Shine The Light

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The Professor's Daughter

Oddly enough the most vivid memory I have of Sulekha Ramakrishnan is set in a teeming south Indian wedding hall. The clangour all around jolted me in and out of the post-lunch stupor induced by one of those huge meals you get on such occasions. The food had been excellent -- piping hot rice served on banana-leaves as we squatted cross-legged on the floor, smothered successively in redolent sambar and rasam, surrounded by four varieties of vegetable preparations, accompanied by vadams and appalams, followed by sinfully rich payasam and topped off by some absolutely divine curd-rice and pickles.

The gang was discussing -- what else? -- the girls in their Kanjeevaram sarees and jasmine-scented plaits. Whole bevies of them – mostly in their late teens and early twenties – had been traipsing about all day under the rapt attention of us guys. Matronly maamis eyed each one keenly, rating their marketability as future brides. Sulekha Ramakrishnan was the hands-down winner of this impromptu beauty contest – with both sets of jury. She and I had been seeing quite a lot of each other lately. The guys had tried to rib me about it but, I could easily tell, with a tinge of envy and I had smiled indulgently, ignoring their barbs with a supercilious air.

Sulekha Ramakrishnan was the daughter of Professor Ramakrishnan who taught econometrics at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore. I was a post-doctoral research fellow in the faculty of operations research, which wasn’t too far from econometrics when it came to numerical demands or esotericism. As a result, I had gotten to know the professor quite well. It was when Sulekha graduated from a city college and bagged a seat in the elite post-graduate diploma programme in management at IIMB that she first appeared on my radar as a distant blip, but more of that later.

As I watched languidly from across the large hall through heavy-lidded eyes, one of her friends indicated the maamis chewing paan and said something with a giggle. Sulekha threw them a withering look and replied with something so harsh that I could see the friend recoil in horror.

It was gone in a moment, but I had been startled to wakefulness by the venom in that fleeting glance, so out of character with her.

Maybe that’s what planted the scene forever in my memory.

Because the Sulekha I knew had the gentlest of natures, ever sensitive to the feelings of others. She glowed with child-like spontaneity even at twenty-two -- she had already admitted her age to me with charming naivete. She had an exquisite and bewitchingly feminine energy that was infectious and exhilarating. But she would never think ill of anyone or so much as hurt a fly. Later, whenever I tried to find out what had been said that time, she would change the subject with a quick little toss of her head. But not before a fleeting shadow of that harsh anger darkened her eyes. Whatever it was, it was deep-rooted – that’s all I could make out. It seemed to be the only dark lining in her make up, otherwise she was ever so kind and considerate.

I remember an incident that had happened a few weeks previously. It was like this – Sulekha had applied for a place in a team being sent to Germany under the Rotary Club’s exchange programme. She had been called for an interview the following Saturday. Her chances were bright – her uncle had been a past president of the local district and she had all the right qualifications as well – a brilliant academic record, accomplishments in Carnatic singing, a certificate in advanced German from the Max Mueller Bhavan – to top it all off, her sheer zest for life. To my mind she was a certainty for that place. I recalled her blow by blow description of two days of intense lobbying before her mother consented to let her appear for the interview. Normally a subdued and obedient daughter, Sulekha had on this occasion used all her wits and wiles to enlist her father’s support to get her mother to agree. For an Indian girl from an ultra-conservative Tam-Bram family, this was a breakthrough of Herculean proportions. It just showed me how badly Sulekha wanted to go.

We were in the students’ canteen when she was giving me news of this domestic victory in excited tones. We had begun planning the shopping for the dress to wear for the interview. I had suggested that a snappy business suit might be appropriate since it was Germany they were to go to.

She squealed in horrified delight and clapped her hands across her mouth wide-eyed. “Oh, Chats, what a crazy idea! Only you can think of such things!” I could tell though, that she was beginning to visualise herself in a business suit and liked what she saw even through her initial shock. Wringing her hands half in glee, she fought to control her giggles. I watched fascinated as a dozen emotions chased one another across her face.

Then this friend of hers walked in and spoiled the whole thing.

“Hi Sulekha! I’ve been looking all over campus for you. Wow darling, you haven’t changed all these years! You’re looking prettier than ever!” she gushed. “Won’t you introduce me to your handsome friend?”

