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.