Thursday, July 23, 2009


We were driving north of Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, along the west shore of the Lake Malawi to the town of Mzuzu. I was then working in Lilongwe as a doctor in a rural health project. Though I had been in the country for over six months, it was my first visit to Mzuzu.
It was the month of March. Rain was pouring in, now and then like proverbial cats and dogs. At times, the visibility was so poor that we could not make out whether the approaching vehicle was a car or a truck and jumping over the pot holes repeatedly was a painful reminder of my chronic backache.
There were two reasons for me to go to Mzuzu under such circumstances. I had not seen the town of Mzuzu, which was famous for its beautiful forest reserves and wealth of wild life. Secondly, there was a marriage in Herbert’s village. Herbert was keen that I attended the marriage and frankly, so was I.

A large number of Malawis in the north are Christian by faith. The Church however has acted pragmatically, causing least dislocation in their personal lives. It has allowed the natives to follow their animist traits, customs and rituals including long drinking sprees. A Malawian marriage ceremony is a lively soiree over eating and drinking till the stocks last.

Herbert was in his forties but looked more than his age because of his irrepressible desire and capacity to consume alcohol at any hour of the day along with smoking cheap cigarettes. Excessive drinking had made him obese and lethargic. Besides, Herbert was garrulous, often to the point of irritation. His endless chattering at times tested my patience save that my ears were sufficiently trained to accept only what was relevant to the work.
“Herbert, God forbid if you were ever caught in side a building on fire, you will never reach to safety. First, you will start rambling and secondly, you are awfully lethargic,” I remember to have told him once to his dislike.
“Sir, you don’t know, I was in my school football eleven and that too the centre forward. Now, at my age, I don’t have to run around to prove my agility but if a situation demands, I can surprise many like you.”
“You mean you can still play good football?” I egged him.
“That is for the kids now, I can prove it in many other ways,” he said with a mischievous grin.
By then I knew adultery and fornication were the forte of Malawian males. Most of them spent weekends in the bars and the nights with the bar girls, that is if you had enough ‘Kwacha’ - money in your pocket. In fact, I used to find it extremely difficult to sit by the side of Herbert on Mondays when he used to come to the office straight from his weekend revelry. He used to be in crumpled clothes and stinking. Let me add here, Herbert was no exception.

Herbert, I had learnt was the son of a village chief from Mzuzu district. He had seen the authority of his father over his people and imbibed it by instinct. Even though he was a driver, he liked to order around and get the work done from a distance and he would be in the front row to claim credit for a job completed.
The worst of Herbert was his habit of pinching money. I had to take good deal of care to protect my money from him. He would buy grocery for me at double or triple the rates. I had however reconciled to the situation for I knew he was the only driver of the project and I had to bear with him so long as I wanted to work in Malawi.

Passing through the small hamlets, I was pained to see awfully dismal living conditions of the people. One could see men and women with tattered clothes; semi nude, bare foot children playing in the squalor all over. Most of the villagers live in circular huts with mud plastered wall under thatched roofs. They neither have electricity nor water supply and yet they didn’t complain. Malawians are easygoing, complacent people, satisfied with two meals of Nsima, a paste made out of maize flour. Everyone prays for rains during the months of November and December to have a good maize crop. That is the common fate of the rural masses living in the small, beautiful country of Malawi often called as tourists’ paradise.

Malawi derives her name from the word "maravi" which means glowing reflection. The name has been derived from an exalting view of the morning sunrays falling on the lake surface and setting it aglow. The British ruled the country until 1964, which really meant a hold over a large tract of land and its rich flora and fauna. They cultivated tobacco and indentured poor Malawians as labour to the copper and gold mines in Zimbabwe and South Africa. The colonial rulers knew, they didn't have to develop any infrastructure in the country to meet their commercial targets. In fact, it served their purpose best to keep the people illiterate and impoverished.
During the forty five years of independence, various governments have come and gone in Malawi, doing precious little except borrowing from UN bodies, developed countries and donor agencies. The life in the villages where eighty percent of the population lives is simply pathetic.

