I know that story. “See you in ten minutes.” It became a kind of catchphrase in their circle. My mother had heard all the stories, true and false, and she had no illusions. She married him and had a baby with him and tried to make a go of it. I take some comfort in the fact that my mother is the only one he did not leave. He didn’t have the chance, really. She left him first.
This was in 1975 when I was about five. Newton had been commissioned to paint the Prime Minister of India and we three went to Delhi. The portrait was never completed. It was the time of the Emergency and Mrs Gandhi was sensitive about her image and I think she had reason to be. Also, the government had just blacklisted Newton’s father, my grandfather, the journalist Frank Xavier, and I think Mrs Gandhi must have been asking herself why she had commissioned the portrait in the first place.
My mother was present at their first meeting. Her job was to take notes while Newton interviewed the prime minister and made preliminary sketches in his notebook. She said it was a complete disaster. Newton would ask a long leading question and Mrs Gandhi would reply in monosyllables. Newton pointed out that India had arrested its intellectuals and politicians for speaking out against the government. Was this not an extreme response to a fairly common democratic tradition? No, said Mrs Gandhi. Newton asked if the Emergency would continue indefinitely despite the fierce criticism it had drawn in India and the world. Yes, said Mrs. Gandhi. Did it not bother her that history might judge her as one of the most autocratic of Indian rulers, asked Newton. Mrs Gandhi paused for a moment and regarded the floor with disapproving eyes. She took her time to reply. No, she said. There was only one question to which she did not reply with a monosyllable. Newton asked if her father Jawaharlal had had a great influence on her policies. She looked at him for the first and only time in the interview, frightening him with her eyes, and said, why does everybody who interviews me have to ask the same questions? And that was how the meeting went, according to my mother. Mrs Gandhi never came around.
My mother said the preliminary interview was Newton’s technique. He asked questions, made sketches, and took detailed notes, meaning my mother took notes. Then he examined and dissected each reply and created a composite psychological portrait of the subject before going to the canvas. There were no sittings. He preferred not to have the living subject before him while making a picture. He preferred to let his imagination have the final say. I think it’s true to say that this remained the case throughout his life. For him nature was a springboard. He had no interest in mimesis. He was interested only in transcendence.
By then he was no longer writing. He announced that he had given up the word and taken up the line. According to my mother he was doing neither. She said his self-appointed role was to drink and because he was working for the prime minister everything was on the house, cases of liquor delivered to the door whenever required. There was an endless stream of visitors as well, journalists and poets, artists of all kinds, and the only thing they had in common, according to my mother, was the whisky and the rum. They drank like it was going out of style. She said he was drinking so much that he came to see the work as an interruption. He switched from oil to acrylics because acrylics dried faster. He was in a hurry to be done. No wonder Mrs Gandhi had her doubts about the portrait.
Unannounced she came to inspect the studio one morning. My mother and I were in the sitting room when the bodyguards arrived. Then she came in, so swiftly and noiselessly that I was scarcely aware a tall lady had sat down beside me on the couch. I was crying for some reason I don’t remember, and she took my hand and spoke in a very soft voice. I don’t remember what she said. You are a strong girl and you must always be strong, she might have said. Or she might have said, be brave and everything else will follow. Whatever it was it made me stop crying immediately. She was wearing a white sari and no jewellery and she had short hair and sat very straight. When she smiled I was surprised at how girlish she seemed, not at all like the Indian ladies who came to visit my parents. She was simple in her dress but still there was something queenly about her. I thought she was simply wonderful! I admired her as only a five-year-old can admire someone. She knew she had made a fan of me.
Newton was asleep or he was sleeping it off and my mother didn’t know what to say. How do you tell the prime minister to come back later? Besides, the portrait was highly visible, placed by the window in a corner of the room. Mrs G stood in front of it for no more than two or three minutes. The smile left her face and her whole manner changed. She became positively glacial. I don’t blame her, do you? He had made her a blob of black against a background of newspaper headlines about the Emergency. It was a special kind of black. Really, it was the absence of all colour. And all you saw in the elongated humanoid blackness were a pair of eyes and the famous streak of white in the hair. It was the first of the paintings he came to call “Alterations”, where he would use a magazine cover or a newspaper photo and paint over it. Mrs Gandhi gathered her white sari around her and turned her terrible gaze to my mother. She said, tell him I will not be demonised. Then she left and never returned. In the afternoon there was a phone call from her office informing Newton that the portrait had been decommissioned. It was as if he had been waiting for just such a setback. He started to drink in earnest. My mother decided she’d had enough. Early one morning we got into a taxi and went to the airport while Newton was still asleep. I remember it, empty bottles everywhere and full ashtrays and rubbish and my father passed out on the couch near his frightening portrait of Mrs. Gandhi. My mother and I tiptoed around him so he wouldn’t wake up. It was the last time I saw him.
“the Lonely; flew things from buildings,
her flightless birds; could not abide
people, for sin she smelled inside;
knew knives & loud forebodings;
her bird bones bundled in aspic;
dragged by doctors; immune to harms;
held at distance her husband’s charms;
holy woman preached Joan of Arc;
soul in extremis; hunter of devils
or flatly insane; maker of insane
son, whose company of brown saints
she rebuked; starved herself for thrills;
physician who could not heal herself;
poor memsahib who died in debt
one summer when the power died;
girl who wished she was someone else.
from The Book of Chocolate Saints: Poems (Unpublished)”
Years after my mother had left him a journalist asked her about their life together. Oh, Newton, she said, he was poet for a day. Of course they took the quote and made a news report out of it.
He was on one of his trips to London when she fell ill and he was here when she died. Everybody called to say a few words, complete strangers called. He did not. That’s the kind of thing you remember all your life. She was so young, I was so young, but not a word from him. Then, weeks after Edna’s death, I saw an interview and I will always remember the headline. Nothing sadder in the world than the death of a young woman, says Newton Xavier. The interview was mostly black comedy. He was blackout drunk. He kept asking for an ashtray and when they got him one he kept missing it, he ashed the floor. He misheard questions. He insisted there was a third person in the room and when the interviewer said, no, it was just the two of them, Newton took a swing at him. Then he took a drink. He was of the opinion that there was no situation in the world, however unpleasant, that could not be improved with alcohol. Whisky was his stock response to life. Except not everything in the world can be solved by drink. “Nothing sadder in the world than the death of a young woman.” Words are cheap when you’re talking to the press.
Two years after she died the phone rang and it was a voice I did not know, a man who claimed to be my father. He wanted to meet me. I’d like to drop in, if I may, he said. But why now, I asked. He said, you were a child when I last saw you and I have no idea what kind of young woman you’ve become. I told him he needn’t trouble himself to be a father for a day. He asked if he could see me even if it was only for a moment. I disconnected the phone. When it rang again I did not pick up.
I changed my surname and took my mother’s maiden name. I’m happy to say that I have taken after my mother in every possible way, from my colouring to my eyes to my general outlook, which is sunny. Of course I take after my mother. I work with music and everybody knows Newton is tone-deaf. The title of his first book is autobiographically accurate. I’m telling you this for the record. I have nothing more to add.
Excerpted with permission from The Book of Chocolate Saints, Jeet Thayil, Aleph Book Company.