Memsahib*, Hat, Coat and Biscuit
A friend from my high school days in Calcutta, India recently wrote to me, asking if I knew the name of the exquisite Italian model, much talkedabout in the fashion circles of New York. Supposedly, she was an exact look alike of Angelina Jolie. On reading his e-mail, I could not help but burst out laughing. I immediately wrote back that we are now eons past dreaming of the models on the ramps. I wanted to ask my friend if he had found a good, large print, easy-to-read book on geriatric medicine. I held back from expressing that concern, as I have to take some responsibility for starting the ‘babes’ discussion. I had written to my friends excited notes when, as a young news photographer for CBS television I had met Brooke Shields at Studio 54. Add to that, I believe Jodie Foster winked at me from the red carpet at the Emmys. All these exciting evenings happened over thirty years ago. Isn’t it time to let go of those juvenile aspirations? Of course, the real reason for my lack of interest in these ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ women is much more profound. You see, I have always been in love with Ava Gardner.
Now may be your turn to laugh so please, have at it. You may respond, Ava Garner was a Hollywood star when I was barely a light in my mother’s eye. That’s jolly well true. You see, when it comes to matters of the heart, I am not fickle and this is a very old love story.
It was a time in my life when each day was just like another, and the promise of the summer holidays to come seemed like a lifetime away. With the coming of independence, the city of Calcutta, which had known of glory days as the second capital of the British Empire had reverted back to being a sleepy little town. I must have started kindergarten. Coming home from the English prep school and reciting ‘Ba Ba Black Sheep’ to our neighbors drew an appreciative applause. By the time I ‘went up the hill with Jack and Jill,’ I was hailed as a ‘child genius’. Into these magic days of childhood, with a small suitcase in one hand, Saroda Palit walked into our home. He was from another dream.
We called Saroda Palit ‘grandfather’ but he was not my real grandfather. He was my father’s uncle, my grandfather Nara Narayan’s older brother, older by several decades. But Saroda Palit, was my grandfather in every sense of the word. He was born in a village called Gaabkhan, district Barisal in East Bengal nearly a century earlier. When Nara Narayan wed my grand mother Kusum Kumari at the turn of the century and moved to Calcutta, Saroda Palit chose to stay behind. Gaabkhan was a mere cluster of huts around a pond. A large black stone with vermillion markings, sitting under a saffron awning, served as a Shiva temple. Nara Narayan had taught school in the mango grove. Our family had a small plot of farmland, barely enough to sustain Saroda and his family.
Grandfather enjoyed my recitation. As the appreciative neighbors moved on to other chores, Saroda Palit became my sole audience, clapping with gusto after each new English language nursery rhyme. Sometimes he too joined me in our performance and sang a rural Bangla song. Curious about his repertoire, I asked him if he could recite in English. Urged by my request he recited aloud, “Memsahib, hat, coat, biscuit; summer, mosquito, coot-coot.”
Grandfather’s eyes sparkled. I wondered if he too had a Memsahib teacher in his school. Though his was a limited repertoire I enjoyed his performance. He repeated the same poem even after I had moved on to “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”
Everybody treated Grandfather with great reverence. I was fast outgrowing the need for my personal nanny so Sarju was delegated to taking care of the old man. She treated him like a baby because that is what she was good at. Grandfather had his own ways too. He poured four spoons of sugar into his tea and drank till the last drop, Sarju having to hold the cup up to his mouth. Grandfather then reached into his cup with his forefinger and picked up the granules of un-dissolved sugar. With a quick flick of his tongue he licked off the sugar from the tip of his forefinger and then he smacked his lips. That was his candy for the day!
More sooner than later, I learnt to mark the days and each day brought new adventures. I went to the park with my friends to play soccer and cricket. The bicycle took me to visit my friends in their homes on Sundays. The widening gyre allowed me to discover amusements all over town. There were teeming markets to explore and for a few pennies, street vendors offered snacks that made my mouth drool.
Returning from one such adventure, I sensed a change at home. It seemed all our relatives had come to visit us on the same evening. A solemn hush pervaded the house. Incense sticks were lit; the smell of sandalwood wafted throughout the rooms. I was at a loss for words. Covered in flowers, a Brahmin chanting prayers beside him, grandfather left our house on a bier. My mother said, Grandfather had left us with a blessing on his lips.
Calcutta was changing at a reckless speed. New shanties sprang up everywhere. Most often the overcrowding was blamed on the influx of refugees from East Bengal. Peasants who had lived and farmed together for generations, in the name of religion, had slaughtered each other. More than a million people had died during the partition of India in 1947; smaller riots continued in the villages with the slightest provocation.
