A secret love affair on a faraway island. Seas crawling with Japanese spies. A terrible war creeping ever closer…
India, 1940 and Rosie is devastated by the sudden death of her beloved mother. The parties, smiles and games disappear, and although Rosie is desperate to stay in her home, her father cannot look after her. All alone in the world, she is sent to Sri Lanka, to live with her mother’s friend Silvia and her three sons.
Time passes and Rosie flourishes in her new home amongst the mango trees and canna lilies. And one day, under the heat of the Sri Lankan sun, she falls in love for the first time. But her happiness is short lived, for the brutal war that has devastated families and torn Europe apart is creeping closer to their island. One by one the men depart Sri Lanka leaving Rosie with just memories and a broken heart she must hide.
As Rosie waits for letters that never come, tortured by stories of torpedoed ships and massacres of innocent families, she realises that she cannot just sit and wait for news. She volunteers to help the army, working in military intelligence to protect her island paradise. But then her work brings shocking news that makes her blood run cold. The man she loved is missing, feared dead. Yet Rosie cannot lose hope – even as more women are left widows, more children left without fathers. But when the much longed-for news comes that the war is ended, and a limping wasted figure returns home, will one final devastating revelation tear Rosie’s world apart?
An emotional and heartbreaking read with rich historical detail set against the backdrop of Sri Lanka during World War Two. Fans of Hazel Gaynor, Fiona Valpy Kristin Hannah and Clare Flynn will be swept away by Those I Have Lost.
What everyone’s saying about Sharon Maas:
‘If only I could give this book 100 stars rather than 5!… Captivated me right from the start. This book is epic, a mesmerizing book of strength through unimaginable losses… Heartbreaking and beautifully written, this is a gripping tale of bravery… One of the best and most memorable historical books I've ever read!’ Deanne’s Book Thoughts, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘Blew me away and I absolutely loved it… Oh my goodness me this was one seriously fantastically, heartwrenching tale… I became addicted… this book got to me more than any other book I have read… one hell of a fantastically brilliant book.’ Ginger Book Geek, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘I absolutely loved this book. I cried, I smiled, I felt the intenseness of love and grief. It truly was just filled with ALL the emotions. Perfectly written and a gripping read. I would highly recommend!’ Goodreads reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘A truly powerful and captivating story that grabs you instantly!… I loved this book and its surprising ending I didn't see coming…
Release date: July 9, 2021
Print pages: 350
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Those I Have Lost
Most of the children prayed to be chosen. Anna-Marie and Luke prayed to be spared.
On that one Saturday Anna-Marie heard a familiar hum; she looked up and saw the black Ambassador creeping up to the gate. There was no time to pray.
‘Run, Luke, run!’ she cried. They jumped up and ran, zigzagging past the other children and around the girls’ dormitory to the backyard. The other children ran in the opposite direction, towards the gate, shouting and laughing. They poured out of the buildings, ran in from the backyard and gathered at the entrance, controlling themselves just enough to stand back to allow the chauffeur to open the gate. Wheels crunching on the dry sand, the car crept into the courtyard and parked next to the rusty old school van. The children swarmed around it, dancing, jostling each other out of the way, laughing, shouting and waving wildly.
The man, the potential father, opened the back-seat door and stepped into the scorching afternoon sun, into the swarm of children. Like all the men who came in cars, he wore a dark suit like the Englishmen in their schoolbooks; the jacket hung open and loose, but now he buttoned it up across the bulge of his paunch, straightened his tie and looked around. Simultaneously, the chauffeur opened the lady’s door and she too stepped out, wearing a shiny silk sari in green with a wide, yellow-embroidered border. The man and the lady pursed their lips, frowning, and battled their way through the jostling children to join forces behind the car. The lady adjusted the pallu of her sari and pointed, over the heads of the children, to the girls’ dormitory.
‘I saw two children running away,’ she said, in English, to her husband. ‘One of them, a little boy, was very fair.’
