The House on Altamount Road

By DIANE MEHTA

Rain pelted down onto Altamount Road below, the delicate en pointe technique of a thousand ballerinas rumbling across a stage. Earlier, the sun had exploded into full bloom for an hour, after which rain clouds shuffled in again. I was resting on a single bed as mid-afternoon light filtered through the darkening clouds and cast the sky in an impressionistic purple-gray hue. In this unfamiliar guest room with its pomegranate-velvet Victorian sofa, I listened to the soft violence of the monsoon shower through the flung-open windows. The same sound had been a steady backbeat to my childhood years in Bombay. Then, just as quickly as the rain shower had come, it disappeared.

Half-dozing, I realized the rain had not in fact disappeared; rather, its intensity had drowned out the crows who sat about on every patio, wire, balcony, and rooftop, cawing and cooing and crying all the time to the older women in the neighborhood, who had listened to their complaints for at least half of their lives.

My aunt was at the breakfast table outside my room, revising an article on Jain frescoes on deadline. Our family is Jain, a religion founded in the fifth century B.C. and practiced by about two percent of India’s billion-plus population. At 85, this aunt, who I hardly knew, was a scholar of Jain art; she had produced several books and countless articles on the subject, founded the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), and become something short of a patron saint of Indian art, in India and abroad. I had met her only once as an adult, during a previous trip to Bombay with my father, when her husband, my father’s first cousin, was still alive.

I’d grown up with my father’s immediate family, his brothers and sisters and their families. (After my parents married and had my sister, in New York, they moved to Germany for two years, and had me, and then they shipped off to India for seven years.) When I visited Bombay now, I usually stayed with my father’s brother and his wife, but in the past decade they had grown estranged, unfortunate for me because what enticed me most, each time I returned, was the company of family and a busy house. When we’d left India and moved to the States in 1973, the collective love I had reveled in throughout my childhood in Bombay had disappeared, and my sister and I were on our own, with parents who loved but ignored us and who didn’t love one another. We no longer had the social support system that we’d had in spades in Bombay, from a dozen cousins to cousins of aunts and uncles of cousins and family friends and acquaintances and neighbors with whom you ran into the streets during holidays the entire country celebrated. In Bombay, everyone from the servants to the neighbors to the tailor to the hostess at our favorite Chinese restaurant had seemed to care for us simply because we were children.

*

I’d been eager to stay with this aunt, but nervous too, because she was a stranger and on the surface she seemed intimidating and stern. I’d planned a two-week trip for research I was conducting about life in Bombay in the last days of the Raj, hoping to sponge up something undefinable that I couldn’t find in books: from the smell of diesel to the facades of old hotels that once housed bustling ballrooms to conversations about how it felt, back in 1947, to be on the cusp of Independence. I wanted that street-feel, the original character of something. As a favor to my father, this aunt agreed to house me, and offered to help me with my research. It would just be the two of us, plus her household staff, together in her home.

I didn’t know, in the beginning, that I was a gift: my father’s gift was to share me with her, and her offer to care for me unconditionally was her gift in return. They had not shared that kind of caring, embodied in a person or much of anything besides a brief visit or occasional phone call, in 50 years. The reason their relationship had slowed to the pace of acquaintances was because of my mother, who had grown ever unhappier in her marriage as it withered within the mechanics and duties of our large, extended Jain family. She was Jewish and American and, despite having several close expat and foreign-born Jewish intellectual friends, my mother had become increasingly depressed during our time in Bombay. She missed New York and the teaching job she’d had in Brooklyn. Her impatience ultimately changed the dynamics of every one of my father’s relationships in India.

My mother had been dead for 17 years by the time I made this trip. She and my father had lived together for 40 years, but never happily. She hadn’t been motherly in that old-fashioned way of hugs and I love you, so I had always longed for the warm laughter and tricks of my cousins, the generosity of my aunts, and the kindness of the people who occupied our own household. The book I was researching was a story about a couple that moves apart and, after much turmoil and adventure, rediscovers one another. In real life, my parents had moved apart from others but never really discovered one another.

