‘East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet.’ Rudyard Kipling
New every morning, an age-old drama plays out on the cliffs of Kurinji. As the updrafts from the plains clash with the mountain air, clouds appear as if from nowhere, mere wisps at first, then massive beings that smother the escarpments until nothing is left, save the gnarled rhododendrons knotted into fissures above a white abyss.
By afternoon, Kurinji is enveloped in a fine rain and when the grassy downs and forests have had enough, the waters boil over into deep ravines, surging with life for the rice and coconut plains of Marutham.
As if commanded by a mysterious timekeeper, every twelve years these highland slopes are blanketed in Kurinji blossoms from which the bees make black honey. It was during one of those purple years that I was born, a decade after India’s independence, two millennia after the Tamil sangam poets first wrote about Kurinji and the inner landscape of love.
We expatriates had built a pretty little life for ourselves in Kodaikanal’s misty compounds. Instead of Kurinji flowers and rhododendrons, we planted eucalyptus and pine. We imported neatly trimmed English gardens with geometric beds of dancing ladies, snapdragons, and hybrid roses.
Most of us hardly spoke a word of Tamil, much less knew of Tamil civilization’s remarkable poetry. Even my first grade teacher with her flaming red hair scolded me for using Tamil in my first poem:
The funny bunny ate some hunny and drank some tunny.
“But Brucie, you can’t use tunny. It isn’t a word.”
“Yes it is. Tunny means water. And it rhymes!”
She made me strike the Tamil out.
Since both my parents worked full-time, my two brothers and sister and I were raised by ayahs. My favorite ayah was a young Anglo-Indian woman named Jessie Colecraft. She wore dresses instead of saris and her father ran a watch shop in the bazaar. I loved it when Jessie would hold my hand and take me down the road to see the wild monkeys play in Mr. Heady’s eucalyptus trees. She would also bring me to Coaker’s Walk, a paved trail constructed by Lt. Coaker of the British Army. As we looked out across the red plains seven thousand feet below us, Jessie would tell me about the poochandi who kidnapped and ate little children.
One day I dressed in my leopard suit and put socks on my hands for paws. I broke off crown of thorns spikes from the bushes that lined our driveway, stuck five in each paw, and lay in wait for my mother. When my prey finally came home from work, I attacked with a tremendous roar. She screamed, told me I was a bad boy, and sent me to my room. I had obviously been a very good leopard.
Our cook was named Peter, though his real name was Arulappan or ‘Father of Grace’. Cooks always seemed to take English names to make it easier for the foreigners. As was the custom of the day, he would arrive before dawn to light the Spencer’s wood stove and cook breakfast by 7:15. After washing supper dishes in the rain-spattered kitchen, he would walk the five miles to his home on the other side of Rifle Range Road. I loved to sit in the kitchen and help him toast bread over the glowing coals. He was thin and balding and smoked beedis.
“British times very good, not like now. Prices very less. Corruption very less. No rascals.”
He told me that he dreamed someday of owning his own business, of never having to work as a servant again.
Each morning at the breakfast table my mother would force us to listen to a reading from her boring devotional book. She would then ring the bell and Peter would come in, wearing his aging white coat with its silver buttons. He would serve us oatmeal porridge and the retreat to the Maidy Room. We always thought it was spelled the ‘Mating Room’. We knew all about mating, for that’s what our English cocker spaniel Rufus was always doing with the local dogs. The Maidy Room was where the covered walkway from the cookhouse joined the bungalow. It contained the ‘meat safe’, a screened-in cabinet that kept the beef safe from blue bottle flies.
After Jessie the ayah was fired because of mental illness, my mother hired a new woman. She was cold and colorless and I felt lonely, so I began to throw shoes at the cat. At least some days, a group of middle school girls would come to our compound and play with me. I loved Sue Pofahl especially. She had long blond hair and took me everywhere with her friends. Until they decided that Brucie had a little temper and was no longer cute.
During the long winter vacation of the northeast monsoon, we Kodai School staff families would join the other American aunties and uncles and their children for the annual Thanksgiving gathering on the plains.
I had met Sue’s father Uncle Harry Pofahl when our family spent a few weeks in their big bungalow.
I knew that he was a seasoned carpenter who taught young men in the Katpadi Industrial Institute the art of making rosewood rocking chairs and dining room sets.
Uncle Harry was lanky and nearly bald and always had mischief in his eyes. My mother didn’t approve of the fact that he drank and smoked. There were many other things she didn’t approve of, including spending time learning about Tamil life and language. Or perhaps it was because her Iowa tongue simply couldn’t get beyond a ‘poh’ and a ‘va’.
Sometimes Uncle Harry would disappear into the forbidden thatched toddy shop to drink with the local men. He spoke fluent village Tamil, a skill that made me jealous. For years, I had been pestering people in Kodai to teach me Tamil so I could understand what was going on beyond the granite walls of our school compound.