We reached Mzuzu by eight in the evening. Herbert took me to the forest lodge where a room was booked for me. The lodge was on a rock ledge with the valley spreading towards the foothills of the mountain ranges in the west.
I was tired after eight hours’ rigour. I took a quick shower, had my dinner and went to sleep for I wanted to see the sunrise over the Lake Malawi. I told the watchman to wake me up at five and to make it doubly sure, I put an alarm on my mobile phone. Having come so far, I didn't want to take any chances.

I woke up before my mobile tinkled and switched on the small electric kettle that I generally carry. While sipping my coffee, I put on my T-shirt and half pants and ran out of the guest house barefoot to the rock-ledge just hundred yards away.
As the sunrays surfed over the silken spread of the Lake Malawi, it looked as if the entire lake was aflame. The ripples on the lake surface were breaking in to kaleidoscopic patterns of colours. It was simply amazing, just out of this world. What grandeur of natural bounty! I then realised the meaning of the name, Malawi.
I was sitting motionless, watching intently the noble gift of the nature. Fine cool breeze was caressing and comforting my body and soul. It seemed as if I had reached the pinnacle of peace and comfort leaving behind all travails of life. I had forgotten the wretchedness of the world that we live in.

I was still in my world of romanticism until the watchman brought me back with an apology for not waking me up and wanting to know my choice of breakfast. I told him to leave me alone. For me, those moments were preciously divine and the least I wanted was any distraction in my romancing with the nature.
Herbert’s village was three miles away from the lodge. He was to come and pick me around eleven. The marriage was to take place in the small village chapel.
There was foul smell as we neared the village. Pigs, dogs and ducks were running around and children squatting over the kuchha track leading to a spring, the only source of water. Flies and mosquitoes swarmed as we traversed across the village. No research was required to know why there were large number of cases of hepatitis, cholera and malaria in the country. The inhuman, pathetic plight of Malawian villages is in fact, a slur on the face of civilized societies and donor agencies not tired of tom-toming their contribution in improving the life of the unfortunate natives.

Drinking had started before we reached Herbert’s place. Everyone in the village had come out with his and her best outfit. It was a sunny day and the bright gaudy colours of their dresses were sparkling. The drummers were active and people were dancing around the place earmarked for this purpose. Mindless of the miseries that etched their day to day life, it was gaiety personified that day in that small hamlet in Mzuzu.
Herbert was coming to me off and on and asking whether I was comfortable and enjoying the ceremony. I assured him that I was enjoying every moment of it and that he should not bother.
The marriage party had arrived. The bridegroom was a youngish boy. I was shocked to see his emaciated body and the pronounced limp in his right leg.
On arrival, the bridegroom's side has to give the promised dowry to bride's parents. It had been agreed that the bridegroom’s family will give two goats, five chickens and hundred Kwachas as dowry to bride’s parents. Things until then had gone to everyone's liking.

But now there was an altercation.
Cynthia, the bride was pregnant and the bridegroom was refusing to accept the child as his and claimed that another young man of Herbert’s village was also courting Cynthia and that, though he was still willing to marry Cynthia, he couldn’t pay the full dowry.

The matter was brought before Herbert who by then was in no better condition than the rest after hours of sustained drinking. Some one brought a wooden chair and fitted Herbert in to it with quite an effort.

"Sir, I would like to marry Cynthia but my financial position is very weak. I can not afford to pay the dowry in full," the bridegroom pleaded before Herbert, now acting as the village chief.
"Did you sleep with any other man?" The chief asked Cynthia.
Cynthia apparently was a no-nonsense girl.
"Sir, this man is a speaking the truth. He used to take me to the school after it closed and there his cousin, the school teacher often waited for us. We used to drink before and then make love but that was with mutual consent."
The chief was apparently serious and for the first time I saw Herbert speak solemnly.
"We can not prove the antecedents of the case since the other man is absconding. The fact before us is that this girl is pregnant and the child may come out any time,” Herbert spoke in his typical loud voice.
Then pausing a little he turned to the bridegroom, “You say you want to take this girl as your wife. If so, it is your responsibility to arrange for the dowry. And for that, whether you borrow, beg or steal, it is your problem.”
Everyone lauded the judgement. The bride’s father was simply elated. The bridegroom was visibly depressed.

