My grandparents’ house in Tudor was a 9 bedroomed family home in what was then a prestigious upmarket suburb of Mombasa, situated outside the main town of Mombasa and right on the edge of the island, just next to the site for the new Nyali bridge. Some of the houses in Tudor overlooked the creek with its sailing boats, and were serenaded by the cool ocean breeze, making it a heavenly area in comparison to the humid, muggy atmosphere of Mombasa town. At Tudor, we never needed a fan. The open windows were enough.
Reminiscent of the English architecture of its namesake era, our Tudor house was designed by my eldest kaka (paternal uncle), E***** the architect. Out of respect for my paternal grandmother, Vazira, the matriarch of the family, we called it Maa’s house. She was Maa to her children; her grandchildren; her daughters in law; the neighbours and even Charo, our loyal domestic.
Charo had joined the J***** family when he was around 14 years old, and initially worked for E*****’s family at their home near the stadium. He was with us until he died in 2007. Charo was age mates with my father and his younger brother M**** and became a part of the larger family after he joined Maa’s house when Daddy and his family moved first to Nairobi, then to Norway and then Edmonton.
Charo was a member of the family – he was there when my mother arrived from India, when my sister and I were born, when my grandfather passed away, and for countless other events in the Y******* J***** clan. And when Maa and my faijis (paternal aunts) packed up and moved to Edmonton, he stayed behind to look after the Tudor house and guard its memories against the passing of time.
In a tribute to his life which was held at Charo’s funeral, my father’s youngest brother M****** wrote, “Charo brought more than himself to the house. He brought his calming spirit into our home. Over the next forty years with us, Charo became family … He never said no to any request. He made everything possible. He was there for our happy and sad occasions. He was there for our newly born babies, for our weddings, for our deaths. With Charo, things always got done. He was my mother’s constant companion. Over the years he got to know my mother better than all of us. He cooked, cleaned and tended the garden with the same tender care he displayed towards all of us … He observed family spats with his calm demeanour but never interfered. On occasion he would advise if he thought someone was not being fairly treated. But he did this all from afar. As years went by and we grew older, Charo aged with us. As we left Kenya to live in other countries, we always knew that when we went home there would always be Charo for us with his broad smile to welcome us. … Charo now is no more. Charo, we were all indeed blessed to have you and shall surely miss you. God bless.”
Tudor had a large black gate, which opened into a driveway that started with a small cemented section where a car could be parked closest to the house. From the door, the driveway grew into a grassy stretch of approximately 100 metres with two parallel tyre tracks worn into the soil.
At the end of the stretch, in the right hand corner were the kennels for the dogs. My mother tells a story about my sister sitting inside the kennel playing with the only dog Tudor ever had, Blackie. M***** has always been fond of animals and I suppose her fascination with them began then as a 2 year old. She would pet Blackie, then hold him close – the dog almost double the size of her little body – and then her favourite part, was clumsily sticking her short fingers into Blackie’s ears, investigating the inner workings of his ear canal. I have heard the story so many times that I can almost see a sepia coloured photograph of my sister sitting cross legged on the ground, bent over a large black dog that is laying on its sides, with my sister’s one hand disappearing into the fur of the dog and the other tentatively poised over his ear.
Blackie died some years later, and Tudor never got another dog even though in Kenya, a dog is more of a security measure than a pet and the worsening security situation necessitated having one.
To the right of the cement section of the driveway was a 3 seater wrought iron bench placed plush against the wall of the main house, right next to the entrance with its grill and wooden door. Here many a cool Mombasa evening was spent waiting for the men to return home from the office. I remember sitting there with Maa in the years after my parents divorced, both of us the same height, perched the edge of the bench, balanced so our feet could graze the ground, enjoying the cool air that the setting sun brought and the fragrances escaping from the flowers around us.
The main house had five bedrooms, two downstairs and three upstairs, and on its right, there was an extension with its own gated entrance which was connected to the main house through a courtyard and through a balconied corridor on the 1st floor.
