Meet Jana Bibi, a Scottish woman helping to save the small town in India she has grown to call home and the oddball characters she considers family
Janet Laird's life changed the day she inherited her grandfather's house in a faraway Indian hill station. Ignoring her son's arguments to come grow old in their family castle in Scotland, she moves with her chatty parrot, Mr. Ganguly and her loyal housekeeper, Mary, to Hamara Nagar, where local merchants are philosophers, the chief of police is a tyrant, and a bagpipe-playing Gurkha keeps the wild monkeys at bay. Settling in, Jana Bibi (as she comes to be known) meets her colorful local neighbors--Feroze Ali Khan of Royal Tailors, who struggles with his business and family, V.K. Ramachandran, whose Treasure Emporium is bursting at the seams with objects of unknown provenance, and Rambir, editor of the local newspaper, who burns the midnight oil at his printing press. When word gets out that the town is in danger of being drowned by a government dam, Jana is enlisted to help put it on the map. Hoping to attract tourists with promises of good things to come, she stacks her deck of cards, readies her fine-feathered assistant--and Jana Bibi's Excellent Fortunes is born.
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July 17, 2012
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Excerpt from Jana Bibi's Excellent Fortunes by Betsy Woodman
A New Life in an Old Place
Mr. Ganguly perched on the wrought-iron chair and preened his emerald-green feathers. In the palace garden, a flock of wild Indian ringnecks came swooping down into the mango trees, settled and chattered and screamed at one another, reached some agreement, and took off again. The parrot turned his head briefly to look at them, without much interest. His wings were not clipped. Yet he flew only a few feet at a time, from chair to ground to table, table to chair to perch, always returning to safety.
Jana put down her teacup, took a peanut from her pocket, and held it out. Mr. Ganguly held it daintily with his claw, shelled it with his beak, and ate it.
"More," he said.
"Later. Oh, all right." She gave him another.
She heard a door close and looked up to the verandah of the palace, watched Mary's rotund figure come down the steps, the afternoon post in her hand. Most days, Jana got no letters. Who would write? Jack sent dutiful filial missives from Scotland, and friends in Bombay sent greetings on major holidays. Otherwise, people from her past stayed silent.
"Jana mem!" Mary's smile transformed her heavily pockmarked face. "Two letters! Postman was so excited, he almost fell off his bicycle." She handed over the letters and adjusted her sari. "He said it was good luck to get letters on Monday. Lord Shiva rules on Monday."
Jana smiled. Mary maintained that her family had been Christian since Saint Thomas journeyed to Madras--"in the days of old!"--but she nonetheless hedged her bets, knitting Buddhist symbols into her sweaters and shawls and celebrating Divali by putting out little oil lamps. In her room, she kept one picture of Jesus and one of Dr. Ambedkar, her fellow outcaste who had risen from his lowly status to write the constitution of India.
"Jana mem, Jack baba might be coming to visit from U.K?" Mary had seen Jack's familiar handwriting on the thin blue aerogramme.
"Perhaps," said Jana. "If only he would take a holiday from that engineering job of his."
"Engineering is good," said Mary. "But holidays are also good. And every boy also should come to see his mother."
Meanwhile, Jana was looking at the second piece of mail, a large buff envelope postmarked Allahabad, 1 June 1959. Eight months ago, Jana calculated. Still, that was not too bad, considering the number of places to which it had been forwarded. Almost everywhere she had lived in her adult life--the remote mission station in northern India, the Iranis' beach cottage in Bombay, her grandfather MacPherson's castle outside Glasgow, now owned by her son, and, finally, the nawab's palace, in the former princely state of Terauli. A doggedly determined letter, that!
She slit the envelope with a knife from the tea tray and withdrew a fat legal document and a cover letter. Mr. Ganguly, now perched on her shoulder, bent his head toward the letter as if reading it, and Mary lingered, not taking away the tea tray.
"Dear Mrs. Laird," Jana read.
It has come to our attention that you are the sole living heir of the late Ramsay Grant, whose will we probated in 1930. At that time there was one piece of property that could not be distributed, because of the terms of the lease, which only expired in 1955. Further complications regarding succession have only recently been resolved. We are now happy to inform you that you are the owner of the Jolly Grant House, No. 108 Central Bazaar, adjacent to Ramachandran's Treasure Emporium and across from Royal Tailors, Hamara Nagar, Uttar Pradesh. We assume that you are aware of the building's historic importance.
