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Carolyn Abraham in the lap of her brother Conrad, on holiday in the English countryside in 1972. At right her siblings Kevin and Christine and their father, Dudley Abraham.
Carolyn Abraham in the lap of her brother Conrad, on holiday in the English countryside in 1972. At right her siblings Kevin and Christine and their father, Dudley Abraham.

EXCERPT

DNA unlocks family secrets of the Chinese juggler, the enigmatic sea-captain and more Add to ...

They came in all shades and wore Western clothes, except for their bangles of yellow gold that jangled like tambourines when they danced – and Anglo-Indians love to dance, the jive in particular. Even now, with my mother’s sciatica and my father’s titanium knees, turn up Glenn Miller and away they go. It made the front page of The Times of India in 1998 when a reporter discovered an attendee at an Anglo-Indian gathering in Bangalore who didn’t know how to jive.

Yet there was a kind of deliberate amnesia among the Anglo-Indians, as though the Indian bit had crept in by osmosis. My grandmother would never acknowledge that Indians had figured somewhere in our bloodline. If anyone challenged her on it – and as a goading teenager, I did – she would look up sternly from the orange rice plate and shake her head.

“No, never. My father was English.”

“But who were his parents? And what about your mother?”

“There’s some Portuguese, but no Indian.”

Who taught them to how to grind spices and make curries, I wondered. Who passed down the recipes?

Nana said everyone had learned from the servants.

One Sunday afternoon, a few years after I’d moved to my own apartment, I called home for a recipe, and my grandmother was so genuinely happy to pass on her tricks for a quick chicken curry that she stayed on the line and walked me all the way through it.

“This is how my mother taught it to me,” she said.

“Your mother? I thought she was Portuguese.”

“Yes, Portuguese,” Nana said. And then she laughed.

My daughter Jade’s arrival in 2003 happened to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA’s double-helix structure. Talk of things genomic was everywhere – fingering the guilty and freeing the innocent; helping to identify human remains and put names to old bones; and at the root of a long list of ailments.

The first companies to offer genetic tests for ancestry had already popped up. I started reading about them while I was still on maternity leave and began to wonder: Would DNA confirm the Eurasian mix of our heritage? Would it reveal any trace of the juggler?

I had read enough to suspect that I needed more than my DNA alone to find the answers. I needed my parents – their support, their stories and – if I could convince them to give me some – their cells.

I pictured myself armed with swabbing sticks, tracking distant relatives around the globe. I didn’t expect that my quest would push me to the moral brink, make me wonder about the existence of ghosts and the propriety of grave-robbing.

In what proved to be a 10-year journey, I learned about the juggler, and my sea-captain great-grandfather, whose storied days in Jamaica left questions about our ties to slavery, as well as our links to the tea hills of south India and to northwest England.

I also learned that no one takes a DNA test in a vacuum. The results have an impact on everyone who shares your DNA: your parents, your siblings, your children, uncles, aunts, cousins – and strangers you had no idea were relatives until genetic testing shook them out of the family tree. Your secrets become their secrets, and they learn them, as you do, whether they want to or not.

I have come to regard our juggler, or his art at least, as a metaphor for it all: millions of nucleotides in continuous motion, tossed up, generation after generation, and scattered by the wind and by warriors, by the kidnapped and the curious, the hungry, the greedy, the pious, the scared and the lovesick. The forebears of us all.

Excerpted and adapted from The Juggler’s Children: A Journey into Family, Legend and the Genes that Bind Us. Copyright © 2013 Carolyn Abraham. Published by Random House Canada and reproduced by its permission. All rights reserved.

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