Ernest van der Kwast – Mama Tandoori
It all started with two suitcases. My mother arrived in the Netherlands in 1976 with two suitcases stuffed with bracelets, necklaces and earrings. She managed to get a room in a local convent and started work as a nurse. She hid the cases under the bed, the safest place to keep your valuables Indians say. My mother once told me in confidence: ‘Burglars never check under the bed.’ My father whispered in my ear: ‘Almost no one has a bed in India.’
The two suitcases stayed under my mother’s bed for years, until my father, a clumsy jug-eared man and a typical Hollander, fell in love with the exotic woman he believed my mother to be. I’m not really sure how it happened exactly, and I’m not sure I want to either. Anyway, the suitcases were moved at a given moment to a little house on Bloemstraat and found their way under a double bed.
My father studied medicine and spent the entire day up to his jug-ears in books. My mother worked as a nurse and made sure we had bread on the table, or in her case, nan. My mother told me in confidence: ‘Your father was as poor as a church mouse in Delhi.’ My father whispered in my ear: ‘If only I’d been a church mouse in Delhi.’
The house on Bloemstraat was noisy, lopsided and the smell was worse than my father’s armpits. At least that’s my mother’s version of things and there’s no way to verify it because the houses on Bloemstraat were demolished long ago and replaced by high-rise flats. Time feeds on whatever it can get; it’s a hideous and insatiable omnivore. Only the apparently imperishable smell of my father’s armpits seems to have survived. According to my mother it has to do with his job. My father is an anatomical pathologist.
‘What’s that smell?’ my mother would often ask at table.
‘Hmm,’ my father would say. ‘Chicken tandoori.’
My mother: ‘I smell corpses! The smell of death is spoiling my dinner.’
My father would lift his plate to his nose: ‘Delicious,’ he would say. ‘Chicken tandoori.’
‘It’s coming from your armpits,’ my mother would snarl. ‘The stench of those corpses is in your armpits! You should hold your arms closer to your body!’
When I think about the old days, I can picture my father sitting at the head of the table, his arms pressed hard against his body, his cutlery dangling clumsily. I never went to see where my father worked when I was young. I was afraid I would discover him up to his armpits in corpse.
The house on Bloemstraat was lopsided, stinking and noisy, and its days were numbered. My mother wasted no time in looking for new accommodation and she found it on Jericholaan, in a fancy part of Rotterdam called Kralingen. Number 81 was a town house with three floors, a spacious garden, and a lodger, Mr Gerritsen. I never had the chance to meet Mr Gerritsen. By the time I was born he had already fled the place, yelling with a catch in his voice: ‘She’s the devil! She’s the devil!
The house on Jericholaan cost a fortune, but my mother managed to haggle on the asking price, as she haggled on everything: clothes, furniture, kitchen appliances, breasts of chicken. Haggling was more than a hobby, it was a sport. I spent half my youth in shops and department stores, waiting to see if the sales staff would give her a reduction. I remember a shop that sold beds and my mother saying to the assistant: ‘In India I could buy a hundred bunk beds for that price.’ It never occurred to me to say that India didn’t have any beds. I did as I was told. I lay flat out on a mattress and wasn’t allowed to move until my mother gave me the signal. It was four-thirty in the afternoon and we had been in the shop for six hours by that time. The sales assistant looked as if he’d done twelve rounds in a boxing ring. My mother had a triumphant grin on her face. She had managed to haggle eighty percent off the asking price.
The estate agent who sold us the house on Jericholaan was also beaten into submission. The story goes that my mother wanted to exchange the two suitcases for the house. The estate agent didn’t understand: ‘You have to pay cash,’ he said, which drove my mother into an immediate rage. ‘What an insult!’ she roared. ‘In India I could buy a whole city with these two suitcases!’ The estate agent looked at the suitcases as a deep frown appeared on his forehead and his expression became more downcast by the minute. Perhaps he was thinking about looking for another job. If you ask me, it was pretty normal for people to wonder whether they’d chosen the wrong path in life after meeting my mother.
