She was not
the kind of co-passenger I expected on the long bus-ride from Heathrow
to Harrow. Yet of all the suave English gentlemen who could have
given me a hand loading my impossibly heavy baggage into Bus Number
140 at the airport terminus, she had stepped forward, sari and
all, taking firm grip of one bulging suitcase while I did battle
with the other. When I had stashed my two cases on the rack inside,
and had paid the incredibly low rate of one pound sixty pence into
the fare-box, she gestured welcomingly, moving further into her
seat to permit me to occupy the empty one besides her.
In less than the hour it took to go through
winding suburban streets in a gray drizzle, I garnered enough material
about her life to fill a slim volume. I had made the habitual decision
to spend a few days in London en route to New York from India. Thanks
to my childhood Anglo-Indian friends from Calcutta, Doreen and Wendell
Symons, who generously provided a home and hospitality, this had
become a somewhat customary summer detour for me. But since I wasn't
traveling on the weekend and they were tied up at work, I used public
transport into Harrow. They would pick me up from a local tube station
later that afternoon. Much as I regretted having to struggle through
the ordeals of a rainy day, heavy baggage and the hazards of public
transport, I would always be grateful for the opportunity to have
met the irrepressible Mrs. Patel.
seemed to be in her mid-sixties. In a rather crumpled cotton sari,
and frumpish chignon, she could be anyone's Gujarati grandma out
on a shopping spree. Tendrils of gray hair escaped from her bun
at the back so that she repeatedly tucked them back into her black
hair net. She had that dark Dravidian complexion, more typical of
South Indians that Gujarati ones, which contrasted sharply with
her most enviable set of sparkling white teeth. And she smiled frequently.
As might have been expected, our conversation
began with, "You're from India?"
I nodded and smiled. Somewhat redundantly,
considering that she was sari clad, wore a prominent bindi
and spoke English with a decidedly Gujarati accent, she informed
me, "I am also from India." Then, "You've come from where?"
"Calcutta", I replied shortly, still rather
reluctant about exchanging small talk with a stranger, even a very
"And you are going where now?"
"But you don't look like you live
all the time in India," she said, taking in my
jeans and parka, my weather-beaten Timberlands
and my Samsonite suitcases.
"I don't actually. I live in the United States. In Philadelphia.
I'm returning home after a summer visit to Calcutta where my folks
"Ah", she smiled, broadly and nodded.
"Yes, I did", I said, warming to her interesting
personality. "I always love going to India on vacation."
"So how come you stopped in London. You
have family members here?"
"Friends, as a matter of fact. They're
the ones who live in Watford. They'll be meeting me at the tube-station.
Say, could you tell me where I should get off? They said Harrow-Wealdstone
"No problem, no problem. I will show you.
Mrs. Patel informed me that the journey
would take a little over an hour. Since the day was horribly wet,
I guessed that it was likely to take longer. I turned my face towards
the window, the better to drink in the sights of impossibly huge
pink roses climbing along front porches and over windows whose interiors
were hidden by the foamiest froths of lace in neighborhoods with
names like Hayes and Northolt. As the bus wound its way through
those impeccably neat suburban streets with identical townhouses,
red pillar post-boxes and newly constructed bus-stops, Mrs. Patel
told me her story.
She had arrived in England only three
years previously, after an unendingly torturous life in East Africa.
But that was not where she had been born. She hailed from a tiny
village in Gujarat. She mentioned its name, but it has since slipped
my memory. Speaking Gujarati exclusively through her years in school
in India, she was married off, by arrangement, to a much older Gujarati
man who lived in Nairobi, Kenya. Needless to say, she had little
choice in the matter. "When I was eighteen years old, I left India",
she said, "and I have never gone back there. I am sure it must have
changed very much since those days."
"Indeed, it has," I said, never ceasing
myself to wonder both how my countrymen could stay away from India
for so many years on end and how much the country changed each time
I visited it. "You would be amazed by everything."
By this stage, I felt far more comfortable
with her. It was impossible to feel other than safe in her presence.
