A Night to Remember

At a Reception at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), the Hague, Netherlands

Looking back to a time, over 50 years ago. On a Dutch government fellowship, I did a graduation program in the Netherlands’s well-known Institute of Social Studies (ISS) at the Hague in 1968. Some years later, as one of the alumni with a record of distinction, I was invited from India as a delegate, to personally present a paper and attend the seminar/conference, Development Planning in Emerging Countries. The travel plan was that I would fly to Amsterdam by KLM Airlines. One of the representatives from the ISS was going to pick me up at Amsterdam airport and take me to a designated hotel. 

However the plan went haywire due to a long flight delay. When I landed, there was no one to meet me, and I was left to fend for myself at an odd hour of the night. It was biting cold outside, besides raining quite heavily. My other companion delegate from lndia, coincidentally also from Delhi, left with a Dutch friend of his for the night, leaving me in the lurch – tired and clueless.

I located a public call booth to call the institute but failed to connect. Thoroughly nervous and helpless by now, as a last resort, I requested help from a young Dutchman. I had noticed that he was also trying to make a phone call from the phone booth. He tried to connect me to the ISS but also got no response. It was well past midnight by then.

Hearing the story of my misadventure, this kind-hearted soul, whose name I learned was John, assured me all necessary help and asked me politely, “I am guessing you are from India?” “Yes, indeed,” I said, “I am originally from Calcutta but now I live in Delhi.” Eager to clear any doubts about my credentials, I also added, “I am an officer of the Government of India.” “Alright then,” said John, “you will be my guest for the night!” 

Feeling tremendously relieved, I graciously accepted his kind offer. On reaching his home, I met his young wife Mary, a school teacher, soft-spoken, warm and hospitable. That she was cultured and well educated was immediately obvious. She offered me hot coffee and a sandwich, much needed by then. 

During our conversation, she learned that I was a Bengali. But I was pleasantly taken aback when she said that she has read the poetry and other writings of Nobel Laureate Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, had heard about the freedom fighter Subhas Bose, and had watched the acclaimed filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s “Pather Panchali” and “Teen Kanya!” Not only was I impressed, I felt an instant cultural bond with this Dutch couple. 

But two more surprises were waiting for me. John mentioned that he had  a number of Indian friends, including a Bengali woman named Sumita, and that he was an alumnus of ISS himself. 

What are the chances that this stranger, who kindly helped me in the middle of the night, so far away from home, would have these unforeseen connections with me? My earlier anxiety at my predicament had turned into delight by now, and I went to sleep happy.

After a sumptuous breakfast the next morning, John drove me all the way to the Hague, to our common alma mater.

The memory of that night has not faded over the decades, it is still bright and fresh. Permanently etched in my mind is this beautiful act of compassion I was fortunate to receive from two complete strangers. I shall never forget you, Mary and John!