Friday, September 26, 2008


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.
Paul continued.
“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.

Monday, September 15, 2008


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.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


Auditor’s Note:I did my schooling and college in Shimla; a stint in Spiti valley during my army career, which was followed by training at the Indian Audit & Accounts Staff College, Yarrows. I have thus very special, nostalgic feelings about the place.

I was invited to deliver a couple of lectures to young probationers of my Service at the Staff College, Shimla. It was the month of January, not a good time for people of my age to go to Shimla. It had snowed heavily after Christmas. The snow from the road surface had been furrowed to the hill side but the seepage from the snow mounds made the road surface wet and slippery.

May be, if it were fifteen or twenty years ago, a visit to Shimla at any time of the year would have been a pleasant welcome. Being on the wrong side of fifties and afflicted with stiff joints, it was more of a duty and at best a change from the office routine at Delhi.

It was thirty years ago that I was in Shimla as a probationer in the same good old place, the Yarrows, the probationers' mess, more appropriately their heaven. The most beautiful place in Shimla, we always thought.
As the car taking me from Kalka to Shimla was speeding past the wet road surface, memories of the place and events were coming back to me making me feel nostalgic.
I reached the Staff College at ten. The Director of the Staff College had kept me free that day. Luckily, it turned out to be a bright sunny day. I took a quick shower, a cup of tea and left Yarrows for the Mall. I wanted to make the most of my short visit.

I walked on the Mall up to the farthest end and went around the ridge. Shimla looked over crowded and ugly with cement concrete buildings piercing the skyline. The forest towards the High Court and the Jakhoo peak has been denuded. What a pity I thought as I entered Baljee, the famous restaurant on the Mall for a coffee. My enthusiasm for the place had ebbed by this time and I decided to return to Yarrows for lunch.

I was walking on my return journey near the Western Command building when I thought a lady coming from the opposite direction was waving at me. I have always been coy and timid when it came to facing members of the fair sex. Here, they were two of them. I gave a blank look to the probable gesture but to my discomfiture, one of them walked straight to wards me.
"Do you remember me?" She asked.
I am poor at remembering names and faces, which has been a cause of embarrassment to me on several occasions.
"Hello there. Yes, yes…" I tried to smile, desperately scratching my memory cells. It was obvious that I was unsuccessful.
"Aniket Sharma right, and you were a probationer in the year …….. 1973."
"My God! You have an elephantine memory," I said trying to look less clumsy.
"I am Emily, Emily Dean. Remember?"

I am as I said, very bad in remembering names but that was one name I could have never forgotten. A shiver passed down my spine. I looked at her once again for I wanted to greet her properly.
"Emily! Oh God. It is nearly three decades since we met. What a pleasant surprise? I am so happy to see you."
A shadow crossed her face and then she pointed to wards the young girl accompanying her.
"She is Shefali, my daughter."
I said hello to Shefali, shaking her hand.
"When did you come to Shimla?"
"Less than two hours. I have come to Yarrows to give couple of lectures to the probationers. Went around the Mall and was returning to Yarrows."
"Going back for lunch?"
"I was…but not necessarily…. I mean, I am free."
"Why don’t you join us? That is if you have time. Come along. Shefali wants to do some shopping."
"Of course, I have all the time and I would love to be with you," I was suddenly enthused. Emily smiled briefly.

As we walked on the Mall, I asked Emily about her husband, her family. She told me that her husband had died ten years ago in a car accident. Shefali was her only child and that she was teaching in St. Edward School. Her parents were no more and that she lived in the same old house in Balugunj.
Meeting Emily had elated me momentarily but her story saddened me. Suddenly I thought I was walking with a different person. I remembered Emily of yester years, always smiling and cheerful and often pulling my leg. Time and events had made her sombre and gloomy.
Even though walking on the Mall on a sunny winter day is the utmost one could ask for, I was restive. I wanted to sit down.
"Let's eat something," I told Shefali.
Emily wasn’t keen to accept my offer.
"It is cold and we would like to be back early."
But I insisted. Shefali joined me and Emily gave in reluctantly.

I ordered lunch with Shefali's help. My mind was oscillating back and forth. I remembered my first meeting with Emily.

Yes it was the year 1973. It was past ten in the night. My batch mate, Rajeshwar and I were returning from the Western Command Officers' Mess. Both of us were thoroughly sozzled. Walking down the slope, perhaps our legs were not synchronising with our body movements. As bad luck would have it, there was something on the road surface that made me go for a six. Perhaps it was the impact of the slide or the booze or the combined effect of both that I passed out.
I vaguely remember, I reached Yarrows, supported on one side by Rajeshwar and by some unknown person on the other. Rajeshwar and my orderly took me to my room. The orderly took out my shoes and put me in to the bed. It used to be a community living in Yarrows of undefiled raw youth, transparent and sharing. Soon, every inmate of Yarrows was in the know of my indiscreet and despicable behaviour before I started snoring.

"You bloody fool, you made an ass of yourself and mine as well." It was from Rajeshwar, next morning on the breakfast table.
"I know, I know. It was rather too much or was it because of the cold wind?" I tried to reason it out.
"Shut up you bastard. Those girls knew that we were the probationers from Yarrows. One of them told her cousin to lug you or else you would have landed in the mortuary."
"Surely not, I knew you were around," I said laughingly.
"Not again buddy. I would rather kick your arse hard enough to make you go off the road completely, no more nuisance."