*

My aunt’s presence consoled me. There at the table in the other room, with her hair oiled back and still long as a young girl’s, bent over her writing and the frescoes of Jain saints she so admired. I closed my eyes to sleep.

Sometimes time disappears during monsoon because the sky is so busy with unpredictable turns of weather that it feels as if it has lengthened the hours of the day. You can awake to boiling rains or wander into fizzle-spark rainbows when you turn a corner. You might find yourself hurled suddenly into thunder that feels like antiquity, followed by moody hours when breezes pick up and the entire landscape is moving.

The rain shower lifted. When the sounds of the crows came back, so did the sounds of the street. People pumped their horns like typewriter keys. I sank into the mattress hearing middle C, sharp notes, and wrong notes in a higher octave that in another case might have been a bother, but here, they became an ambient noise and a refrain. The crows complained on schedule, trading insults with car horns.

Sometimes, after a seconds-long lull in this muggy season of perpetual beeping, someone panicked at the coincidence of silence, as if a virus had invaded the streets, and hit the horn immediately, almost involuntarily, out of excitement or terror that the chorus would stop. I drifted off again, relieved to be cared for among all the racket.

When I woke up, I smelled cotton, anise, ghee, and mustard. I adjusted my legs and stretched. The cook would be making chapatis for me. Geetha, who ran the household, would come over with a broad smile and a bowl of papaya and pomegranates. She’d pinch my cheek as if I were a child, though I have a teenager myself. My aunt would ask how my nap was.

I touched the bed and felt for my slippers on the floor. I flexed the muscles in my thighs, swung my feet to the floor, and stood up. I straightened my back out so I wouldn’t be scolded for bad posture, and moved the first set of muslin curtains behind my glass doors apart, then the second set of heavier wheat-gold curtains. I jiggled the door gently so it came apart without harming the wood frame that had thickened in the humidity and stepped out.

The machinery of the household kicked in.

It struck me that a lot of arrangements had been made on my behalf. That 3,000 miles away, my father was keeping track of my weeks there, in a mutually agreed upon understanding he was tacitly having with my aunt. An older woman hadn’t cared for me properly for a long time, not since we lived in Bombay. My mother never emerged from the quicksand of depression that she fell into, in India, not even after we emigrated to the States.

My last tender memory of my mother was the afternoon I left work early and lay down on my parents’ couch and cried, in part because my mother, then in her sixties, was in a years-long death spiral as her body struggled to handle the repercussions of her oversized cardiomegalic heart, a metaphor for love that malfunctioned, unable to handle its job. When I’d arrived at my parents’ home that day, in tears, my father vanished into the bathroom and returned with a Xanax. “I’ll make tomato soup,” my mom had said, and tucked a blanket around me.

*

The act of caring for someone is nearly always physical: It demands proximity and affection and sense of unconditional comfort. Some of my happiest memories are of getting my temperature taken, proof that I needed attention. Or the time I got my wisdom teeth removed, after which my mother wrapped me in blankets and pressed ice packs against my cheeks to reduce the swelling and constantly checked on me. There were nightmares after which I flew into her bed and sometimes she let me stay there. But because these times were rare, I took what my mother offered in lieu of affection: a critical eye. Without an opinion and a critical eye, she taught me, you were nothing; you had no grounding, no broad strokes, no intellectual view.

Focusing my critical eye was what my mother was doing when she taught me to identify the light in Rembrandt’s signature bobbin lace collars on visits to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and when she argued with me that an impressionistic industrial landscape I dismissed as minor was far more interesting than an accurate depiction. “Anyone can paint what’s right in front of them,” she’d said tartly. To interpret something was more imaginative than showing what was obvious.

Caring about art is a visceral act, with its own sort of physicality. You strain for meaning and feel emotions in your bones. Sometimes you want to cry out. The first time I struck out on my own, at nineteen, I disembarked from a train in Bern, Switzerland, abandoned my witless traveling companions, and headed to a museum. I recall gazing at a blue canvas with a flurry of textures and chiaroscuro of invisible colors for a long time, my entire body engaged to the point that I was nearly inside it. My heart raced, my feet tapped, I about-faced and spun back, and my eyes shifted, unable to focus. Finally, I tried to listen to whatever it was inside this canvas that was trying to have a conversation with me. My eyes photographed the image and tucked it into the vault of memory, and I haven’t stopped thinking about those hours since.

