The birth of my first child made me see the past through a new lens: how it’s never lost, not completely; we carry it with us, in us, and we look for it in our parents and in our children, to give us our bearings and ground us in the continuity of life. And the past accommodates. It shows off in dazzling, unpredictable ways – a familiar gait, a gesture, the timbre of a voice, a blot of colour along the tailbone. The body has a long memory indeed.
The mysteries of the past lure many to the maw of genealogy – hours, years and small fortunes devoured tracing the branches of family trees. I had never been one of those people, but now a tempting shortcut had appeared: genetic tests that promised to reveal histories never told or recorded anywhere else.
Written in the quirky tongue of DNA and wound into the nucleus of nearly every human cell are biological mementos of the family who came before us.
And science is finding ways to dig them out, rummaging through our genetic code as if it were a trunk in the attic.
When questions of identity had been with me for so long; when my children might grow up with the same questions; and my parents, with everything they know and all the secrets hiding in their living cells, could vanish in a breath – why would I wait? I imagined the cool blade of science cutting to the truth of us, after more than a century of speculation and denial.
I started asking questions about my family in the late 1970s, after people started asking them of me. I had just turned 7 and we had moved from the Toronto area to the Southern Ontario town of St. Catharines.
Our tidy subdivision must have sprung up in the space age of the 1960s: There was a Star Circle and Venus and Saturn Courts, and in our roundabout of mostly German families, we were the aliens at 43 Neptune Dr. Before we moved in, the Pontellos had been the most exotic clan.
The kids my age would pretend to be detectives investigating versions of crimes we’d seen on Charlie’s Angels. All the girls wanted to play the blond, bodacious Farrah Fawcett character, and when arguments broke out over whether my dark looks should exclude me from eligibility, an interrogation usually followed.
“So where you from, anyway?” one of the kids would ask.
“Mississauga,” I’d say.
“No, really, where are you from?”
“Well, I was born in England – ”
“No, I mean, like, what are you?”
Kids can be mean, but my friends weren’t. Most of them were just curious about a brown girl with a Jewish last name who went to the Catholic school. I was curious too. I wanted to say Italian, like the Pontellos. I wanted freckles and hair that swung like Dorothy Hamill’s. But more than that, I wanted an answer.
“Just tell them you’re English,” Mum would say. “You were born in England.”
“But I don’t look English.”
“Tell them you’re Eurasian,” my father would offer.
Those conversations left me with the uncomfortable feeling that we had something to hide. My parents never said simply, “We’re this” or “We’re that.” They said, “Tell them this …”
Of course, I knew India had something to do with us, or we with it. My parents were born there. Their parents were born there. My father, my brothers, and I sported year-round tans. We called okra “ladyfingers” and eggplants “brinjals,” and my mother cooked a mean curry.
When I was 4, my parents took my sister and me on a world tour that stopped in Mumbai, and I had strange kid-memories of the place we visited: women on their haunches plucking chickens, a lizard creeping up the wall, red dirt, hole-in-the-floor toilets that seemed designed to make me pee on my feet.
But if I asked, the answer was no, we weren’t Indian, really. We were English, sort of, and Portuguese, probably a little Irish and Scottish, a bit Dutch, and maybe Russian. Luckily, no one mentioned China or Jamaica at the time – what I knew was already enough to inspire panic attacks at school on Heritage Day: Bring a traditional dish from your homeland, the teacher would say. Bring a flag. Wear your native costume.
I much preferred hot-dog days, when a buck-fifty bought everyone a wiener and a can of pop.
In the summer of 1978, I flew back to England with my parents for a visit. One afternoon, we gathered at the home of my Aunty Zia and Uncle Douglas in Wembley. At some point, jostled between hips and legs, I caught a glimpse of my grandfather sitting in the living room.
Papa Albert was too frail to join the welcoming mob at the door. He was seated in a plump chair by the front window, tiny and delicate as a bird. He had a head of white stubble and a golden complexion. He wore a tie, a woollen vest and a herringbone jacket that gave him a distinguished air.
Suddenly he looked up at me and grinned, as though he knew I’d been staring, and I saw something instantly familiar and yet utterly foreign in his face, in the gentle slant of his eyes. He looked Chinese.
I was dumbstruck. My grandfather was Chinese? We were Chinese? On top of all the quasi-Indian, English, Portuguese, Dutch business, we were Chinese?
My father didn’t have many answers. His father didn’t either, or if he did he had never shared them. All I could gather from my parents was that many years ago in India, Papa Albert’s father was somehow given the name John Abraham. Other than that, only three things were known about him, and none with certainty: He was Chinese, he was a juggler and he had disappeared.
If we had something to hide about our heritage, John Abraham stood out as the thing that was hidden. A secret Chinese patriarch, a juggler, a lost culture, a lost name – all discovered just when the Abraham name was causing me a schoolyardful of grief (to prepubescent boys, my prepubescent chest was the Plains of Abraham).
The mystery of my great-grandfather marinated in my imagination.
In 1979, my father changed jobs and we moved back to Mississauga. On Sundays, Nana Gladys came to visit.
I had always thought of her as my very English Nana. She’d lived in a Victorian row house outside London and shopped on the high street, where the clerks called her “Glad” and she called them “love.” But she had a nasty fall from a bus in 1978, and that was it – she packed and moved to Canada.
Every Sunday we picked her up for the 12 o’clock mass, and after lunch she and my mother would spend the day in our kitchen making dinner: chopping onions and garlic, grinding spices into a paste, frying cumin and coriander and cardamom pods in a pan, picking out stones from rice on an orange melamine plate.
All the while, they talked, about places in India with names full of vowels – Poona and Dhoand and Jubalpore – and communities they called railway colonies, where it seemed they had always lived, in houses by this train station or that. Practically everyone they knew had gone somewhere, after India won its independence from Britain in 1947. None of the people they talked about had Indian names, except the servants.
It was my introduction to the in-between world of my ancestors, a small swatch of mixed-blood people known by various labels when Britain ruled the subcontinent, many of them pejorative – half-castes, chi-chis, bastards of the Raj.
The community’s official description, still entrenched in India’s constitution, is “Anglo-Indian.” It refers to citizens descended from a paternal line that originated in Britain or Europe. They were not to be confused with English-born people who lived in India, who were called “domiciled Europeans.” Then there is “Eurasian,” the all-encompassing term to which we usually subscribed. All that taxonomy works hard to stress the non-Indian fraction of a hybrid heritage, not that I understood that then.
As a child, my knowledge of Anglo-Indians came from watching my parents, relatives and friends, usually at one house party or another, with the Johnnie Walker flowing and laughter erupting late into the night. Everyone spoke perfect English, but their words rose and fell with the musicality of a unique subcontinental lilt.
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.