New Delhi, 1973
When I was a child in India, a snake-charmer came to our house now and again. When he rang the bell, my mother gathered me in her arms and ushered him into the garden, where linen shirts and shalwar kameez swung in the breeze.
He set his wicker basket on the ground and brought out a wooden flute. Playing it, he swayed back and forth, circling the end of his flute down into the basket and up again, in hypnotic circular eights, until a black cobra appeared. Its head rose slowly, and it flicked and lashed its tongue. I was scared, half-believing the snake was under the man's control and half-sure it would lash out and strike me. He whistled to it as my mother held me tight, whispering in my ear that everything was okay; the snake was in a trance.
Eventually, the charmer made the cobra disappear back into the wicker, into darkness, and the world returned to its normal bright glow. The charmer blessed us, bowed his head, and left.
Other times it was a music-man, with a ratty wooden harmonium and a tangled beard. He sang and played songs. He had sad and wise eyes, and his music reflected the world back at me. Once, my mother invited him into the house and drew his portrait.
These two men were among my earliest memories. They came to me with what they knew, and I imagine each of us left with a little bit more of the other.
My parents had arrived in India during the rains. Refugees from the war in Bangladesh were pouring into Calcutta with tales of violence. In an already overpopulated city, the deluge of humanity only added to the aura of a war-torn wasteland. The airport that early morning was thick with heat and sickness. My mother's memory of it makes it seem like walking into a nightmare: she remembers inert bodies, some naked, some wrapped in a gauzy white cloth as if they had been mummified, sprawled in doorways and along walls. A swarm of huge insects, half-scorpion and half-spider, leeched along the floors and sallow, yellow-eyed men skulked down alleys. They stayed for a few hours in a dingy hotel before their next flight, and my mother clung to my father throughout, unsure of what kind of pact she had entered — but sure that the man on her arm was strong enough to carry her through it.
They landed in Madras the next morning. A consulate man met them at the airport and took them to their hotel, where my mother collapsed in exhaustion. The long voyage, a new marriage, and the prospects of a new life — all of it became crushingly real.
In Madras, my father inherited a house with its own name: "The Flame," because of the fuchsia bougainvillea blazing on the arched latticework around the door. The Flame was home to five Tamil-speaking servants. The previous occupant was a consulate man too, and he and his wife, Alice, had been there the day my parents had arrived to look things over. It was hot and muggy, and Alice greeted them from under the shade of the verandah, careful not to step too far into the sun. She looked haggard. She had a distended belly, and my mother thought she might be dying. They sat on a pillowed teak couch as Alice gave her a tutorial, woman to woman, on her new country. Alice was sick of India, she said, with all the parasites and bugs, the rodents and unidentifiable dark shadows that scuttled back and forth along the floors — and if the bugs didn't get you, the snakes and scorpions surely would. "My nails are going, my skin's going," she said bitterly, and raised a scaly arm to prove it. The threats went unnumbered. She sipped a bitter gin fizz and ran a few bony fingers through a mat of dry hair, and gazed at my horrified mother with eyes full of pity and defeat.
But my mother thought it was beautiful. Outside the windows of her new home, which a good cleaning soon purged of the psychological rot left by Alice, bunches of bananas hung from trees. When the wind was still at midday, the eggshell-blue and linoleum-pink on the leaves froze in the heat, and to my mother the garden looked like a still life framed by the windows. The rooms were airy and spacious and dark, and she slipped along the terrazzo floors and breathed in the scent of her new life, making it her own. She was twenty-five, fresh out of college, and her servants would become her closest friends.
The days began to acquire a rhythm. My father often rose early and went to the Madras Club to play tennis. My mother began to explore India. She learned some Tamil because she wanted to know more about the country, and because it seemed easier and more fun than grappling with the ins and outs of the wives' club; the isolation from Indian society; and the catty, gossiping lunches. She wanted to help people. She volunteered for a YWCA project in a drought-devastated town beset by famine, and she met children mutilated or crippled by the beggar gangs. She bought an Olivetti typewriter and started to write. Then she hired a young Indian man to guide her on longer excursions; she talked to people about fishing and hygiene and witchcraft, and she tried writing about it. One day, on a whim, she went to Afghanistan by herself. She flew to Kabul and drove out into the nearby countryside, where she spent an afternoon with villagers who slaughtered and bled a goat and roasted the meat in an open pit. With her Olivetti, she wrote letters home about her adventures.
