Check out this special excerpt from Sujata Massey’s new book THE SLEEPING DICTIONARY, out August 20th!
Another element in this population is the Eurasian—a mixture of European and Asiatic blood, representing every degree of intermingling, from almost pure English to almost pure native. This class numbers a hundred thousand souls. They almost invariably adopt the customs of the Europeans and many of them are highly cultured and refined.
—Margaret Beahm Denning, Mosaics from India, 1902
Bonnie’s home reminded me of the fortress pictures I had seen in history books at Lockwood School.
The tall, rectangular bungalow of golden brick had curved iron grates on all the windows and curtains behind that, masking what I guessed immediately were riches inside. She led me through the gate and past a small garden filled with cir- cular beds of rosebushes in many colors: red, pink, white, yellow, and even orange. It was quite a hodgepodge that did not seem to fit the house’s stern design, but as I walked up the path behind Bonnie, the sweet and spicy smells of the roses were enticing.
Someone must have been watching our approach because the door opened just as Bonnie set her foot on the top step.
“Are we busy?” Bonnie asked a tall chowkidar who was dressed in red livery. He had ushered us into a cool, dark hallway lit by a few sconces in between portraits of beautiful European ladies and Indian maharanis. “Not at all. Right now, only Mr. Williams has come.”
The chow-kidar took Bonnie’s hat and placed it on a shelf in the hall cupboard.
“Tell Mummy I have a new friend, Miss Pamela. She’ll be staying to tea.” Bonnie stepped out of her shoes, and I did the same, glad for Hafeeza’s chappals. If I’d been barefoot, Bonnie wouldn’t have consid- ered me worthy of any invitation.
“Where is your mother?” I asked, as it was unusual for a house- wife not to greet her guests.
“You will soon meet Mummy—but we must freshen up first. You can bathe in my quarters, and I’ll have Premlata, one of our servant girls, bring up a drink. Sweet lime or salt?”
Running my tongue over my dry lips, I asked for salt. Bidushi had bought the special drink for me during our trip to the Midnapore bazar. I wondered what she would think of this fancy house. And then a startling realization came: perhaps Bidushi was with me. Her cremation was surely done; what if she had been reincarnated into Bonnie?
Bonnie’s invitation made it seem as if Bidushi’s generous soul had jumped inside, because why would a rich Anglo-Indian ever bring a shabby stranger home for a meal?
Bonnie had a pretty bedroom with a large, four-poster bed cov- ered in a pink-flowered quilt, with white pillowcases trimmed in the same pink. There were two almirahs; hers held a rainbow of beautiful Western clothes. There was a wireless radio on her dressing table and many bottles and pots of cosmetics. On the wall was only one picture: a framed photograph of the starlet Merle Oberon, whom she said was an Anglo-Indian from Calcutta.
I had never heard of Merle Oberon; I had never even seen a film. All these exciting, glamorous ideas whirled through me as Bonnie showed off her very own bathroom, which had a tub set into a tiled floor and water that flowed right into it from a silver spout. The bath and sink water was heated by turning on a geyser mounted high on the wall. Bonnie showed me how to work them and also explained the correct seating for the white porcelain privy similar to ones I’d seen in the students’ lavatory at Lockwood School.
Bonnie left me in this lavatory of wonders. When I came out wrapped in towels, she was sitting comfortably on her bed listening to the wireless. Next to her was a folded gold-and-orange-patterned silk sari and a very small matching gold blouse.
“I thought you might like this sari for dinner tonight,” she said, smiling prettily. But my senses were on alert. She might have examined my bundle and decided that the two cotton saris within were too worn for me to wear before her family. As I did not want to embarrass myself any more that day, I allowed her to wrap the silk sari and let her comb my hair and place a few bangles on my wrists. I felt shy to be waited on by her, but I sensed there was no way to resist. When she led me to the long mirror set into her door, my reflection was that of a stranger with large eyes, high cheekbones, and full lips, with a woman’s body clearly revealed by the sari she had wrapped low around my waist.