The husband frowned. The chauffeur tried to shoo the children away but they ignored him and flocked around the couple, squealing in excitement, their skinny arms fluttering at their faces, calling ‘Appa! Amma! Appa! Amma! Ammappammappa!’ The man stretched out his arm to push them away, but they, thinking it to be a friendly gesture, perhaps the beginning of a hug, grabbed it, and swung from it like monkeys from a branch.
Mother Maria came hurrying up, hands joined in a welcoming namaskar.
‘Welcome, welcome!’ she cried, and ‘children, children! Don’t jostle!’ She peeled the children away from the man’s arm and swatted several backsides. To the strangers she said, ‘They are little monkeys, aren’t they! But so sweet! I am so happy you are willing to consider an older child. They are so hard to place, poor little creatures, and we have so many of them! Shoo, children, shoo!’
Sister Magdalena ran up to join the group, wringing her hands in apology for her tardiness. She herded the children away and organised them into two fidgeting lines for inspection, one for boys and one for girls. But the lady was not interested.
‘I saw two children,’ she said to Mother Maria. ‘They ran away. Why did they run away?’
‘Oh, that must have been Luke and Anna-Marie. Our Terrible Twins.’
Mother Maria simpered and corrected the misunderstanding.
‘Not really. Not real twins. Just good friends. They are very attached to each other but they are not related. They can easily be separated.’
‘Could you find them for us? I’d like to have a closer look. One of them was a boy, you said? Luke?’
‘Yes, Luke, four years old, a bit on the old side, but a lovely child, very sweet-natured, full of fun. Come, let’s go and look for him.’
They set off in the direction of the dormitories, conversing as they walked.
‘That little boy was very fair. Wheatish in complexion. Exactly what we are looking for. A bit old, though. We wanted a baby boy. Fair-skinned would be ideal.’
‘A boy is a boy!’ the man interrupted with a dismissive wave. ‘Skin is only skin. Wheatish, blackish, it is all the same. Main thing, boy.’
‘Well, we wouldn’t want blackish, would we? But yes, it has to be a boy to take over my husband’s business. We already have four girls and I cannot have any more children.’ She launched into a detailed explanation of the devastating medical circumstances that prevented another pregnancy, finishing up with, ‘It is unfortunate but after all, the Lord knows best.’
‘Yes, indeed He does.’ Mother Maria made the sign of the cross. ‘You will love our Luke. He will make a very good Christian businessman. Highly intelligent, too, and very musical. He is our fairest boy.’
‘Just what we are looking for!’
‘An ideal son.’
‘Your native place is Bangalore, you said? So your mother tongue is Telugu. No Tamil?’
The lady shook her head. ‘Only Telugu, English and a bit of Hindi. The children do speak English?’
Mother Maria beamed. ‘Of course! The Sacred Heart Catholic School is English-medium. It’s the best school this side of Madras, and it is all thanks to our beloved Father Bear. He is a veritable saint.’
‘We know. We heard,’ said the man. ‘That’s why we came here. We’ll send Luke back as a boarder when he’s twelve.’
The lady repeated her still-unanswered question. ‘Why did they run away when they saw us? I thought all orphans wanted to be adopted?’
‘Ah, well, Luke and Anna-Marie are a little – well, a little different. They like to be together; it’s a game. Once he… but no matter. Children will be children. Anna-Marie! Luke! Where are you? Playing your little games as usual! Come on out!’
The little group reached the backyard, a large compound shaded by coconut and papaya trees and dotted with the occasional scraggly hibiscus, bougainvillea or oleander bush, all baking in the sun. Chickens scratched here and there in the sand and picked among the weeds, and a calf, tethered to a coconut tree, gazed mournfully at the approaching visitors. At the back of it all stood the Baby House, a long low bungalow with a wraparound veranda thatched with coconut-palm leaves. In one corner, a vegetable patch where Pillai the assistant gardener squatted, planting onion seedlings; in the other corner a dilapidated playground with a tyre swing, a home-made slide of grey-parched wood sanded smooth, and a rickety climbing frame.
