I never knew my grandfather, but I grew up with his ghost. This ghost, I imagined, was the reason for the rattling sounds in the kitchen at midnight. He must like to stroll around in the peace of night, I reasoned, going from room to room in our sprawling bungalow, checking on his wife, his sons, his daughter-in-law, passing his granddaughter moments before she opened her eyes and heard noises of him hitting his leg against something in the dark passageway that led to the kitchen. It was cluttered with too many odds and ends, that passageway, and bound to trip him up. I often made a note to clean up the passageway, but even more often, I forgot, which was just as well because, if not for the rattles and bumps, I wouldn’t have known he was there.
My childhood came and went, as did the memory of the ghost. We left India; we moved to the States. The farther we got from India, the less I thought of him. After all, he had died when my father was only eighteen—there was really nothing for me to remember.
A few years ago, I visited my aunt—his oldest daughter. Over breakfast one morning, she told me a story about another morning many years ago when her father had come into a secret inheritance, one that changed his life.
I was in my early thirties then, on the verge of going far away for a project and hoping—as I always hope—for something irrevocable to make clear why I am in this life. Hearing my grandfather’s story gave me hope that if he had come late to his purpose, perhaps I would, too.
I needed to know more. So I asked other family members, and pieced together a story that made a man out of a ghost.
As a child, Frederick Coelho divided the world into those who had seen the sea and those—like him—who had not seen the sea; those who could speak of sand rushing away from your toes as waves rushed towards them, and those who could not.
He lived in a small inland village in south India called Puttur. In the 1920s, it was a densely wooded place of rice fields, coconut trees, narrow roads, and bullock carts. The family lived in a thirteen-room house, one of the biggest in the village. Eight children: six brothers, of whom Freddy was the eldest, and two sisters. Agnes, the oldest sister, had an aquiline nose and, says one of her brothers, God rest her soul, she was an exact replica of the Virgin Mary.
Some evenings, Freddy played cricket with his brothers in the courtyard in front of their house and waited for the bus–a rare thing—to stop by, as it usually, did, on its way back from a city by the sea called Mangalore. The courtyard was packed with red earth and surrounded by coconut trees.
When the bus stopped, they usually stopped their cricket, threw down the piece of wood they’d been using for a bat and swarmed it. At first, they dissected it with their eyes, and then slowly with their hands, feeling the tires, the hub cabs, the sides, the windows, the brake, the steering wheel. The driver let them—his eyes were on Agnes who usually emerged from the house to remind them to guard their clothes against the grime and grease. She too was guarding herself from the grime of the driver’s gaze—her mother had told her about that. He wiped his hands on a handkerchief and nodded at her. She nodded back, said good evening, held his glance just long enough that he knew to stop the bus again next week.
Of course he also knew, they all knew, she was out of his league—she had English, she had studied in Mangalore, she had knowledge of proper place settings and cutlery, she alone meted out etiquette in their home, slapping their hands away from their plates when they attempted to eat with their palms and pointing, instead, at the right fork and spoon.
“Others may eat with their hands,’ she said, “but not us, who are graced with the friendship of an Englishman named Pilkington who works with our father and gives us cutlery and knowledge of proper place settings.”
When she called out it was enough, the driver swept the bus free of boys, pulling out one from under it, another from the roof, shooing them all away so that they lined up beside their careful sister. When the bus sped off, they broke ranks and ran after it and Freddy, usually the fastest, touched the back fender as it bumped over a rutted road, leaving behind—he could almost smell it—the sea inside him.
When he was ten, he went to Mangalore to attend a boarding school run by Jesuits. The school was on a hill and when he reached it, he turned and saw the sea for the first time. He wondered at its beauty, how deep it was, how ships stayed afloat on it. And he might have gone to it, too, he might have swum in it or dipped his toes in it, but no one was around to see it. When he moved to Bombay much later and people were around to see him, all they registered was his avoidance of water.
On walks with his children, along a rocky beach near the house, he would let them clamber over rocks, splash in tide pools for a few minutes and then call them away. On summer holidays, when they rented bungalows along Juhu beach with other families, which had sand proper, horses proper, waves proper, he never entered the water, never even let it reach his toes, but walked far away from it, smiling faintly as the children rushed into the water and whooped and hollered. He walked past them, his hands linked behind him, his back very straight.
But somehow, unbeknownst to him, his body had entered into a secret treaty and one Sunday when he was fifty, there was unmistakable proof of it in a mango branch that clattered to the floor as he trembled over water. As his daughter—my father’s sister—remembers it, it happened like this:
There are eight of us walking back from church, down a black road, edged by trees that create a canopy of shadows and light through which the sun sifts and glints off my father’s black-rimmed glasses. We walk slowly. The day is fine and warm, with a light breeze from the sea, which shines in the distance. Along the way, we stop and greet people—some walking to the next mass, others returning from the same mass that we attended. My father, prompted by impulses that my mother finds incomprehensible, invites select people to lunch at the house. My mother wonders if he has a system, a list that he checks, rechecks and rearranges. Every week it is a different collection of people but all from the same group of regulars so that within the course of, say, two months, everyone has been rotated into lunch.
