IT IS NOW SOME TIME THAT YOU HAVE BEEN READING MY STORIES. THANKS A LOT. I HOPE YOU ARE LIKING THEM. WISH SOME OF YOU LEFT YOUR COMMENTS. THAT HELPS.
WISHING YOU ALL THE BEST IN 2009 (AND PRAY I GET A PUBLISHER!!!)
Author's Note: I served as IMF Treasury Advisor in Georgia in 1994-96. It was the time when the soviet economy had crashed and was replaced by the philosophy of open market economy enunciated by the Western Bloc. The conditions in Georgia were pathetic, its people going through tough time. It was a heart rending experience to see surgeons, scientists, professors and Olympians working as drivers, cooks and maids. The transition was malevolent if not cruel.
This story is dedicated to the loving people of Georgia.
It was the month of November of the year 1994. Winter had set in and power and gas supply in Tbilisi was conspicuously absent. It was the same story last year since Turkmenistan, one time ally and a sister State had refused to supply gas to Georgia because she could not pay for it at international - open market rates. New economic philosophy with emphasis on commercial considerations had overtaken friendly ties of several decades. The common man felt miserable and lamented, “Is this the price of freedom? What freedom is this where life is reduced to drudgery and a burden? Weren’t we better off in earlier system?”
There were no jobs. Most of the factories were shut down. There was no gas for the factories and there was no money with the government to pay to labour, doctors, engineers and teachers. The government was being compelled to privatise utility companies, health centers, medical and engineering colleges. There were no takers.
Dr. Anna Salaridze was a lecturer in the Center for Linguistic Research in Tbilisi a couple of years ago. For every Georgian writer it was an honour to be a member of the Institute. In fact, every Georgian writer of repute was on its roll. The Institute was proud of having published several volumes on genealogy of the Caucasian languages. Anna’s paper was greatly appreciated in the Conference of Soviet Writers’ Union held a few years ago in Kiev. She had felt good. Her father, a renowned painter was proud of her and accompanied her to the Conference after selling his car. He felt the price paid was worth it since after the award ceremony, his family was accepted in the elitist circles of Georgia.
Then came the ideological, political and economic emancipation aided and abetted by the West. Anna’s institute, which survived on government grant, was in the first list to be axed. The unabated inflation in the country had reduced the Rouble to a piece of paper. It was only a matter of time that many of the lecturers got the sack. Anna’s family had to depend on the salary of her mother who worked in the government bakery. In fact, the sword of Damocles hung over her job also since the government had been asked to privatise the bakery.
In earlier days, Anna’s father had never bothered about household matters. That was left to his wife and Anna. He used to spend most of his time in his studio and with his friends. Long discussions, lengthy dinners with liberal supply of Georgian wines was the way of life. All that had changed.
Like every other artist, Salaridze had no money and was going through the bad patch. Most of the Georgians known to have a penchant for the fine arts were going through abject penury, which was evident from the household paintings, carpets, crockery, cutlery and show-pieces placed for distress sale in the flea markets.
Salaridze, lamented over the trivial inadequacies he was subjected to and cursed everyone until his last breadth, which came suddenly. He was run over by an army truck; both his legs had been crushed.
“I always thought there was a lot to do in life. As an artist I was ambitious and I had lot many dreams, which I wanted to paint on canvas. I know my hands are OK and I can hold a brush but in the present conditions of our country, I wish to go,” he had told Anna a day before his death.
Professors, engineers and doctors were working as drivers with the international agencies and women intellectuals were engaged as maids in the houses of diplomats. It hurt their pride but there was no alternative. Anna had accepted a maid’s job in the house of a German family who was quite impressed with her work and punctuality. They never thought of asking her about her academic background.
Yes, it was a cold November evening of the year 1994. Anna was waiting at Saburtalo Metro. She had come to buy poultry and grocery items for her employer. That was one of her duties. It meant carrying back two big bags from the market to the Metro, hurling herself into a compartment and then carrying it to the seventh floor apartment in the Rustaveli Street where she worked. The job did not tire her as much as it hurt her.
She had been waiting at the Metro station for over an hour. Metro services in the town were quite unpredictable due to power failures. Suddenly there was commotion on the platform, which was a sign that the train was coming. Anna struggled with the bags, preparing to enter the train when some one, came to her.
“Can I help you?”
That was strange and Anna noticed that the person was not a Georgian, perhaps an Asian. She wanted to ignore the offer but the man with an unassuming look, took the two bags and they entered the train.
She looked at him. Yes, he surely was an Asian. His dark complexion, black eyes and his features confirmed that. But that didn’t matter.
“Thank You,” She said feebly not looking exactly at him.
“Arapris” He replied with a friendly smile.
That surprised her a little. “For how long are you living in Georgia?”
“What are you doing here?”
“Well, I am a research scholar. Learnt Georgian for two years and now I am working on the phonetic evolution of the dialects of nomadic tribes of western India. You know it is very interesting,” he said and then suddenly stopped, giving her a second look.
Perhaps she was a common housewife and the subject may not be of any interest to her, he thought.
“That is surely very interesting. Georgia will give you enough evidence of Euro-Asian transitory culture. You must have noticed the similarity in the musical notes in the folklore of Georgia and those of the nomadic tribes of India. The closeness is simply amazing....” Anna spoke unmindful of her status and then she too stopped suddenly.
Both were quiet, looking at each other. The stranger was surprised.
“Well, I agree with you.” He said and then paused and looking at her bags he added, “I presume you are interested in linguistics.”
Anna kept quiet. The stranger continued, “My name is Suman Das. I am from India and I am staying in Ossati Street.”
Suddenly the train stopped with a violent jerk, throwing the passengers off balance. It was pitch dark, the power supply had failed, which was not unusual. Anna collected herself and stretched her hands to feel for the bags.
“Please wait until your eyes get adjusted and don’t worry for your bags. I am holding them,” her newly found companion assured.
“Thank you,” She said.