Another swing dangled from the branches of the mango tree, in pride of place at the centre of the yard. That swing was the clue; it shuddered, as if one of its ropes had just been released. As if someone had just used it to hoist her- or himself up into the mango tree’s branches.
Mother Maria marched over to the tree, her generous bosom wobbling to her stride.
‘Luke! Anna-Marie! I know you two are up there. Come down at once!’
The three adults gathered beneath the spreading crown of the mango tree and peered upwards into a tangle of sprigs and twigs and leaves: at body parts of children and parts of body parts glimpsed through the foliage, at skinny brown limbs entangled with thin brown branches; dark skin camouflaged as bark, arms and hands and fingers clinging to boughs as if part of the tree itself, scraps of colour from a faded dress and an old torn shirt like bursts of flowers between the dark green of the leaves; and on closer inspection, two pairs of bright eyes peering back with concentrated attention, alert, immobile and petrified.
‘Luke and Anna-Marie, come down right now!’ cried Mother Maria again, and, ‘If you don’t come down immediately I will send Pillai up for you and he will beat you! You are naughty, naughty children and don’t deserve the kindness of these good people! Luke, you are always following Anna-Marie! You’re a bad little boy! Come on down!’
She said this last in Tamil. The man and the lady looked at each other and shook their heads. The lady leaned close to the man and whispered. He whispered back.
Anna-Marie and Luke looked into each other’s eyes and read each other’s thoughts. ‘Go down,’ Luke said to Anna-Marie. ‘Go up,’ Anna-Marie said to Luke. And so they moved in opposite directions. Luke carefully untangled his limbs from the tree and slowly, smoothly, began to climb up higher. Anna-Marie, who would never be adopted (Father Bear said so), slid herself down on to the lowest branch, which was wide and thick enough for both of them to sit upon on happier occasions. From there she leapt to the ground, landing lightly on the sand next to Mother Maria.
Mother Maria grabbed her wrist, her fingers tightening around it; she squirmed at the pain and tried to peel the fingers away, but they only gripped all the tighter. Finally, Anna-Marie gave up the fight, stopped squirming and stood demurely at Mother Maria’s side. The grasp on her wrist relaxed.
The man and the lady ignored this scuffle and continued to gaze upwards, eyes fixed only on Luke.
‘He’s not coming!’ cried the lady. ‘He’s climbing up higher!’
‘Luke!’ hollered Mother Maria. ‘Where on earth do you think you’re going? Come down here at once!’ It was strange to hear Mother Maria shouting like that; usually she only ever spoke in muted tones, her voice as calm and placid as trickling water. Mother Maria could get cross, but you had to be really naughty to invoke her ire. Mostly, she was kind, so that some of the children even called her Mummy: Mummy Maria.
‘Don’t shout at him,’ the lady said. ‘If you’re cross you’ll only scare him away. You have to be gentle with him, coax him down.’ Her voice changed. ‘Come, little boy, come!’ she wheedled, and held up her arms to the tree in invocation. The man followed her example.
‘Luke!’ said the man. ‘Little boy Luke. Come on, jump into Daddy’s arms! I’ll catch you!’
But by now all that could be seen of Luke was his little bottom clad in ripped khaki shorts and skinny brown legs clambering upwards, fast disappearing into a forest of leaves. Lithe as a monkey, he grabbed the branch above him and swung his legs around it; hoisted himself up with knees and arms, scrambled up to the next branch and the next, up and up and up until he was so lost within the treetop not even a scrap of him remained to be seen.
Mother Maria screeched for Pillai. Pillai, a black lanky youth who could scale a giant coconut tree with his bare hands and feet in less than a minute, dashed over from the vegetable patch and, at Mother Maria’s silent gesture, leapt up the mango tree. He too disappeared into its leafy heights.
Anna-Marie’s heart pounded so hard she thought her chest would burst open. She could not bear to watch; she closed her eyes as tight as she could and prayed.
Don’t let them take him don’t let them take him please God don’t let them take him for Christ’s sake amen.
The lady cried out: ‘There he is!’
