It had been a trans-continental romance when, six decades ago, the Macedonian teenager fell in love with an Indian army officer from an aristocratic background. Despite all odds, they married, she came to India and made her home within a Rajput fiefdom, he went on to create a career out of hard-won victories in the field that earned him laurels and promotions, they raised a family, he died…and therein lies the twist.
She is about 80 years old but her fading blue eyes are still flirtatious. My father had invited her to join us at the officer’s institute for dinner, and she arrived with bags and papers, old-fashioned Chanel 5 perfume, rubies on her lobes and a demand that she “join the men” because, she declared loudly, “I don’t have a husband, I don’t even have a boyfriend… .” Ungallantly, most men stepped away instead of chivalrously joining her. She was served her drink, she had her “two pieces only, darling” of cottage cheese for snacks, she fished for compliments and glowed if someone mentioned that she was the most beautiful woman in the room — all made up and rouged, she was certainly the most, er, striking.
The evening should have gone smoothly, but something jarred. A few years ago, she had published a book, a vanity affair with only a few copies printed, one of which I had at home, and she said that there were none left any more. Fishing inside one copious bag, she brought out a photocopied, spiral-bound version that she was resolute everyone should see. It was at this point that the other guests started moving even further away from her — clearly, it was part of a performance with which they were familiar. “Call me when you need rescuing,” a friend guffawed, which I thought was being unnecessarily cruel. Why were they being mean to a woman who was old — but gracious?
“Do you have money in your pocket?” she asked. I confirmed that I did. “My book is for fifteen hundred rupees,” she pointed to the raggedy heap of papers, “and your sister said she’d like to read my book, so you give me the money.” But where was the book? “ This is it,” she said firmly, thrusting the pages at me. As the evening wore on, she kept reaching out to people as they passed by, hoping to make other sales. My father’s daughters-in-law wanted her “book”, she insisted to my father and her host. She entreated my mother to buy another, she even handed one bundle over to my niece. “You will pay me?” she asked me again, “Do you have money?” she asked others.
She’d married well, she’d bullied the authorities to lend her husband’s name to a road, her pension was handsome — why was this woman, who charmingly preferred the company of men, in such a penurious state? The following morning, over breakfast, I learned that her sons, well into their middle-ages but financially dependent on their mother for their dissipated lifestyles, had led her – once the toast of salons – to add to her income any way she could. That she was living off her past by, at least metaphorically, picking pockets in society circles, was therefore unfortunate. It also made me feel like a heel for turning my back and chickening out of paying her when she left, even though I’d assured her that there was money in my pocket to pay for the photocopied memories of her life.