“Not bad,” Bonnie said, clapping her hands. “If they fit, you may borrow my slippers tonight.”
Walking gingerly, because her feet were bigger than mine, I followed Bonnie downstairs to a parlor with windows covered by long, embroidered curtains, even though it was still sunny outside. Ranged across a series of settees and lounge chairs were five young ladies, all quite different-looking but attractive. They wore clothing I’d never before seen: shimmering saris with short blouses, gold-embroidered tunics and flowing pajama pants, and tight, beaded European gowns. For me, it was like being in fairyland, and the girls seemed just as interested in me.
“Look at those eyes—lotus eyes. Add a bit of kohl and mascara and she could be in films,” said an Indian girl wearing a green chiffon sari who introduced herself as Lucky-Short-for-Lakshmi. Behind Lakshmi was Shila, also Indian, but wearing a party dress that barely reached her knees. I tried not to gawk at her long golden-brown calves, which seemed to shimmer and, like Bonnie’s, did not have a single hair growing on them. The girls repeated my name among themselves, and I heard it changing. Pam. Pamela. Pammy.
“Bonnie says you speak well,” said Natty, a golden-skinned Anglo-Indian with a head of thick black curls. She appraised me with cold eyes almost like Miss Jamison’s, although she was a hundred times younger and prettier. “Sakina, fetch the latest copy of Vanity Fair for the girl to read. I must hear this so-called Mayfair accent for myself.”
“Natty is a school graduate, so she thinks she’s a genius. Don’t mind her,” Bonnie murmured in my ear. But I understood Natty’s suspicion. They were like the Lockwood girls, just more beautiful because they had Indian blood—but many castes above me, without question. That was the only thing I was sure of in this loud room that smelled of so many perfumes my head was beginning to hurt.
Bonnie brought me to a sink to wash my hands, and then we went to a long veranda on the back of the house, where a table was set with many chairs around it. Three young maidservants fanned flies away from the dishes: crisp shingaras, iced cakes, and square-cut cucumber-and-tomato sandwiches. A brass tureen held a mountain of steaming white rice flecked with onions and spices, and there were at least half a dozen curries in other bowls.
I was so starved that I longed to descend on the table immedi- ately, but these inquisitive young women would not let me move. One had her hands in my hair, undoing the braid I’d carefully made after washing upstairs. Another was lifting the pallu of the sari to examine what she called my figure. I’d always thought that figure was a term from mathematics, but now I realized it meant something else.
“Girls, that is enough! You will have plenty of time to chat up Pamela after the meal.”
The high-pitched voice belonged to Bonnie’s mother, who had joined us. I examined her covertly. Although she had the same lilting accent as Bonnie, she was darker, something she’d attempted to mask with pink powder. Reddish-brown curls fell around her head like a frizzy halo, and she had jeweled clips holding it back from her face. A short and stout woman, she nevertheless wore a tight long evening dress with a low neckline almost completely covered with sparkling necklaces. Her brown eyes were unusually small and seemed dominated by black- painted eyelashes. I had never seen anyone look like this, not even in the colorplate illustrations of The Arthur Rackham Fairy Book.
“Sit next to me, dear heart.”
The lady took my wrist in fat, strong fingers that were covered in jeweled rings and showed me a chair next to the table’s head. I took it as the other girls flopped into their seats, still laughing and chattering. The servants came around to serve each of us from the bowls; despite the abundant offerings, some girls avoided shingaras, and many others refused meat or dal. Bonnie’s mother accepted food from every bowl and urged me to as well. I did not want to appear greedy, but I was so hungry that I gratefully accepted every delicacy that the servants brought.
As they feasted, the girls talked back and forth, mostly making jokes. Then an argument broke out about someone called Mr. Evans. The mother interceded, reminding the girls that in a family, every- one shared. Bonnie chimed in that she was still missing her pink sus- pender belt; could anyone remember seeing it? In the midst of this strange conversation the male butler walked in, bowed his head to Natty, and said, “Murphy-saheb is here.”