Georgians are heavy smokers. Soon there were cigarette lighters glowing in the compartments. Luckily, the front end of the train had reached the Rustaveli station. People started surging through the compartments, brushing each other.
“Let me help you,” he said lifting the bags without waiting for her response.
As they came out of the station, Anna said, “I am sorry. It has been a bad day for you.”
“Not at all, on the contrary I am happy; I met a person of common interest.”
Anna said nothing. They walked silently up to her apartment. Anna felt as if her wounds had been opened.
As Suman was about to leave, Anna said, “I am Anna, Anna Salaridze. Didi madloba, very sweet of you.”
“Arapris,” he said smilingly.”
“I am sorry I cannot ask you to come in. I am a house-maid here,” she managed to say but failed to check the tears rolling down. Suman knew the conditions prevailing in Georgia.
“Please don’t bother. Perhaps we can meet at my place. I live in 10, Ossati Street. Easy to remember, no?” He tried to humour her.
“Na Khawamdees,” Anna whispered as she saw him walking down the lane. Then she suddenly recollected. 10, Ossati Street was the house of her friend, Natia.
Anna reached home after finishing her work. She was badly shaken. It was her academic interest that had cost her marriage. Her husband could not bear her digging in to books, refusing to accompany him to parties and not joining his friends in drinking sprees, a typical Georgian trait. The marriage did not last long. Her dedication to the research work and her marriage could not co-exist, it ended in two years.
She never regretted the decision. The reward came when she was nominated to the Union of Soviet Writers. It was a landmark achievement but the dissolution of Soviet Union had disrupted her life and her ambition.
Anna did not talk to her mother and went straight to her study. There lay the old volumes, now covered with dust. She took out some of her research papers and started looking through them. She remembered that she had done some work on the subject the Indian talked about. Anna told her mother not to disturb her. The ageing mother knew Anna’s ailment, she knew Anna’s mind and soul were hungry.
Anna was looking through the papers and making notes. A little later when her mother brought her dinner, she looked up and stray thoughts crossed her mind.
“Why should I bother myself? It was nothing out of sort that he had done. In any case, I didn’t ask for help. Why should I wreck my brain for him? Let him do his work … he can not share my destiny.”
Yet she kept on working till dawn, making notes for the person she did not know. When the clock struck five, she could not believe it and she still wanted to continue. She was tired but there was an unmistakable glow on her face.
Next day she rang up Natia and asked if she had taken an Indian as a paying guest.
“Yes. Anna, you know the conditions as they are. But how do you know? Where did you meet him?” Natia asked with some apprehension.
“I met him yesterday at the Sabartalo Metro. His subject of research is one that I was working some years ago.”
“Oh! I see. Too much of coincidence,” Natia said in an icy tone. Anna ignored it and continued, “May be, I will come over in the evening to give him some of my reference papers.” And then she added, “Please don’t tell him anything about it.”
Natia, once a rich woman was not happy at the prospects of the meeting. Anna was not the best of her friends. For one thing, Anna was a bright and popular student and she was beautiful. She was tall with remarkable agility and an appeal; no one could miss even at the first sight.
But that was several years ago. How many? Anna and for that matter Natia didn’t remember. Now they were too occupied to think of matters like personal beauty.
Anna worked as housemaid for three days and on other two days, she taught piano in a private school. Life had become like an old spinning wheel. Whining, creaking, shaking but moving nonetheless. Sometimes, she entered her favourite bookshop, gazing at the new publications and magazines, which she could not buy in her present position.
Knitting was her past time. After the day’s work when she entered her room, she would sit in her rocking chair, take the needles and look vacantly through the shelf of books, which once took all her time. Her hands knitted and her mind wandered restlessly.
As Anna walked to Natia’s place in the evening, she felt as if she were once again the good old research scholar. A whiff of air blew her hair and she remembered her days in the college. A smile appeared on her lips.
Even before she could knock at the door, Natia opened it and took her to the living room. “Mr. Das will come here. I have told him that a friend of mine was coming to see him,” she said and then added, “You know, you have to be very careful with the foreigners.”
“Yes, I know,” Anna said briefly.
Suman Das entered the room holding a magazine in his hand, not anticipating that it would be Anna sitting with Natia. It was a pleasant surprise.
“Good evening… Gamarjuba...Gamarjuba…” He was fumbling with words to wish her when Anna said, “Gamarjuba! Mr. Das.”
“Gamarjuba....Gamarjuba! He repeated, still unable to contain his excitement.
Anna came to the point, as was her wont.
“I was doing research on the subject close to one you were talking yesterday. You see the conditions in our country have changed and I have abandoned the project.”
“I am sorry.”
“It is OK. We have compromised with the conditions.” Then trying to control her self she added, “I have these papers by two noted anthropologists and these are some of my notes. May be you may find them of some use,” she said handing over the bundle of papers to Suman.
“Thank you very much. What luck it was to meet you Miss Salaridze. I have no words to express my gratitude. If carrying bags for a few steps can bring such an invaluable treasure, I can not but thank my stars.” And then with his inimitable smile he added, “I am going to be at the Metro every evening.”
“Thanks if you really value them. They are of no use to me. I thought, perhaps you may like to go through them.”
Suman while glancing through the papers noticed that the notes looked very fresh. He could not resist asking her, “It seems you have been working through out the night.”
Anna did not reply. She noticed Natia’s contracting eyes and got up to leave. “It is getting dark, I must leave,” she said to Natia and then looking at Suman she added, “Mr. Das I wish you good luck.”
“Let me come up to the bus stand,” Suman told her.
“Oh! Please don’t bother. It is quite cold outside. Moreover, we prefer to walk these days,” Anna said with a wry smile.
“I must come some distance, nonetheless,” Suman insisted following Anna.
As they walked down the street, Suman asked her, “Is it possible to meet you and discuss some of these papers?”
“Mr. Das, I wish I could help you more than this. I work five days a week and I have several other responsibilities at home. Really, I would have loved to help you but... ” Her voice trailed off.