Art is a two-way mirror through which you discover not only yourself and your feelings in relation to the composition, but another way of seeing altogether. I had no idea what was in that sky or sea or vision of blue that so entranced me, but whoever painted that canvas was having conversations with people like me over decades or centuries. Rapture is here, plant your feet here, the painting was saying on that first day I struck out alone. It is the burden and gift of art that it expresses the roiling uncertainties that tear us apart inside and orients us to tensions within the narratives being constructed, sometimes falsely, around us, and those we are constructing.

My mother loved Max Beckmann, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele, all truth-tellers of a world askew. I also appreciated their provocative subject matter and the ways they moved across the canvas—Beckman’s segmented scenes that embody our divided and war-ravaged minds, Kokoschka’s figurative shapes that seem to move inside these big passages of paint that evoke an amorphous sort of longing, and Schiele’s thrilling perversities that flirt with porn but reveal a passion for the line and for a sexual frankness simultaneously piquant and vulnerable. I love these artists, too. I stole my mother’s joy and made it mine.

*

I had allocated $500 to buy a painting by someone promising while in Bombay, the way my mother had done in the sixties, when she had bought a painting by a young artist she admired, Sakti Burman, and discovered the works of M.F. Husain, Badri Narayan, and others. I wanted to buy something that increased in value emotionally for me and which would also be hope-inspiring for a young artist. It would be my second painting. The first, a wild cacophony of paint, a Matisse meets Rothko tableau of hysterical women, limbs every which way, in greens, pinks, and blacks, I bought at the opening of a show of Indian-American artists. The painter was a tiny, timid woman who had never sold a painting. When her husband found out I bought it, he ran over to me crying and threw his arms around me. She told me the painting expressed how she felt inside. I hung it over my bed.

My mother was a talented illustrator, and produced charcoal drawings of nude women and torqued, long-limbed trees, the details precise and the trees always alone, reticent within the larger empty world around them on the paper. When we moved to the States as a family, she tried to get another teaching job, but nine years away had rendered her degree outdated. She wrote a few articles about art and continued to visit Manhattan galleries and museums with frenzied love on day trips from our square, one-acre two-story house in the stultifying and homogeneous New Jersey suburbs. A decade later, we moved to Connecticut, where she befriended an older visual artist and bought several of her paintings, which were cheerfully botanical. My father describes those paintings as “mostly of large leaves.” My mother had been learning to garden, having adjusted to a beach-dreamy and quaintly suburban life along the shoreline of the Long Island Sound. She wanted something pretty. She was cultivating a giant purple-blue hydrangea bush beside the kitchen window in the yard. She bought some other paintings and collages at yard sales. Perhaps they were enough. Or perhaps she just gave up. At some point, she tossed her charcoals and drawings out.

*

My aunt showed me the manuscript she was working on with childlike delight, explaining why the fresco was so unusual. Nothing else like it existed. Her eyes shone with a glassy sparkle over these ancient hand-drawn frescoes made from vegetable pigments. She told me that she’d removed all the art from her walls and had given it to her son and daughter-in-law. She was thinking of putting up new art by young and emerging artists instead of paintings by artists she’d discovered or collected over the course of her career. Perhaps she wanted more discovery, and to feel what the younger artists were feeling.

It struck me that to rejoice in the new conversations that happen on the canvas is a well-curated act of self-preservation while aging. The quietly vulnerable and unpracticed conversations of still-uncelebrated artists say it like it is, and are a reminder that inexperience is always promising. Perhaps it is doubly important when you are 85, hunched over your work with the windows open and the humidity filling the rooms where your husband once lived.

