“Wordsworth-saab, want some fresh bananas?”
I am sitting on the steps of the Jehangir Art Gallery in Kala Ghoda, Bombay, opposite Elphinstone College. It's a hot and dusty day. It is 3 p.m. Sunlight arcs across the architectural details of this antiquated art district of Bombay. I am a bit exhausted and irritated when the man in an unwashed loincloth approaches me.
His eyes have that curious look of having seen it all, as if he can divine my thoughts. “Don’t disturb me, please,” I think. The idea was to shoo him away.
I am making background notes on yellow stick it notes and pasting them in a notebook for the novel I am planning to write about India, the country where my grandfather, Papa Wordsworth used to live and work. For clarity’s sake, I will call him Papa Wordsworth here. Yes, the same William Wordsworth, the grandson of the romantic poet William Wordsworth, my great, great grandfather, whom I will call Grandpa Wordsworth. Let me explain: Grandpa William Wordsworth had a grandson named Papa William Wordsworth – who was principal of Elphinstone College – whose grandson I am, William Bennett Wordsworth.
Elphinstone College also houses Bombay’s archives. I have been doing research there for, may be, two weeks. In these two weeks I progressed from reasonably well off to quite broke. It doesn’t matter, at least, to me. I am following my instinct. A story is what I want.
According to my research, grandfather was designated as an observer when the Indian National Congress, the party, was born. This is a pleasant revelation. I am an Indophile like him. I have loved India since the days I read about it in my grandfather’s yellowed volumes in his book-lined study. I loved his teak-wood-shelved study and the smell of old books. The musty smell still lingers in my mind as I sit here and look at a part of Papa Wordsworth’s life. To think that he walked these streets, that his shadow fell on these stones. Good Lord!
“Wordsworth-saab, please, buy some, they are fresh from the gardens,” the pleas are getting insistent, a tendency I notice in this great country. A “no” is probably a “yes.”
Again? But wait a minute, how does this old man know my name?
Papa Wordsworth was the principal of Elphinstone College somewhere around the turn of the nineteenth century, the eighteen-eighties, to be precise. Between Jehangir Art Gallery and Elphinstone College is MG Road on which the traffic is pretty raucous, horns blaring all the time. I have overspent, and my budget is all but depleted. I am ruined unless my literary agent, one David Darwin, could win me a million pound advance that he said the Wordsworth name could fetch. I never knew there is so much money in writing. But where is the story in this humming, screeching, hollering metropolis, where the crowds are as the ones in a fair in Hyde Park. It’s so hot, something I hadn’t bargained for, and dusty. Dust swirls into my eyes.
“Nature’s best fruit, Wordsworth-saab,” he is getting desperate, I can see from his sightless, cloudy eyes. I guess nobody has bought from this man since morning, as he sits beside the road looking earnestly at me.
I wave him away, show my displeasure. Go away, old chappie. I am hot and bothered and don’t like his importuning.
I see that roads in India are so noisy, unlike in England. First of all, the automobiles make a lot of noise. They seem to be working on some outdated internal combustion engines here. I am sure things haven’t changed much since my grandfather went back to England. I like the quaintness of these antiquated automobiles. It’s almost as if I am living in another century.
I see several antique Morris Oxford cars on the street. They are as round as toads. They call them ambassadors here. And there are many Italian Fiat models, which would have adorned automobile museums in my country. They make a big racket. To add to that, Indian drivers are horn-happy. Don’t mistake this, no reflection of racial bias, but they really like to create a ruckus. I ask Akhil why Indians talk so loudly, and he says, may be, it’s in their blood. Akhil is showing me around, he knows Bombay and says he writes. He is supposed to get me the big story idea. But I don’t see anything inspiring about his leads.
How does this wrinkled old man know I am a Wordsworth, the progeny of the grand literary tradition I am trying to propagate, alas, without success? I knew I would find my story in Bombay; discover something that I can expand into a novel. But, this heat and noise is killing me. My job as a journalist came to an abrupt end when The New English Sun sacked me for writing an article detailing the sexual preference of the English football team. Imagine. Most of those jocks there are homosexuals! I know these things. That revelation “wasn’t done” said my editor and he sacked me, the progeny of the Wordsworth tradition, I, William Bennett Wordsworth. Thereafter, I started writing short stories for literary journals and dabbling in collecting rare books, rare first editions of famous authors.
