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This story was translated from Bengali by Lila Ray. It tells us about an Indian man who befriends a young English girl in London. The young girl comes from an impoverished family and has an elder brother who is a soldier in India. She is curious about India because of her brother and gets to know about it from our narrator.
Mr. Gupta– the narrator, an Indian man living in London
Maggie– a young English girl who comes from poverty
Frank– Maggie’s brother who is a soldier in India
Mrs. Clifford– Maggie and Frank’s mother
The Girl at the Vegetarian Restaurant
The narrator, Mr. Gupta, went to a vegetarian restaurant in St. Martin’s Lane for lunch on a Saturday afternoon. He noticed a young English girl watching him from another table. She looked poor and sad. While paying her bill, she asked the cashier if Mr. Gupta was Indian and came here frequently. Mr. Gupta was surprised by her actions and asked the waitress about her. The waitress said that she came there every Saturday, and probably worked at a nearby shop. Saturday was payday, so that was probably the only time she had enough money to get lunch there. The narrator was curious about the girl and tried to look for her the next day, but found no trace of her.
The next Saturday, he found her again at the vegetarian restaurant. He introduced himself and started a conversation with her. After a bit, she asked him if he was Indian. He said he was. She asked him whether he was a vegetarian because she had heard most Indians were vegetarians. Mr. Gupta asked her how she knew anything about India. She answered that her elder brother was a soldier posted in India. She looked disappointed when he told her that he was not a vegetarian, although he did enjoy a vegetarian meal every now and then.
The girl lived with her old widowed mother. Her only guardian was her elder brother. They had not had a letter from him for a long time. Her mother was very worried because people told her that India was full of tigers and snakes and fevers. Her mother wanted to ask an Indian about these things. The girl wanted Mr. Gupta to meet her mother but did not have the courage to ask him.
The narrator wished to meet this poor anxious mother and see how the poor lived in England, so he told her he would meet her mother. She was very happy about this. They decided to walk to her home.
The girl’s name was Alice Margaret Clifford, usually called Maggie. She was a typist in the Civil Service stores. She did not really like the work because it was very mechanical. She wanted to be a secretary and take her mother away from their poor neighbourhood, Lambeth.
Mr. Gupta asked Maggie if her father used to call her Magsy. Maggie was surprised and asked him how he had known. He joked that Indians knew about the future and all kinds of magic. Maggie said she had heard such things about yogis, but Mr. Gupta was not a yogi because yogis did not eat meat. That was why she had asked him if he was a vegetarian earlier.
Maggie’s Mother and the Crystal Ring
They reached Maggie’s house. Her mother was downstairs in the kitchen baking cakes. Saturday was a day of festivity in the poor neighbourhoods because it was payday and the poor could afford to spend a little. So, things like cakes were sold from carts on the streets.
Mrs. Clifford asked Mr. Gupta about India. He reassured her that it was safe and that the snakes and tigers kept away from people. She said her son was in Punjab. He replied that Punjab was a fine and healthy place with little fever. She was glad to hear it. She told Maggie to take Mr. Gupta upstairs to the sitting room because she was done with baking. She would wash her hands and bring him some tea.
As they drank tea, they talked about India. Mrs. Clifford showed the narrator a picture of her son, called Francis or Frank, taken before he left. He had sent Maggie a picture book of Shimla for her birthday.
Frank had also sent his family a magic ring that he bought from a yogi. The yogi had told him that one could see a distant person in the ring if they concentrated enough. Mr. Gupta realised it was just an ordinary ring but did not have the heart to tell Maggie and her mother.
They had not been able to see anything in the ring and hoped that Mr. Gupta would see something because he was a Hindu. They were disappointed to hear that he could not see anything either.
To change the subject, he asked Maggie to play the violin. He picked a Scotch song for her to play and praised her a lot when she did. Mrs. Clifford said Maggie had learnt everything by herself. If their circumstances ever improved, she would arrange for her to have lessons.
Three months passed. The narrator visited the Clifford family many times. He took Maggie to the zoo once. She rode the Indian elephant there. But there was no news of Frank. Urged by Mrs. Clifford, Mr. Gupta went to India House and found out that Frank’s regiment was fighting on the Northwest Frontier. Mrs. Clifford was very worried when she heard it.
One day, Mr. Gupta received a postcard from Maggie that said her mother was very ill. She had not been able to go to work for a week and would be very grateful if he came to visit them.
Mr. Gupta’s hostess told him to take some money for Maggie. He took the money and went to Maggie’s house. He tried to console a very exhausted and sad Maggie. Her mother was so sick that she might not live.
Maggie had a request for him. She wanted Mr. Gupta to tell her mother that he could see Frank in the yogi’s ring. She knew it was wrong but this lie would give her mother enough hope to live. Mr. Gupta decided he would help her. So, he told Mrs. Clifford that he had seen Frank safe and well in the crystal. Mrs. Clifford was overjoyed and slowly recovered.
Mr. Gupta’s Departure
It was almost time for Mr. Gupta to return to India. He wanted to say goodbye to the Cliffords, but they were in mourning. Frank had died while fighting on the Frontier. Maggie had sent him a card about it. Mr. Gupta had realised that Frank had been dead when he told his mother that he was alive. So, he felt ashamed to face her.
He wrote a goodbye letter to the Cliffords. On his last day in London, Maggie came to see him. He told her that he had entered the Punjab Civil Service. The Frontier was not very far from there. Maggie said that Frank was buried at Fort Monroe, near Dera-Ghazi-Khan. Mr. Gupta promised that he would visit Frank’s grave and write to her.
Maggie thanked him and gave him a shilling to buy flowers for Frank’s grave. He wanted to return it to her because it was her hard-earned money, and flowers did not need to be purchased in India. But then he thought of the joy that sacrificing the shilling would give her. So, he accepted it and told her he would buy flowers to put on Frank’s grave.
They said their goodbyes and promised to write to each other.
This story shows us a beautiful bond between people who come from very different walks of life. An Indian man befriends a young English girl and helps know about the country her brother is in. Mr. Gupta’s actions to help the ill Mrs. Clifford as well as a grieving Maggie show us how important empathy is.