Behind his jokes and sparkle, Uncle Harry suffered from an unspeakable grief. His teen-aged son Jerry had been watching India go by through the open door of the steam train on his way home from Kodai School. The boy had been struck by an iron bridge and hurled to his death on the dry riverbed below.
Grief didn’t keep Uncle Harry from living his life, however. One vacation the Pofahl family vacationed with the Wilsons from the American Consulate in Madras. They traveled to a palace where the Raja was presenting a baby elephant ‘as a gift to all the children of America’. Mr. Wilson’s job was to facilitate this international exchange.
On a different vacation, our family joined Uncle Harry’s as we traveled across the state border into Andhra to stay with Uncle Stan and Aunt Darlene Vander Aarde and their four kids. They lived in a two story old bungalow on the campus of Mary Lott Lyles Hospital in Madanapalle. Aunt Darlene, then as now, was sweetness incarnate. She arranged for us to tour the Nutrine candy factory in Chittoor District. Free samples of Fanta Balls and Caramels too. Uncle Stan was a gruff ENT surgeon who would allow us to look through his operating microscope as he reassembled the tiny bones of the middle ear. He also had a laugh that that could rattle a cluster of coconuts in their tree.
On a particularly hot afternoon, all the families decided to trek an hour through the baking Andhra countryside to swim in the village headman’s well. This walk took us into an India that was new and exciting to me. Under tamarind trees, shady men would gather with their prized fighting roosters for illegal cock fights.
I was in awe how the roosters would fly at each other, stabbing each other through the back with their deadly talons. In some of the fights, razor sharp blades were fastened to these talons to assure the kill. We children wanted to stay and watch the carnage, but our mothers hurried us on.
The well of Ranga Reddy was the best watering hole in the whole wide world. Growing up in Kodai where the lake and streams were liquid ice, we loved the chance to play in the warm water. This well was fifty feet by fifty, cut deep into the earth and lined with neat stone blocks. Leading down into the water were giant granite steps. The water started about twenty feet below the surface and was so deep you couldn’t see the bottom.
On that particular day, with all the aunties and uncles watching, Uncle Harry decided to teach the big kids how to dive. Since he had no swimming suit, he wore only his white Fruit of the Loom underpants, completely unconcerned what the ladies thought. He dove in beautifully, with hardly a ripple. Moments later, his shiny head popped up.
“I thought you said this well had no weeds,” he said to Uncle Stan.
Uncle Harry’s expression suddenly changed. “Oh crap!”
He took a deep breath and disappeared below the surface for nearly a minute. He came up for air and went under again. When he finally resurfaced, he looked troubled.
“What’s the matter, Harry?” Uncle Stan said.
The man hesitated, his face red. He mumbled something.
“I lost my underpants!”
As all the aunties and uncles and girls and boys laughed, the poor man continued to tread water a discrete distance away.
“Well, you sure won’t find them in this well,” Uncle Stan said. “Ladies, look the other way.”
Uncle Stan handed Uncle Harry a towel.
A half naked white man emerged from an Indian well.
In the cool of evening as we headed home with light spirits, we passed neat piles of chicken feathers and the dying embers where the losing roosters had been turned into fiery Andhra curry.
After a supper served by the jolly cook Kamala, I retreated to a corner to read The Hardy Boys while the other kids played Monopoly and Go Fish. We then slapped a few mosquitos and went to sleep upstairs on the screened-in porch.
I loved the feeling of summer pajamas and the comfortable breeze of a South Indian night.
Inspired by Uncle Harry’s example, I went on to study Tamil. I learned that one says ‘the scent of earth’ instead of ‘the scent of rain’. A ‘blabber mouth’ is a vayaadi (mouth dancer) and a ‘yes man’ is a thalaiyadi (head dancer). I imagine that Uncle Harry knew many of the mid-range Tamil insults. ‘Podaa vennai!’ (Get out, you lump of butter!) ‘Vaya mudu chaakkada panni!’ (Shut up, gutter pig!)
In its whispery way, time has shifted and many we knew are gone. Jessie my ayah died from neglect in the cowshed where she lived after her schizophrenia became full blown. Peter the cook died young from a bleeding ulcer, as did two of his sons. He never did realize his dream of running his own business.
I am now an Indian. The foreign land where I was born is now my country, the clouds of Kurinji my clouds, the red plains my plains.
Uncle Harry too has passed, having died of cancer in Michigan. More than the events of that happy day in the big well, I remember the man for how he inspired me. In the way his underpants were swallowed by an Indian well, Uncle Harry helped me to leave behind the wasteland of pietism and cultural chauvinism.
This gift opened up India to a small American boy and allowed him to see.
A Tamil proverb says it far better than old Rudyard Kipling:
‘Uzhakkil kezhakku metkaa? In a grain measure, is there an East or a West?’
(Thanks to Melanie Wilson Wyma for the photo of Uncle Harry and the elephant and Pofahl and Wilson families)