Monday, July 03, 2006

MY Uncle Oswald

My Mama … well, since I never use real names for real people here, he can be my Uncle Oswald (with apologies to Roald Dahl) … my Uncle Oswald, then, was a large man in every sense of the term. Six feet and a bit and broad to match, he carried an imposing paunch in his later years. Not a flip-floppy creased wobbling paunch but a noble protrusion as tight and as large as a bass drum, a declaration of his love for the good things of life and his growing ability to indulge that love. Fair, grizzled (with what would now be called a boot-cut but to his generation was an “Italian chhnaat”), eyes a little lighter than normal, rings on all his fingers, with a little spade-shaped beard and a rumbling bass growl that rolled around the room, he was more of an Utpal Dutt character than Utpal Dutt himself could always be.

He was my mother’s first cousin, scion of a richly eccentric and alarmingly fecund (my great-grandmother had TWENTY-ONE children. And lived till the age of 93. Iron Lady? Pshaw! Tungsten!) clan that roared and partied and squabbled across Calcutta from Ballygunge to Shimla Street and out to country houses in Madhupur and Deogarh. And he carried the M Family’s strain of eccentricity. Carried it? Flaunted it! Flourished it like a banner, wrapped it around himself like the purple, used it as a declaration of his bonedi roots, brandished it to intimidate and to charm his way through his various mysterious deals. From minor excesses …

He had 25 (yes, twenty-five) clocks in his sitting-room. The large dark cool room - paved in cracked marble, two old fans moving jerkily like an arthritic old couple, the thick walls smelling slightly of damp, quiet except for the undercurrent of ticking - would come alive every hour as the clocks tootled, chimed, gonged. Some of the older ones would also sound the quarters; this seemed so redundant for a man who prided himself on keeping people waiting (especially if they thought themselves to be important). Why so many clocks? Possibly he liked them. Or perhaps he just couldn’t give them away. From stately rosewood clocks with brass pendulums to the sheerest kitsch from his Rotary branch, they all found place on his shelves. And on his tables. AND mantel (I said it’s an old house. A hundred years ago, they built in imitation of the English gentry, so they had fireplaces. Even if they sweltered at 28 Celsius in the shade).

Clocks, however, came second to shoes. His daughter told us, “Baban hasn’t figured out how we always know when he’s bought another pair of shoes. It’s simple … normally he comes in like a thundersquall, huffing and shouting as he climbs the stairs. Any time he tries to sneak in quietly, we know he has another pair of shoes under his arm.” Another pair indeed. The middle room, the one where he housed .. well, let that be, suffice it to say that there were two large deep high glowing teak-wood cupboards in that middle room and they were always locked. Only Uncle O had the keys. Because they were full to bursting with shoes. Patent leather, suede, curly-toed, patterned-punch, pumps, brogues, buttoned boots, enough to give Imelda Marcos at least a momentary twinge of inadequacy. There must have been 250 pairs of shoes in those cupboards. He couldn’t resist them, it was a disease. And all he ever wore on a regular basis were his fawn leather sandals with the acupressure insoles. The M family again.

Clocks. Shoes. Honorary posts, for which he politicked like a man possessed - Rotary Club, Pujo Committee, neighbourhood watch, All India President of the Homoeopathic Association (yes, homoeopathy is a family tradition). And dogs. Oh how that house stank – THREE Great Danes, a manic depressive Dobermann and two other hairy creatures like discarded rugs of indeterminate provenance. They yapped, they bayed, they widdled on the stairs and they drove us quite nuts when we visited. It is not conducive to bright conversation to have something the size of a young bull, only with (much) sharper teeth, snuffling at your crotch while you try to merge into the wallpaper. This, mind you, was when he had fallen on hard times and cut down on the menagerie. Apparently he had FIVE Great Danes earlier. They must have shat the family out of house and home, because even with only three of them there were never enough walks to serve their needs. (I never dared to step out on the terrace for fear of collecting manure deposits on my shoes.)

Family legend has it that the largest hound, a retarded lolloping pedigreed giant named Blue, once leaned over the terrace parapet and bayed at the exact moment that a tram went off its rails in the street below. Convinced that it was a tribute to his fearsome aspect, for months afterwards he tried to repeat the feat whenever he heard a tram. It never worked again. Blue went into a depressive decline over his Failed Hound Act. Perhaps the M Family effect rubbed off on canines.


The Shimla Street Hunt also produced one of Uncle O’s most devastating lines. In the ‘70s, when membership of the Bengal Club was even more unattainable than today, he persuaded an associate to put him up to the Committee. This took some doing, because the Club in those days still had the rule that if a candidate was turned down by the Committee, his proposer also had to resign. Even more daunting when one considers Uncle O’s reputation as an anti-establishment maverick.

