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 and he offered to lodge the ailing American. He instructed the cook to serve Solomon only boiled, easily digestible food.
When mother returned after some months, two young children in tow, Solomon offered to leave, but mother noticed his pale face, heard of his delicate condition and urged him to stay. Solomon had paid limited heed to the doctor’s interdiction of his drinking habit, but mother gently but firmly laid down the law. No booze, none. She served him bland, boiled vegetables and fish and his health improved.
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 periodically disappear to examine first-hand the situation at the Burma frontier. Clearly 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 explore 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, but he took time to practice soccer with me, just to please me. It delighted me, for he was a poor soccer player – he had never played it before – I enjoyed outwitting in the field. Looking back, I guess he knew that I enjoyed scoring against him and beating him, and that was why he agreed to play with me a game he had never learned and possibly did not enjoy playing at all. Still, 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 grammar, composition and style. My entire school education was in my first language, Bengali, and these simple books, designed for low-level privates, changed my taste 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 my 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 day three burly men came and took him away in a body bag, we felt we had lost a special member of our family.