Excerpts for Small Acts of Amazing Courage


How can kindness get you into so much trouble? It started when Mother dropped into sickness and I was left on my own. No, before that, when the war came and Father, a major in the British Indian Army who led a battalion of Gurkha Rifles, went off to the war. The battalion was sent to fight in countries I had never heard of and whose names I couldn't spell.

It wasn't as if Mother and I were alone. There were all the servants: gardeners, sweepers, cooks, servers, and Father's cyce, his groom, who had nothing to do since Father was away, but out of kindness Mother would not let him go, because he had a family to support. Ranjit was the burra mali, the head of all the servants, and Amina was my ayah, though at my age I was much too old to have a nursemaid, so Amina was really Mother's lady's maid.

Mother's English friends were often in and out of our house with criticisms of me disguised as kindness. Mrs. Cartwright said, "Rosalind is such an original child. I don't know that I have ever seen a girl's hair worn in quite that way." My hair grows and grows like the leaves on a rain tree. I won't tie it back neatly or wear a band. Worst of all, I go outside in the Indian sun without a hat. Mrs. Cartwright had something to say about that as well. "The sun will turn Rosalind into a regular Indian. Soon you won't be able to tell her from your servants. It's a pity she wasn't sent home." Mother only drew her lips into a straight line to keep from telling Sibil Cartwright to mind her own business.

Though I have never been there, home, of course, is England. India is considered dangerous for children, and the schools here for us English are looked down upon. The minute the Cartwrights' children got to be six years old, they were packed off and sent to live with relatives in England so they could attend proper schools. I heard Mrs. Cartwright reading letters from them to Mother. The dear little things sounded so brave, but you could tell they were miserable away from their mother and father. They described horrible dishes of boiled cabbage and winters so cold they had to wear gloves indoors to keep from getting chilblains.

I should have been suffering in England as well, but luckily Mother refused to let me go. When Father tried to insist, she got all shaky and sobbed, and the doctor had to be sent for. She wouldn't let me go, because the saddest thing in the world had happened. My brother, Edward, who died before I was born, was sent to school in England when he was seven. On vacations from his boarding school he stayed with my mother's two sisters, Aunt Louise and Aunt Ethyl. Neither of the sisters had married. They lived alone in the house left to them by my grandparents.

In Edward's first year at school there was a diphtheria epidemic. Two boys died. Edward was one of them. Mother told me all about it and even showed me the letters Aunt Louise and Aunt Ethyl had sent telling of the sad news-- the most tender letter in the world from Aunt Louise, and a mournful letter from Aunt Ethyl that gave much distress and little comfort.

Because he was buried in England, Mother has never even seen his grave. Each year as his birthday comes around she must be content to put flowers in a vase in Edward's room. The room is kept exactly as it was before he went to England. The door to the room is closed, and Amina, who keeps it tidy, is the only one allowed inside, but I have stolen into the room and seen his clothes, his cricket bat, his pictures of England's cricket team, and his teddy bear worn on the ears because he sucked on them. When I was little, I used to think his ghost had come back and lived in there. I was afraid it was angry with me because I had taken my brother's place.

When Father or Mrs. Cartwright talked of the dangers right here in India, dangers like cholera and malaria and typhoid fever, Mother said England was even more dangerous, and look at what happened to Edward. When I came along only a few months after Edward died, she swore she would never let me out of her sight.

Up until now I had not been worried about being sent away. After the war started, there were no ships to take me to England. I had caught myself being almost glad of a war that kept me safe in India. Then I told myself I was hateful, for every day in the Times of India there were long columns naming British soldiers who had been killed. What if one day Father's name should appear on the list? I promised God I would go to England anytime he wanted me to and eat boiled cabbage if he spared Father.

Thank heavens Father, who had been fighting in battles thousands of miles away, had been spared, but he wasn't home yet. Though the war ended in November of 1918, there were violent demonstrations by Indians who wanted their freedom from British rule. The army was needed to put the demonstrations down. But now, six months after the armistice, Mother had received word that Father and his troops would be coming home any day.

