All My Noble Dreams and then What Happens
We live in India, but just as England won’t let go of India, England has its hands on our family. You can tell a lot about that by what we have for breakfast. Father always manages to be at the table seconds before our cook, Gopel, has the food ready on the buffet. That way Father can start the day with a complaint. His breakfast is typically English: grilled kippers, eggs, bacon, and heaps of toast with Dundee marmalade. The marmalade comes to our home in India all the way from Scotland, and Father storms if we run out. After breakfast, he will leave for work. As deputy commissioner in the British Civil Service, his job is to tell the people of India what they must
do, and because of the strike by the Indian people to protest England’s rule, they may or may not do it.
Mother is not at breakfast. She is resting from the day before. She worries about everything, which exhausts her. She is arranged on her chaise longue, wearing a silk negligee trimmed in lace, her long gold hair falling over her shoulders, sipping the tea brought to her by Amina, who was once my ayah and is now Mother’s lady’s maid, since I no longer need a nursemaid. Mother will be choosing what to worry about today.
Aunt Ethyl, like Father, has an English breakfast. If she could wave a wand, she would turn India into England in a second. Gone would be the brightly colored parakeets, the mango and acacia trees, the bougainvilleas that weep blossoms like crimson and pink tears. Instead we would have England’s gloomy skies, brown birds, and bare trees. She has been here in India for nearly two years, but on that morning, when the heat had already found its way into the house, she wore a well-starched, high-necked cotton blouse and a wool skirt, which covered every inch of her ankles like a gray cloud.
Aunt Louise is of two minds. She loves India, but she has not abandoned her native England. For breakfast she
has congee, rice porridge. It is just what our Indian servants will be eating in the kitchen, but they will have spicy pickles with their congee. Aunt Louise, however, reaches for the toast and marmalade. Baneet, who has been tailor and dressmaker to our family forever, made for Aunt Louise a brightly colored blouse from some Indian cotton my aunt found in the bazaar. Her skirt, on the other hand, was of sturdy English serge. But here is the thing about Aunt Louise: While Aunt Ethyl’s feet are imprisoned in tightly laced English oxfords, Aunt Louise goes about in sandals. The first morning she came down in a pair of sandals, Aunt Ethyl accused, “Louise, you are not fully dressed.”
When I stayed with my aunts two years ago at their home in England, Aunt Ethyl was a terrible bully. She never tired of telling Aunt Louise what to do. I rescued Aunt Louise by taking her back to India with me, but Aunt Ethyl followed us as determined as a bloodhound, and here they were.
But this was the Aunt Louise of India, not England, for she had tucked a yellow hibiscus blossom in her hair. There was nothing in Aunt Ethyl’s hair except long, sharp hairpins. The hairpins were to keep any tiny tendril of hair from escaping the tight knot Aunt Ethyl makes of her long
black hair. It’s as if she was terrified someone might find her attractive.
As usual my breakfast was slapdash. I reached for whatever I could get down the fastest. When I finished, I would hurry to my tutor, Mr. Snartwell, then afterward to a forbidden place.
Something in the newspaper made Father roar like a lion. It was the strike, the hartal. Father’s enemy, Mr. Gandhi, is a small man, half Father’s size, but Gandhi is powerful. He is the head of the Indian National Congress, or the Congress Party, and he is leading the movement to free India from Great Britain’s rule. The Congress Party had called for a hartal, a nonviolent strike to shut down all of India until England gives India her freedom. Indian students had left their British schools and colleges. Indians had boycotted the British courts and set up their own courts. They had left their jobs in railways and the police departments, which were all managed by us British. Gandhi was even calling for Indian soldiers to strike. This was especially infuriating to Father, who served in the Great War as a major in a battalion of the Gurkha Rifles. The men he commanded were Indian soldiers. Though the war ended in 1918, more than two years ago, Father was still an active
officer in the British army, which had been called upon to keep order during the hartal.
Father cracked open his soft-boiled egg in a really brutal way. “The Indians are not ready for freedom,” he said. “They spend all their money on festivals and marriages and funerals. One of their so-called holy beggars gets more respect than a good worker.”
“Harlan,” Aunt Louise said in a small voice, “surely we cannot criticize a man who has given up worldly goods to walk in the way of his religion.”
“Nonsense,” Aunt Ethyl said in a cross voice. “Who is to do that man’s work?”