Anna-Marie opened her eyes and looked up, craning her neck. There was no sign of Luke. The lady must have been mistaken. Anna-Marie tried to reach him with thought, but she was far too excited for that to work; Luke’s thoughts could only be caught when her own thoughts were as quiet as a still pool of water, her mind smooth as a mirror. The lady cried out again:
‘There he is, James, do you see him? There, look, look, on that branch!’
Anna-Marie looked upwards, craning to see. Sure enough, there was Luke. Her heart almost stopped, for Luke had crawled along one of the topmost branches that grew parallel to the ground and there he clung, near the very end and far above their heads. The branch was thin and bent down dangerously low, touching the branch beneath it.
‘Luke!’ yelled Mother Maria. ‘Luke! Get back! Don’t do that! The branch might break and you’ll fall to the ground and kill yourself!’
Pillai, hidden in the treetop, called down: ‘I can’t reach him, Mother. If I go out there the branch will break. I’m too heavy!’
‘Come down, come down! Don’t chase him! He’ll fall!’ cried Mother Maria, and then screeched again: ‘Luke, if you do not come down this minute I will tell Father Bear and he will flog you himself!’
But it was a lie, told to impress the visitors, because Father Bear never flogged the children. It was Mother Maria herself who would flog him.
‘The poor little boy is terrified!’ said the lady. ‘If you threaten him it will only make it worse. Let us coax him down.’ She raised her voice, calling out to Luke. ‘Dear little boy,’ she began.
‘Luke,’ corrected the man. ‘His name is Luke, Anita. We have to entice him. He doesn’t know yet what we have to offer.’ The man cupped his mouth with his hands and, craning his neck, shouted up into the treetop.
‘Luke, how would you like to have a real home and a real mummy and daddy? How would you like to come to live with us in Bangalore?’
Mother Maria switched tactics, adopting this new strategy. She shouted: ‘Be a good boy, Luke. You are so lucky. So fortunate that these good people want you. You will live in a lovely big house with a big garden and have lots of toys and good food and sweets, and a real mummy and daddy and…’
‘And drive in big cars! Did you see our lovely big car? You will drive in it!’
In reply it started to rain mangoes. Baby green mangoes, one after the other, pelted down from the top of the tree. Fortunately, none of them hit anyone, and soon Luke obviously ran out of available mangoes, for the downpour stopped.
‘Bad boy, bad boy!’ cried Mother Maria, forgetting the strategy. To the man and the lady she said: ‘We do have other boys, you know. We have a very nice little boy called Thomas.’
The man and the lady put their heads together and whispered among themselves. It seemed they were willing to give Luke one more chance, for the lady once more turned her face upwards. ‘Dear little boy,’ she began.
‘Luke. Luke,’ the man said, and he too looked up. ‘Dear Luke, we… aargh!’
Something splattered on the man’s upturned face, and it wasn’t rain, for it fell only on him and nowhere else.
‘Oh my goodness, he’s wee-weeing on you!’ cried the woman. The man, howling in disgust, did a strange little dance involving feet, head, hands and a handkerchief, Mother Maria screamed at Luke and Anna-Marie covered her mouth to hide her giggles.
She felt sorry for Luke; he was always so embarrassed when he wet himself in moments of anxiety, sometimes even in class when he didn’t know an answer and Father Bear looked grim and wagged a finger at him. The other children laughed when Luke wet himself, but never Anna-Marie; and she wasn’t laughing at him now. She was laughing at the man, who right now was running, away from the tree, away from Luke, presumably in the direction of water, and his wife and Mother Maria were running behind him.
She looked up at Luke and waved. ‘It’s all right, now, Luke!’ she called. ‘It’s safe.’
The night before my mother died the brain-fever bird shrieked again, startling me out of sleep. That uncanny cry! A double screech, repeated again and again and again, ever louder, ever higher, ever more desperate, always in the silence of night, spiralling into frenzy, even madness. It made my heart race with a hollow fear; a groundless fear, for it was only a bird.