My mother interpreted the estate agent’s silence as interest and started listing the items in the suitcases: nose rings, ankle chains, bracelets, necklaces, even a golden crown. The estate agent looked in desperation at my father, but he had been sworn to silence and was only allowed to breathe and nod (the latter, of course, only in response to a remark from my mother.)
The estate agent cautiously repeated the asking price. My mother shook her head and divided it in half, deducted ten thousand, compared it with the price in rupees, divided it in half a second time and then announced the result. My father helped the estate agent to his feet and whispered in his ear: ‘It’ll be fine, it’ll all be fine. Remember, you’re not married to the woman.’
They viewed the house of Jericholaan several times after that, and my mother tried to get the price down every time. The estate agent no longer fainted, but he always needed time to get his breath back on the stone stairs in front of the house after every visit. I’m sure he also looked as if he’d done twelve rounds in a boxing ring.
My mother finally sold the contents of the two suitcases to the best jeweller in Rotterdam and she used the proceeds to buy Jericholaan 81.
Anyone daring to question this transaction should watch out for my mother’s rolling pin. It happened often enough in my childhood that there was no roti served at table because the rolling pin was broken.
I also have a picture of my father holding a bag of ice to his head and muttering incessantly: ‘if only I’d been a church mouse in Delhi… if only I’d been a church mouse in Delhi…’ There were no more suitcases under my parent’s bed in the house on Jericholaan, although other valuable things had taken their place, such as an inherited microscope and sacks of basmati rice. My father had graduated by this time and was earning a living as doctor in training. According to my mother, his salary was the same as that of a porter at Bombay train station.
Bombay, the city of my birth. I’m still puzzled by the fact that my two brothers were born in the Netherlands and I was born in India. What was my father doing in Rotterdam while my mother was giving birth in Bombay, I ask myself? I think it had to do with a special offer of some kind. My mother is drawn to special offers like a bull to a red rag. I can picture the following scenario: Air India offers free seats for children. Outward journey: three for the price of one; return journey: four for the price of one. My father would have to stay at home, of course, but we could count on him for that, whether my mother pressured him or not.
Just after I was born, uncle Sharma called my father. He thought that I was a girl. ‘There were birds on the line,’ my father once whispered in my ear after my mother told me that my father was deaf as a post, and that he only heard the things he wanted to hear. ‘Deodorant is a word your father never hears. Soap is a word your father never hears. Isn’t it time you took a shower? is a question your father never hears.
But I digress. Back to the two suitcases. They had taken the shape of an imposing town house in Kralingen. My parents lived on the ground floor and the first floor, Mr Gerritsen had the attic. Everything was moving along nicely until my mother learned the expression ‘rent control’. Mr Gerritsen brought it up. My mother exploded. ‘Rent control,’ she shouted, as if it were some kind of highly contagious venereal disease. ‘Out of my house! This minute! Out of my house!’ But Mr Gerritsen managed to survive another three days. On day one, my mother burnt black bin bags in the back garden. As the skies filled with dark smoke, she shouted: ‘Leave this place, spirit. Evil spirit of Mr Gerritsen, depart!’ She also got up at three in the morning to thump the ceiling with a broom handle as she recited a text traditionally used in India when people are terminally ill.
On day two, my mother headed off to a children’s farm in the woods outside Kralingen and pinched a pile of cow dung. They almost caught her because she was determined that the dung had to be fresh. A toddler raised the alarm: ‘Mummy! Mummy! That woman’s stuffing Bella’s pooh in her bag.’ Once back inside the safety of the house, she put on her rubber gloves and set about baking cakes for the upstairs neighbour. On day three Mr Gerritsen had the runs and my mother decided to cut off the water supply. She also thumped the ceiling incessantly with her broom handle and recited the traditional text.
On day four, my mother prepared a festive meal to thank all the Hindu gods for the sudden departure of Mr Gerritsen.
The suitcases thus increased in value and were now the equal of a town house without a lodger.
My parents lived on Jericholaan for ten years and the family now had five members. My mother had given up nursing by this time and had her hands full with her three sons. My father finally qualified as a doctor and stared to earn the salary of ‘a rickshaw runner in Bangalore’.