“Sir, I told you my predicament. I am an orphan and I have no land. I want to marry Cynthia but I need time to arrange the dowry.”
The bride’s father protested to the suggestion. “I wouldn’t allow you to marry my daughter unless you arrange the dowry in full,” he shouted.
The celebrations’ had come to a stand still. The drummers had slumped to ground.

I was a silent spectator. Whose child was in Cynthia's womb? I thought of DNA tests and then laughed within myself. My mind was reeling under these arguments when I saw Herbert pushing the chair and coming out of it and addressing his people.
"I am concerned about the future of this young couple. I don't want this young man to be buried under debt. Debt is like leprosy. Once you get afflicted, it rarely leaves you. I don’t want that to happen to this poor man. I will therefore pay the entire dowry to bride’s father.”

I was startled by Herbert’s announcement and so were the rest. I knew Herbert cheating on small purchases he made for me or for the office. This was a big amount by Malawian standards.
"Wasn’t he the petty, slimy dishonest man I knew?” I was querying to my self again and again but was unable to decide.

The matter having been resolved, the marriage proceedings continued with more eating and drinking. I took leave and as I was taking to the wheels, Herbert came forward and said, “Sir, there will be no dinner in the guest house. The cook is here...I... will bring your dinner in the evening."

Herbert came in the evening with his son. He had brought roasted chicken and fish. Herbert was quite drunk and he had brought a bottle of local brew with him.
"I know you don't like country brew but please try this. It doesn’t stink and gives better kick than whiskey.”
He then shouted for his son and gave him long winding instructions and then he turned towards me, “Sir, I tell you one thing…. every person acts good so long you keep on kicking his arse. Give him a free rope and he is a spoiled man."
I felt inconvenient for I knew I was mild with men working with me and I found it difficult to be curt or harsh. Herbert on the other hand expected men to give him respect. I had often seen him ordering the rest of the staff, including those, senior to him.

We were sitting outside under the clear blue sky. The fried chicken and fish was undercooked but eatable. Suddenly, I asked Herbert, “Wouldn’t you need money to give dowry on your son’s marriage? I mean, weren’t you over magnanimous?”

Herbert took a long sip from his glass and told me, “Sir, God willing, I will be able to arrange the dowry for my son’s marriage whenever required. But did you see the plight of the man, the bridegroom yesterday? He is awfully poor and a cripple. No one even employs him on fields. Who will give him loan? Where can he ever find money to have a wife?”

I was astounded to find a different person before me. And as I kept looking at him, the inimitable mischievous smile was back on his face.

Next day, as I drove back through the beautiful valley, Herbert's words were ringing in to my ears.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


This is a story from a small town of Paori in the hill district of Garhwal, now a part of state of Uttarakhand in India.
Ram Prasad Mamgain was a primary school teacher in Paori. He had a daughter Shristi. Ram Prasad’s wife suffered from tuberculosis. He had often seen his wife coughing and panting for breadth. He would rush to her with a glass of water and medicine on such occasions and try to keep Shristi away from her. Ram Prasad had kept his wife in a separate room with a separate set of utensils. That was the custom those days; the victims of tuberculosis were kept in isolation. No one even talked to them.
Ram Prasad served his wife with rare devotion till the end came. He was then forty-five and Shristi was merely eleven. Ram Prasad Mamgain didn’t remarry even though in his community, men elder to him would have done so. He perhaps had an apprehension that he might have caught the disease from his wife. He was therefore worried for Shristi. She was a bright student and Ram Prasad after long pleading and cajoling was able to shift her to his brother’s place in Lucknow.
“I am sending you away because I want you to concentrate on your studies. Your mother wanted you to be a doctor and I want her dream to come true. Don’t worry about me for I have lived my life and I too want nothing more in my life than to see you as a doctor. I will be sending money to your uncle every month. Your uncle has agreed to the arrangement.”
Young Shristi listened to her father pensively. Her heart ached to leave her father alone.
Ram Prasad continued after taking a long breadth.
“You will have the company of your cousin. He is your age; reads in an English school. I have asked your uncle to get you admitted in the same school.”