One morning, my aunt told me that I looked exactly like my mother. It was a complicated moment for both of us, when she confessed that that my father had stopped spending as much time with her after he returned with my mother to India. “Your mother never wanted much to do with me,” she said, hesitating, and explained that she had tried to interest my mother in social events. My aunt was becoming well-known in certain circles back then, she explained proudly, and a lot of interesting people were eager for her company. But my mother had no interest in the friendship. I froze with the realization that she was revealing a pain that she had concealed for more than forty years. “After that,” she said, “your father and I saw each other less frequently.” (My father told me later that in the seven years we lived in Bombay, she had come for dinner twice.) “We grew up together,” she said. They had lived in the same house for years. Aunts and uncles take care of whomever needs to go to school here or there depending on opportunities and money, so kids become interchangeable in the best interest of their education. You treat your relatives’ kids as your own. There was nothing to do but apologize on behalf of my mother and then on behalf of my father. “I have just discovered you,” I said, either in my voice or in my heart.

I secretly emailed my father while my aunt and I spoke, and asked why my mother hadn’t wanted to spend time with her. Perhaps with more intellectual company she would have been happier in India. She would have emerged from the cold blue air-conditioned room that she vanished into, and kept that toothless aggressive boogieman in a lungi, who lived on a plank above the stairwell in the shanties behind our building, from chasing me. She would have told the servants of the landlord to lay off the games in the private rooms where they tried to touch me. She would have held my hand and carried me everywhere until I was twelve, after which I would finally have my own bed. I’d wanted my mother to be motherly.

Many of the other aunts in my immediate family were either less educated or less artistic than this aunt, who was from a different wing of the family. I wondered what my mother had talked to these other aunts about besides their children and their ailments. During family gatherings, they’d sit there in silence for hours, drinking tea and eating digestives or chukri while the men sat cross-legged on the floor playing Bukhara.

“She was not an intellectual back then,” my father said frankly on email. “She is most definitely an intellectual,” I countered with loud clacks at 100wpm. My irritation at my dead mother rose. Here was one more thing she tore apart and which I had to patch together somehow. “We sit here with our breakfast and talk about Jainism, writing, and history all morning,” I wrote. “She has contacted a curator to help me with my research on Art Deco buildings and has brought me to all the top galleries with her art historian friends. She has good taste,” I clacked, “just as good as mom’s. She knows those same artists whose paintings mom bought in the sixties and which now fill my house. She knows which artists will become stars and which ones will dry up. She answers my questions with a certitude that implies a munificence of spirit.” She has lived an interesting life by any count, I thought. In a generation when women were frowned on for being ambitious, you had to be brave to do as you pleased. “She left India to study art history in the States, young son in tow. She started a museum, edited a magazine, and built her life around art. She has curated and consulted for museums in many countries.” She still publishes while you are in retirement, I thought. “Right now she is writing the only article every published about the only Jain fresco ever done that reveals a woman attaining nirvana.”

I thought this list of achievements would help. My father sees the world as a list and a spec sheet. Before I left New York, he showed me his list of medical procedures: 50 cat scans, 135 blood tests, 18 MRIs, and so on. He had adjusted to the declines of old age by keeping track of the ways in which he was constricted. I hoped my aunt’s achievements would impress upon him her success. Her vividly curious and practical mind revealed to me how you could take that power and put it to good use in the world. My absent brilliant mother hovered between the emails my father and I exchanged that day. My mother was always twice the intellect of anyone around her, and carefree about it, like a hawk who could see what you could not. When poised to kill, she could slice through the world at top speed. But at close range, she was klutzy about sustaining the kind of deeply-engaged love she so clearly needed.

*

When I told my aunt I’d like to buy a painting, she drilled me on which artists, shapes, colors, and styles I liked, in the same way my mother might have, before taking me on the rounds in South Bombay’s miniaturist, maze-like and trendy art district known as Kala Ghoda. (The name means “black horse,” after a black stone statue of the mounted Prince of Wales.) Gallerists of all ages stood up in delight when she walked in the door, and dropped whatever they were doing to chat and catch up and to invite her to openings. She seemed to attend all of them, and despite her bad knees she was always on the move. At one white-cube gallery, I pointed at a floor-to-ceiling painting I loved and asked if it I could afford it. “You have good taste,” she said, and smiled.

