It was the title of the book that caught my eye: From Kippers to Karimeen (by Psyche Abraham). I couldn’t make head or tail of it. The blurb told me that this was the autobiography of an English girl who married an Indian student called Jhupu (“a handsome Bengali”) who was studying in England and returned with him to Calcutta. This was intriguing enough for me to borrow the book, though the “Karimeen” in the title mystified me almost until the end of the book.
Jhupu and Psyche traveled to Bombay by ship, where they were met by Jhupu’s parents. India, naturally enough, was a culture shock for Psyche. “In India, spitting has been elevated almost to an art form,” she observes. They all stayed in a hotel as Jhupu had lined up job interviews in Bombay; he soon accepted a position in an advertising agency, and the four of them traveled to Jhupu’s family home in Calcutta in the interim.
Here, Jhupu and Psyche stayed in the family mansion, in which lived the sprawling joint family Jhupu belonged to. Psyche had a tough time adjusting in this strange new environment. What made it harder was that Jhupu would leave her to her own devices during the daytime; it wasn’t the done thing for a husband to spend time with his wife! So, Psyche was lonely and would sit in the garden and read a book, but not for long as some woman of the extended family would spy her alone in the garden and escort her indoors.
Here is Psyche’s first visit to the bathroom in the house: “After a while I wanted to go to the bathroom. The bathroom was eastern style, that is, the lavatory was at floor level on which one was required to squat, which was all right, but I couldn’t see how I was supposed to wash my hands. There was no washbasin or even a tap – just three or four buckets of water. So I plunged my hands into a full bucket of water and proceeded to wash them. The next person to go into the bathroom was horrified – the bucket was full of soapy water! What I was supposed to have done was to use the large aluminum mug that was to remove a little water from one of the buckets, and wash my hands by pouring it over them and onto the floor where there was a large outlet for it. For that and other reasons, Indian bathrooms, traditionally, are generally always wet, something I still can’t abide.”
Here is her amazement at the dining room: “One of the four rooms downstairs was the dining room – it was amazing! It was just a bare space, completely devoid of furniture – no table, chairs, sideboard, anything. I couldn’t see how could be called a dining room but I was soon to learn.” She observes that the Brahmins of Bengal are non-vegetarians: “Perhaps I should mention that the family was Brahmin, that is, the highest of the four Hindu castes. In most parts of the country, Brahmins are vegetarians but in Bengal, Brahmins eat fish, chicken, and mutton but draw the line at pork and beef.” Psyche observes that food was eaten only with the right hand for “reasons I won’t go into here.” This is uncharacteristic reticence given the frank tone of the book.
Psyche soon found that one of Jhupu’s friends had married an English girl called Gwen, and the couple lived close by. Psyche and Gwen would meet in the evenings for a walk and compare notes on their experiences. “She [Gwen] also lived in a joint family but much smaller than Jhupu’s. Like me, she had been accepted whole-heartedly into the family, and she was very fond of all of them.” Gwen was unhappy at not having her own house; living in a joint family got to her. She went back to England with her daughter, and her husband, a lawyer who was building his practice in Calcutta had no choice but to stay back. Neither remarried, and they lived apart but remained friends. Psyche observes that “I would reckon that about fifty percent, if not more, of these mixed marriages failed because for one reason or the other the women were unable to adjust to life in India.” This is interesting in the light of Psyche’s own experiences with marriage to Indians and living in India. (Also see Of Guns and Puffed Rice.)
Jhupu and Psyche soon returned to Bombay, where Jhupu took up his job in the art department of an advertising firm. It was interesting to learn that the LIC’s logo, two hands protecting a flame, was designed by Jhupu’s team. Psyche has a son and a daughter in quick succession. And here is when her roller-coaster ride began. The marriage came under strain; Psyche felt that Jhupu was disappointed in her, compared her to other women he considered achievers, and criticized her unfairly. They drifted apart, and she fell in love with Jhupu’s boss, Jog (“a very attractive man with a great deal of charm”), who was himself married to Jean, an American from Seattle. Psyche told Jhupu that she was in love with Jog, and he “went berserk – started smashing up the furniture and yelling ‘I’m going to kill him’.” But the break between Jhupu and Psyche was irreconcilable.