A small smile played constantly around her lips. She gave me her
complete attention as if I was the most interesting person she had
ever had the good fortune to meet. She seemed oblivious to every
other passenger on the bus, including those who came in with dripping
umbrellas and squelching shoes and sent a shower of fine spray over
everyone else, much to my annoyance.
"Did you like living in Africa?" I asked,
thinking it only polite to continue our conversation.
"Beginning time, it was alright, I suppose.
I learned to speak and read English there. But then, many things
changed. As the years passed by, my husband's business began to
slow down and we became poorer."
That was when the harassment began. Mr.
Patel blamed her for becoming pregnant each time and giving birth
to the four children whom he could ill afford to feed. The emotional
abuse started first. He stayed away from home at nights, fully convincing
her that he had found himself a mistress. Then, the drinking began,
so that the man she married became completely unapproachable. "
Not a single word I could speak to him," she said, still smiling
slightly. "If I asked him one question, he could slap me on my face.
Mrs. Patel did write to her folks in India,
but they ignored her mail for months on end. And when she did send
a letter with a neighbor who was visiting Gujarat and promised to
hand deliver it, they responded by washing their hands of any responsibility
towards her or her children who, as they grew, lived in fear of
their father, maintaining their distance from him and pitying her
for being trapped in his clutches.
"So many times I thought of running away
from him," she recalled, "but only the thought of my children kept
me with him. What would happen to them if I left? He would ill-treat
them. Better to stay with him until they grew up", she explained.
Somehow she endured those endless nightmare
years but they weighed upon her health and made her sickly. Asthma
assaulted her and a series of allergies left her breathless and
weak. Never having an independent income, she was unable to support
herself in Kenya. Whatever little her husband gave her by way of
housekeeping money, she funneled off to buy her children little
treatsa pack of crayons perhaps, a bag of candy, a stuffed
toy, a box of marbles. Two girls and two boysShakuntala, Amrita,
Dinesh and Saurav--had watched silently as their mother was bullied
through their childhood years. "One day, I thought, they will remember
how much I sacrificed for them and they would look after me," she
But, one by one, as the children grew
older and flew the family nest, she heard from them less and less.
Unable to wait to put distance between their unhappy parents and
miserable childhoods, they took refuge in their own marriages, university
studies and successful professions. On hearing this, I sighed. It
was the same story everywhere. I had just returned from Calcutta,
where, in church, rather frequently, my parents pointed out to me
their own Anglo-Indian friends, rapidly facing destitution, upon
being abandoned by their children who had emigrated overseas. "Ageing
disgracefully", was how my mother put it. Former railway motormen
or schoolteachers, their retirement funds had long run out in a
country whose inflation had broken all expectations. As their children
struggled through careers as clerks in British ministries or travel
agents in Australia, their fading blue eyes still contained the
hope that the next postal delivery would bring that life-saving
draft or coveted check. But these never arrived. Disowned by their
own kith and kin, these Anglo-Indian retirees had grown dependant
on the paltry pensions doled out to them monthly by philanthropic
organizations based in the West. My own father, conscious of the
diminishing size of his Provident Fund, kept the wolf from the door
by his few shrewd investments in the stock market. On the many occasions
that I suggested they move to the States with me, my parents smiled
kindly and shook their heads. "India is where we were born and brought
up", said my father. "Thank-you, my girl, but we are best off right
here in Calcutta."
And while my mind raced through these
thoughts, marveling at the similarity between Mrs. Patel's circumstances
and so many ageing members of my own community in India, she continued
her story. Her husband had grown older and deeply haggard. No longer
attractive to other women, he returned to her embraces, hoping to
find in her loyal arms, the solace that, in his old age, continued
to elude him. She had long awaited his return but was not prepared
to forgive. Since the future of her children did not worry her anymore,
she took the almost unheard step for her community and her generation,
of leaving him and filed, one fine day, with little warning or mental
preparation, for a divorce. She called her own children as witnesses
to the emotional and physical abuse she had suffered at his hands
all those years. But she need not have worried. Her petition remained
uncontested, her husband still stiffened by disbelief of her gutsy
move, to react coherently.
Then began her long and arduous attempt
to find rehabilitation in Kenya's failing economy of the late nineties.
