m e m o r i e s

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Kirin Narayan

 

The completion of Stella’s house in Bombay was held up by my birth. My parents had bought land for a house of their own in Juhu, a beach-side suburb; my American grandmother, Nani, retiring from Taos, had bought a second plot beside them. Stella had been visiting my mother in my father’s family home in Nasik through the 1950s. Now, in 1959, Stella suggested that my parents’ new Bombay house be built with a darkroom for her use. “But why don’t you have your own house?” my mother replied. She proceeded to sketch out such a house — bedrooms here, darkroom there — and Stella was convinced. But then, as Stella put it, clearly exasperated, my mother “went and had another child,” derailing building schedules. That was me, the fourth and last.

We lived near the beach at Juhu, but not right on the sea. The house with the sea view was where Meena Kumari, the film star, lived. “Behind Meena Kumari,” was one way to instruct taxi-drivers on finding us. Behind Meena Kumari there was a long enclosed property with three simple white cement houses set in a grove of coconut trees: my parents’, my grandmother Nani’s, and Stella’s. Though we weren’t right on the beach, it was only a short walk to the sand and horizon of water. At night, we could hear the waves rush and swish.

The houses were all very similar, though Stella’s, with the air-conditioner, the darkroom, and the lack of children’s scribbles, was the fanciest. Designed by my mother, a self-taught architect who admired Frank Lloyd Wright, they were built under the supervision of my father, a civil engineer. The houses all had high ceilings and sloping roofs made of corrugated asbestos that monsoon rains would drum on, then slide off in vertical lines. (Once in a while, during a storm, milk-heavy coconuts or even an entire head of a coconut tree would crash through a roof amid torrents of water.) All the houses had a sense of space, light and circulating air, with open porches. Long flat windows set high under the roofs made frames for swirling palm fronds against sky. Lower down, there were windows with black panes, rectangular bars, and white wooden shutters. The doors to all the houses were always open, except for the hours of sleep at night.

Stella’s open door, though, did not mean free visitation rights. “Stella doesn’t like children” was an adage that I grew up with. There were occasions when we were formally taken over to visit Stella, scrubbed and brushed and admonished to be on best behavior. Otherwise, we observed Stella from afar: through hedges, across porches, from the other ends of gardens, or even by actually creeping into her own well-tended garden when the air hung heavy with afternoon siestas of adults.

Stella was unlike anyone’s mother or grandmother. Yet she had emerged from the mythic realm of New Mexico where my mother and grandmother once lived. My mother had been fourteen when Stella first arrived in Taos, glamorously announced as “my English mistress” by the Dutch sculptor who played Spanish guitar and counterfeited ancient Greek coins. Through the winter, Stella rented my grandfather’s studio. When my mother went to college in Colorado, Stella had driven along with her through the high desert and winding roads. After my mother met my father at college and had moved to India, Stella accompanied my grandmother and another friend on the long ship journey for a visit. On that ship, in 1952, when she was forty-two, she had met a young British anthropologist of twenty-four whom she affectionately called “Pink Blimp.” As the story went, my grandmother had accused Stella of cradle-snatching, and Stella had retorted, “You’re just jealous!” (This was a story that my mother, not my grandmother, told. The term “cradle-snatching” added a delicious scare to the figure of Stella).

While everyone else seemed to have family trailing in every direction, Stella was her own person with no relatives at all. She had short curly white hair, wore slacks, drove her own white Ambassador car, and locked herself away in the darkroom for hours. Music drifting from her house might be anything from the hoarse voices of women singing Flamenco, to energetic baroque trumpets, to the thrilling new Beatles. Stella smoked cigarettes. She hosted parties filled with glamorous people in advertising, calling for her servant “Zach-a-RI-ah” to serve drinks. With her airy wit, she made both men and women laugh. She also had no fear of disagreeing emphatically, her British voice rising above the others.

This was all big Sahib, male behavior. And yet, Stella was also feminine and beautiful. She was tall, slim, and shapely. Her eyes were the color of a moss-green shawl with long tassels that she had once brought my mother from Oaxaca. She had silver rings on her long fingers, and brilliant scarves around her neck. Sometimes her tailored slacks were raw silk. She often wore gold chappals on her slim, elegant feet. Her toenails were painted the same vivid pink as her lipstick.

Stella took photographs: that we knew. She sometimes even emerged to take photographs of us children. Some of her photographs were in books on our shelves. But we also knew that like my mother’s parents and mother herself, Stella was also a painter. Her name, with the distinctive snaking zigzag of a starting ‘S,’ was signed at the edges of paintings in our Nasik house. One painting was of pale plateaus with bits of orange lightning and surreal, dancing figures. Another was of a staring-eyed lion-gargoyle. We heard that she had somehow “lost her painting” — a terrible affliction — and had been depressed, and so had visited my mother and taken up photography. Her photography, then, was a crucial part of the story of her being here, in India, and next door to us. It kept her occupied: wandering down to the beach with her camera to contemplate patterns draining tides left in the sand; going out in her car, camera beside her; disappearing into a mysterious chemical scented room for hours to develop her prints.

“Going over to Stella’s” was an occasion that came twice or thrice a year. Coming from our house, with too many children and never quite enough money, Stella’s house — so similar with its white walls and high windows — seemed dreamily opulent. An entire table was often set aside for a jigsaw puzzle she was working on, at her own speed, with no one to tell her to pick it up. She read the latest expensive books with glossy covers. On the walls, or simply hanging from lines, were the latest black and white pictures she had developed: beach patterns, jungle ruins, animals from temple friezes, interesting looking people. The servants, Zachariah and Raghu, in their white uniforms, exuded faint disapproval at us, the raggle-taggle ensemble. It was at Stella’s house that I would feel the most acutely that my mother did not remember to trim or groom, let alone paint, her toe-nails.