“Wordsworth-saab, want some fresh bananas, from the plains of Marathawada?”
His sightless eyes are rheumy behind his broken glasses; his skin is folded in a million small wrinkles around his eyes and mouth. His clothes haven’t seen water for, may be, years. His hands and legs are so thin they look as brittle sticks peeping out of his kurta and dhoti. He has a bamboo basket full of bananas before him and he is squatting on the corner of the stairs that lead to the art gallery.
“Are you speaking to me?” I ask the man in Hindustani. I know the language.
“How do you know my name?” I ask.
He pauses. He takes a long time doing that. As if years, no, no, decades pass before his unseeing eyes.
“Wordsworth- saab, the same eyes, the cleft chin, the dimples around the eyes. How can I mistake that?”
I try to control the surprise from registering on my face.
“You mean you knew my grandfather, William Wordsworth, the principal of Elphinstone College?” I ask pointing to the college around which young students were disporting playfully.
“Yes, the grandson of the big English kavi samrat, emperor of poets, William Wordsworth,” he wheezes.
So he knows about Papa Wordsworth and his grandfather, my great, great grandfather. How does he know?
I am interested. I call Akhil. “Akhil come here, I told you I am discovering old roots. Here, it is. This man knows about Papa Wordsworth.”
Akhil and I squat in front of the old man.
“How do you know my grandfather?”
“When you have seen empires fall before your eyes, a people gain freedom, how difficult is remembering a face? Eh?”
His eyes are defiant, glowing with some vague pride of his people, the great Mahrattas. They ruled India once.
“Even then, I suppose, I could be someone else, an imposter,” I say.
“No. I am sure. You have his eyes, his cleft chin, and his cheekbones. How can I mistake? I was his chokra-boy. I used to work in Elphinstone College then.”
“What’s your name, baba?” Akhil asks him.
“Babubhai Kothare, from district Gandhidham, Gujarat.” His voice is broken from memories churning inside his mind. Like every Indian from rural India he mentions his village’s name after his own.
My grandfather lived in the eighteen-eighties. Therefore this man must be more than a hundred years old, this Babubhai. At least a hundred and twenty years. Yes, he looks that old. Look at his bone structure. Lord, he looks as if he could go on living for another fifty years.
“How old are you, Babubhai?”
He tries to remember. Then he gives up.
“I don’t remember. Who will remember? Do you want some fresh bananas Wordsworth-saab? I must sell this whole bunch today. Or...” his feeble voice trails off.
“Babubhai, tell me your story. I will buy the whole bunch of bananas from you. How much is it anyway?”
“Let me see, there are five dozens here. So, sixty bananas. At fifteen rupees a dozen, seventy-five rupees.”
I give him a hundred rupees, “You can keep the change.”
His eyes light up, he is overjoyed. His whole face crumples into a thousand crinkling laugh lines, a dry laugh, or, was it a cough, escapes his throat.
“I will tell you all about it, Wordsworth-saab. I will tell all about your grandfather. Just a minute, where should I deliver all these bananas? Do you have a bag?”
I don’t have a bag, “You keep all of it. Here I will have one, Akhil you have one too.”
Akhil says, “Thanks, Bennett, I am hungry. I think I will have two, Babubhai.”
We eat bananas squatting before Babubhai, the traffic around us zoom. People walk past to their destinations near and far. I want to hear Babubhai’s story and, may be, just may be, a story, a novel, will take shape.
“Come with me,” Babubhai eventually says after stuffing the money into a cloth purse and putting it inside his kurta.
“Where?” Akhil asks.
“To my house, my home.”
We cross MG Road in a sort of convoy. Babubhai ahead of us, and Akhil and me tagging behind him. The vehicles are noisy and blare their horns. Guess they have some maniacal need to be noticed.
Blimey! I am nearly run over by a taxi that screeches to a halt inches away from me.
