Viet Nam News
by Hồ Anh Thái
On board the flight from Bangkok to Bangalore, Diệp sat next to a Korean businessman who had been trading in that Indian state for several years. It was the Silicon Valley of India, he informed her. And not only of India: Bangalore was the software center of the world. All the top software and electronic technology innovators and experts had come to roost in that state.
For the next three and half hours of her flight, Diệp’s knowledge about the city where she would spend the next two years of her life was supplemented by her seatmate’s lecture. She was going to India to do an M.A. in history, a field quite different than the computer wizardry of Silicon Valley. She listened eagerly to Mr. Korea. But she felt worried and uneasy. Would anybody from the university come to meet her at the airport? She was coming to India at a time before cellphones, and she was traveling blind, with no information about the city she was coming to or about the university where she would study. After she had received her scholarship, she had basically just closed her eyes and set forth with the air ticket sent to her by the Indian government. Without a penny in her purse.
In the course of their conversation, the Korean man — his name was Mr. Kim — was given to understand how little she knew about her destination, how she had plunged blindly into a journey of nearly seven thousand kilometers from home. Kim gave her his business card, pointing out his address and telephone number, and told her if she needed anything in Bangalore, he would be glad to help her.
Diệp’s apprehension was soon realized when she disembarked and found nobody waiting for her. She stood in front of the arrivals terminal for over an hour, hopeful at first but then increasingly desperate. A car from Kim’s office had come for him, but he stayed with her, reassuring her that he would stay until someone come to meet her.
Waiting with them was a young Indian man, Ravikanth, who had come to meet Kim. After a few questions, Ravi understood Diệp’s dilemma and asked to see the letter she had received from the university. He and Kim found its telephone number, and both men crowded into a phone booth and attempted to call. But it was Friday evening and all the offices had closed.
Forget it, Kim said; you can come stay at my house for now, and then go over to the university to do your entrance procedures. Diệp gratefully agreed, feeling she had no choice. Even if she could find a hostel or guest house, she had no money to pay for it. Ravi put Diệp’s suitcase into the trunk, next to Kim’s, then he drove them to Kim’s house.
On the way, eavesdropping on the conversation between the two men, Diệp garnered that Kim’s wife and children had gone back to Korea for a family gathering and were still out of the country. Kim lived in a rented bungalow; it had a guest room where he could put her up. She was somewhat nervous about the arrangement but felt she could not be picky.
When they arrived at Kim’s house, Ravi carried Diệp’s suitcase into the guest room, muttered something reassuring to her and said goodbye.
It was dusk. The bungalow was immense and seemed mantled with a heavy silence. When she opened the window to look at the orchard behind the house, she thought she heard footsteps. But it was only a mango that had fallen from one of the trees. She quickly shut the window and carefully bolted it. A woman alone with a strange man in an isolated house. He could roam as freely as a lion in the jungle. She felt as nervous as rabbit living next to a cave full of wolves. She bolted the door and dragged a table and a chair in front of it, determined not to set foot outside of this room until morning. But then, as soon as her defensive fortifications had been erected, she heard Kim come to the door to ask if she would like dinner. There was kimchi, rice, soup and several Korean dishes. No, thank you, she said, I ate on the flight and am not hungry now.
She hoped the night would pass peacefully.
But at half past eight, she heard voices from the living room, then Kim calling her name, asking her to come out. No thank you, she said. I’m tired and I want to sleep now.
Then she heard Ravi’s voice. Diệp please come out: my mother and my wife would like to meet you. She could hear the voices of two women now: one, an alto, sounded older, the other, younger was soprano. She could not refuse such an invitation. It’s true of course that there are people who are skilled at voice imitation, and can successfully mimic the voices of many people, male or female, old or young. But none of this occurred to Diệp. She dismantled her fortifications and opened the door.
Later, she learned about what had happened in the two hours after Ravi had left Kim’s house. Ravi had gone home and told his mother about the Vietnamese girl who had come to Bangalore to study, how the university hadn’t come to receive her, how Kim had taken her to his house. Ravi’s mother, a teacher, was disturbed by the situation. How could a young girl stay at the house of a man whose wife was not home? O.K, Mrs. Vimala Shankar quickly said, let’s go. You take me there and we’ll bring her here. Just before they left, she asked Ravi’s wife to accompany them.
Since there are women in our family, Vimala explained to Kim, it is more convenient and comfortable for her to stay with us, I’d like to ask your permission to invite the young lady to stay with us. Please join us this weekend; I’ll cook some Southern Indian food for you.
