A Face Like Mine

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She was an orthodox Hindu, and for all she knew he might have brought her untouchables, beef-eaters; but from him she accepted everything and everyone. By the time he had finished his meetings and returned to the house, he found his mother, and mine, sitting comfortably together on a cot in the courtyard, eating bread and pickle.

Even well into her sixties, the Begum continued to be surrounded by admirers. At home she was always in slacks and a silk shirt and her hair was cut short and shingled; but there was something languid and feminine about her. She relaxed in a long chair with her narrow feet up and crossed at the ankles while she joked and gossiped with friends. They had two favorite targets: the crude contemporary politicians who amassed fortunes to cover their fat wives and daughters with fat jewels, and the wooden-headed army generals, one of whom had long ago had the misfortune to be her husband.

By this time he was very important indeed and his visits involved elaborate security arrangements.

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He himself, in hand-spun dhoti and rough wool waist- coat, remained unchanged. Whenever I was there, he came as often as he could, mostly very late at night, after a cabinet meeting or a state banquet. The Begum, saying she was very tired, went to bed.

Muktesh talked to me about the reforms he was trying to push through; he spoke of dams, monetary loans, protest groups, obstructive opposition parties and rebels within his own party. He spoke to me of his concerns in the way he must have done with my mother; but his mood was different. When he was young, he said, he could afford to have theories, high principles.

But I felt that, though his mind and days were swallowed up by business and compromise, the ideals formed in his youth were still there, the ground on which he stood. And I might as well say here that, in a country where every public figure was suspected of giving and receiving favors, his integrity was unquestioned, unspoken even.

Whenever Muktesh came on one of his official visits to London, he took off an hour or two to be with me and my father. We usually met in an Indian restaurant, a sophisticated place with potted palms and Bombay-Victorian furniture and a mixed clientele of rich Indians and British Indophiles who liked their curry hot.

In later years, there were always several security people seated at a discreet distance from our table.

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He and my father were both generous in an unobtrusive way, and it was not the only quality they shared. My father was as English as it was possible to be and Muktesh as Indian, but when I was with them, I felt each to be the counterpart of the other. Although they had many subjects of interest to them both, there were long silences while each prepared carefully to present a point to the other.

Muktesh ate rapidly the way Indians do, neatly scooping up food with his fingers, and he was already dabbling them in a bowl with a rose petal floating in it, while my father was still following his Gladstonian ideal of chewing each mouthful thirty-two times. When we got up, so did the security personnel.

Several diners recognized Muktesh and greeted him, and he joined his hands to them and addressed them by name if he remembered them, which as a good politician was surprisingly often. A splendid doorman bowed as he opened the doors to the street for him. He laughed at my question and drew me close to say goodbye. In what was to be the last year of his life, he wanted to take me to meet his mother. She lit a new cigarette and I saw that her hands were shaking.

Or if there was anger, it was at herself for not being able to hide it, or at me for witnessing even the smallest crack in her stoical surface. She sat very close to me and kept running her fingers over my hair, my hands, my face.

Muktesh had gone off to his meetings and left me with her the way he had left my mother, without explanation. We were in the same house and courtyard that my mother had visited, maybe even sitting on the same string cot, now several decades older and more tattered. Many years ago, to save his mother from the usual lot of a Hindu widow, Muktesh had taken a loan to buy this little house for her.

The town had grown around it, new and much taller buildings pressing in on it so that it seemed to have sunk into the ground the way she herself had done. As the Begum had guessed, she was almost blind.

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The iris of one eye had completely disappeared and with the other she kept peering into my face while running her fingers over it. When at last Muktesh reappeared, with all his convoy of police and jeeps, she chattered to him in great excitement. Muktesh agreed with what she said, maybe to humor her, or maybe because it really was true.

A university press had commissioned me to bring out a volume of modern Hindi poetry. When I asked Muktesh if he had any poems for me to translate, he smiled and shook his head: what time did he have for poetry? Yes, sometimes on his way to a rally, he might compose a little couplet to liven up a speech. And there was nothing else, nothing of his own? I knew that the Begum had some of his poems addressed to my mother.

On my return from Bikaner, when it was time for me to return to my teaching job in London, I asked her to let me take those poems with me. They were all poems with a social theme, humorous, sarcastic, homely, with a sudden twist at the end that drew amused appreciation from his audience.

And not only he but poets dead a thousand years, for he belonged to their tradition of Sanskrit love poetry steeped in sensuality. He wrote of the rumpled bedsheets from which she rose as the Sanskrit poet did of the bed of straw on which his mistress had made love; of the scent of her hair, the mango shape of her breasts. He longed to bed and to be embedded in her. After his retirement, my father lived mostly in the country, and I joined him whenever I was free from my teaching assignments. My father heard it on the little radio he kept in the kitchen.

He came upstairs to my bedroom, which was also my study. He sat on my bed, holding his pipe though he had knocked out the ashes before coming upstairs. I turned around to look at him. Muktesh had been shot at the moment of leaving a function to commemorate the birth date of Mahatma Gandhi. Although one man had carried out the murder, it had been planned by a group of conspirators, including two accomplices ready to do the deed if the first one failed.

But I knew there were other sides to him. I knew it from translating his poems, and also from his manner with me. He was as reticent about my singular appearance as the rest of my family.


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Like this story? Get Make It newsletters delivered to your inbox. All Rights Reserved. Skip Navigation. Money The easiest path to becoming a self-made millionaire, according to money expert Tom Corley, Contributor. Can I change this about myself? And all your muscles are shaking. At which point: Collapse. And then run off to join a cult. The cult is definitely the projection of ultimate escape. I mean, when I was writing the book, I did a lot of reading about medieval mystics, and especially female mystics, and their practice of spiritual retreat. Which interested me. But the last thing I want is for people to read this book as an endorsement of that idea—that you can obtain fulfillment by withdrawing from reality.

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The engagement is necessarily going to be flawed. It might even make you really happy, sometimes. All rights reserved.

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