Elizabeth White is white like her name. First time in our Bengali-medium, central-Calcutta school American woman is teaching. She is volunteer only. Come here, teach English one month and go. They’re trying many-many things for making students speak English. Posters here-there in the corridor: No English, No Future. Even in the staffroom Principal is not wanting Bangla. Very strict. You must set example, she is telling teachers every day. Speak English, think English.
Miss White is coming from New England. Every day she’s telling everyone New England is not in England, New England is not in England. But who is listening? Everyone is calling her British Madam, British Madam.
Yesterday I speak to her, first time. Before that I only was smiling, passing in the corridor and smiling. Yesterday in the staffroom I give a smile and say, You are looking extremely exquisite, my dear Elizabeth. I am only using my best words because first impression is last impression. But you know how she is answering? That's not very professional, Mr. Saha. In the middle of staffroom, she just said like this! Imagine! I am a senior teacher, she is only volunteer.
All the lady teachers are laughing and saying, She gave you good, Mr. Saha! I’m not replying anything. Afterwards I ask to Mr. Ranjan, What is the problem with little compliment, baba?
Mr. Ranjan tell me Miss White did not like that I moving my hands like this, like making shape of womanly figure. Arre, I do this shape in the air only, for to say exquisite, like this see: You are looking extremely exquisite, my dear Elizabeth. For adding little drama, little style. It is man’s job to make beautiful woman smile. With full respect only, mind it. Appreciate the flower from far. Yes? Yes. Then why all this “not professional” business?
Poor girl, this is why she’s spinster, I am telling Mr. Ranjan, she is not having very feminine nature. You understand? Women like her, very lonely. She is coming to India for finding herself. So many foreign tourists coming and searching for own self in India. Tell me—how you are losing your good self in India when you are living in America? Is it magic or what? If I am losing my spectacles in my house, I will find it in my house only. Why I will find it on Howrah Bridge? I am simply not understanding, please to explain, Mr. Ranjan.
But Mr. Ranjan is only shaking his head and laughing and saying, Arre, leave it no, Mr. Saha.
After this for five-six days I am passing Miss White in the corridor, but I am not smiling. She is smiling like normal, as if nothing.
Today is very last day for Miss White. Everyone is giving flowers, taking photo with Madam. The lady-teachers, they give her a sari. Bara bari! Why you did not give pyjama-punjabi to that Indian chap who volunteer before? I’m not asking them this, only thinking myself.
I hear Miss White telling the teachers she is very happy today, so happy, she saying
something, some student…
Oh, he wrote these gorgeous words! I’m so proud of him, and on my last day, it’s such a gift.
Who? I ask Mr. Ranjan.
Abhijit Mondal, Mr. Ranjan say to me.
What, that useless rascal in 7B? Always getting dubba in Mathematics? How he is making Madam so happy, baba? Normally Mr. Ranjan is understanding her English better. I am only catching few-few words.
So Mr. Ranjan is listening what Miss White is saying and repeating same to me slowly: I asked them to write a sentence…on childhood…you know… Abhijit, he couldn’t express anything in English…but now look at this!
Miss White is showing the paper. Words in careful handwriting. My childhood is full of joy and pomegranate.
Which is pomegranate? I’m forgetting, I ask to Mr. Ranjan.
Bedana, he answer.
Bedana, hmm. Yes, I must admit the sentence is having feeling. I have to give the Mondal boy credit, I admit. Very nice picture it is painting.
Young boy, sitting on branch of pomegranate tree. In his two hands a fruit. The fruit is open. Inside is like gemstones, small-small sweet red jewels. Hiding. Like precious secret. Ah, that is childhood, yes. My childhood is full of joy and pomegranate. Bah, good, good! Joy and beda…beda… Wait. One minute…one minute. In my head something is coming. Bedana, and, and, bedona!
Arre, the fools! The boy is not meaning bedana, pomegranate. He is meaning bedona. Sadness. What is the other word, sow…sorrow. MY CHILDHOOD IS FULL OF JOY AND SORROW. He is only copying the wrong word from Bengali-to-English dictionary! Thinking Bedona and looking Bedana.
Oh, this is funny. I turn to say to everyone, Arre baba, listen. It is only a mistake. But everyone is talking. Mr. Ranjan is smiling. Miss White is smiling. Everyone, smiling.
Miss White is saying, Oh, these words, they just sum up India for me you know. So evo—. (I don’t catch, very quick word.) She is putting the paper proudly, very neatly, in her bag. Her joy is sweet and beautiful, like inside of pomegranate.
What were you saying, Mr. Saha? Mr. Ranjan ask me.
Nothing, Mr. Ranjan, leave it, I say.
Pia Ghosh-Roy (@piaghoshroy) grew up in India and now lives in Cambridge (UK). She is the winner of the Hamlin Garland Award. Her work has been placed in, short- and longlisted for several prizes, including the Aestas Fabula Press Competition, Bath Short Story Award, Brighton Prize, Berlin Writing Prize, Fish Short Story Competition, and others. Pia is working on her first novel and a collection of short stories. Find her online at piaghoshroy.com