Her words were diplomatic and reasonable. She did not say that it was inconvenient to stay in his house, just that it would be more convenient in hers, thus avoiding the impression that she was stealing a guest from her son’s colleague, as well as giving Kim an opportunity to meet Diệp again by inviting him to dinner.
And so Kim came to dinner with Ravi’s family. They discussed taking Diệp to the university the next day and decided that Ravi should bring her there.
On Monday morning, Diệp went to the university and only to find it would not take her. The semester had begun three weeks earlier. She was too late for her courses and too late to get into the dormitory. Diệp explained that she had come as soon as she had received the air ticket. That’s not our fault, the administrator said, you can question the ICCR: The Indian Council for Cultural Relations, for not getting you the ticket on time.
Can’t an exception be made in this case, Ravi asked? Absolutely not; this is democratic India, everybody is equal, and no one is privileged over anyone else. No exceptions. Not even for foreign students? No. If we make an exception for foreigners, our Indian students will hold demonstrations against us. They’d claim they had been discriminated against and that foreigners were given precedence over this country’s citizens. There have already been protests that led to several students immolating themselves. Seriously; they actually set themselves on fire over this issue. So, no, I’m very sorry, but there will be no exception made to accommodate this student.
There was nothing Diệp could do. She would have to pick up her suitcase and return to Ravi’s house. She burst into tears. She might as well just die now; her rejection by the university meant would have to go home. But she couldn’t even do that. Her ticket was one-way. More tears streamed down her cheeks.
Vimala consoled her: Don’t worry, my dear, the ICCR had brought you here so it will have to take responsibility for you. She and her children looked for the telephone numbers of the ICCR representative in the city. The Indian Council for Cultural Relations belonged to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs and was in charge of foreign cultural relations. It took much searching to locate the agency’s telephone number, and then they had to make over ten more telephone calls to different offices before finally reaching the scholarship office. They were able to set up an appointment for the next day. After each call, as the Shankars told Diep about the ICCR reply, she would burst into tears over and over again. Your crying ability is spectacular, Ravi said to her; it really gets to me. Oh, let her cry, Ravi’s wife said. It will help relax her.
His wife’s words gave Ravi an idea. When I bring you tomorrow to the ICCR, he told Diệp, I want you to cry just like you have here; I want a deluge of tears that will melt the Council’s heart.
Unfortunately, the next day when they went to the Council, Diệp’s eyes remained totally dry. She assumed a sad countenance as she explained her circumstances, but could not squeeze out a single tear. Her tear ducts were guns which fired on the training range but fizzled out in actual combat. On the way home, Ravi laughed it off. How could you weep like a monsoon yesterday but dry up when we needed it most?
At the Council, the officers promised they would find some way to help her. Certainly the University couldn’t admit her, but give them some time to think about it and they would come up with another solution.
But what did they mean by “some time” and what would “another solution” be?
Total gloom. No help for a new student. She had to support herself.
Vimala said, don’t worry, just stay with us and the Council will have to take responsibility. As the headmaster of a primary school, she always believed in responsibility – and responsibility, for her, was a necessity: a bond between organizations and individuals and between individuals themselves.
She said they should take Diệp around to see the city. There were many notable places to see in this cultural center of southern India, and she instructed Ravi’s wife to act as Diệp’s guide. Sangeeth, Ravi’s wife, was an artist who after her marriage mostly painted at home. The painter was happy to be a tour guide now. She took Diệp to Bangalore Palace, its red sandstone walls embossed against a transparent blue sky. Diep loved it immediately, its architecture reminding her of pictures she had seen of Windsor Castle. But then it hit her again that she would not be allowed to stay and study in this beautiful place and she burst into tears again. The painter regarded her with envy. Sometimes when my husband scolds me, I feel like crying that way. But no tears come. My eyes are dry as the Thar Desert, she said, referring to a desert far northwest of them.
Most visitors to this city always choose Bangalore Palace as the best place to see. But the painter told Diep she regarded Viddhan Soudha as the most impressive. It was an enormous building, forty six meters in height, with three hundred rooms housing twenty two state ministries and the largest state legislature in India. Its architecture, Sangeeth informed her, was typical for the South.
