On the train ride from NJP to Kolkata (allegedly 10 hours, actually 14), I am sitting across from a mother, father, and their 10-year-old daughter. She is wearing a delightful purple and rainbow zebra-stripe outfit. I cannot understand the words she says, but I understand that she has sass.
A man comes by and asks if we want dinner. I answer in Hindi without thinking about it: “Nahin.” The couple across from me look delighted. They say something that I can’t understand but that involves the word “Hindi.” I smile and give my standard reply: “Meera Hindi — thora thora.” My Hindi — little little.
They speak about as much English as I speak Hindi. We manage to communicate that I am from the U.S., New York, and they are from a town a few hours outside of Kolkata, which is where they are returning to now. Also, I am going to Kolkata, and I was just in Darjeeling. How long? “Five days, Darjeeling, beautiful. Very beautiful.”
I explain in Hindi that my name is Chelsea, then ask the girl: “Apka naam kya heyn?” She shyly responds something I can’t understand, and her mother gives me an anglicatization: “Mona Lisa.”
Mona Lisa has been shy at first, but now she hops over to my side of the compartment. “You are from U.S.?” “Haahn. Yes.” “Tell me about U.S.”
Hmm. “Okay. I’ll draw you a picture.” I get out my notebook and draw a map of the world. I circle both the U.S. and India. I write “India” in Hindi next to the subcontinent, and everyone informs me I have spelled it wrong.
Then I draw a map of the U.S. I ID some relevant cities: LA, NYC, Washington. “Would you like to see some pictures from the U.S.?” She would, of course. We look at literally every picture on my camera. When we get to pictures of my cooking, she frequently interrupts to explain the picture of a cake/curry/piece of bread to her parents in Bengali.
I show her my Hindi book to explain how I know Hindi. She reads both the Hindi and English lines out loud. Then she quizzes me. “Parivar.” “Family.” “Dur.” “Close.” “No. It is ‘far.’ ” “Ahh.” She teaches me a few words in Bengali. Our train leaves a half hour late, but I hardly notice.
I take out my Lonely Planet book and we look at maps of India. “Once the British were in India. Then the freedom fighters fought, and the British left, and now we have independence and we are free.” I smile. “You know your history!” She bobbles her head. “I go to school and we have history book!”
She begins calling me “didi,” which I gather means “auntie.” “Didi! I want to look at your Hindi book.” “Didi! Show me your map of the world.” “Didi! [Bengali Bengali Bengali].” We go to sleep around 11, but we pick up right where we left off in the morning.
At one point she asks me about music and offers that she can sing a song in Bengali. I say I would like to hear her sing it. She does, at 8:00 in the morning, with half the train still attempting to sleep. Then she sings the Indian national anthem, which I recognize because it was sung every day at the school I taught at in 2010. “Would you like to hear the American national anthem?” This is the first time of many that I learn singing American songs to Indians has the potential to make me emotional.
Speaking of emotional, Mona Lisa then asks for paper and we use it for practicing drawings of India and the world. She adds some very sweet captions, like, “I love my didi.” What really gets me is when Mona Lisa writes, in English, “The world is a beautiful place.” She adds a carrot and writes “very.”
This is the purest sweetness of a child that I can imagine and, especially thinking about why I came to India and what I am doing here, it is hard to respond. “Yes,” I manage. “It is.”