Early in January I was taking a break from writing Dreamsinger to write posts for the blog. At the same time, I decided to re-read Cost of Empire. It has been floating from publisher to publisher for a couple of years now, longer than reason would expect but not longer than reality dictates. I wanted to become reacquainted with it.
As I read, I was reminded again how much India lives in my writing. That led to my February fifth post. I had particularly enjoyed writing David James’s encounter with an old Sikh man in London. Indians in British literature are so often spear carriers, villains, or Gunga Dins that it was a pleasure to present a character who was just a nice old fellow worth knowing.
This takes place just before the launch of the dirigible Henry V and it’s subsequent journey to India.
* * *
There was an old man who sat in the sun every day in a nook against the south side of a rooming house. David had seen him since he first took a room in the city, as he was on his way to where he slept. There were plenty of street sitters, mostly beggars, so at first David paid him no mind.
Once he became aware of the man, David realized that he never begged or harangued any passers by, but sat with quiet dignity, enjoying the sun and minding his own business. He seemed as isolated as David felt, so David nodded to him in passing, and the old man smiled.
The old man was never there when David walked to work, but he was always there as he returned. The evening after the nod, David touched his palms together as he passed and said, “Namaskar.” Startled, the old man did not reply.
The next evening, David again saluted the old man with namaskar, and received a head bob, palms together, and a reply of, “Namaste.” And a smile.
The following evening, the old man was not alone. A scrawny, dark skinned youngster sat beside him. This time the old man saluted him first, and the boy said, in passable English, “My grandfather greets you. He asks why you take time to notice an old man?”
David stopped. He didn’t want to stand over the old man, but there was no way he could contort his legs into the position the fellow favored. He compromised by sitting down on the lowest of the steps leading to the boarding house and replied, “Why shouldn’t I notice you? Will you tell me why you said namaste after I had said namaskar?”
The boy translated, then replied, “Grandfather says that only the people of eastern India say namaskar. Grandfather is from Maharashtra where they say namaste. It is the same greeting. He asks how you know to say either?”
“I learned namaskar from a friend in Trinidad. His grandfather came to Trinidad to work, after the African slaves were freed. His grandfather was from Bengal.”
They began an intermittent relationship. Sometimes the boy would be there when David came by, and he and the old man would talk through him. But the child was restless, and most evenings he was absent. Sometimes David would salute with namaste (now that he knew the difference) in passing, and sometimes, especially when he was particularly weary, he would simply sit quietly with the old Sikh and watch the people passing by.
It felt natural. David normally shied away from crowds or strangers; to have to say something when he had nothing to say was hard for him. Sitting with the old man and saying nothing, even when he had much to say, was a quiet comfort.
Piece by piece he learned the old man’s story. He was a lascar, as Indian sailors were called. He had first sailed out of Bombay as a young man, forty years ago. He had reached London, and had been paid off. He had no English to seek work or a berth on a ship, so it took him two years to find his way back home to his wife.
He made more journeys, and spent far too much time starving in port between them. His wife had a son during one absence, and died during another absence. Finally his son, now the age he had been on his first trip, shipped with him.
The docks of London were full of lascars looking for a berth, or just existing; a few worked in Britain, although it was illegal. His son gave up on finding a berth, found work with a ships’ chandler, and eventually saved enough money to buy the boarding house where his father took the sun. He married a half-Indian girl, the daughter of another lascar, and his son was now his grandfather’s translator.
The old man longed for his home. His son worked day to night, and hoarded his pennies like an Englishman. His grandson had never seen India, and lived the life of the despised, in the land which had conquered his homeland.