Thursday, October 21, 2010

Delhi: Auntie Sheila and Why I'm Here

Auntie Sheila, the Force of Nature. I guess every kid has one growing up, a semi-mythological figure. Often-discussed and referred to in all the family annals, the stories they tell about the times They Went to India. Auntie Sheila figuring large in the adventure stories, the happy memories, everything I ever got told about India. Without her around, I wouldn't be in India. Might not even care about it. I guess you could call Auntie Sheila the tractor beam.

Auntie Sheila is a friend of my grandparents, a very good friend. Sheila's husband, Baldev, worked at Dow Chemical at the same time as my grandfather did, back in the seventies. He and my grandfather hit it off in one way or another, and then all four of them hit it off one way or another, and they became friends. Good friends. My grandparents life-long love affair with India must be directly credited to the Lals: they offered a native guide, impeccable companionship. The stories I heard originated from their travels, together. Trekking in Kashmir and a private train through the jungle. Rajasthan and Mumbai. They sat me down and told me all about it over and over. They have a table in their house with a lot of objects on it from all over the world - they did live in nine countries - and when I was small they'd pick them up and tell me the stories. (You fools! Didn't you realize you were creating that most useless of beasts, the travel writer? Couldn't you see?!)

Auntie Sheila came to visit once, with Baldev. I guess I was four or five. I remember she told me a story about a crocodile and a monkey, and that she brought me Kashmiri boxes with tiny, delicate paintings on them. The Kashmiri boxes, then, holding my own origin point, something within them that lead me here. You love India, or you loathe it. Perhaps I was programmed in the love direction, and had little real agency in the matter.

We met in 2008, during my first stint in India. She picked me up at the airport in the Lacoste shirts she favors, and took me by the hand- her hand very small and adorned with rings. Shorter then me and very slim. She, like all Indian women of a certain age, had kept her hair black. "You look just like Caroline!" she said, her voice the particular, resonant purr of the Delhi elite. (When I first heard the Delhi accent I thought they were fucking with me. No one could possibly speak in such an exquisite parody of British high toned speech. And it is true). I spent a week or so in Delhi and let her take me by the hand a lot of places: Humayuns Tomb. The Golf Club, where she is a member, and where we would eat tandoori items and drink whiskey and talk about human culture. Neither of us really approved. We both liked Bob Dylan and Peter Matthissen and zoology.

Sheila is among the finest people there are to talk to. She's read just about everything, and has been in the middle of many things too. Has traveled the world and met all manner of interesting people. You give her a prompt and off you go. I learn hundreds of things from her. I feel inclined to take notes when we sit down on the couch or at the India International Center and discuss things, but I guess that would be gauche.

She's a snob, that's for sure. My grandparents have got it too. It's part of what they are. A product of age and considerable experience. Both Sheila and Baldev and my grandparents exist in a constant commentary on how Things Were So Much Better when We Were Young. ("When we were alive," as my grandmother puts it, which I loathe). The world has declined and continues to decline. We were attractive when we were young, us two couples, and daring as well, glamorous if you put it that way. We're awfully hard to live up to. (If you're inclined to try, you poor bastard).

Snooty, but then again, maybe they've earned it. They did well. What a family mythology to have behind you, anyhow. Jet-setting. Vacations in Monaco and Kashmir. They all look fabulous in the photographs from back then, every one of them. This is the standard I've been set - a little bit more of why I'm here.

The Delhi moneyed are more British then the British - so is Sheila. She has a Labrador retriever and a fondness for imported Scottish whiskey, and she loves golf. Not that she's really British - only in the sense that the Indian elite have appropriated Britishness, have made it their own. "But I'm a Hindu," she tells me, a bit sneakily. "Baldev hates religion and thinks it's a load of rubbish, and I do too - mostly. But I'll die a Hindu." That first trip, I defied her, which took some doing, but I did it anyway. She didn't want me to go out at night at nightclubs with Some Boy and I did anyway. I'd vault over the fence of the India International Center, that bastion of glorious Indian intellectualism, and haul down a taxi and be off into the night. She knew it and I knew it too and we never spoke of it. That was tact, I guess. Some tact.

I arrive in Delhi this time around on the holiday that celebrates Krishna's birth, Krishna Janmashtami. She meets me at the India International Center, where she has put me up (they are painting the house) and she looks no different, seems unaffected by age. (What will we do when she does age? Will the universe cease turning?) "I'm terribly sure, but I feel ill," she said, her voice still purring in the Delhi-ite fashion. "I have over-extended myself of late." She takes me by the hand as is her wont and loads me into the car - she has succumbed to fashion and has finally bought herself a new one. She has also got herself a new driver. "The old one was an awful man," she says, dismissively. "I had to let him go." We'll talk no more about it.