Suman was not put off. “I can not insist but if you can spare some time on Sunday mornings. I could come to your place and discuss your work ...if you will allow me.” And then he added, “I will cook Indian food for you while you talk,” unarming her with his typical smile.
“Well if you insist.”
“Yes, I do.”
They met on Sundays and after couple of meetings on Saturdays and then nearly every day. It was now only six months for Suman to make a dissertation before the Academic Council of the State University of Georgia. There was still a lot to do.
“Suman, I suggest you shift to my place. There is a lot to do and you lose so much time, going up and down. Moreover, we can work until late in the night. You can use my father’s room,” Anna told Suman one day.
Suman was in a dilemma. He had already paid Natia for the rest of his stay. His scholarship was barely enough to survive. Anna read his mind.
“You don’t have to pay me anything. I shall explain it to Natia. It is necessary that you complete your work in time,” She said in an assertive tone.
Suman thereafter was a busy man. At daytime he worked in the University, making notes and discussed them with Anna in the evening. Anna worked with him every evening. For her it was a return of her academic days. Knowledge was her passion and in Suman, she had found a dedicated and intelligent student. The work was getting in to shape.
Anna’s mother was relieved to see animated Anna but dreaded the day when Suman would leave.
It was the last week of Suman’s stay in Tbilisi. He was enjoying the luxury of a beer as his mind raced through his stay in the country. He had come to love the town. “I would miss this city and the people,” he often thought.
He had observed Anna closely all these days, working with him relentlessly. At times, he could smell her and feel his blood rushing at the touch of her body.
Her silky, flowing blonde hair and her big blue eyes swayed Suman to height of passion but he knew she was an enigma, a cold ocean he could not fathom. They would look at each other on those occasions and then resume the work.
“What was in it for Anna? How could I ever repay her? Were words adequate to thank her? Was it destiny that he met her?” Suman pondered as he sipped his beer. He had no answer for any of the questions.
“I wish I could come back again with leisure,” he said adjusting his papers.
Anna had reverted to her knitting. She did not respond. Suman was sad and pensive. He wanted her to speak to him, talk something, like a woman to a man.
“I have ironed your shirt and the suit and there is a matching tie. You should go properly dressed before the Academic Council. These things matter,” she said after a while.
“Anna, some coffee for you?”
“No. We are not going to work any more and you must look fresh tomorrow. You better go to bed.”
“Aren’t you going to sleep?”
“No,” she said without raising her head from the knitting.
Suman could bear no more.
“Anna couldn’t you behave like an ordinary person? Like a woman, at least once, for these few moments,” he spoke holding her hands.
She didn’t reply.
“Tell me, after a couple of days when I go away, how will you keep yourself occupied? You have been working so much for me, for what? What did you get in this?”
Tears rolled down her cheeks and fell on his hands. She broke down, the armour had come off. The emotions choked for years had inundated the hard exterior.
With her voice shaking, she said, “Suman, I too have a heart. I too had the weak moments.... but every time the thought that your work came first, never left me. For me it was the most important thing, rather the only important thing. Tomorrow, when you present your thesis before the Academic Council, can you imagine my happiness?
Suman looked at her, dumbfounded.
Pausing for a few moments, she continued, “For a scholar, pursuit of knowledge becomes an obsession leaving no time for other matters. Working with you gave me a new life… for me it was like resurrection.”
Suman’s heart wept for her as he looked at her lankyl trembling frame.
Controlling herself, she added, “I was alive all these days but ...death stalks me, waiting for you to leave.... I should instead thank you...” And then resting her head against his chest, she broke down.
Suman lifted her face slowly, waved aside her flowing blonde hair and kissed her.
“Annino, you have an indomitable quest for knowledge that even death can not overtake,” he whispered.
PS: May I request all my readers to spread my blog reference amongst all their friends.
I had come to Kasauli on an official duty and was staying in the Government Tourist Home. Surrounded with pine trees, beautiful flowers all around, and with lush green lawn in front of it; the ambience was simply fascinating. A rare display of nature's gift blended with human efforts. Coming out of dusty crowded streets of Delhi and its smoggy skies, the location of the guest house was very soothing to my fatigued nerves and tired soul.
Next day, after the official engagements, I hurried back to the guest house and asked the attendant to take out a chair and a table for me to sit in the lawn. I wanted to enjoy the scenario, which was dancing in my mind even during the meeting. I declined all offers to be taken around the town, preferring to sit in front of the guest house and relish some beer.
It was warm comfortable sunny day with cool breeze. I was enjoying the music on a portable radio cassette player that I normally carried during the tours. I was reading a book and I was enjoying the cold beer. In fact I was enjoying every moment of life in that sylvan surrounding. It was like romancing with my self. It seemed as if the heavens of mythological world had descended there.
The attendant and his wife were there, providing me the creature comforts. I asked them to prepare some good dinner. His wife suggested a local preparation of trot fish. I agreed.
Later in the evening, I came out for a walk up to the town market. The market was very small with only few shops. I couldn't find any gift for my wife and for my sons.
I picked up my evening quota of drinks and was back to my dreamy surrounding. It was already dark and cold. On my return I saw the room done neatly and beautiful flowers in a vase adoring the centre table. It was a few words that I had spoken in the afternoon of my love for flowers that the couple had reciprocated with such a fine gesture. The wall bukhari was on, making the room warm and pleasant.
In few minutes, the chowikidar's wife came in with a tray of tea and hot pakoras. What an ideal snack in the cold weather! And I thought of the consideration that these simple souls had for unknown guests.
Were they equally nice to every visitor to the guest house? I thought it must be so. After all I had returned their courtesies in no way other than a few pleasing words, typical of urbanized culture. But I was quizzed. Shouldn't I reciprocate in some way? A small tip of few rupees was of too little value and I felt myself belittled.
I was enjoying the fish curry, the drinks and the music. This time I was listening to the local radio station broadcasting some folk songs. Being from hills my self, I love flute and hill folk songs. It might have been a mere coincidence that the songs being played were of my liking.
