All the Fishes
Come Home to Roost
An American Misfit in India
Rachael Manija Brown
(Rodale)When I was seven or so, my mum and dad sailed off to Europe on the Normandie. "Keep a stiff upper lip, son" was what my dad said and mother hugged me and gave me a kiss in the air somewhere in the vicinity of my left ear. They weren't given to grandiose farewells.
I was a bit young, so I can't remember the good-byes, early that summer, but I can remember the rest of it with a singular clarity. Mum and Dad had parked me with Mr. and Mrs. Anderson, there in the lower reaches of Metuchen, New Jersey.
Mr. Anderson was stocky, sported a severe gaze, a little hair, and a no-nonsense manner. Mrs. Anderson was thin and dour with small wire-rim glasses and pulled-back hair. There were the two of them . . . and me and Ralph and Mary and Dave and Leslie and Walter and Sadie and Fred and a couple of others.
They were all my age, except for young Walter, who was seven or so. He came in somewhat late to the summer residence. I remember that his mother wore beauty spots and a blue veil on her hat. She seemed quite loving.
The house was a big one, three stories, but bare of trees and garden, and fairly isolated from the rest of the community. There was a smelly garage (dust, decay, spent oil), a smelly dog (half Cocker Spaniel), and a Jungle Gym. Only they were called something different then.
I remember the cross-bars well because Dave got to hang from them for a half-an-hour or so each day, around lunchtime. What it was was that once when Mrs. Anderson rang the bell for lunch Dave didn't want to stop playing right away so Mr. Anderson told him that each day after that, around lunchtime, he could hang on the cross-bars for a half-hour, hanging by his arms until they called him in to eat. I remember when he finally came to lunch, his eyes were red and his face was quite wet.
Ralph's task was easier. Early on, he had complained about the breakfast toast being burned. So each day, Mrs. Anderson made up some burnt toast for Ralph to eat for breakfast. He was required to eat all four pieces. After that, he never complained about the food, or anything else for that matter.
Mary's discipline was, I believe, the hardest. She had had trouble with math in primary school. Mrs. Anderson was to help her make it up. Each day, right after our noon nap, she and Mrs. Anderson ascended to the third floor of the house, where she paddled some math into Mary's bottom with a big slipper.
We'd be playing in the back yard and could hear Mary yelp. "No, no, no," she would cry. "No, please no," she would cry. Sadie and I and even Ralph and David would giggle about her "tough" math lesson. So much for peer support.
The hardest of them all to break was little Walter. Ah, he was a fighter, even at that age: big shoulders, muscular legs, a big little man. Mr. Anderson wanted to have him take some castor-oil his first night there, after his mother and her lovely beauty spots had departed.
Walter, evidently, did not take well to castor-oil. He resisted so vigorously that he got Mr. Anderson's famous temper up. Mr. Anderson picked him up and threw him in the empty bath-tub, and when he still wouldn't open his mouth, grabbed him by the ankles and dragged him down the hall into the master bedroom. There was sound of struggle, and then silence. I remember seeing a streak of red down the floor. And I remember Mary, brushing her teeth next to me. We were giggling because Walter was learning his lessons, there in the home of the Andersons, there in the sunny summer of 1938, at the time our parents were off seeing the Old World, in all its violence, and we were learning, all of us, something about the New.
§ § §
Rachel Manija Brown's autobiography brought that summer back to me with force. Her daily nightmare didn't take place in sunny New Jersey but in India, in the boiling hot dusty town of Ahmednagar, in a Catholic school called the Church of the Holy Wounds. Wounding it was.
My nightmare summer lasted for three months, Brown's for five years. Being stoned by her classmates. Being beaten by the nuns. She and the other students being forced to stand in the hot sun until they threw up or fainted; all of them being locked out of the bathroom --- the pestiferous Indian bathroom --- locked out all day because of some imagined misdeed of one of the three hundred students.
Our parents off in another world. That's the key part of these tales, of so many tales of childhood: Great Expectations, Treasure Island, Young Törless, Catcher in the Rye --- those people who run our lives and when we tell them the truth, they just don't get it.
When I got home at the end of my summer in purgatory --- I shan't tell you what Mr. Anderson did to me --- and when Misfi got home each day, we were not to be believed. I vaguely recall my dialogue with my mother about Ralph and Mary and Walter. All I can remember her saying is that I had "a very fertile" imagination.
This is Brown's dialogue with her mother fifteen years later: Difficult? There was so much I wanted to say that I choked on it. It nearly ruined my life. I wanted to say, If I tell dates about my childhood, they never call me again. What the hell were you and Dad thinking? I settled on, "It was beyond difficult. The kids hated me, and the Holy Wounds teachers beat me."
Mom began to cry. "Beat you?"
"Yeah. You knew that."
"No, sweetie. I had no idea. Oh, how awful. Why didn't you ever tell me?"
"I did tell you. I told you and Dad over and over, but it never helped, so eventually I gave up."
"You never told me anyone hit you."
"Sure I did."
"Sweetie, I know you think I was a terrible mother, but surely you don't believe I could have been so callous that I could have known that my own child, whom I loved, was being beaten and not cared."
§ § §
All the Fishes tricks us. It starts out as a comic autobiography. Ditzy mother, funny dad, hippie and Jewish, going off to Meher Baba's ashram in India, daughter Mani in tow. It is funny. This on one of the pilgrims who comes to the ashram, meeting with the holiest of Baba's followers: "Oh, Paribanu!" she exclaimed. "I'm so blessed to meet you. Thank Beloved Baba for giving me this chance to come here --- I'm so happy --- You are the purest woman in the world, and I am so blessed --- Oh, thank you, Baba!"
Then as abruptly as she had arrived, the woman jumped off the porch and fled down the garden path, her arms and clothes flapping behind her.
Paribanu watched her go, an expression of bemusement on her wrinkled face. "What a stupid girl," she remarked thoughtfully. "Dumb, dumb, dumb."
It is a wonderful/awful story, told with surety: the moments of happiness, finding toads in the wells, snakes in the bush; the daily beatings, the picture of an old man falling off the train and dying; having her cheeks pinched (eternally) by the pilgrims; the comical awfulness of Indian sanitary accomodations; being tied up by one of the Baba followers, left to the mercies of a scary local madman, in his weird perambulations, coming closer and closer, no one anywhere, but this very strange gimlet-eyed old man coming closer and closer...
I was reminded of Bonnie and Clyde. Remember what a lark it was. Knocking over banks, running from the sheriffs in funny old cars, the characters ... and all of a sudden, someone jumps on the running-board, gets shot: there in the spider-web of the shattered window and a bloody face falling away, and suddenly it isn't a lighthearted romp anymore.
That's when All the Fishes Come Home to Roost--- L. W. Milam