My father nurtured her and supported her. They were dutifully social, giving and attending parties. They went to the Madras Club to swim or play tennis or dine on white linen, served by gracious turbaned waiters in white Nehru jackets near a reflective pool in which white swans floated. The benevolent nostalgia, the atmosphere of decayed luxury — all your needs could be met, and yet sometimes he wondered why she wasn't more content to be a wife, like the other wives.
But despite the ease, theirs was also a world of intrigue and secrets, in which wit and flashy derring-do were rewarded. In such circles, people began to call my father Silver Tongue, and so my mother did, too, smiling and teasing him about his ease with people and his facility with words, all the while feeling intimidated by those things herself. My father also presented well: his black hair was always combed, he wore pressed safari shirts, and he did yoga and tennis in the morning to keep fit.
After some time had passed, my father began to ease my mother into the more serious work at hand. Sometimes, before or after dinner parties, when they were all dressed up, they made excursions into the city. These trips were missions: they were searching for dark alleyways or quiet back streets that could provide good cover for the face-to-face meetings with Indian agents that my father would need to arrange at a later date. In time, and in other countries, the grunt work he was logging there in Madras would evolve into more sophisticated operations: dead drops or pick-ups or, sometimes, just drives to look for signs or plant a decoy or confuse someone that might be following them. In years to come, he would learn how to deliver some eagerly anticipated cargo of money, or instructions in invisible ink, or a small canister of film. He would leave a bill-laden newspaper or a rumpled sack innocuously down underneath a bench, or behind a tree, or in a particular rubbish bin.
On other quiet evenings in Madras, he looked for places to park, safe enough for her to linger innocently, looking into the mirror from her purse, while he casually strolled away to survey the terrain. He hesitated, or tied his shoe. He returned to the car, to her nervous giggling and her beauty. He smiled, and kissed her. There was something luscious about the intrigue for her, strolling through these dirty, washed-out streets, thinking how strange it was to find herself there. She liked the tinge of the illicit. She found it fun, at least at first — her handsome husband skillfully navigating them through the endless valves of rickshaw alleyways opening and closing around them. She sat in the passenger seat and, in her compact or the vanity mirror under the visor, watched to make sure they weren't being followed. But often they were, so it was her very presence that helped to give him cover — made him seem more benign, his comings and goings less fraught with significance.
The moment I was born in 1973, my father took hold of me and only rarely let go, and never for very long. He was possessive. He sat outside and held me during hot nights, and I sank easily into his chest.
When I was one, we moved to New Delhi. Once again we lived in roomy diplomatic quarters, and we had servants and a garden. In the yard was a shade-giving pepper tree, and its dark branches hung loosely over us. I remember bursts of red and white from the flowerbeds, and the smells of pepper and smoke and sandalwood. Some days the Indian air would be yellow, thick with pollution or dust; on others it would fill with alabaster clouds or seem heavy with the anticipation of rain.
I remember my father standing in the yard during the hot summer, gazing up curiously at a tree full of black crows. He wore a beige khaki suit with pockets on the breasts and hips. He had a wide and angular face, with brown eyes and a full mouth. The crows screamed at him, a deafening caw. Their wings were dry. The world smelled of lemon and dust. Behind them the sky shone white, a color that erased distances. My father carried a slingshot and took aim at the birds. He wanted to calm their ruckus. Every now and again he fired, a rock slung through the air, and the tumult of many hundreds of wings stirred, fluttered, and then hammered to flee, their cries lingering as they hauled out over the rooftops.
It was an idyllic existence in many ways. We went on trips all the time. When I was four my parents took me up to Kashmir, where we rode ponies high into the Himalayas. I christened the white stallion my father rode Grassy Whitey because of the prodigious amount of greenery he consumed while walking. And I called the mare my mother and I rode, a sluggish brown beast that seemed intent on marking our path with a steady stream of droppings, Brownie Poo-Peep. I can still see those mountains, little trickling streams, tall pines, and hear the clippety-clop of horse feet underneath us.
When I was young, and I asked for "backpack, Daddy," my father carried me in a little sack on his back. Later, when I could walk, my mother held my hand. There is a picture of the three of us in a nineteenth-century English riding trolley — I'm sitting between them like a spoiled prince and they are smiling grandly, looking past the photographer to something on the horizon.