As he is inviting people, my mother is counting, translating the total into what food is in the house, what she will cook from that food, what will need to be bought, how the ration card will have to be used to buy the needed things, and how much it will all cost. She will have this all figured out by the time we walk down the long gravelly driveway to the house, by the time Mesta opens the door, steps out, listens to what she has to say, and then runs swiftly downhill towards the banya’s store.
At lunch this Sunday, there are about twenty people. One of them is a Jesuit priest we called Father Circus. That can’t have been his real name, but well, that’s how we mispronounced it. After all the eating, everyone is talking, hanging around and my father starts yawning.
Father Circus says, “So, Fred, is this a hint, do you want us to leave?”
“No, no,” says my father, “I’m just tired. I haven’t slept well in days. I can’t seem to get a good night’s sleep.”
The priest looks at him and then says, “Do you have a mango tree in your yard?”
“Yes, we do, in the back.”
The priest rises and walks out to the grove in the back which we rarely enter for it is dark, thick with trees and across the low walls, is the bhoot bungalow, haunted by a woman murdered by her lover. She wanders the house, laughing, shrieking, turning the lights on and off in one room whose windows overlook our grove. We shudder to imagine her, clad in white, with wild hair and wild eyes, standing by the light switch, laughing as she flicks it on and off, and the window is lit with blue and then dark. The priest ignores her, ignores the bungalow. He is intent on the perfect branch.
When he returns, he has a Y-shaped branch, stripped of leaves. He asks my father where he sleeps and they go, the two of them, trailed by my mother and Mesta into the bedroom.
“Where do you lay your head?” he asks and my father points. They lift the bed away, and my mother’s cheeks flush at the sight of the rectangle of dust revealed. Mesta avoids her eyes. He has not cleaned under the bed. He knows, without looking at his mistress, that he must never again forget and that he will be told that he must never again forget.
All of us in the living room are watching idly through the open door. We are all curious but it is hard to move for we are drowsy and well-fed, the smells of mince and chappatii still linger and we are toying with eating some more.
Father Circus hands the branch to my father, instructs him to grip the two sides tightly. As my father stands, holding the branch, the apex of it suddenly bends, pointing down. He looks at the priest, his hands gripping the wood tightly, his eyes wide, his body trembling. The priest looks back and gently nods so my father lets go and the branch clatters to the floor.
“There’s water under there,” says the priest, “and you, my dear Fred, are a magnet for it so move the bed and place your head the other way when you sleep.” They move the bed, Mesta sweeps the dust, and so my father becomes a water diviner who sleeps soundly at night.
It was a gift, he reasoned, of God’s giving and he would submit but make no profit from it. With the priest, he did research. They read books together, experimented with different sticks. Every conceivable metal and wood rod found its way to the house. People came to know of it and his brothers came to make light of it.
“Ok, Freddy,” they’d grin, “now let’s go walk around and get us some water from another part of the house, is it here, is it there?” Once someone suggested it may not be a gift from God, and that scared him. He put the books away, but the priest rallied to sanctify the talent, and he took it up again.
To get a more precise reading of the depth of the water, he bought a divining rod with a copper wire and iron ball. When the wire was held over a spot where he felt water, the ball would start rotating and the number of rotations of the ball indicated the depth.
He’d go to factories in the arid outlying suburbs of Bombay like Thane and Goregaon, to the houses of nuns and priests or homes for the elderly and find natural wells for them. He refused money, and if it was pressed on him would give it to charity.
It was a tremendous strain on the body. And even if the doctor hadn’t said so, everyone could see. His children, who sometimes went with him on these divining trips, said: “If you placed your hand over his, you could feel it. His hand trembled, your hand trembled as he tried to hold the stick straight, as it shook, and then down it bent and he shook with such force that you held fast to him, watched the iron ball turn, counted it and then when it stopped, you let go and breathed.”
Like this he lived for many years, making place for divining amid the bustle of his other work: a cardboard factory he co-owned, a cargo business.
Everyday, he would dress in black or white Nehru jackets, black trousers and black shoes that Mesta polished and readied every evening. He was strict. My father said: “Once when your uncle and I had done something—what it was I can’t remember—he made us kneel on the hot gravely entrance to the driveway, at noon, the height of heat for two hours so people passing could see us, and we would feel shamed. We never did whatever it was that we had done again.”
In the evenings, he would sit in the living room, lit with the setting sun and cooled by sea breezes, and play Beethoven loudly as he leaned back in his chair, eyes closed. The kids tiptoed past him and talked in whispers.
On April 15, 1966, when he was sixty, he died suddenly of a heart attack.
“Could it have been the strain of that divining?” wondered my aunt as she retold the story. His body spent from the force of water?
“Maybe,” I said, but I wasn’t thinking of his death. I was thinking of his life.
I was seeing all I hadn’t seen before, the flesh and breadth and width of a sea-fearing, music-loving, water-divining life of purpose.
I was imagining the thrill of discovering a hidden self, lying in wait to show you what comes next. And then all you need to do is follow.