Thursday, July 23, 2015



When I first saw Lily Aunty, she had just arrived from Yugoslavia and was sitting in the bare professor’s flat assigned to her in Pune, eating fried chicken and smelling of stale smoke and perfume like European women did in those days.  There was a book of matches on her makeshift dining table, which looked unusual to me, since I was used to matches that came out of a regular little box. The chicken--just legs heaped on a plate--fascinated me. I wondered how one could have cooked up such exotic looking stuff with ingredients we had access to as well and why there wasn't any rice or curry to go along with it.  I was maybe 10 years of age and my mother and I had come to say hello to this new neighbour of ours, who was going to spend a year as a visiting scholar at my father’s institute.

Lily Aunty took to India very well and soon became a close family friend.  She went native, she wore a sari at times, she called my mother Didi and on occasion unwittingly came to our rescue.  When my mother and I tried to get into the Film Institute of India campus to meet some Assamese students, we were halted at the gate by the sentry.  As we argued, Lily auntie whizzed by on the pillion of a friend’s scooter, her blond hair blown by the wind.  She waved to us.  The sentry, impressed by the fact that we knew a white woman, conferred immediate legitimacy upon us and let us go.  One must remember that these were the late 1960s, less than 25 years after independence.

Lily Auntie talked to us a lot about her life.  Told us about her father, who had been a partisan, fighting the Germans in the second world war.  He had been shot to death in a concentration camp and the only memento that she had of him were his blood soaked socks that were left over after they killed him.

She was young, in her late twenties or early thirties, and soon fell in love with a young Indian man with a slim figure and a nice moustache.  He was a reasonable guy who hung around with Lily Aunty.  We did not come to know him too well and my mother, who had become like an older sister to her, viewed him with suspicion.  After a year, Lily Auntie’s term was up and the couple wished to get married and return to Yugoslavia.  This posed a problem.  These were still the hey-days of the communist era and marriage to a foreigner required the Yugoslavian government’s permission, which Lily auntie was denied.  Heartbroken, she returned to Belgrade alone.  I was a kid then—I did not appreciate the pain that such separation can cause.  About a year or so after that my mother met Anil, the young boyfriend, in a public bus.  He had married someone else by then.

Over forty years went by and I was now settled in New York.  Lily Auntie had been the first European lady that I had come to know well, she loved me like a nephew, and I had never forgotten her.  One day, after an afternoon’s conversation where I brought up her story, a good friend from her part of the world dug up Lily Auntie’s phone number in Belgrade from the internet.  I called her up after that.  It was an emotional conversation.  She reminded me of the clay necklace that I had made for her over 40 years back and which she still had in her possession.  She had married a Sikh, had a family, and was settled. She enquired about my parents. Her historical research specialized in India and she was active in all things Indian in Belgrade.  She was a mother, a wife, a family lady, a professor.

Then, towards the end of our conversation, when conclusionary statements begin making appearances in the dialogue, she segued suddenly—and-- with hope and anticipation in her voice asked whether I had any news of Anil. Her disappointment at my answer was obvious in the ensuing pause.  “He was my first love”, she explained.  “And I have always wondered what happened to him”. Even though decades had passed and she was now the mother of adult children, I did not have the heart to tell her about my mother’s 1970 meeting with Anil in the public bus.

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