Mother was all aflutter with preparations for his return, for without Father to see to things, our house and garden had grown untidy. The house is too large for our small family of three, but because of Father's position before the war, and the position of deputy commissioner he would be returning to, an impressive home was expected of us. The rooms were large and the ceilings high so that the warm air would rise. The floors of stone and tile were cool on bare feet. We lived in a kind of half-light, hardly bright enough to read by, for our windows were always shuttered to keep out the sun.

Everything needed tending to. You could draw pictures on the icing of dust that lay on the furniture. There was sand scrunched into the oriental rugs. In the yard the bougainvillea had overtaken the house, burying it in floods of purple flowers.

To prepare for Father's return, Ranjit chased the servants into sweeping and scrubbing, shaking his fist so hard when he found a missed bit of sand or dirt that his pugree, his turban, would slip onto the side of his head. The chota mali, the little assistant gardener, laughed to see it, making Ranjit shout angry words and speak with disrespect of the chota mali's mother, for Ranjit prized his dignity above all else.

All the running about and shouting flurried Mother, who has what she calls a lazy heart, so that Dr. Morton had to be sent for. He came with his black bag, which was never out of his hand. When I was very young, I thought it a part of him like the elephant's trunk. He listened to her heartbeat and told Mother she must rest. So she lay in her room all day on her chaise longue, with the shutters closed against the sun. The little bearer brought her glasses of nimbu-pani, fresh lime juice, on a silver tray with a spray of sweet-smelling jasmine he had picked himself. The bearer was only twelve, but he was half in love with Mother, who was at her most beautiful in her rose-colored silk dressing gown with her hair arranged by Amina into a pile of gold.

Of course I was excited about Father's return, but all the cleaning was a great nuisance, for I had to have my room turned out and all my special things disturbed and dusted roughly--my butterfly collection, my first kite, the crocodile tooth, and the pot of kohl my friend Isha showed me how to use. When I was alone, I painted the kohl around my eyes and made them look immense, like the bits of blue glass ringed round with black lead in the church window. Though I pleaded with him not to, Ranjit also carried away the four feet of snakeskin a viper had rubbed off on the stones around our fountain.

To get away from all the busyness, I went in search of Isha. Isha is Amina's daughter. We were raised together. Shortly after Amina was hired to be my ayah, Mother learned Amina had a daughter of her own. Having just lost Edward, Mother could not bear for Amina to be separated all day from her child, so Isha was put in the nursery with me. Father was angry, saying it was unsuitable for me to be so close to an Indian baby. But since it was only a few months after Edward's death, Father found he was no match for Mother's tears. After that, Isha was always in the nursery with me. I learned Hindi from her, and she learned English from me. When we talked, it was in a scramble of the two languages, though Mother cautioned me never to use a Hindi word in Father's hearing or he would forbid me to play with Isha.

When I started school, I saw less and less of her for, of course, like most Indian girls, she did not go to school, and Father saw that my time was spent with girls from other English families, girls who were boring as Isha never was. After Father left for the war and Mother took to the chaise longue, forgetting to keep track of me, I once again began to spend time with Isha. Our favorite thing was to go together to the bazaar. Though like me Isha was only fifteen, she was a biwi, a wife. Her husband, Aziz Mertha, was much older than she was and left her to herself, asking only that she help his mother, Mrs. Mertha, in the housework and the preparation of meals and that many more babies would come.

Aziz spent his days in the bazaar, where he worked in the stall of a merchant who sold rare ivory carvings and rugs so old their colors were like memories of color. There was something else about Isha's husband. Sometimes when we were in the bazaar we saw men stop at his stall, and there was talk so quiet that even if you were close you could not hear what was being said. At those times Isha hurried me away. When I asked whom the men were, she only said, "Aziz won't tell me, but they belong to something called the Congress Party. He talks all the time of how India must be free to rule itself."

"You mean India would fight us British?"

"No. He wants no wars and no violence. It is a great secret, but a famous man named Gandhi came to our house. When he wants the British to give India a scrap of freedom, Gandhi stops eating until he gets his way. The British are afraid he will die and upset all the Indians, so they give in. Gandhi says nonviolence like that is greater than all the force of arms."

I wanted to know about a man who could get his way by refusing to eat, but Isha would say no more.

