24th August 1997


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Chosen Ground-Goolbai Gunasekera's new book - Part 5

Riot over the diet

Continued from last week

FamilyFather's long lecture tours meant that he was not with his growing family for much of the time. In point of fact he was lecturing in the USA when I was born in Colombo and only got to view his new daughter at age 1, 1/2. He was in China when Sumitra put in an appearance. He was thus spared the sight of a squealing baby which in his eyes was all to the good. Father never learnt to carry an infant. "Squirming little creatures," was his comment on all newborns. He viewed his two daughters with a judicial eye. He was not given to panegyrics. He acted as though any successes of ours were accidental and were not really expected by him. Fortunately Mother was the opposite.

My sister Su, and I grew up in an alien island but not once did we feel anything but totally Sri Lankan. For this we had our parents to thank, for we were brought up as Ceylonese first and Asian/American as an after- thought. Our school friends had parents who fell into the traditional roles of courtship and marriage. Our own parents, on the other hand, fell into a totally unique category. We never tired of hearing the tale.

"So tell us Daddy," Su would say. "Tell us the story of how you proposed?" Father loved the narrative. "What do you mean 'propose?' he would ask. "Your mother saw this superbly romantic looking Indian and I hadn't a chance in hell. I was at the altar before I knew it." Mother sighed resignedly. She knew, and we knew, that reality was very different.

Father was 29 and Mother just 18 when they got engaged. At 19 Mother was married and was half way through her Degree in Languages and Music at the University of Iowa. To be near her, father transferred from Yale, just after their marriage. However, the financial debacle of the Wall Street crash wiped out Father's American Bank Account. Mother's parents were among the few that barely survived the crash but it meant that Mother and Father could not afford to live together on campus since married quarters were expensive.

Accordingly they simply pretended they were single.

Mother got her Degree and Father now insisted, that she do a Masters in Education. "The British will go," Father predicted, "and India will need qualified Principals." Mother thereupon enrolled in Professor Ensign's Class and began her Thesis. Professor Ensign was an avuncular type of person and had given Father quite a lot of extra work by way of helping him earn extra income. He called Father aside one morning.

"Kewal," he began, "I have a young girl from Kentucky who is interested in the East. I think you should meet her and tell her about India." Father agreed of course and found himself being introduced to Mother. They shook hands gravely trying not to meet each other's eyes.

To the end of his days, Professor Ensign thought he had played cupid. Father never enlightened him and the story of his matchmaking success enlivened the good Professor's dinner table for many moons after that. Mother took me to see Professor Ensign when I was 4 years old and she was back in America on furlough. He patted my head and gave me a picture of himself with Mother on one side and Father on the other. It was a picture I treasured for many years but alas, cannot trace at this moment.

"You wouldn't be here if not for me," he is supposed to have said to me. Mother smiled her gentle smile. "Very true," she said telling one of the few untruths she ever uttered.

One wonders how a bond was forged between a young American girl and an already mature Indian Doctor of Sociology. What similarities existed that resulted in this unusual yet successful partnership? Su and I would endlessly discuss the matter. Both of us expected to marry in Sri Lanka or India (which we did) and both of us wondered what it would be like if we fell in love with an American.

"You won't have the chance," Father told us grimly when Su had been foolish enough to give voice to her views on matrimony. "Perish the thought. You'll marry here and like it."

So what was the glue that held the bond between our parents firm? Firstly both were theosophists. My American grandmother was so into Theosophy that she even influenced Mother to become a vegetarian at 17. Father had been a vegetarian from birth and through Jamshed was an ardent Theosophist himself. It seemed as if similar food habits and similar religious beliefs formed that first strong link between them. They were both highly educated. Also Mother was very young and Father did not find her difficult to mould into his ways of thinking. He found Su and me his two daughters far more of a challenge than he liked.

"Where has your Mother's gentleness gone," he would demand glaring at Su's rebellious face. On principle Su objected to everything. "I'm going to eat meat the MINUTE I marry," she would declare. Father would blench. "I'll drink too," she would add. He went even paler. "We've begot a changeling," Father would tell Mother who smiled and told him to bear in mind that adolescence was a trying time.

"If those two young ingrates want to make graveyards of their stomachs who am I, a mere Father, to stop them?" he would say plaintively hoping Su would overhear. "And if liquor addles their brains it doesn't matter. They are addled already. Curdled would be a better description," he would add.

It was a fact that Father's aversion to meat and liquor led us into strange situations.

Travelling together in America had Su and I cringing in our seats at restaurants. "The steak is excellent Sir," the waiter would say handing Father the menu. Father felt called upon to inform the entire Cafe of his dietary preferences. "Not a piece of meat has ever passed my lips," he would declare ringingly, "and I don't intend to start now."

"Perhaps a nice Dover sole then?" the waiter would say soothingly. Father's voice rose several notes. "And what pray is the difference?" he would ask the poor waiter. "They are both the flesh of living creatures, are they not? Nasty, bloody business all this meat guzzling." Diners at other tables began to lose their appetites. Father was in full spate.

"Just order dear," Mother would say tactfully and truth to tell, the Manager of the restaurant was by now ready to give us all a free meal just to get Father out of there.

Everyone settled for Omelettes and Salad. Fortunately no one had heard of the cholesterol scare and we must have eaten enough eggs to start a poultry farm upon our return home. Father did not think eggs violated any Brahmin laws of ethics or dietetics.

His attitude to liquor was even worse. He had dinner one night with Mr. and Mrs. Argus Tressider, American diplomats in Colombo in the '50s. A week after the dinner Nancy Tressider met Father again and he complimented her on her dessert.

"Oh you liked my brandy souffle, did you?" she asked innocently not realising she was hitting Father virtually in his solar plexus. Father went pale. His stomach churned. He collected Mother and hightailed it out of there so fast she had hardly any time to make her excuses to her hostess. He went home and was sick for two days. "I'm poisoned, poisoned," he groaned hollowly every few minutes. "my entire system has been polluted." He went on a water diet of detoxification. He was a psychological mess.

Nancy rang up the next day to find out how Father was getting along after his hasty exit the previous night. Mother told her the truth. "But Clara my dear," said Nancy, "I only used brandy flavouring for the pudding."

Father faced our gales of glee with fortitude. He admitted shamefacedly that it was a case of mind over fact but when the day eventually came that Su married an officer in the Indian Army and DID take the occasional glass of sherry Father was genuinely upset. "Your pure bodies" he would lament. "What a great, great pity." I never had the courage to admit I did likewise. "Poppycock," Su would reply but now that I am a grandmother myself and face dietary and health problems as do us all I wonder. Did Father have a point?

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