Caught unprepared, Sulekha introduced us absent-mindedly – Kavita was the name of the girl. Recovering herself after a moment, Sulekha took hold of her old friend’s arm pulled her down into a chair next to her own, genuine pleasure and welcome in her eyes. Before long, the two of them were lost to me, chattering and laughing down memory lane. I was about to excuse myself and leave when I froze at Kavita’s next words.

“Sulekha, I need your help to get an absolutely golden chance that’s almost within my reach to go to Germany. I’ve been called for an interview on Saturday at the Rotary Club. You know, that exchange programme thing they do. But I’ve heard that there’s one more Carnatic singer who has been called and they’ll take only one person with a music background.

“Do you know Sulekha and I went to music class together for more than ten years?” This to me. She clasped both of Sulekha’s hands in hers and gushed on, “How I used to admire and adore you, darling! I’ve always thought of you as my role model.”

I couldn’t very much see how that could be – she was so different from Sulekha in dress and behaviour – so stylish and aggressive. But I saw that Sulekha was smiling indulgently.

Without losing a moment, Kavita rattled on, “Sulekha my dear, dear friend, I need your help desperately now. Your uncle was governor or something of this district, no? Will you please, please put in a word for me? You were always my guide and guru, now you have to help me out. This trip means so much to me! If I don’t make it now that I’m so close just because of this other person my heart will break!”

My own heart stopped beating. My fingers were clutching my chair tightly. I watched fuming as Sulekha assured her friend that she would do all that was in her power. After extracting a dozen re-assurances the girl left, all in a hurry to shop for a dress to wear for the interview.

And Sulekha, with a wistful smile, cancelled her own shopping. “You can’t be serious!” I hissed. “You must have told this girl that you’ll help just to get her off your back. Don’t tell me you’ll actually drop out of the interview?” She was firm. What did it matter, she told me, whether she went or her friend, she would be as happy. And it wasn’t as if she was giving up a career, she continued, the trip was anyway for a few short weeks. I don’t know how many people would have stepped aside like her, no matter how close the friend or how desperate.

Now, Sulekha’s marriage was the main concern in her parents’ lives. Twenty-two, by their standards, was no age for a girl to reach before being married off. But she had two drawbacks which caused her mother grave anguish. The first was her daughter’s height. At five-feet eight, she was a tall girl and therefore somewhat handicapped in the south Indian marriage market.

The more serious problem for Mrs Ramakrishnan was Sulekha’s plan to follow her father’s footsteps into academics. That meant a PhD somewhere along the line. And that meant that there would be few men who would be as highly qualified. To make matters worse, Sulekha was a wiz at Operations Research -- a field that would put the scare up most people, men included. It galled Mrs Ramakrishnan that, against all accepted norms of social prudence, her husband did not chip in whole-heartedly to nip their daughter’s ambition in the bud. Mrs Ramakrishnan despaired, not without reason, at finding a decent match if her daughter became ‘over-qualified’.

I had been to their place a few times to try and win a place in their good books but nowadays, after what has happened, the Ramakrishnans really hate me.

Hang on though, I’m kind of running ahead of myself.

It all started nearly two years ago, when Sulekha joined up for the post-graduate diploma. Since her father taught at the Institute, she had always lived on the campus, but until then I had noticed her only vaguely as one more pretty young thing around. Once she joined up at the Institute, we got to know each other, albeit in our roles as student and faculty. I assisted the probability and statistics faculty by holding a few sessions for the first year students and so got to know her personally. She would approach me, shyly at first but more easily when she got to know me better, to help her with her course work. She had a natural aptitude for quantitative subjects and operations research has enough and more of that stuff. Her inquisitive mind and infectious enthusiasm set her apart in class. I found myself drawn to her and gradually we spent longer and longer hours together. As the weeks slid by our acquaintance strengthened into a companiable friendship.

Though she had been a star student in school, she had slipped down to the middle of her class in her grades now. One day I asked her about this. She at once grew vague. “Maybe I don’t have a competitive attitude,” she answered, looking away from me. I caught a strange expression in them, something wistful in her eyes. I decided to probe further.

“What do your parents say about your results? Surely they know that you are capable of better?”

A hot flush spread across her cheeks. “They don’t care,” she muttered. “All they want is to find a suitable boy for me.”