I was aware that a bunch of college girls used to croon whenever we crossed but we never took a serious note of that. But I was worried now.
"They would identify me and spread the story. My cousin is in the same college. The damn thing could be very embarrassing," I told Rajeshwar.
"That will be your funeral and I would enjoy every bit of it,” he responded and then added cynically, “Hereafter, please keep a distance from me."
"You are a cussed bastard," I thought it was my turn.
“Late realization sir, too late,” Rajeshwar snapped back.

Next few days, I was cautious. I didn't know which of the girls had seen me that evening in the slovenly, drunken state. It did not take long. On the following Sunday afternoon while coming back from my cousin's place, two girls of that group came to me.
"Hi! How are you?"
I instantly guessed that the two were my benefactors. I thanked them profusely and gave them a story that, that was a special occasion and that I was otherwise a man of sober habits.
"Forget it. It happens," One of them said smilingly and then added, "I am Emily and she is my friend, Sujata."
"I am Aniket Sharma. You can call me Aniket."

Emily was fair and tall. She had long hair and she was really beautiful. We often met after that. I once took Emily and her friend to lunch. I felt I owed it to them.
It was the month of December, we were preparing for our departmental examinations, seldom going out of Yarrows. Emily rang me couple of time during this period from the market for she didn’t have a phone at her place.
After the last paper on the 23rd December, I went to the Mall. I had told Emily to meet me there. The Staff College was closing for Christmas break and I was to go to Delhi next morning. After the break, I was to undergo two months' practical training at the Treasury Office in Delhi. We knew we would be meeting after a long interval.
"Aniket! We are having a Christmas party at my place tomorrow evening. I will be very happy if you join us."
I didn't know what to tell her.

"I have told my parents and they will be very happy to meet you." She looked at me and then added, "You will be away for a long period there after."
I still struggled for words. I would have loved to join them but I had bought my ticket and I had phoned my parents, my brother was to pick me at the Delhi bus stand.
"Emily! I am sorry. I have to rush to Delhi…I…I have told my parents…You know I would have loved to join you...but…" I managed to say as I saw the disappointment on her face.
"It is OK," she said looking away from me.
I was very sorry that I could not accept her invitation.
I gave money to my orderly to buy a rose bouquet and deliver it at Emily's place. I had written a small note of apology.

At Delhi, things moved fast. My parents had seen a girl for me and wanted my consent. I accepted their selection and two weeks later we were engaged to be married.
After treasury training, I returned to Shimla in the first week of March for a short period and went back to Delhi to get married in the third week of the same month. I tried to contact Emily but failed. She didn't have a telephone at her place. I gave invitation cards to all my friends and left for Delhi without meeting Emily.

It was a day after my marriage. I was sitting with my friends when the postman brought a packet for me. It was a beautiful painting from Emily, a gift from Emily on my marriage. The brief note read:

Dear Aniket,
Congratulations. I was looking forward to see you but you were obviously busy. Collected your address from Rajeshwar. Wishing you a very happy married life.
God Bless.

I was moved as I looked at the painting. I read the note several times. Deep inside me, I felt guilty for I had not even sent her the invitation card. Frankly, for inexplicable reasons, I didn’t have the courage to do so.
I returned to Shimla in April. I lacked the courage to contact Emily. Moreover, I had to prepare for the final examinations due in the month of May. Frankly, I confess, my mind was with my wife whom I had left in Delhi with my parents. After the examinations were over, I went to Emily's house. Her mother told me that she had gone to Chandigarh to her uncle. I was sad to miss her.

I lost contact with Emily. Things changed during these thirty years but I concede, whenever I thought of Shimla, I thought of Emily.

We came out of Baljee. Shefali wanted to buy a cassette player. "Mama has promised it on my birth day."
We went to a shop. I told Shefali to select a piece and I wanted to pay for it. Emily wouldn't let me do so.
"Emily! Please let me pay. I can't explain but I will feel good."
Emily was still reluctant but I insisted and paid at the counter. Shefali was happy with her gift and in her beaming face I could see the cheerful, smiling Emily of my probationary days.
We started walking back. It was more of walking through the memory lane. Shefali was perhaps talking about her friends; both of us were oblivious of it. And we didn’t realize that we had reached Cecil Hotel the point from where our paths separated.

"Aniket! Tomorrow is Shefali’s birthday. It is a quite affair, only a couple of her friends. Can you join us? Shefali will be very happy and …I too will feel good."
"Oh! Yes, uncle. Please come. Mama makes delicious cakes."
I remembered, Emily made delicious cakes and I remembered, she always brought a piece for me whenever she made one.
I had to return the next evening immediately after delivering the last lecture. I was scheduled to catch the late night train to Delhi to attend an important meeting in Delhi on the following day.

I couldn’t hold back my tears. It was the second time that I had failed her. I was unable to accept her invitation. Words wouldn’t come out of my mouth. Emily looked at me and perhaps she understood my predicament.
“It is OK. I should have known. You are a busy person. Thanks for the lunch and the gift. God bless,” she said and walked away slowly.
I stood there, frozen body and mind watching Emily go away holding Shefali’s hand.
“God bless you both,” I whispered and turned in to the lane to Yarrows.