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A blast from the past can bring people together

Published : Mar 6, 2020, 2:53 am IST
Updated : Mar 6, 2020, 2:53 am IST

It later transpired that he had attended the same school though in a different section of the same class.

(Photo: Facebook screengrab, Representational)
 (Photo: Facebook screengrab, Representational)

Truth, it is said, is stranger than fiction. I had a surreal experience when a school classmate of my wife dropped in along with her husband to see us about a year ago. My wife and she had been classmates back in their secondary school in Kerala and had kept in touch intermittently. She knew they had migrated to the United States and had two boys both settled there. Now they were back scouting for a senior citizen’s home in India to stay in for a part of the year, before making the obligatory annual trip to the US. As part of their search they were also visiting Delhi though they had selected a facility in Coimbatore and did in fact, settle there. My wife was excited to meet her friend after all these years and had even attended their marriage. As they came up the stairs to our place, we had kept our front door open, the husband apparently remarked to his wife that he had heard my voice before. When they came in to the house, the husband looked at me very curiously after the preliminary introductions. Finally, he could bear it no longer and suddenly asked me if had ever attended school in Kolkata (then Calcutta). This caught me completely by surprise for I had indeed been in an Anglo-Indian school in Kolkata for the primary and middle-school classes before joining a boarding school in the Nilgiri hills. But this was all a very long time ago and almost 60 years had passed, I had been in that school in the mid-1950s to the early 1960s, but how could he possibly know that?

It later transpired that he had attended the same school though in a different section of the same class.

We got into animated conversation about a few friends and teachers, he even teased me about a girl I was supposed to be sweet on, in class 4! I remembered him too and he had stayed on in that school till class 10. Later on, my wife and I marvelled at the odds of this strange, coincidental meeting after all these years. We both concluded hat it was not my voice that had been the giveaway, for my voice would surely have deepened and changed drastically, but my name must have stuck in his memory.

A similar bizaare coincidence befell the writer Simon Winchester. Winchester is the author of some 20 acclaimed books and I had written an extensive review of his The Meaning of Everything —the History of the Oxford English Dictionary. My friend Anand Padmanabhan of HarperCollins Publishers had shown me the cover of Winchester’s latest book Exactly – How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World while we were at the Kerala Lit Fest in Kozhikode recently.

The late Dileep Padgaonkar, one of the most widely read persons I have known, and who had seen my review of Winchester’s book had referred me to Winchester’s The Man Who Loved China. I found Winchester’s account of Joseph Needham, the Cambridge scientist’s reseach work on China particularly in the years of the Middle Kingdom, fascinating. Needham’s pioneering research into science and invention in Chima, would venetually be publsihed by Cambridge University Press under the title Science and Civilization in China. The first volume was published in 1954 and had grown to 18 volumes by the time Needham died in 1995 and the work soon reached 24 volumes with more volumes being added every few years. It was encyclopeadic in scope and a tribute to the power of human understanding.

While researching for his book on Needham, Winchester hit upon a technique of asking people whom he met whether any of them had ever heard of Joseph Needham and if so, what did they know of him? In some way, Winchester though this would indicate the magnitude of the task that lay before him and he was right for Needham’s name only elicited blank stares.

It so happened that while in Washington DC, just before Christmas, Winchester and his wife decided to order Chinese food from a takeaway. They ordered food from Mr Chen’s Organic Chinese Restaurant and the lady who took down their order said the food would be delivered in 40 minutes. Sure enough, the food was delivered by a Chinese deliveryman, who stood by while the food was unloaded, for his payment and hopefully, a tip. The bill had come to about forty dollars and to their great consternation and embarrassment, Winchester and his wife realised they did not have enough money in the house to pay the man. While walking to the ATM with the man, Winchester spoke a few words in Chinese and then mentioned that he was writing a book on Joseph Needham. The man seemed uninterested. For some reason, Winchester decided to mention Needham’s Chinese name Li Yue-se. Suddenly, the man’s eyes lit up. “Li Yue-se? He is surely the most famous good Englishman to live in China and you are writing a whole book about him?” Visibly excited, Winchester turned back to the flat and began to show the Chinese man pictures, letters from Needham etc. It was only at his wife’s intervention that Winchester realised that he had not yet paid the man, and now they walked to the ATM, and the man was paid and Winchester added a generous tip for he had found one man at least who knew Joseph Needham!

But the story did not end there. The deliveryman, now a friend, walked back to Winchester’s flat to pick up his car. On the way, he disclosed that he had worked at the Standard Chartered Bank in  Shanghai. The bank was always known as Macaulay’s Bank or Macallee Bank in Chinese. When he mentioned the year in which he worked in the computer department in the bank, both men suddenly realised that they knew each other. The man tentatively called Winchester “Simon” and Winchester whispered “Gordon?” The man was indeed Gordon or Cui Guo-hong and Winchester had even made a film on him contrasting his life with a more prosperous banker in Hong Kong. A relationship had developed between Winchester and Gordon and in the following year, Winchester had even sponsored him for a PhD in the US.

Two decades had now passed and Simon learned that after his PhD, Gordon had moved to Canada which had encouraged Chinese to work on computer applications. Later, he moved back to the US to work in a computer company in Maryland and all that came to a halt when the events of 9/11 happened. Gordon was dismissed and had to take on a consulting job. He and his wife had decided to return to Shanghai to help in China’s scientific and technological development. He was now well qualified and knew English but needed some more money. Hence, after his consulting job, he waited outside Mr Chen’s Organic Chinese Restaurant for delivery orders. The money he made from the tips would add to his income.

It was the chance mention of Needham that brought Winchester and Gordon together again after 20 odd years and Winchester always felt it was a happy augury for his book. He also does not mention whether the takeaway meal of Kung Pao Chicken and Imperial Purple Rice was ever consumed!

The writer is a senior publishing industry professional who has worked with OUP and is now a senior consultant with Ratna Sagar Books

Tags: simon winchester