All matters related to the execution of your grandfather's will are now resolved and all property distributed. There should be no impediment to your taking possession of the building. Enclosed herewith you will find the key.
The Jolly Grant House, thought Jana. Extraordinary that it was still standing, let alone that none of Grandfather Grant's Anglo-Indian descendants had lived to take possession. A shred of memory came back to her, of a visit to Hamara Nagar in 1912, when she was ten. The family had put up at the Victoria Hotel, even though Grandfather Grant had plenty of room in the guesthouse of his compound three or four miles away, then on the outskirts of town.
"You're not actually going to visit him," Jana's father had said, "and take the children?" And--left unsaid--expose them to that woman, Grandfather Grant's Indian wife?
"James, you're being so stuffy. He's almost ninety!" Jana's mother had answered.
That little exchange summed up the two sides of Jana's family. How many generations of them--soldiers, civil servants, engineers, architects--had worked and lived in India? Five, six? From the beginning, some--like her father--considered India a place to earn their living, while keeping away from Indians as much as possible. Stuffy folks, who insisted on boundaries, categories, and boxes. But others--like her mother--adored India and were never completely happy anywhere else. Grandfather Grant, who looked like a proper Victorian gentleman, was actually of the second sort, a throwback to the eighteenth century, when it was commonplace for a British man to have an Indian wife. He got away with his eccentricity, Jana's father always maintained, only because of his wealth.
On their way to visit the Jolly Grant House, in the spring of 1912, Jana's pony had bolted, and for several terrified minutes she'd thought she'd be thrown over the knife-edge cliff to certain death below. She remembered arriving wobbly-kneed and in tears at a large building with a lookout tower, and being comforted by an Indian woman in a soft silk sari whose skin smelled of almond cream.
She turned to Jack's aerogramme.
"Mother, you're too old to live alone," she read. "Come live in Glasgow. Isn't that where you belong? I grant you that it was noble to live as a missionary and take care of Father all those years, and I suppose that the world does need musicians, but do you need to be one of them? And aren't you tired of living from hand to mouth? What if you get sick? Remember that you'll always be an outsider there."
She had to smile. Jack had always been a little old lady. As a boy, he'd preferred reading to exploring the mission compound or climbing trees. She'd never found a lizard in his pocket. "Safety first" had been his motto as a six-year-old, and apparently it still was.
Now, I ask you, she said, almost aloud. Too old? Fifty-eight? And alone? Who was alone in India, apart from a few prayer-mumbling sadhus? The only time in her life she'd felt alone was during the six lonely years in Scotland. Grieving the sudden death of her parents, wrenched away, in 1919, from everything she'd ever known--the big white house in Allahabad, the boarding school in the hills, the sun-drenched gardens. Failing her audition to get into the Glasgow Athenaeum as a violin student, working as her grandfather MacPherson's unpaid secretary--now, those things had been lonely.
In contrast, going to a Himalayan hill station, with Mary and Mr. Ganguly, did not strike her as a lonely proposition. And she liked the idea of living in Grandfather Grant's house. Anyway, she'd felt for some time that her usefulness at the nawab's palace was at an end.
"Mary," said Jana, "we may have a new home." She sketched the details, knowing that Mary would like the number 108. The Ganges had 108 names; the god Krishna had played the flute for 108 milkmaids. Sure enough, Mary's eyes lit up.
"Very auspicious, Jana mem." She took the tea tray and headed back into the palace.
* * *
That night, Jana soaked in the tub in her huge bathroom, looking up at the high ceilings and wondering how she could possibly consider leaving the palace. It was so pleasant here. So comfortable. The salary was generous and the expenses almost nonexistent, so that every month she added to her savings account, a good thing after the lean years as a missionary and then as a dance musician.
But, but ... boredom was setting in; that could not be denied. There just wasn't enough to do, now that all but one of the nawab's children had been packed off to boarding school in Switzerland. The dozen children's violins the nawab had ordered from Italy when Jana had first arrived lay silent. Gone were the days when the children would line up on the palace steps and, led by Jana, greet their father with a medley of international tunes. The night Prime Minister Nehru had come for dinner, the children had played the national anthem, "Jana Gana Mana," bringing tears to the prime minister's eyes. There wouldn't be another night like that.