I had a decent enough childhood, but that was perhaps because I was too young to grasp everything that was going on around me. I thought we were a normal family, that every household had a mother like mine, and a father who muttered: ‘If only I was a church mouse,’ whether it be in Delhi, Rotterdam, Deventer or Goes.
My oldest brother is mentally disabled. He’s the only one who still thinks it’s normal for fathers to sit at the table with their arms pressed against their sides, for bin bags to be burned in the back garden, and for estate agents to get clubbed with rolling pins. The latter took place when they were selling the house on Jericholaan, a decade after my parents had moved in to number 81.
My mother had spotted a better house. A villa with a garage, a patio and a view of the local pond. ‘We can’t afford it,’ said my father, to which my mother responded directly ‘You can’t afford it.’
My mother’s plan was to sell the house on Jericholaan at a profit and use the surplus money to buy the villa. The estate agent she commissioned for the job wasn’t the same as the one who arranged the sale of the house on Jericholaan. That estate agent was probably a librarian by this time, working in complete silence surrounded by endless rows of books. The new estate agent described the price my mother was asking for the house on Jericholaan as ‘disproportionate’. My mother didn’t seem to understand the word at first so she looked it up in a dictionary. But then she returned to the living room armed with her trusty rolling pin. ‘Disproportionate,’ she screamed as if it were yet another venereal disease. ‘Out of my house!’
My father said: ‘Run for it.’
The estate agent jumped to his feet and raced to the front door.
My oldest brother shouted: ‘Go mama, go mama.’
My other brother and I cringed with shame. We knew by this time that we were not a normal family.
The estate agent didn’t come back and my mother decided to sell the house by herself. Now we enjoyed the spectacle of a new person fleeing the house every week. My mother had been a promising athlete in her youth and there were huge cups on her bedside cabinet to prove it. They may have been dull and rusty, but my mother’s legs sparkled like new. At the age of forty she could still sprint like the devil. Sometimes she would grab a potential buyer by the collar and launch into her perpetual lament: ‘You couldn’t even buy a sheet of corrugated iron in India for that price.’
The lobby was starting to show signs of serious wear and tear when an elderly man named a price one day that my mother could live with. Two versions are still doing the rounds on the amount, my father’s and my mother’s. Since my mother was always right, the amount must have been as she said, twice the asking price of the villa. My mother could easily have been related to W.F. Hermans. Hermans was always right and was prone to more than the occasional flaming row, in his case with his publisher rather than an estate agent. I remember reading an exchange of letters about an advance payment. Geert Lubberhuizen, Hermans’ publisher at De Bezige Bij, wrote: ‘I only deducted one zero.’ My mother would have known how to respond to such a reaction. She would have grabbed her rolling pin,
forced her way into Lubberhuizen’s offices on Van Mierenveldstraat in Amsterdam, and hammered that zero back into the man’s sorry head.
The sale finally went through. An acquaintance of my mother did the removal in his blue delivery van. Recognised removers were too expensive, and in India they didn’t even exist. The clapped-out old banger shuttled back and forth no less than thirty-seven times between Jericholaan and Tiberiaslaan. My mother had developed an almost pathological obsession with collecting things over the years. She would sort through the trash with Salvation Army single-mindedness and haul the stuff other people left out for the bin man into the house. Broken radios, rusty bicycles, tattered furniture, all lugged into our house on Jericholaan. She planned to take it to India one day and make people happy. That was my mother’s dream. She was convinced that the poor, the pariahs, the people with nothing but their own arms and legs, would be happy with anything, even a TV without a screen.
There’s a dark stain in my mother’s distant past. I know very little about it. Shame keeps her mouth locked tight, but sometimes she wakes up in the middle of the night after dreaming about life as a beggar many years ago. A scream breaks her silence and the dark of the night becomes her comfort, a hundred times lighter than the dark stain of her distant memories.
