As recounted in his 1976 memoir, The Seventh Gate, Peter Greave’s life up to his mid-thirties was one no reader could envy. Born in Calcutta in 1910, he enjoyed a few years of privileged childhood as his father climbed the ladder of business success with an English merchant trading firm in India.
But by the time he was about to start school, he found himself on a tramp steamer on a slow and trouble-filled voyage to New York City as his father took the family off in search of a fresh start. His father, as Greave later learned, had run through a string of failed business schemes, insulted or stolen from much of proper society in Calcutta, and been bankrupted and politely asked to leave the country. He had also, as Greave only came to understand slowly and obliquely, been on the verge of being jailed as a chronic exhibitionist.
With utterly no connections in America, Greave’s father still manages to persuade another English firm to bankroll him in a venture to sell a now-forgotten car, the Dixie Flyer, in South Africa. His tiny stipend forces Greave’s mother to find ever-worse lodgings in ever-rougher parts of New York City. His days were spent avoiding, battling with, or being chased by gangs of young boys “engaged in continuous warfare.” At one point, she fell ill and the boys were taken into the city’s foster care system, spending weeks in a bleak orphanage stuck in the midst of a grey forest. His mother prayed for her husband to return and rescue them.
Instead, he returned accused of having blown through $600,000 in South Africa, and antagonized the Afrikaaners, and run off to the Congo with a black mistress in search of a lost mine. So he took his family off again, back to India on another cheap passage. Greave and his brother were enrolled in a threadbare boarding school where a schoolmaster straight from Dickens loved to beat morality and Catholic virtues into the boys.
Used to running wild in the streets of New York, Greave found the school intolerable and engineered an escape. Smuggling himself onto trains and ferries, hiding from the police, stealing food and finding unexpected support from an occasional Indian, he made his way from the Punjab to the far reaches of Assam. There, he enjoys some months of refuge, peace, and unsupervised play in the jungle from a friendly American couple he had met on ship.
The rest of Greave’s childhood was spattered with brief family reunions, more troubles due to his father’s grifts and sexual addiction, and a variety of poor excuses for schooling. With such an upbringing, it’s not surprising that his own experiences as a young man involve hopping from one job to another, great bouts of drinking, gambling, and whoring, and barely managing to exist on the fringes of Anglo-Indian society.
Then, sometime in his late twenties, he noticed a spot on his face. It stayed for weeks, growing slowly, and then was joined by similar spots on his legs and buttocks. He finally heads to the public hospital in Calcutta, where an Indian doctor calmly informs him that he is suffering from leprosy.
Over the next seven years, Greave spent much of his time holed up in a tiny, squalid room in a boarding house. One eye was blinded by the disease, the other nearly so. Only the tenderness of his lover, a beautiful but wayward Anglo-Indian girl rejected by both races, and an incredible forbearance and patience on Greave’s part, got him through. Finally, in 1946, a letter came to him out of the blue with an offer to take for him for free in a special clinic back in England. Greave tracked down his father–still concocting schemes in India–and begged enough money to pay for his passage. Scraping through the medical inspection, he got on board and set sail, never to return to India.
This is a pretty grim story. I suspect few reading my synopsis would imagine The Seventh Gate as anything but a study in black and more black.
Yet Greave (who died in 1977) seems to have possessed a spirit made of pure stainless steel. In the most degraded and dehumanizing situations, he managed–at least in reflection–to have been able to latch onto the tiniest bits of sunlight. Yes, he was trapped in some god awful boarding school run by a sadist–but he could always escape for a few moments:
Pacing endlessly across the wet, deserted playing field, I forgot the shoddy classrooms and the soaring, aloof grandeur of the Himalayas, and returned to those happy months when I had been free to wander beside the waters of Bombay harbour. Soaked in dazzling sunlight, the smell of the sea in my nostrils, I saw again the white sails of the dhows as the wind carried them towards Africa, and mingled happily with the cosmopolitan crowds that drifted beside the waterfront.
The cover of the Penguin paperback edition of The Seventh Gate shows a bright orange sun shining across some Indian river, and despite the many hardships Greave recounts, this is one of the sunniest books I’ve ever read. It may be that in having had so little, having been able to take so little for granted during his childhood, Greave simply developed an extraordinary capacity for acceptance.
It’s also a book rich in description, with remarkable scenes, such as the one where Greave stumbles across a pack of vultures in the middle of the night as he escapes from school. I found it a little like David Copperfield, where you keep turning the pages wondering what worse trouble the young hero was going to face in the next chapter. I zipped through The Second Miracle in the course of a single flight back from the U.S..
Although Greave was cured of leprosy once safe in the English clinic, the disease permanently weakened him and his blindness eventually became complete. Despite this, he managed to write, starting with his 1955 memoir of his cure, The Second Miracle. He wrote several plays and novels and appeared as a monologist on BBC television and radio. He lived in the clinic where he was treated, the Homes of St. Giles, until his death.
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The Seventh Gate, by Peter Greave
London: Maurice Temple Smith, Ltd., 1976