Title: My Son’s Father: An autobiography
Author: Dom Moraes
Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2020
Almost I can recall where I was born,
The hot verandahs where the chauffeurs drowse,
Backyard dominion of the ragged thorn
And nameless servants in my father’s house…
—‘A Letter’ from Poems (1960)
Missing my father is my first real memory of him. The summer before he went to war he had been a loved, distant figure, sitting at evening on the verandah of our flat with a sequence of young English officers on their way to the Burma front (the poet Alun Lewis, who died there, was one of them), all inhaling the rich flesh of cigars, sipping beer, talking: not my world that summer. My world was in the oval park outside our flat in Bombay, a park eyelashed with palm trees, above which, like a school of enormous airborne white whales, barrage balloons floated. Above these the glaring sun pulsed like an eye: vultures soared up towards it on tremendous, idle wings. Down on my knees in the rough scurfy park grass, a vigilant nanny nearby, I stared at the texture of the earth, the texture of a stone, the texture of a fallen leaf, all eroded to red dust by the sun. A spy, I hovered above ants busy in the red dust; grasshoppers stilting up into the air; briefly settled, hairy flies. Vivid colours stained my eye. Behind our flat was the Arabian Sea, an ache and blur of blue at noon, purpling to shadow towards nightfall: then the sun spun down through a clash of colours like a thrown orange, and was sucked into it: sank, and the sea was black shot silk, stippled and lisping, and it was time for bed.
At morning the sea was a very pale, indolent colour, ridged with wavy lines like Greek statuary. When I woke, I went into my parents’ room. They lay in twin teak beds: above them, on a wooden stand, loomed a three-foot plaster Christ, fingers clapped to where a raw heart swelled from its chest, for my mother was religious. Sometimes on Sundays she took me to church, though my father never came. He was not religious, my mother explained mysteriously to me, because he had been educated in England.
Anyway, there they lay, my gods, tranquil and powerful, in charge of the day ahead, my father reading the newspapers, my mother varnishing her nails. I ran to my mother first, since except in moments of stress I was gruff and shy with my father. Even so early in the day, she smelt of flowers. I buried my head between her small breasts, and was happy. Over us that summer Christ cocked an apparently benevolent eye.
The day unfolded like a year: breakfast, served silently by the bearer: scraping up cornflakes as I listened to my parents talk: shopping in the car with my mother (waiting, impatient, for her to emerge from the Army & Navy Stores, while the chauffeur strove to amuse me with funny faces): then the park with my nanny: the weeks, months, years, of one burning afternoon, breathing the turning world, vigilant: nightfall, my father on the verandah, the English officers drinking beer: bedtime, when I thought the chirping of crickets was the noise the stars made. It seemed to go on forever, before my father went to war.
After he went, the first monsoon I remember broke: the sky went coppery, and was filled always with a dirty fleece of cloud, infested by winged creatures, aimless and concentric. Thunder rumbled on the horizon, where the grey, maned sea neighed and reared. Lightning leapt, and a brown wall of rain shut off the park. The gutters croaked with overflow: everything was damp, chairs, books, my bed: the vultures hunched wetly on the neighbouring rooftops, slowly raising and lowering their dingy enormous wings. The barrage balloons turned brownish, and quavered in their tethers. Letters came from Burma: my father drew sketches for me in the margin, one of himself, standing in a jungle, slashed at by the slanting rain. When I saw this sketch, I felt my heart make the exact stilted upward movement of a grasshopper in the park.
‘Where is my daddy?’ I asked my mother.
‘He’s in Burma, darling. In the war.’
When I asked her what war was, she replied, in the cloudy way that was becoming common in her, ‘Bangs and flashes, lots of fire, and lots of noise.’
Towards the end of that monsoon, my nanny took me for an afternoon walk. We didn’t go to the park, but along the seafront, where the beggars, armless, legless, eyeless, lolled on the seawall: for me a part of the scenery, like grass or earth or grasshoppers: I had never imagined they were people. We moved slowly down the seafront past this sad, withered regiment, hands raised in salute for alms: then came a sudden tremendous thump underfoot, bucketing me off my feet, and a moment later the long wash of an explosion. Then the dull, cluttered sky filled with trails of flame: the pavement shook, and each time the sky flashed came the crump of another explosion. The beggars lay quietly looking up at the sky, almost with interest: I suddenly realized that they were people after all.
