The Book of Secrets

An excerpt
By Moyez Vassanji

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Three strapping young men facing into a head wind, on 01 class paid passage aboard the SS Amra. We had boarded ship at Bombay, and throughout the journey our spirits never dipped for a moment. The world seemed small and we were conscious that we were crossing it. We were sailing to freedom, freedom from an old country with ancient ways, from the tentacles of clinging families with numerous wants and myriad conventions; freedom even from ourselves grounded in those ancient ways. Desouza, big and dark in safari suit and hat, very much the magazine picture of an adventurer; Kuldip and I, ordinary Indians in light bush shirts and loose trousers.

We trampled through the market in Aden. We walked up and down the decks looking for interesting people to talk to. There were those returning to Africa—and these you could tell by their interest in the ship's amenities (mostly the bar) and nothing else—and others like us going for the first time, ready to romanticize any sight, eager for any piece of information. The third-class deck was a floating Indian slum, to which we were drawn by the attraction of newly married brides, who in these crowded quarters had lost their colour and also much of their shyness. When we crossed the equator we joined the upper decks at the ball. None of us had any qualms about taking drinks, all of us took turns at dancing with an elderly returning headmistress of a girls' school. And finally Mombasa, when we knew we had come to Africa, where most of the Europeans disembarked on their way to Nairobi. Then Zanzibar, and, with beating hearts, Dar es Salaam. In Dar we slept the night in a hotel near the harbour and spent the following morning roaming the streets before departing on the afternoon train to Tabora.

It was in Tabora that I first recall that feeling of being alone in Africa. It was a feeling that would return, though less and less frequently; one learned gradually to guard against it. I remember vividly my first night, in my room on a ground-floor corridor. My friends were in other parts of the building. Frogs were croaking, crickets chirping, the khungu three whispering outside in a breeze. The room was solid dark, and the night air was so depleted of substance it felt like a rarefied gas carrying just a trace of woodsmoke. No longer did I feel so sure of myself; it seemed to me as if I had come to another part of the universe, that the world I had left behind, my home town of Panjim, Goa, was as distant as the nearest star in the sky.

After two years at Tabora all of us opted to leave for Dar—Kuldip for the Government Indian Secondary School, whose cricket team and syllabus he would bring to be among the best in the country; Desouza and I for their arch-rivals, the Shamsi Boys' School or 'Boyschool.'

Boyschool was away from the downtown area, at the end of Selous Street, coming after the potters' village and the poor Indian area known br its prostitutes. Behind the school were the teachers' quarters where we lived. I was not allowed to teach English literature—that was in the able hands of Richard Gregory; he was many years my senior, so I did not mind. I taught English grammar, and my other speciality: history. It was a pathetic syllabus I was asked to teach: Mughal history with the deeds of Humayun the Kind, Babur the Brave, Akber the Great; this was marginally better that the lower classes staple of Hammurabi the Lawgiver, Cheops the Pyramid Builder, and Philippedes the Runner. This, after two world wars, Hiroshima, Yalta, the independence of India. Yet who to blame—the backwardness of the community or the advice of government inspectors? And blame for what?

Years later, Boyschool moved to a better location, bequeathing its old grey building to the Shamsi Girls' School. But now the girls were kept secure, close to home, across from the mosque in the building that remains to this day a warren of rooms. There was always a shortage of teachers at the girls' school; the best went to Boyschool, the girls made do with the remainder. The result was that the boys dreamed of straight A's in the Overseas Exams, and the girls were happy with a D pass.

Some of the Indian teachers were asked to teach at the Shamsi Girls' School intheirfree time. We did not ask why. It was understood that we were Indians and appreciated the need; and we had no choice, there were many more where we came from. And so off to the girls' school I went after recess on Saturday—down Selour, past Kisutu, on Ring, then Mosque Street. The girls were keen and lively, fifteen to eighteen years old, and would one day be homemakers in well-to-do progressive, respectable households. They were Girl Guides and junior members of the Ladies' Committee and the Former Girls' Association, where they took cookery classes to learn 'English cooking' and did callisthenics to control their figures.

And they all wore 'shortfrocks,' with hems that were a foot above the ground but already represented a revolution—Western styles and patterns and, significantly, without the head-covering or pachedi. In one fell swoop, the Shamsi decided—at least for their younger women—to do away with this remnant of purdah, with its various stylistic conventions for girls, married women, widows, women with unmarried daughters, women with married daughters. Meanwhile, in the streets, other women walked in buibuis, burkhas, saris and pachedis; many still do.