Despite her best efforts, she said, to make a living for a while
as a cashier at a local grocery store and later re-shelving books
in the local public library, she was unable to earn a decent wage.
It was when debt threatened to engulf her that her relatives in
England, her sister Shubha's family, decided to sponsor her application
"Oh, you were so lucky", I interjected,
"that you were able to make a life in England."
She acknowledged my words fervently but
swore that it hadn't been easy. With anti-immigrant sentiment growing
daily, politicians in Great Britain were faced with a hostile electorate
who did not agree with their do-good gestures towards refugees from
Kosovo and Croatia, Bosnia and Hersogovina. "The government was
busy dealing with the Eastern Europeans", she said, "and they had
little time for immigrants from Asia and Africa. For a long while,
it did not look very good."
In the middle of this conversation,
she turned to me and said, "What's your good name, please?"
"Ingrid", I responded. "Ingrid de
"Ah, Christian?" she asked. "From
Goa? Lots of Christians were there in Nairobi from Goa."
"Anglo-Indian, actually", I corrected
her. "From Calcutta. Alipore."
She nodded and smiled. "I am Mrs.
I shook hands with her, said, "Nice to
meet you" then stared out the window hoping to find my bearings.
"Don't worry, don't worry", she assured me. "Long time more for
your stop. I will get down with you. I will not leave you alone."
I was astounded. "But won't that put you
out of your way? Where are you heading to?"
"Oh, I have no place to go," she said.
I watched her, open-mouthed. "I just sit on this bus every day,
early in the morning and I go to end of route and then I take another
bus and go to end of that route. Evening time, I get down near my
flat and go back home. Every single day I am doing this."
"Good heavens! Whatever for?"
"Best way to get out and see the world.
See? I meet people this way. Look? I met you and I got to talk to
you. If I sat at home, I would be in empty-empty Council flat watching
whole day TV. I don't like TV much, so I go out for bus rides in
"Well, isn't that an awful
waste of money?"
"What money?" she laughed and fished deep
down in her string bag. "You see this pass?" she asked, showing
me a card with her photograph on it. "This pass is given to all
Senior Citizens in London. With this card, we can ride the buses
and underground for free."
I stared at her in disbelief. Surely she
had to be joking. "Didn't she have a job? Or any other place to
"I am retired", she chuckled. "Once you are over sixty years, everything
this government takes cares of. This is wonderful government. It
is wonderful country. Tony Blair, God will bless him, he is very
giving man. This government has taken place of my children. It is
taking care of me in my old age."
"I don't understand," I began.
"In what way does the government take care of you?"
The British government, it appeared, arranged
to give Mrs. Patel an immigrant visa when they discovered the extent
of her personal suffering. Though her relatives had filed papers
on her behalf, it was left to the immigration authorities to decide
whether or not she was deserving of British largesse. How could
they possibly have granted immigrant rights to a woman who was so
elderly, I wondered, and who had long ceased to be a productive
member of society? Was it asylum she had sought? Did they give her
refuge on humanitarian grounds? But she refused to get into the
technicalities of her case, saying, "Only God helped me. It was
only prayers. My great-great faith in Satya Sai Baba made it happen."
I listened in silence. "You know Satya
Sai Baba?" she inquired.
"I have heard of him", I responded, seeing
images of a plump South Indian swami with a benevolent smile
and a large Afro that had become his signature hairstyle.
"He's wonderful-wonderful man," Mrs. Patel
said, and I thought, oh boy, here comes the lecture. She will now
try to indoctrinate me about another one of India's many godmen.
To my surprise, she did not. However,
she did disclose that since that time, she had become a fervent
devotee of the Hindu spiritualist who lived in the South of India
with a massive following. She was unable to say enough about him
and his generosity. He had shown her the way to help others, to
return the good deeds that had been generously showered upon her,
And while she tried her best to make me
see sense, I was still unable to take it all in. The British government,
she explained, did not just provide safe passage out of Africa,
but once she arrived on British soil, being that she was an elderly
woman, had also granted her a monthly stipend to provide for her
expenses. She was advised to lose no time in applying for government
housing--a Council flat, as she termed it--and before long, she
was able to move out of Shubha's home into her own little bedsitter
in which she lived rent-free.