As always, I ran to Amma’s room through the half-light and crept into bed with her. I could feel her smile as she said, ‘Hello, Rosie, come closer!’ And she pulled me into herself and I snuggled into her arms and my heart stopped its wild racing, and it was her last night on Earth. I was ten years old.
We rose, as ever, at dawn, and that last morning remains as clear to me as if it were only yesterday, the memory a precious jewel carved into my mind and locked there in a compartment of its own. Now and then I turn the key and enter, and bask in the keen sting of heartbreak.
It had started like any other day – Amma chattering away as she made breakfast for us both: idlis, like the Tamils, because Amma liked doing things the Indian way. She spoke Tamil like a mother tongue, and laughed it off when people said she should only speak English with me: ‘But why?’ she’d say, ‘we are in India; this is our home. I am her mother, so she can call me Amma. I don’t like this Mummy business.’ And she liked to cook herself, even though she had Thilagavathi, her right-hand woman in the house, to help her; ‘Thila can’t put mother-love into a dish,’ she’d say.
I sat in the kitchen, watching her, listening to her, chatting with her while she made the idlis. Thila swept the veranda that wrapped our home, the swish-swish of her grass broom on the tiles providing a familiar backdrop. As ever, Amma had prepared the idli batter the day before, out of ground coarse rice and urad dhal mixed together; now, all she had to do was oil the idli steamer plates, pour the batter into the forms, and place them over the pan of boiling water. Soon we had a pot full of steaming hot rice-cakes.
Then laughter and birdsong on the veranda. Early-morning sunshine casting a filigree pattern through the bougainvillea trellis, like lace upon the tabletop. I can still taste those idlis. I never ate idlis again, after that day; they are exclusive to Amma.
And then I slung my leather bookbag – a present from Pa on my eighth birthday – over my shoulder, and she patted a strand of hair into place behind my ear, and walked me to the gate where Babu with his bicycle rickshaw waited on Atkinson Avenue, just like every other day. And I kissed her goodbye and she hugged me and we waved to each other as the rickshaw pulled away, and blew kisses; and she stood there waving and I laughed and turned in the rickshaw seat and waved back until we turned the corner into town. I remember her smile. Her eyes, drinking me in as if she couldn’t get enough of me. That last view of her, waving, smiling, blowing kisses, remains etched in my mind as if it were a photograph.
And then I came home, and she was dead.
It was so sudden, they said. Just like that, a bolt of lightning. One moment she was alive, the next she was dead. They had taken her away to the hospital to do the tests.
A brain haemorrhage, the tests said. They didn’t know why. Why her? Why me? Why us?
That day, I stopped believing in God.
It was Pa who told me, so distraught it all came out in broken lumps of words, gasping and bawling and snivelling. I’d never seen Pa cry before. He wasn’t the type to show feelings. But that day he gathered me into his arms and howled out the truth. Pa, usually so collected, so distant, so unperturbed, now a blubbering wreck who clung to me as if I, a child, could bring her back. I didn’t understand. It can’t be! I yelled at him. No, she’s not. Not dead. Where is she? I tore myself from his arms and raced to her room, but she wasn’t there, she wasn’t anywhere. She was gone, just like that.
And then I ran to my own room and flung myself on to the bed and buried my head in my pillow and I, too, howled; and he came and stood above me, and I felt his hand on my back as he tried to comfort me, and I heard adult voices, English voices, telling him to let her be, let her cry it out, there’s nothing you can do, Rupert, and I vaguely recognised them as the voices of Uncle Robert, Pa’s friend from the Connemara Hotel, and Uncle Rory, his colleague from the university.
Pa, in spite of his otherworldly air of being distracted – he’s the typical absent-minded professor, Amma used to say – was also much loved in his own way. There was a kindness in his eyes, in the way he talked to people, that seemed to endear him to them, to be protective about him, and now they all rushed in to be helpful, colleagues and neighbours sending tiffin carriers filled to the brim with delicious meals, as if we didn’t have our own cook. And cakes and sweets and a bottle of brandy, and themselves. Burrowed away in my room I caught this only on the periphery, of course; Thila told me everything.
