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At the beginning of the Great Depression, Raji and Fuse leave the university and sail for India
In the fall of 1932, Fuse and I walked the near-deserted campus of Theodore Roosevelt University in Richmond Virginia.
We were third-year students in the medical school and would have been at the top of our class, had there been a class. Two days earlier, the two of us sat in the rigid wooden chairs in front of Dr. Octavia Pompeii's desk.
She was chancellor of the medical school and she looked as if she carried the weight of the entire university on her tiny shoulders. Her beautiful red hair was thinning and during the past two years, streaks of gray had crept into the curls from her temples. Dark circles saddened her eyes.
Dr. Pompeii took a deep breath and let out a sigh. "Raji, Fuse," she said. "I have bad news."
Fuse and I glanced at each other. We knew the university was in dire financial straits, just as all the schools were. Facility and students had been drifting away ever since the crash of 1929.
"We're closing the medical school," Dr. Pompeii said.
"Oh, no," I said. Fuse was quiet, but I knew he was in shock, just as I was. We had talked about this very event over the past semester, but I don't think we really believed it would happen. No one spoke for a while.
"Dr. Pompeii," Fuse said. "What will you do?"
My old pal Fuse, always thinking of others first.
"Strangely enough," she said, "I'm going back to school."
"That's wonderful, Dr. Pompeii," I said. "Where will you go?"
"Cornell University. I'm going to study orthopedics." She glanced at some papers on her desk. "I've prepared a list of ten schools where I want both of you to apply. I've mailed letters of recommendation, along with your transcripts to all of them. I have no idea what the scholarship situation is, but you have to try."
"Dr. Pompeii," Fuse said. "I don't think…" He paused to look at me. "I don't think any of them have money for scholarships."
"You don't know that," Dr. Pompeii said. "If none of these ten will take you in, then we'll find ten more. There's no one in this country more deserving of scholarships than you and Raji."
I took the list of schools. "Thank you so much Dr. Pompeii." I stood. "We'll get right to work on these."
Dr. Pompeii rose from her chair and reached across the desk to take my hand. "I wish both of you all the luck in the world." She held her hand out to Fuse.
"Thank you, Dr. Pompeii," Fuse said. "Thank you for everything you've done for us."
I don't know why, but our rambling walk took us to the nearby campus of Octavia Pompeii Academy. I thought about that day in August 1926 when I had joined the junior class. Fuse did not finish the competition in the top fifty, but he was invited to attend when one of the other students was not able to report to beginning of classes.
Now the once-lively academy was a depressing sight with the windows and doors boarded up and weeds overgrowing the sidewalks and tennis courts. We stopped in front of Hannibal House to watch a trio of crows pecking at the disintegrating parapet above the door.
"I wrote a letter to Mom." Fuse kept his eyes on the crows.
I glanced at him. "You're leaving, aren't you?"
He nodded, still not looking at me.
I turned to walk along the sidewalk, watching the cracks in the crumbling cement. He walked beside me. "Where are we going?" I asked the sidewalk.
He stopped and I turned to face him, seeing that crooked grin I knew so well.
"I've always wanted to see India," he said.
"Me too." I returned his grin. It had been fifteen years since I was taken from my home in Calcutta. Thinking back over my life in America, I truly believe I should be thankful to those thugs who grabbed me, along with twenty other girls and young women, from the streets in 1912. We were shipped to New York in the hold of a cattle boat like so much livestock, and then sold off to become indentured servants. When I turned thirteen, I ran away from the house in Queens where I had been held. Two days later, I ended up sleeping in a barn in rural Virginia.
How fortunate for me that the barn belonged to the Fusilier family. Fuse, who was a boy of fourteen at the time, discovered me the next morning and then I spent the most wonderful year of my life with him and his family. Marie Fusilier took me in as if I were her own daughter.
"I should write to Mama Marie too." I took Fuse's hand.
"I told her you were going with me."
"Well, how presumptuous of you."
That night, Fuse and I packed what little gear we had and hitched a ride to New York City on the back of a potato truck, and then we walked along the docks of lower Manhattan.
Two days later, we shipped out on the Borboleta Nova under the command of Captain Sinaway. The Borboleta was a beautiful new freighter only six months out of the shipyards at Lisbon. She was bound for Calcutta with a cargo of dynamite, and since neither Fuse nor I had any sailing experience, the captain assigned Fuse to the engine room, working as a fireman and I went to work as a deckhand. We didn't care what we had to do; we just wanted to escape. From what, I don't think either of us knew.
I was very apprehensive about seeing my family, especially my mother. Seven years earlier, she had written to me at the Fusilier farm, informing me that she had arranged a marriage for me.
This was quite a shock, at age fourteen to learn my mother had betrothed me to a man of forty-seven. Mama Marie Fusilier was equally surprised. She told me that if a man married a child in America, he would go to jail.
Marie helped me write to my mother in India, explaining that I would like to wait for marriage until I was at least eighteen, and then I wanted to pick my own husband.
Hajini, my mother, wrote back telling me I was being disrespectful and this sort of behavior was not allowed. And in addition, she and my father had purchased passage for me on a ship leaving America for Calcutta. The ticket would arrive soon.
