Book Excerpt: Never at Home by Dom Moraes
Title: Never at Home: An Autobiography
Author: Dom Moraes
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2020
I arrived in Bombay towards the end of the monsoon. This had always been one of my favourite seasons as an adolescent, but I now found myself looking at it in a different way. It made a mess of the roads, and the city seemed to founder under it. I realized with a certain wonder that I was seeing it as a foreigner; that I was seeing it as a foreign city, though it was less than five years since I had lived there. My encounters with people I had previously known had a certain dreamlike quality: their personalities, familiar before, now seemed seen through a kind of mist. I was treated with some awe, because I had won the Hawthornden. I assumed a posture of arrogance, and secretly felt a little ashamed. The newspapers spoke of the book I had come to write.
Actually, I hadn’t planned this book at all; the thought of starting on it slightly terrified me. I didn’t know where or how to start: I had never tried anything like this before. In these circumstances, as often in the past, I consulted my father. He said, ‘I imagine you want to write this book as an outsider looking in. I couldn’t do that myself, about India. The only way I can help is by imagining that you are an outsider.’ There was a slight double edge to this remark, untypical of him. But then he was entitled to it.
In Delhi I met Jawaharlal Nehru, then nearly seventy. He wore a red rose in his buttonhole, and a white Gandhi cap, under which his features were beautiful and sensitive. When he took the cap off, however, a grotesque element entered his appearance; he then resembled a bald schoolboy. He was probably the most eminent person I had yet met, but my nervousness at the interview wasn’t due to this. I had never interviewed anyone before, and he was anything but the ideal interviewee. When asked a question, he allowed a prolonged silence to elapse before he replied, and often, even then, his reply was no more than a monosyllable. But after the interview he summoned me for an informal meeting.
He reminisced about his student days in England. From his tone of voice, they seemed to have been the happiest of his life. ‘Had I not been caught up in politics,’ he said, ‘I would have been a writer.’ He had apparently read my poems. ‘Why don’t you come back to India?’ he asked. ‘We need people like you here.’ I did not feel complimented; indeed, I felt slightly insulted. It was indicative of my attitudes at the time. I said I was a writer in English; what would I do in India? Coming back would be a terrible sacrifice. He looked at me, an awesomely sad look, and said, ‘When I came back from England, don’t you think I made a sacrifice?’ I felt very ashamed of myself.
I also interviewed the Dalai Lama, who had fled from Tibet the previous year. He was then only twenty-four, a stalwart young man with rosy cheeks and what seemed a permanent smile. From time to time he laughed heartily. He asked me to describe Oxford, and said that he might send some of his young men there. From his general air, he seemed to want to go there himself. At that time the Khamba tribesmen were still fighting the Chinese in the high valleys of Tibet; when he spoke of their hopeless resistance, he looked not exactly sad, but pensive. Yet I formed the impression that he did not perceive the Tibetan situation to be hopeless; that he felt that an appeal to the outside world might bring assistance and tilt the military situation in favour of the Tibetans. In this he was mistaken, but he did not yet know it.
So he was still full of laughter. His entourage of black-robed senior monks had told me all the forms of protocol I should observe. I was supposed to sit at some distance from him; I was not to touch him; when I left, I was not to turn my back on him.
I arrived and, as instructed, presented the Dalai Lama with a silk scarf. He handed it back. So far all was according to protocol. He indicated a sofa and we sat down at opposite ends. As he got more interested in the conversation, he moved towards me, and, each time he wanted to emphasize a point, punched my arm. The interpreter looked horrified; in the doorway a senior monk wagged an angry head. But I didn’t see what I could do. I was not touching the Dalai Lama; he was touching me. The interview over, I tried to shuffle backwards to the door. He laughed, took me by the shoulders, turned me round, and sent me on my way with a friendly push.
A sequel to My Son’s Father, Never at Home resumes the story of Dom Moraes’ extraordinary life. Beginning with the death of his mother, an abiding, if destructive influence in his life, and ending with his success as a man of letters, Never at Home recounts the most significant events in the later life of Dom Moraes. It includes his greatest triumph: winning the Hawthornden Prize as a nineteen-year-old poet at Oxford, and becoming the toast of literary England. Looking back at the years that follow, Moraes tells of his marriage to the beautiful actress Leela Naidu, of his son’s childhood, his increasing fame as a writer and his experiences as a journalist that took him to places as far-flung as Bhutan, Chile, Vietnam, Israel and Zaire. Every place he visited and every relationship he entered into left a deep impression on him, but none ever held him. Neither at home in the West he had left behind nor the East to which he returned. We leave Dom Moraes as a figure waiting for peace, and a place he can call home.
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 Never at Home: An Autobiography by Dom Moraes. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2020.
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