Calling cards. Plastic, pocket-sized cards — the brand he always looked for back then was called Mother India. Yellow, red and white, with a little map of the home country outlined in one corner. If you paid cash you could get a card worth $5 for four bucks. You scratched the little black strip on the back to reveal a pin number that you entered when the automated voice told you to. At 7 cents a minute it was way cheaper than what the regular phone services offered. “Calling card,” he said softly, under his breath. He’d been reflecting just the other night, about how he didn’t really have a calling. It was a thought that had never surfaced before, but he’d attended a talk that evening by a man about the same age as him, a man in his mid-thirties who’d spent the last ten years working in a middle-of-nowhere village of South India. He’d built a school in the village and started an organic farm, and founded a very successful village-version of Alcoholics Anonymous, while his wife led a remarkably effective women’s group. They’d stopped three child marriages and had come very close to locally eradicating the dowry system (a system technically illegal, but still in practice.)
The man speaking was handsome in a way that Indian men seldom are, he was also articulate and inspiring to the point of being quite irritating. He wore a white khadi kurta with blue jeans and Bata slippers. An outfit that somehow lent him an air of offhand nobility. His wife was equally articulate, and had a quiet gravity about her just as compelling as her husband’s animated warmth. When she smiled she lit up the room. He had never seen that happen before, had always thought the phrase was a bit of a tired cliche — until that moment when someone had asked a question about boredom. “Don’t you sometimes get bored stuck out there with a bunch of rustics in the middle of nowhere?” Such an obnoxious question, he had expected the couple to get huffy and indignant. But instead the man had laughed boyishly, and at the same moment, the seriousness on the wife’s face had slipped, and there was her smile, revealed like moonburst on a dark night, and it had taken his breath away.
He thought moodily about that quality of radiance he’d witnessed in the two of them. There was nothing at this particular moment that seemed the least bit radiant about his own existence and he was often bored. True, he was successful but in an unspectacular way. He had reasonable self-esteem, and no definite calling. He wished suddenly, and with a fervency that surprised him, that there were calling cards that actually lived up to their name –cards with lines you could dial that would be answered by a friendly anonymous stranger who would tell you in a matter of minutes what your calling is. He had no faith in the battery of personality tests and the expensive career counseling sessions that were on the market. But a calling card — now that was something he would try out if such existed. $5 for the answer to one of the most persistent riddles of humanity — “Why Am I Here?” — it seemed like there would be a sizable market for something like that.