“I often go to a temple.” He folded up The history of Jews in Cochin and pointed out a corner of the bookshelves behind him. I spotted copies of old translations of Upanishads in English, possibly by Max Muller and several books on Ramakrishna and on the hugging saint of India. “I am a fan of Ramakrishna, though I am a practicing Christian,” he added as a clarification.
I had meandered into the Williams residency and home-stay, draw in by the sight of a middle-aged gentleman—thick glasses, starched white short-sleeve shirt and bushy mustache—immersed in a book in the foreground of what appeared to be an indulgent library of pale books. We had started chatting triggered by his peering through the glasses and scanning me with a practiced efficiency. I had objected to his addressing me as “Sir.” “You are much older than me, and no need for formalities,” I had ventured, “you have an impressive collection here.” “I am a historian, I study the history of Cochin,” he had said.
“This is my house and I rent out the rooms, but I have a feeling you are not here for a roof over your head,” he looked at me amused.
“I am leaving Cochin today, and was strolling through the neighborhood, is that a copy of Menon’s History of Kerala? That’s a really old book, isn’t it? Nineteen forties right?”
“Even earlier, 1920 I am pretty sure. I am Anthony Williams by the way.” He continued with his amused self-assured smile as if he was going to pull a magic trick any moment and make the magnifying glass in his hands disappear. “Sit down please, here let me show you something.” He pulled out a copy of A history of Christianity in Kerala, from the mission of St. Thomas to the arrival of Vasco Da Gama. He ran through his bookmarks—made of neatly cut strips of tobacco filter boxes—and opened up one ceremonially. “Read please.” I obliged.
“You see, the history of Kerala is very interesting,” I hadn’t gotten more than a minute to read before he intervened. “Show me your hands.” Ah, a palmist too, I thought. I tried hard not to betray my utter contempt for astrology and palmistry and offered my hands palms up. “Turn your hands, please. You see, that’s the landscape of all the things men have carved in history. Look at our hands. They are functionally identical. Yet, men have fought over the color of nails and the frailties of skins. The hands bear the mark of our adventures and misadventures. What do you do?” Ah, also a poet, I thought, “I am a scientist,” I offered loud. “Have you lived here for a long time?”
“Yes, all my life. I grew up in this house. I retired and now I read and occasionally have a guest I select. I start by saying “Sir” and some people, unlike yourself, much younger, never object. They get offended, treating me as someone who is just providing a service.” It was a test then, I thought to myself, one that I have passed. “A remnant of the colonial past, won’t you agree?”
“Yes, but the past is a box of incense sticks. If the past came to use, they wouldn’t be in the box.”
“You do love poetry, don’t you?” I said, inspiring a hearty chuckle. He took off his glasses and folded it up. “How long was your trip?” “Just a few days. I was here with my parents. They are getting old, so we did a trip through Kerala together.”
“I see,” he was walking in front me, signalling me to follow him over the wood threshold and into the passageway—white lime-plastered walls, dark brown wooden joists, terracotta-block floor tiles, I was admiring the colonial architecture—and into a central garden shaded by the house surrounding it from all sides. “This is a charming place!”
“A good fraction of that library is free you know? People can come in and borrow my books and donate theirs. I maintain it mostly because I think the poor should have access to books,” he paused to acknowledge my comment, “Thank you! Do you have family in the US?”
“Yes, wife and two kids. How nice! I love this cabinet, held together by wooden nails I see!” I was standing in one of the rooms he rents out. The accommodation was plain, the furniture dated but a charm of Indian mid-century decor has been preserved as old cloth-bound books on his bookshelves.
“That cabinet was my father’s. I used to hide Communist manifestos behind it during the Naxalite movement, ” he added with a wink.
“There are so many similarities between West Bengal and Kerala. My father also participated in the movement, he was tortured for days in police custody,” I added.
His eyes lit up. “That’s true. I am a communist, and Christian who loves to go to Hindu temples. You see, all these categories mean nothing. It is what you really believe. So what do you really believe in, young man? An American desi?” he patted me on the back before settling down in the rickety arm-chair. We were back downstairs in his library from the tour of the various rooms. The dust and smell of old paper assaulted my nostrils.
“I believe in science, because science doesn’t demand belief,” I said, feeling a bit provocative. He looked at me intently. “Oh, no, you believe in so much more than that, I can tell, ” he added mysteriously. “I will give you something for your father. Here. Please give it to him, tell him, it’s an offering from one comrade to a fellow comrade. He will understand. Tell him he should come and see me next time.”
There, in his deeply engraved palms and glimpses of sooty nails, was a box of incense sticks.