She got out of the tub, wrapped herself in a Turkish towel, and dried off in the spacious dressing room. She thought she heard Mr. Ganguly calling from her bedroom and went in to see what he wanted, but he was merely going into his bedtime routine: talking to himself, settling down on his perch, closing one eye and opening it again before finally drifting off. He looked amusingly decorative and fitting against the elegant background of the room, his bright red beak and green plumage bringing out the colors in the Persian rug. She settled herself in the window seat and looked around at the huge room, with its French doors leading out to a verandah and, beyond that, the garden with the mango trees. Leave this cushiest of situations? Madness. And yet, deep down inside, she knew that the decision was already made.
* * *
Fourteen-year-old Noor, the youngest of the nawab's children, and the only remaining one to be taking violin lessons from Jana, burst into tears at the news.
"You're all leaving? Mary, too? And Mr. Ganguly?"
"But, Noor, my pet," said Jana, "you'll be leaving soon yourself. You'll love it in Switzerland, I promise. You won't think of us for a moment!"
"Promise me you'll come back during holidays," said Noor.
"I'll try," said Jana. "And you come and visit me in the hills. Get your father to buy a villa up there." It was offered as a joke, but Noor's eyes lit up.
"What's the name of the place you're going to, again?" Noor said.
Noor and Jana exchanged looks, and both burst out laughing.
"That's such a silly name!" said Noor. "Our Town. Whose town?"
"I don't know whose it was originally," said Jana. "But soon it's going to be mine."
Your Wish Is Your Fortune
"Madam! Madam!" The gnarled hand tugged at her sleeve. "Madam, I tell your future from your shadow. All truth, no lies, as God is my witness."
Mr. Ganguly, riding on Jana's shoulder, spread his wings and let out a shriek.
The fortune-teller was as ragged as the beggars waiting in the street outside the train station. A dirt-colored scrap of shawl barely covered one shoulder; a ragged dhoti drooped around his waist. The eyes, however, did not beg but glowed in his creased old face like two small amber beacons.
Jana looked down at her shadow, a dwarf on the scorching pavement with a feathered creature on its shoulder. What on earth could you possibly say about a person from her shadow, short at noon, lengthening at dusk, gone when it rained? Yet she could not resist any new form of fortune-telling. Palms, cards, crystal balls, tea leaves, bird flight, clouds, dice, numbers, the stars--she thought she knew about every possible way people claimed they could tell the future. Yet here was one more.
"As much as you want," the fortune-teller said. "Good fortune, give more; bad fortune, give less."
Jana chuckled. "Okay. Give me a fortune worth two annas."
The man frowned scornfully. "Two annas. No. Superior knowledge only for four annas. Same as chocolate bar, madam."
"Small chocolate bar," said Mary. She scowled at the fortune-teller with such disapproval that Jana laughed out loud. "Jana mem, come. Taxi is waiting."
"It won't take any time." Jana gestured to the man to go ahead, tell.
He planted his walking stick with a thump and got a faraway look in his eyes.
"Memsahib has a strong shadow. She will have a good future, a happy life, much money, and a good death. And her name will live forever." The man set his lips together.
"That's all. All truth, no lies."
Mary was outraged. "That was too short for four annas. Jana mem, this man is one absolute bandit! Highway robbery he is practicing!"
The man said, "All right, I will tell one more thing. You will make a long journey across the sea. To England."
This brought another laugh from Jana and another snort from Mary. "Of course he is telling you that, Jana mem. He tells all white people that! Except if he thinks they're American; then he says they will go to America."
Jana started fishing in her handbag, then had a thought. She switched to Hindi, which made the man start in surprise, and said, "Let me ask you one thing. What do you actually see in the shadow? What makes one shadow different from the next?"
A look of injured dignity came over the man's face. "If I told you that, madam, then you would take my job."
"Fair enough." She gave the man a quarter-rupee coin.
"Jana mem," insisted Mary, "we have a long way to go still."
"All right," said Jana.
The man walked away, toward the crowd of passengers coming out of the railway station.
"Good luck," Jana called after him.
He turned his head. "Good luck, madam."
