On that day which I would like to erase from my memory, I went, as usual, into the Director’s room to sign the attendance muster as soon as I reached the Research Centre. The visiting professor from England was in Director’s room with his daughter, a young girl in her mid teens. The Director (my boss) asked me to take her around and introduce her to the other research scholars while he finished his business with the visitor.
I took her into the large spacious airy room where we research scholars sat. We sat down at the large common table in the centre of the hall so that others could join us as they came in. And then I turned to her with a friendly smile which she returned.
“How do you like Trivandrun?” I asked – the standard question, I know but I couldn’t think of anything original.
“Oh it’s a lovely place!”(I think she meant it). “I call it a city lost in trees”
‘Eh?”, I said surprised.
I began to think that she too must have read that travelogue written by I don’t remember who which had a chapter titled The Treemen of Travancore. I remember I was furious when I read it ‘cos in all the fifteen years that I lived (I was 15 when I read that piece,) I had never seen people in Travancore living on trees and eating tadpoles live.
“We have a room on the sixth floor” she explained “and when I look out of the window, I see only palm trees”.
Actually she was right. In those days there were only a handful of high rises in Trivandrum, and from the height from which she surveyed the city, a splendid view of greenery would greet her.
And then I made that fatal mistake.
“Has you mother come too?” I asked!
Oh, we Indians. Why do we always have to ask about father mother brother and sister every time we are introduced to a person? Why don’t we realize that it is impolite, for these questions are an intrusion into the personal sphere which many would like to keep private?
“No”, she said, without batting an eyelid. “My parents are divorced”
My ears were on fire. “I’m sorry”. I stammered.
“That’s OK. My step mother is here”.
I nodded, struggling to conceal my embarrassment behind a smile.
Just then my friend Aparna (name changed like all the names that’ll appear in the rest of the story).
“Hi, Milly. Good Morning”, she said.
“Meet Michelle Tate. Cleanth Tate’s daughter”
“How do you do?” said Aparna
“Hello” said Michelle
“Is this your first visit to India?”
”How long have you been in TVM?’
“WE came two days back.”
And then from Aparna‘s lips fell those deadly words.
“Where’s your mother? Has she come too?”
Michelle repeated what she told me. Aparna shot an annoyed look at me for not having warned her, but then, I didn’t get a chance to warn her. Besides, who ever thought that a great intellectual like Aparna would be stupid enough not to know that one should not ask such questions to a stranger, particularly if she is from another country and culture?
And then the one and only Bhasker walked in. He’s one of those characters who you’d call hyper - was always in a state of excitement. He saw Aparna and me with a white girl and came enthusiastically toward us.
“Hello. Who do we have here?” he said beaming at all of us.
I performed the introductions, and then he started his round of queries.
“First visit to India?”
“Yes” said Michelle, trying to sound and look friendly.
“It’s a beauuuuutiful place, isn’t it?” He had a soft soulful expression in his eyes. “Did you see the Taj Mahal”
“No. Not yet. We’ll visit North India next week”
‘Who’s the we?” asked Bhaskar.
Sensing that he was approaching the danger zone, I tried to edge closer so that I could give him a warning kick. But I didn’t move fast enough for out came The Question
“Has your mother come?”
“No”, a staccato tone. This time she didn’t offer any explanations.
“What is she? A career woman or a housewife?”, asked the incorrigible Bhaskar
“My mother is an archeologist”, said Michelle.
Did she sound tired? Did I hear something like a resigned sigh from her?
”Oh’, said Bhaskar. He was unstoppable. “Then it’d have been lovely if she could also have joined you, no?”
“Heavens no”, Michelle burst out. “There’d be such a row!”
Bhaskar looked stupefied and, with eyes like saucers, he looked from one to another. By then I had moved close enough to give him that kick.
Unfortunately, it was harder that I intended it to be and it landed on his shin. I think he was about to repeat the word ‘row’ with a rising intonation when my kick landed on his shin, and he let out a yelp starting with R. "What on earth are you doing Milly? Why did you kick me?” he yelled angrily at me.
I didn’t look at Michelle. I couldn’t face her. I didn’t look at Bhaskar. I didn’t trust myself. But I looked at Aparna in utter dismay.
And she rose to the occasion. She got up, not abruptly but as though it was the most natural thing to do after the first session comprising introductions, and offered to show Michelle around the place, an offer which the poor girl accepted gracefully.
After that awkward episode, I made a resolution never to ask a stranger personal questions. But I must admit that old habits die hard and on a few occasions I have slipped. But only on a couple of occasions did I ask the wrong questions to wrong people.