Her next remark stunned me. “Actually, I purposely muff one or two questions in my exams. I think they would be happier if I failed. My mother thinks that a brilliant girl will find it difficult to find a good husband,” she added with a grimace.

Then her hand shot to her mouth and she giggled with embarrassment as if to show that she had shocked herself with this display of wilfulness.

I had to let it go at that for the moment, but it was too much for me. I knew by now that she found her studies quite interesting, and knew that she could be headed for a brilliant career. Locked inside her was a soul crying for freedom to choose her own path through the one short life we have – a freedom which was available to dozens of girls I knew but who squandered it on parties and clothes and pubs. Here was a girl who could go far and I had spared no effort to help her. I burned with anger at nature’s whimsical ways. Why allow a girl to get a glimpse of her true potential and then deny her, through curious twists of circumstance, a fair chance to have a go at it? All the more was the injustice in Sulekha’s case since she wouldn’t use even a fair chance when she held it in her hands, if she felt that it would hurt someone else’s, as it happened with her friend Kavita and the Rotary Club thing.

And I found it amazing that the strident women’s activist movements in the country had not been able to reach out to her – she could not have been ignorant of them since she was so well educated herself. For some reason that I could not fathom, she was holding herself back from this. But I felt that if I pushed too hard now she might stop seeing me altogether and I wouldn’t be able to help her out. That was why I guess I didn’t try to point her in into an activist direction – I might stir up something that might lead to my losing her.

Okay, I guess I ought to admit it by now – I had begun falling in love with Sulekha.

When we had met at first, I had felt like a kind of good Samaritan, helping her in her work. I felt a strange pleasure in doing her a good turn. What’s more, she had shown a truly sharp mind and we had many stimulating discussions while working together. For some weeks, I decided to let the thing ride at this intellectual kind of level.

I watched myself in wonder those first few months. There was something about her – some different quality that attracted me to her but still I didn’t try and push her into anything physical. Maybe that allowed the delicate web of emotions between us to spin and grow. I felt a strange new persona stirring within myself. My job at the Institute leaves me with plenty of free time when I’m done with my day at the Department. What with my involvement with the theatre, I have always moved with a pretty much happening crowd of Bangalore. Lots of partying and easy living – you know the scene. And yeah, I’ve known many girls, some quite intimately.

Then why, I wondered, was this happening to me with Sulekha? Tam-Bram girls weren’t my type, not by a long shot. Was it her innocent charm which was so unthinkingly natural? Or was it maybe her focussed devotion to her studies? Whatever reason was, I held back my natural instincts to get up close and physical. She had helped me discover a new side to myself and form a new kind of relationship that I didn’t want anything to spoil. We found child-like joy in the simplest of things when we were together. Sitting on a sun-swept lawn, watching for hours as little sparrows dove off the top of buildings again and again, just for fun. Dodging raindrops delightedly as we skipped from one building to another to the canteen on a wet monsoon twilight. Laughing at each other as we scalded our tongues at the small Chinese restaurant near the campus – the farthest that she was brave enough to venture with me, trembling with fear lest her mother find out. I found that I was slipping away from my friends who looked on at the transformation with bemused expressions.

And I enjoyed our long chats too. Her questions were stimulating -- not just about operations research but about life in general -- not just in Bangalore but in the US too. She drew me out on my experiences as a post-grad student at Columbia. She seemed to find my descriptions of New York as fascinating as I had found the city. Much to my surprise, I found myself preening in front of her. I talked to her about the places I had seen, my achievements in academics and in sports, of my involvement in theatre as an amateur actor. But what she never tired of was even the smallest detail about life in the Big Apple.

She had an interesting theory about Americans, which she threw at me one day.

“Don’t you think Americans are descended from people who have been forced to live life on the edge, Chats?” she asked. “Weren’t the early pioneers some of the bravest and most adventurous people the world has ever known? Isn’t that America’s greatest legacy and isn’t that what makes Americans so exciting?”

Now that was a thought. As I turned it over in my mind I saw that she was watching me carefully. Collecting my wits quickly, I gave a disdainful laugh before replying. I didn’t want her to think that I would consider Americans -- or anybody else for that matter -- to be the least bit superior to me. “I don’t think the Americans give a damn about who they descended from -- for them it’s the here and now that matters. That’s what makes them succeed and that’s what gives them the most grief. You’re only trying to measure them by yardsticks we Indian Brahmins use. It’s only those who are stuck in the past who bother about lineage and stuff. Half those pioneers you talk of were outlaws on the run, desperate for freedom.”

