Homecomings is a new piece of writing by Sandip Roy, commissioned by the Book Festival as part of New Passages, an international author residency conducted in partnership with An Lanntair and Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival. Read more about the project here.
Sandip Roy is the award-winning author of Don’t Let Him Know. A longtime commentator for National Public Radio in the US, his writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, BBC, the Telegraph and other major publications. He lives in Kolkata. Read his initial reflections on the project here.
Author’s Note: Some of this is based on known facts about Colin Mackenzie’s life. But much of it is fiction as well. Where fiction begins and fact ends is left to the reader to discern.
I am the second son.
The second son, my grandfather would say, never has a home. He lives in his father’s house knowing that one day it will belong to his brother. It is his brother’s land. His brother’s estate. His brother’s farm. He may be welcome there but he is living on borrowed time. He will have to build his home somewhere else.
I do not say it as a grievance. Or a complaint. It is just a fact, the fate of the second son.
That is why I too left. I was 29. I knew there was not much future as a customs officer in Stornoway. It might sound immodest but one might say I made more of a name and fortune than my brothers ever did. Had I never left Lewis I would never have become an Orientalist. I would never have fought the armies of Tipu Sultan on the plateaus of India. I did not want to be a soldier. I thought one day I would be a mathematician. But my father said to become an engineer. He said it was a more profitable profession. The East India Company always needs engineers.
My father was the postmaster. The world came calling at his little post office but he had never seen what I have collected – the coins, the maps, the statues, the paintings, the antiquities. I have been to places no one in Stornoway has imagined. Amaravati. Madras. Masulipatnam. Java. Cape Comorin. Srirangapatnam. Hyderabad. Places I could hardly get my tongue around.
I am the first Surveyor General of India. Some days I can scarcely believe that once I was a boy whose world extended no further than the village of Stornoway.
But now as I watch the sun rise and set in the heat and rain of Calcutta, I find myself thinking of Stornoway again and again. I feel the urge to go home. In India I only know heat and rain, then rain and heat. When the mosquitos bite I remember the midges that would attack us as we tramped through the heather in Lewis. It’s been almost forty years since I came to India. I have never found the time to go back to Scotland. There was always work to do, new ruins to explore, new terrains to map. When I was in Singapore under Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles I thought of India with the fondness of a native. How queer it is that now after all these years I am missing the Scottish fog, the bite of its wind, the wetness of the rain on the grey slate, the hydrangea my sister grew in the garden. Not the midges though.
Tha an cianalas orm. Homesickness has befallen me. I once asked Cavelly Venkata Boria my assistant how his people said they were homesick. Boria speaks many languages – Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Sanskrit. He glanced up from the inscription he was studying and looked at me with some puzzlement and shook his head. He had never been too far from home, Boria. He understood what I said but he could not comprehend cianalas. It was as alien to him as fog. Or heather.
Strangely it was only after I came to Calcutta that I started to miss Stornoway again. I was content in Madras. I had made it my home in a fashion. When I returned from Java to Madras I told everyone I was coming home with the fondness of a native. But Calcutta, first city of the empire, does not feel like home. I feel restless here, a man without a home. The society ladies and the gentlemen, the dandies at the balls, the dour missionaries bore me. I am not one for parties. My grandmother once sheltered Bonnie Prince Charlie. I would hear those stories from her. They would thrill me to the marrow. I cannot share those stories with the Englishmen of Calcutta.
I miss the feel of palm leaf manuscripts. I miss the stones of Amaravati, hot in the summer sun, cold in the winter chill. I would much rather spend an evening with the Gomateshwara statue than a gala at the home of some baboo with nautch girls or a society evening with officers of the East India Company smoking cigars and drinking whisky. Petronella does not understand my love for antiquities. She finds them too dull. She would rather smoke a hookah.
One night I dreamt of Stornoway. When I woke in the morning I could see the grey light of the North sea on the edges of my dream. But then the skies brightened and it was the harsh blue of a Calcutta summer morning. I wrote to my sister that day. I told her I was thinking of coming home with Petronella. I am a man of some means now. I could build my own house there, a house of some standing, fill it with statues from my travels.
I wanted to spend the rest of my life in that house, surrounded by my collection from India. My work here was done. It is time to go home, I told Petronella. She only asked how far is Stornoway from London. Very far I told her. How about Glasgow, she said. Or Edinburgh?
You will grow used to it I told her. The summers are beautiful. The people are good God fearing folk. And my sister will be glad for her company. Petronella did not reply. She just poured herself another cup of tea.
