Read an Excerpt
The envelope had no stamp and only my name underlined
on the front; it had somehow found me in Calcutta.
But this was India, where big pink foreigners were so obvious
we didn't need addresses. Indians saw us even if we didn't see
them. People talked grandly of the huge cities and the complexity,
but India in its sprawl seemed to me less a country than a bloated
village, a village of a billion, with village pieties, village pleasures,
village peculiarities, and village crimes.
A letter from a stranger can be an irritation or a drama. This
one was on classy Indian handmade stationery, flecks of oatmeal
in its weave and reddish threads like blood spatter, with assertive
handwriting in purple ink. So I dramatized it, weighed it in my
hand, and knifed it open slowly, as though I was being watched. In
populous Calcutta, city of deformities, my being watched was
highly likely. But how did anyone know I was at the Hotel Hastings,
east of Chowringhee, in an obscure lane off Sudder Street, in
every sense buried alive?
I happened to be looking for a story, but Calcutta had started to
creep on my skin, and I had even begun to describe how the feel of
this city in its exhalations of decay in the months before the monsoon
was like the itch you experience when you empty an overfull
vacuum cleaner's dirt bag, packed with hot grit and dead hair and
dust bunnies and dander, and you gag and scratch at the irritation
and try to claw the tickle and stink off your face - one of my arresting
As I was rereading the letter to see if it was authentic, a wasp
began to swing in short arcs and butt the windowpane, seeing only
daylight. I opened the window to release it, but instead of flying
out, it drowsed to another window and butted it - stupid! - then
settled on my damp arm. I flicked at it. It made an orbit around
my head and finally,
though I'd tried to save it, did not fly out the
window but seemed to vanish somewhere in my room, where it
would buzz and sting me in the night.
I remembered how my friend Howard at the American consulate
had asked me the day before if I'd ever been married. I said,
“No, and I'm at that stage in my life when I no longer see a woman
and say to myself, 'Maybe she's the one for me.'”
Pretty good answer, I thought. I was surprised at my own honesty.
For years I had told plausible lies, saying that I was too busy
with work, the travel pieces I wrote. I used to enjoy musing,
“Maybe she's the one.” But travel had absorbed me. It was so easy
for a writer like me to put off the big decision - not a travel writer
but a traveling writer, always on the move, always promising a
book. I had disappointed two women back in the States, and after I
left I became one of those calculated enigmas, self-invented,
pretending to be spiritual but ruthlessly worldly, full of bonhomie and
travel advice, then giving people the slip when they got to know
me too well or wanted more than I was willing to give. I no longer
regretted the missed marriage, though I had a notion that I should
have fathered a child. Now, too late, I was another evasive on-the-
roader who spread himself thin, liking the temporary, the easy excuses,
always protesting and moving on. I have to be in Bangkok on
Monday! As if the matter was urgent and difficult.
But Bangkok was a lovely hotel, beers with other complacent narcissists like me,
and a massage parlor, the best sex - hygienic and happy and anonymous,
You're a nomad, people said to me. It was partly true - if you
know anything about nomads, you know they're not aimless. They
are planners and savers, entirely predictable, keeping to well-established
routes. I also had a nomad's sometimes startling receptivity
The day of the letter, for example, was eventful - strange portents,
I thought. First the wasp, then the sight of a twisted paralytic
child on Chowringhee creeping on hands and knees like a
wounded animal, a new species of devolving human, reverting to
all fours. And that afternoon my dancer friend, the willowy Parvati,
revealing for the first time that she was adept in a kind of Indian
martial art called kalaripayatu, and “I could break your arm,
but I could also set it, because if one knows how to injure, one
must also know how to heal.” Parvati wrote sensual poems, she
played the tabla, she wanted to write a novel, she wasn't married,
and I was happy knowing her because I never wondered, “Maybe
she's the one for me.”
That same day, my friend Howard at the U.S. consulate told me
about the children disappearing from the streets, kidnapped to
work in brothels or sweatshops, or sold to strangers.
“And get this” - he knew an expat couple with a young child
who could never find their amah at home. The amah explained,
“We walk in park.” The child was very calm when he was with the
nanny, and the nanny was upscale: gold bangles, an iPod, always
presents for the kid. “I saving money.” But one day on their way
home at an odd hour in a distant neighborhood the couple saw
their nanny panhandling in traffic, another bhikhiri at an intersection,
holding their infant son - a classic Bengali beggar, pathetic in
her tenacity. And the child, who was drooling and dazed, was
drugged with opium.
“Maybe you can use it,” Howard said, as people do with writers.
Oddly enough, I just did, but it was the letter that changed
everything. The letter was obviously from a woman, obviously
Rich people never listen, and that was why I preferred the woman's
letter in my hand rather than having her bray into my face,
one of those maddening and entrapping monologues: “Wait. Let
me finish!” I could read the letter in peace. Something about it told
me that if the woman who wrote it had been with me, she would
talk nonstop. And given the nature of the facts in the letter - a
dead body in a cheap hotel room, a frightened guest, his fleeing,
the mystery - I needed a clear head, and silence, and time to think.
