3. Realizing that The World is Round

Hartman de Souza


Before the age of six I have assorted memories helped by old photographs – one of me at four, looking cocky, wearing a cowboy suit, and posing with my plastic gun like Billy the Kid, sitting on top of a 1950s Ford Zodiac outside the Goan Institute in Eldoret, Kenya, where my father, Peter, was posted. Another watching Peter play tennis, and one – which I remember the most – where I'm the only kid in a whole group of adults at a party, sitting on my mother Dora's lap. I'm the only one not grinning like a clown which figures because I grew up without friends from four till eleven when I went to school for the first time.

From age six onwards, when we began living in Embu where Peter was now posted, my memories go one into the other like a film. Like going to the small lake in the Agricultural Station with my granddad – not that far from the Izaak Walton Inn where Peter would sometimes go for a beer, and where I would drink pineapple juice in a small beer mug – and catching my first fish.

Feeling the line tug, and almost instinctively, my finger pulling back and the fish, hooked. I screamed as my rod bent towards the water and the reel screeched hideously as the line ran out. My granddad stood behind me, steadying the rod and holding my fingers to the reel – giving me a commentary on how to let the fish run so it could tire, then reeling it in, then letting it run again, then reeling it in one last time.

It was so big, he had to place his foot on it to take the hook out. Then we sat down and opened the basket that Dora had given us. Lots of sandwiches, a bottle of beer for my granddad, and for me, a flask of Ribena syrup. The three Tilapia my granddad caught went into the curry; mine the biggest, my mother, Dora, stuffed with her special masala and then seared so the skin was crispy. It was cut into four slices, with my grandfather getting the head because he was convinced  all the taste of the fish was there.

*

Age six - my fondest memory is waking up in the morning to the smell of Dora roasting coffee beans for the day, then turning the coffee grinder – me snuggling deeper into the quilt against the cold but only waking up because it would be warmer in the kitchen where Dora would have the logs going in the huge English-made cast-iron stove.

Always, regardless of how cold it was, first opening my bedroom window to see whether it was a day clear enough to see the snowcapped spire of Mt. Kenya in the distance and wondering what it would be like to touch snow.

Then at age seven my life changed totally. Leading up to this momentous event, I see a haze of days that come into focus. Of living on sandwiches because everyone was packing suitcases and trunks, of nobody having the time to answer my questions; of being told to go and play in the garden and get out of everyone's hair. I recall the bliss of taking my football and bombing Dora's flower beds in sheer spite.

Then suddenly one morning, my grand-uncle Filo, Peter's mother's older brother, and his two sons, Victor and Greg, drove in from Fort Hall – which is now, of course called Muranga. Filo and his wife Annie ran the iconic Filo's Bar and Stores, very much a part of colonial lore and given due mention in two books by Robert Ruark, Something of Value (1955) and Uhuru(1962).

Annie was a tiny woman who ran the shop and made sure her husband was not drinking too much in the well-stocked bar next door. She was famous all over Kenya for her 'Sausage Rolls' – which were actually made with spicy beef mince covered in her special puff pastry and then baked in a huge oven, and her 'ham rolls' –  generous slices of  Uplands ham, her own fiery mustard, and rolls that she herself baked every morning.

Annie was born to Goan parents in Trichy and so did all her counting in Tamil. I loved listening to her do that. So aged seven, sitting in Fort Hall, I could count in Tamil from 1 to 10.

All the suitcases and trunks were put into Filo's 1 tonner  Bedford (You can scroll down to TLB 199 to see his very first truck ), and I got to ride in it.  Peter and Dora got into Filo's Peugeot 203 and whizzed off leaving us to slow down if we didn't want to eat dust from the corrugated red mud roads.  Not even two days later we drove to Nairobi. I was again in the Bedford. We drove straight to the railway station and caught the train to Mombasa from where we were going to catch a ship and go to India. I had lots of questions and asked them till I had figured out that I understood what was happening.

I didn't...

I remember sitting in the dining car with Peter and Dora, the two of them drinking wine, and me eating a chicken soup with alphabet macaroni. I remember Dora tucking me up in my bunk at the top, as the two of them drank coffee and played cards below and I listened to the wheels of the train. I remember the breakfast of toast and butter, fried eggs and bacon and lots of pineapple juice.

I had seen photographs, I had seen paintings and drawings, but nothing prepared me for my first sight of the sea, certainly not the huge channel over which the train crossed to the Island of Mombasa. It looked like a river but maybe a lot wider. “Is that the sea?” I asked Peter.

“Part of it”...

“Where's the other part?”

“You'll see”...

 

[1]

One Sunday, immediately after mass and breakfast, we went on a picnic. We crossed a bridge under which flowed greenish water. I was told it still wasn't the sea. Then I saw my first factory billowing white smoke, then we turned right, where between lots of coconut trees, Peter pointed out the white sand to me, and in the distance ahead, more water than I had ever seen in my life. Aged seven, when Bamburi Beach was virtually deserted that sea looked scary. The men took out the beer and other drinks, the women, the food and the mats. As was my luck there was no one even remotely my age.