Shristi was studious by nature and her father’s words rang in her ears every now and then. She did very well in her school examination and qualified the entrance examination for a course in medicine.
For Ram Prasad, it was the happiest day of his life when Shristi qualified as a doctor. There were not many doctors from their community. In any case, Shristi was the first lady doctor from her community. For Ram Prasad and his folks, it was a big occasion and even though Ram Prasad had never touched liquor in his life, he allowed it to be served in a lavish scale. Ram Prasad him self had to be carried to his room.

A couple of months later Shristi was appointed as a medical officer at Dehradun District Hospital. Ram Prasad had retired by this time and shifted to his village. His fears had come true. He too had been afflicted by tuberculosis. The village people had ostracized him. They neither went to him nor did they allow him to enter their homes.
Shristi went to her village immediately after assuming the charge of her new job and was aghast to see her father. She insisted that he accompanied her.
“I will treat you, it is a curable disease or else I will consider all my efforts to become a doctor have gone waste,” she told Ram Prasad.
Shristi was an enthusiastic young doctor, always encouraging her patients, bearing a smile even when going was tough. She treated her father with dedication and in a year’s time Ram Prasad was nearly cured. Shristi was delighted to see her father up and on his feet.

Shristi was twenty-seven and Ram Prasad was now keen to get her married. “I may not live long. I want to see you married and settled before I leave,” he often told Shristi. Shristi gave her consent.

“I have only one child and she is a doctor. I want an equally qualified boy from a well to do family and make sure, their stars match perfectly,” he told the family priest.

The search for a suitable bridegroom ended with Arvind, the only son of Kula Nand Dimri, a well-established businessman in Kotdwar. Arvind was never a good student, his interest in books waned as he gained access to his father’s money. After several attempts he graduated in the lowest grade. Kula Nand asked him to join the family business.
The family priest was elated on his find.
“Ram Prasad, this is the best match you could get for your daughter. I have studied their horoscopes. Their stars match perfectly. Your daughter will have a long and prosperous happy married life.”
Ram Prasad was happy with the priest who wanted to impress his client further. “The boy belongs to a rich and renowned family of Kotdwar. They have a palatial house and several servants. Shristi will live like a queen.”
Ram Prasad was quizzed for he had lived all his life in Paori and around. “Which family are you talking about?” He asked the priest.
The priest was waiting for the question. He gave a long drag on the cigarette and pausing a little he said, “It is the Dimri family, the richest family of Kotdwar town.”
Ram Prasad knew the Dimri family and that the family was quite rich though it didn’t enjoy the best of reputation.
Ram Prasad wanted to be doubly sure. He knew the family priest was garrulous and a little dicey. For a few chips from Kula Nand, the priest could be exaggerating.
Ram Prasad made copies of the two horoscopes and took them to another priest and he was quite relieved and happy when the other priest also confirmed matching of the stars assuring a harmonious happy married life for his daughter Shristi.