“But that’s exactly the point, Chats, don’t you see? Freedom -- the early Americans gave away everything they had for freedom. Imagine those brave pioneers,” she said with a faraway look, “crossing the Atlantic or the Pacific in small boats, fighting both nature and Red Indians to establish simple homesteads out in the middle of that wonderful, big land! That’s the genetic stock from which the Americans of today have come.” She focussed her radiant eyes on me and I was stunned by the intensity that burned there.

“And New York!” she went on, oblivious of the people around us. Her hands were clasped together and she seemed to be in a trance, her mind far away. “Biggest of the big dreams -- the greatest city in the world! You studied there for two whole years. How wonderful you must have felt those days!”

“Yeah, sure,” I said with a grin, “I got my dreams tapped out of my thick skull regularly by the very best muggers in the world those first few days, whenever I wandered around the city like a country yokel.” Sulekha stuck her tongue out to reproach me at my ham-handed attempt to bring her back to earth. Then she quickly ducked her pretty head to giggle in that infuriatingly girlish way she had which made me want, in one and the same moment, to swat her head with a heavy book and plant a kiss on her lips.

I wonder now if she knew the effect she was having on my soul. Did she know how she was twisting the heart of a hardened geezer like putty? Did she know then that the words that could have tied her to me for life were building into a flood but not getting past an inexplicable catch in my throat? When I think about all that happened later, I’m sure she did.

Her voice brought me out of my reverie. Like on other such occasions, she guided the conversation gently back to her favourite city and before long I was again holding forth on the rhythm of life in New York, drawing detailed descriptions of streets, buildings, shops and most importantly, the people. She would want to know names of everyone I met. She wanted to know about the clothes they wore, the things they did, the way they spoke -- everything. I wondered how she could be so interested in trivia about people she would probably never meet. It was almost as if she was building some kind of encyclopaedia on New York City in her head. I never could understand why she was so hung up on that one city.

But when I was in these expansive moods, she would gaze at me with such open admiration, stoking my vanity, that I would look into her enchanting brown eyes and know that I was lost.

That I was truly in love for the first time in my life.

I remember when I first met her parents at their home. It was one evening early into her second year. We had been sitting in my office, discussing an interesting algorithm in game theory. It was almost eight by the time we wound up. I offered to walk her home, though the campus is a pretty safe place. I wanted to meet her parents, get to know them.

Dr Ramakrishnan welcomed me into the house with a warm smile. “Sulekha has told us so much about you, Dr Trivedi. It’s so kind of you to spend so much time helping her out on her assignments.” He had the same charming simplicity as his daughter. The house was like dozens of others in the staff quarters, sparsely furnished, the walls bare except for the regulation calendar and an enlarged photograph of the family wearing sunny smiles. A large bookshelf standing by the wall had a couple of dozen technical tomes. On a table by the window, besides a laptop, a pile of papers waited to be corrected. Through a curtained doorway was the kitchen, where I could catch glimpses of Mrs Ramakrishnan flitting about.

Of course they had to ask me to stay for dinner, since it was almost time anyway. “Give a north Indian like you a taste of real south Indian food,” was the way Prof Ramakrishnan put it. I accepted readily. We talked of our respective fields and conversation flowed freely.

As we sat down to the simple meal, he announced the imminent arrival of a friend from the States. “Shankar teaches mathematics at Purdue,” he explained to me. “We were together at Princeton. He stayed back to settle down in the States while I came back after my doctorate.”

“When is he coming, appa?” asked Sulekha. “Is he going to stay with us?” An eager edge to her tone caught my ear. I also caught the sharp look her mother shot at her and felt Dr Ramakrishnan stir uneasily.

“He is coming for the Asian Mathematics Conference in September,” he said, glancing quickly at his wife. “I e-mailed him that he could stay with us. You know how much he misses home-made south Indian food, Janaki.”

“Is he bringing that American wife of his along?” she asked primly. “Because then he will be more comfortable in the guest house, I think.”

Before the old man could reply, Sulekha spoke up, “Oh, amma, please let them stay with us. I like Shankar-uncle so much, and it’s only for a few days.”

