On my right sat a well-regarded professor of the university where I had once lectured, with whom a conversation was less feasible, I soon discovered, because of the advanced hardness of his hearing. On the left sat a woman in a simple royal-blue dress, who, the hostess said, had just returned from India. That doubtless was why I had been placed next to her.
Celia smiled pleasantly as she gave me her hand. She had a soft, rolling voice and a deferential style, but her words had a contrasting directness. She sounded clearly American, but I seemed to detect a trace of something exotic. She enunciated more distinctly and gave longer pause between sentences.
Since she had recently visited India, I asked her if she had enjoyed her trip to India. She could have gone to India for pleasure or for work, but I made the foolish male presumption that she went as a tourist. She stunned me with her reply.
“I lived in India for thirty years,” she said, “I am a nun.”
She added, “Yes, to answer your question, I enjoyed my stay in India.”
When I confessed to my silly assumption, she said generously, “That is all right. Most of us don’t wear a habit any longer. People who are used to seeing nuns in habits are sometimes confused.”
She then smilingly pointed to the brooch she was wearing on her dress. She explained that she wears it with her street clothes to indicate her calling.
She had entered the church as a young girl, enthusiastically received her training and had gone to India to serve. For more than thirty years she had lived and worked in a small town in the south. Her life was simple. She lived with an Indian nun in a modest cottage, shared domestic chores, wore Indian clothes and ate Indian food. She taught young children during the day and helped in a church-run clinic in the evening. Her days were long and nights were occasionally short, when she was awakened for some medical emergency. It was hugely different from the comfortable middleclass life she had led with her dentist father and firefighter mother in an Ohio town.
I could not help asking if she was happy in her sharply altered circumstances.
“The first several weeks, perhaps months, were a period of excitement. Everything seemed like an adventure. An Indian town and daily life in it were like an unfathomable mystery to me. I knew nothing and I understood less, despite the briefing I had received from my elders and superiors.
“Once the period of transition was over, I settled down in my new life. I was peaceful, very peaceful. Of course, there were pains and irritants. Sometimes with the town people, more often with colleagues, but these were, at least in retrospect, minor and fleeting. I knew the patients at the clinic liked me; the children perhaps liked me a little more. That kept me going.”
And how did it feel to be back in the US after three decades?
She smiled, “At first cataclysmic, to be honest. I had returned to a country very different from the one I had left. Everything was different: food, clothes, transport, newspapers, phones, computers. The church was a solace, the mass offered friendly familiarity. Though, even there, the priorities and concerns seem to have changed.”
Has it been difficult to settle down?
She thought. “Honestly, yes. It has helped that I now live in a hostel with other nuns, many of a comparable age and experience. I feel I am settling down quite well.”
She laughed and added, “The only thing that bothers me yet is the food. I have gotten so used to Indian food that anything I eat here seems a trifle bland. I miss the spices. I tried cooking in the kitchen we have, but the smell lasted a long time and bothered other sisters. I had to give up on the idea.
“But, don’t worry,” she concluded with a laugh, “I am not starving.”
Three weeks later I made a reservation at the best Indian restaurant I knew and invited Celia. She looked bright in a yellow dress and the brooch shone with the candles the waiter lit.
“You have to tell me, Celia, of the food that you ate in India and liked. I want to mark the items in this menu to get an idea.”
She took a little time to recall the names from a language she knew scantily, but eventually was able to name eleven delicacies: two meat, three chicken, four seafood and five vegetarian entrées. Then, over her strenuous objections, I ordered all the eleven menu items. The waiter was slightly taken aback, but he wrote down the order assiduously.
It was my turn to explain to Celia.
“I want you to remember tonight as the India Night, when you could once again taste all the eleven Indian dishes you had tried earlier and liked. I have talked with the restaurant manager and he has promised that whatever we don’t eat now will be packed very carefully and you can store it in the hostel refrigerator for several days. You just have to heat it and eat it on successive days. There will be no odor, and the other nuns will not complain.”
I will long remember Celia’s startled but happy face.