manholes, to uniformed doormen hailing cabs for cold tenants (stamping their feet to keep warm): these very American sights and sounds. In a strange way it was like walking underwater, submerged , making our way along the crowded and surreal city floor. Briskly.
I could tell that many of those we met recognized her though they didn’t let on that they did. An older couple across the street, however, had stopped, and the woman was pointing at Harriet. I don’t think Harriet noticed, or if she did she ignored it marvelously well. Others still, particularly shopkeepers, arranging their street-side wares even in this cold weather, eyed me with some interest, as if I were some unexpected addition to a routine—which, of course, I was.
We arrived at a street corner and I almost ran into her. She had stopped short at seeing something that she didn’t like. She frowned as she looked to her right up 2nd Avenue.
“Come,” she said, spun around, and took me by the arm. Then set out back down 52nd Street, walking so fast I almost had to trot to keep up. We then turned right on what I now know to be 1st Avenue and left on 51st Street, still at the same brisk pace. I was more or less jogging by now. Down Beekman Place and then right again on 50th Street, before she finally slowed down.
“Pemberton,” she said as if that explained everything.
“Who’s Pemberton?” I asked.
“He won’t leave me alone,” she said.
“Who is he?” I asked again.
“From a television company. He wants to make a program about me. Which will never happen,” she added.
I nodded that I understood.
Turns out, there was a small café at the corner of Beekman Place and 50th Street whose owner she seemed to know well. He smiled when he saw her, gave me a well-masked second glance, then showed us to a table in the corner by the window. At this hour, there were only Harriet and me, and a couple—father and daughter was my guess—in the café. Harriet took off her gloves and looked back towards the owner, who came right over.
“Two coffees, please,” she said.
“And pastry, today, ma’am?” he asked. “It’s fresh out of the oven.”
“No,” she said.
I was actually still hungry—juice and the two rusks hadn’t quite done the trick, plus all that running—and I would very much have liked some toast and marmalade, but Harriet had ordered with such finality that there was no room left for elaborations, besides, the owner had already left to fill our order.
The coffee soon arrived and Harriet reached for her purse.
“No, no,” said the owner and backed off. “My treat.”
“Nonsense,” said Harriet, then fished around for, found and snapped open her wallet. But by the time she found the right amount, the owner had already backed away and was behind his counter again.
She looked at him thoughtfully, then at me. “They will not take my money,” she said to me in not quite mock despair. “I can’t even write checks to pay my bills. People don’t cash them.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“They keep them for my autograph.”
I saw the problem and could not help laughing.
“It’s not funny,” she said.
“Oh, but it is,” I said.
She just shook her head.
“So, how do you pay your bills?” I asked.
“I write Claire a check to cover them. They will, thank God, cash her checks.” Then smiled as she added, “And she has no problem cashing mine.”
The coffee was very hot and very strong. Again I looked around for sugar. Other tables had a jar, but ours did not. I reached for the nearest one.
“Sugar is not good for you,” she said, and actually slapped my arm. Quite hard.
“Right,” I said. “Sorry. Forgot.”
I sipped my coffee and looked up and out the window. A creased and checkered curtain screened the lower part of it and all I could see were the tops of buildings and the tops of heads, and now and then a cloud of breath to accompany them. It was very cold out there, and very hot in here, sitting as we were next to the radiators.
“You are still an architect?” she wondered.
“Just about. Officially I am still an apprentice, but I do a fair bit of my own designs now.”
“You have a job? A good job, I mean?”
“Yes,” I said. “I have a good job. A great job. I work in a small London firm called Hawkes and Rand. There’s Hawkes and Rand, the founding partners, and ten others.”
“And you like what you do?”
“Oh, yes. Very much so.”
“Did not Jiddu mentioned Graven something? That they would take you on.”
“Grason and Hewitt?”
“Yes, I think that’s what he said.”
“Yes, he did arrange for me to work there, and I met with them a few times. Too big, though.”
“You’re saying they wouldn’t hire you?”
“No, they would hire me all right; Jiddu has an amazing influence with these sorts of people. But I did not want to turn into a small cog in a big machine. Besides, I got the impression they were more about schmoozing than architecture.”
“Schmoozing?” she asked.
“You know, lunch at the club, sherry and cigars, what?”
She laughed, if only a snicker, at my mock English airs. Then she looked intently at her coffee for a while.
“You are happy there, where you are. Hawkes?”
“Hawkes and Rand.”
“You are happy there?”
“Yes, Harriet,” I said. “Yes, I am very happy there.”
If she noticed that this was the first time I had called her by her name, she did not let on. “Then you’ve made a very good choice.”
“I believe I have.”