I had then, even as a young teacher, a stern disposition with my students. Most of them had been boys. But these were girls—feminine, Oriental, and yet delightfully liberated from the traditions that would have put a physical curtain between the lot of them and me. Faced with their wiles, I found myself often at a loss.

There were fifteen girls in my class. My first lesson gave a clear indication of things to come and filled me with much foreboding.

I had arrived ready to teach the Mughal Empire to these Indian girls abroad. What better introduction to the subject than the Taj Mahal?

"How many of you know about the Taj Mahal?" I began.

An eager show of hands. How genteel, I thought, how they raise their arms quietly only from the elbow, how unlike the loafers I taught at the boy's school.

"All right, girls, I am convinced. The Taj Mahal, as we know, represents the glory of the Mughal Empire—the emperors Akber, Humayun, Babur—"

"Tell us about Salim, sir." An innocent, almost idiotic request. And the beginning of an avalanche.

"What Salim?" I asked impatiently, turning towards the questioner.

"Prince Salim the son of shehen-shah Emperor Akber. And his lover Anarkali!" said a voice from another direction.

They were referring, of course, to the recent box-office record-breaker from Bombay about unrequited love in Mughal times.

"Hm-hm, hm-hm..." someone hummed a song from the film and the ground seemed to slip from under me.

"Now what is this? Girls! Please!"

'Teh zindagi usiki hai—" she sang, the girl called Gulnar, from the back of the middle row.

Then they all sang, "The world belongs to the one who loves, who's lost to love and nothing but love—"

"Now girls!" I shouted. "For God's sake!"

They stopped, somewhat ashamed at having offended. I caught my breath, wondering whether I'd ever had a sense of humour, and what I was doing in a girls' school.

Another time:

"Are you married, sir?" This, just as I entered the classroom, having cycled furiously all the way to get there in time, having run up the stairs. A two-minute delay could disrupt the entire school, not to say the neighbourhood.

"Sir has a girlfriend, perhaps."

Laughter, quite animated and open—this began to look like rebellion. Then Gulnar came forward between the desks and benches, smiling, bearing a cake with one candle, and they sang, "Happy birthday to you..."

Gulnar was the most attractive girl in the class, if you count personality, which you must! Gulnar Rajani, nicknamed Rita.

Bette Davis was too thin for local tastes and too tart; there was Garbo, luscious and luxurious but a little too svelte for our small-town roughness; the pin-up Betty Grable pointed a mischievous tush at you. Dilip Kumar the lover and Raj Kapoor the charming fool with so much to teach were the male idols, along with Gary Cooper, Gene Kelly and Cary Grant; there was Nargis the heart-throb, the West-in-the-East, the dreamgirl of the intellectuals. But for a brief period the imagination of Dar was caught by the brunette American beauty Rita Hayworth. The Love Goddess, the "Put the Blame on Mame" Girl, kneeling on a bed in black lace, looking coyly at you ("Am I doing anything wrong?") in the picture that hit Hiroshima before it blew up. And she was the gypsy girl Carmen looking so Indian. But let's not kid ourselves, Dar fell in love with her because she married an Eastern prince—Aly Khan—with a sheikh reciting the nikaa as the Vatican looked on uncomfortably. And she did come to visit us in East Africa. If she was discomfited by requirements of modesty and women bowing worshipfully and touching her hem, that was understandable. If she left in a huff, from Nairobi back to Europe then America, such were the ways of the great and famous. To have been selected by the prince gave her qualities, a bigness of soul, that perhaps even she was not aware of.

Dar had embraced her wholeheartedly, nicknamed one of its beauties after her. Our own Rita was a scaled-down version, of course: this was Dar, not Hollywood —but a bigger heart-throb on Jamat and Mosque and Market streets. The yearnings went deeper; she was real—walked on earth, as they said —she would soon choose, marry. Who would be the lucky devil? Her friends in class reported the latest proposal of marriage that her family had received ("Sir, Rita is thinking about her future") and which the girl was bound to turn down.

She had black wavy hair down to her shoulders, a large mouth; she was fair-skinned and except perhaps for a little at the hips—I blush—she was slim. She had a ready smile, which is hardly surprising—aren't those years the best of our lives? She had me in such a state that I would catch myself checking my appearance before class and seeking approval from them (her) instead of letting them (her) seek it from me, their teacher. I have never been lenient with myself and didn't fail to chide when the need arose.

