“They aren’t getting a proper education in these Hill Station schools,” my father said to my mother one day. ” I’m going to find a school right here in Calcutta where I can keep an eye on them, especially Samantha.”
He found a convent where the elite of society sent their children. It was in walking distance to our home. It was called Loreto House”.
“You take care of it then. I’m washing my hands off their education. And maybe even our marriage,” mother said ominously. An English woman wed to an American.
On some evenings, flagons of perfume, shards of glass flew through the air. Accusations in the middle of the night awoke the household when words were exchanged about a perceived lingering look, or touch on the night of a party. The next morning the sun shone on the broken glass and the air was filled with the perfume of a thousand flowers and musk and fruit.
And now our lives changed forever.
Our professional gambler father, who owned sixteen racehorses and was a fixture at the Royal Calcutta Turf Club, took over our parenting. He loved to cook, and he’d make beautiful cakes for us on weekends.
He was also a celebrity. The sports pages regularly quoted and photographed him with a cigar clenched between his teeth as the “ever cigar-smoking Lou Stitwell.”
There would be no more trips to Darjeeling in the Himalayan Mountains. No more outdoor lessons. No more dance classes. Horseback rides. Long walks in the mountains. Visits to the teashops. Or going to the dentist in Tibet.
Soon I was walking to school every day taking in the sights and sounds of India. On non school days, my father and I would go to the markets to buy provisions for his restaurant, The Star of India.
It was exciting and madly busy. It was a microcosm of what India is. Loud alive and full of colour. Fragrant with spices, bubbling stews were cooking on outdoor burners by skilled roadside chefs. Squatting barbers shaved heads and beards. Snake charmers charmed cobras out of baskets to wildly enthusiastic crowds. And cows lay about or wandered down central streets to go where they may as the cow is sacred in India.
In fact, where had my father learned how to cook? He just smiled and said. “In jail.” We didn’t know whether to believe him or not.
Flanked on either side by a Hindu and a Muslim head bearer or coolie because the Hindi coolies would not carry beef and the Muslim coolies would not touch pork, my father walked through the bazaars instructing me to be aware and beware. It was the highlight of the week. I loved accompanying him. Alive. Full of surprises and excitement. You could buy anything. From food to jewellery to yards of cloth to carpets — and you could have your ears pierced.
Once my father took me to visit a mushroom farm where I learned that mushrooms grow in the dark far away from the light of day. He also took me to visit the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta known all over the world for the worst conditions that human beings could live in let alone survive in; I was fascinated and appalled. On my way to the convent, I was constantly besieged by skin and bones beggars asking for money. As I grew older, I decided that I would become a doctor.
Mother John Baptist said I would have to become a ward of the state in order for me
to become a physician. She said that I needed to learn the sciences.
“It’s your decision,” my mother said when I told her. “Your father and I are getting a divorce.”
“I want to become a nun,” I said.
New market, Calcutta – Wikipedia Public Domain
Guest Author Bio
Sonya Ward, memoir writer, English teacher; born in England; childhood in India; lived in Lebanon; Australia; and now in Montreal, Canada. Ward says, she always wanted to become a champion swimmer. Samantha, a memoir, forthcoming.
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