When I was a child, I saw my father as the Indian Jimmy Dean.
He was a young god. That’s why my mother married him. And to defy her father.
He was a young devil. That’s why she married him. And, to defy her father.
When I was a child, I watched them to imagine a yet more crystal palace version of their youth and loves (loves, for they loved differently) and never came up with anything durable or reliable. Just those American pop culture references. One day he was Jimmy Dean, another day Gregory Peck, another day Steve McQueen when he had been nicer-looking.
It was the seventies. Pretty lowbrow stuff in western pop culture was what we got in India then: B grade Hollywood or worse, some Pink Floyd, some Grateful Dead, some Jaws, some Star Wars, everything old and stale probably to western folk, those demigods about whom we wondered and yearned. To us, we with aspirations to a norm that we could mostly only imagine, it was all such fantastic stuff.
All I can say is that these two illuminated and animated what they were given to work with. At least in my eyes.
Of course, in the end you never can say if any of that was real or just all dreamed up by you. But if it is all dreamed up by you, you is not complaining.
He was the admired sort. He was lanky, middling tall, and fricking astonishingly white-ish. She was petite (later she was waddling fat), olive-skinned (though she always complained, “my face is darker than every other part of me, why?”), dark-haired and dreamy. They were a 1950s movie couple, as I look back.
They accommodated me. They allowed me to exist between them, within what must have then been their flow of torrid passion. Once I whipped him somewhere tender, accidentally, while hanging around them in bed. He withdrew; at least I don’t remember a single word or action by him beyond the initial gasp and moan. It was she who took me aside and gently explained to me that men hurt, “there.” I was grateful that he never spoke to me about it. It gave me a new respect for the organ, for its power and vulnerability. She had spoken on its behalf.
They loved me. She made sure there was an egg in my breakfast every day, even though the help made it. Where was she? What was she doing? I think she was soaking in the aura of his beauty and his tenderness. I hope she was. I worry. I wonder if she was, instead, hiding in sleep or languor, to avoid having to think about who else had been dreaming of his beauty or his tenderness, or about her father whom she had defied, to be with this young god, this devil, this no doubt powerhouse yet vulnerable engine of my own advent. I relate to her burden, to her trauma. A lot to do there.
He made sure that I learned about music, and such of the arts as he knew, and books, and l.p.s, and popular films and sentimental crooning, without having the faintest sense of what corralled and congregated the votaries of the high and the low brow on these matters. While I remember his revered tenderness, I do not remember his brow at all; doubt he had one. He just liked to be hero number one.
Jimmy Dean, Steve McQueen – the love-me-tender sort – had been adding a beer belly. He looked leonine and yet starved. Years later, I heard him in Viscontini’s The Leopard: I am a vigorous man. I don’t know how the petite olive-skinned beauty that had defied her reliable landed bourgeois of a father to marry mine managed that vigor. Maybe she did, or maybe she ignored him after a while. Legend is, he turned elsewhere. Of course, in the end you never can say if any of that was real or just all dreamed up by you. But you do start seeing the limits of your tolerance and your patience as the story approaches this damn moment.
You start seeing Jimmy Dean and Steve McQueen as maybe nice drinking buddies but not so great life partners. And Dean does have that scrawny Indiana face and McQueen is, just, well. . . . Indiana boys, both. But here the slight scholarly instinct scuttles the other angles.
So there was this moment called Georgina. Huge mounds for breasts. Push-up bra. Decollete blouse and in my father’s passenger seat. I am ten which makes him, what, thirty-six.
I am sure that my mother, the olive-skinned petite bourgeoisienne has been betrayed. I hate Georgina.
But Georgina is twenty-eight and divorced, with a baby. She needs someone tender. She is sex personified. She is sex personified, riding in the passenger seat of the voiture de Jimmy dean, de Indiana, de India, de l’Inde. Georgina is the bitch Anglo-Indian with numerous hybrid cousins who swarm around us in the Anglo-Indian lair that my mother has innocently entered as a schoolteacher and has tolerated and introduced Jimmy Dean Steve McQueen to, and now he is running rampant. Except that even more than that, I think I see love.
I think Jimmy Dean Steve McQueen and Georgina the vomit of the British Empire (bye bye, 1947, in a while crocodile 1977) are in love.
The car is very silent except for motor noises. I am in the back seat. I watch them like a hawk.
I see my father’s infidelity spilling out of him to touch Georgie Porgie. I see them kiss and moan and grunt, what they have no doubt come from doing as they take me home to my mother. I cannot remember why I am in the car with them. Likely, there is a routine explanation.
But Jimmy Dean is not looking at me. Normally, Jimmy Dean is very chummy and very verbose with me. We often sing together on our rides; songs that Steve M teaches me that he especially likes. I suspect that Jimmy Dean is eyeing Georgina’s tan cleavage with its suggestion of her further tasty chocolaty nipples. I start getting the idea that Jimmy Dean might be like that.