Came the day of the interview and O rolled his bulk up to the Reynold’s Lounge for the interview. When he entered, his proposer winced and covered his eyes; in defiance of the Club’s dress code, O was in his usual attire of loose shirt, vastly floppy trousers and those sandals with the acupressure soles. (And his heirloom Rolex with the diamonds in the casing, he believed in discreet flaunting. If there is such a thing.) There are advantages to being large and intimidating. The Committee, instead of politely turning him out of doors, sat down to take tea with him. The interaction, surprisingly, went quite well. Uncle O could be immensely charming when he wanted to. Till right at the very end, one wizened prune-face who had kept quiet throughout - a Parsi lawyer known throughout the country as a tax counsel – spoke up, his face twisted in evident distaste.

“MISTER M (deadly insult, remember Oswald was a doctor of homoeopathy), the DUES of this Club can be .. aaahh .. quite a HEAV-ee BURden. Are you QUITE sure that your … hmmm … RE-sources will be quite COMM-en-surate with the re-QUIRE-ments?” Oh, he was a rude b***ard all right, but he was just twisting the knife, “I’m on the Committee, sucker, lie back and take it!”

The Lounge fell silent. O rose slowly to his feet and then – as his Proposer cowered and prayed – took a ponderous step closer towards his tormentor. He took a deep breath. He Swelled with Outrage – a technique he had perfected over the years, it works rather well if you weigh about 270 pounds and can lift a small man under each arm. He thrust a bejewelled finger the size of a young carrot under the Prune’s nose (said Prune by this time discreetly burrowing into his armchair) and Swelled Some More. The Committee braced themselves to call the stewards, the police, whatever it took to prevent mayhem.

“You … YOU !!! (bass booming round the Lounge, finger wagging nearer and nearer the aquiline quivering nose) … I have FIVE Great Danes, you hear me? FIVE! Resources!? I spend MORE on feeding them every month than YOU EARN! RESOURCES! Ha!”

Then he sat back down in his groaning armchair and glowered round at the Committee.

It speaks volumes for their tact that they wound up the interview without further unpleasantness. On their way down the stairs, the Proposer sobbed quietly into his handkerchief.

Three days later, Uncle O was accepted as a member of the Bengal Club.

Perhaps they secretly admired the unconventional.


Years later, in one of the intervals when he was flush with funds, he took us to lunch at the Club. We’d tried to cadge an invitation the previous month, but my cousin disarmingly said “We’re poor this month, very poor. Didn’t you notice both cars are gone?” Then a month later a swank Sonata appeared in the portico and off we went to the Bengal Club. (I had learnt that Uncle O’s finances tended to be unpredictable. He didn’t believe in saving. When he was short of money, he would open up his chamber and examine patients. When he’d swung one of his “deals”, he’d shut up shop and go traveling with his family. On one such trip they all put up at the Chola in Chennai. On the first day, O discovered that they made a divine lobster thermidor. Wherefore, for the next three days, all four members of the family had lobster thermidor for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Often with repeats. At over a thousand bucks a plate. The evening before they were due to leave, Uncle O called his son aside and handed him the bunch of air tickets. “Take these down to the travel desk, get a refund and buy train tickets for tomorrow.” The thermidor had taken its toll on more than the digestion.)

That lunch at the Bengal Club was a revelation. Where earlier the dining room had been this cloistered close where diners bent reverently over their plates and tried not to clink their cutlery, with Uncle O in full flow it became a Marx Brothers set.

“DATTA”, he bellowed. This to the ancient and stiffly proper chief steward, who could wither captains of industry with a glance and reduce socialites to sobbing wrecks with an eyebrow. I waited for the heavens to fall. Datta hurried over and positively fawned! Ye gods and little fish! “Datta”, roared O again in a voice that could be heard across the Hooghly, “this is my nephew. Needs feeding, understand? Where’s that dessert you do here? Monaco?”

Monte Carlo, sir, you mean the Monte Carlo, right away sir, just a moment …” And Grand Old Datta positively scurried away to get the sweet. There was more to come. After I was served by the cummerbunded waiter, Datta hovering obsequiously in the middle distance, the poor man made the mistake of moving off with the dessert tray. A bellow hit him amidships from point-blank distance. “HEY!” I swear I could tell from the back of his neck that the man blanched. Diners at other tables dropped their forks. Datta washed his hands in invisible soap, struck dumb with apprehension. “LEAVE IT HERE! The boy has to EAT! Eh what? OTHER tables?!” Here he surveyed the rest of the cowering diners. “Get them another tray, but LEAVE THAT ONE HERE!”

The Monte Carlo at the Bengal Club is divine, but not when you have to finish a shipload of it under the benevolent supervision of a Large Uncle. And the disapproving stares of sundry diners who have to wait for their just desserts.


One morning in Hooghly, the familiar bass rumbled over the phone. “Nephew! Who do you think you are?!” Eh?

“Do you think I’m trying to bribe you? What can you do for me anyway? Book me a room in a Dak Bungalow? HEY?”

“What IS the matter, Mama? I have no idea what you’re talking about!”

“You drove away my boy when he took sweets to your house!”