I didn't stand a chance, of course; even the thought was a useless torment and I was determined to curb it. I was a complete outsider, without a common caste, religion, mother tongue, place of origin—I was a proper "over-comm" in every way. (Some weeks later an incident involving a pair of unfortunates was to prove me right in my pessimism about anything developing between us.) The girls all knew of my condition. There were too many of those darting eyes and calculating brains, gauging my various fumblings, not to guess. And those asides— "Sir, she is dreaming, considering a maago (proposal)-—were surely meant to tease, and they hurt.

Rita's father had been a bank clerk in Zanzibar, now retired. What progressiveness that background (similar to mine) signified, perhaps was cause for her boldness, was why she stood out. I know that once she was mobbed on Market Street for wearing a sleeveless dress and high heels. But she was a community girl, only flirting with danger, and the next day she was again out in the street properly dressed.

One afternoon after class she and her friends walked downstairs with me. The mosque yard were we arrived linked two busy streets with its two entrances. It was always crowded with people: pedestrian traffic pausing to chat; lonely men and women without a relation in the world, a penny to their names, seeking refuge and companionship on its benches; the caretaker directing servants. Someone made a loud remark about the Govo—Goan—and I longed to pedal away.

"Sir, tell us what storybooks to read," she said, almost putting a hand on my arm. (I can still see it: my arm on the bike seat, her hand poised an inch, two inches, from it.) "Little Women," I said, though Pride and Prejudice might have been more appropriate. And then: "Sir, which book proves God exists—the boys know but won't tell us. Please, sir."

She was detaining me—or was I imagining?

"Why doesn't she—why don't they leave me alone?" I said to Desouza later. "I don't mind having regrets from a distance, but this flirtation across an impossible chasm—"

"Tell them you don't want to teach the girls," he said. "They'll wonder why." "Then ask for leave to go and get married."

We were sitting in the staff room, on a corner sofa drinking tea and smoking. As Desouza spoke we both looked up to see Richard Gregory arrive and stand looming over us. "Mind if we make a baraza of this tete-a-tete?" he said.

Gregory was one of those idiosyncratic Englishmen who become an institution by virtue of the sheer consistency of their oddball—some would say perverse—nature. He had a family in England, we'd been told privately, perhaps to give the lie to his carefree existence among us. In those days it was the thing to do among the educated to make fun of Englishmen behind their backs. He seemed genuine enough to me. If he had pretended once, the role had taken him over. He was a good deal older than Desouza and myself, a big, somewhat pudgy man with a dissolute look—dishevelled, scruffy, always in dirty khaki shorts and his shirt half hanging out, sometimes showing a part of his hairy midsection. The sun did no good to him, he would turn dreadfully read, yet he'd been in Africa for almost twenty years and had no intention of returning to England. He was a walking compilation of literary quotations, knew his Palgrave by heart, and carried the Shakespeare on the current syllabus in his head. Thus prepared in perpetuum, he would shuffle from class to class partly drunk, fumbling with a pipe that was rarely lit, trying to tuck in his shirt tails, rubbing his dirty neck. He sat down and gave a fart.

"One of the girls got your blood racing, dear boy?..." he said in his growly voice. "Sorry, couldn't help overhearing, you do sound distraught, you know..." He began purring into his pipe.

Desouza with a look of distaste was ready to get up, but I stayed him with a look.

"Mr. Gregory, what storybook—as they call it—would you recommend to a young Asian girl?"

"A young Asian girl? And upright too, I suppose? A virgin positively? Lady Chatterley, of course."

"Seriously, now. Not joking."

"Has to be a storybook? Have you read the poems of Sappho, now? How about—"

"My sisters read Jane Austen," Desouza said. "And Mazode la Roche."

"They would." Gregory, in reply to Desouza's distaste for him, liked to needle him. My friend was bristling. Gregory was fumbling with his pipe.

"I wonder," he mused, "how my boys would respond to Donne. I'd have to spell it out, of course.. .quite the rage these days in London."

"How about this one: What book proves the existence of God? I don't think there is any, myself, but what would you say?"

"Saint Augustine. Bertrand Russell, of course, proves that God does not exist." That was Desouza.

"My dear chap. Spinoza, if you ask me." The pipe was firmly between his teeth, he was ready to go.

"How would you like to come and watch the Shamsi parade next week?" I asked him. "My girls are in a float and beg me to go."

"Love to," he said and shuffled off.

"Bastard," hissed Desouza at his back. "I don't know why you pay attention to him. You always were fascinated by Englishmen—even the one in Bombay, it was your idea to look him up."