It must have been the monsoon rain pelting me that made me pull over with my bicycle to take refuge under the awning of the Whiteway and Laidlaw Building, opposite the Ochterlony Monument on the Esplanade. A crowd had formed seeking shelter from the rains and I edged my way in among them. The bicycle was not easy to manage in the narrow space. I felt someone was staring down at me. I looked up … and there she was. Behind the large plate glass window stood the Memsahib in her half pillbox hat, a silver wing pinned to her blue coat. She was serving tea and biscuits to happy couples on a Pan Am Clipper flight. I was thrilled at meeting her!
I was not the only one staring at the larger then life, cardboard cut out of the beautiful woman. A multitude of bare brown backs gaped at her as their imagination took flight on gossamer wings to exotic lands. A passport to their happiness, I wondered what she thought of as she stood motionless behind the glass in the shop window. Bombay, Cairo, Istanbul, Rome, Paris, London and New York beckoned the well-heeled of Calcutta by way of this lady’s alluring smile. Yes indeed, Grandfather had met this Memsahib and as proof there was the hat, coat and biscuit!
It was not love at first sight. In fact, I did not think of her for many years. I did take the flight to New York but it was not at this Memsahib’s enticement. In the previous two hundred years, Calcutta had been at the forefront of many progressive social changes. Triggered by the historical disparity between the lives of the haves and have-nots, a new restlessness now permeated the air. Political rallies competed with the cinema and stage for attention and were well attended. Widespread strikes at factories pushed down the depressed, fragile economy. Bombs exploded on street corners and busses and trams were burnt down in protest on College Street by student mobs. There were calls for armed revolution. The social order fell apart and a reign of terror was let loose upon the city. What pushed my father into an unacceptable corner was the closure of the universities. Coming from a long line of scholars, being unable to attend college was not an acceptable option. I found myself sitting on the wings of a 747. With a small suitcase in one hand, I arrived at the gates of a university in the southwest United States.
This was definitely not my American dream. It was more like jumping from the pot into the fire. There were loud voices on campus, boasting that they loved the smell of napalm in the morning; in growing numbers, others wanted to give peace a chance. The President reassured us on TV that he was not a crook but he had to leave the White House anyway. There were far more questions than answers and that may have been a good thing. I climbed the Acropolis in the east; the perfect proportions of the Parthenon were daunting to my topsy-turvy world. Neither ‘form’ nor ‘function’ became clear at the Taliesin West so I danced with reckless abandon at the Dionysian festival with Antigone. At Dr. Freud’s couch in Vienna I felt I was barking at the moon and asked for a reference to see Dr. Fromm. I waited with Beckett for what or who, and frankly by this time I did not care. Utterly confused, I picked Wild Strawberries, downed an espresso or two at the café on La Dolce Vita, took the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and migrated to graduate school.
My graduate studies advisor at the University of Texas at Austin insisted that I find a South Asian connection for my dissertation. I don’t know how but he had made up his mind that the films of Ingmar Bergman, Fellini or Kurosawa were not my fare. ‘The influence of the Italian Neo-realism on Satyajit Ray’ was suggested as a topic but that kind of scholarship did not turn me on. I was not ready to become the Indian film guru at an American University in the mid-west as a career choice. I had to explore further.
As I was pouring through a glossy film magazine in the library from the Golden Days of Hollywood, she jumped out at me from one of the pages. There she was again, the Memsahib with the hat, coat and biscuit. The secret was finally revealed to me! Ava Gardner has starred in Bhowani Junction, a torrid story of a femme fatale in love with an Anglo Indian Army Officer. It did not take an advertising genius to put two and two together. Pan Am had routed their round-the-world Clipper service through Calcutta. Who else could be better than Ava Gardner to stand at the Pan Am Agent’s window in the Esplanade, a stone’s throw from Bhowani Pore Junction in Calcutta, India?
And that’s how the love story began. I have great respect for the emancipated women of my generation. They have saved bald headed eagles and beluga whales from extinction, raised the awareness of organic gardening and a leading lady traveled to Hanoi to bring an end to an unpopular war. Traitor to my own kind and kin, I turned my back on the women of lofty goals. My heart went racing out to a young woman from a small town in North Carolina who had an hourglass figure, piercing eyes and a steely temperament. Born into poverty she was unschooled and untrained in the arts yet she moved audiences around the world. Even ole blue eyes Frank gave up his first wife and fell for her.
