Today's Reading

And then one day, I received a handwritten note inviting me for cocktails in the penthouse flat. I'd made the grade. Now I stood beside the celebrated Willy Smets, still thinking about his first words to me. "What was that you said before?" I asked him. "Something about Indians and happiness?"

"Some friendly advice for a boy who looks lost in a strange land. India is an enchanting place, but it can be overwhelming to foreigners."

That hardly cleared up my confusion. He took note and explained that he was advising me to take the second path. Let Indians be the means to achieving my happiness.

Smets signaled to a young servant across the room. Domestic help was ubiquitous in India. Middle-class households—even lower-middle-class—always had one or more servants. The rich had several. I didn't like the word, servant, when I first heard it. An outdated and condescending way to refer to people. But that's what they were called in India.

Willy Smets's guy was outfitted in wrinkled white livery a few sizes too large for his frame. He glided over to us on bare feet. Smets called him Sandip.

"Yes, sahib?" he said. When he opened his mouth, I saw his teeth were stained red from paan, a betel leaf preparation that some folks chewed like tobacco.

"A drink for my guest," said Smets. Then he turned to me. "What will you have, Danny Boy?"

I didn't drink a lot, but I enjoyed the occasional scotch. My dad always said, "One to whet your appetite and one to rinse down dessert."

"Whisky, please," I said. "I mean, if you have any."

"Of course we do."

He relayed the order to Sandip, then waved him away. "Jaldi, jaldi." "You don't want the local spirits," said Smets. "The beer and rum are okay, but not the whisky. If you find yourself running dry, I can help you."

I thanked him, feeling like a charity case. He asked if I was satisfied with my servant.

There was that word again.

"He only started this morning," I said. "I'll have to let you know."

"You've been without help all this time? I wish we'd met sooner; I could have arranged something for you."

"My office is handling it, thanks," I said. "I'm still getting used to the idea. I never thought I'd have someone taking care of me."

"A very American attitude. Canadians are even worse. It's as if they feel they don't deserve to be comfortable. But that's a habit you must break here. Servants are one of the pluses we enjoy in India, even if they're always underfoot." He sipped his drink then winked at me. "Provided they don't slit your throat in the night."

A pretty German woman, Marthe, interrupted us to speak with Smets. I assumed he was German since he spoke the language as effortlessly as he did English. Only later did I find out he was Belgian. Flemish, but he also spoke French perfectly.

I studied him as he entertained the lady with what sounded like a humorous story. Bony and toothy, he was, by any objective standard, a homely man. Of average height and weight, he managed nevertheless to project a wiry magnetism that was mismatched to his unremarkable frame. His baritone voice, seasoned by what I was sure were decades of wine and brandy and black-tobacco cigarettes, bore witness to a lifestyle well enjoyed, if not healthy. Yet, despite his want of physical gifts, Willy Smets had confidence and natural social facility in spades. An unexpected charisma.

Sandip returned with my drink, which was sloshing about in a crystal tumbler on a salver. He balanced two glass bottles on the tray as well. They were identical in every detail except for the crown caps. One was red, the other yellow.

"Do you take soda, or would you like some ice?" Smets asked. "Soda, please," I said.

Ice never lasted long in that heat, of course, and you were never sure how safe it might be. Soda was the wiser choice. My host must have read my mind. He assured me that all the water was boiled in the kitchen and the ice was perfectly pure.

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