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|Volume 11 |Issue 13| March 30, 2012 ||
A Brand New Role
For grandma, mornings in Melbourne are magical. The large picture window of her bedroom faces east. She wakes up with the twittering of songbirds, with the red-blue hue of dawn filtering in through the open slats of the Venetian blind. She looks out at the green rolling hills, and trees as far as the eye can see. The new babe sleeps in his cot in his parent's room, with the window on the west facing the small rectangular landscaped garden at the front. The sun's slanted rays keep his room snug and warm in the late afternoon when the breeze crosses the ocean and cools the earth.
The city centre lies to the south. Standing on her toes on the freshly mowed grass in the large back lawn, grandma can look beyond the wood fence and see the faint outline of the skyline of the business district. On clear, starry nights, the city lights sparkle, and the din of bustling activity is carried intermittently through the ether all the way to this quiet northern suburb of Craigieburn.
This is her fourth visit to Melbourne. On her first visit in 2009, she had stayed with her married daughter in a typical cosy old English-style rented house near La Trobe University in Bundoora. The house she is living in now is new, comfortably sprawling and in the modern open-style. She finds this supremely relaxing, and is grateful to her daughter and son-in-law for buying such a lovely home in a pastoral setting. The family knows Grandma has a congenital disease: claustrophobia.
During her three previous trips to Melbourne, grandma (she had not yet become a “grandma”) had strategically foraged for the mind's food in two well- stocked used- books shops at Flinders St and Swanston St She had carried in her luggage as many books as she urgently needed for her work in Dhaka. But, like squirrels storing nuts for the winter, she had stored a few in her daughter's home for this much anticipated longer visit in 2012.
Now, in Melbourne, grandma's bedside table drawer holds enough books to keep her happy. There is Patrick French's biography of V S Naipaul (Picador: 2008), in mint condition, bought at a bargain $5 in 2009. But, the truly cherished find is Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth (1933; rpt. Wide View Books: 1980, pp.662, $9 in 2010). This book is a lyrical portrait of a young woman's life in pre-1914 England, with a heartbreaking account of the carnage in Europe that followed. But most of all, it is a love story. Actually autobiographical, it records the agonising years preceding the Great War. Testament of Youth is a loving memorial to a lost generation, and it has been compared to All Quiet on the Western Front as a classic novel of World War 1.
At the moment, grandma is reading Colette (Methuen: 1983; hardcover, pp.276, $12 in 2010), a biography by Joanna Richardson. In excellent condition, the book jacket reproduces a black and white photograph of Colette with her mesmerising eyes and painted lips. Richardson's book includes Colette's letters now available at the Bibliotheque Nationale, as well as Rosamund Lehmann's recollection of this extraordinary modern French writer, and James Lees-Milne's account of Colette and Somerset Maugham in Monte Carlo.
For the rest of the duration of her stay this time, grandma has stored some more equally enriching tomes which she intends to read in the hours after dinner and again early in the morning when the house is quiet with sleep and work has not yet begun. Firstly, there are the rare copies of Joseph Campbell's seminal study, The Masks of God, 1: Primitive Mythology, and 2: Oriental Mythology (Penguin Books:1985, $8 each in 2011). Secondly, she has Eleanor Munro's On Glory Roads (Thames & Hudson: 1987; hardcover, pp.297, $7 in 2010). The blurb on the jacket notes that the book is about the behaviour of religious and secular pilgrims. It is also a journey across the face of the earth, back to man's primitive past and Munro undertakes a quest into the heart of the human urge to endow our lives with meaning. In this study, Munro incorporates the areas of myth, ritual, and sacred art, and utilizes theories from the new disciplines of archeo-and ethno-astronomy.
Finally, after taking the sublime road of spiritualism, Grandma looks ahead, before her return journey home in May, to the indolent pleasure of armchair travel with a pristine copy of Trevor Lummis' Pacific Paradises: The Discovery of Tahiti & Hawaii ( Pluto Press Australia: 2005, pp.212), purchased in 2010 at the throwaway price of $2 from the Swanston St. basement souvenir shop. The laminated cover itself is priceless: a perfect picture-postcard. At the top, below the author's name, on an aquamarine shadow-play of Tahitian figures, there is a bright oval cameo depicting a ritual greeting. A red-coated officer with a rifle on his shoulder, accompanied by two other men in plain clothes, is being welcomed by a tall, elegant, gracefully robed Tahitian princess. Symbolically, she is holding aloft a palm frond. However, her two male followers are genuflecting to the outsiders: reading it postcolonially, the subtext of invasion and submission is obvious.
Below the book's title, the second half of the cover illustration is a picturesque scene of Polynesian islanders paddling in dug-out canoes on the sea, with large sailing ships near the coast. Above and behind them, the painterly perspective takes in the high thickly-foliaged mountains near the shore and the towering distant sun-drenched golden volcanic peaks of the islands of Hawaii. Poring over this panorama, grandma is transported back to her adolescent years, when, at the age of fifteen she had found and devoured a second-hand copy of James Michener's Hawaii. She can still recall Michener's vivid narrative of the history of Hawaii, especially (being a voracious fruit-eater herself) the description of pineapple farms and the cultivation and harvesting of the fruit by Japanese immigrant workers.
Work and hope: the salt and sugar of life. Our future is built on the foundation of these two elements. Grandma is reminded of Coleridge's lines, part of which is borrowed by Kamala Markandaya as the title for one of her well-known novels about the harsh condition of the lives of the hard-working farmers in the Indian sub-continent: Work without hope is like Nectar in a Sieve. Grandma thinks of the new generation settling in the vast fledgling townships in Australia, and of how she and so many of her friends are now moving comfortably into middle-age with their work done; with the children, in the natural order of things, leaving the crowded native nation and finding fulfilling work and aspiring for success in foreign lands, which they call home and where their own children will be born.
In Melbourne, as evening slowly descends and shadows fall across the garden, Grandma rubs her eyes and looks out through the clear glass of the western window at the fading orange-purple twilight horizon. She lingers at this heavenly vision and quietly thinks of days passing, of meetings and partings, of places and distance, of age and decay. For a moment, she falters, the pulse races. Quickly, she turns to caress the infant's soft, silky forehead. She lovingly holds her grandson in her heart's tight embrace and her heartbeat regains its regular rhythm. She takes a long deep breath, looks up, sees the first twinkling stars in the darkening sky, and soon a serene feeling of permanence, of continuity, suffuses her entire being.
The writer is Professor, Department of English, University of Dhaka.
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