It was also a secret love; a love that appears for a flash a moment before you wake up. The vision of her lingers through the morning and you whistle happily at your subway stop. Your line producer notices that you have a spring in your walk as you step into the studio. As the day wears on, her image disappears from sight. As the years wear on, you tend to forget who you are and cling on to an image of your former self. The children grow up and find their own friends. Your wife finds greater comfort in her gardening than your company. You want to scream, ‘Hey, stop the world I want to get off’ but like a Ferris wheel gone haywire, the world keeps spinning at an ever-maddening pace.
I did manage to get off. I got off and went to the furthest corner of the world. At the behest of a dear friend I took up the position of General Manager of a Quality Inn in a tiny, picturesque town at the junction where rural Pennsylvania, the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia and the serene, pastoral valleys of Maryland come together. Arriving in town, I surmised, ‘this’ must have been Eden. Wild flowers from a full palette filling the divide between highways soothe your eyes as you drive. The morning mist lingers lightly over the mountains long enough so you can have your first cup of coffee in tranquility. The babbling brook bordering the parking lot of the motel sings in your ears as it meanders lazily to rivers with names like Shenandoah or Susquehanna.
The motel never did well under my watch. An interstate constructed in the 90s took away what little traffic had traveled the local roads and brought in customers at an earlier time. A recovering alcoholic did the maintenance on the dilapidating building; a disabled veteran ran the front desk. The head housekeeper had served twelve to twenty in the State Penitentiary when her former husband met a ‘sudden demise’ with a bullet to his heart. A middle aged, balding Indian immigrant was not a great asset to the business either.
Over the weekends, a few curious tourists came to the motel. Stone arch bridges from the 19th century and Civil War era towns with names like Boonton, Funkstown or Harper’s Ferry still attracted the history buffs. The Mason Dixon line ran nearby. The Battle of Sharpsburg was fought on September 17, 1862 on a field down the street from the motel. Young men who had attended country-dances together had taken up arms against each other for the Maryland Campaign. The injured were brought to the creek that ran along the battlefield to wash their wounds. The creek ran red on that fateful day. Antietam Creek is still called Blood Creek by the locals. President Lincoln had ordered General McClellan to chase Lee into Virginia and finish him off forever. The magnitude of the carnage at Sharpsburg was horrific enough to make the general have a change of heart. He returned to Washington with his troops. The simple white structure of Dunkers Church stands vigil by the battlefield as a silent witness to the slaughter of 23,000 in a single day.
Some evenings when the magic of twilight lingers, before darkness draws its covers for the night, a small floating saucer with a flickering candle bobs down the creek on its way to the Potomac. A mere boy who had lived only in his mother’s heart and perhaps in the sidelong glance of a maiden at a country fair has been remembered. Someone up the street has offered a prayer to a great, grand uncle. The lad had answered the bugle’s call and never came home to milk the cows at dawn, trim the honey-suckle by his mother’s kitchen window or carve a Jack-O-Lantern for the nephews and nieces at Halloween.
It was a time in my life when each day was just like another. And then she walked into my office. Ava, that is. “I am Sherry Dobson,“ she said and offered to shake hands with me. “Dave said you were looking for a front desk clerk.” My heart raced wildly.
It was not only my heart that raced wildly. In no time and out of the complete blue, the old motel attracted new customers. Young men in their Sunday best, little old ladies from the back country and sharp business travelers in BMWs stood in the lobby for hours, chatting away with the beauty behind the reception window. I called her ‘Mon Cheri’. She basked in that moment’s sunshine when I told her that ‘Mon Cheri’ meant ‘my little darling’ in French.
Mon Cheri was good with words. She could always turn a telephone call into a sale. Her reassuring voice made people jump sideways and give her their credit card numbers and book a room at the motel. My problem as a manager lay in the fact that Mon Cheri never bothered to swipe their credit cards on the reader when they showed up at the motel. She smiled and simply handed over the customers their room keys. I cornered her one evening.
“Why don’t you swipe the credit cards on the reader like I showed you?” I asked her casually.
“It’s the same number on their credit cards that I take down, making their reservations. What does it matter?” she asked in her ‘I am in control’ way.
“You can’t be sure, Mon Cheri. Swiping their credit cards would prove that the particular customer was here at the motel. They could be lying to you over the phone.”
A frown settled on her forehead. “Why would they be lying to me?”
Do I really have to explain to a grown up woman that there are crooks out there with stolen credit cards? I thought. I tried the soft approach with her.