Grace Georgina Ferber. Ginny to her friends. I persisted with Grace. That way I could foresee the day that she would become a mountain, and like so many other voluptuous pussycats of her sort, she would lose all her Georgina and remain nothing but a huge Grace, perhaps under pressure, perhaps not, but definitely not under the pressure of Jimmy Dean writhing on her. And then I felt I would avenge and rescue that other one, the stupid, blank olive-skinned dark-faced woman who had foolishly introduced Grace to Jimmy. A grandmotherly Grace, a woman mountain, would not pose any threats to anyone I cared about, especially to those people who barely saw me puttering about at their feet watching them from that subtle perspective and making plans for their future wellbeing.
It became harder and harder though to take care of the olive-skinned petite bourgeoisienne. For one thing, she was taking to wreathing herself in clouds of cigarette smoke, one day to lead to her death from cancer at a relatively young age, and shockingly well before Jimmy Dean’s. And I could see that she was sagging, fading, blotching, her middle bulging out in ways Grace’s wasn’t. It was a losing battle. I considered switching sides.
Grace’s boy died. He was three, and he got the whooping cough, or something, and in four days he was dead. Grace stood in front of the large atelier mirror in her apartment where I had been plunked while Olive Skin had gone in the car to take to some mourners from Grace’s family to the station, and Jimmy Dean sat next to me. Grace took off, slowly — her head bent to one side — the black hat and veil on her head, and her face in the mirror looked blank. Also quiet. After life’s fitful fever, and all that. . . .
And I turned again and looked at Jimmy Dean sitting next to me and he was gazing upon Grace with the accents of longing writ large on every inch of his face, his eyes shining and limpid with – was it? – tears, and with love.
So, I thought. Now the way is cleared, is it? The cleavage was still there. Even the mourning dress had been bought to ensure that her goods half hung out. I hated those breasts even as I was starting to feel a bit more sorry for Grace. Poor thing, she couldn’t be separated from them, of course. She had already lost her boy, a certain Roderick Ferber. We had never seen Mr. Ferber. Long gone, it seems, apparently somewhere in Thailand now.
It came as a shock to me then when I realized that Jimmy Dean wasn’t the only one. There were the Brits. They had come back after the kick that Gandhi had given them before keeling over himself and dying, as he had lived, talking to himself. They were senior managers now in many British collaboration companies (those had not yet acquired the term “multinational”). And a bunch of them had landed like birds of prey on that arid reddish earth where Jimmy and Olive Skin had made their nest with me, their gosling, their little birdie, and they sure flew over Grace’s mountains with cackles and whoops like the scavengers they were. Check out this native female breeder a little more, come feast a little longer. They were obscene and cheap, but we didn’t know that. We thought of them as the white men with the impressively large houses. We thought of their wives as the women who were so lucky because they moaned and whimpered in back gardens and patios in saggy sexy seventies swimwear, furiously sipping gin and tonics and fluttering magazine pages. Mrs. Benton, Mrs. Carey, Mrs. Clive.
Our Grace was a Magdalene. I realized that the day I saw Jimmy pleading with her in a little hallway where, dead drunk, he was almost buried in her cleavage while his right hand pawed her bra strap and his left held her bottom to his groin like he would like to take her right then and there. I tiptoed around, Jimmy oblivious, quite frankly and fully meeting Grace’s eyes, also frank and still blank, following me as I walked into the hallway bathroom, and then walked out, Jimmy Dean’s face, eyes now closed, resting dewy and rosy on Grace’s left breast. I understood her. I understood him. He was saying “Why Benton? Why, why Benton?” And she was thinking, “Why not?”
Out of the corner of my eye, very furtively, I watched him that day as he drove the car, me in the passenger seat where I was not supposed to sit but he had just plumb forgotten of course in his grief and trauma and all, back home. Home to Olive’s unappetizing Bengali cooking in-sourced through the help and on the dining table now, no doubt cold and full of reproach. But did Jimmy care! I saw, out of the corner of my eye, his hand clutching the steering wheel, one hand only, driving while reckless, weaving softly from side to side on the half-deserted street with the tarmac pitted with potholes.
I could feel something. I could sense some ancient childhood grievance bubbling in him – it often did when confronted with failure and disappointment – and his urge to sob and splutter. He was a young god, and he just didn’t see his own power. I thought, miserable and angry with him yet full of the deepest, fullest love for my father, why don’t you see that you can win this one easily, you idiot? I thought, then, I was most daring and risqué for thinking such thoughts about him, for thinking of him as an “idiot,” even mentally, silently.