Around the whole compound, in a moat like pattern was the garden with a cobble stoned path, and it began and ended with the fariyo which was neatly nestled in between the main house and the extension. The fariyo was an open courtyard where dirty dishes were piled, where raw salted mango and carrot strips were laid out to dry, where the washing was scrubbed and hung out, and where we celebrated birthday parties and other festivities. The fariyo also had an angular, built in cement bench which was easy to climb up, and which faced two blossoming potted asmini trees that sat like sentinels at the right and left of its entrance.
Tudor wasn’t the house where my father and his siblings had grown up. They grew up in Z***** building in Bondeni, a two storey building close to the site of the old Nyali bridge which was shared by the children of A******* J***** (my great grandfather) and their families. When they moved to Tudor, the area they stayed in was Dogra flats – which was about 100 yards from a vacant plot on which Tudor, the family home, was later built.
Tudor was the house of the children of Y******* J***** (Baba) even though they were no longer children by the time it was built around 1963. It was the house to which my father brought his virgin bride from India. It was also the house from which their eldest sisters R*****, Z***** and the youngest S***** were married – and later where S***, the first grandchild in the family (son of E***** the architect) was married to Shemila.
For my sister and I, Tudor became a second home of sorts because even though my parents moved out in 1981 (just two years after I was born) after they divorced in 1987, we would spend evenings, weekends and holidays at Tudor with Maa and my unmarried faijis: G****** the legal secretary, M****** the florist and S***** the lawyer.
Pappa would drop us off, announcing in his loud, boisterous voice as he walked in “V*****!” He cheekily always began by calling Maa by her first name, and after she had indulgently welcomed him, he would revert to the more respectful title of Maa (mother).
Maa would call her daughters down, announcing that H******* had arrived. He was always H****li to her – never just H****. The name never made sense to me – made up as it was of two perfectly independent names: H**** and A** – and I would always try to separate the two. Either with a space: H**** A** – or a hyphen: H****-A**, until one day Pappa scolded me for playing around with his perfectly elegant name. After that, it was easier to make the connection with the similarly structured name of one of his elder brothers: A*******.
Pappa would fall into the chair near the hand basin and stay briefly to greet everyone. He would prompt me and M***** to salaam Maa who would be sitting in the chair near the fridge reading the Quran. My sister and I would line up in front of her like soldiers, and after the intricate Dawoodi Bohra hand salaam – which mimicked the sign of the cross, except on the face – she would pull our faces forward, kiss both cheeks and then tug at them, not so gently.
M***** and I had a single identity. We were M*****-A**. Easier to say both names and alert both of us than call one at a time and find that the wrong child had arrived. And we were inseparable. Call M***** and A** came; call A** and M***** came. When we went to boarding school, we even had garment labels made for “M***A*” – half M******, half A*****. M***A* never stuck but till today it is M*****-A** for my paternal uncles and aunts. Two names tied together and difficult to separate.
Maa would be in the kitchen – giving instructions to Charo, pulling out large tupperware containers from the pantry, stirring something on the stove which she had to peer into on tiptoe from her diminutive 4ft 8in height. Dressed in a gagra blouse – a long skirt with a drawstring around the waist, a short sleeved blouse that reached just above the skirt and a nylon scarf draped around her front covering her shoulders and head with its thin silver, grey braid peeking out from under it – she would arrive in the kitchen in the morning and hover around until night fall. Supervising the preparation of the breakfast table, and then lunch, and then for an hour or so in the evening heating up left overs for dinner.
We would have our ordinary meals at the rectangular table adjacent to the kitchen. It had a thick brown plastic underlay to prevent spills from staining the wood, and every meal time would have its usual ceremony of laying brown plastic place mats, white and lemon yellow plates and short, semi-opaque water glasses.