”Just as an example, Mon Cheri, when your father goes shopping at the mall and uses a credit card, did you ever notice that the shopping assistant takes his Am Ex or Visa card and swipes it on a credit card reader attached to the computer?” I asked.
“My father does not use credit cards” she replied. That was the end of that discussion.
Sales continued to remain high when Mon Cheri was at the front desk and I dared not complain. What she lacked in skills I made up for it in her absence with my due diligence. She did try I must confess. In an act of sheer bravery she volunteered to close out the books one evening. Mon Cheri is the only person I know who could take a full minute picking out the vowels on a computer keyboard. Breaking it in gently, I asked, “Did they not have touch typing in your high school?”
“We did not have a high school” she said in a matter of fact way.
My attempts to teach her basic computer skills went nowhere. I didn’t want to embarrass the poor girl. “Don’t worry. Bill Gates will not mind if you can’t get the hang of this thing,” I said, re-assuring her.
“Who is Bill Gates?”
Mon Cheri had a way of taking my breath away. “He is simply the richest man in the world and he made this computer.”
“Really! And do you know him?”
What else could I say? “Of course,” I threw out with a demure smile across my lips.
“If he is a friend of yours, do you think he will come to our motel?” she pressed on eagerly.
“Maybe,” I responded with a slight hesitation, knowing full well that telling two lies in a row could bring me bad luck.
“Do you think he will like me?” she asked bashfully.
I don’t know if it was shock or disbelief but I began to worry. “Maybe he will,” I blurted out. “I really don’t know him that well. You know how guys are.”
The wheels were turning in her head. “Do you think Mr. Gates will think I am dumb if I can’t use his computer?”
“Don’t worry Mon Cheri. Bill Gates did not finish college either,” I reassured her.
“I hope he really, really likes me,” she said cheerfully and left for the evening.
It turned out to be a good summer for us after all. The protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had rekindled the interest in military history. Families came to see the grounds where the Civil War had been fought. The tight economy and Mon Cheri’s effervescent personality brought in middle class tourists into our second-class motel.
“I will miss these people when they are gone and the season is over,” she added wistfully one early September morning.
“Why are you driving them away so soon? Maybe the good weather and good times will stretch a bit longer,” I pleaded hopefully.
“No,” she pronounced with a tone of finality. “The cicadas were chirping last night; they came out early this year. I could hear them from my bed. It will be a cold, lonely winter.”
Rural wisdom, I thought to myself with an air of superiority. Her confidence in her insight bothered me. My financial stakes were tied to just such a prediction.
It was so cold and snowy that winter that they had to close down the Pennsylvania Turnpike to traffic. The motel stayed mostly empty. I gave my staff free rooms at the motel so they would not have to risk driving back and forth home on the icy roads.
“Does your father still farm?” I asked Mon Cheri over coffee one morning.
“You can say that, I suppose.”
Her answer did not compute in my head. “How big is his farm?” I wanted to know.
“As big as he wants it to be,” she answered, quite disinterested in the topic.
I did not know of a single farm without boundaries. “What about your neighbors? Won’t they mind if your father strayed into their land?”
“We don’t have neighbors on our mountain. Just us and of course my uncle and aunt. We plant what we need. Dad slaughters a sow every fall and we make it through the winter.”
I could not believe what I was hearing. “And money. What do you do for money? Don’t you need money?”
“Oh, money,” she responded and giggled like a child. “Were you worried?”
“Yes, I still am,” I admitted. I couldn’t understand what was so funny. I had to meet a pay roll every two weeks.
“Dad cuts down a few trees in the fall and chops them up for the fireplace. He leaves them down by the road. People who take the wood leave us money in the Folger’s can.” She took a small bite from the breakfast waffle. “We were never wanting.”
The story of her humble background hit me like nothing before. My Mon Cheri, the perfect Irish rose was transplanted during the potato famine in the 1860s and grew up in the untamed Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia. She was born in a pine shack in the hollows by a stream. The postman stopped by once a week on his rural route. Her aunt Samantha ran the Sunday school and had taught the children the Bible, their alphabets and arithmetic. In summer they held church services outside. Christian Charities gave free dental check ups annually. The Salvation Army dropped off sweaters and gloves with the turkey at Thanksgiving. When the weather turned, they moved the services into the barn. And like Ava, who was also born in squalor, Mon Cheri could hold court in any palace.
