On one occasion I was in Bangalore, the high-tech capital in the south, and my hosts had taken me to dinner – always the high spot of the day – to a large semi-outdoor restaurant. We sat down and ordered. I noticed a western couple with a young girl in tow come into the place and sit down some tables distant from where we were. The girl was very pretty with a shock of red curls covering her head. I thought no more about the family, giving my entire attention to the food, when suddenly I was aware that the child was standing at my elbow. “I’m seven”, she announced, “My name’s Mary! What’s yours?” This in a Northern-Irish accent that you could cut with a knife.
Recovering quickly from the culture-shock, I proceeded to converse with Mary on and off for the duration of the meal, for the most part ignoring my hosts. I remember none of the things we discussed that evening, but she was most entertaining, and had a personality and level of confidence a good decade and a half in advance of her age. Her parents seemed entirely unconcerned that their young daughter spent most of the time there talking to a complete stranger. I went over afterwards and congratulated them on their offspring; as I recall they regarded her behaviour as perfectly normal. No doubt it was not the first time that she had interrogated strangers in restaurants.
I often wonder what happened to Mary with her devastating personality and charm; I’m not even sure that that was her name, my memory is hazy. She would be in her late twenties or early thirties now and I’ll bet stunning looking and a high achiever. I doubt she remembers that dinner in Bangalore but I do, and the extraordinary experience of being a world-weary businessman enjoying a mature and intelligent conversation with a fiery-headed seven-year-old from Ulster, under the tropical skies of South India.