“Where's it go?” I asked Peter.

“To the other side?”

“What's on the other side?”

“India”...

“How far is it?”

“You'll see”...

He took my hand and walked with me in the water. I was terrified. Nothing but nothing prepared me for being swept back by a wave, leaving the safety of Peter's hand and drinking half the sea. Till aged 14, I only went into the sea at low tide...

*

I had seen lots of pictures of ships, but seeing the M.V. Asia aged seven left me stunned. It was huge, taller than any building I could think of, gleaming white with blue trim. A long narrow ladder went all the way up. The Italian officers with their gleaming white uniforms, white socks, white shoes, greeted us as we stepped on board and our luggage taken down to our cabin. I had my own cabin with the porthole at the water line, and green water sloshing against it with no sound.

“The sea's outside,” I told the Italian steward who brought in my suitcase, sheer panic in my voice.

“No, no, it is not a problem, you stand there on the bed and you look into the sea, maybe you see a fish sometime.”

I didn't do that till I saw Dora do it, then did that every morning when I woke, every night before going to sleep when I could see half water and half stars and hear the deep rumbling of the ships engines' somewhere behind.  I never saw a fish.

The next morning when I woke up the MV Asia was truly out at sea. It was even more frightening. There was sea all around us as far as the eye could see. “Where's Mombasa?” I asked Dora.

“Far behind”...

“Where's India?”

“Still far away.”

“How far?”

“It will take us five days more.”

It was Dora's third trip on a ship and she loved it. Peter did not. He got seasick standing on the docks looking up at the ship. He took refuge in their cabin, changing into pyjamas and dressing-gown, armed with a few crime novels and a bottle of scotch, while he groaned and moaned like he was dying. 

Dora and I ditched him. We ate, just the two of us, on a table with two other passengers, an elderly English couple going to Australia where the ship was eventually headed after docking at Bombay.  My mum and the lady got to be very good friends and wrote each other letters for quite some years. Every meal the man would ask the Italian waiter if they had 'Fish and Chips' and every meal the waiter would say, “No, no, we no make the fish and chips!” Dora was adventurous, so the waiter loved her. She drank wine with her meals and I got to fall in love with Italian food. The waiter showed me how to fork spaghetti from the spoon and that's all I ate at all meals. I polished off whatever was on my plate and had two different desserts.

Dora and her English friends sat on their deckchairs. The women would knit, the man used to sleep and snore. Or they'd have a drink and chat. There was no one on the ship my age or a few years older. I wandered off after faithfully promising Dora not to climb the railings and lean over. She gave me graphic descriptions of what the ship's propellers would do to me if I fell overboard. I gripped the railing as tight as I could.

Aged seven I discovered a magical Italian word, 'Bambino'. All the crew members and officers would use that word and things would happen. I'd be given chocolates, ice-cream, be taken to see the engine room and generally be given the run of the ship.

Two exciting memories stay. The first, at the back of the ship, at the lowest deck where the crew lived. One of them was throwing large chunks of meat from the side of the ship, away from the churning propellers. “It is for the fishes,” he told me, “they will come... very big.” He pointed to a thick nylon line even thicker than my finger.

“You know hook?” he asked, bending his fingers like one. I nodded. On his palm he showed me the size of the hook he was using. “Very big!”

I sat there a long time, the two of us watching where the line met the waves, when suddenly not that far from the ship a huge fish jumped out of the water and the man yelled and screamed and other crew members came. It took five of them a very long time to get that fish into the ship. When they brought it to the side one of the men put a hook through the gills and three of them pulled it up shaking on the deck. It was at least twice my size. That night, the waiter gave us some of that fish that the crew had sent for me to taste.

The second memory is profound. One of the officers, the youngest, often whistled down and called me up to the bridge. On one of the tables there was a huge round ball. On it, he showed me Mombasa, India and where we were at sea. Then one day he gave me the binoculars and asked me to look in the distance where the sea ended and dropped off.

“What you see?”

“Smoke,” I answered...

“Smoke? On water? Where it is coming from??”

“I don't know,” I answered.

After a few minutes, I was yelling. “It's a ship, it's a ship...” I watched it come level with us.

“The world is round,” he told me. He pointed to the globe on the table explained to me why I couldn't see the ship when it was climbing over the horizon towards us. That's the day, aged seven, I ran down to Dora and asked her with great excitement whether she knew the world was round.

 

[2]

 

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Hartman de Souza has a background in theatre, journalism and education. He is the author of 'Eat Dust - Mining and Greed in Goa', recently published by Harper Collins. He lives in Pune, India when he's not travelling with his backpack. Two of the several reports he has written on mining in Goa are here and here.  

Illustrations by Sunoj D.

Sunoj is an artist living and working in Bengaluru, India. His works are available at http://sunojd.wordpress.com.

He is one of the Founding Editors of The Forager. 

[1] And then...., watercolour and charcoal on paper, 21cm x 28cm, 2017

[2] And then..., watercolour and charcoal on paper28cm x 21cm, 2017