“They won’t be taught,” Father said. “They are half-starved. Why must it be just rice? Why don’t they plant potatoes and eat them?”
“Why should we tell them what to eat?” I asked. A perfectly reasonable question. “And if they are half-starved, it’s because of the pitiful wages we pay them.” There was a time when I didn’t care about such things, but then I met Max Nelson, who was a lieutenant in the British army and served under my father. Max went on to study history at Cambridge University, and now he’s back here in India. It was Max who helped me see how unfair it is for England to
rule over India. That means Father and I are always at war.
“Rosalind, you know nothing about these matters and had better stay with things you do know. Your meddling in the past has led you into predicaments that have been an embarrassment to us all.”
“I’m sure Rosy did not mean any disrespect, Harlan,” Aunt Louise said in her soft voice, “but surely there is something to be said for the longing of the Indian people for their independence.” Aunt Louise, who spent years under the rule of Aunt Ethyl, understood what it was like to have someone always telling you what to do.
“They are no more than children,” Aunt Ethyl said. “They would not know what to do with independence. They should be grateful to the British.”
That was too much for me. “Civil disobedience and strikes are all that’s left to the Indian people. They aren’t allowed to make their own laws. England taxes them, tells them what they can write in their own newspapers, rules their courts, and tells them how they must live. Thousands of Indian soldiers died in the war to keep other countries free, only for the survivors to come back to their own country and have no freedom at all.” I couldn’t help saying what I thought. It was all so unfair.
Max would have been proud of me, but I knew I was in for it. Mercifully, Ranjit, our burra mali, the head of our household servants, came into the dining room and presented to Father the morning mail on a silver salver. It was Father’s rule that the servants should see no unpleasantness among us, so my scolding was put off.
While Father went through the mail, Aunt Ethyl and Aunt Louise made plans for their day. They both volunteered at an orphanage for Indian children where my baby was. Well, not really my baby, but Nadi is there because of me. I was the one who rescued Nadi from an evil man who wanted to harm him. Two years ago I learned that our sweeper had lost his job and, because his family was starving, he had sold his grandson to Pandy. Pandy was a horrible man who twisted the arms and legs of babies so they would grow up to be pitiful sights. He put the deformed children about the streets of the bazaar as beggars. Much to Father’s horror, I bought the baby from Pandy and gave him to Mrs. Nelson’s orphanage.
Aunt Ethyl brought healthcare and proper British manners to the children at the orphanage. Aunt Louise told them stories, wiped their bottoms, and gave them hugs. The orphanage was the idea of Mrs. Nelson, who
is the wife of a very rich jute merchant. She is also the mother of Max, whom Father has forbidden me to see ever again. That’s because Max and I got into trouble going to demonstrations here, and even in London, supporting Gandhi. We nearly ended up in jail. The thing is, I see Max nearly every day.
Using his knife, Father opened an envelope, getting egg on it. “I see your mother has been at the shops again.” Father sighed deeply as he examined the bill. “Well, of course, there are parties and such, and she must have what she needs.” After all these years, Father was still head over heels in love with Mother.
He looked carefully at the return address on a thick envelope in some rich, creamy stationary. His face turned red, and he quickly wiped the remaining egg from his knife, examining it carefully to be sure it was clean. Then, deliberately, as if he were a doctor opening someone’s chest to get at his heart, Father opened the envelope and extracted a folded page made of the same heavy paper. We were all looking at him now, waiting for what was coming.
In wonder, as if he couldn’t quite believe it, Father announced, “His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales, will
be coming to Calcutta in December. My battalion of the Gurkha Rifles is to be a part of the honor guard, and of course I will command it. Our family is invited to Calcutta for all the festivities.” He was smiling now, all his earlier irritation gone. He was pleased to give us this gift, and he was full of pride at being a part of the Prince of Wales’s visit.
“Oh, Harlan,” Aunt Louise said, “what a great honor for you. And well deserved. I am so pleased. I have always been fond of the prince. He was a very sweet child, but mischievous. I recall hearing that as a little boy David disliked his governess so much he made a tadpole sandwich for her.”
“Louise!” Aunt Ethyl was horrified. She regarded all the members of the royal family as gods. “What can you be thinking? How dare you refer to the prince as ‘David’? And I am sure there can be no truth to such a rumor. She turned to Father. “The honor, Harlan, is very deserved.”