The plan was this: Jimmy Dean just had to start ignoring Grace disgrace for a few weeks. Meanwhile, he was to appear at parties and things – god knew they wouldn’t stop for his heartbreak – with Olive Skin on his arm, looking gorgeous and well fucked. He just had to look happy, to appear happy, with us, with his lot, didn’t he see, and she would come crawling back after the Bennets and Sewells and Clives had torn her apart for a while among themselves. Come crawling back with her mountains of breasts all bruised and scratched by the lust of unloving boys, to her true love.
And what will he do after that, miss? my brain demanded of me. Was I planning for the ruin of my parents’ marriage, so that Grace disgrace and Jimmy could shack up and then what about me, and where would we live, and what would my classmates say who were already so cutting and cruel about Anglo-Indians, and what a field day they would have with the boobs of a certain Mrs. Ferber who had snared and snagged a good nice Bengali man, one whose daughter actually went to school with them, wouldn’t you know though that she was so mousy that he probably left her mother for good reason, and then when get an eyeful of those breasts, wouldn’t you really? They would sway between savoring and trashing the shame and scandal in my family.
I didn’t know, I could only get as far as reuniting Jimmy and Grace, and how had this happened, that I thought these two should now shack and shag, and what about my nice Bengali girlie mother who had been left in the dust in the mammary competition though she herself was no featherweight in that area, I didn’t know. I don’t know what I was thinking, but all I could think of was what a man like my Dad wanted, a woman with endowments and not just in the chest area but maybe in her heart and her arms and fingers, and all those things I imagined Grace had and did.
It was I who was the featherweight. At nine, I knew that I would never match my mother, leave alone catch up with Grace disgrace. It wasn’t that I was small – I was only nine, godsakes – but it was that I could not see the capabilities. I had no capabilities. Whoever farmed me some day would have to handle that, would have to take me pre-warned and prepared. So I wanted at least my father to be happy in his own way. Yes, Grace Georgina Ferber would crawl back to him after a few weeks, maybe a few months – all right maybe even a few years, but crawl back she would – and she would make it all right. She would make it up to him. And at least one of my parents would be happy again. I thought this, but I was not ready for what did happen after a few months.
No, Grace did not start crawling back to Jimmy Dean after a few weeks. Rather Not. She seemed, for several months at least, perfectly happy seen breezing about in Clive’s Moretti Roadster, or even on the pillion of Bennet’s motorbike – yes, hair flying, arms clutching Bennet’s admirably tough midriff, legs spread nicely apart– in full view of wives and children and “society.” Then she went to hospital, we were told in school. My mother and her schoolteach friends even organized a little benefit for her; we didn’t know why exactly.
I think Georgina was the first person I knew who had cancer. She had, irony of ironies, breast cancer. Nothing less would do, of course for that tan Venus. Grace went out for me, because something whispered to me that Georgina would not live on to Grace. No, she would be Georgina, and disgraceful, and that was all there was to it.
I watched Jimmy. Did he betray any anguish? Was he secretly thinking of her, brooding over her condition, her malaise? I could see nothing.
He drank a lot, but no more than he already had been. Between him and Olive Skin there appeared to be neither greater tension nor greater passion. Everything seemed about the same as it had ever been. He still ate his crunchy toast dribbled with cheap margarine that we called butter and marbled with salt and pepper, his face almost all the way down to the plate like a horse at a trough. Jimmy eating was not a pretty sight. His jaw moved mechanically, but then it had always been an unimaginative jaw eating unimaginative toast and stir-fried boiled potatoes also breaded with salt and pepper, and there was no discernible difference. He still sang songs tipsily in bed before he went to sleep – or at least before I went to sleep – and he still was cheerier in the morning than in the evening.
Georgina, however, was dying. I overheard snatches of my mother’s chats. “The cancer is deep.” “She has been with cancer for a long time.” “Hope that never happens to one of us.” She, of course, presumably, not one of them. “At least her boy is dead.” “Imagine what would happen if my son died, or if I died before him.”
Then one day, Georgina showed up at school, presumably to collect a check, to pick up her stuff, I don’t know what. It was a sight. Georgina was wearing a black dress with a stiff high collar – unthinkable – and there was a misshapen look to her and the dress that I immediately knew as her malady. I smelled cancer. I smelled hospital and vials of thick bloody-rimmed brown fluids. I smelled needles and pus and pulpy palpitating flesh. She was a little hunched over, a bit like Jimmy Dean over his breakfast. And she walked protectively, as though she were protecting herself, her twin peaks, her glorious doppelgangers, her betrayers, from the eyes, touch and knowledge of the world.
Venus was decomposing.
I remembered, only for a flash, my father’s cheek resting upon her rising, swelling breast while his hands fumbled with himself and her bra strap.
And Grace, as she passed me, gave me a look, the blank look, her very own look, the one she was famous for, and so said goodbye.