Then I thought; what does one seek from life? Was there anything better than this? The comfort of heaven must have been conjured out of such moments. Benevolence, love, affection, food for body and enthralling music. No ill will and being in love with every thing around; that is my concept of heaven wherever it may be. For me it was there.
By now I had picked up the names of hosts. The attendant was- Piplu and his wife was Shahane. I could see Shahane singing the song. Perhaps she liked the song as much.
I was eating and the two of them were serving me hot delicious food. Suddenly Shahane asked me, "Sir, this radio must be very costly?"
I stopped for a few seconds and then replied that it wasn't much expensive.
"No Sir, it may not be for you but for people like us it must be very costly," she said in a low voice and then added with a little pause. "I have been telling Piplu to get me a radio and he says he can't afford it."
Piplu was visibly annoyed. He hissed some words in the local dialect and Shahane hurriedly left the room. I was a trifle upset. I finished my dinner, washed my hands and went to my room telling Piplu to come to my room along with Shahane.
When they entered my room I spoke few nice words to them and then asked Shahane if she would like to have my radio set as gift from me.
"No Sir," Piplu snapped.
I told him to keep quiet in a terse tone and put the small radio in the hands of Shahane. "Please keep this as a gift from me, I will be very happy," I said to her.
I could see the strains on Piplu’s face. He in fact used harsh words for Shahane.
"She is greedier like a bitch. Please forget whatever she said. I will buy her a radio set as soon as I can."
I didn't like the demur for I didn’t want my heaven to crash so soon.
"You hurt me with such words. After all it is a small gift and I thought she loved music,” I told Piplu. Shahane accepted the radio set and I went to bed though not very happy yet satisfied that I could give the couple something worthwhile.
Next morning I got up early and took my breakfast hurriedly to catch my return train. I was carrying with me the memory of some unforgettable moments.
I settled the bill and gave some tip to Piplu with a few words of thanks from the core of my heart. As I was getting in to the taxi Shahane came with a small basket of flowers which were more than beautiful. I was moved by the gesture.
"You love flowers," she said handing me the basket. I wanted to thank her but the words failed. The taxi moved and I was sad to leave the place for no logical reasons.
As I was feeling the soft touch of the flowers, I felt something was there below. It was a small packet wrapped in a beautiful silk scarf with fine embroidery. As I un-wrapped it, I found the radio cassette player, which I had gifted to my hostess.
A pain sheared through my heart. I looked at the scarf and the radio set for a long time. And then I looked up. The taxi was running away leaving behind the valley and the heaven I had conjured.
Javed Akhtar was working for Care International as an agrologist, specializing in hybrid groundnut cultivation. His beat comprised all South Central African countries with headquarter at Lilongwe, Malawi.
It was the month of May. He was travelling for the first time to Lesotho, a small kingdom country within South Africa.
Javed was entitled to business class on official travel. His travel agent had given him a business class return ticket for Lilongwe-Johannesburg-Lesotho though the airline used a smaller plane on Johannesburg- Lesotho sector and the flight was treated as economy class.
Since the flight to Lesotho was after three hours, Javed decided to relax in the business lounge.
“Mr. Akhtar, I am sorry you can not use the business lounge.” The receptionist, a white lady told Javed.
“Why? I am travelling business class and I have been directed here by the transfer desk.”
“The flight to Lesotho is economy class and I can’t help if you have paid business class fare. That is between you and your travel agent. And the transfer desk is wrong in directing you here.”
Javed didn’t like the curt remarks. He gave her a second look. She was skinny, in mid forties and she had a hardened pale face.
“Look, this is funny. I pay business class, have to travel economy and can’t even use the lounge.”
The lady ignored his comment, which irritated him.
“Madam, are you suggesting that the girl at the transfer
counter is ignorant?” Javed asked her icily.
“Well sir, she should not have directed you here and if you will now excuse me,” she said turning away to other passengers.
“You are being difficult and I certainly don’t like your way of talking to me.”
She gave him a hard look but kept quite.
Javed noticed her reaction. It annoyed him further. “I would like to talk to your superior.”
After an unduly long pause she rang up and a young black officer appeared on the scene.
Javed explained the situation to the officer and that having been told to use the lounge by the transfer desk he now felt insulted.
The young officer apologised and told Javed that he could use the lounge.
“But this is no way of treating people. I am sure she would have not behaved in the same manner with a white man. I want to make a complaint,” Javed told the officer.”
The officer looked at the receptionist and then requested Javed to leave the matter at that.
“No, I want her to get the message, right and proper. I am convinced, the insult was deliberate.”
The officer threw his hands up and as he was about to leave, Javed asked him, “Officer, where can I find you?”
“Please leave it with her, if you insist,” the officer said and left.
Javed entered the lounge. He felt hurt. He took out pen and paper from his brief case, wrote the complaint and after putting it in an envelope, he went out and gave it to the lady who had spoiled his day.
“I hope it reaches the right quarters,” he said giving her a caustic smile. The woman received the envelope quietly and kept it aside without reacting.
Those were the days when South Africa had just come out of the apartheid regime. Sitting in the lounge, Javed tried to go through a magazine but his mind was restless.
“Old habits don’t go easily… bloody arrogant whites,” he muttered.
Javed took another magazine but his mind was racing back and forth to the annoying episode.
“Why had she to be so nasty, asking me to check out from my travel agent?” Then he remembered her face, it was pale and emaciated.
“These skinny females are eerie, good for nothing, not even in bed. Bloody cussed hacks,” he said and then smiled. He felt better and avenged after heaping the insults.
He picked up a coke from the vending machine, had a long drag and then he thought, “Why can’t one be nice to others? What does one lose in using polite words?”
He took another long sip, shook his head and soon he was lost in the office notes putting the ugly incident behind.
In Lilongwe Javed was generally busy in his work. His social circle was limited to the project-colleagues even though Lilongwe was full of people from his country. Unfortunately, Javed was not comfortable in their company for he had often seen them ill-treating the locals. It hurt him when they addressed the natives using filthy and abusive language.