She seemed to ponder for a while. “Buildings are very good things,” she said. “Dependable.” Then she added, looking sternly at her cup, as if addressing it. “Not like faces.”
“What do you mean?”
“They don’t wear out so quickly.”
“I guess they don’t,” I replied, not quite knowing what else to say.
She finished her coffee, and put on her gloves. “We have some Christmas shopping to do,” she announced.
The taxi ride to Macy’s was something of an experience.
He was very polite, the driver. I guess professional would be the better word, for though I could see that he recognized Harriet—and was no doubt dying to ask her for an autograph (for his son or daughter, I imagined: the perfect Christmas surprise)—he said nothing. Harriet didn’t seem to notice, and I said nothing either. However, these observations aside, the man behind the wheel was certifiable, a maniac driver. Something Harriet could not have helped noticing, too.
From what I could tell, he never honked his horn nor in any other way signaled his intentions to turn, swerve, brake, or to cut other cars off, to slip by, or to stop; he just went ahead and did all these things. I knew we were going to have an accident before we arrived at the Macy store (if indeed we would arrive), since the probability, mathematically speaking, of not having one, given the factors present, was rapidly approaching zero. Harriet, however—in light of my internal hysteria, which must have been noticeable to her—seemed unnaturally calm about the whole thing.
In the end I guess she was right to be, for somehow we did not crash or kill or crumble anything, and I learned something that day about New York City traffic: it is entirely based on the law of first come, first served, simple as that. That is the law, and this law is supreme, revered, respected and upheld, no matter what. The other car, cab, bus, motorcycle, vehicle of any sort or description—even pedestrians, who as a rule are spared this agony in London—will brake, or stop, or get out of the way, just in time to avoid colliding with you—or getting killed by you. Without fail. So, though by my count we should have had at least seven of them, we had no accidents on the way to Macy’s.
I did however shake, and my mouth had turned desert, by the time we finally skidded for the curb by that enormous department store entrance (and cut off a very large bus in the process, who did honk, or blare rather, but did not crush us).
When we had come to a full stop, Harriet leaned forward to get a better look at the meter. It said two dollars and twenty cents. “What’s five percent of that?” she asked me.
“Eleven cents,” I said.
“That would make it two dollars and thirty-one cents, then,” she said.
“Yes,” I said.
Meanwhile, the driver, finally admitting recognition, is telling her that he will not take her money. This is on him, his treat, he goes on. Harriet chooses not to hear, counts out two dollars and thirty-one cents, hands it to him (I noticed he touched her hand in receiving the small sum) and asks him for a receipt.
“Sure,” he says, and scribbles a small note out acknowledging the receipt of two dollars and thirty-one cents. He hands it in her direction, and is just about to blurt the question, I can tell, for he has finally worked up his courage to asking for that autograph, but Harriet doesn’t notice for she is already halfway out of the cab, leaving it to me to collect the receipt. I do, then I follow her.
My last look back at the maniac cab driver showed him regarding the money in his hand: the two dollars and thirty-one cents that Harriet Brown had personally handed to him. Money not to be spent, I imagined; but to be shown, and talked about, and treasured. A sad image, actually.
Entirely lost on Harriet, however, who is halfway through one of the large doors before she looks back at me to make sure I’m coming. Yes, I am coming, but not at her pace.
I too head for the huge entry doors but then almost collide with an extremely large Father Christmas, complete with beard and paunch, who tells me to “Watch it, Buddy,” and none too kindly. I mumble an apology, sneak through the doors and catch up with her by the first set of escalators, where she’s finally decided to wait for me.
Macy’s, by the way, is an American attempt at Harrods. By no means quite as stuffy its London inspiration, but neither does it have Harrods’ class. Nor is it quite as monstrously large as Harrods. Right now, though, the store is beautifully dressed up for Christmas, if a trifle excessively.
Christmas carols descend on us quite loudly from speakers hidden in the ceilings, like some happy, but very insistent, mist. Elves run around in green and red slippers asking shoppers if they can be of any help, and I see at least three additional Santas. The red and green and gold of garlands and tree decorations and the smell of pine from the many trees, almost assault you—well, not almost, they do assault you. This is Christmas, Buddy, and you had better believe it. But for all that, quite nice. The Holiday spirit, in spades, as they say in America.
Harriet leads the way up three flights of quite speedy escalators, to the crystals and unaffordable ornaments department.
“Do you have any money?” she asks me.
“No,” I said. “I haven’t exchanged my Sterling yet. Mr. Larson met me before I had the chance to. Perhaps they have an exchange service here?”
“I will give you some money,” she says.
She either does not hear, or ignores this, and instead comes up with several new hundred dollar bills from her wallet. “Here,” she says with a finality that I, by now, was getting used to. No room for objections. I take the money. Gratefully. “Thank you.”