The residents of Tiberiaslaan peered apprehensively at the removal activities from behind their venetian blinds. They must have thought the blue delivery van was a glorified garbage truck, dumping one load of refuse after the other on the villa’s doorstep. A mountain of electrical appliances, bicycles and furniture quickly formed, a mountain that was still there at dawn the next day. The removal had been on the go for more than twenty-eight hours. After every trip my father exclaimed: ‘Never again!’
My parents moved house three more times after that, or better said, two and a half times.
On the day my first novel was published – February 24th 2005 – my parents announced they were planning to emigrate to Canada. My father had been offered a job in Toronto. According to my mother, the salary was a considerable improvement, average in Indian terms.
My parents travelled to Toronto as if they were the royal family: in different planes. But their reason for doing so wasn’t particularly regal. My mother had spent three months packing boxes for the trip. While my father was already living and working on the other side of the Atlantic, my mother prepared her collection for the journey day and night. During the day she cycled all over the city, relieving Rotterdam’s supermarkets of their empty boxes. At night she filled them. Boxes originally intended for chocolate vermicelli, coffee or fruit, were now stuffed with garbage. Discarded telephones, dog-eared saddles, you name it.
My mother left India with two suitcases, but two containers weren’t enough for her trip to Canada. The emigration had taken on extraordinary proportions, like an army being supplied with provisions.
My father welcomed my mother into their new temporary accommodation, an apartment in a neighbourhood full of men in leather trousers. He hadn’t been allowed to buy a house on his own. According to my mother, such things were beyond him. That’s why he opted for rented accommodation. ‘Surrounded by homosexuals,’ my mother exclaimed.
‘It’s cheap,’ said my father, who had come to believe he was poor. That was the easy version of his life. His wife came from India with jewels; she bought a house, then another one, then another one. He earned the salary of a Bhopal tailor… It kept the peace at home and allowed my father to read the paper on the sofa like any other man without the menace of a rolling pin.
It didn’t take long before my mother had found a new home, this time on Bloor Street, in the imposing Rosedale condominium complex (swimming pool, gym, library). The four lifts that spent the best part of a day hoisting her boxes to the 23rd floor caused a traffic jam. ‘Are you opening a supermarket,’ an old lady inquired. The janitor was less naïve and had my mother sussed from day one: stay out of her way.
George was a short, elderly man with horn-rimmed spectacles who spent the entire day manning the reception at the condominium complex. His job consisted of greeting the residents (‘Good morning, Miss Henderson!’ ‘Have a nice day, Mr Glennon!’) and answering the phone every now and then. It was his ideal job. He didn’t have to budge from his chair the whole day long, and it passed the time and allowed him to relax as the days trickled past towards his retirement. But everything changed when my mother entered George’s life. She paid the service charge just like all the other Rosedale residents, but she was the only one to conclude that the janitor was her servant, little more than a slave in fact, the kind you found in well-to-do families in India.
‘Georrrrge,’ she shouted incessantly. ‘Can you pick up those banana boxes and bring them to my apartment?’ Or: ‘My flowers are dying, don’t you forget to water them today.’
Or: ‘Please, my husband really needs deodorant.’
As a result, George would make himself scarce every time he heard my mother’s voice booming down the marble hallway. There were other janitors, but she only ever asked them: ‘Do you know where George is?’ They would tell her that he wasn’t on duty until the afternoon or the evening.
The winters were severe and the summers were long. And then George received good news, perhaps the best news he had ever received in his entire life: my parents were planning to move. He was crouched under the reception counter when he overheard my mother say to a neighbour: ‘We’re going to move.’ And she listed the advantages of the new condominium: two bathrooms, high ceilings, a conservatory. George jumped to his feet when my mother said: ‘Of course we’ll miss George terribly…’ It brought tears to his eyes.
After three years in Rosedale, my mother was ready for another move. She had seen a luxury condominium under construction near Mount Sinai Hospital. It was within walking distance for my father, and better than cycling twenty minutes every day through the traffic of a major metropolis like Toronto, especially when it was snowing or fifteen below zero. My mother had stolen a bicycle from the garage at Rosedale. There were two deserted bicycles in the garage, their saddles covered with a thick layer of dust: one for my mother, one for my father. If I close my eyes I can picture my mother working at the padlock and chain with a file while my father is standing guard. He’s muttering to himself, praying to all the gods of India: ‘My wife has lost her mind, help her find it again.’ My mother files on undisturbed. She’s doing nothing wrong, just taking pity on a couple of bicycles. And when I open my eyes, I see the following words: I hope I’m not doing anything wrong, I’m just taking pity on my parents.