Thila was almost as distraught as Pa and me. Amma had treated her more as a friend, or even a sister, than a servant, and like everyone else, she’d adored her; but being Indian she was also practical and kept the house running and me informed. It was her way of keeping me tethered to the Earth, to stop me drowning in the morass of my grief: she chattered away about all the comings and goings, brought food and tea and fresh lime juice and sliced mango and insisted on untucking the mosquito net, my tent of security, and hanging it up in a knot above the bed.
‘You must go out, Miss Rose,’ she said over and over again. ‘I will take you to beach, no? I will make picnic, no?’
And always I shook my head and refused.
‘Look! Lovely, lovely custard pudding! Mrs Lindsay send for you, Miss Rosie. You must try! Come, just one spoon!’
But no. Sometimes hunger and thirst did overcome me, and I ate a few spoons, drank a few sips of water; but it was all for sustenance, not for pleasure. Nothing would ever be for pleasure again.
It was all a jumble and a mess. They popped in and out over the following days; they and their wives. Four days later, Pa’s older sister, Aunt Jane, and her husband Uncle Thomas stalked in, down from Delhi. They had taken the first train, they said; a three-day journey. Aunt Jane hustled to my side, made a lot of unnecessary fuss, and tried to talk sense into me, showering me with firm, sensible and down-to-earth advice. Her pleas to come along, darling, you really have to eat! rang with her inner frustration and came out as a reprimand. Finally, she turned to scolding. Now pull yourself together, Rosalind. It’s really time to be sensible.
Aunt Jane had never had children of her own; she didn’t like them, Amma had once told me. She didn’t have a maternal bone in her body, and all she could think of now were sensible and realistic things to do. Her pleas and admonishments and rebukes fell on deaf ears. I wasn’t listening, I didn’t care. The only thing that mattered was that Amma was no more.
But one night on a visit to the lavatory I passed the living room and the door was ajar. Hearing voices, and hearing my name, I couldn’t help but stop to listen.
‘…but they had an unusual attachment, Jane, and I can’t possibly…’
Aunt Jane’s strident voice cut short whatever Pa was about to say.
‘Rosalind really needs to snap out of it, Rupert, and so do you. These things do happen and when they do one has to be practical and think about the future. You really only have one option: boarding school. In England. She can stay with Beryl during the holidays; Beryl’s children are only slightly older than her. Two birds killed with one stone: she’d be off your hands and get an excellent education. Moira House really is wonderful for young girls. Beryl’s daughters are—’
I had to hold myself back from rushing in, shouting No! No! But Pa did it for me.
‘I am not sending her to England! It’s absolutely out of the question! Stop suggesting it!’
‘But it’s the only sensible thing, Rupert. Apart from everything else, she’d finally know what it means to be a proper English girl. And both sets of grandparents are there and would help keep an eye on her, mould her the right way. She could spend some of her holidays at Greystone Park, with your parents! Think of that advantage! You and Lucy have done her no favours; much too much Indian influence down here in Madras. Why, she’s almost a native, the way she runs wild! You allow her to call her mother Amma, like some Indian ayah! Really, Rupert, you must…’
I wanted to rush in and pummel her to pulp, but once again Pa cut her off.
‘Lucy kept her happy, and that’s what counts. She was happy. And all I want is for her to be happy again. I’m not sending her to England.’
I had to stop myself from shouting bravo, Pa! at those words. But behind the rejoicing was deep frustration. Aunt Jane’s voice was grating, her bullying of Pa despicable. I was glad he’d stood up for himself, for me, but really I was outraged on his behalf. But outrage with Aunt Jane was useless, a waste of a perfectly good emotion. I took a deep breath and held it and the emerging cry of vexation melted away. Amma had taught me how to do things like that. But now I wanted to burst into the room and fling myself at Pa and shout: I will never ever again be happy! Not without Amma!
‘Children have to confront the world as it is, Rupert, not live in some fairy tale. Lucy was much too whimsical and otherworldly to be a good mother; not to speak ill of the dead, but—’
‘Not a word more! I won’t have you criticising my wife, and she’s not even in the earth yet!’