Psyche finally left Jhupu and her son (Miti) and daughter (Sara), who was just 15 months old, and returned to England. She wanted to take the children along, but Jhupu would have none of that. Her son, Miti, was about three years old then. The leave-taking was heart-breaking: “As I was leaving the house, Miti said to me, ‘Mama, please don’t go’. At that moment, I made up my mind to definitely return and told him I’d be back soon. Looking back, I just don’t know how I could have ignored that plea. But I’d been through too much tension and drama and couldn’t fight off the desire to flee.” Jog arranged the air ticket to England and met her in the transit lounge of Bombay airport. Miti’s plea had haunted Psyche during the four-hour flight from Calcutta to Bombay. At the airport, she told Jog that she would return to Jhupu and the children after a few weeks in England.
Back in London, Psyche settled down to a new routine. Memories of Jhupu and her children began to fade. She first thought she could get back Miti and Sara and marry Jog (Jog was agreeable to her taking the children in), but then realized that Jhupu would never part with the children. Psyche got a job with a dancing school, and it wasn’t long before she and the number two man in the school became lovers. “At the end of it we found ourselves in bed together, and we made love. Though I found him culturally somewhat crude, he was a gentle and tender lover, and it was wonderful to be in the warmth of a man’s arms again after so many, many months, even though this was a man I didn’t love. Jog and I had never slept together. It astonishes me now to think that he and I had given up everything for each other when we were physically, and to a great extent mentally, strangers. After that evening, John would come to the Six Bells just before closing time and we would go back to his bed-sit, which was somewhere near Marble Arch, and make love. I think we both had a great need at that time for the sort of comfort that only physical closeness can bring. And it was comfort without commitment, which suited us both.” Jog in the meantime had given up his job and was preparing to join Psyche in London.
Psyche began looking for a flat as Jog’s arrival approached; she was staying with her mother. One day she realized that she was pregnant. The father was obviously John, whom she’d stopped seeing, instead taking up with Bill, “another Canadian, a journalist.” The baby she decided to abort, but she didn’t have the money for the operation. And Jog was on the point of leaving India to join her!
And incredibly enough, just when Jog was all set to come, Psyche began to wish he wouldn’t come: “About two weeks before he was due to arrive, I wrote and told him that I had changed my mind about everything and that he shouldn’t come.” Jog called her the moment he received the letter; whether she wanted him to or not, he announced, he was going to come to London. (If I were in his shoes, I’d probably have thrown myself into the Hooghly) Psyche reflects: “How I had the gall to just announce that everything was over when he had given up everything for me, I don’t know. As I said, I have a very cruel streak in my nature, which I am not proud of.” At any rate, she is moved by the despair in his voice, asks him to come after all, and spends one last night with Bill.
Jog arrived in London, and got work as a clerk at Max Factor, a lowly position for one who ran a well-established advertising agency back home. And Psyche gave birth to a baby girl (“the only blond and blue-eyed child I have had”), called her Priya, and gave her up for adoption. Parting with Priya was “one of the worst experiences of my life. As Priya was being carried out of the reception room by a nurse, she craned her neck over the crook of the nurse’s arm and looked at me steadily with her blue eyes as if she somehow knew it was the last time she would see me.” Psyche broke down, took a taxi to her flat, and cried herself to sleep.
The next phase in the saga sees Jog and Psyche move back to India. Jog had found a job managing a mining operation in Saurashtra for a Chinese businessman called George Huang. Psyche makes an interesting comparison between Indians and Chinese ways of thinking: “I don’t think George ever came to terms with the sloppiness of India – of the imprecision with which people think things out and the casual attitude of Indians to most things – work, time, environment – to mention just a few. After some time, this began to show in his relationship with Jog. Jog would tend to see the wood as a whole, while George would take note of every tree and yet, at the same time, not lose sight of the wood.” She adds that “while China may certainly have, or have had, limited territorial designs on India for its own strategic reasons, it would not want to take over anything more, because faced with the extreme individualism and general indiscipline of its people, they would find it totally unimaginable!”
George eventually shut shop and moved to London. Jog returned to the advertising company he managed earlier, ASP, and was posted to Delhi. Psyche settled in nicely in Delhi, and proceeded to have three more babies (Ini, Joya, and Abhi) with Jog. And she also managed to get in touch with Jhupu (who was still working for ASP) through an intermediary, and pleaded with him to be allowed to meet Miti and Sara. The intervening years had seen the rancor die down, and Jhupu agreed. That was a battle won, but Psyche and Jog were drifting apart. Jog moved smoothly from one affair to another, and Psyche found herself in a relationship with the well-known cartoonist from Kerala, Abu Abraham. And one fine day, Psyche left Jog and moved in with Abu. She wrote letters to her children with Jog to explain her decision, who naturally enough had mixed feelings about this abandonment. Abhi, for example, said it was “the saddest day of his life.” Psyche reflects: “I felt like a heel, but in the end, as I think they now understand, life for most of us weaker mortals, if one is honest, is all about oneself and one’s own salvation. In the end, you’re on your own too.” This is the kind of Western individualism that grates against traditional Indian family values, where adjustment for the collective good, not individual salvation, is the name of the game.