Next she took Diệp to Bull Nandi temple and Dodda Ganesha temple, dedicated to Ganesha, the elephant-headed God of Wisdom and Prosperity. As Diệp wandered through the temples, at times she would think about her situation and weep quietly, but in general the beauty of the places she saw helped her forget her troubles.
She felt a surge of hope again when a Council officer telephoned and informed her she had been given a recommendation letter to a university in Mysore, about one hundred sixty kilometers away. She should go right away to see if the university would accept her.
Hope ignited. The whole family eagerly prepared her for the trip to Mysore. But as soon as she arrived, she found that the semester had started two weeks before. Hope extinguished. That evening, Diệp telephoned Vimala, weeping once again. Vimala instantly told Ravi to leave early the next morning and bring Diệp back. Immediately. The girl was desperate now, and who knew what could happen there.
Ravi had to leave at four in the morning in order to get to Mysore by seven. When he saw Diệp’s red eyes, he exclaimed again at her skill in crying. You must have been gushing from the time you phoned my mum until now. I’ve never gone through something like this, Diệp said. Me either, replied Ravi, meaning he’d never before been forced by his mum to go off at four in the morning in order to pick someone up.
So she returned to Ravi’s house. The next day, Vimala took Diệp to her school where she served as headmaster. She introduced Diệp to the school administrators, then she took her to a fourth grade class. Girls, she said, this is Diệp from Việt Nam. She is a lecturer of history in a university in Việt Nam and she has come here to study Indian history. Do you think she is pretty? Very pretty, the class agreed. And do you think she is young? Very young, the class agreed.
The next day Vimala began what turned out to be her own private cooking class at home, teaching Diep how to bake Indian bread — naan and chapatti. She also showed Diệp how to cook Southern food and then tested her skills.
And so four weeks passed. Diệp waited with mixed feelings of hope and desperation. Three of the Shankars continually telephoned the ICCR urging that organization to come up with a solution. They pushed hard at doors that seemed to be permanently closed and broke through tunnels that seemed to be permanently blocked. They pushed until they succeeded. The Council finally found a university in New Delhi which was prepared to admit Diep, and provided her with the train ticket which would carry two thousand kilometers to the North.
The Shankar family brought her to the railway station, along with Mr. Kim the Korean. In addition to her original baggage, she was now loaded cooking pans and bowls and plates and spoons, all donated by Vimala, who assured Diep she would need them immediately in Delhi. Vimala also urged Diệp to chew a betel nut for luck on her journey. Looking at these people who had become so close to her within a month, Diệp wanted to sob. But ironically, she was unable to squeeze out a single tear. She was totally dry.
That story happened at the end of 1992. One year later, when I was working in the Embassy of Việt Nam in New Delhi, I went to the South on a mission to Bangalore. One morning, I went to Ravi’s house. Only Sangeeth was there, busy with her painting. She made telephone calls and sometime later, her mother in law and Ravi came back. Vimala led me to a room, drew back the curtains and opened the window. The room has been kept exactly as it had been when Diệp had stayed there.
Though not completely. On the table was a tiny lacquer screen made up of the four panels representing spring, summer, fall, and winter. I assumed that Diệp had taken it from her suitcase and placed to serve as a little piece of Việt Nam in the midst of this Indian scene. I told Vimala that the panels containing the spring peach blossoms and the two swallows’ heads were upside down. Vimala smiled and said, it’s probably my doing — I come in and dust this table every day.
Last year Diệp sent me a message that she had received an email from Ravi informing her that his mother had passed away. In the message, Ravi relayed how Vimala would often speak of the young Vietnamese woman who had been predestined to stay that one month with her family. She recalled with pride how after Diệp had graduated from university in India, she had returned to her country to become the director of a provincial education department, and then had been promoted to the national Education Ministry.
Recently, I have encouraged Diệp to go back to meet Ravi and his family again. From Hà Nội to Bangkok takes one and half hours, and from Bangkok to Bangalore about three and half hours. The journey is not that far.
Translated by the author and Wayne Karlin
Hồ Anh Thái has published over forty books, from novels and short story collections to essays, literary biographies and travel reportages. His books have been translated into over ten languages including English and French: Behind the Red Mist (short fiction), The Women on the Island (A novel), Apocalypse Hotel (A novel), L’ile aux Femmes, Aventures en Inde etc.
A prominent novelist, Hồ Anh Thái was elected as president of Hà Nội writers’ Association from 2000 to 2010. And as a diplomat, he was posted to India, then the Deputy Ambassador of Việt Nam to Iran and Indonesia.