I took in the details of her story with
a growing sense of wonder. To me, it all amounted to such a marvelous
rescue and transformation of a practically destitute woman into
someone with a sense of pride and independence. That dignity which
had eluded her throughout her youth was finally hers in the evening
of her life. Housing was not the only thing to which she was entitled,
she said. Medical expenses were non-existent, thanks to Britain's
National Health Service, transportation costs were covered by the
renewable monthly pass. This left her with a generous allowance
for clothing and food. The government provided her with three hundred
pounds every two weeks to cover grocery bills. "How much I can eat?"
she asked rhetorically. "Just little dal chaval everyday
and some dahi and fruits, bas. Not costing much."
I remained silent, not knowing how to
respond. "You know what I do with the money I save?"
She looked at my puzzled face and said,
"Oh yes, I am saving lot of money. I receive six hundred pounds
per month, but I do not spend more than two. I have just few saris
and some chappals. In winter, I am needing coat and some
good boots. That's all."
"Well, I suppose you send the money to
"Oh no, not at all." She laughed mirthlessly.
"Enough they have. Full and plenty. They don't need few hundred
pounds from me. No, no, no. I send all my savings to India."
"To India? I repeated blankly. "To whom?"
"I am sending it to that place near Bangalore
where Satya Sai Baba has set up beautiful hospital. Every six months,
I am sending to him about five thousand pounds; ten thousand pounds
per year, I give entirely into his hands because Baba helped me
to be in this wonderful country. I have great-great faith in him."
I stared at her in disbelief. "Personally
that hospital I have not seen", she continued, "but Baba has sent
me pictures. It's beautiful. They are having all kinds of facilities.
Leading Indian doctors from USA are coming there at different times
in the year to donate time and give free-free advice. Nobody in
that hospital pays anything for treatment. It is all free!"
All free? In India? Was she sure? Or was
she being taken for a ride?
"All free," she reiterated. "Entire hospital
was built by foreign donations and maintained by faithful followers
outside India. People like me are sending money and keeping it going.
Now Baba is getting ready to build another hospital". While she
enlightened me, she smiled broadly, deeply triumphant at being the
bearer of such great news and clearly delighted to be associated
with such philanthropic zeal. Then, something suddenly occurred
to me. Was she telling me these things to squeeze a donation out
of me? Did she expect me to feel guilty enough to reach into my
own wallet for my checkbook? I did not know what one could put past
I was about to say something in anticipation
of her plea for a donation when a few moments later, she tugged
on my arm and said, "Soon your stop is coming. Don't worry, you
take one suitcase, I will handle other one. I will get down and
wait with you until your friend comes."
"I would never dream of imposing on you
like that", I began, but she silenced me by walking up to the driver
and requesting him to be patient at the next stop as there were
two suitcases to be unloaded. Before I knew it, she was heaving
one of them off the luggage rack, inducing me to do the same with
the other. When the stop arrived, she was already at the door, while
I stood close behind her. We were deposited in the midst of a busy
traffic island with cars whizzing past as I rolled my baggage painfully
towards the sidewalk. For her age and her structure, she was a strong
woman and showing no signs of asthma, she handled the second one
"Let's wheel these to opposite side",
she said, leading me towards the bottom of a flight of stairs that
had a sign at the top saying Harrow-Wealdstone. "Your friends
told you to meet them where?"
"They told me to get off the bus at Harrow-Wealdstone
tube station, so I guess we're at the right spot."
"Yes," she agreed. "This is the place.
Let's chat and wait."
Doreen was not expected to pick me up
for at least another half hour. Mrs. Patel used the time to convince
me that she was not a lonely, bored soul, but someone with a mission,
a purpose in life. "As you can see, I keep myself busy," she said.
"Suddenly, now, after so many years of ignoring me, my children
want me to sponsor them to come to England. But," she smiled shrewdly,
"now is my time in life to ignore them."
"But wouldn't you want to have them close
to you?" I asked. "Surely they would have better lives in this country
what with all the political troubles in Africa
"Of course it would be better for them,"
she said, "and they are now begging me to sponsor them. But for
me it would not be good."
