Wordsworth’s White Wife – Review 4

Sometimes the Twain do Meet – A review from India, by Atulya Sinha

It is said that the past is a different country – it follows that one’s younger self must be a different person.
It takes much courage to confront that younger self and much talent to describe such encounters.
Rosie McAndrew, the septuagenarian scholar who has written this book, lacks neither courage nor talent.

This book opens with the author’s 22-year old avatar, Rosemary Christine Dexter – earnest, hardworking and optimistic; but also inexperienced, vulnerable and somewhat naïve. While she is getting trained at BBC’s Training Centre in London, prior to working overseas in Guyana, her tutor directs her to meet a group of trainees from Guyana. “My attention was caught immediately by this attractive, self-assured, bearded black man,” she says after catching a glimpse of Wordsworth ‘Mac’ McAndrew, “I liked the jaunty but determined way he moved, full of contained energy. He was quite short – about my height – he was slim and compact, his eyes were alert, and he looked intriguing and charismatic.”

Rosie discovers that Wordsworth is not just a popular journalist, poet, and broadcaster, but also a skilled musician and “authority on all things Guyanese, from the intricacies of Creolese to the songs, proverbs, festivals and rituals of its folklore.” He is considerably older than Rosie and she is quite flattered by his attention. Their friendship blossoms over the next few weeks, till the time comes for Wordsworth to return to his country.

Wordsworth receives Rosie with much fanfare when she lands in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana. In her own words, “Mac had contrived for me to lodge with a Guyanese family instead of sharing a house with other VSOs, so I was spared the insulated social round of expat parties, with their sprinkling of token Guyanese.” Rosie is plunged into a completely unfamiliar world: tropical climate, exotic food, strange tongues and – most significantly – the undercurrents of a multi-cultural society in newly independent nation. The bespectacled Miss Rosemary, riding a bicycle dressed in a short skirt, attracts much attention in the streets of Georgetown.

Rosie is allotted with “half an office and a capacious desk” although her workload is not very heavy. Being a perfectionist, she takes on much more work than is expected of her – much to the dismay of her colleagues who try to undo her efforts when the opportunity arises.

In the midst of such turbulence, Wordsworth becomes an anchor for Rosie. He introduces her to his wide circle of friends and admirers; and accompanies her when she travels out of the city. On her part, she strives to adjust to his habits – be it speaking in Creole, eating spicy food or hosting drinking sessions late into the nights. Despite (or maybe because of) their widely different backgrounds and temperaments, she finds herself falling in love with him.

Rosie keeps writing long letters to her parents in England, describing her experiences in her new environment and the support she is getting from Wordsworth – though she carefully conceals some details as she does not want them to worry about her. These letters, carefully preserved by the author’s parents, provide a fascinating window into her observations and thoughts, e.g. “… things Indian have infiltrated the society far more than they have in England yet; in 100 years perhaps they’ll have had the same effect at home, i.e. when curry and chapatti become part of the staple diet as well as a feature of Middle Class restaurant cuisine.”

By the end of Chapter 7, Rosie completes her tenure at Guyana and returns to England. Though Wordsworth had dropped out of school and habitually speaks in Creole, he has an excellent command over English, apart from knowing French and Portuguese. Also his happy-go-lucky exterior conceals much determination as well as a rebellious streak, as Rosie would discover later. At that stage, however, she is captivated by the sentiments he expresses in his letters, for example, “… one of these days, I’ll be able to find words to tell you how much I love you. Till then, accept that kiss that’s ever on my lips when I think of you – which is 24 hours a day.”

Rudyard Kipling, the Voice of Imperialism, had proclaimed “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” In Kipling’s colonial world, cross-cultural relationships were between white men and “native” women – but the case of Rosie and Mac was exactly the opposite. To add to the irony, Guyana lies to the west of England!

In Chapter 14, Rosie returns to Georgetown to work as a schoolteacher. While waiting for her wedding with Mac, she stays with his mother, who is addressed as ‘Phillips’ for some inexplicable reason. Just as ‘Wordsworth’ has turned out to be a poet, ‘Rosemary’ starts developing her cooking skills – though it is not easy to learn from Phillips. “Her method of cooking was instinctive and well-practised; her method of teaching, particularly regarding quantities, was inchoate. Notebook in hand, I would ask for details. She would say: ‘You put a li’l shelloat.’ I would say: ‘How much?’; she would say: ‘A li’l’ or ‘Enough’, so I wasn’t much the wiser.”

Guyana’s multi-cultural society includes a flourishing Indian community, mostly descended from the indentured labour who came to the Caribbean from India in the early 19th century. Rosie’s memories of a Hindu wedding, Kali Pooja and the Phagwa festival are very interesting – especially her mouth-watering description of a traditional Indian meal, including delicacies like ‘pulowrie’ [Since my mother tongue is Hindi, I must protest that ‘achar’ is wrongly translated as ‘chutney’. In fact, the Hindi word ‘achaar’ refers to chopped vegetables preserved in oil, salt and spices – and so ‘pickles’ would be a more appropriate translation. ‘Chutney’ (derived from ‘chatni’ in Hindi) is a condiment, usually consumed fresh, made from crushed ingredients like herbs, coconut, or tomatoes, with added spices].

Half way through the book (in Chapter 17 to be precise), Rosie and Wordsworth finally get married. According to a Reuter’s dispatch about the wedding, “The bride wore a simple white dress, trimmed with lace and ribbon. The groom wore a striped, cotton dashiki-style shirt, trousers and slippers.” It also mentions that the groom ‘towed’ the bride to the church on a bicycle.

Rosie is deeply in love with Wordsworth, whom she describes as a “masterful man”. She tries her utmost to play the role of a “good Guyanese wife”, but without any corresponding effort on his part to become a good husband. He turns temperamental and gritty. Birthdays and anniversaries get forgotten, as he spends more and more time with his drinking companions. Rosie suspects that he is getting attracted towards other women.

Sadly, the birth of a child does not improve matters. Apart from buying a pram and helping Rosie to choose a name for their daughter, Mac does not fulfil any responsibilities as a father. Rosie takes the painful decision to move to another house with her daughter – where she juggles parenting with her job and examinations – sometimes seeking the help of her friends to look after her infant daughter.

Eventually Rosie and Mac divorce. She bravely refuses any alimony, takes custody of her daughter Shiri, packs her few belongings and returns to England… The book ends rather abruptly. One would have liked to know more about Shiri’s childhood and Rosie’s experiences as a single parent – in other words, “What Rosie Did Next”.

A well-written autobiography appeals at two different levels. Superficially, it tells us about the writer’s life, but – equally importantly – it serves to remind us about the half-forgotten details of our own lives. [Although I am a middle-aged Indian male with no connection with either England or Guyana, I can relate to much of what Rosie has written. Her heartbreakingly cheerful letters to her parents, for instance, reminded me that at the age of 24, I was suffering from severe jaundice in the remote town in south India where I had started my career – I would send long letters to my parents, but omit to mention that they were being written while I was propped up in a hospital bed].

I can confidently say that Rosie’s exquisitely written memoirs have universal appeal.

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