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.