Every one had a fixed seating place at the table: Maa was closest to the jug of juice which she supervised so that we wouldn’t spoil our appetites. M***** and I would be squeezed near the wall because no one else could fit into the small space. And the three aunts would fill the L shaped corner. After Baba died, his place at the head of the table was never filled. It remained a monument to the presence of a man that continue to pervade every moment in that house.
I remember the lunches most clearly – with breakfasts I had just returned from the world of sleep, and by dinner I was already returning to it and so lunch which happened after a morning of play and a planned afternoon of more play was my most alert time. And what I remember most apart from the standard fare of rotli, and two curries (one vegetarian because G****** faiji didn’t eat meat) was the plate of oranges. Tudor had this orange tree in the garden which bore the most delicious oranges I have ever tasted: not tangy or sour, but a fresh orange taste with an underlying sweetness. I never knew until 10 years later that mum had planted the tree in the early years of her marriage.
What do I remember about Tudor? The round cushion on the jalebi stool which sat at the bottom of the stairs and on which I always sat cross legged. The corner seat for the telephone with its velvet cushion and the large, red phone with its circular dial. The metal engraving on the ground floor bathroom of a young boy urinating. The pictures of grandchildren streaming down the staircase wall, which included baby pictures of M***** and me. The green ceramic hand basin with a perfectly folded clean towel that hung in a circular metal ring, and the small pink bar of Lux placed on the right of the tap – clean and sharp cornered before a family meal and soft and foamy after.
The glass cabinet which formed the divider between the dining room and the living room – both were rooms that could only be used when there was company – filled with a doll in a fluffy pink skirt, a green marble ornament, silver attar dishes and trays, small crystal trinkets and a picture of A*******’s family. On the walls of the living room there was a frame which I can still see clearly – a lady in a long skirt carrying a parasol, all created from embroidery thread woven around small nails that were embedded in velvet backing.
My sister and I always behaved reverently in that room. When we were allowed in – that is when there was company – we never sat with our backs touching the cushions of the plush seats. Always on edge. And when we were sent in on an errand, we just stood and looked around the room with its decorations, cushions and ornaments. Stared uncomprehendingly at the studio photos of A******* and his family.
It was the same with the games that A*******’s children had left behind in their adjoining house. When we would accompany one of the aunts into the house, there was an unspoken rule of look but don’t touch. We would walk past the stack of board games: Monopoly, Ludo, Snakes and Ladders, Scrabble and Lego, and feign a lack of interest in the foreign games. Our childhood was one of bicycles and hopscotch and swimming, and when we grew older it was about books. These were things we had never seen or played with; they looked so sophisticated.
When Maa, M****** aunty and G****** faiji started planning their move to Canada – months before S***** aunty’s wedding – they rented out Tudor to an Ishnashri family and all the old games with their dusty, bent cardboard boxes, were packed up and sent to Kengeleni. There were games in that box we had never even seen in our quiet tiptoes through the extension. Computer games with a joystick that had a bright red button on it. A train set which had pieces missing. But like the faded colours on the once brilliant boxes, our interest in them had faded. We were too involved in our school work, our books, and in reruns of Western movies and LA Law.
The light filled thrill of receiving new toys never flickered in ours. They continued to gather more dust in cardboard boxes in Kengeleni, and eventually we sent them to an orphaned children’s home. In Tudor.
On Sunday nights, Pappa would return to Tudor to pick us up and this time he would stay for dinner – always khichri and bateta nu saak on a Sunday evening. We never even thought to ask what he had been doing while we were in Tudor.
At around 8 pm, he would say “Children, let’s go”. Our bags would be ready, standing to attention at the doughnut cushion near the stairs. Pappa would bellow, “Charo, we’re leaving” which would be his way of asking Charo to open the gate for us.
M***** and I would jump into the car, thrilled to be with Pappa again. By the time we had crossed Nyali bridge, secure in the knowledge that we were returning home, we would be half asleep.