By Lynette Viccaji
Lynette Viccaji is a well-educated and gifted writer, as evident from her earlier book Made in Pakistan: A Memoir. While that was a sincere and genuine effort, it appears her new literary endeavour, Bubbles — based on the life of her mother, Charlotte ‘Bubbles’ Donohoe — is even closer to the author’s heart. And although it is necessary for a reviewer to maintain a certain critical detachment from texts, Bubbles sucks one into a linguistic aquarium of bubbling words, effervescent and dominated by the inimitable presence of Viccaji’s delightful mother.
Viccaji writes that Charlotte was one of two children born to an Anglo-Indian couple, Harry and Stella. The family was a relatively happy unit in spite of Stella contracting tuberculosis. Charlotte’s mother was very creative in her own way and one of her earlier memories was of Stella asking her children to collect hailstones and then mixing home-made ice cream on a cold bed of icy hailstones.
Harry and Stella placed their daughter in convent schools in India, and the book contains some wonderfully historic pictures, one of which is a letter in Charlotte’s good schoolgirl penmanship — I often joke with my own convent-educated daughters that their penmanship far outshines my own.
Tragically, Stella died when Bubbles was eight, and the child retained a traumatic memory of her mother coughing up blood on the day of her demise. Alas, this was a day and age before the discovery of penicillin, and a diagnosis of tuberculosis was as fatal as one for cancer.
Lynette Viccaji’s tribute to her gregarious and strong-willed parent is a linguistic delight best savoured over a long weekend
Perhaps things would not have taken a turn for the worse had Harry not eloped — sans his two children — to Pakistan during Partition with his second wife. Charlotte was now left without any parents. Extended family tried to fill the void, but the young girl experienced many bewildering and lonely moments.
Still, she grew up strong-willed, with a sunny disposition. Vivacious and appealing, she met and married Herbert ‘Don’ Donohoe after she herself had come to Karachi, and they had one daughter. It might have been a happy marriage were it not for Don’s alcoholism. The downward spiral was so severe that Charlotte left her husband when the author was still a child and escaped to her father’s home.
Here, she raised Viccaji as best she could. It is never easy being a single parent, but Charlotte coped admirably. Viccaji was useless at mathematics, but excelled at English — largely because of her mother’s encouragement that she become an avid reader — and, once admitted to St Joseph’s Convent School, Karachi, received an excellent education, which she both appreciated and fully utilised.
Bubbles herself never managed to complete her schooling, but she was skilled enough at secretarial work to hold down some sound professional positions. Her work at the Sui Gas company was especially admired by peers and superiors alike, and it is a credit to her indomitable spirit that she never let a lack of qualifications hamper her dedication to her job.
Following the point at which Viccaji mentions her marriage to Adi Viccaji — with whom she fell deeply in love despite him being closer to Charlotte’s age than her own — the book consists of several letters of Charlotte’s, carefully preserved by her daughter.
In these, Bubbles comes across as warm, often hilarious and exhibiting a rather earthy sense of humour — a typical Sagittarian. A good phrase to describe the mood of the majority of these letters would be ‘rollicking good fun’ and I chuckled several times at how she referred to her daughter using various porcine terms. The picture of Charlotte that emerges is so well-presented by means of her own writing that it seems one is watching a film performance, as opposed to reading letters.
With a congenial travelling companion, a train ride through the countryside was most enjoyable. We read, chatted, commented on views, or on our fellow travellers. At night we settled into our bunks and were rocked to sleep. Of course, by the time we arrived, we were in desperate need of a bath, as one had to leave the compartment windows open or suffocate. The ride through the desert would leave a layer of fine sand over everything. We had a marvellous time, as we always did when we were together, and went to Murree, which was charming and not as commercial and crowded as it is now. — Excerpt from the book
Speaking of films, Bubbles was a huge fan and readers who have lived through the Karachi of the 1980s will be delighted by the references to Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Return of the Jedi and Palace Cinema. I think Bubbles displayed fine and discriminating taste when it came to entertainment and I can personally vouch for the fact that her criticism of the televised version of Little Women — that it was hugely disappointing — was spot on.
But Charlotte was more highbrow than this at times. She attended literary functions, such as Geraldine McEwan’s reading of Jane Austen’s works at Hashoo Auditorium. I was there myself in my early teens and have vivid memories of a British actress with impeccable diction, sporting a black dress with a white pie-crust collar.
And although she kept her weight in check by means of high-protein diets, Bubbles tremendously enjoyed a fine alcoholic drink or two and good food, regardless of whether it was a home-cooked meal by friends, or a restaurant repast at places such as Shezan.
Viccaji’s early married years were spent in Jhelum with Adi, and Bubbles made regular trips there to help during the births of her grandchildren, Cyrus and Zoe. Her last grandchild, Rachel, arrived later.
Although messy, screaming children rattled her — which was why she never attended their birthdays — a special bond existed between Bubbles and her grandchildren. One of the most harrowing scenes of the book is recounted at the end when poor Cyrus — by then much older, of course — had to break down his grandmother’s door only to discover that she had passed away. Charlotte’s spirit would laugh, though, and say that since she had curlers in her hair, she had been planning to go out and socialise.
Her phobia of lizards was very real, but so was the humour with which she regaled Viccaji of her encounters with them. Once, one got into her car and she had people take the entire backseat out so that the offending creature could be removed!
For much of her life, Bubbles lived in the shadow of the Holy Trinity Cathedral, at Trinity Lodge in Saddar, in a pleasant apartment alongside a number of others that housed single Christian women. As far as Karachi was concerned, this was a very central venue, and Charlotte remembered when the PanAm office blast happened at nearby Metropole Hotel in 1986.
She never lacked for friends and while many were naturally Christian, she maintained excellent emotional and social ties with Muslims, such as the Kazi sisters — artist Durriya and educationist Faiza. An astute observer of everything that went on around her, Charlotte recounted how Durriya was then so small that her tailor could not believe her measurements were those of an adult!
Viccaji’s book is peppered with such tiny details that demonstrate Charlotte’s keen interest in everything around her. Those who are familiar with Jane Austen’s letters to her sister Cassandra will find striking parallels between how Austen captured society in words, and the way Charlotte satirically and effectively gave a very detailed sense of Karachi as viewed through the panoramic literary lens of a keen observer.
But life was not necessarily all light and laughter for Viccaji’s mother, who was as kind-hearted as she was gregarious. Generous yet shrewd with money, Bubbles helped people financially only if she could afford to, but gave selflessly of her time to close friends and family whenever they needed her, such as when she personally took great care of a senior friend who was in the advanced stages of illness.
In order to appreciate not only how much Charlotte ‘Bubbles’ Donohoe loved her daughter, and also how much she enjoyed life, readers should ideally savour this book over a long, leisurely weekend. Both mother and daughter are excellent storytellers, and nothing helps one escape from drudgery the way a good story can.
The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 3rd, 2022