“Not with that American woman. He has no shame at all. That’s the trouble with people who go to the States -- no value for our customs. Here we are trying to find a nice good Iyengar boy for you and he had to find this time to come for a visit to Bangalore. It’s a shame that that American woman cannot at least learn how to cook food that her husband likes. There is no need for that woman to come here and fill Sulekha with wrong ideas. If she is also coming then they better stay in the guest house where she can eat non-vegetarian food to her heart’s content. Your Shankar-uncle can talk all he wants about his mathematics with your father in the office,” she said, finishing her speech with a dismissive wave of her hand towards her husband.

“We are simple God-fearing people, sir,” she said to me. The firm way she said ‘sir’ had the uncanny effect of putting me in my place -- outside this family’s tight little circle. “We have only one daughter. What more can we wish than that she should get married to a good Iyengar boy?”

Then the old lady drove right into me. “I believe you are from Allahabad, sir,” she said, for all the world as if making small talk with a dinner guest. “What caste do you belong to?”

“Me?” I said, realising that here was my chance to make a good impression, “Oh, I am a brahmin, of course,” putting on my most winning smile. “We come from brahmin stock of the highest order,” I added confidently, thinking that it ought to go down well.

“No, no, I mean what caste,” she said, giving the word meaning far beyond the boundaries of my knowledge. “We are also Brahmins, but not only that, we are Iyengars. Mandyam Iyengars”, she added quite unnecessarily, because she had got me kayoed long before that – and her smirk showed me that she knew it. I fumbled in my brain for the information to respond to this unforeseen technicality. It wasn’t there.

“Never mind. Have some more rasam, I ground the masala just today.” So saying, she put me in my place me as deftly as she had done with her husband.

The good professor changed the subject to the coming elections and Sulekha and I took it up with relieved enthusiasm. Mrs Ramakrishnan of course lost interest in the conversation for the rest of the meal. She had made it amply clear who cracked the whip when it came to the really important decisions.

A couple of months later, Shankar-uncle arrived, sans wife. So he was allowed to put up at the Ramakrishnans’.

Then the visitor sprang a surprise that threw everyone into a tizzy. Everyone that is, except Mrs Ramakrishnan. She regarded it as only the natural social duty of any elderly person. With one stroke, he gained absolution for all his past ‘misdeeds’ in her eyes.

Because this Shankar-uncle had brought with him a marriage proposal for Sulekha from a naturalised American Iyengar boy.

With a speed which still sends my brain reeling, the wedding was fixed for the next week since the ‘boy’ was already in Bangalore, having come to India on ten days’ leave with the express purpose of getting himself married to a nice, good-looking, accomplished, home-loving Iyengar girl. And of course there Sulekha was – charming, willing, obedient, soft-spoken Sulekha who wouldn’t do anything to cause her parents pain, who would make this stranger from ten thousand miles away the perfect wife -- why he’s after all an Iyengar and a US citizen, not just a green-card; his entire family is there -- Rochester, you know, just a hundred miles from New York; what more can a girl hope for?

No matter that her studies must be ditched abruptly, no matter that with exposure to big, bad America she would be in danger of losing the sense of values that Mrs Ramakrishnan had so assiduously built into her daughter all these years. The old lady’s double standards really knocked me out.

I fought hard. The dam inside my chest broke. I proposed to Sulekha a dozen times, placing my aching heart at her feet; pointing out to her that we were practically soul-mates; painting pictures of our professional future together. I pleaded passionately. I got rejected every time -- bitter and perplexed that the rejections came genuinely from her and not at the dictates of her mother.

Ten torment-filled days later, sweet Sulekha was married and gone.

It was a week later. A week during which I had gone on a wild devil-may-care drinking spree to drown my shattered dreams. The gang had kept out of my way after a bloody scrap near a bar that first night after she had left. I had kind of dried out by the following Sunday morning and was having a late breakfast by myself in the canteen.

It was Pradeep who gave me the news. Passing by the window he spotted me and walked in. “Have you heard the news?” he asked me. “Nah, how the fuck could you -- you’ve been dead drunk the whole week. That girl-friend of yours, the professor’s daughter, she’s missing.”

I felt my heart lurch. “What the hell are you talking about?” I said. “She got married and went to the bloody US, didn’t you know?”