Natty rolled her eyes, pushed back in her chair with a careless scraping sound, and left. Two others were called for in the same man- ner over the next half hour. No one returned, even though food was still left on their plates. I worried about it, wishing I could wrap it in papers to take for myself the next day.
“Are you enjoying yourself ?” The mother asked, looking from me to my empty plate.
I must have been staring at the leftovers. Quickly, I said, “Yes, madam. I cannot possibly thank you enough for your kindness.”
“Bonnie was telling me that you are completely on your own.” From her expression, I could tell she expected me to say more.
“Some years ago, there was a cyclone, and I lost my family: par- ents, grandparents, two sisters, and a baby brother.”
“What a difficult lot in life,” the mother said. “Tell me, were you ever married? For an Indian girl your age, it is the usual custom.”
“Oh, no, madam. There was nobody to arrange anything for me, and I don’t want that kind of life. Work is my dream. I am traveling to Calcutta to look for a teaching job.”
“So you are independent.” Mummy sounded thoughtful. “Now you are amongst friends, all of whom have lost their families in some sense or another. You must not be afraid anymore.”
After the meal, Sakina returned, wearing a different dress and carrying the Vanity Fair magazine. At everyone’s urging, I read a short story by William Seabrook, putting on a posher than posh accent that made all the girls howl. Bonnie put an arm around my shoulder and whispered in my ear that I read so well I should be a wireless announcer. Then she boasted her house had several parlors loaded to bursting with magazines and books, and that she would take me to find some good reading for the evening hours. I realized that I was happy: an emotion I hadn’t felt in a very long time.
As the servants cleared the table, the girls rose up slowly; I could tell that they didn’t particularly want to leave. I heard some men’s voices coming from the front of the house. My first instinct was appre- hension; but then I guessed that the lady’s husband had come home and brought friends. I wondered what kind of business Bonnie’s father did to have built such a fine house. But then I remembered that he’d abandoned her to go back to England. It didn’t make sense about Bonnie’s mother not having enough money to send her to school, because there was so much fine jewelry and clothing on everyone. And the food! I would remember the feast for the rest of my life.
I lingered on the veranda with Bonnie and her mother, not want- ing to say my good-bye. From the garden, I heard the call of doel birds, chhr-chhr-rr. This I knew was a kind of warning. I felt the hairs on my arms stand up, reminding me that I had no place to go tonight. My confident speech about going to Calcutta to Bonnie was an empty lie.
As if she’d heard my thoughts, the mother said,
“You are very welcome to stay in Bonnie’s room tonight. The girl who used to share with her is gone.”
She’d said girl—not sister. I mulled this over until I understood what it meant. This was not a family home but a boardinghouse. This was the reason all the girls downstairs did not look like blood sisters. Bonnie had brought me here hoping I’d become a rento, not knowing I was too poor to afford it.
With a sinking feeling, I confessed, “You are too kind to a stranger, Burramemsaheb, but—”
“Mummy!” she corrected, laughing. “My full name is Rose Barker, but I’m not Mrs. Barker to anyone but strangers. And you are Bonnie’s friend, dear heart, not a stranger.”
“Mummy,” I said awkwardly, hardly believing she had called me dear heart again. “Mummy, I’m very sorry; I don’t have money to pay for your hospitality.”
At my words, the lady’s high-pitched voice rose to a mouse’s squeak. “Oh, you have hurt me! To suggest I would charge money when I have invited you to stay at Rose Villa! You are welcome to all the luxuries, and don’t forget it.”
“But you are overly generous.” I hesitated, then went forward. “My dream was always to work as a teacher, but I am of course capable of other jobs. If I could work here—any tasks or chores—I would be most grateful. I could sleep on the kitchen floor or anywhere you might have room.”
“To think I would be so cruel!” Mummy exclaimed. “Our Bonnie wants you to stay with her so she is not lonely.”
That didn’t make sense. I began an apology. “Thank you, but I cannot accept—”
“Thank you,” Mummy parroted back, “for your hospitality. Say that, Pamela. It’s the only thing I want to hear.”