For the year 1965 I was a student officer at the Royal Air Force Staff College at Andover, in Hampshire near London. One day there was a small notice in the letterbox; exercise short talk will commence in two week’s time. Three talks will be delivered every day between 1130 and 1330 hrs. Each talk will be of ten minutes. There will a 20 minute sessions of questions after the talk. there will be a ten minute gap between each talk. The student officers were required to submit their choice of subject to their respective directing staff within the next three days . It was a simple communication about a simple planned exercise. A couple of evenings earlier, a South American course mate had innocently asked me whether my mother tongue was English or Hindian! It took some time to make him comprehend the multiplicity of languages in India. He was quite amazed. Through out the continent of South America only two languages are spoken: either Spanish or Portuguese. He was curious to know how so many languages came to be used in India. I had enjoyed this interaction with this friend. I therefore decided to pick Languages of South Asia as the subject of my short talk.
Over the next ten days, I made two or three trips to London to visit the India House Library to gather material for my talk. On one of these trips, as I came out of India House, it started raining rather hard. I was caught unprepared not having brought an umbrella or a rain coat. I had to take a bus and then a train to return to Andover. At the bus stop near the High Commission I found an Indian lady under a big umbrella. We looked at each other and she asked me to come under the shelter of her umbrella. I was wearing a battle dress uniform of the Air Force. The lady was elderly. She was perhaps close to fifty years of age. As I came close to her she saw the Indian Air Force Flying Wing on my chest and inquired what I was doing in London. Her English immediately identified her as a Bengali. I used Bangla to respond to her query and soon I was flooded with many questions about my person. Where in Bengal did I come from. What was my family background. Was I married. Did I have any children. In the process of this discussion I told her that my ancestral home was in Barisal, then a part of East Pakistan. The lady stopped her prattle and looked at my face with a curious look. Barisal? You mean Barisal Town? I confirmed her query. Which household do you belong to? She wanted to pin me down to a background immediately. Now I had never spent any length of time at Barisal. My last visit to Barisal was in 1939 when I was barely five years old. I could not therefore talk about the town with any personal knowledge or confidence. With some diffidence I named the elder brother of my grand father who had built the house in Barisal town. The lady fixed her gaze on me. Who is Kanika to you? The question perplexed me. Of course there was a Kanika in the family. She was my fathers’ youngest sister. She was settled in Kolkata with four grown children. Would this lady be referring to her? She had not yet told me where she was from. I looked back at her without answering, but the lady had not yet finished her question. And Bani and Beena? Are they related to you? Now I had no more doubts left. I realized that she was thinking of Barisal Town of twenty five or thirty years ago. Bani and Beena are two of my cousins who were in Barisal in the 1930s. Kanika my aunt was also a student in Barisal in the mid thirties. I smiled and told the lady that she had just named all the ladies of my household from Barisal who were approximately of her age. I told her of my relationships with the ladies she had just named. The lady now became very expansive. She, it appeared, was in school with all those she had named. At school and then for undergrad studies at the BM College. It was now my turn to act a little naughty. Tell me, should I now address you as a didi or an aunt? She burst out laughing. Any thing you want my dear, she said. When her laughter subsided, all she could say was is it not a small world, really.