"What do you mean?"
"What I would become once my children
I shrugged ignorance in response.
"Their servant. Free-free babysitter for
their children. Only living to do their cooking and cleaning for
them while they were out at work. Baba, no thanks. I am now by myself
and I am enjoying. If my children come here, they will criticize
me, comment on my clothes, tell me to stop wearing sari,
wear pant and shirt. Better to stay far from their kish-pich".
"But don't you miss them?"
"Not at all. That Kenya life I have put
behind me. Now I think only about my life here. I enjoy. I am liking
it the way I am now. Winter is too cold, but", she shrugged. "it's
But surely she had to be lonely?
"Some other Gujerati ladies I have seen
here", she continued. "Sad they are and tired always. Working like
servants in the house whole day and not having any friends. Nice-nice
houses they are having, but what's the use? It's not their house.
It's their children's house and no time for them the children have.
Whole day working making money."
It wasn't long before Doreen drove
up in her little black car and waved from across the street. As
she negotiated her way around the traffic island, Mrs. Patel told
me that it was time for her to leave. I steeled myself for the donation
request, but none came. I did not quite finish thanking her for
all her help when Doreen pulled up and enveloped me in a huge hug.
By the time I extricated myself from her warm embrace, Mrs. Patel
had almost disappeared. I saw her back retreating towards the bus
stop on the opposite side of the street, the ends of her sari dampened
by the wet roads, though thankfully it had stopped drizzling a long
while ago. Presumably, she would take the Number 140 bus going in
the other direction, back towards Heathrow.
Doreen helped me load my baggage into
the tiny trunk of her car and apologized for keeping me waiting.
She had been held up at work, she explained, and couldn't leave
"No problem", I replied. "I had the most
interesting companion all the way on the bus and right here while
I was waiting for you. There. There she is. Take a look at her."
As Doreen banged shut the door of the car's trunk, I caught my last
glimpse of Mrs. Patel, who carefully lifted the pleats of her sari
to climb aboard another red double-decker as it lumbered into
sight. I tried to give her one last wave, but I don't believe that
she saw me.
That evening, over dinner, I told Doreen
and Wendell all about my unexpected encounter with a courageous
and very generous old woman. Surprisingly, neither one of them,
upon hearing the story, could perceive Mrs. Patel the way I did.
"Hmmpph", Doreen stormed, "That's exactly what is wrong with this
country. All these immigrants keep pouring in and living on State
welfare. Have you any idea how high our taxes are? We pay so much
to keep these people idle. It's infuriating. Blair is nuts and the
present government will never survive. There is nation-wide agitation
towards these people who come here and live off public money."
"How fair is it, do you think", Wendell
added "to take money from the British tax payer and channel it out
towards India? It's one thing to do charity when you are earning
the money yourself. But to be a recipient of charity in the first
place and then send it to another country, that's not noble. I'm
sorry", he continued, "that's a very misplaced sense of generosity."
He also explained something that Mrs. Patel had left out. "If she
sponsored her children and brought them to Britain, she would become
financially dependant on them and would cease to receive government
aid, you see."
I felt sorry that I had brought
my friend into the conversation for though I knew that I would never
see her again, I had begun to think of my unlikely companion as
a dear friend. In the next few days, I would do the things I always
did when in Londonbrowsing among the dusty stacks at Foyle's,
foraging for gourmet English preserves at Fortnum and Mason before
treating myself to High Tea at the Ritz, choosing natural sea sponges
at the Victorian toiletry shops in the Burlington Arcade. Then,
I would board my flight and return to my regular life as a graphic
artist with a home-based business in Philadelphia. I would put Mrs.
Patel out of my mind, and, no doubt, the memory of our chance encounter
would grow dimmer with every passing year, only to be resurrected
on the odd occasion that I visited Calcutta and saw for myself the
poverty-stricken Senior Citizens of my own community.
But in my heart, I silently wished her,
at that very moment of argument with my resentful tax-paying friends,
many happy years in the country that within a few short years, she
had grown to love so dearly. How like Blanche Dubois we all are,
I couldn't help thinking. How true it is that we all rely on the
kindness of strangers.