* * *
The taxi driver's patch over one eye and cataract filming the other did not inspire confidence. Nevertheless, the wobbly yellow letters painted on the door of his battered Morris said, "50,00,00,000 kilometres--no accidents!" Jana walked around and read what was on the other side: "Come along with me on the beautiful journey of life--you never know what will happen!"
"I hope this man can drive," Mary said grimly.
The driver's eyebrows shot up. "Madam! I am Mr. Kilometres! I am driving this road for thirty years. With my eyes closed. I used to drive miles, now I drive kilometres. Modern style. Come, kindly ascend."
There is no safety in safety, Jana reminded herself. If I'd wanted safety, I would be in Glasgow right now, Jack checking that I'd turned off the gas.
"Kindly ascend," the taxi driver repeated.
Ascending was easier said than done, since only one of the back doors of the taxi would open. Jana gestured to Mary to climb in first, which she did, gathering her sari and hoisting herself across the dusty false-leather seat. Then Jana put Mr. Ganguly in the birdcage. He looked dejected, his feathers drooping, his eyes mournful and accusing.
"You miss the palace, don't you," said Jana. All those comfortable nooks and perches, and people who brought him nuts and pieces of mango--of course he missed the palace! "Don't worry, we're going to a new home." She set the cage on the seat.
Jana watched the driver put her two tin footlockers, the wooden crate containing her harmonium, and Mary's duffel and bedroll into an already overstuffed boot. She kept her violin case with her and climbed into the cab.
They took the mountain road at breakneck speed, the taxi's horn making a whiny goose call as they went into the hairpin bends on the wrong side of the road. Jana rolled down the window and tried to breathe in fresh air instead of fumes. Every hour or so, they stopped and the driver lifted the hood and listened to the bubbling noises. Each time, Jana got out and stretched, and each time, she got a wider view of the sinuous road, the terraced fields and small villages, and far below, the plains with their snaking rivers.
By the outskirts of Hamara Nagar, Jana was dizzy and nauseated, Mary's normally dark face a chalky gray, and Mr. Ganguly silent in his cage. A barrier kept all motor vehicles from proceeding farther than the taxi depot, and there were still three miles to go to the hotel.
"Terra firma!" said Jana. "I have to walk. Mary, you can take a rickshaw if you want."
Mary, however, looked scandalized at the idea of being transported while the memsahib went on foot.
As the taxi driver unloaded their things, a crowd gathered out of nowhere. Men argued and spat streams of betel juice and grabbed for the luggage, while children crowded around the birdcage and shouted, "Hello, how are you?" The driver yelled at all of them. Struggling to concentrate in the din, Jana paid the driver and picked five porters from the press of men. Yelling triumphantly at the others to get lost, the victors strapped up and set off, incredibly fast even in bare feet. Jana kept one back to carry the birdcage, but soon, the others were out of sight.
Only five porters. Jana remembered the army of porters they had needed, when she was a child, for each April's trip to the hills. Her mother's hats alone had filled three trunks.
Now it was mid-March, not quite the tourist season in Hamara Nagar. Still, tea shops and tobacco stands were doing a brisk business. The cloth merchants sat cross-legged in their stalls, ready at the first sign of a customer to jump up and pull bolts of cloth from the horizontal rows stacked floor to ceiling. Tiny Nepalese porters trudged by under loads of charcoal, and Tibetan peddlers wheeled carts of striped textiles and turquoise-and-silver jewelry.
Jana picked up the pace, and Mary, unaccustomed to wearing tennis shoes, puffed as she tried to keep up.
"The air is cool," Jana said, happy to feel the breeze like peppermint on her face.
"Cold, madam," noted Mary, who said madam only when disgruntled. "Those men are making clouds." She gestured to a group of men huddled around a charcoal brazier, their breath visible in the air.
* * *
The town was very different from when Jana was ten, with no British people strolling by with parasols. The signs saying "No Indians or dogs" were gone from the main street road, the road now lined with buildings. A huge green structure claimed to house "the largest roller skating rink in all of India." Jana saw a Bharatanatyam dance school, a couple of cinemas, a camera shop. Past and present rose before her eyes like a double-exposed photograph. Was this the stretch of road where her pony had bolted?