We have dinner at her house. I've been seized by the first manifestation (on this trip) of severe nostalgia, of missing everybody, friends and family, the chairs in our backyard, the cigar factory in New Orleans, the dog, little things, big things, all of it. I sit on her couch while she arranges the pre-dinner whiskey and think lonesome and desolate thoughts, of what my friends are doing right now, of what my parents are doing right now (is the coffee maker on? are they asleep? who said-what-to-who?). Simba, the Labrador, comes into the room and forcefully sniffs my crotch.

One of Sheila's server-boys comes in, with the whiskey on a plate, and Sheila follows busily behind him. The server boys are from remote and impoverished villages in the Himalaya, near Mussorie - the hill station where Sheila was born. She sits down on the couch and she queues up some Bob Dylan, which we both like, and we look at each other from across the table.

"You look just the same," she says. Why is everyone saying that to me here?

"And so do you," I say. The table in here is arranged with the same small metal fish and Kashimiri figures that my grandparents have, and the paintings are similar too (Mughal miniatures and Rajasthani work) and even the colors the house is painted in are the same. So is the whiskey. My grandparent's living room in Florida and this living room in Delhi have somehow melded in my mind and are unable to separate.

Rajeev, her son, comes into the room. He also looks the same, like everyone else present. Hard to know where to begin with Rajeev. It's a story almost out of a Greek tragedy. Brilliant and handsome and had five girlfriends at once (as Sheila is fond of relating). St Stephens in Delhi, and the London School of Economics, and Ann Arbor after. Engaged to be married to a delightful and beautiful woman. Then: brain tumor. Age 23. He survives, but the surgery damages his brain - he'll never be the same again. He's 55 now and he gets around all right. Drives a car. Reads stuff. He comes in and out, like a radio when you play with the dials. "It's good to see you!" he says, and it's good to see him too. Sheila's daughter, Deepa, isn't here. In London, finishing up a masters degree in NGO work. The Eternal Student. Never married, but always securing degrees. Survived breast cancer and finished the degree all the same.

"Sheila has been so unlucky with those children," my grandmother says to me one day, when I am visiting in Florida. "Very unlucky."

Yes. To be Indian with no grandchildren? Intolerable. At least she has nieces and nephews. She manages a lot of other things besides family, too. Golf club meetings. Charity programs in small Nepali-speaking villages, up in the hills. Artistic events and neighborhood gatherings. "I've committed myself entirely too much," she says, draining her glass. "You have to say no, on occasion."

I doubt she will. She's superhuman. Baldev - he spends almost all his time up the hill in Mussorie now, away from Delhi, away from the heat and the confusion. The Commonwealth Games are coming up, but Sheila will probably stick around. She's overcommitted herself.

We have a lovely dinner. Always do, at her house. The grinning cook comes out with the food on silver platters, nudging the dog out of the way with a sideways motion of the foot. Tandoori chicken, rajma masala, daal, and curds. Rotis that are full of air, and puff out with a little explosion when you pierce them with a fork. "I would have had a fish souffle done up," she tells me, "But since you aren't in India all the time..." No, I'm not. Not yet. It's good to be back, even when it isn't.

All three of us begin eating with a fork and knife, and all three of us revert to our hands soon after. The Ten Fingered Fork, as Baldev calls it. Food tastes better that way. It's a habit I can't escape. The homesickness has decreased a little. Maybe I can stop missing boiled pork-chops and fires on the levee again. Can sink back into India again, all seamless like. Pomegranate seeds for dessert.

"Feel better," I tell her, as I hug Sheila and Rajeev goodbye, and head to the car where the driver awaits. "Feel better and see you tomorrow." A small command. I'm not qualified to give them, not yet. She stands in the doorway and watches languidly as the engine starts, short and slender, resolute. "Auntie Sheila is the most glamorous woman I know," my grandmother likes to say. (We went to a wedding once, near the Qutab Minar. She wore a stark white sari with embroidery and Mughal jewelry from long long ago. I was struck. How the hell does she do it?

This is truth. In her I feel a little less afraid of aging, maybe. A little less afraid.


  1. Hey there. Read your post on Teeange Chowhound about South Indian food and really enjoyed it! (I'm finally updating the food blog again since I'm pretty much done with traveling). I always am happy when Indian folks help me out wit IDing what the hell it was I just ate...

    I just found out they have a South Indian restaurant in Phnom Penh. Overjoyed.