The Company was not surprised when I told them I wanted to go home. It had been long enough. The lords and ladies, the viceroys they go home to grow old and die amongst grandchildren and bloodhounds. People like us, the second sons, we live and die in the far outposts of the Empire, stricken by gout or tuberculosis or the other myriad fevers that rage through these parts. We are buried in its graves alongside infants and young frail women and soldiers who fell in battle.
But it was not to be. On 8 May 1821 I died right here in Calcutta. In obituaries they said “He died at his home in Calcutta.” But that is not entirely correct. I died in Calcutta before I could go home.
My grave is a plain grave for I was never a man given to much ostentation. Hindoo Stuart’s grave is a temple of such fanciful curlicues of stone and marble. I would never draw that much attention to myself. If you come to the cemetery you would walk right by my grave, a simple affair that merely says “Surveyor General of India who departed this life.” It does not mention Petronella. It has no fulsome eulogy. I would have it no other way.
I have no complaints. But sometimes as I watch the crows fight over the graves I remember the gulls of Stornoway. And I wish I could have heard them cry one last time. I am the first Surveyor General of India, a man of maps you might say. Yet I never found my own way back home.
I am the second son. Does the second son ever have a home?
∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗
I trust this letter finds you in the best of health. Thank you for your letter which I received days after the funeral.
When I boarded the ship in Calcutta I felt like my world had ended. I stood on the deck watching the Calcutta docks recede till the salt spray drove me inside. This was not what I had imagined my life would be like when I married Colin in Java. I did not think for one moment I would be making this journey, on my own, to a small village in the Outer Hebrides, a widow with little to call her own.
You had said I know he is older, much older but he is a good stable man. He will look after you well. And he is headed to Calcutta. Everyone wants to live in Calcutta. I admit he was a good man, not the most interesting perhaps but a decent gentleman through and through. But I could tell he was unhappy in Calcutta, that his heart was not in the city. Or perhaps his heart was not in me though he did all his husbandly duties with great diligence. When I told him I missed pickled oysters, he forthwith ordered them for me from Madras. But I could tell he was at his happiest when poring over that collection, when tracing those maps and drawings of statues and temples whose measurements he wrote down with such care though they were sometimes such hideous things, a goddess with a skull necklace and girdle, so gaunt you would not believe, sitting atop a body.
Even when he told me he wanted us to return to Stornoway I did not protest. I imagined he would be happier there and he assured me his sister would welcome me with open arms. I wondered if I would be happy there. I have grown up in Ceylon, lived in Java and set up home in Calcutta. I only knew hot nights and warm seas and bungalows where bougainvillea grew like a jungle. What did I know of cold grey mornings and heather and tartan?
It is strange, is it not? Most of those around us, people like us that is, not the natives always mean these places when they say home – Dundee and Glasgow and Leicester and Dublin. But these are exotic to me. Ceylon is home and now Calcutta.
When Colin died for weeks I did not know what I should do. Most of all I did not know what to do with that collection so beloved of him. It was like a great burden around my neck. I know his great attachment to it but I was not up to the task of cataloguing it and putting it in order. That was to be his retirement project in Stornoway. Now it was my obligation.
I confess I felt a sense of some relief when some relief when the Bengal government offered to take it off my hands. I would have given it to them for Rs20,000 but they gave me Rs 100,000 which I think was a fair and handsome sum, all in all. And then all that was left was to decide what to do with me, his last personal effect as it were.
Colin’s sister kept writing to me asking me to come to Stornoway. I felt that it was my duty to go in accordance with his wishes. This is what he had wanted for us. And so I find myself on this ship alone journeying to a village in Scotland. I feel strange, almost dizzy. Is this how Colin felt the day he left Stornoway on his own for Madras? I wish I had asked him how felt that day. Was he filled with trepidation or with great excitement for his new adventure?
I confess, dear sister, I feel no excitement. Sometimes I look at a picture I have of myself smoking a hookah and it all seems a lifetime ago. I wish I could see Colombo once more and walk its avenues under the shade of trees. I fear I will never see it again, just as Colin never saw his Stornoway. He told me once there was a word in Gaelic for homesickness. Sadly it eludes me now. But I understand it for the boat had barely left the harbour than it washed over me like a great wave.
I send you my love and please give my kisses to the children.