The ticket did indeed come to me in the mail. I sent it back, telling my mother I was old enough to make my own decisions. After that, it was four months before I heard from her again. This time she said my grandmother was dying and that I should come to see her as soon as possible, but there was no mention of paying my passage. I wrote back, saying that if I had enough money, I would pay my way to India to see grandmother, but it would be a roundtrip ticket.
It was a year before I received another letter. Mother gave me news of all the family. There were many details about my nieces and nephews, and that grandmother was still alive, but growing weaker. I wrote back to her about my progress at the academy and that I planned to go to medical school.
Five years passed with no more letters from mother.
I spent a very tense week with Raji and her family in Calcutta. She and her mother were exactly alike in temperament and frankness, each one speaking her mind on any matter that arose. Her grandmother of eighty-seven was just as outgoing, but without the energy to carry an argument to conclusion. Sometimes she fell asleep in the middle of a discussion.
On a warm Friday evening in October, a young man arrived at the Devaki home.
"This is Panyas Maidan," Mrs. Devaki said, leading him into the living room where Raji and I sat on the floor, teaching some of the children to play chess.
Raji was on her feet before I was and it seemed to me her smile was a bit more lively than necessary.
"I am Vincent Fusilier." I spoke in Hindi and reached to shake his hand.
"This is my daughter, Miss Rajiani Devaki," her mother said, pushing Raji forward.
Mr. Maidan glanced at Raji and then spoke to me. "It is an honor to meet you, sir." His English was perfect and precise. His handshake was firm, but not overpowering. I must admit it was somewhat of a relief to hear my native language after a week of endless conversations in Hindi. His build was athletic and his complexion a light tan. He was a few inches taller than my five-foot-ten, and maybe three or four years older than I, making him was about twenty-five.
"Mr. Maidan is an architect. He has built many beautiful buildings all across India," Mrs. Devaki gushed.
"Oh, no," Mr. Maidan said. "I only draw the pictures of buildings. I must leave the difficult tasks of construction to more capable hands." He smiled at Raji.
She was still grinning. She had been from the moment he walked into the room.
Mr. Maidan glanced at her hands and then mine. "Do you play cricket, Mr. Fusilier?"
"I'm not much for sports. I play tennis occasionally." I felt the edge of Raji's sandal pressing down on my little toe.
"Really? Perhaps you could come to my club for a few sets of tennis tomorrow afternoon."
I would love to be on a tennis court. After five weeks on the freighter, and then being cooped up in the Devaki home for another week, a few hours of strenuous tennis was exactly what I needed. "That would be great." I pulled my foot away from the painful crush of Raji's weight. I glanced at her to see her right hand make a quick motion toward her ear, and then she flipped her hair back over her shoulder. "However," I said to Mr. Maidan with my eyes still on Raji, "I won't be able to accept your generous invitation, because…"
"You promised the children you would help them with…" Raji glanced around the room. "With their English tomorrow."
"Right," I said and turned back to Mr. Maidan. "And, anyway, Raji is a much better tennis player than I am."
"Is that a fact?" He looked Raji up and down. "A lady tennis player?"
"All right, then. While Mr. Fusilier teaches English, perhaps you will teach me a bit about the game of tennis."
If the scene before me had been a smiling contest, I believe Raji would have lost out to her mother.
I suppose Mr. Panyas Maidan's tennis game was not very good because he apparently needed lots of instruction on that Saturday afternoon. It was very late in the evening when Raji returned and the two of them were back at the game the next day, and the day after that.
Early on Tuesday morning, Raji and I sat on the veranda, sipping tea and watching the sunrise.
"Raji," I said. "There's a riverboat going up the Irrawaddy from Rangoon next Wednesday."
She glanced at me, raising an eyebrow, her way of asking, "And?"
"I have to move on. The boat is bound for Mandalay and then on through northern Burma to Myitkyina on the Chinese border."
For a moment, she watched the bright morning sunlight filtering through the banana trees while I watched the warm glow of her beautiful face.
"All right," she said. "Wait for me in Mandalay and we'll go see what those Chinese guys are up to."
I had hoped she would say something like that. We traveled well together, but I didn't want her to feel obligated to leave her family, or Mr. Maidan. However, I also knew Raji better than her parents did. They were nice people, and somewhat prosperous in spite of the economic downturn. Mr. Devaki was a businessman and his wife worked in some sort of government office, so they had a reasonable income. But once Raji caught up on all the family history, and her mother and father went back to their respective offices, Raji would become bored without the intellectual stimulation she was accustomed to. At least, that was my hope. Of course, if she found other sources of stimulation I would probably be traveling to China on my own.
Raji's father, who made frequent trips to Mandalay for reasons that varied from "commercial ventures" to "scenic excursions" or "leisurely studies of nature", recommended a hotel called the Nadi Myanmar on 62nd Street just off the City Center, as a convenient place for his daughter and I to meet in Mandalay.
I knew from Raji, that her father was deeply involved in the struggle against the English as both India and Burma tried to throw off the yoke of the British Empire. A year earlier, I would have told him I knew quite well what he was doing in Burma and I would probably have taken the side of the British in trying to hold on to their far-flung colonies. But as he, his wife, Raji, I, along with their nine other children and a multitude of nieces and nephews, sat on the floor around the low table eating curry and khatta mango dal--mangoes with beans and red chilies--I thanked Mr. Devaki politely for the information as I made a mental note of the hotel name and the street address in Mandalay.
Two weeks later, I met Kayin in the lobby of the Nadi Myanmar hotel.