Her relationship with Abu hardly began on the most auspicious note: “But when I arrived in the afternoon of Monday, 8th September, as he knew I was going to, there was no welcome smile, no joy, no passionate embrace, as surely there would have been in a film, to celebrate the fact that at last we were together. It was almost as if I had taken him by surprise and after a while he just turned over and went to sleep. I don’t think I have ever felt more let down in my life. I went into the bathroom and cried my eyes out.” Surprisingly, considering this bizarre start to their life together under one roof, though, Psyche sticks it out with Abu and in the end finds the peace and contentment she had sought all her life in a retired life with him in Trivandrum, Kerala. Abu passed away in 2002, and Psyche lives alone in their Trivandrum house. (This explains the “Karimeen” in the title of the book. Karimeen is the pearl spot fish, the Keralite’s favorite fish.) She concludes the book thus: “I live alone, surrounded by our books and paintings and knick-knacks that we picked up here and there over the years, the trees we planted, and the garden we made. I feel Abu’s presence here and there; only here do I feel at peace. The people I know and even some that I don’t have been very kind and loving. I feel part of a community, not an alien. So it is here I shall stay as long I am fit and able. After that, who knows?”
For the male reader, there are interesting glimpses of what life as a woman is like. Here is Psyche struggling with puberty:
“I was not comfortable with my pubescent self. I hated having breasts and was very self-conscious about their being larger than those of my friends. My grandmother didn’t help matters either. When staying with her one day, she caught a glimpse of them and said, ‘Good God!’ Now I can join in a joke about them. For instance, when my son-in-law came to India from England once, my mother had given him some bras to hand over to me. When he came to our house, he said, ‘I’ve brought your shopping baskets, love.'”
Psyche on the birth of her first child:
“At last, at 6:15 the next morning, on 14th August, my son was born and was given to me to hold. I don’t think there is any other moment in a woman’s life that can compare with this for the sheer sense of wonder and achievement it brings.”
There also insights into what life in India used to be like decades ago:
“Fathima was a talented copywriter. Jog had had a lot of trouble getting the proprietor of ASP, a branch of the industrialist Birla family, to agree to employ her. It was company policy at that time not to employ Muslims.”
But above all, I love this book for Psyche’s refreshing candor about her life and her clear-eyed but sympathetic portrayal of India, the country she made her home. Consider the contours of her life: three husbands, two sets of children from each of her two husbands, and an illegitimate daughter given up for adoption. Two husbands betrayed, their children abandoned. Psyche, to her credit, doesn’t try to soften the blows for the reader. And she displays a self-knowledge and a sometimes self-lacerating insight into her own character that should at least partly redeem her in the eyes of even the sternest and most unforgiving of “moral” critics.
In London waiting for Jog to come, enmeshed in an affair with the Canadian journalist Bill Boyd, looking for a quack who would abort her baby (fathered by yet another lover), Psyche reflects: “What a mess I had managed to make of my life in the space of a few months. A husband betrayed, children abandoned. A stepfather who hated the sight of me, an indifferent father, a worried-sick mother and grandmother, a lover to whom I’d been unfaithful before he’d actually become my lover, yet had given up all he had for me – his job, his wife, his home. And now a baby that I was to destroy.”
And yet in the end, all her children – Priya included – come together and reunite with their mother. (In one of the most heart-warming moments of the book, Sara succeeds in tracing Priya in London.) The ex-husbands are reconciled amicably. I’m reminded of these lines: “If you love someone, set them free. If they come back they’re yours; if they don’t they never were.” Circumstances led Psyche to set her beloved children free, and they returned to her. How many of us can put them to that kind of test? After all the vicissitudes, Psyche has landed on her feet.
From Kippers to Karimeen is a whopper of a life story (I love the creative title!), and as I put down the book after reading the last page, all I could say was “Holy mackerel! What a life!”