I have news. Bear with me. I so wish you were here so I could talk about this with you instead of posting letters not knowing when they will reach you. Every day after breakfast I take a small walk on the deck and stand and watch the sea. Sometimes I read my book of poetry. On the first Saturday of our voyage I was doing that sitting on the deck reading my book when suddenly I heard someone say “Look, it is shoal of flying fish.”
I looked up and it was the most beautiful sight, fish it seemed with wings. The person who had said that to me apologized for startling me and introduced himself as one Lt Robert Page Fulcher. Lt Fulcher, it turns out, had seen me at the club in Calcutta and he expressed his condolences for Colin.
At the evening party he came up to me again and asked if he might have the pleasure of my hand in dance. Of course I refused. Even though we are at sea we are in many ways still too close to Calcutta and word would get around that the widow Mackenzie was having a merry time on the sea. So he brought me a glass of sherry and spoke to me. Dear sister, I must say it was nice to converse with a young man closer to my age and interests. He took me for a walk in the deck and we stood under the moon hoping to see the flying fish again. We did not but after a long time I felt alive again.
The long and short of it is Robert asked me to marry him. And at the Cape of Good Hope I became, and I hope this does not shock you too much, Petronella Fulcher. Dear sister, I must admit the thought of spending the rest of my days with Colin’s sister in Stornoway filled me with great anxiety. I imagined us growing old together, two women thrown together by chance, the ghost of Colin always between us. What did we have in common after all?
I hope you will not judge me and be happy for me. Robert is a kind man and he makes me laugh and I feel I have not laughed in a long time. I know Colin’s sister is sending someone to meet me at the port in London to escort me back to Stornoway. It will be difficult but I will have to tell him that I will not go. I have decided that I will send the money I earned from Colin’s collection back with him to his sister. That seems the honourable thing to do. I am only keeping an ivory box he gave me. It has the word Mrs Mackenzie engraved on it. It will be a memory of our all too brief time together.
I hope one day you will come to London and see us. My love to you as always and kisses to the children.
∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗
31 May 1821
Terrible tidings have come from Calcutta. Colin has gone to the Lord even as he was in the midst of preparing to come home. I cannot believe it true. He will not even live in the house built with his money from India. He had such plans for it, so fastidious he was about its design. I still remember the day he left for India. At that time he said he would make his fortune and come back in a few years, in time for my wedding he said. Neither did that happen, nor my wedding. I have looked after this house for years never expecting to see him again. I feel I have spent my whole life waiting for him. But I was so proud when I heard he had become solicitor-general though I am not sure what exactly that means. I heard about his wedding and I was happy. The Vicar was just saying that when they return to Stornoway we must have a grand reception for them. There was so much to plan and now this.
June 15 1821
I have written to Petronella that she must come and stay with me. I felt that was my duty and obligation to dear Colin. Petronella is a young woman and I do not know much about her. I read her father was a Dutch sea captain in Ceylon so I do not know what kind of family she comes from. At least she is not native. I had feared like many company men Colin might have gone native. He spoke too much, and too fondly, of the natives who would draw his statues and translate his documents. But Petronella is the daughter of a Dutch sea captain. She is not Scottish but there is seafaring blood in her at least.
As my poor brother’s wife I feel she should come and stay here. She wrote saying Colin left a great collection of antiquities, statues of Hindoo gods and maps and coins. I said she should give it all to a museum because I do not know where we might find a home for that in Stornoway, certainly not in the house. I think it would make me quite nervous to have such idols in the house. But Mrs Macintosh says that perhaps it will do me good to have a young woman as a companion around the house. If nothing else, she can tell me a bit more about Colin’s life in India because goodness knows he would write very little about it in his letters home.
Lady Hood who has returned from India knew Colin there. She came to pay her respects. She described him as a most decent man held in great regard by his colleagues. I have heard such stories about Lady Hood herself. Some say she was the first white lady to shoot a tiger. I hear gossip about a very colourful life. You would hardly know that if you were to see her now. She is a woman of the church through and through. She expressed her condolences but when I spoke of Petronella she said nothing. I worry if I have made the right decision by asking Petronella to come to Stornoway. But I think this is what Colin would have wanted. This should be her home as well by right.
July 31 1821
I have received some shocking news. James McLeod who went to meet Petronella in London has returned empty handed. I thought she might have missed her ship. But he said she was on the ship but when she disembarked from it she just refused to come with him. She just said to give me her sincere apologies but she had changed her mind about coming to Stornoway and making her home there. She sent her money instead as if that makes up for her dereliction of duty. Apparently she has entered into marriage with some army officer she met on the ship.
