The year was 1942 and the Japanese had started bombing Kolkata, trying to destroy the port and Howrah Bridge. Father had to stay in Kolkata for his work, but he suggested that Mother leave town for a while. Mother went, with two small children, to Bihar where she had brothers,.
When Father went to a doctor for tennis elbow, he encountered another patient in acute pain. Solomon, an American army officer, had cirrhosis of liver from regular drinking and was advised to stop hitting the bottle and live on a limited diet. In the absence of his family, Father had plenty of space in his apartment. He took pity on the man and offered to lodge the ailing American. He instructed the cook to serve Solomon only boiled, easily digestible food.
Years later, we pieced together the truth that Solomon was no ordinary soldier. He worked for the Office of Strategic Services, predecessor of the CIA, and was in India essentially to monitor the British defense preparedness on the eastern front. He was posted to Kolkata but would disappear periodically to survey the situation first-hand at the Burmese frontier. The allied powers were concerned about Japanese incursion and wanted to ascertain the real situation, independently of British assurances, and wanted a US agent to monitor the position.
My parents knew nothing of this and took Solomon as a pleasant foreigner in ill health whom they liked and wanted to help. Solomon was a tall, lean man who spoke softly and smiled shyly. His brown hair was brushed back but always looked slightly untidy. He was a good tennis player, for I saw him beat father easily. He also played soccer with me, I suspect mainly to please me. He was a poor soccer player – he had never learned or played it before – and I enjoyed outwitting him in the field. Looking back, I marvel that he agreed graciously to play with me a game that he did not know and possibly did not enjoy. He played enthusiastically, ran energetically and cheered when I scored against him. In sheer sportsmanship, he had no equal.
In the evenings, he read, wrote letters and chatted with my parents and their friends. He was a quiet man, but by his smile and gentle, attentive presence gave a sense of participation. With us kids, he was perfectly at home, ready to talk and help. Father wanted me to call him uncle, and nobody could be more avuncular that this lanky man with a ready smile.
Solomon worked in the Fort William and would bring along all kinds of stuff from the American Commissary: powdered milk that tasted better than the milk we were used to, powder egg that let mother make deliciously soft and fluffy omelets, huge cans of pears, oranges and apples immersed in some light sauce that added to their taste, and large tins of cookies and chocolates that Father struggled to keep away from my hands.
He brought something else from the Commissary that made a great difference to my life. He brought home large cartons of pocketbooks, and I became probably the only schoolboy in Kolkata who had a massive collection of English literature, from Shakespeare to Salinger. He also gifted me a remarkable series of books, produced for the US Army, on English language and style. My entire school education was in my first language, Bengali, and those ingenious books, designed for low-level privates, changed my savor of the English language.
Mother’s diet had improved Solomon’s health, but his liver, long battered by his copious drinking, finally gave way. One morning he did not drink his coffee, and when mother made him some soup, he could barely take a spoonful. He was in great pain and father quickly summoned our family doctor. It was no use. Solomon died in the afternoon in Mother’s arms. Officials came from the Fort William to retrieve his body and probably forward it to his family in the US after embalming.
Solomon’s was a short, accidental presence in our life, but the guest room he occupied had turned into a cordial corner for me. His gentle presence, soft voice and unfamiliar cologne had become a lovable, reassuring part of my day. Like my brother and my parents, he was now an affectionate certainty in my life. Then, like a thunderclap, came the warm, overcast day when three burly men came and, silently, took Soloman away in a khaki body bag.
We had lost an unusual member of our family.