As George’s condition improved by the day, my parents sat with the developer to pick the marble they wanted for the bathrooms, the wood for the floors and the colour for the walls. They also had their choice of kitchen: granite or metal counters, red or lemon cabinets. Four months later everything was fitted and my parents took delivery of their brand new apartment on the 40th floor.
But my parents didn’t move in. Unofficially, because the living room was too small, the new swimming pool had no windows, and almost all their neighbours were Chinese. Not that my mother had anything in particular against the Chinese. She only has a problem with people who don’t understand her. Add them up and they easily outnumber the entire population of China.
The real reason was that my mother found the removal costs too expensive. Their transport exceptionnel from Rotterdam to Toronto had been paid by my father’s employer, but the move to the new apartment was their own affair. My mother couldn’t get rid of the key to the apartment fast enough when she was confronted with the official estimates of a number of recognised removal firms. The Brits say: ‘Pennywise pound foolish,’ an expression that fits my mother’s approach to things to a tee, and makes my father’s lot all the more tragic.
My parents were lucky that the Rosedale apartment had not yet been sold. George was inconsolable. He collapsed when my mother announced: ‘I have such good news. We’re not going to move,’ and had to spend a week in hospital. He returned to work after that, but he was never the same.
In the meantime, my mother had started the search for a new estate agent. She wanted to have nothing to do with old agent who was supposed to have sold their Rosedale apartment. Indian logic, by definition, is unparalleled.
A new estate agent was quickly found, but not a buyer. Articles had started to appear in American newspapers about people who couldn’t afford to pay their mortgage, and my mother was asking one hundred thousand dollars more than the original price. ‘It’s the only apartment in the condominium that’s up for sale,’ she reasoned. The estate agent gulped and looked at my father. But, as usual, he had been warned to keep his mouth shut. Wonder of wonders, the apartment finally sold after seven months to a millionaire from Shanghai who wanted it for his daughter. In the not too distant future she would be waltzing over the walnut floor my parents had selected, poking around the red kitchen cabinets that best matched the pots and pans she’d never have the chance to cook with, and dripping all over the grey marble bathroom my father had always dreamed of. The two suitcases thus increased in value by one hundred thousand dollars.
My mother inspected another condominium on her own. My father was on a stopover in Europe for his work and he took the time to visit me in Italy. He held his grandson in his arms for the first time and his grandson vomited for the first time all over his grandfather. ‘It’s that corpse smell,’ said my mother on the phone. My father whispered in his grandchild’s ear: ‘If you want to live a long and happy life, never marry an Indian woman.’
My son, six weeks old, hands like starfish, looked around wide-eyed. He didn’t understand, and everything he saw or heard would soon be forgotten. One day I would tell him about his grandma, who found the price of a flight – and the chance to admire her grandchild – too much, but didn’t mind visiting a penthouse apartment with her new estate agent. ‘She has her eye on something else,’ said my father at dinner. His arms were relaxed, but the cutlery still dangled awkwardly in his hands. ‘They want three million dollars for it.’
I closed my eyes and pictured my mother in front of me. She parks her stolen bicycle against the wall of the condominium and then bends down to remove the elastic band that protects her trouser leg from the chain. The estate agent is waiting for her in the glittering hallway. She quickly stuffs the elastic band into her pocket and shakes his hand. A few moments later they’re in the elevator whooshing upwards. The agent opens the door to the penthouse to reveal a veritable sea of space. My mother steps inside. And on the top floor of the condominium, at the height of the credit crisis, she inspects the bathrooms, the bedrooms, the design kitchen, the living room with views over Lake Ontario.
No one has ever seen what was inside the two suitcases, the jewels, the bracelets, the chains, the earrings.
‘Magnificent,’ says my mother.