I do not know what to think. I thought it most unbecoming. I went to our family plot in the cemetery today. Sometimes the air there clears my cloudy thoughts. Our family has scattered to the winds, Lord. Our brother Alexander was buried in England. Our other brother has disappeared in Canada. Another died in India. And now Colin too will not return home. Island people, they get everywhere, Colin would say. But do they come back home?
There will only be plaques to remember the Mackenzies from now. Since Petronella will not fulfill her wifely duties, I will have to write the plaque for dear Colin. Who knows how she has remembered him in his grave in India. Brother Colin had to go to a gentleman’s school in Stornoway for we did not even have a formal school when he was a child. Our home was modest at best. I wonder how much he had shared with her. But he did so much with his life that should be the pride of Stornoway. I do not think I have the energy to travel to Calcutta on my own but I will make sure that everyone who visits our family grave here will learn of his indefatigable research into ancient history, literature and antiquities of that interesting part of the world.
As for me I wonder how they will remember me when I am gone. I hope as daughter, sister and friend who discharged her duties with exemplary solicitude, affection and regard, that in my small way I conveyed comfort and relief for my fellow creatures. When I die I wish there to be a great feast as befits the last of the Mackenzies of Stornoway.
But I only wish Colin had been able to live in the house his money built in Stornoway, that he had been able to come home, to see the thistle in bloom one last time.
∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗
I am Jina Parasvanatha, the 23rd Jain tirthankara. You would call me a saviour, one who has conquered the cycle of death and rebirth. But I could not save myself. A Naga serpent coils around me sheltering me with his seven hoods. But he could not protect me. My attendants stand next to me holding a goad and a noose. But they could not protect me either. I live in storage far away from everything I knew and loved. Some days I feel so cold.
A man named Chakravarti Paloja sculpted me. And a man named Colin Mackenzie “rescued” me from the ruins of a temple. His name is inscribed on me forever and ever. Parasa-naat. C. McK 1806. He left his stamp on me as casually as if I belonged to him and not to the centuries. I was an object of veneration once for kings and laymen. People saw in me the hope of enlightenment. Now I am a thing, a collectible. Basalt or black shale, highly polished. Late 12th century. Gulbarga, Karnataka. Once I was a bridge to liberation. I bore witness to centuries, to kingdoms that rose and fell, even to Queen Victoria herself. Now I am a possession of a museum that bears her name.
Colin Mackenzie was a kind man, a scholar, genuinely interested in documentation. I remember his sketchbooks filled with drawings of other Gods, deities and tirthankaras like me. How carefully he studied them. The Goddess Durga in a Tribhanga pose, the elephant at her feet. The gaunt Kali from Jehajpoor with a skull necklace and a girdle sitting on a body. The lion on an elephant from the temple of Juggernaut. Shiva hurling to earth Yama, the God of death.
Amaravati. He was always talking about Amaravati. He talked about those limestone slabs with lotus blossoms and dancing dwarves on its friezes. He talked about the makaras from whose mouths water once flowed. He was never happier than when talking about the ruins of the great stupa he started to excavate. All of that is scattered around the world now, some not that far away from me in London, the dwarves still playing their disk drums, the women still frozen in some game. We are the Colin Mackenzie collection.
Perhaps it is just as well. I am well taken care of here. Sometimes I am put on display. People come and admire me. Who knows what might have happened to me by now if I had been left in that ruined temple of Gulbarga? I might have been smuggled away or broken. The palm leaf manuscripts would have rotted and crumbled. Yet sometimes I remember the blue of the skies over Gulbarga. It has been over two centuries now since I have seen those skies. I am a Digambara Jain, clad in the sky, my people would say. But this is an unfamiliar sky, a blue unlike any I have known, a grey that has nothing to do with monsoons. Under this sky I just feel naked.
I do not know what plans Colin Mackenzie had for me. Had he come back to his home in Scotland what he would have done with his “collection”. But he did not make it home. His money I hear helped build a house for his sister but he never lived there, even for a day. He lies buried far away in India, both of us resting for centuries now far away from the homes we once took for granted.
Only I once made it to Stornoway, the island he once called home. It felt strange to think this is where Colin Mackenzie was born and raised. I only knew him under the Indian sun. I carried with me to Stornoway the signature of his name, inscribed into my very being.
C McK 1806.
In my own way I carried Colin Mackenzie home. But who will take me home?
Copyright © 2018, Sandip Roy. All rights reserved.
Commissioned by the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
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