She returns the wallet to her handbag then looks around. The says, “I miss PUB.”
“Sorry?” I don’t quite hear. The ceiling carols on this floor are quite obtrusive, and I have to listen around them and focus on her mouth to hear her clearly.
“It’s a department store at home. In Stockholm. PUB. I used to work there, you know.”
“Ah, yes,” I said, “Paul U. Bergström.”
She swung around faced me squarely. “You know?” Surprised.
Suddenly I felt embarrassed, intrusive.
I had not only read Bainbridge’s biography, but also many articles about her, and about her youth—all in the public record, if you will—but now I felt as if I had been prying, eavesdropping on my mother’s life early life. I didn’t know how to respond. Her question almost struck me as an accusation.
“I have read about it,” I finally said.
“Well, I miss that store. Christmas just does not smell right in this country. It’s like a perfume.”
“Yes, it is sort of gaudy,” I said. “Loud.”
“Yes,” she said. “That’s it. Loud.”
Then she took my arm as if I were an escort and not a son. As we passed a massive bulk of green tree and shiny ornaments, she said, “These Christmas trees do not belong to the same family.”
I looked at the tree, rising some twenty feet up toward the ceiling, perfumed, I swear, by gallons of Christmas, to put one and all in the spirit of things. I looked back at her, wondering what exactly she meant. She must have noticed, for she went on to explain.
“Our trees were smaller. Perhaps a little scrawnier, but they smelled right. These,” she looked up and down the length of the Christmasy giant, “they don’t smell right. You said it, Nachiketa—too loud. And they don’t have any gingerbreads, and no saffron buns for Lucia Day. No Lucia Day for that matter. Here it’s all about buying, I think. Not so much about giving or sharing. All about buying. Loudly.”
She looked up at me—barely: standing side by side, we were almost of equal height—to see if I had heard. I had. Then we set out again, her arm hooked in mine, slowly now, past a wall of crystal vases, obscenely expensive from what I could make out. Then she continued:
“I remember Christmas as a child in Stockholm. We lived in a small apartment, very small. It was little more than a living room, where my parents slept, and a kitchen, where my sister and I slept. Mostly it was gray, all the time gray; yes, brown and gray. Dad would sit in one corner, scribbling figures on a newspaper—we were always a little short. Mom would sit on the other side of the room, darning our socks, which always had holes in them, now and again heaving one of those big sighs of hers, for my father’s benefit, I think.
“But at Christmas, Nachiketa, at Christmas the apartment filled up with the smell of gingerbread and the smell of the ham roasting in the oven, covered with mustard and breadcrumbs, and with the smell of candy boiling on the stove.
“And the tree—you know, we didn’t get our Christmas tree in November, like they do here nowadays, we would all go out on the morning of Christmas Eve and select the best we could find, or afford, and carry it home. And it would smell just right. Fresh from the forest, from perhaps that very same morning. Not so loud. And Mom would get out the ornaments from the top shelf of the hallway closet, and then we’d all dress it together, Dad finally placing the star at the top of it, then stand back, with the rest of us, to admire our handiwork. ‘Merry Christmas,’ he’d say then, and smile.
“And then he would get out his beautiful book of Viktor Rydberg’s Tomten, and ask us all, including Mom, to sit down on the floor, at his feet. And then, like a priest almost reading a sermon, he would read us the tale—or poem rather, it is a poem after all—of Tomten, and of his musings early Christmas morning, stopping now and then to show us the pictures that Jenny Nystrom had drawn, the illustrations you see, wonderful illustrations.” She stopped and looked at me again. Was I still with her?
Yes indeed. But I had one question: “Tomten?”
“Oh, it’s Swedish. It means,” and here she paused to consider what did it mean. “Elf, I think. Or gnome. Like a house gnome that helps to look after the animals, the cows and goats. That’s what a tomte is.”
“Like a brownie?” I said.
“No, it’s not a cookie,” she said.
“No, I mean like the brownie that’s like an elf or a gnome and that secretly helps with household chores. I read about them in some Swedish folk tales.”
“I haven’t heard that meaning before, but it sounds right,” she said. “Tomten isn’t very tall, he only reaches up to your waist, and that’s with his cap on. And he usually has a long white beard that reaches all the way to the ground, and he wears wooden clogs.”
I nodded. I could picture him. “Yes,” I said. “Tomten.”
“Tomten,” she confirmed. Then fell quiet.
I noticed some people stopping; one old man pointing: that’s her, that’s Harriet Brown. But Harriet didn’t notice, and not noticing she didn’t mind.
She returned from wherever she briefly had gone, “Snow is covering the roofs and only Tomten is awake,” she said.
