The Last Of His Kind
A search for Armenians in India
April Fools Day, 2022. With the invasion of Ukraine continuing, pundits debate the possible collateral damage. Nations that Putin’s armies have previously assaulted are in a state of tension. If he falls, other smaller wars may break out, particularly in the Caucasus where Azerbaijani forces have pushed forward, capitalising on Russia’s flagging support for Armenia.
In 1997 I was in India and found myself seeking out the Armenian community of Georgetown, Madras.
In Georgetown the streets are narrow and awash with deep puddles of brown rainwater. Under the upper windows of ancient houses, balconies smudged with algae hang from the facades like bags of tiredness under geriatric eyes. A passer-by demands of me: “Do they still wear the waistie in London?”
I consider what a waistie might be and decide he means waistcoat. “Yes,” I tell him, “A few rich and untrustworthy businessmen who want to appear reliable.”
He laughs. “Only the untrustworthy rich?! Haha! That’s good.” He waves his hands around his waist and I realize my stupidity: he means the sarong. I don’t tell him my mistake. A clatter of bicycles and rickshaws negotiate the puddles. Coolies bowing under massive loads bellow for a clear path. I stop to buy a newspaper. 162 dead in Tamil Nadu. Outbreaks of malaria, dengue, cholera, leptospirosis and meningitis have been reported. A man hurries past carrying a toilet on his shoulder. Thin desperate women feed naked children from mess tins in the gutters. Behind a latticed window sits an old man. He has remarkably long earlobes. I ask for directions to Armenian Street and he invites me inside. “I’m a stranger here myself,” he tells me. He is extremely ancient and wrinkled, but dressed in neat white robes. “I only came here from Bangalore yesterday to take care of my mother.”
I express some surprise. “How old is mother?”
“She is 104, but in good health. She still signs cheques.”
In his family, presumably, this is must be one of the vital signs. He calls someone and I get directions. “There is only one Armenian speaker left in Madras,” my helper tells me. “You must ask for Mister Gregory.”
I pick my way through the street of banana-sellers. Huge chandeliers of green fruit hanging in doorways, the barefoot vendors dressed in singlets and grubby waisties. In Armenian Street I spot two beautiful studded doors above some elegant stone steps. I go up, partly to escape the mud. At the top, I push the doors open.
Inside a dark cool lobby hall a man and a woman are stretched out fast asleep on the floor next to a birdcage holding twelve yellow ducklings. I step over them and go through into a courtyard full of trees: frangipani, mango and guava with a border of red lillies. In the centre is a belltower and to the left a line of columns that swell gently at the base. I go through an archway and enter another yard paved with flagstones, some are carved with skulls and I spot dates – 1770, 1765, 1798 – among the flowing circles of Armenian script. I am in the right place, but perhaps not welcome. A black dog runs at me, snarling and barking, then a man, Mr Michael Stephens, the caretaker.
“Is it possible to meet Mister Gregory?”
He shakes his head furiously. “Impossible. He never sees anyone.”
“Just for a minute.”
“Does he live here?”
“He never sees anyone.”
“Is he at home now?”
“He went out.”
“Shall I come back after lunch?”
“If he returns, he will refuse to be disturbed.”
“I will wait.”
“He may not return.”
I change the subject. Mr Stephens tells me he wants to go to Armenia next year to find a wife, but fears that the Madras heat will not suit any females. Do I consider Iran a better option? There’s an Armenian community there in Julfa. Mr Stephens is Armenian, but cannot speak the language. “Lack of practise.”
Mr Gregory, he confirms, is the last real Armenian in Madras, the only one capable of conversing in the native language, if there was anyone to talk to.
After a hostile start, the black street dog Pedro has become friendly, a bit like Mr Stephens. We chat, but then lunchtime is approaching and he gets up and goes off to close up the doors. I stand up, wondering what to do when I hear the voice, a booming angry voice. “What the devil?” A low murmur of voices. “He wants what?! Tell him I’m dead. Tell him I’m long dead! Show him the bones! Get rid of the man!”
Then Mr Gregory, for it is he, appears, a stooping old man leaning heavily on a crutch, his beard is long and white and he wears a black beret. He stops and sways, almost toppling over, then holds up one huge gnarled forefinger and shakes it at me.
“Grab that, you young puppy!”
I seize hold of the finger. It feels like the root of an ancient tree, knobbled with arthritis. It is stone cold.
“What are you?” he demands.
“I’m from London,” I tell him, aware that this is not answering his question. Suddenly his piercing yellow eyes go dreamy.
“Ah! I loved that woman for six years. Trafalgar Square and Nelson. 1951. Under Nelson’s Column a man asked me how many eyes the admiral had. I said to him, ‘Just look up!’ He did, and a pigeon squirted something nasty in his eye. He said Nelson has two, but I’ve only got one.” His laugh echoes around the courtyard, more like one of Pedro’s barks. “Hold on tight young fellow…”
The finger shakes in my grasp.
“You’re not letting go, are you?” His feet shuffle forward and I see that his toes are also painfully twisted with arthritis. “Look at all these graves in here,” he says, nodding towards the Armenian headstones in the yard. “I’m the last of my kind and I want to join them. Once we were many. The Armenians and the British were as thick as thieves.”
We embark across the yard, like an ungainly dance pair, my hand still clutching his finger. “Look at them all. This one dealt in rosewater and diamonds. Died June 13, 1797. This one was a silk merchant. We were many. Over 100 families.” The looping script of Armenian on the gravestones looks like the lines of bubbles, rising from drowning mouths.
I ask, “How did you come to Madras?”
He sighs. “My dear. That is a long story and I am the only one left alive. I was born in Iran, but when the First World War broke out, we set off through Afghanistan, travelling by camel. Six years later we reached Bombay, then my father set off back to Iran, but he died – we never learned where. Then mother died. All gone. Finished. The End of the World is coming. Look at it. Women working in banks! Girls want to be boys. Boys want to be girls. God won’t destroy the world, He knows man will do that for Him.”
With his free hand he lifts his crutch towards the sky and shakes it, suddenly furious and spittle firing out like shrapnel. “A rainbow! He sends the Flood! I’m burning up. Give me wings and I’ll fly. I can barely walk. Sweet Jesus. Never even seen my father’s grave…”
And then tears are rolling down his cheeks. I’m still holding the finger. Mr Gregory weeps for his father, lost somewhere on the road to Iran 80 years ago, and for the fact that he is all alone, and the last.
Mr Stephens comes forward, clucking, and gently prises the finger from my grasp. “Come, come.” The two of them shuffle away through a doorway. The door closes. I had not dared to ask for a photograph and immediately regret it.
I wander outside. The two sleepers and the dozen ducklings have gone. I find a restaurant up some stairs and pay ten rupees at a cashier’s booth. A banana leaf is laid out for me and a small mountain of rice placed in the centre, then four waiters bearing buckets of curry appear and ladle out colourful portions with great finesse, as if they are painting a picture. Another waiter applies the finishing touches with artful dabs of chutney and yoghurt. I eat with my right hand and their masterpiece slowly disappears until only a dirty green canvas remains. I stand up to go and one of the waiters removes the leaf and throws it out the window.
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