“These blacks are dim-witted and lazy bastards. Never trust them, and with money, never.” That was the common advice his fellow countrymen had given him when he had landed in Lilongwe.
One day Javed was invited to dinner by a local business man of his community to his farm house. On reaching the place, Javed found the gates closed. He knocked at the iron gates several times and shouted for the watchman without any response. Finally, Javed phoned his host, which hurt the ego of the latter. The host was infuriated further to see the young watchman lying on the ground and snoring.
Javed was stunned to see his host kicking and abusing the lad. Not satisfied, the host asked for a cane and started beating the watchman till he was tired of hitting him. In all those horrific moments, the hapless boy, lying on the ground wailed and cried for forgiveness and mercy.
The host, on the wrong side of fifties was now panting and using foulest language Javed had ever heard. “These filthy bastards understand no other language,” he tried to convey to the guests who had gathered there.
Javed was not a regular visitor to the mosque but he believed that Allah, the merciful has made all men equal. That Islam preached kindness towards fellow beings. He couldn’t bear the cruelty.
“It is unfair and inhuman. How can you treat a human being like this? Even animals deserve better. It is barbaric. And don’t forget it is his country where you have made your fortunes. Don’t you forget, what were you when you landed in this country?”
The host didn’t take it kindly, nor did Javed find any support from the other guests. “You are new to the place, hardly know them. These blacks are conceited bastards, deserve such treatment,” the host retorted.
“Your dollar salary has made you arrogant,” one of the guests remarked.
Javed couldn’t bear any more and left the place without taking his dinner.
Soon Javed acquired the reputation of a phoney idealist amongst his people. He was but impervious to the allegation.
Professionally, Javed was known to be an efficient and successful project manager. Over a period, he was promoted as project director and posted to Johannesburg. He was reluctant to leave Malawi for he had developed a good team in Malawi and achieved commendable results. He loved Malawi, a small beautiful country, quiet and peaceful unlike the crowded metropolis of Johannesburg. Besides, he knew the law and order situation in South Africa was still pretty bad.
Javed had to start afresh. Luckily, he knew Paul Brown, his new deputy at Johannesburg. Paul was blithe and lively person who looked young for his fifty years. His love and compassion for the blacks impressed Javed and soon they became goods friends. Javed had also heard a lot about Mrs. Brown, the head of UNDP Rehabilitation Center for Juvenile Delinquents. She was held in great esteem by the black community for reforming several misguided young lads.
A couple of weeks later, Paul invited Javed to dinner at his place. Javed was happy for he was eagerly looking forward to meet Mrs. Brown.
“Martina, my wife,” Paul said and then added, “Mr. Javed Akhtar is the new project director.”
“Welcome, Mr. Akhtar. Hope you have settled down. Please feel free to ask for any help, we can be of,” she said with a brief smile.
“All is well with your able husband by my side. Thanks for your kind words.”
Suddenly it came to Javed that he had seen the lady somewhere. His mind started racing through the memory lanes and finally he remembered. “Oh yes, she was the woman he had met in the business lounge of the South African Airlines five years ago. Yes, I can not forget her emaciated pale face.”
The recollection gave him an uneasy feeling. He however kept his cool and the evening went off well. Martina was warm and polite and quite active for her age. Paul told him that at times she worked ceaselessly for twelve to fourteen hours and that she was very popular amongst the inmates of the rehabilitation center.
Javed was not sure if Martina had recognised him but he was very inquisitive, in fact restless to know her story.
“My memory can not fail me. How come, she had left her lucrative airline job and opted for a social welfare project.”
Javed had several questions crowding his mind and he decided to talk to Paul on a suitable occasion.
One evening when Paul and Javed were away in Cape Town, relaxing on the beach. Paul unfolded Martina’s story on Javed broaching the topic.
“True, Martina was working as an air hostess with South African Airlines. But she had lot of interest in my work and whenever she could spare time, she would come and help me in the project.
One day I had gone to Pretoria. Martina knew it and drove straight from the airport to the rehabilitation center to attend to pending important matters. It was dark and raining out side. She finished the work and was about to leave when three boys opened the door and before she could react, they gagged her and threw her on the floor. One of them took out a knife and jabbed her on the sides. Martina was scared to death and fainted. The boys then raped her in turn. They took out the money and jewellery from her purse and ran away.
Martina was hospitalized for three weeks. Though her physical wounds have healed, she has still not recovered from the trauma.”
Javed was speechless.
“Javed, can you imagine how courageous she is? She
resumed work at the same rehabilitation center as soon as she was discharged from the hospital.”
“Yes, courageous and magnanimous too,” Javed whispered.
“The management thought Martina was not in a proper state of mind to join the flying services, so they accommodated her as receptionist in the business lounge. Every evening, she would rush to the rehabilitation center straight from her office without any respite.”
Javed was on the edges and visibly shaken.
“It was not the end of her misfortune. It is an irony that in spite of Martina’s love and compassion for the destitute, her unflinching dedication in serving the poor black community, she was slapped a racist charge on the basis of a complaint by a passenger. The new government took a serious view of it and she was asked to resign.”
Javed was stunned. Paul resumed after an awkward pause.
“Martina was hurt but determined as she is, she requested UNDP to join the rehabilitation center as full time volunteer.
“When was that?” Javed managed to ask.
“It was the month of May, five years ago.”
Javed gasped for breadth. He wanted to cry.
“Do you know who the passenger was?
There was long silence. Paul took a long sip of beer and looked at Javed.
“Yes, she told me when she saw your dossier. But believe me, she holds nothing against you.”
Javed couldn’t face Paul. He felt as if his entrails were burning.
As they walked back to their hotel, Javed was doing the soul searching.
“Why did I do all that? Why was I adamant to lodge the complaint? Why couldn’t I be a little more patient and let the matter rest after I had been allowed to use the business lounge and ….. did she act racist or was I prejudiced?”
