A stint at a youth hostel in New York City led to a memorable chance encounter
I met J.D. Salinger one June afternoon in 1989. It wasn’t for more than a few minutes, and I didn’t get to speak a word, but when I woke up that morning in a youth hostel on the Upper West Side in New York, I hadn’t the slightest inkling I would be in his presence just a few hours later.
The way the whole thing happened was more sudden than strange — it involved a German student named Greta, a Vedantin scholar who happened to be an exchange student like me in New York City. She was lodging at the rather rowdy and chaotic youth hostel on the Upper West side that I happened to be volunteering at, mostly working at the front desk, checking in backpackers and telling them how to get around the city. On the days she didn’t have classes, Greta would come and lounge around on the faded sofas at the reception, smoking one Camel cigarette after another. Those were the days when you could smoke indoors. As she puffed away, I noticed she was always reading a little book and taking notes.
One morning, after her smoking and reading ritual, she asked me if I would like to come with her to the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Centre in New York City. I hadn’t been there myself but I knew it was on the Upper East Side. She had to meet someone, she added, to return the little book. We took the cross-town bus and walked up at least seven more blocks on the East Side. Half an hour later we stopped in front of an elegant old brownstone, and waited.
As we lingered outside the building, Greta took the little book out of her handbag, and explained that it was a German text on The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, very precious because it was completely out of print with very few known copies in circulation. Referencing the book had been very helpful in writing her paper and now she was returning it to the kind gentleman who had generously loaned it to her. “He’s a famous writer, you know,” she said fishing out a paperback copy of Franny and Zooey from her handbag and thrusting it at me. I was idly watching the traffic on the street, not really taking her seriously and murmuring distractedly that she must be kidding. I remember the shock I felt, like a deepening chill, when she said she wasn’t joking.
Even before I could ask her to elaborate, I saw Greta greeting a tall man bounding out of the brownstone. Lanky, slightly greying, a little hunched, and holding an umbrella in his left hand, he nodded and walked quickly towards us. The long, angular, handsome face with those dark, gentle, searching eyes so familiar from the photograph on the back jacket of The Catcher in the Rye seemed to leap out at me. He nodded a hello. Greta smiled back and handed him the book. And promptly forgot to introduce me. I had by now become tongue-tied. (I feared if I opened my mouth I would — as have countless devotees who follow his work — ask something impossible of him, like signing the copy of Franny and Zooey that I was now clutching in my hands.)
Greta asked him if he would like to join us for a quick snack at a small South Indian restaurant downtown. He declined politely, said he had to be going and then hastily scribbled on a piece of paper the name of a South Indian dish that he had once been fond of. He then handed the piece of paper to me rather than Greta, perhaps recognising that I may be Indian, and walked away with a quick, affectionate wave.
After Greta left the hostel, I too didn’t have much time left in the city, as the exchange programme now involved traveling around the country for a wider cultural experience that was not strictly urban. It was the 1980s, before e-mail, and though I took down Greta’s address, I never did keep in touch with her. And to my eternal regret, after holding on to it for dear life, I somehow ended up losing that piece of paper, though I’ve never forgotten the two words scribbled on it in that unmistakable, angular handwriting: Rasam Vada.