“Hey, we know all about that, man. She’s been reported lost out there, buddy. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. It happened the day she landed in New York!”

I was up and running for the Ramakrishnans’ home in a flash. Terrifying thoughts rushed through my mind. Had there been an accident? Had there been some dreadful mix-up while changing planes for Rochester? Was she even now cowering in some dark hell-hole, alone in an alien metropolis, without a friend? My brain was whirling and a cold fear clutched at my heart.

When I burst in through the door, the old man looked up at me in a daze. Mrs Ramakrishnan came in from the kitchen, eyes swollen from weeping. When she saw me she broke out into a loud wail.

“Look! Look at him! The devil has come to taste the sweetness of his revenge on me! What did I do in my previous birth to deserve this fate? Oh, God, why are you punishing me like this!” she screamed.

I felt as if I had been blasted in the chest with a shotgun. Why was the old woman raving at me? It was she who had practically hustled Sulekha off to the US. What crime was I supposed to have committed?

I got real mad. “Will someone tell me what happened? I got to know just now and came running immediately. Don’t shout at me! What the hell has happened?”

“See, see,” she railed at her husband, “he says he doesn’t even know anything! It was he who was teaching her all these months. The whole world knows about it and he pretends ignorance! Shameless demon, have you no pity on us who gave all their lives to bring up our only daughter?”

The professor roused himself at last. “Woman,” he said, “shut your mouth.” The words carried a ring of authority which I had never seen him use on his wife before. Bereft for once of a fitting reply, Mrs Ramakrishnan subsided with a whimper.

The professor turned his grief-stricken eyes on me. “We have tried all possible means to find out where she is,” he said tremulously. “The boy’s family even used their contacts with the police discreetly. There has been no luck so far. They even checked with the hospitals and morgues.” Tears of shame and anger ran down his cheeks.

This beating about the bush was getting me angrier by the minute. “But what in hell happened in the first place, dammit! Why is she missing, anyway? Tell me the whole bloody story!”

Dr Ramakrishnan shook his head and spoke in such a small voice that I had to strain to catch the words. “She’s not missing. What else could we tell the neighbours? When they landed at JFK airport, she --” here he paused, looking shamefacedly at the floor. He started again. “My daughter and her husband had gone through customs and come out of the airport building. He was checking their luggage. They were to take a cab to go into the city. That was when she -- oh, how could she do this to us --” he groaned pitifully in his pain, “ -- she picked up her suitcase, turned to her husband and said goodbye. Some friend had been waiting for her. She got into his car and drove away. That was all, she just drove away.”

It all began to make sense to me. She had played me up all along, pumped me for information on every detail about life in New York – names of people, places, things, everything. And spurned my love with cold calculation. All that while she had been planning this break for freedom – the freedom she so admired Americans for – with an accomplice already lined up out there. Who was he? How had she met him? What did it matter anyway, I told myself, she has gone. But the questions wouldn’t stop. Had she ever loved me? Even a teeny little bit? And stifled the feeling within her heart because it was set on a great adventure? Maybe the teeniest bit against her will? It was bitter heartbreak for me.

Then, after a long time, the enormity of her act began to sink in. An image formed in my mind’s eye of how she must have walked off the plane – a demure, shy Indian bride, her head reeling at what she was about to do, her heart trying desperately to restore calm. Her legs quailing – her steps hesitant and forceful in turns, heading towards the great American dream, now flinching, half wanting to turn back towards familiar India. Was she a latter-day pioneer, risking all just as millions of immigrants to the United States had done over the last three centuries? Or was she a hard-hearted opportunist, to be condemned for caring nothing for the wounded feelings of all those who had brought her so far? What circumstances had driven her to throw, mercilessly by the roadside, a stunned and innocent husband and the institution of matrimony that Indians hold so sacred? Who was to say – the bird had flown the coop.

Then, despite my bitterness, I began to feel happy. Happy for her, having found her freedom at last; that she hadn’t met with some gory accident or worse. It was insane. I couldn’t help it -- I still don’t know why I felt so happy at the time -- I, who had lost forever the first girl I had ever truly loved. I, whose heartrending proposals for marriage had been flung aside a dozen times in ten days. My mouth began to twist into a sad-happy-relieved-wistful smile -- and the poor souls in the room didn’t know what to make of me.

All they could do was to stare at me in horror.

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