Monday, September 6, 2010

Browsing in a Second Hand Bookstore Can Change Your Life

When I was a young woman, about 17-18, I was living in Dublin and, of course, never had much money. I have always and still do adore reading and so used to spend a lot of my time in second hand bookstores. 

There used to be one on the street where the Stephen's Green shopping centre is now, across from Stock Design (where, incidentally, I worked until I left Ireland for Sweden at 19 years of age).  I used to haunt that bookshop and often found real gems, like my favourite Herman Hesse novel, Narcissus and Goldmund. I used to also look for my father's books, of which there were many at the time. I don't think they are as available now as they used to be.  I loved finding The Year of the Lion, The Consul at Sunset or See You in Yasukuni.  I loved finding his books as it made me feel proud to have him as a father.  At that time, most of his books were still in print and he went on to write a couple more before completely drying up.  

The only one of his 8 books published at the time that I had not yet found in this shop, or anywhere else, was The Journey Homeward, which was set in India.  It was the only book, at that point, that was about India as most of the others were set in Africa.  I wanted it to complete my collection. I had multiple copies of most of the others and used to give them as gifts to close friends sometimes.

On my 18th birthday, my oldest sister and her husband took my twin and I out for dinner.  Before we went out to Howth to the King Sitric, we went for a drink in what was then the Berni Inn off Grafton Street.  There, Jacquie told us about the real reason why there was an almost 11 year age gap between herself and our next sister, three years older than my twin and me.  

It turned out that my father and mother had moved to England after WWII, from Kenya where they had met and fallen in love.  My father as going to work for the BBC and other organisations, as a writer and journalist. He got a job working on a movie about the Partition of India and headed off to Delhi, leaving my mother and a, by now, 3 year old Jacquie.  While in India, he met a fascinating Indian woman who had been brought up by a proper English spinster and educated in England. She was also working on the same project.  He fell in love with her and divorced my mother, by proxy, in England, leaving her stranded there with no money and a small child in post-war Britain.  Eventually, my mother and sisters (she had a child from another, very short-lived, relationship sometime after my father had left her) were repatriated to Kenya by the government there.

My father lived in England and India with his new wife and had two sons with her.  In 1954, he went back to Kenya looking for my mother as he had had, what has been referred to in letters I have read, as a crisis of conscience about his Catholic faith and the fact that, according to the Catholic church, his first wife was his only 'true' wife (despite the fact that they had had a civil marriage in Nairobi in the midst of WWII).  He persuaded my mother to return to him, leaving his Indian wife and two young boys to fend for themselves in India.  She, tenacious woman that she was, moved them all the Kashmir and had a farm up there and a menagerie of animals.  My half brother, Peter, has written some wonderful stuff about this time which he hopes to have published soon.

Back to Dublin and being told this extraordinary story (there is, in fact, much more to it but you have to wait for my memoir to hear the entire thing). 

My jaw was on the floor hearing that I had two half brothers and a half sister somewhere in the world. It had never, ever dawned on me that this could be the reason for the enormous gap of 11 years and then the flurry of babies after that (two pairs of twins and three more singles).  I was in some sort of shock about it and, as was typical of me at that time, I suppressed how I really felt and it took many, many years to process all of it. So many secrets and so many lies. So much stored up guilt and blame. Now a lot of what had happened was starting to make sense to me but I was not prepared for everything that came afterwards.

Two days later, I was again in the second hand bookshop.  There, on a low shelf, almost hidden away, I came across a copy of The Journey Homeward. I bought it.  I opened up the paper bag in the street outside and took the book out to have a look through. I could never wait to read the opening paragraph of any book I bought.  

On dedication page it said: To my wife, Asha, with love.

My mother's name is Diana.


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