Leaving Everything Most Loved


London, July 1933

Edith Billings—Mrs. Edith Billings, that is, proprietor of Billings’ Bakery—watched as the dark woman walked past the shop window, her black head with its oiled ebony hair appearing to bob up and down between the top shelf of cottage loaves and the middle shelf of fancy cakes as she made her way along with a confidence to her step. Mrs. Billings considered herself to be a woman of some integrity, one who lived by the maxim “Live and let live,” but to be honest, she wondered what a woman like that might be doing on her street; after all, she should keep to her own patch. Billings’ Fine Bakery—or “Billingses” as the locals called it—did a fair trade in morning coffee and afternoon teas, and Edith didn’t want her regulars, her “ladies” as she referred to them, being upset by someone who had no business walking out of her own part of town. There were a lot of her kind, to be sure—you could thank the East India Company going back three hundred years for that—but all the same. On her street? That woman with her colored silk, her jangling bracelets, her little beaded shoes—and, for goodness’ sake, just a cardigan to cover her arms. What’s she doing here? wondered Edith Billings. What does she want around these parts, with that red dot on her forehead? And what on earth happened to “When in Rome,” anyway? It’d be painted dots one minute, and curry with roast potatoes the next, if people weren’t careful.

Elsie Digby, aged six, was outside Billingses when the lady with the dark skin clad in silks of peach and pink walked towards her. She’d been left to rock the baby carriage while her mother bought a loaf of bread, and now she pushed back and forth with a solid rhythm against the carriage handle, yet with barely a thought to minding her new brother. The lady smiled as she approached, and Elsie blushed, looking at her feet in sensible brown lace-up shoes. She’d been told never to talk to strangers, and she was afraid the woman might speak to her, say a few words—and the woman was, if nothing else, a stranger. But as she came alongside Billingses and passed Elsie, a corner of the woman’s sari flapped against the girl’s bare arm. Elsie Digby closed her eyes when the soft silk kissed her skin, and at once she wondered what it must be like to be clothed in fine silk every day, to walk along with the heat of late summer rising up and bearing down, and to feel the cool brush of fabric touching her as if it were a nighttime breeze, or breath from a sleeping baby.

Usha Pramal, respectfully dressed in her best sari, could feel the stares of passersby. She smiled and said “Good morning” when proximity brought the person within comfortable distance. There was no reply. There was never a reply. But she would shed no tears and worry not, because, according to Mr. and Mrs. Paige, their God was watching over her, as He watched over all His children. She had said a quick prayer to Jesus this morning, just to keep on acceptable terms with the Paiges and their deity, but she also bowed to Vishnu and Ganesh for good measure. Her father would have been appalled, but he would also have said, “Never burn your bridges, Usha. Never burn those bridges.” She would not be here for long anyway. Her pennies and shillings were mounting, along with the pounds, and soon she would be able to afford to make her dream a reality; she would book her passage and at last return home. At last, after all this time, after seven long years, she would sail away from this gray country.

When the pain of separation seemed to rend her heart in two, it was her habit to walk to a street where there were shops that sold spices, where the aroma of familiar dishes cooking would tease her senses and set her stomach churning. And she could at least see faces that looked like hers; though at the same time, the sense of belonging was out of kilter, for many of those people had not been born in India and spoke in an unfamiliar dialect, or their names were constructed in a different manner. And even the other women in the hostel were not of her kind, though the Paiges thought they were all the same, like oranges