Auditor’s Note: I wrote this story when I was travelling to Lesotho through Johannesburg. I was denied entry to business lounge even though I had a business class ticket. My first reaction was to retaliate but after a little while, I had a change of heart. Incidentally, that day the flight was delayed by five hours and I was able to complete the first draft of this story. I know, had I entered the business lounge, I would have boozed, eaten ravenously and dozed off.
Author’s Note: I wrote this story when I was working in Lilongwe, Malawi as IMF Financial Management Advisor (1998-2000). I used to visit the Temple quite often and became a friend of the young priest who lived alone since his contract with the temple management did not provide for travel for his family or leave during his two year contract.
Over eight thousand kilometres away from the place of their origin in India, there were men and women dancing to the beat of Dandia, the Gujarati folk dance in the Hindu temple in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. It was the eve of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, which is also heralds the beginning of the new fiscal year of the Gujrati community.
Watching them from one corner of the hall was Vishnu Sripad Oza, who had arrived in Lilongwe only a couple of weeks ago. He was feeling nostalgic, remembering the Diwali festival he had celebrated the previous year with his mother and his younger sister in the small village of Nathgaon in Porbunder district of Gujarat.
Vishnu remembered the tears rolling down his mother’s crumpled cheeks when he left for Bombay for his onward journey to Malawi.
“Son, your father looked after us from the income of this village temple. We would have managed whatever you earned here and felt satisfied for desires have no limits,” the old parent had said as he disengaged him self from her embrace.
Vishnu had often heard similar words from his father. He quietly sat in the waiting bus and left his people and the village to join as a priest in Malawi on a two years’ contract. It was true that the desire to earn an extra bit of money to make life comfortable was taking him to a distant place, he knew nothing about.
Vishnu’s father had worked as a priest of Nathgaon for forty years, never ever complaining. When he died three years ago, the entire village had shared Vishnu’s grief but no one came forward to help him financially. He burnt with shame when the village-head refused to give him money to perform the last rites of his father till he sold him his cow, the only possession and source of income of the family.
Vishnu was keen to go to college after his schooling. “Father, you have been leading a pathetic life, never sure of next meal. Why do you want me to suffer the same plight?”
The old priest had a conviction that material comforts were transitional and the real happiness lay in the frame of mind. He told young Vishnu, “Son! You are born in a family of priests. It is your duty to preserve the heritage. That is the real wealth. Never think that money is the answer to all problems, on the contrary, it creates many.”
Young Vishnu revered his father but he had suffered the indignation of being poor. He hesitated to ask his father money for books and stationery. He would often borrow books and sometimes his mother used to give him little money from the saving she managed by selling milk surreptitiously.
Vishnu’s father practised astrology and wanted Vishnu to learn it. The old priest often sat outside the temple on a grass mat and prepared horoscopes of his clients. He had amazing memory to recall the birth chart of every one in the village and of his other clients. Since almost all Hindus refer to their horoscopes on important occasions, it provided a steady though feeble source of income. The villagers listened to him and followed his advice to the extent they could afford. Whenever his prediction came true, they would come and thank him and offer some fruits, rice or sugar. For wrong predictions, no one blamed the old priest since Hindus believe in blaming only their fate.
After the death of his father Vishnu took over the mantle of the village priest but the village folks did not receive him well. For them the sight of a young man in trousers was inappropriate and irreconcilable. Since Vishnu never took astrology seriously, there was no income from this source. Vishnu was frustrated and he wanted to run away from the village and work as a labourer in a city. But it would have meant eviction from the temple cottage, which was the only shelter for the family.
Amrit Bhai Patel of Nathgaon village had migrated to Malawi about twenty-five years ago. His father owned a small grocery in Nathgaon and when the old man died, there was a dispute over it between Amrit Bhai and his elder brother. Amrit Bhai along with his young wife left Nathgaon with one of his relatives for Malawi. Amrit Bhai worked hard during these twenty-five years and the lady luck was on his side. He now owned a well-established business, a palatial house and a score of servants. He was respected among his people and was the president of the temple management committee of Lilongwe.
Amrit Bhai had come to Porbunder to find a bride for his son, which was the ardent wish of his wife. Vishnu met him and talked to him of his predicament. Amrit Bhai remembered that before leaving Nathgaon he had gone to the old priest with his horoscope. Vishnu’s father after looking at his horoscope had advised him to go abroad. “You will get prosperity and fame in an alien land”, the priest had predicted.
Amrit Bhai thought it an occasion to repay the debt of the old priest. He offered the job of priest to Vishnu, which had brought him to Malawi.
On that Diwali eve, Vishnu was watching the enthusiastic dancers. In the melee, he noticed a girl. He thought there was some thing different about her. She was tall and fair and her braid was abnormally long, touching the floor while dancing. Unmindful of people around her, she danced ecstatically moving graciously as if she were in a trance. Vishnu was reminded of the mythological fairies that danced in the court of Indra, the king of Hindu gods. After the dance and distribution of sweets, he retired to the cottage next to the temple, which was his new abode. Vishnu’s thought were divided between his people back home and the fascinating girl he had seen that evening. He could not sleep well that night. Suddenly he longed for her company. He fantasised that he was Lord Indra and she was dancing in his court.
Conventionally, the Hindu community came to the temple only on Monday evenings as such there was hardly any visitor on other days.
It was a Sunday evening, Vishnu was preparing for the evening prayers. He was about to light the lamps when he saw the same girl entering the temple. Vishnu could not contain his excitement. His hand struck the lamp and it fell down spilling the oil on the floor. Vishnu was flabbergasted and stupefied.
The girl came forward and picked up the lamp and placed it on the pedestal. She then went in to the adjacent store room and brought a rag and cleaned the mess. Vishnu, still unable to compose himself looked at her from the far corner of the room.
“Please refill the lamp; it is time for the prayers.”
“Yes, of course. I am sorry for the mess and thanks a lot.”
“It is OK, she said briefly and after the prayers were over, left the temple.
Vishnu since then was ever more restless. He was annoyed on his clumsiness. He remembered her walking away from him and her swaying gait. Then it occurred to him that she had come alone and on a Sunday evening, he was a bit surprised.
