After several wretched months at sea, Eleanor Oliphant arrives in Calcutta with her brother Henry and sister Harriet. It is 1836, and her beloved Henry has just been appointed England's new Governor-General for India. Eleanor is to be his official hostess.
Despite the imported English gowns and formal soir?es, India makes a mockery of Eleanor's sensibilities. Burning heat, starving people, insects as big as eggs-it is all an unreal dream, rife with tumultuous life. Harriet gives herself over to the adventure. Henry busies himself with official duties. Eleanor, though groping for bearings, slowly finds her isolation punctuated by moments of elation: her first monsoon, graceful women in vibrant sarees, Benares rising out of the mist. She discovers she likes curries and her native servants; and often dislikes her compatriots. Over the course of six years and a trek from Calcutta to Kabul and back, India manages to unsettle all of her "old, old ideas."
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October 12, 2004
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Excerpt from One Last Look by Susanna Moore
Aboard the Jupiter, 2 February 1836
There was another storm this morning, leaving a foot of water in my cabin, and now a rat scrabbles amongst my sodden books. There is a stench of rotting hides. My own excrement floats back and forth. The journal I began when we sailed last October is ruined. I have started anew--this is my first entry.
As sick as death, I've eaten only oranges, and the teaspoonful of arrowroot I take each morning (I just devoured the last five oranges in the world crouched against the bolted door of my cabin, terrified that someone would take them from me). We have not seen land, nor another vessel--not even a sea monster--in seventy-two days. There is no coffee, no biscuits, no marmalade, no ale.
Henry is not sick--he eats whatever food remains and dines again with the sailors. They've grown fond of him, I hear. Harriet is not sick--to my astonishment, she's never been better. Cousin Lafayette, of course, is a good sailor. Henry convinced the crew to tie Lafayette to the mast for his twenty-fifth birthday and douse him with sea-water. He spends much of his time with the ladies, particularly the lovely Miss Haywood--he aims to improve her whist. Frolic, like Harriet, is having a lovely time. The dog has a little window of his own, tacked with netting, where he sits and utters odd moans of pleasure at the foam.
Rather we were transported to Botany Bay in a ship full of Irish poachers than this! At least we'd have had the pleasure of a little felony.
Aboard the Jupiter, 4 February 1836
I cannot conceive what it is like for the passengers below, packed tightly with the captain's private stores of cheese and hats to sell--the hatches are closed to prevent flooding. The wailing of the eighty-four hounds belonging to a Welsh army captain is ceaseless. A company of soldiers--who ate all the poultry before we'd left the Thames--drills up and down in new hobnailed boots, more thunderous even than the loose casks rolling across the deck. (We are most grateful that the crew is barefoot.) Harriet's maid Jones is so unhinged that Dr. Drummond has tied her to a chair.
Two sails were carried away in the storm and a drunken German piano tuner traveling to Ceylon lost overboard. Henry says it is a great pity, as piano tuners are hard to find in the East. There was a gathering on deck at sunset to ease his way to his Reward, but I could not bring myself to attend.
My sheets are stiff with blood; my hair heavy with salt. There are no clean clothes. My nightdress was so soiled, I stuffed it through the porthole and watched it disappear in the dirty yellow sky.
Aboard the Jupiter, 5 February 1836
I sleep when my exhaustion is so great that even I cannot resist--the click of the cockroaches cannot keep me awake, nor the sailors singing "May God Sink the Sea," nor the groan of the bulkheads as they strain to split in two. The ocean streams heedlessly past, so near it seems to surge through my body. The movement of the ship both lulls and torments me--a glide forward and then a trembling pause until the ship relinquishes with a shudder and swoons into the trough of the next swell. It puts me in mind of the plea- sures of love.
St. Cl�ry hides in his cabin with green-sickness, and Henry's manservant, Crick, is covered in boils.
Aboard the Jupiter, 8 February 1836
No matter how loud I scream, no one can hear me.
Aboard the Jupiter, 12 February 1836
I am feeling better now. It is so hot now we've passed the Equator, I wear only a muslin camisole under my dressing gown. (By the time we reached Rio de Janeiro, I'd given up wearing stockings or dressing my hair.) My maid Brandt is disappointed that I refuse to unpack my finery, in fear that soon we will be obliged to dress like Ali Baba (she has never forgotten the evening that my mother, who'd been once to Syria, came down the staircase wearing Damascene pantaloons and a jeweled dagger at her waist), but she is too busy quarreling with the new half-caste maid, Rosina, to make a fuss.
Harriet, good girl that she is, happily keeps up her regime, wearing her corset without complaint, plaiting and plaiting again her hair into two splendid coils, splashing in the buckets of salt water the young officers conspire to bring her--Capt. Chesnell is said to have challenged Lt. Galsworthy for twice going out of turn. She busies herself writing longish letters when she is not memorizing Lalla Rookh. I worry that my sister will have a difficult time of it when we arrive. Harriet is used to comfort and quiet and a certain kind of society. That she is a trifling bit simple will be an advantage, for once. I used to sit in my cabin and think of ways to frighten her (it is not as easy as one would think--she is not embarrassed by fairies). I'd set off to find her with something akin to glee, but her guileless gaze, turned on me in bewilderment as I prowled round her, robbed me of my purpose. She is so biddable, so eager to please that I would creep back to my cabin in shame.