Babubhai walks to the far end of the Elphinstone College gate where it intersects with the City Civil Courts. There is a cot made of strung rope leaning against the iron railing. Beside it are several bags, and a tin trunk.
He straightens the cot on the road and sits on the David Sassoon Library Road. Opposite us is the green garden of David Sassoon Library where people sit around and chat lazily. It seems so peaceful here.
“Sit, this here is my home,” Babubhai motions to the cot, and shouts, “Chotu bring tea for my guests. They are big people from foreign country, England, I used to tell you stories about that great country, didn’t I? Wordsworth-saab’s grandson himself.”
I wonder how a man can live on the street and call his cot his home. There are many like him. What would he do when it rains? I want to do something for him.
Chotu brings tea and squats on the road in front of us.
Then Babubhai tells me his story. Well, that is another story, which I intend to shape into a novel, but in short, the gist follows.
He was a chokra-boy who ran errands for my grandfather William Wordsworth, principal of Elphinstone College, grandson of poet William Wordsworth.
“And Wordsworth-saab, he used to be so kind, so humble in spite of his white skin, and so kind. He played a big role in our freedom movement.” Babubhai said looking intently at me.
So, he knew about my grandfather’s role, though meager, in the formation of the Indian National Congress. I felt my chest expanding with pride.
The Indians as well as the British treated him, meaning Papa Wordsworth, with great respect, as he was the grandson of a great poet and bore his eponymous name. Papa Wordsworth sympathized with the aspirations of the Indian people. That’s why when Allen Octavio Hume first established the Indian National Congress; he invited grandfather to be an observer.
Then came the Independence movement and Babubhai had seen all the movements and processions pass down MG Road before his own eyes. Grandfather returned to England and died when I was around twelve. Then Babubhai retired and the college authorities allowed him to live in the college premises. Then he started selling bananas squatting on the pavement, to earn enough to get by.
“Now I will show you something,” he opens a tin trunk, kept beneath the cot. First he extracts a plastic bag and then produces an old and yellowed book handsomely bound in leather.
“Here, take a look,” Babubhai’s trembling hands extend the book, his voice breaking in reverence.
“The Collected Works of William Wordsworth,” I read and exclaim, “Grandpa Wordsworth’s poems!” Then I look at the imprint, “A first edition, too.”
“There’s more,” Babubhai wheezes as he opens the cover.
I hold the book reverently. Inside it is written, “To my grandson, William Wordsworth, who, I hope, will inherit my poetic legacy.” The handwriting has broad cursive strokes, the way English actually should be written.
My great, great grandfather Grandpa Wordsworth’s own writing. My grandfather, Papa Wordsworth, didn’t do much writing, but he did carry on the legacy, I admit. Nevertheless, this work must be worth millions in the international rare books market. I know I am a collector.
I browse through the book. It is full of annotations by my Papa Wordsworth in his own hand.
“Priceless, the book is priceless,” I whisper to Akhil.
“I want you to have it,” Babubhai tells me.
“But Babubhai this book is worth a million, in fact, several millions pounds. I can’t keep it.”
He smiles a wry smile, “Then you can come and buy some more bananas from Babubhai, I will be right there,” he said pointing to Jehangir Art Gallery.
Then I make a quick decision. I know that if such a precious volume were left on the roads of Bombay, it would be lost forever. As it is, it would be of no use to Babubhai. I had to sell it and do something for Babubhai. But what?
“Here take this money for this book,” I give Babubhai all the money I had with me, around five thousand rupees. That would last him till I found a buyer for the book.
“You don’t have to sell bananas anymore.”
“Really?” His eyes are incredulous. I know he can’t take all this excitement on an Englishman’s face, what with the stiff-upper-lip types he was associated with.
“Yes, I will find a buyer for this book. And then I will come back and do something for you,” I knew he couldn’t understand what I meant and as to how a tattered old book could fetch a lot of money, even five thousand rupees.
Yes, I intend to sell the book. The commission will go to fund the novel I am about to write, temporarily titled, “William Wordsworth’s Legacy.” My agent David Darwin would be a very happy man.
Meanwhile, I have started planning for the William Wordsworth-Babubhai Kothare Facility for the Homeless in Mumbai.