Meanwhile my nanny had knelt down (she was a good Catholic), and was telling her beads. ‘Let’s go home,’ I said. ‘What is the use, baba,’ she answered, ‘when it is the end of the world?’ She began to cry. The beggars did not cry: they watched the flaming sky, they suffered the crump and sway of the explosions: I felt they had the right attitude. My nanny implored me to kneel too, and pray: I must save my soul. But I wouldn’t. Eventually, amidst the explosions, a car drew up: ours: my mother came out of it, smelling of flowers. She put the nanny and me into the car. The nanny said, ‘Madam, it is the end of the world.’
My mother said, ‘Don’t be more silly than you can help, Natal. An oil tanker has blown up in the harbour.’
We reached home. My mother put my nanny to bed and stood with me on the balcony, looking at the sky. Across the grey clouds the spurts and rushes of flame multiplied, and the thuds of the explosions deepened, as the orgasm of the burning tanker neared its climax.
I said, ‘This is like what it’s like with Daddy in Burma.’
My mother said, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Lots of fire, and lots of noise.’
My mother did not reply, and when I looked at her I was amazed to discover that she was crying. I could see the tears, but she made no sound whatever, so I was puzzled, until she said, ‘I’ve got something in my eye,’ and I didn’t believe her, and was confirmed in my belief that she was crying.
‘Never mind,’ I said. ‘Daddy’ll be back soon.’
She still didn’t reply, and when I looked at her I saw that she was still crying. The flat still shook with the explosions, regular as heartbeats: the flames in the sky were turning into fascinating colours: blue, gold, orange, green, crimson. Then the thick seasonal rain began to fall, the flames faded, the explosions receded, and then suddenly hundreds of mad vultures were blundering drunkenly round the sky.
As a child I knew my mother was very beautiful. Her face was a pearly heart, in which her large candlelit eyes were luminous under moth-soft lashes. I identified her with the Christ above her bed.
She was about thirty when my father went to war, a poised women, known for her dry and acid wit. My father and she adored each other: they had met when she was sixteen and he twenty-one. Then he went to England, and for eight years was at Oxford and Lincoln’s Inn. During this time they wrote constantly to each other. When my father came back, he was a qualified barrister, but not a very prosperous one. However, he was a literary sort of person, and in due course was offered the post of Literary Editor on the Times of India. He took it, and got married. There was immediate opposition from the respective families. My mother’s parents were both doctors (her mother, in fact, was the first Indian woman doctor, and there is a hospital endowed in her name in Bombay) and Roman Catholics. My paternal grandfather was an engineer, and a Roman Catholic too, but the Hindu caste system of their forefathers had worked on Indian Catholics over the years, splitting them into communities: and my parents’ families came from different Catholic communities. A great deal of fuss ensued, but in 1937 my parents married, and on 19 July 1938, I was born.
The first in Dom Moraes’ trilogy of autobiographies, My Son’s Father is a coming of age account of growing up in Bombay and Oxbridge of the 1950s, by a man who has been called the poet of his generation. Dom Moraes’ childhood in Bombay was as privileged as it was lonely—peopled by his father’s frequent absences. As he says in the opening lines, ‘Missing my father is my first real memory of him.’ It was also a time of conflicted emotions and, frequently, terror. As Moraes’ beautiful mother, Beryl, sank gradually from neurosis to madness, she swung between smothering the young Dom with love, and subjecting him to a variety of bizarre and sometimes violent punishments—a relationship that left him deeply scarred for life. Travelling with his father, the legendary editor, Frank Moraes, opened up a world of rich experiences for Dom. As editor of The Times of India, the elder Moraes introduced his young son to a range of famous and fascinating personalities—from the anthropologist Verrier Elwin and poet Nissim Ezekiel, to Dom’s hero, the iconic Stephen Spender—the first person to tell him he was a poet. London in the mid-fifties introduced Moraes to Soho and its Bohemian ways, to his first love, and to a doomed relationship. Oxford in 1956 was the turning point. Another boyhood hero, W.H. Auden, came to Oxford as visiting professor of poetry, read and liked his poems. With this as inspiration, Moraes finished his first book, A Beginning—Poems. He found another love in Judith. With the birth of their son, Francis, Moraes’ life seemed at last to be set on an even keel. With humour, wit and irony, Dom Moraes chronicles the early part of his life in prose that is a sheer delight to read.
About the Author
Dom Moraes, poet, novelist and columnist, is seen as a foundational figure in Indian English Literature. He published nearly thirty books in his lifetime. In 1958, at the age of twenty, he won the prestigious Hawthornden Prize for poetry. He was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award for English in 1994. Moraes passed away in 2004.
Excerpted from My Son’s Father: An Autobiography by Dom Moraes. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2020.