That spring held promise the tourists would arrive early. A few lone crocuses had sprouted between the cracks in the sidewalk. A scraggly daffodil or two waved from the banks of the Antietam Creek. I could sense by the carmine haze in the trees; the maple buds were ready to burst open. The morning mist still lingered over the mountains. There was a little chill in the air. Mon Cheri was hanging up her hat and coat on the rack in the lobby. “Would you like to join me for a cup of tea, Ava?” I asked her.
“Yes. That would be very nice, thank you,” she greeted me.
I served her a cup of hot tea with cream and sugar. She was not familiar with this very English morning ritual but seemed to be enjoying herself. “Did you call me Ava?” she asked me out of the blue.
“I don’t think so,” I replied, a little flustered.
“Funny, I thought I heard you say, Ava,” she insisted with a confused look on her face.
“I must have said, Dave ‘err, or something,” I lied, passing off my gaffe by using the name of the night auditor. I opened a packet of Bourbon biscuits and spread them out on a plate. “Here, have some. These are from London,” I boasted.
Mon Cheri loved the biscuits and joined me for a second cup of tea. As she rose to take her place behind the reception window, she put out her forefinger and picked up a few granules of sugar from the biscuit plate. With a quick flick of her tongue she licked off the sugar from her fingertip and smacked her lips. Then she was gone.
From somewhere deep in my memory bank an image floated up in my mind’s eye of an old man smacking his lips in the same way after licking off a granule or two of sugar. I knew in an instant my life had come full circle. I felt both euphoric and calm at the same time. I knew I had to share this feeling with someone or I would explode. I walked up to the reception window and said in jest, “Mon Cheri, I would like you to meet this wonderful guy.”
“Is it your friend, Mr. Gates? Is he in the motel,” she enquired eagerly as her face lit up.
I was not expecting that response from her and was left at a loss for words. “No,” I stammered, unsure of myself now. “His name is Saroda Palit. He is from the village of Gaabkhan, district Barisal in East Bengal.”
Her smile faded. Mon Cheri could not discern what I was taking about. “You two are alike in so many ways,” I trailed off.
“Really?” she responded sweetly. If Mon Cheri was disappointed, she did not want me to see it.
“He can be a lot of fun,” I added as a last measure, trying to bolster her spirits. My words did not register even a faint response. The conversation was not taking us anywhere I wanted it to go. “Like you, he is from the ole country,” was the best excuse I could come up with.
As I turned and walked away, I heard her asking softly, “And will he really, … really like me?”
Something in her tender voice and the slow deliberate words made me freeze. I turned and faced her squarely. She looked ashen as I had never seen her before. I had to pause and catch my breath. “I’m sure he really, … really likes you, Mon Cheri. Very much,” I added the last two words for good measure.
Mon Cheri stared at me with her steely eyes. She would not let the calm on her face betray the wheels turning at breakneck speed in her head. Gradually the color seeped back to her face. Fortunately the phone rang and she had to take the call. I walked across the lobby to the breakfast nook to lay the tables for the few guests we had at the motel. I checked the juice machines and they were working fine. The small, white plastic bucket with the batter I had made for the waffles almost slipped out of my hands. I felt someone was staring down at me. I looked up and across the lobby and caught Mon Cheri standing behind the large plate glass window, stealing a glance in my direction. Our eyes met for a fleeting moment. Immediately she looked away, but then she blushed.
A busload of Japanese tourists came in unexpectedly. I thanked my lucky stars. Mon Cheri radiated a special warmth throughout that morning. She swiped their bankcards on the credit card reader by the computer and handed our guests their room keys.
I told the maintenance man in no uncertain terms to trim the brush on the edge of the motel property. He said he would get them done right away. The head house-keeper wanted to know how many more rooms would be needed that morning for the unexpected arrivals. Mon Cheri was of no help to her; she was not even listening. She had spread her gossamer wings and was dreaming of a flight from New York to San Francisco, Tokyo, Singapore to Bhowani Pore Junction in Calcutta, India.
Saroda Palit was born in the village Gaabkhan, district Barisal in East Bengal in the year 1862. He was the first to meet the Memsahib who had wings to transport you to the wonders of the West. What neither Saroda Palit nor I could imagine at that time of our first meeting with her, if we took the flight of fancy to the West and flew long enough, we would come back around to the East.
Watching the Japanese tourists filing past me in the lobby, their baggage still showing their airline tags, I felt I too had been on a very long flight. I smiled to myself as it occurred to me that every flight that takes off has to land somewhere. I had just landed at the most transient of places, in a second rate motel on a sparsely traveled highway, in a town of long forgotten glory, but I knew I had come home.
* White woman – a term used to refer to a British woman from the colonial period.
(Posted May 7, 2013)
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