‘Calm down, Rupert. Don’t raise your voice at me. So, if you flatly refuse to send her back to England, against my best advice, then you’ll have to go with second best, boarding school in India. St Hilda’s in Ooty is said to be quite adequate for English girls. Mind you, in the holidays you’d have to…’
‘She is not going to a boarding school!’ Pa roared. ‘Aren’t you listening? Rosie needs love and warmth, a home! I am not sending her to strangers! Are you mad? Have you no compassion, no understanding of a child’s needs?’
I clenched my fists in excitement. Hurrah! This was a Pa I’d never known! If I had to choose three words to define my father, they’d be soft-spoken, absent-minded, otherworldly. I’d add introverted; reclusive, even, to that list. He never argued. Whatever Amma suggested, he went along with that. On the other hand, Amma had never suggested, would never suggest, anything as outrageous as packing me off to boarding school: not Ooty, certainly not England. Not anywhere. The Banyan Tree School was good enough for her, and for me. Of course, being only ten, I wasn’t thinking, then, of words to describe Pa. I was only thinking, well said, Pa! I was simply delighted to hear him sticking up for me, confronting that dragon of an aunt. If he wasn’t scared, then neither was I.
Satisfied that Pa was speaking up for me, I continued on my way, went to the lavatory and returned to my room, where I carefully lifted a corner of the mosquito net and crawled into the bed, tucking the net back in after myself. The room was bathed in moonlight, for the window was open to catch the balmy sea breeze that billowed gently against the ghostly white tent made by the net. The bed with the white net above it was an island, a safe refuge for me, a place away from the horrible world. But that night a cleft opened in the black cloud of mourning that surrounded me and instead of Amma, I thought about Pa. What would he do now? He’d be lost without Amma. That much I knew.
Pa and I loved each other in our own way, but sometimes I wished I could enter his world, or he mine. He was a gentle, kind soul, who seemed to live in a different sphere altogether, a world of books and lofty ideas and languages. Words. Letters. Abstract concepts behind words and letters. Pa taught English at the University of Madras, but that was only how he earned his money.
His real work – Ma told me – was in foreign languages, mainly Asian languages. Pa had a special gift, she said, a natural affinity and a unique ability to learn the very languages that most Englishmen shied away from as being too alien. He had grown up in Delhi perfectly bilingual in English and Hindi, and while still a schoolboy had taught himself Sanskrit and Urdu. He’d studied all these languages at Cambridge, as well as a couple of European ones, French, and German, I believe, and his first job abroad had been as an English professor in Japan, where he’d learned Japanese in a matter of months. Then on to Kuala Lumpur, where he’d added Malay and Mandarin to his repertoire.
There he’d met Amma, my mother Lucy, whose senior civil-servant father had been transferred from Madras to the British administration there. With her as his wife he came, finally, back to Madras, to take up a similar appointment at the university. Here he’d learned Tamil in no time. They made a home right here, in the house in which Amma had grown up, and they’d had me twelve years later. He was thirty-five when they married, she just twenty-one. Which made him fifty-three when she died.
‘So, how many languages does he know?’ I’d asked Amma once, and she’d frowned and counted on her fingers. ‘Ten, definitely,’ she said, and laughed. ‘But I’m sure I missed a few. Who knows? Probably Latin and Greek as well, and maybe a few more South Indian languages. Kannada, Telugu. I don’t think he knows himself.’
Pa’s great obsession was discovering obscure but grand and ancient works of literature in Sanskrit and Tamil, and translating them into English.
‘It’s all a bit useless,’ Amma told me. ‘Nobody will ever read them.’
‘So he does it for himself, then?’
‘Yes. He was given a small research grant – that means money, Rosie, money the university pays him to do this – to plunge himself deep into this world of lofty philosophical musings. I did try reading them once but – I think I’m just too dim to understand. Too stupid!’ She laughed self-deprecatingly again. ‘Pa lives in his own world, but he means well. He’s the dea
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