When I didn’t answer, she said, “That’s how the poem ends. And then Dad would close the book and we would always ask to see the pictures again. ‘Be careful,’ he’d say, meaning with the book, for it had not been inexpensive, at least not on his wages, and he always put it away safely after the holidays and didn’t take it out again until next Christmas.
“And that was so wonderful, that wait was just wonderful. Imagine that, Nachiketa, waiting, I think for months, just to be able to look at those illustrations, looking forward to such a simple thing with such joy.”
“I can imagine,” I said. “Madhuri, in a way, in my life, is the same as your father.”
“Jiddu’s mother,” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “Jiddu’s mother. Every Diwali—that’s the festival of light, the Hindu New Year—Madhuri would make these wonderful, wonderful sweets called naivedya. And that was something I, and all children, began to look forward to months beforehand. And when Diwali finally arrived, and we lit the candles and placed them everywhere around the house, you knew that you would soon get to eat her naivedyas again, and for the next five days. But not at any other time of the year. I think that is what made is so precious. Just like your gingerbread. Or your illustrations.”
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, that’s it. That’s what it was. The waiting, the long waiting, and the anticipation.”
We had stopped again, and Harriet now looked around her, at the gaudy display of surplus that permeated the store. “Let’s go,” she said. “I don’t want to be here anymore. Let’s go home. We can shop tomorrow.”
I had no objections.
We found another taxi and she told the driver her address. Again, we arrived amazingly unscathed, and once we did, she again asked me to help her calculate the five percent tip, which she, again, paid to the penny in a manner, and with a precision, that could only have come from long practice.
Claire had lunch prepared and ready to go, and it was soon on the table, which was a good thing for by now I was very hungry indeed. The meal consisted of small, almost white potatoes boiled with dill, along with boiled carrots and peas and spinach (good for you, Harriet pointed out), all playing second fiddle to a delicious fried Swedish fish which Claire called Baltic herring and which Harriet called stromming and which, she informed me, quite loudly—for Claire’s benefit, I’m sure—Claire could never get quite right.
Be that as it may (and I don’t think Harriet was all that serious), it tasted very good, and I had to refrain from wolfing it down.
“You’re not a vegetarian, then?” said Harriet, observing me cutting my fish into bite-sized pieces. “I thought perhaps you were. Jiddu is.”
“Yes, I know,” I answered.
“But not you?”
“What is a sometimes vegetarian?” she wanted to know.
I finished my mouthful and put my knife and fork down, all the while trying to come up with something that would make sense—not too easy since my eating habits didn’t make all that much sense to me either.
“A sometimes vegetarian,” I began, as if I were about to recite a poem, “is a person of Indian heritage who knows what he should eat but who does not always follow his own better judgment.” I had no idea how to continue.
“Is that what it is,” said Harriet. She sounded a little disappointed. Either that or she was making a very subtle joke. I tried to make out which of the two, but she didn’t give anything away.
“Yes, that’s pretty much what it is,” I said. “Before I came to England, back in India, I was a vegetarian. It was easy then. Madhuri was, and still is, a strict what they now have begun to call vegan. She will not eat anything that has lived, other than plants. Nor will she drink milk or eat butter or eggs. This was fine for me when I live with her. It was fine during high school, too. Many of the boys were vegetarians there, and the school kitchen cooked many strictly vegetarian dishes for lunch and dinner. For breakfast I’ve never had much more than fruit.
“But when I came to England I found that discipline much harder to practice. So I cheated now and then, and then a little bit more now and then. It’s only as of late that I’ve grown somewhat serious about returning to my roots, food-wise.” Then I quickly added, “Once I get back to England.”
“It’s good for you, no?” she asked.
“I believe that to be true,” I said.
“Claire,” said Harriet, turning. “What do you think?”
“I think you need meat and potatoes twice a day,” she answered, not entirely in jest.
“She’s a fool,” said Harriet, turning back to face me, not entirely in jest either, and I could not quite make out how deeply their mock animosity ran.
“I need to become a vegetarian,” she said. “After the holidays,” she added. Then she rose. “Thank you Claire,” she said, “That was a very good stromming, not quite right yet, but very good. We’ll take coffee in the sitting room.”
“Ma’am,” said Claire.
Sinking down into a sofa in Harriet’s large and light and warm sitting room I lasted not longer than a minute, two at the outside, before I fell asleep, the journey and the change of time zones and the lack of sleep the night before finally catching up. I didn’t wake up until two in the morning, now lying down, still dressed, but covered by a blanket.
Somehow I got on my feet and made it to my room, where I managed to undress, climb into my bed, and fall back asleep. Which is how I stayed, log-like, until the New York morning of December 21st, 1958.