In Germany, in a small town called Ludwigsburg, we found ourselves being graciously hosted by a family who had lived in south India for several years. Our first meal with them consisted, quite amazingly in those days, of dal, rice, mutton curry, pickles (as opposed to achar which is of north Indian denomination) and good old madrasi pappadams.
One evening they had a barbecue party for us but what was the use. None of their friends spoke English; between the two of us the only German words we had were weiner schnitzel, dummkopf, Lufthansa, blitz krieg and heil Hitler – which, for various reasons, we were unable to work into the conversation. Further we were social outcasts since we drank no wine for fear of what might happen next. Gabi, fiancée of the son of the family, made sincere attempts to chat with me. However, though she spoke in English, I could understand little of what she said. This was because she was hoping to discuss with me the works of J Krishnamurthy which she had studied in detail. Amita and I found ourselves in the kitchen, doing the washing up while the party carried on without us in the living room, where it had been shifted when it started raining.
From here we travelled north to Berlin and then Denmark (where my dentist’s neighbour’s daughter and her family looked after us very well indeed), and then south through Holland and Switzerland to Italy. After getting lost in Venice, losing money in Naples, and fending off some Romeos in Rome who sat on a broken wall outside the Forum, familiar to us from the Asterix comics, whistled at us and shouted, “Tum bahut sundar hai!” we arrived in Florence where we had several fascinating experiences.
The evening we arrived we hopped into a bus and confidently waited for the last stop, where we had been told the Youth Hostel was situated. Unfortunately, we had boarded the wrong bus. At the last stop, we asked the driver, by means of fantastic mime and gesture, the way to the Ostello. It soon dawned on him that he had on his hands a pair of pathetically stupid, if earnest, young foreign tourists. Heaving a longsuffering sigh, he turned off the lights in the bus, and drove us to the right spot.
For the two of us, habituated to the surly BEST drivers and their attempts to jiggle passengers violently back and forth and if possible actually hurl them onto the road by means of bucking and rearing the vehicle under their control, this was the most astonishing behaviour we could imagine.
Next day, Amita and I got into one of our frequent bitter fights and decided to spend the day separately – to my subsequent regret.
I had my eyes firmly fixed in the guide book wherever I went. She, on the other hand, had been looking around and, wonder of wonders, bumped into the one person in all of Florence we had any acquaintance with whatever – Gabi, who was spending a few months there workings as an au pair. And yes, Gabi even treated us to dinner; we had spaghetti (but no wine) in a little Italian bistro with red checked table cloths, and we all agreed that the world was a very small place indeed, and hoped that we would bump into each other many more times in the future.
Both of us found Gabi a lovely person, and secretly agreed that she looked a lot like Princess Diana. In those days, all the fashionable young women were trying their best to look as beautiful and spectacular as the unfortunate princess, so of course it was beneath our dignity to say that we also found her extremely appealing and wished the very best of life to her. In fact, Amita and I had a special bond with Princess Diana, because we had all three been born in the same year. This was a bond I took seriously and even until very recently, when my children said to me, “That’s not fair!” I would tell them, “Yes, you’re right! Life is simply not fair! I was born in the same year as Princess Diana, she got the crown jewels and look at me, all I got was you.”
Now, for various reasons, that is a line I no longer use.
first appeared as Come on Gabi, let’s go party in Maharashtra Herald on 9 Nov 1997