Mother warned me never to go to the bazaar. It is not done for an English girl to be seen there, and she knows how upset Father would be. She found out about my being there from Mrs. Cartwright, who told Mother I had been in the bazaar with an Indian girl. Mother knew at once that it was Isha. She called me into her room and had me sit on the chaise, then took my hand and shed tears, saying she didn't know how she was expected to run the house without Father and make do with all the shortages because of the war and look after me as well. Mother made me tie back my hair, clean my nails, put on a clean dress, and promise never to go outside without my topee, my pith helmet, a sort of upside-down bowl-shaped helmet that protected you from the sun. Though Mother and I both hated their ugliness, Father always insisted that we wear ours when we were1 out of doors. As far as I'm concerned, topees were invented to keep people's thoughts imprisoned inside their head. Heaven forbid anyone should say what they really thought.

Mother said, "And something more, Rosalind. Just because school is out doesn't mean you should abandon your education. Why don't you sit in the garden and read a book?" She gave me some of the books from the club library. I loved all the books by Dickens, but a lot of the books were slushy stories. I read Isha the parts where the characters made love, and Isha said it wasn't at all like that.

Isha lived on the outskirts of our property among a tumble of servants' huts. When I visited her, I always thought about how much our servants knew about us and how little we knew about them. They are a great mystery. I saw how miserable it was for them, for it was May, the hottest month of the year, with the cooling rains of the monsoon a month away. In the trees the common hawk-cuckoo, which we called the brainfever bird because of its irritating call, screeched endlessly. The servants' huts were little and cramped, no larger than one of the smaller rooms in our house. The floors were dirt, and when the rains seeped in, mud. The sun beat on the iron roofs and there was nothing but tattys, screens of woven grass soaked in water, to keep out the heat and mosquitoes. Worst of all, there wasn't enough room to ever be alone. In our house we had high ceilings, thick walls, shutters to close out the sun, and electric fans. There were cool drinks with ice, and if you liked, you could be in a room all by yourself.

Mrs. Mertha was busy in the courtyard with some other women. I sneaked into the Merthas' hut, smelling the spicy smell that lingered from all the meals. Isha was crushing cardamom seeds for their dinner and singing her favorite raga, a song about two lovers who were separated by cruel parents. She was as anxious to escape to the bazaar as I was. Her mother-in-law was not satisfied with anything that Isha did and was angry with Isha that no baby had come. "She feeds me horrible-tasting herbs to help me become pregnant," Isha said, "when it is not my fault at all but that of Aziz, who is too lazy to do what he should."

To be seen to advantage in the bazaar, Isha put on her best sari with its matching choli. They were a beautiful pinky peach color and made her look like a ripe mango. Her eyes were outlined with kohl, and her hair was neatly braided and shiny from the coconut oil she had rubbed into it. The part was dusted with vermillion powder, and like the red tikka, the red dot on her forehead, this was meant to signify she was a married woman. Beside her I looked washed out and dull, like the faded photographs of past members that hung on the club walls.

The bazaar was on a bank that overlooked the river. The river is the most important thing about our town, and like all rivers in India that flow into or out of the holy Ganges River, it is sacred. Everywhere you looked on the river, something was happening. In the morning people came to wash and to brush their teeth with twigs. Later in the day women, with their saris tucked up out of the way, beat clothes with sticks to get the clothes clean. A steamer carrying mail sailed into port. The fishermen were out in their dhows, the patched sails billowing in the wind. There were prows with eyes painted on them, the better to see where they were going. Some families even made their home on boats, and I thought how much I would like that. A heron flew by, neck bent into an S shape, legs dragging. Wild dogs, their bones as much outside as inside their skinny bodies, lapped water. A young boy might ride his water buffalo right into the river and then proceed to give him a cooling bath. A procession of mourners would march down the ghat, each step a new cause for sorrowful cries. A fire would be built and the body burned. In a day or so, when all the burning was over, the relatives would return to gather the ashes and put them into the river. Sometimes the ashes from the funeral pyres blew into the bazaar, sifting down on me so that I felt the dead had become a part of me. I had seen the bodies of babies sent down the river on little rafts covered in marigold blooms. The sick came to bathe for health. The river was like a great pair of arms taking everyone and everything in and giving comfort.

