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The Thief Who Spoke French

Manish Nandy |

Our foreign service posting was in India and the US Embassy found for us a large three-story house in central New Delhi. We loved the house and accepted it happily as our home. We were told to be watchful, however, because the Iraqi Embassy was our nextdoor neighbor. Our security guards in particular were asked to be especially vigilant.

As I sat drinking a Sidecar and doing a Sudoku one evening, the senior guard came to tell me that a thief had breached the perimeter and was apprehended. When the other guards brought the thief forward, I was surprised to find him singularly well-dressed. He had a cashmere jacket on his arm.

I asked him in an Indian language what he was doing in my house. He replied that he was sorry he did not speak Indian languages, but would be glad to respond in English or French.

An Indian thief, in an expensive suit, who did not speak Indian languages, but was ready to converse in French! It needed some exploration. To the chagrin of the guards, I asked the man to come in to the living room and offered him a drink. I alerted him that I had been told that he was an intruder, probably a thief.

The man came and sat down and thanked me for my hospitality. He then identified himself as Jacques Durand, a Frenchman. He explained that, since he lived in an English speaking country, the United States, he usually gave out his name as Jack Durand.

“I had lived in this house earlier, as the World Bank representative in India, for a number of years,” he said.
Presently he was returning from an official mission in Tokyo. On arrival of his flight in New Delhi, he found that his connecting flight to Washington had been delayed by several hours.

“I could just sit in the airlines facility at the airport for some hours and have a few drinks. Then I thought it would be more interesting to take a look at the city and visit my earlier home. This house has many pleasant associations for me. My only child was born in this house and learned to walk here.”

He took a taxi from the Delhi airport, drove around the Jorbagh area he knew so well and finally left the taxi to have a glimpse of his earlier home.

The moment he crossed the gate, he was apprehended, and all his explanations fell on deaf ears. The guards simply did not understand or trust his nostalgia for the house. I offered Jack another drink, then took him on a tour of the house. An hour later I called a taxi to take him back to the Delhi airport.

I thought that was the end of the story. I was wrong.

A year later, by sheer coincidence, I joined the World Bank in Washington. In short order, I met Jack Durand again. Jack became my closest colleague and friend. I warned him that, if he came to rob my home again, I will not offer him a drink and certainly report him to the police.

The writer is a Washington-based international development advisor and had worked with the World Bank. He can be reached at [email protected]