Ten days later I was struggling with my high school homework when the doorbell rang. A pleasant-faced but brusque-mannered woman in her thirties asked if I understood English and, when I nodded, wanted to speak with my mother. I explained, in English, that my mother worked and was never home during the day. Surprised that an Indian housewife worked outside her home and an Indian boy spoke English, she asked for a favor. Could I please come and explain something to her two domestic employees that she hadn’t been able to convey.
Both the employees, a cleaner and a cook, said they understood the Thorntons’ English but were befuddled by her accent. I explained the instructions in both Hindi and English, and then suggested to Edna, who had meanwhile told me her name, that she needed to speak to them slowly and perhaps with a clipped accent. She appreciated my help and suggestion, but felt that, as a true New Yorker, she would have a tough time altering her speaking style.
Then, in a friendly gesture, she offered me a glass of Coca Cola and watched wide-eyed as I drank it unhesitatingly. When she asked, I explained that, though I had never seen Coca Cola, let alone drink it, I had seen its ad in every issue of the Life magazine and trusted it to be a pleasant drink.
Then she said she would like to teach me a game that she loved but hadn’t been able to play in Kolkata, not knowing who knew English well enough. The game was Scrabble. She warned me that she was a skilled player, and I shouldn’t mind losing a duel with her. “You will get better as you play with me,” she added encouragingly. We started. She was a little amazed that I used words she hadn’t expected me to know and one time had to consult a dictionary when I applied a longer word she didn’t know. Edna didn’t know that words and their structure interested me, and she was struck dumb when I won the match.
She now took a second look at me, I felt. In some way, I had somewhat grown in height and she now looked on me as an equal. And as a possible friend.
She needed a friend. She said that her husband, with his soft-spoken style and self-effacing demeanor, had become quickly popular in India, but she hadn’t a person to talk to. Frankly, she said, she disliked spicy Indian food, impenetrable Indian languages, messy Indian clothes, noisy Indian cities and the smelly Indians she had so far encountered. They seemed shifty and unreliable to her. I somehow appeared to her somewhat different. She detested almost everything in India, and I guess she needed to find something to like in Kolkata. I was that person. We became friends.
Our friendship ended when my parents moved out to another home in a different part of the city.
Thirty years later, I was working in the World Bank in the US and talking to a New Yorker colleague who had been in India. He mentioned Desmond, saying that he had died and his wife had settled in a town near Washington. He gave me Edna’s phone number.
When I called her Friday, Edna recognized me in a second and warmly insisted that we talk face to face. She suggested that I come over to her place after office, stay the night and return the following morning. She said she would get me the pajamas and a toothbrush. Such insistence was not customary in the US, but it sounded affectionate and well-meant and I agreed.
I took the hour-long bus trip and, as we approached the bus terminal, wondered how I would identify her after all these years. But I was the only non-white person in the bus in formal clothes, and Edna came forward in a second and hugged me.
When we arrived in her place, I had a shock. It could have been an Indian home. Every piece of furniture, every artifact, even every curtain or cushion was Indian. The rug on the floor was Indian, so were the framed pictures on the wall, of the Red Fort and Dal Lake and an antique colonial-era map of India.
She served me Makaibari tea with some pakoras, and, when I offered to take her out for dinner, countermanded it promptly by saying that she has already cooked Basmati rice and chicken butter-masala for me.
I was speechless for minutes. When I recovered my tongue, I made bold to ask her what had happened to change her view, since, the last I knew, she detested much of India – “with passion,” she added. What she then told me was a remarkable story.
It was not literature, philosophy or culture that turned her mind around. It was simply the ordinary people of India, the street folk and bazar vendors and domestic employees who altered her perspective.
“I began with endless distrust,” said Edna, “I assumed they were out to cheat me and take advantage of a naïve foreigner. Day by day the exact opposite happened. I would buy bananas, and the poor vendor would choose the best for me, return the excessive amount I had paid. The cleaner would find and give me the cash I had carelessly dropped in the kitchen. The cook gave me and my husband the best pieces of meat, to keep only the bones for himself. Day by day, they taught me a lesson I couldn’t overlook.
“Every time I went out, a fruit seller would pester me to buy his stuff. I refused, for I wanted to buy from the market next door where I would have more choice. One day, out on the street, the heel of my shoe came off. I didn’t know how to walk back home. The fruit seller came running, made me sit on his empty fruit basket, left with the broken shoe and came back in ten minutes with it repaired, put it on my foot and would not take a cent. I insisted, he refused. I doubt anybody would have done that for me in New York.”
Edna smiled, “Yes, I hated India with passion. And India took revenge. It just made me into an Indian.”