“I should have talked to her, at least asked her name. God! I have never seen such a beautiful girl.”
Vishnu waited for her every day but didn’t see her until next Sunday evening. She offered prayers and then sat down in the lawn outside and opened a small tin box. She had come with some home made Indian sweets.
“I am Sudha,” She told Vishnu offering him a portion of the sweets.
“My name is Vishnu,” and then he added, “I am the new priest.”
“Of course, you are the new priest,” she said with a smile.
“What about your parents? I mean you come to the temple alone….. on a Sunday… ”
Sudha looked towards the sky and then after a while she said, “I have no parents, they died several years ago. Amrit Bhai brought me here six years ago from India to work in his house. It is a cheaper and a reliable arrangement to bring servants from India.”
I get an off on Sunday evenings. If I have nothing else to do, I come here… feel good.”
Vishnu had not pictured a sad background. Sudha could notice his saddened face.
“It is the providence that takes us to places that we might have never imagined or make us do things that we would have hated. Just see, isn’t it destiny that brought you away from your dear ones to this godforsaken place.”
Vishnu looked at her. He was unable to say anything. He remembered his mother and her words to him at the time of parting.
“After the death of my parents, I lived with my maternal uncle. He had six of his own children and my joining the family only added to his woes. He was a mason by profession with sporadic income. Amrit Bhai had come to know about us and offered ten twenty rupees to my uncle for my services as housemaid. That was about six years ago.
“Haven’t you been to India since then?” Vishnu asked her.
“How could I? Where is the money and in any case my passport is in the custody of Amrit Bhai. I am a captive, a slave, no?” Then she added, “I do get Sunday off unless Amrit Bhai takes me out to his lake house on week-end.”
“What? You mean you go alone with him…spend night with him…” Vishnu gasped as if Sudha had poured molten lead over his body. He could not comprehend such an image of Amrit Bhai.
“Oh God, and this man fakes to be spiritual and is the head of the temple management committee,” he said in a disgust.
“It is part of my job and that is the real side of life, dear young priest,” she said with a wry smile and left him, restless more than ever.
Vishnu lost all respect for Amrit Bhai. The gratitude melted away. “If alone I had power, I would have put him in a dungeon for life time,” he muttered to him self.
Sudha didn’t turn up the next Sunday. That drove Vishnu crazy. The bastard must have taken her to his lake house. He imagined Sudha being raped by Amrit Bhai and crying for his help.
“May be, that after meeting me, she resisted Amrit Bhai and told him about me and that Amrit Bhai has ordered her not to move out of the house…may be, she wants my help …….” Vishnu’s mind wandered.
Sudha didn’t come even on the following Sunday. Vishnu was worried. “If only I could find about her welfare. God, please save her from the devil,” he included in his prayers.
Sudha came after three weeks. She looked cheerful in her new dress. Vishnu sulked not seeing any sign of distress that he had been imagining. He looked the other way.
“Don’t be angry. Amrit Bhai’s wife was seriously ill. I have been busy with the children and the household chores. He has taken her to South Africa today. All these days I have been remembering you,” she said blushing.
“I thought you were away with him to his lake house or some other place.”
“All men are alike. Their minds work only on a single track. I have responsibilities towards the children and the family other than sleeping with Amrit Bhai.”
“I am sorry, I was worried for you,” he said sitting on the bench along her side. While eating the sweets and fruits Sudha had brought for him he suddenly asked her, “Are you happy here?”
“I have no choice. People know my relationship with Amrit Bhai but there is nothing new about it, whether here or back in India. It doesn’t bother me any more. I am living my life as it comes to me.”
Sudha left Vishnu once again in a pensive mood. He was ashamed of himself. “Who am I do judge others? How many of us are so truthful about our relationships? I will not interfere in her personal life hereafter,” Vishnu decided.
It was Sunday evening. Vishnu had completed his evening ritual and was in his cottage, writing a letter to his mother. Now he no longer waited for Sudha. He had made some friends who sometimes invited him to their place. He was learning to live alone.
It was raining outside. There was a knock at the door. Vishnu opened the door and found Sudha with a vessel covered with a silk cloth. She entered the cottage and as she stood close to him, Vishnu could feel the smell of her wet body. It unsettled him.
“How are you and how is Amrit Bhai’s wife?”
“The treatment in South Africa has done her a lot good. She is much better but the doctor has advised her rest.”
Vishnu told her to take the towel and dry her hair and then added unmindfully, “You have long beautiful hair, like my mother.”
Sudha looked at him and asked, “You miss your people too much, don’t you?”
“Yes but as you say, there is no option. Poverty makes you do things whether you like or not.”
“Today I am free. Amrit Bhai and his family have gone to Blantyre yesterday to attend a marriage. They will return tomorrow only.”
Vishnu didn’t know what to make of it.
“I will make dinner for you. They say I am a good cook,” Sudha was in an exuberant mood.
“What if someone drops in?”
“Don’t worry. No one enters a priest’s cottage unless there is a special relationship.”
“You mean that is not applicable to you?”
“Exceptions are always there,” she said with a big smile ignoring Vishnu’s remarks.
Vishnu was unsettled once again. Does she understand the import of her words? He was not sure as he glossed over her curves, which had become more pronounced with the wet sari clinging to her body.
Sudha cooked the meals as Vishnu talked of his family and his school days.
“Why don’t you get married?” Sudha asked him suddenly.
“The village-head is asking my mother to vacate the temple cottage for the new priest. I have to send her money to raise a hut and then I have the younger sister of marriageable age. How can I think of marriage?”
Sudha was visibly moved. “Take your meals while it is hot. I should now rush to my place,” she said and left him hurriedly. Vishnu looked at her till she disappeared behind the temple wall.
Sudha didn’t come to temple for several weeks after that day. Vishnu tried unsuccessfully to forget her. His sister had written a letter thanking him for the money he had sent. “We have shifted to our new cottage. It is big and better. You will be happy when you come and see it.”
