Luckily there was an empty seat next to her.
“I am the groom’s brother. Are you in the bride’s party?”
“I am the bride’s aunt.”
“Then I ought to know you better.”
“You may,” she said with a decorous smile.
She had indeed been a model in Paris and a broadcaster in Washington, but now on a long vacation in India. Her looks were easily explained: while her father was an Indian journalist with Reuters, her mother was Russian, now a Canadian citizen.
After dinner, I commented that, like me, she didn’t seem to know many people in the party.
“I don’t. I have been overseas much of my life. I don’t know many in this town. I am not close to my family either. They think me strange. By Indian standards, I suppose I am ornery.”
“Help me understand. Give me an example.”
“Here is one. I have had enough of this party. Why don’t we go somewhere quiet and talk?”
“I can take you to a bar or a restaurant, but I doubt it will be quiet on a Saturday night. The other option is close by and convenient, but I hesitate to suggest: my home.”
I had some good Cognac and made two Sidecars.
She looked suspiciously at her glass and asked, “What is this concoction? Are you trying to get me drunk?”
“I might, if you weren’t so pretty and interesting as you are. I am just trying to make you comfortable.” I explained the cocktail.
I said, “The reason I want you to be comfortable is I want to ask you something rather strange.”
“I couldn’t get her out of my mind. I didn’t know who she was; I didn’t even know her name, for the caption only mentioned the famous dancer. I tried to find out more, but had no luck. It was perhaps a silly obsession, but I never forgot that face. Today, as I sat next to you in the wedding reception and kept looking at your face, that old photo came to mind.
“So, tell me, have you ever fed pigeons at the Trafalgar Square?”
She looked at me for a long time, then quietly said, “The dancer is my uncle’s wife. She stayed with me in London.”
She was captivating in more ways than one. I have never met anyone in whom two cultures not only coexisted so visibly but conflicted so frequently and abrasively. She could wake up loving Kolkata, but by breakfast loathe it with passion. She missed the Washington ambience at lunch – “I like the endless choice of healthy, delicious salads” – only to recall over dinner the churlish way she was once pawed there. She would speak nostalgically of her apartments in Paris and Washington, and at other times speak of the pain to keep them in trim without domestics to help.
She spoke with an adroit melange of English, Bengali and Arabic that occasionally bemused me, but always amused. The writer, Syed Mujtaba Ali, who knew all the three idioms as well as her, once described her beauty as a golden trap, comparable to the dazzling deer that misled the heroine of Ramayana: you regretted if you succumbed, but you regretted even more if you did not and missed the rapture of a lifetime.
We were together for three years, before she returned to Washington. When I arrived in Washington seven years later, I found she had changed her mind and returned to India to live there. For ever, she told me. It took me some effort not to express a doubt.