To lunch with the extraordinary

I folded the letter, careful not to dirty it with my hands that were muddy from the gardening I was helping my frail Aunt with. It was a letter of acceptance to join the country’s biggest airline as an Air Hostess.

It was literally my dream come true! My parents had wanted me to become an air hostess, and I couldn’t have been happier today, having been accepted as a candidate to the most prestigious academy for air hostess training. The hard work I had put into perfecting my accent, into preening my nails and blow drying my hair had finally paid off.

That afternoon I wrote to my benefactor, Mrs Rose Keene, thanking her for the confidence she had in this ‘small town girl’. It was a five paragraph letter to her, thanking her profusely and promising to try my best and do splendidly. She wrote back the same evening, inviting me to lunch with her at her residence. I was nervous, but I replied with the affirmative. My little brother was so proud he even lent me his lucky pen, which was a transparent plastic ball-point pen with a bent refill inside, proving that the emotional quotient at home was at its highest that evening.

My benefactor is a pilot from the neighbouring city, Tamanagar. She put 10000 miles to her name before she retired to live a life of signing monthly pension checks, holding together a marriage and bringing up three sons.

Her house is a palace. It has a swing set, little rotating fountains that spout water in haphazard directions in the lawn, a bigger granite fountain with a marble pot in between, and best of all, an Audi A4 parked in the foyer.

I would have stood there all day, gawking at the car, if my host had not walked out and greeted me the way the President greets the chief guest at the Red Fort on Republic Day. I felt like the little country dog that had nosed its way through the security barricades to skitter across the parade, that everyone either pointed at and shook their heads, or laughed at.

Mrs Keene wore a crisp white cotton skirt which fell just below the knee and an olive coloured silk sleeveless shirt that accentuated her long arms. I looked overdressed in my purple festival Salwar Kameez which had a thin golden border and a netted Dupatta. But it accentuated my thin waist and made me look taller and more regal, somehow.

I hoped not to seem too eager to please. That is the cue for people to take advantage of you, or so they say in all those self help books I rutted out by heart to ace the entrance exams. But then again, I mused, since Mrs Keene is my benefactor of the scholarship to study at the Academy, there was nothing wrong in being eager to please her.

Her dining room was splendidly well furnished. The long dining table was made of rose wood, with little carvings of ferns and marigold along the edges. The chairs were also rose wood, and were heavy as stone.

The butler, if you can imagine one, pulled one of the chairs for me and I thanked him softly as I sat down, while he shuffled away so discreetly that to my completely bowled over self, he seemed to be floating.

My benefactor had not uttered a word since she welcomed me at the door. She cleared her throat and I sat up straighter, with a smile that I meant to light my village up with. She asked me “so, why do you want to become an air hostess?” I was prepared for this question. “Ma’am, it’s because I feel I’ll make a fine host someday.” My answer fell flat, and seemed inadequate all of a sudden.

“I could ask you difficult questions and make you feel uncomfortable today” she said, softly. I cringed. Thankfully, though, she changed her tone of talking to me when she saw the expression on my face which I am quite sure resembled that of a deer caught in a pair of headlights. “But”, she continued, “I think the academy will do it for me.”

The floating butler walked in with a bowl of soup. “Chicken soup, ma’am” he announced and placed the bowls in front of both of us. Between my second and third sip, I wondered why my benefactor requested a meeting at all. With the third sip, the taste of the chicken soup registered, and all concerns over the propriety of this meeting died at the back of my throat along with the soup.

The lady of the house did not speak a word through the main course. I was quite and quietly content, devouring every bite of chicken tikka and chicken biriyani. The platter was complete with a bowl of lemon juice, to remove the after taste of the marvelous food, I assume, which was a pity because I would have liked the taste to linger for a little longer. Mrs. Keene refused her lemon juice. I suppose I could have refused too, but I had taken the first sip before I saw her politely shake her head. She sipped water and smiled at me.

Even if she didn’t like the lemon juice, she sure did treat herself to a small bowl of dessert with assorted nuts. I felt sure that the dessert had enough sugar to cause a mini heart attack. Nevertheless, overjoyed at the sight of so many scoops of so many flavours of ice cream in the same bowl, I savoured every mouthful, even though I was full to bursting point.

Finally, when I scrapped the last melting bit of the date ice cream off the bowl, Mrs. Rose Keene said softly, “I’m afraid you have a lot to learn in the world out there, my child”. I was startled at this observation, because of its suddenness after all the quiet that had passed during the lunch. Trying to save my image, I replied, “I will try my best to prove to be a worthwhile investment for you, madam”.

“Let Krishna drive you back to the village,” she said, refering to the Floating Butler (who had a name after all!) as she rose from the rose wood chair. Krishna appeared by my side and pulled my chair for me. “Thank you, madam” I said, standing across from her at the table. “I would like you to lunch with me again, after your first year at the academy.” She said. “It would be my pleasure, madam” I said, touched, and excited at the same time at the thought of being chauffeured in the Audi.

That was it. I figure that my benefactor, generous as she is, is very reticent, but in a polite way. She certainly smiled a lot towards the end of the meal. So, less than ten sentences were spoken between us, more than one chicken shared, and more than enough food to feed a school was laden on the great rose wood dining table. I hope the lunch meant more than the grandeur of the food to Mrs Keene. I hope I left an impression.

How bad was it Rose?”

Oh, same story as each year, Lalita. Your hands will be full this year too, I’m afraid.”

It was a girl from Jalanpur, wasn’t it?”

She scored 93 on 100 in your entrance exam.”

Maybe we should ask them what the difference between a finger bowl and lemon juice is, next time”

Both women laughed till their shriveled stomachs cramped.