The practice of art is to engage in a conversation with yourself and the function of art in society is to confront, dissect, rupture, express, experiment, juxtapose, interpret, reimagine—in other words, to engage the world in conversation. I wonder, too, if art gives you wonder by letting you recapture a little of the thrill of childhood. When you are young, your ears, eyes, skin, and feet are all listening and seeing at once, and truth feels fluid because you believe it is out there to be discovered. The canvas of the ordinary world you’re entering has an x and y axis with rules and proprieties. But the world of art constantly fights its own boundaries. You can never really get to the end of color, line, and space. You hope for that from people, but people have limitations.

Perhaps my mother knew this, and if she really lived a life as unsatisfying as it appears, it is possible that the arts at least saved her from a fate far grimmer than death by heart failure. Without wonder, and the interior conversation it feeds, life is even lonelier.

*

I went to India in part to discover the world of the 1940s, but the real reason was to recapture the childhood that had made me so happy, and which inspired the book I was writing. Of course, when you know what you are looking for, you discover something else, or someone else, instead.

My aunt took me to the prayer service for her and my father’s cousin. In India, the body gets cremated within a day, and this cousin had died weeks earlier. I had been out shopping beforehand at the Oberoi Hotel’s ritzy underground shopping mall, and an aunt visiting from Delhi picked me up out front, and handed me a hairbrush. “I don’t need it,” I said, but her look told me I did. Flip-floppy shag-cut curls are not really stylish in India, land of oiled long hair braided or twisted into buns and close-cut feminist bobs. “I’m wearing a red dress,” I said. (White is the color of mourning in India.) She responded that it was about showing up, that people would forgive the dress.

I slid quietly into a chair, and put my giant shopping bag on the ground, hidden from sight. A group of musicians sat on the floor, playing bhajans in front of a row of mourners, sitting on chairs facing us. I glimpsed, sitting there, a third aunt (my father’s first cousin) who I loved dearly. She had lived across the street from me, and taught me painting. She didn’t change her expression, but gave me a long, slow look of acknowledgment that she was glad to see me.

I watched her steady, sad face churn with emotion that the music contextualized. The bhajans made the death meaningful for the audience and lightened the grief enough that we could all access the emotions of the mourners through the emotion of the music. It made death triumphant and poignant all at once. When I heard those bhajans for the first time, I felt that I had previously listened to music all wrong, all of my life. I hadn’t ever been to a funeral in India, or a prayer service to honor the dead. I had also never been to a funeral service that was not connected to a funeral; here, the hysteria of grief was absent and it gave me a new sense of what a funeral service feels like. It could be glorious. There was sadness, yes, but the music, not the mourners, provided a collective weeping and a sense that something was being driven upwards in a swirl. The semi-repetitive melodies—which moved away from where they originated and returned transformed—seemed to suggest that you were in a new time, and that life was not ending but that the days, minutes, and moments were full, and longer than you realized.

Eventually I got in the receiving line to offer my condolences. I found myself suddenly behind my uncle, the one I hadn’t spoken with in years because he and my father had had a falling out. My allegiance had naturally kept me from communicating with his family, but I missed him, as I missed my childhood.

Realizing that at some point he would turn and look at me, I tapped him on the shoulder. “Hello,” I said politely. He threw his arms around me and responded with what appeared to be genuine glee, holding both my hands tight and staring in awe at me. He was a handsome man, a shade darker and a touch thinner than my father. Seeing his expression, I thought, it is your shrew wife who screwed things up. You are just a shabby pushover, a coward. But I hugged him anyway. All of my father’s siblings ended up with domineering spouses; my cousins think it’s because they each took on the personality of our grandmother, who was so passive, so Jain, so quiet. My uncle took my number and seemed to find some peace in seeing me. He stared as if trying to photograph a ghost with his eyes and said he’d call through WhatsApp.

After the funeral, I heard bhajans in my head in the mornings while my aunt and I sat and talked. She used to listen to them every morning until the record player broke, she said, grinning widely at the recollection. I imagined them filling the house, sort of like Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana with its slow boil into a 50-person choral eruption, or Mozart’s Requiem as the sound turns quietly up and shifts from pensive and sad and proceeds to break your shuddering heart. But the cackle-caw crows and beep beeps in the background from the streets below were their own torqued but familiar and moving cacophony.