If we were invited for tea, we were served on china that had belonged to Stella's mother. The delicate plates, saucers and cups had floral patterns in brown and black along the edges. We were given little forks with shell handles. In an early memory I have of such an occasion, I must have been about four. Whoever was beside me — my grandmother, or mother or elder sister Maya — was trying to make sure that I ate leaning forward towards the glass-topped table without sending that precious china crashing to the floor. My brother Rahoul was whispering in my ear that if I poked Stella’s fruitcake into my belly-button, that would be the most direct route to the stomach. At other times, when Stella had returned from one of her trips, we were invited for slide shows. These were always at night. Her living room vanished into the vivid colors of distant places and people: Mexican markets, gigantic Egyptian figures, arched natural bridges. Stella narrated her adventures above the hum of the machine. Mostly it was my mother who asked questions. (My father and Stella did not particularly like each other, and so he never came to these shows.) As each of us grew older, we felt freer to speak up too.

Rahoul was the most fearless with Stella, for he was her godson. Stella had been present in the next room of the Nasik house at the moment of his birth in 1953. He liked to tell us that actually, he was Stella’s illegitimate son. Stella, he said, had lived with an Afghan chief on her way from Europe. Since she wasn’t married and didn’t like children anyway, when Rahoul was born of this union, my mother had agreed to pass him off as her own. Rahoul used his Afghan-sized nose as proof. Never knowing whether to believe or disbelieve my story-spinning brother, I observed that Stella did indeed seem to tolerate him more than she did most children. For example, she would show him her huge snakeskin and polish it in his presence, leading to the family saying, “polishing a snakeskin” for situations when two people were bored by a task but kept at it, each believing they were humoring the other. It was under Stella’s direction, I think, that Rahoul first handled a camera.

I was ten when Stella prepared to leave her house in Juhu. She had “done India” and now she was ready for a new life in New York. She weeded through her possessions for the move. There was a new incentive to steal over to her back porch in the afternoon: to view the latest things she was piling under the crimson bougainvillea for the sweeper to come gather. Books, scarves, old photographs! Once, there was a seated group portrait of “foreign” people, all sedately posed, all quite nude. She gave us her unused Kodak printing paper, boxes upon boxes to “develop” under the sun, using leaves, or hands to make patterns. I was finally becoming an age more acceptable to Stella. I remember a conversation about the books of Rumer Godden we once had as she sunbathed on the beach, and the terrific sense of grown-up pride Stella’s attention granted. I felt even more special and graced when, before she left, she gave me a tiny, doll-sized book bound in maroon. “The Language of Flowers” was printed in gold lettering on the cover, and “Ethel Johnson, 1894” was inscribed on the fly-leaf in faded black ink. Ethel Johnson, I learned, had been Stella’s mother. This connection to a previous century, and a poetic time when people sent messages through bouquets entranced me. I have lost many things from that childhood era, but I still have that book.

When I came to Sarah Lawrence College, at sixteen, I had moved far enough out of the child category to be invited to dinner with Stella. Her familiar possessions were reinstalled, along with new ones, in a tall apartment building near Lincoln Center. Having always seen her with servants, it was a revelation to know that she could not only function in a kitchen, but could actually cook exquisite dishes. Instead of her plump tabby cat, Tipoo, her new companion was the inimitable gray Pandolfo who literally seemed to fly between bookshelves and counters.

Rahoul moved to New York in 1978. In the intervening years, he had become a photographer and color-printer. Visiting his workplace, I recognized the smells of Stella’s darkroom. I gained a new appreciation of Stella through Rahoul. He and she had a similar outrageous sense of humor. They made each other laugh. Teasing with all his high spirited energy, deep-set eyes flashing over his black moustache, Rahoul called her his “Good GOD!-Mother.” I especially remember a Christmas Eve that the three of us spent together. After the flaming Christmas pudding, Stella showed us old photographs: of herself as a beautiful child dressed in white, cheeks colored pink by her mother; of interesting “lovahs,” of the Taos days, and India days too. That night, I heard some the same stories I had grown up with in Stella’s own words.

Rahoul died young, in 1985. For a few years, it was his absence that most bound me to Stella. When I received my first teaching job on the East coast in 1987, I visited Stella during vacations. She asked if I had a godmother. I didn’t, and so we agreed that I would become her goddaughter. I see this relationship as a gift from my brother.

Stella appears to have forgiven me for being born, though she does on occasion remind me that I was a dreadful child. As her adult goddaughter, I have learned many things that are now part of my life: “beheading” a soft-boiled egg; the trick of marinating sliced cucumbers in olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic before adding lettuce; rinsing hair last with cold water. I think of Stella when I paint my toe nails bright colors, or when I wear gold slippers in summer. Beyond these practical details that weave through the textures of my everyday life, Stella is an inspiration in how to live. I marvel at her curiosity, intelligence, talent, generosity, and wit. The distant and intriguing figure next-door taught me early that women could be independent; the godmother who I have come to adore reminds me of the many ways to enjoy life, playfully, creatively, and with delighted pleasure.

 

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See also:

Stella Snead’s Paintings
Chronology as Painter
Early Childhood and Before

____________________
Kirin Narayan, 1999.

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