Photo: Xubayr Mayo/Shutterstock

One Degree of Separation

by Suzanne Roberts Apr 20, 2015

“Stop being so silly,” the dinner-party guests said. “It’s a driver’s job to wait.”

My friend Sholeh and I had arrived in India that morning. A friend of a friend was having a dinner party in New Delhi and had invited us. Our driver, Sharma, waited outside in the Ambassador car.

“It’s cold,” I said.

“It’s his work,” Sholeh said. “He’ll be okay. He has a coat.”

I couldn’t help but feel like one of the characters in Driving Miss Daisy or Passage to India. I wanted to ask Sharma to drop us off, but Sholeh said there was no way we were going to take a taxi home late at night, that we had hired a driver, and we were going to use him. But the thought of Sharma waiting outside made me feel uncomfortable, so I bought him a packet of apricot cigarillos. To make myself feel better.

While we ate channa masala and palak paneer, drank imported red wine, I tried not to think about Sharma waiting outside in his threadbare double-breasted coat. The January smog spinning around the car like a web.

It was a potluck, and the guests brought dishes that their servants had made. “I don’t know where I would be without her!” one of the guests said. “She takes such good care of me.” The others nodded.

Our host was a well-known Indian poet. His wife, also a writer and an editor at an Indian publishing house. Our hostess was young and beautiful, gracious but silly — she practiced the hula hoop in the small living room, avoiding the stacks of books climbing the walls. Her hips swayed, her arms outstretched, the silver bracelets flickered in the candlelight like silver fish. She asked, “Who wants to try the hula-hoop next?”

In the Bhagavad Gita, work is worship of the creator, the one who dwells in every creature. In Sharma and Sholeh, in the famous writer and the dinner party hostess, in the children begging and in me.

It was impossible not to love her.

Everyone drank and laughed and some even tried their turn at the hula-hoop. None as graceful in their movements as the hostess.

One of the guests was a famous writer who said his wife has never read his books, said he enjoyed the company of Bill Clinton as much as the Queen of England, said you might not know it, but Margaret Thatcher is such a touchy person. Mostly, he wanted to talk about the new Harry Potter book. The famous writer asked me where I was from and then ignored my answer to his question, more intrigued by our hostess and her hula hoop. Who could blame him?

Dazed by the 24-hour flight, I felt like I wasn’t really there. Not across the world, but in some surreal dreamscape, filled with people whose books I should have already read but hadn’t.

At 3am, we said our goodbyes to the dinner party guests, thanked our hosts, and walked out of the gated apartment complex and into the foggy night. We knocked on the car windows and woke up Sharma. He opened the doors for us, and we slid into the backseat. The smell of apricot cigarillos hung in the air.

I turned to Sholeh and said, “There’s only one degree of separation between us and the Queen of England now. And Margaret Thatcher. And Bill Clinton. Probably Oprah, too. Imagine that!”

“Yes,” Sholeh said, “So that makes two degrees of separation between Sharma and the Queen.”

Sharma smiled at Sholeh in the rearview mirror.

We stopped at a streetlight. The camber of the moon appeared, disappeared — a white cutout in the smog. Out of the smoky night came children — the brown irises of their eyes like dinner plates. They emerged from their roadside tents to knock on the windows of the car.

Sharma looked into his rearview mirror at me and said, “So poor…so many poor. What is it that we can do, ma’m? What can we do?” I shook my head. The children rapped harder and put their hands to their mouths, acting out their hunger. I was afraid they would shatter the glass. Sholeh said she wished she had a lollipop for them, something to give them.

Sharma said, “It is better that you give nothing. Or they will get angry that you do not have more and break the windows.”
“It makes me sad,” I said. The light turned green, the weak smiles of the children fell, and we left them behind — ghosts of smog, still miming their hunger.

Sharma said, “Work is worship.” I sat wondering at all the ways Sharma may have meant that. Sholeh rubbed her temples. I turned around, watched the children disappear into the quilt of night, smoke, and distance.

In the Bhagavad Gita, work is worship of the creator, the one who dwells in every creature. In Sharma and Sholeh, in the famous writer and the dinner party hostess, in the children begging and in me.

After returning home to Los Angeles, we found out that our young, lovely hostess died suddenly, not long after our small gathering in her New Delhi apartment.

I can only picture her alive, there in her candlelit living room. Her wine-stained smile, a wisp of hair falling over the flash of her dark eyes. A hula-hoop orbiting her body, in time with Indian music playing from the stereo.

She was 27. Her death remains a mystery. But in some ways, all deaths are a mystery. The Japanese poet Issa writes: “On a branch/floating downriver/a cricket singing.” I think of the song of our own laughter, and of our unknowing — the fall of water always impossibly near.

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