“Ranjit,” Father said, “will you ask the Memsahib to join us?” Ranjit swaggered a little as he left on his happy errand. I was sure he considered it a great honor to be a part of a household whose family would meet the prince. Ranjit would have nothing to do with Gandhi or the
Congress Party. Though an Indian, he is more British than Father is.
After Ranjit went in search of Mother, Father said, “There can be none of this hartal strike thing with the prince in this country. He will set things to rights.”
I didn’t say anything, but what I thought was that for Gandhi and the Congress Party, the presence on Indian soil of the son of the king who ruled over them would be a kind of punishment. It was like rubbing their noses in their hateful subjugation. One day the Prince of Wales, like his father, George V, would be Emperor of India. Mahatma Gandhi had spent his entire adult life working for the freedom for the Indian people. He objected to England making all the decisions about how the people of India lived. He had been in and out of jail, but he had never given up. The presence of a member of England’s ruling family in his country would make Gandhi all the more determined to put an end to British rule. I couldn’t wait to see Max and tell him the news, although he probably already knew, for he was working as a reporter for Young India, Gandhi’s very own magazine. He founded the publication and still writes for it.
Of course, like Max, who cares so much for the fight
for India’s freedom, I was also a supporter of Gandhi, but a little part of me was excited at the thought of meeting the Prince of Wales. I’d seen his picture. The twenty-eight-year-old prince was handsome, with lovely eyes, blond hair that fell over his forehead, and a rather sad look that made you want to cheer him up. I would never let Max know, but I was quite looking forward to seeing His Royal Highness. I wondered how close I would get.
Father said, “The prince served very credibly with the British armed forces in the war. He was a brave chap, wanting to fight on the front, but the generals forbade it, afraid he might be kidnapped by the enemy and held for ransom. It is a great honor for India to have him visit.”
Mother swept into the room, so excited, the lace collar on her negligee seemed to stand at attention. All her usual morning languor was gone. “Harlan, what marvelous news. I am delighted for you. What an honor. I must get busy at once. If we’re to attend receptions and teas, we will all need clothes. Ethyl and Louise, I count on you to help. We must choose fabric for our dresses at once and get in Baneet to do the sewing before the other families get to him.”
Father looked alarmed. He was probably thinking of the bill that had come in the morning’s mail. “I hope,
Cecelia, you will not overdo it. You won’t want a closet of frocks you will never wear again.”
“Harlan, you can’t want your family to disgrace you. If you’ve been awarded this position of honor, of course we must do you proud. You wouldn’t have us go before the Prince of Wales in rags.”
“Oh, I say, Cecelia, that’s not fair. Of course you must have what’s proper, but within reason.”
Aunt Ethyl said, “I am sure there is something in my trunk from England that would do very well, and, Louise, you have your brown velvet.” It troubled Aunt Ethyl to spend even a penny.
“Ethyl,” Mother said, “velvet in India’s heat? Impossible. It would be like wearing a fur coat. For once you must let me organize something elegant. Rosalind, you must have a new formal dress. You’ve grown so your old one is above your ankles. Tomorrow you must go into the bazaar with me. You know the way around there, and I always get lost. I have heard there is a stall with lovely silks. Today I’m off to the club. There was a new issue of The Queen there yesterday with all the latest fashions from London. I must get my hands on it.”
And away Mother went, full of energy, as if all the lying
on her chaise longue was just to rest up for something like this.
Father pushed his chair from the table with so much energy it skated halfway across the tile floor. “Well, we must all carry on.”
Before leaving, I asked my aunts how Nadi was. Father was strict about my not spending time with Nadi, but I missed him and regretted not seeing all the little changes that must have been happening.
Aunt Ethyl said, “Nadi is doing very well, my dear. I believe I have him successfully trained for the potty. There was a little accident yesterday, but I had a serious talk with him. One has to be quite strict about such things.”
Aunt Louise laughed. “Ethyl, I am sure that is the last thing Rosy wants to hear about. The child is blooming. I taught him a song, and of course he doesn’t know all the words, but he burbles on quite in tune. We have a new game we play. Nadi toddles off and hides, and I make a great thing about finding him.”
“I don’t think you should play that after meals, Louise,” Aunt Ethyl said. “It keeps the child’s food from settling properly.”
I was anxious to be off and didn’t want to be in the
middle of one of their little disagreements. Giving them a kiss and hug, I told them what an excellent job they were doing at the orphanage and hurried away to do one thing I should and one thing I shouldn’t.