Journal Entry #41

A memory of memories in Delhi.

COLORADO SPRINGS, February 22—There is a story I have wanted to tell for many years. It has nothing to do with Colorado Springs, where I have been lecturing for an interim. And it is not even mine so much as it is my story of someone else’s story. I am prompted to tell it by something someone dear said on the telephone the other day: “I just called to hear your voice.” This made me think the time had come. It is as simple as that.

Since I heard this story long ago it has seemed to me a little like something out of Somerset Maugham. I have loved Maugham’s Asian stories since I first read them too many years ago to say. This could be one of them, I’ve long thought, if told in the stylish prose Maugham had mastered, smooth as a pond at dusk. Except there is no fiction in it and I am no match to Maugham. But I’ll tell it best I can just as I remember it was told to me.

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I WAS IN DELHI on an assignment years ago and arranged to meet a friend. Erhart Haubold was the India correspondent for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the noted German daily. We had met years earlier when we were both stationed in Singapore (the agony of which Cú Chulainn still recalls too vividly). The universe of correspondents is a small village in this way: Someone you knew in Paris or Seoul you later meet in Jakarta, Tokyo, or Rome. Anyway, when I got settled in my hotel in Delhi I telephoned. Erhart answered the phone himself and immediately invited me for dinner that evening.

He lived in a modest but very pleasant house in the diplomatic quarter. I remember it as simply furnished and dimly lit, which would have enhanced its appeal: Asians prize shade and shadow for the relief they give from the heat of the ever-beating sun. We sat and had drinks his cook, who doubled as a houseboy, set down on a table between us. There was an enormous amount of catching up to do. It carried us through the cocktail hour, which ended when his cook reappeared and began setting out dishes on the dining table across the room.

After dinner we resettled in our armchairs and continued talking. In India as elsewhere in the East but more so, peculiar relations—or relations that can seem peculiar to the Westerner—often develop between a resident and the household help. By custom, one is expected to assume certain responsibilities—medical costs, school fees, scooter repairs, and so on. To one or another extent this draws employers into the world of those who work in his or her home. Relations change, if subtly. They are more than employer-and-employee even as they are never quite familial. Tiny intrigues develop, not infrequently: Who does or knows what about one or another household event: a broken vase, mislaid shopping money, where someone had gone, what someone had said, why this or that has to be even if the resident of the house cannot understand why and prefers if differently. Maugham got some of this in his Asian stories.

Erhart was explaining all this in low tones as it related to his cook, who he, Erhart, had come not wholly to trust for reasons I cannot recall. Then he told me a story to make his point about the complexity of Indian households. It is the story I have now decided to relate.

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WHEN HE ARRIVED IN DELHI, Erhart had had a difficult time finding a bureau assistant, those sine qua non in any overseas bureau. In India such people are ordinarily available in plentiful numbers, but Erhart needed someone who spoke not only Hindi and English, but also German. This last was the difficulty. He eventually found such a person, a woman of early middle age with a husband and two children, but it had required a long, hard search.

The previous Christmas—it was late spring when I made my visit—his assistant and her husband had decided to take a holiday at a remote resort in the Himalayas. This required a flight north—to Srinagar, I think—and then a short hop on a bush plane to their apparently exotic destination.

The bush plane crashed into a mountainside. Everyone on board was killed.

Erhart had been without an assistant ever since the tragic events he related. In the intervening months he had been managing the FAZ bureau and all its attendant administrative business on his own. It was during this time, he told me, that he began to notice something peculiar in his daily routines. He would return at day’s end to find the little red light on his answering machine blinking to indicate there had been calls while he was out. But rarely would anyone leave a message. His assistant had recorded the proper advisory, and Erhart had kept it, having no one to speak in the requisite three languages. “You have reached the Delhi bureau of Franfurter Allgemeine Zeitung,” the recording announced. “No one is here now to take your call. Please leave a message after the tone”—this in Hindi, then in English, and finally in German. But few, very few, were the messages left. Most of the time the caller would simply hang up after the recording, a long one of necessity, was finished.

This was odd. Erhart had never noticed any such thing before. His assistant had never mentioned it. Erhart puzzled. And all the while he did, the callers who left no messages kept calling, sometimes three and four times a day.

One evening some weeks before I arrived, Erhart had explained these weird occurrences to a friend who had dropped by the bureau. The friend was just as flummoxed as Erhart was.

The cook must have overheard the conversation—as he overheard and took note of all Erhart’s conversations, no doubt—for the next day he came to Erhart and said, “Sir, I would like to speak to you about the telephone.” Erhart listened as the cook explained. He seemed to know with simple certainty what lay behind all the anonymous calls.

His deceased assistant’s family was still in deep grief over their loss. This was especially so of the two children, who were quite young. And it was they, the two children, who were constantly telephoning the FAZ bureau, listening to the recording, and then hanging up. The tape his assistant had made for the answering machine was the only recording of her speaking anyone knew of. The children were calling simply to hear their mother’s voice.

It was plain to me, as Erhart told this story, that he had been quite deeply moved on discovering what was behind the mysterious calls. At the time he had wondered briefly what he should do before asking for his cook’s advice. Erhart took it immediately: Via the cook, he sent the cassette tape with his late assistant’s voice recording on it to the children. He must have sent the answering machine too, now I think of it. The calls without messages ceased immediately thereafter.

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THESE EVENTS OCCURRED many years ago. Erhart I have not seen since that visit. He is now retired, I am sure, and living in one of those picturesque villages around Sydney Harbor—Mosman, if my memory serves. He and his wife had bought a splendid house there, with a sloping lawn and an immense elm to the side of it.

But I have wondered from time to time ever since those days in Delhi about the tape, and the two children and what became of them, and how long they continued to listen to their mother’s voice speaking more or less nonsense sentences in three languages—“You have reached…” When was it and at what age did they begin letting the past slip into the past? Many memories—maybe most for some of us—can be treasures. But they can be prisons with barred windows, too. There is a place for forgetting, or for letting memories once near and precious lie undisturbed, a patina of tarnish rendering them barely distinguishable in the dusk of all we could recall if we wanted to.

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