On a picnic once, I stepped barefoot into a steaming pile of bull dung. It squeezed through my toes and I felt a rush of fear. I squalled and didn't move. My father picked me up, cleaned my foot, and laughed the pain away in my ear.
Sometimes at night, when I was sitting in my father's lap in the vinyl lawn chair outside, he would pull out our big, illustrated copy of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book and read from it. I loved to hear about Mowgli, the boy abandoned by his parents and raised by wolves. Under the stars my father cooed to me those angry words from "Mowgli's Song Against People": I will let loose against you the fleet-footed vines — I will call in the Jungle to stamp out your lines! The roofs shall fade before it, the house beams shall fall; and the Karela, the bitter Karela, shall cover it all!
The language of Kipling's poems was the bulwark of my young imagination. I felt protected by those words, and by Baloo, the great jungle bear, as alive to me as the geckos on my ceiling and the crows in the pepper tree outside. There was the cobra Kaa, whose hissing I could hear in my father's rendition, but also in the mornings or at night, when the hallways of our house became the sleek surfaces for slippered feet. Rikki-tikki-tikki-tikki—tikki-tikki-tikki-tikki-tikki, my father would croon, when he whispered to me about the exploits of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, the cobra-eating mongoose. And before I went to sleep I stared at the mobile of Shere Khan, the tiger, which my mother had hung above my bed for me.
But it was Mowgli, raised by Mother Wolf and Father Wolf, who captivated me most. I loved his freedom. I lived in his country, and I had seen some of his friends and enemies firsthand — the snake, the mongoose. I heard his words so often they became familiar. Ye shall not hear my strikers; ye shall hear them and guess. By night, before the moon-rise, I will send for my cess. And the wolf shall be your herdsman by a landmark removed; for the Karela, the bitter Karela, shall seed where ye loved!
Unbeknown to me, as in the jungle, there were threats to my existence. I was a young Mowgli, reliant on the protection of those who knew the world I lived in. One evening, my parents had gone out to dinner, leaving me at home with my ayah, Mary, who took care of me. Our house was a sprawling neocolonial mansion, and at night it was quiet. In the dim light the doorbell rang, and Mary went to answer it, carrying me in her arms. A dapper—looking man stood there, having parked his car in the driveway. He was dressed in fine Indian-tailored linen and a handsome Stetson, which he took off when Mary arrived. He told her he was there at the request of "the sahib" — the master of the house, my father. My father had asked him to fetch me and bring me back to the dinner party. He gave no reason as to why, no explanation or note. But he was an elegant man, dark and articulate, and Mary wasn't sure what to think.
She looked at the man carefully and told him to wait. She shut the door behind her, stood on the marble tiles of the foyer, and began to think. Why hadn't the sahib rung? Or sent a note? She considered calling him at the restaurant, but then thought better of it. He wouldn't want to be disturbed. If he had wanted the child so urgently, perhaps he wouldn't want to be questioned.
She looked down and saw our cocker spaniel, Toby, at her feet. Turning, she headed for the door again, bringing the dog with her. The man was still standing there. She looked down at Toby, who was normally docile and friendly. He began to growl and bare his teeth; his tail went rigid. Following her instincts, Mary told the elegant man to leave and never return.
When my parents returned from the party later that night, Mary nervously told them about the man who had tried to take me away.
"My God!" my mother said.
My father comforted her, and told Mary she had done the right thing. But they realized there was no accounting for danger. It was diffuse, ever-present. The right kind of children were valuable commodities in this world, provided that you could find and steal one. And everyone, even the strongest men, had their points of weakness. My mother and father would have to be more vigilant.
That night, in bed, my father told me again the story of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, who protects the house from the cobras lurking in the yard, and of Mowgli, the brave wolf-boy who was raised in the jungle, and of Shere Khan the tiger and Baloo the bear. He whispered me to sleep with his deep, reassuring voice and promised that he would always protect me.
Soon after, it was our last dim dawn in India, and I was following him out the door, a suitcase in his hand. I was wearing a miniature version of the blue-and-white striped Indian suit he often wore. The marble floors of our huge house were especially cold, the walls white and empty without our pictures and paintings. He winked at me from under sleek black hair. Keep quiet, everything about that morning seemed to say. Leave only when the world is fast asleep.
From The Wolf and the Watchman by Scott Johnson. Copyright 2013 by Scott Johnson. Excerpted by permission of W. W. Norton & Company.