"That was a Scotsman."

"All the same."

Desouza didn't come to watch the parade, so Gregory and I went on our own. He had a car and picked me up.

Twice every year, when the Shamsis celebrated, for days the whole town —from Acacia Avenue to Ring Street, Kichwele to Ingles—was in happy disarray.

The 'happiness' began on the first day with a flag-raising ceremony at nine AM to the strains of the Shamsi anthem played by the scouts. Then came a semblance of a guard of honour formed by all of Baden-Powell's troops—the scouts, guides, cubs and brownies—in the manner of the KAR but with a few loose feet; and then the march-past throughout the Shamsi area surrounding the mosque, the band blaring Swanee River and strains of Souse, followed close on its heels by boys and the town's idlers and beggars.

Every night thereafter, after the religious ceremonies conducted with abandon over loudspeakers, there was sherbet and food. And then they danced the dandia, the garba and the rasa to the beat of drums and the bleat of trumpets that were heard for miles around. The mosque was covered with lights, the enclosed yard outside jammed with people, overhung with flags.

On the final day, a Sunday there, was the parade of floats, led by the young troops. It took place at four in the afternoon, at a time, I supposed, when the sun was out of the competition and smiled benignly. There came-—as Gregory and I watched, having placed ourselves on Ring Street where the crowds were less congested—a larger-than-life Churchill on the back of a lorry, puffing on a huge cigar (whose smoke we were assured was nothing but incense fumes), waving at the crowds; an Arab sheikh in a decadent posture in a very Oriental setting, lying back against bolsters, drinking, smoking surrounded by screaming, giggling houris; a snake charmer with a real cobra; a mountain with Hassan bin Sabbah and disciples plotting some nefarious but no doubt worthwhile activity; and Hollywood, complete with sparkling stars (and moon), and on each star a human starlet, waving and flashing Hollywood smiles. The topmost star, the queen of all, our own Rita.

There were volunteers serving drinks, others spraying perfumes and flinging handfuls of rice from the floats.

Walking alongside the Hollywood float, striding, beaming waving royally to all he knew, was a handsome man in white suit, wearing a black astrakhan hat aslant on his head, a cane in his hand. He was Ali Akber Ali, Dar's version of the prince Aly Khan.

How could names, nicknames, cast a spell over their bearers, moving them to immutable fates, combined destinies? It was all in the stars, shall we say.

All that week of the festival there would be a break in the religious ceremonies every evening between prayers: a procession would head off from the mosque, proceed at a stately pace around the neighbourhood...accompanied by the deep, lugubrious dhoom-dhoom-dhoom of a dhol and two trumpets bleating variations of the same ten notes in a wonderfully mellifluous refrain that echoed in the mind for days afterwards. Among dancing young men and women and elderly mothers of the community and shopkeepers turned noblemen in turbans and robes, went a lorry filled with Dar's 'Hollywood girls' waving. They went past shops decorated with flags, bunting, and strings of lights, stopped frequently for sherbet, and were showered with perfume and rice.

Outside the shop of the 'khanga king,' Ali Akber Ali, the son-in-law and prince, served the Hollywood girls, ladling the choicest sherbet into glasses with a flourish and a smart comment. At the variety show 'dylok' (for dialogue, or drama), performed by the members of the Ladies' Committee later in the week, he helped to manage the sets and even acted a small part as a doctor performing a blood transfusion in a heartrending scene. By the time the shopkeepers went back to their business, satiated with celebration and sherbet and biriyani, Ali was on speaking— or bantering—terms with Rita.

To joke with a girl is to become intimate—to embrace and cuddle with words when bodies and even looks cannot but remain restrained, hidden. Joking, you can be a child, a brother, a lover. As a lover you embarrass, cause her to shift her eyes, to lose control in a peal of laughter and then stop, blushing as if kissed. Then you know you've got her; all that truly remains is to clinch it, take the first decisive step. If you are truly romantic, you send a note with a quotation in it—from aghazal, a popular song, even a line or two from an English poem—unsigned but with a hint of its sender. This is what Ali did:
The moth, madly in love with the flame,
plunges in— And so do I, my love
"Your not-so-secret-admirer"

A somewhat juvenile tack for a man of his age, and married for twelve years, but he was stricken. And she, the seventeen-year-old was impressed, but did not know who the admirer was.