Isha and I dodged a bullock cart and a wandering cow followed by a woman who was picking up the cowpats to mix with rice straw. The mess would be dried and used as fuel for cooking fires. There was so much to see at the bazaar. The monkey man was putting on a show with his two trained monkeys. A man split coconuts in half with a great cleaver and sold the juice. There was a talking mynah bird for sale. Another man with a kind of mangle pressed sugarcane into a sweet juice. There were mounds of bright pink watermelon sherbet. A sadhu, a holy man, sat cross-legged, meditating, his long beard wagging as he prayed. I loved the way I could walk through the bazaar and own all the beautiful things with my eyes. We paused at a stall to look longingly at the bolts of cloth in rainbow colors that would be turned into saris, some of them embroidered with gold thread. There was a stall hung with brightly colored kites, and another with garlands of orange marigolds. One stall was all pots and pans, and another, piles of fragrant cardamom, turmeric, and pepper. But there was also the stink of open drains and the bidis, the hand-rolled cigarettes that everyone smoked.

There were pitiful beggars as well, men and women missing fingers and noses from leprosy, blind people, and people with elephantiasis whose legs and feet were swollen. The very worst of all were the children who, when they were babies, had had the soft bones of their arms and legs twisted and misshapen so you would be sorry for them and fill their begging bowls.

There was a frightening man with disheveled hair, black clothes, and an evil look who came every day. One of his eyes was sealed shut, and the other eye stared hard when he looked at you, as if it were making up for the eye that couldn't see. Isha and I called him the Cobra. The Cobra arrived each morning with three crippled children in a cart. He placed them with their bowls at strategic locations in the bazaar, and then late in the day he would gather them up like so many dolls that had lost their stuffing and take them away along with all they had earned for him.

Isha always dropped a few paise into their bowls. Often she scolded me. "You must have a lot of money, living in that big house. Why don't you give? Why are you so selfish?"

The truth was, Mother was a poor manager and we were always short of money. Often the servants had to wait for their wages. "I don't know where the money goes," Mother would complain. "Your Father always took care of those things." She would turn to Ranjit, who would show her in his books just where every rupee was spent. Mother would see waste here and there and promise to be more careful, but the next month it would be the same.

The only money I had was the shiny shilling I got each Christmas from my Aunt Louise in England. This Christmas, along with the shilling, there was the usual cheery note:

Aunt Ethyl sent me flannel bellybands and a greasy cream to smear on my face to keep it from darkening in the sun. Her gifts were accompanied by a less pleasant note:

Aunt Ethyl's flannel bellybands were scrunched away in the back of my dresser drawer. I still had Aunt Louise's shilling. I had shown it to Isha, but I was saving it until next Christmas, when I got another shilling, and then I would spend it. As long as I had the one shilling, I could imagine buying a great many things, so that I felt they were nearly mine. The minute I spent the shilling, there would be no more possibilities.

That day at Aziz's stall there were Turkish rugs in soft blues and reds, silver teapots, and lovely enameled vases. Isha told me that they had belonged to one of the British families, the Livingstones, who were in trouble and had needed to sell all their pretty things. The Livingstones were friends of Mother and Father's and lived just down the cantonment from us. The cantonment is where all of us British live. Mr. Livingstone oversaw the railways, but Isha whispered that one of his servants had told her Mr. Livingstone spent most of his time at the club drinking, and now he was going to be replaced and sent in disgrace back to England.

I felt sorry for him and said so, but Isha shrugged. "Baap says he beats his servants. Let's see how he likes it in England when he has to do his own dirty work." Servants in India were very cheap, and we all had them. But friends of Mother and Father's who had gone home wrote that in England servants were so dear you could only have one, or at best, two.

Late in the afternoon, the smell of the vendors' food, the jelabis and samosas, reminded Isha that she must go home to help in the preparation of dinner. I followed her out of the bazaar and along the dusty road, where she turned into the busy village of servants' huts, leaving me to straggle down the path that led to home, where I found Mother waiting for me. "I have just heard," she said, putting her arms around me and surprising me with a hug, "that tomorrow your father will be home."

© 2011 Gloria Whelan

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