The airbrushed image of a petite, sombrely attractive English lady seemed to stare blindly into space. A lace bonnet keeps her dark curls in place, save for a few neat strands that frame her face. Suddenly I felt her staring at me, with a glint of a smile, from the picture of the new British ten-pound currency note in the newspaper, commemorating the bicentenary of her death. Did I imagine this? Like a genie she seemed to daintily fly out of the newspaper and gently carry me back in time. The year, when I had just turned 13.
We had gone to spend our vacation with my aunt who lived in a tea garden, in Assam. Her husband had the grand fortune of inheriting it from his ancestors. I loved the ambience, the green dale of the tea plantation, reverberating with the laughter of the skilled local girls as they happily plucked tea leaves, filling up the baskets tied to their backs. We were put up in Aunt Rita’s bungalow, built by a British gentleman, many years ago. The cook would entertain us and the children, with spooky myths surrounding the place. He spoke of the ghostly sightings of the ‘burra sahib’ (the master) who owned the bungalow once upon a time. The English man was very fond of hunting. He can still be seen coming back from one such expedition and then he would disappear into the tea bushes.
One night my cousins and I were watching a movie and as was our wont, we were hungry and craved some midnight snacks. The two boys went down to the kitchen to get some food when suddenly we heard a piercing scream, as we saw the cute, fat dollop of protoplasm called Romi roll into the room like a rhino on fire!! “We just saw the burra sahib’s wife!! She was dressed like that British author whose books mother reads with her friends!” The four of us prepared to check out the ghost of the English lady. It was a chilly, December night.
We shivered more with fright than from the cold. Romi, my cousin whispered: “There she is, in the lounge, near the fire place.” Yes, we saw her. Her back was turned towards us. She read aloud lines from a novel. Written by Jane Austen. The voice seemed familiar, the accent more Indian than British. She suddenly turned around and we stared at Aunt Rita. Her tiny frame looked pretty in the attire of a character from the novel of her favourite author. We learnt that she was preparing to celebrate Austen’s birthday in her book club, comprising the wives of the tea estate managers. Each one of the members had to dress like a character from any Austen novel and bring the character to life by enacting the same. This was my initiation into the world of Austen, as Aunt Rita regaled us that night with yummy midnight snacks and the story of Northanger Abbey. She had just converted me to an Austenite, for life!
Images from her novels whizzed by as I held her gaze on the currency note. They replaced the Mills and Boons romantic series that other girls in my boarding school swore by. The Complete Works of Jane Austen covered in brown paper, was handed down by my mother to me. I read all the six novels. The favourite being Northanger Abbey, as I strongly identified with Catherine Morland, the ‘heroine’ of the novel. With her I would delve into the fantastic world of Bath, visit the balls and theatres, where she would eagerly wait to meet the ravishing Henry Tilney. With Catherine I fell in love with Mr Tilney, well read and extremely witty. Deliciously attractive! Yes, Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice stood passe and cliched for me. I grew wary of girls like Isabella Thorpe, a manipulative and self-serving young woman on a quest to obtain a well-off husband; at the time, marriage was the accepted way for young women of a certain class to become “established” with a household of their own. Over the years and even until recently, I have seen the shadow of Isabella Thorpe in many women and to my husband’s dismay, I was even warning my son the other day to be careful of such obnoxious girls in future. When I come across arrogant and extremely boastful young men who certainly appear distasteful, I uncontrollably burp out the name John Thorpe!
Recently, I had worked on an assignment based on book-themed parties and the Austenian party figured forefront in the same. Over the years, I have traversed the path of transformation of Austen from a little-known spinster-scribbler to a literary superstar ... from Northanger Abbey I developed the Sense and Sensibility to visit Mansfield Park ... where Austen’s Pride and Prejudice overtook me and with a little Persuasion from Emma I became the Austentatious fan... for posterity!
As I came out of my hypnotised reverie, I sent a message to my brother, in England, to save an Austen currency note for me. I plan to frame it, adding to the repertoire of other Austen memorabilia that I had collected over the years.
Navanita Varadpande is a freelance writer based in Dubai.