Vishnu knew he has been away from his village only for ten months yet it seemed as if he had been wandering in a dark forest for hundreds of years. The few moments he spent with Sudha were the only bright specs of light in his life.
It was Sunday. He remembered Sudha. He imagined several evil things happening to her. As the day passed, he felt like crying. He conducted evening prayers with a heavy heart and retired to his cottage. He had by then purchased a cassette player and borrowed some cassettes. He would listen to music late until midnight till sleep overtook his fatigued mind.
Then there was a knock at the door and before he could get up, Sudha entered the room with a vessel in her hand.
“Seems you are enjoying the music, have forgotten me altogether,” she said in a lighter vein.
Her words unleashed the storm that was raging in side Vishnu.
“I don’t even know your place and I can’t ask anyone. You are the only person with whom I can open my heart. I was worried all these days not knowing anything about you. Sudha! I missed you…I missed you every second…if only you knew how terribly I missed you…” Vishnu couldn’t continue, emotions had choked his words.
“I too missed you as much. Amrit Bhai’s wife has fallen sick again. He has again taken her to South Africa this afternoon. I came to you at the first opportunity.”
Vishnu looked at Sudha. There were tears flowing silently down her cheeks.
“Sudha you are my life-stream in this alien land. You know I get crazy when you don’t turn up,” he said and taking her in his arms he kissed her passionately.
It worked like showing a match to gunpowder. The lava boiling deep inside burst and came to the surface. For Sudha, this was a different experience. She kissed him wildly all over. She wanted to be coalesced in to his body as she held him closely. As Vishnu reached the peak of ecstasy, he cried, “Sudha! Oh! Sudha, the nectar of my life…you are my love…” and then the tempest was over.
Sudha gave him a loving look and kissed him again before getting up from the floor. “I must leave. The children must be getting worried,” she said and walked out in to the dark.
Vishnu’s world had changed from that moment. He was beginning to like the place. Sudha came to him sometimes while going to fetch children from the school. The few minutes they shared were very pleasing but not enough to douse the fire that engulfed both of them. Sudha however managed to come to him on couple of evenings. It satiated Vishnu temporarily. But it wasn’t enough; Vishnu wanted more and more of her.
The dream run came to an end soon when one evening Amrit Bhai rang up from Johannesburg and told Sudha to take the children away to his relatives as he was coming with the body of his wife the next afternoon.
Sudha could not come to the temple for several weeks. Vishnu was restless pining for her company.
“Now that the scoundrel has lost his wife, he must be sleeping with her openly,” the thought was crossing his mind over and over again recollecting the exciting moments spent with her. He waited for her every moment. I was a long agonizing wait of no avail.
One Sunday morning Sudha finally came to the temple. Vishnu could see anxiety writ large on her face.
“Where were you all these days? Why didn’t you come to me? Didn’t you think of me? Why are you looking so worried? What is the matter?” Vishnu unleashed a barrage of questions.
“Amrit Bhai wants me to stay with him permanently.” Sudha told Vishnu looking the other way.
Vishnu was furious.
“What do you mean permanently? Aren’t you already living with him?”
“He wants me to look after his children and be his mistress. You know such arrangements exist in our society.”
“What a sinful suggestion? Moreover, he is more than double your age. Why can’t he find a woman of his age? And what have you said to him?”
“I told him that I will look after his children but I wanted to marry some one else.”
Vishnu was jolted. “You mean you have told him about our relationship?”
Sudha looked at him and said, “He was furious at my suggestion. Vishnu, I wanted to talk to you before telling him anything. We have no time. Tell me, will you marry me? I have taken out my passport from his cabinet. We can return to India and start a new life.”
“Sudha, are you crazy? What am I going to do in India? You think my mother is going to accept this marriage?”
“Vishnu, you are young and educated and I have some money with me. You know, I am a good cook, we can start a small restaurant here itself if you are not keen to return to India.”
“Oh! Come on. You think Amrit Bhai will tolerate that the priest he brought for temple service has married his keep.”
Sudha was shocked by Vishnu’s words. She felt as if he had branded her by red hot iron. She had loved him and loved him dearly, from the core of her heart notwithstanding her relationship with Amrit Bhai. She was hurt by his words more than her uncle’s deal with Amrit Bhai but there was nothing to show her anguish on her face. She was poised and composed.
Vishnu walked up and down, he felt as if his entrails were burning and that the whole world was on fire. He didn’t know how to face the impending ignominy or bear for the loss love.
“Vishnu, I know you come from the family of priests and I am a low caste girl. Tell me, does this stigma remain even after crossing so many seas?”
“I don’t believe in that but we can not ignore the society ….. please try to understand my position,” Vishnu managed to say.
“Yes, I do understand. You don’t believe in it when you sleep with me under the cover of darkness. It is in the daylight that our relationship troubles you.”
Vishnu was dumbfounded. He was worried of losing his job and facing public ridicule. He knew no one will engage him in any capacity.
Sudha looked at his pulled down face.
“Vishnu, I understand your position and rest assured I would cause you no harm or embarrassment.”
Vishnu struggled for words. He wanted to seek her forgiveness but word failed him.
“Vishnu, I got your answer. I will pray that one day you return to your people. I will leave now for Amrit Bhai must be waiting for me,” Sudha said and left the temple.
More than fifteen years have passed. The Lilongwe temple has been renovated and there is a new cottage for the priest. Vishnu is still the priest of the temple. He has been to Nathgaon on two occasions, for the marriage of his sister and then for the last rites of his mother. He no more longs for his village and he is still unmarried.
Age is catching up with Vishnu. The believers revere him as a celibate priest dedicated to the temple service. Sudha comes to the temple now on Monday evenings along with her fourteen year old daughter Vibha and her stepchildren. Occasionally, Amrit Bhai accompanies them. Sudha often brings food, which she tells Vibha to keep in the priest’s cottage. Sudha and Vishnu have not talked to each other ever since their last meeting but whenever their eyes meet, there is remorse in Vishnu’s eyes and compassion in hers.