Once truly into the English Bazaar, however, she found the landscape more familiar. At the western end of the town, she recognized the police station, the library, and the Anglican church, with its yellow roses in bloom. In the Municipal Garden, the plantings were as symmetrical and well tended as in the olden days, and the magnificent canopy of a golden rain tree shaded benches where women sat and chatted while their children played. A bronze George Everest still stood on a pedestal, peering into the distance, measuring the peaks of the Himalayas.
Finally, here was the Victoria Hotel, its circular driveway marked with white brick triangles. Jana took in her breath. It was so--so well preserved, so much the same. Even the people seemed imported from the past: the ancient mali watering and murmuring endearments to the pots of chrysanthemums, and the bearer in a white uniform and tufted turban standing by the entry.
By the side of the door, the porters were already waiting with Jana's luggage. She added enough baksheesh to their pay to bring smiles, picked up Mr. Ganguly's cage, and went in.
Mary followed, murmuring approval. "Old place. Very pukka."
Jana took in the antelope heads looking down reproachfully from the dark paneled walls and the stuffed tiger in the middle of the floor. There was a quirky, faded elegance to the semicircular staircase, the crisscross mullions in the windows. Would sahibs and memsahibs descend that staircase, ready for their chota pegs?
And then she got jolted back to 1960. Instead of a picture of a medal-laden George V behind the desk, there was Prime Minister Nehru, pensive in a white cap. And young Mr. Dass was the new breed of hotelier, clean-shaven and nattily turned out in suit and tie. He was attentive to the point of unctuousness.
"Welcome, madam. We are honored by your presence."
On writing to the hotel, Jana had asked whether birds could be accommodated, and the same Mr. Dass had answered by return post: "We are making allowances for children, well-behaved dogs, and polite birds."
"Namast�!" Mr. Ganguly, on his best behavior and fascinated by the new surroundings, had recovered his voice.
"Namast�," returned Mr. Dass, his face becoming warmer and less officious. He presented the room keys with a flourish, and briefed Jana on mealtimes, mail deliveries, and the schedule for the string band in the Vienna Room. While he was making careful entries in his ledger, she peeked into the empty ballroom, where several barefoot men were sweeping the floor. A vision came to mind of her parents waltzing, her father in white tie and tails, her mother in a gray silk dress with inserts of Belgian lace.
Mr. Dass brought her attention back to the desk. "Madam has stayed here before?"
"Once. Fifty--actually, forty-eight years ago."
"Just one minute." He disappeared into the adjoining office and reappeared with an ancient guest book. "Take a look, take a look!"
Among the entries in faded ink, Jana found her mother's elegant handwriting: "Tea was promptly at dawn, and the bearers very well trained." Jana saw her own childish signature, dated June 15, 1912. She'd written, "We had a lovely time. I hope we come here next year."
But they hadn't; they'd gone to Simla, instead.
"Madam?" Mr. Dass was asking.
"Oh, yes, what were you saying?"
"Bed tea? Do you require bed tea?"
They still had that at least, a vestige of the empire she rather liked. At her nod, he said, "Five o'clock? Six?"
"Seven?" she said hopefully.
"Of course. Oh, madam has mail." He handed her a blue aerogramme.
"Have you many guests here?" she asked.
"Not yet. But we have a busy season coming up," Mr. Dass said. "April through June--fully booked! Then, after the rains, we have the Third Annual Futurology Convention. Delegates are coming from all over the world."
"That sounds interesting. Do they make predictions?"
"They do," said Dass. "Only problem is, they make contradictory predictions. So while they're never really wrong, they're never really right."
"I can understand that," said Jana.
* * *
Jana's room was off a long verandah punctuated by planter's chairs and hanging baskets of geraniums. Bearers went back and forth with tea trays, and a young woman was delivering laundry. Jana was unpacking her clothes into an old almirah with a carved front and a spotty mirror when there was a tap on the door. It was Mary, now revived.
"Mary! Mary!" called Mr. Ganguly.
"Namast�. Bird is happy again--that's good, right, Jana mem?"
"It is good," said Jana. "How is your room, Mary?"
"No problem, Jana mem. No scorpions, no ants, no rats, no lizards. Just one cat that sleeps outside the door."
An uncharacteristically low population density, Jana thought. "Have you had any food?"
"I am going just now," said Mary. "They tell me there is a South Indian food stall in the bazaar." She smiled broadly at this unexpected find. "This town has more than you would expect, Jana mem."