The conversation with my dad continued over email every morning. Back then, he explained, this aunt was not yet the sort of person mom found common ground with intellectually. My mother saw her as a dutiful wife to a wealthy man. It was also because this aunt spoke too much Gujarati among friends, which excluded my mother, who spoke only English. Perhaps my aunt hadn’t yet built the confidence she developed later, while studying in America, and my mother was unkind about that. I wonder, if she’d given my aunt a chance, if they could have had a friendship, based on a mutual passion for art, which would have buoyed her or inspired her to continue drawing. Perhaps my mother was also losing her own confidence while we were in India. She had checked into Breach Candy hospital in Bombay for several weeks while we lived there, and after we moved to the States she checked out of being motherly altogether. It’s difficult to imagine how crushing it must have been for her after we settled in New Jersey and she discovered that her teaching degree was deemed outdated and the suburbs were not so rosy. She couldn’t find work to suit her intellect. The marriage deteriorated further. She grew even lonelier in New Jersey, with just my father, my sister, and me.

*

It was morning again and the room sagged with humidity. The heat was building and the rains hadn’t broken yet. I wandered over to the window and leaned out. Just a fat shiny crow on a wire eyeing me suspiciously and a parade of cars with fists hanging out of them. My aunt complained that writing took her too long, but she was finishing proofs on one piece and starting research on another. She paused to say that she was planning a visit to a photographer for an obituary photo, and showed me portraits of herself that people had printed in magazines. They’re all so severe, she said, of her public image. Her hair was pulled tightly back so the contours of her face seemed tightly chiseled because she was concentrating on the camera rather than smiling. She almost had the kind of smile a child might draw if he or she were drawing mountains, just a squiggle really, because her lips had a certain definition that made her resting expression a little bit of a Mona Lisa, but with her square jaw, the result tilted negative. She wanted to have an obituary picture smiling, with her hair down, because it expressed how she felt about herself in the world. She was milder than she appeared. She didn’t put on the false smiles and pretty gestures you perform when you’re recognized in the social circles and admired in your field, but it was clear she had some formal code of behavior. She kept her expression appropriate to the occasion, but she wanted her obituary photo to express how she felt inside.

I gazed at her admiringly, secretly devastated and embarrassed that our family had spent so much of our lives without her. She adored my father and now, it appeared, she adored me, too. My mother had been dead for so long that it was increasingly difficult to just call her memory up and launch into an imaginary conversation, the way you can after someone dies and you discover that you now control the relationship. She should have taken the time to be kinder to my aunt, and struck up a friendship that would have benefitted her and enabled my aunt to have a closer relationship my father. She should have asked my opinion about her obituary photo when she knew she was dying. The photo that ran in the paper was pleasant, and made her look like a semi-happy housewife with a hair-sprayed bouffant, but her smile was creaky and in it, she looks as vulnerable as a wet cat. I’d have advised her to choose a chic photo I like: She is sitting in a chair in a slick red shirt with white and blue geometric dots and leaning slightly forward and to the side while holding a drink, elbow on the arm of a chair. It is clear she is engaged, and listening to someone at a party, but beyond her intelligent gaze is a sense that all listening contains irony, and that in every conversation she ever had she was simultaneously conducting a second conversation with her interior life. And she should have been here to weigh in on the painting I finally bought: a blue abstract canvas with lots of colors in it by a young man who worked in the gallery of my aunt’s daughter in law.

I sat at the table and listened to my aunt talk. She knew what she wanted. The conversation with me was about her stern public image, as if she was an official representative of the art she’d spent her life studying. But she was really having a conversation with herself over how to express, to the world, who she really was. “Get the obituary photograph you like,” I said. “You only die once.”

 

Diane Mehta’s poetry collection, Forest with Castanets, came out in March 2019 with Four Way Books. She is an editor at Library and School Library journals, and previously at A Public Space, Guernica, and PEN America’s Glossolalia.

The House on Altamount Road

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