He heard, saw, nothing from her in response. He went into her parents' shop once and, in her presence, talked with her mother, joked and recited a verse. Later he accosted her on the sidewalk, and, as she turned away shyly, he recited a sequel to the poem. He followed her to the seashore on Azania Front one Sunday, where she strolled with her friends, and in full view of them he walked along, on the other side of the road, keeping pace. In a few weeks a current of rumour, a little weak and perhaps outrageous-sounding, stirred in pockets of the community, especially among the youth.

His own marriage remained childless; there had never been much love in it. But he had acquired by it a status and a livelihood; he provided in exchange a stable marriage, and, though attractive, he had never strayed from the marriage bed. What he was risking now, in middle age, was much.

The whole of the Shamsi community was on a picnic at the ancient port town of Bagamoyo, having arrived in open lorries with cauldrons of pilau and channa and a gang of servants, the young people singing, "ai-yai yuppie yuppie yai yai," all the way there, as usual. On the beach: games of hutu-hutu and pita-piti, soccer and cricket with coconut branches for bats; boys teasing girls with film songs; tea and Coca-Cola, more tea and snacks. A batch of new teachers from England and India had arrived and some of them were on hand.

Rita had walked away after lunch, away from the youthful games and elderly card-playing and tea-guzzling. Her dress fluttered in the breeze and she was barefoot. She picked her way among protruding tree roots and shrubs until she reached the sandy portion of the beach. The tide was in, and there were a few swimmers struggling with the waves, fishermen beside nets spread out on the ground, vendors of coconut. She sat modestly on a tree stump, legs tucked in, looking far away to the horizon. They say, when you first see a ship, she thought, you see only the funnel.

She could not say why she had walked away so. Only that she felt miserable, depressed, in the way of youth. To her right was an old cemetery. Souls lying exposed to the sea, she thought, and began to feel nervous, recalling stories of possessed women. At the head of the graveyard was an ancient mission house. Somewhere nearby, she knew, was a slave market, even more ancient. Soon the picnic-goers, before the final long tea and after the games would venture out for the mandatory stroll and a look at the sights. There was a remnant of the community here, one or two old homes left over from times of slavery and ivory and the explorer safaris. They would go to the old mosque and visit the church, point out the haunted sites for which the town was notorious.

A rustle behind her, from the shrubbery on the right, and she started, her heart racing. He emerged, large and splendid, pushing back branches from his face. He wore a knitted jersey, his grey cashmere trouser legs were rolled up part way, and he, too, was barefoot.

This was scene reminiscent of many films of that period. Hollywood and Bollywood; this was Dollywood, Dar and derivative.

He entreated, begged, went down on his knees. He would divorce his wife, he said. He was going to London. "What for?" she asked. "What's here?" he answered. Indeed, she thought. What is here? The prospect of London, of going away, of escaping to the bigger, more sophisticated world.. .she had never thought of that before. She eyed him without a word. During the 'happiness' they had exchanged friendly antagonistic barbs. Now words seemed difficult, awkward between them, demanded too much meaning and nuance. He was glamorous, so unlike anyone she knew—the family men of his age, shopkeepers mostly and government clerks at best, or the adolescent loud-talking and immature youths of her own age.

They walked back separately, without one more word. The friendly game of hutu-hutu between boys and girls was about to break up; now they would do a few skits. In one of them, a boy and girls would perform the nursery song "Where Are You Going to, My Pretty Maid?" It was the kind of thing they asked her to do, their Rita. And so she did, played the coy pretty milkmaid this time.

"Nobody asked you to marry me, sir she said. Sir, she said..."

Ali's proposal was, of course, unthinkable. She was a girl in the prime of life; what family would give her away to a 'once-married,' to scandal and shame? Rita became quieter in my class, and would have been inconspicuous had she not already made her impact on me. She was prone to blushing, an indication that among the girls much was said that escaped me.

My own relations with my Saturday girls became formal; the girls lost their sparkle, their laughter, were more respectful. It was depressing to be the object of pity of those who looked up to me; more so as it was about something undeclared, out of reach. By their understanding, their respect, these beautiful pig-tailed, pony-tailed, and 'boy-cutted' girls were telling me they understood my pain. Stop it, I wanted to shout. Be your normal selves—but that was impossible, they had grown up. Meanwhile, I went on with the Tudors, the Stuarts and the Mughals.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Moyez Vassanji
M.G. Vassanji is the author of eight novels, most recently A Delhi Obsession.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Britannia Art Gallery
Britannia Art Gallery
Bookhug Press
Bookhug Press
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Plantation Memories
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