She was asking a favor. I could reach a wiser decision if I made
my judgment on the basis of facts alone - the form of her appeal,
her handwriting, the whole tone of the letter, rather than being
attracted or repelled by the guilefulness of the woman herself, believing
that the written word is more revealing than a face.
I knew she was rich from the gold-embossed Hindu symbol on
the letterhead and the expensive paper. I knew she was an older
woman from her handwriting alone; a younger person would have
scribbled or sent me an e-mail. Wealth was evident in her presumptuous
and casual tone, even her slipshod grammar, the well-formed
loops in her excellent penmanship. The envelope had been
hand-delivered to me at my hotel.
“Post for you, sir,” Ramesh Datta, the desk clerk, said, handing
it over. He too was impressed by the plumpness of the thing: a
long letter, a big document, a sheaf of words, as though it represented
witchery or wealth, an old-fashioned
Amazing most of all to be holding an actual three-page letter,
written in purple ink on thick paper, like an artifact, and even the
subject and the peripheral details were old-fashioned: a rich woman's
wish, a corpse, a shocked hotel guest in Calcutta just after the
Durga Puja festival.
Dear Friend, it began.
I heard your marvelous talk last night at the American cultural
center and wanted to come up afterwards to speak to you, but
you were surrounded by admirers. Just as well. It's better to put
this in writing, it's serious, and I'm not sure how you can help
but I've read your travel articles, so I know that you know quite
a bit about the world and especially about India, which is my
You see what I mean about the grammar and the presumption?
My son loves your writing and in a way you're responsible for
his coming to India. I think he's read everything you've written.
He has learned a lot from you and so have I. I have to admit I get
a little jealous when he talks about you, but the truth is that the
written word is so persuasive he feels as if he knows you, and I
guess I do too. Consider yourself one of the family. We have
read many of your travel pieces, and shared them with our
A little bit about me. I am an entrepreneur, with homes in
New York and Palm Beach, and my hobby for many years was
interior decoration - doing it for my friends. They encouraged
me to start my business. Doing something you love is always a
good way of being successful and I think it happened to me. My
son joined me in the business. By the way, I have always felt that
it would be a wonderful challenge to decorate a writer's studio
- I'd love to do yours.
I come to India to oversee my charity, which is to do with
children's welfare, and also to look for fabrics - linens, silks, fine
cottons, floor coverings and textiles of all kinds, old and new. I
often do walls in fabric, cover them with a lovely silk, it's become
a signature with me. I am buying at the moment. I could
show you some really exquisite pieces.
Now comes the hard part. First I need your utmost discretion.
I am asking you to respect my confidence. I am writing to
you because, based on your close relationship with the U.S.
Consulate, I feel you can be trusted. It is also incredible luck
that we are both in Calcutta at the same time, as though somehow
preordained, our paths crossing like this. If it turns out that
you have no interest in what I have to say next, please destroy
this letter and do nothing more and - regretfully - I will never
communicate with you again.
But I am counting on you to help me. Given your wide experience
as a traveler, I don't think there is anyone else who could
be as effective as you in this sensitive matter.
Here is the problem. My son's dearest friend, who is an Indian,
believes he is in serious trouble. He normally stays with
us, but because we were traveling and buying after Durga Puja
he was staying at a guesthouse near Chowringhee, not a very
nice place but you know what fleapits these little Indian hotels
can be. He was there for a few days and then, like a scene from
one of your stories, he woke up one night and found a corpse in
his room - a dead boy on the floor. He was frantic. He had no
idea how it had gotten there. He didn't know what to do. If he
told the hotel they would accuse him of murder. How could he
explain the presence of this dead body?
He then did a very silly thing, or at least he said he did. He
packed his things and left without checking out, and he hid.
Calcutta as you can imagine is not a hard place to hide in. I have
spoken to him about this but the fact is that he is terribly afraid
of what will happen to him if he is found and somehow connected
with that dead body.
Of course I am also worried that my son will be associated
with this business and my worst nightmare would be for my
son to end up in an Indian jail.
We are planning to leave India at the monsoon, but first I
want to make sure that my son's friend is safe. I could not live
with myself if I abandoned this poor boy. I know I have the resources
to help him and it would be criminal if I did not do so.
I have given you no names or dates or helpful facts. This is
deliberate. I must use discretion. If you think you can help and
want to know more, please get in touch with me at my cell
phone number above and perhaps we can have a chat. Perhaps
at the Grand? Given the parameters of my problem, I would
not blame you if you just tore up this letter and went your merry
way. If that is so, thank you for reading this far. Bottom line,
whatever you decide, my son and I will continue to read you.
Merrill Unger (Mrs.)