Apparently, while I was in the bath someone had turned up with a crate of sweets. Our maid had strict instructions not to accept any gifts, so she had sent him packing. I explained. The Growl was mollified.

“But what is the occasion, Mama? Why have you suddenly sent me sweets?”

“You know, Matul, this morning when I woke up I had this premonition of death. I think I shall die this week. So I thought I would send sweets to everybody I hold dear.”

His premonition was a little .. premature. He had two more good years after that.

Rest in peace, Big Man.

**** ****


30in2005 said...

So much time and so many words - your effort needs an appluading audience (of which I am certainly one)

Beautiful post - makes me miss all kinds of relatives all the more....

babelfish said...

with apologies to Roald Dahl...

I think not, I really think not. You have read the diaries of Uncle Oswald right? Me thinks your onkel be too brilliant for such a comparison. Me also think this was a rather good read, very good really :)


Beautiful..maybe it's a sign of our times that we are increasingly losing the "marvellously eccentric" uncle to the "stingy" one...

Salil said...

Beautifully written. Eccentricity can be such a wonderful thing.

Chilla-Bong said...

Simply wonderful post.Where are these stalwarts gone now? May be they were a different class, different breed which would never fit in present days mad rush.

Prerona said...

wonderful ... made me wistful think of the the times & places & the people

Priya said...

It's just amazing how you make words dance to your tunes. Great story, even better told...oops written;)

Bonatellis said...

hats off :)

scout said...

Oh, I loved it. And yes, I loved My Uncle Oswald too - but this is wonderful.

I've had similar experiences with loud uncles in stiff army clubs - forcing food down my throat while telling the waiters, "bahut patli ho gayi hai, get some more gulab jamuns for her."

anjali said...

You have such a way with words!

tom pinkerton said...

Brilliant post, Mr Prufrock.

Anti-establishment Inc said...

Brilliant post!!

Rohini said...

21 children!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Oh my. Must go and rest. Just the thought has exhausted me.

Deep said...

Brilliantly said JAP, reminded me of one of my uncles, but yes these characters are definitely an endangered species. Our grandpa's generation was full of stories like this,the uncle-generation has one or two and ours has mostly normal and boring people. Wonder why...probably people have less time to indulge in such eccentricity...or maybe because we're losing touch with people and don't see that part of them anymore. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

14 comments! Thats like the total comments I get on my blog in a year!

Jane Sunshine said...

Such a beautiful post. Made me snicker but sadden with pathos at the end. An apt tribute.

panu said...

hmmm... you know, if it were'nt for the surname, I would swear we were related. My Dad's Uncles were just like this. Still are. One day I will tell you all over a lobster thermidore (And since I am allergic to all sorts of fish and seafood... lets just say that chances are...)

The Marauder's Map said...

Your Uncle Oswald reminds me of R's grandfather -- I never met him unfortunately but know him through the family lore. He wore a leather jacket and rode a bike in Calcutta when he was young, and when he drove a car subordinates 30 years younger would hang on for dear life. Also, he would walk into restaurants and snap fingers at waiters and yell 'BUOY!' while the rest of the family would cringe with horror and say 'Ajkaal Boy bole na, dada bolo, dada'.

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

30 - too long, you think?

Babel - bleh?

Arnab - I have a stingy uncle too

Salil - variety is the spice etc.

Chilla Bong - don't kid yourself, I shall produce those stories too

Prerona - what people, places? Stories?

Priya, Bonatellis - thankee kindly

Scout - hope they stopped some time

Anjali, Tom P - (bows)


J. Alfred Prufrock said...

A-E Inc, thanks

Rohini, I know, how the hell was she still so energetic?

Deep, not so. We still have 'em.

Anon, you want me to delete a few? Speak up!

Jane S, thank you. Dropped by your place too.

M Map, where's the story then, eh?!


J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Oh, missed Panu. Tell us stories too, Heavy Brigand!


Tabula Rasa said...

fantastic post. reminded me of maugham.

Bengali Guy said...

I shall quietly add to the other comments and say "nice one".

"Characte" such as the one your uncle possesed are vestiges of an bygone era when one had the guts,inspiration and honesty to be oneself. Today, ironed by competition and criticism, all that our society produces for the large part are career-obsessed mindless drones. Whatever happened to trying to be "happy" ?

panu said...

shall shall... one day surely shall.

Anonymous said...

Tres bien. Our organisations have become grey too. Where have all the 'charecters' gone? Ork? A post if you will...


Aunty Marianne said...

I LOVED this post. You have made us love your Uncle Oswald too. He reminds me, just a little, of the Glorious Sanjay, my boss quondam futuris.

Whilst my "Mama" is visiting me, I shall take great pleasure in sharing your writing with her!

Thanks for your great entertainment which I am sure will continue to distract me from my durance vile.

Sue said...

Dear JAP, his spirit passed into my father, who has in training all his life to be worthy. If you wish to meet him, I'll let you know the next time Baba's in town and visting the club.

satanbug21 said...

mama key naah dekhtey peleo taar baari tah ki dekhtey paari?