Kula Nand Dimri had acquired an ostentatious life style. He had started as a menial servant in the house of the District Forest Officer posted at Kotdwar when he had come out of his village thirty years ago. Kula Nand but had a sharp mind and knew how to keep his bosses in good humour. Over the years, he had travelled a long way. He was now the wholesale timber merchant of the district, owned two trucks, a passenger bus and his house, Dimri-Mahal was the prominent landmark of the Kotdwar town.
Kula Nand was happy that his son was getting married to a doctor. He knew Ram Prasad Mamgain was a poorly paid teacher and that nothing could be expected from him in dowry. Kula Nand, a shrewd person had his own plan. He wanted Shristi to resign her government job and start private practice. To succeed in his plan he had greased the priest’s palm sufficiently.
The marriage was only a week away. Knowing Ram Prasad’s financial position, Kula Nand took on him self the responsibility of making all arrangements. Things were moving well but Ram Prasad’s mind was at unease. He remembered his father’s words some thirty years ago. “The priests are a greedy lot. They can lie to any extent to make their clients happy.”
Ram Prasad left for Rishikesh telling his people that he wanted to get the blessing of his ‘Guruji’ before solemnising his daughter’s marriage. “I will be back tomorrow evening, he told his younger brother.
Ram Prasad got the two horoscopes examined afresh for the third time and when his ‘Guruji’ confirmed that it was a perfect matching of stars, Ram Prasad was greatly relieved. He returned to Paori a happily assured person.
The marriage was a grand show. People from the small hill town of Paori were suitably impressed. Ram Prasad was quite happy and so was Kula Nand.
The happiness but dissipated much quicker than any one of them would have imagined. Shristi refused to resign her job.
“You work for a paltry sum. I want to make a nursing home in Kotdwar and you will see money pouring in,” her father-in-law impressed upon her.
Shristi didn’t like the idea and Ram Prasad was in a dilemma for he knew Shristi was proud of her job.
“I have hardly any experience and a nursing home needs specialised treatment. Let me work for a few years and gain some experience. We can take up this project a little later,” Shristi tried to persuade her father-in-law.
“Don’t bother, I will hire good experienced specialists, you only have to count the money,” Kula Nand laughed, pleased with his own sense of humour.

Counting money was not the ambition of Shristi’s life. She resisted the move and joined her duty a week later at Dehradun, annoying her father-in-law. A week later Arvind joined her at Dehradun.

Arvind was up set at the very look of the government quarter allotted to Shristi. The door and window panels were cracked and the paint had faded. On the walls, at several places, bricks were showing as the plaster had peeled off. There were cobwebs hanging from the ceiling and ochre patches of rain marks dotted the wall surface. There was a pungent odour inside the house.
Shristi was pleasantly surprised to see Arvind. She knew Arvind was accustomed to better living conditions. She was apologetic about the state of the quarter but promised to get it done up soon.
“Arvind, I am so busy with my work and father is too old to do anything. Any way, I promise to take care at the soonest possible.”
Arvind didn’t respond. Next day he engaged two hands and got the house cleaned up. In the evening when Shristi returned from her office, she was pleasantly surprised to see the house spruced up.
“Arvind, you must have worked the whole day. It looks different. I will now get the repairs done and get it painted.”
Arvind simply nodded. “You must be tired, let’s go out for dinner,” he suggested. Shristi hesitated for she had to cook for her father.
“Please give me a little time. Let me cook something for father and I have to give him an injection.”
“Ah! That will take the whole evening,” Arvind was put off. Trying hard to keep his temper he asked her, “Why do you strain so much? I mean, why you aren’t amenable to my father’s suggestion. Surely, it would make life comfortable.”
“Arvind, try to understand. As a professional, I look for job satisfaction rather than comfort or money for that matter. I would be reduced to a manager in the nursing home, counting money and that is not my vision of life.”
“What’s wrong in that? Aren’t you doing the job for money?”
“Arvind there is difference in what I am doing here and what you are suggesting.”
“It’s plain bullshit. You are not doing a social service. In the ultimate analysis it is money that matters.”
“I wish I could make you understand,” Shristi said, throwing her hands in exasperation. The evening was ruined.

Arvind noticed Ram Prasad often coughing and spitting phlegm. He had a suspicion. The idea of living with a TB patient petrified him.
“What disease is your father suffering from?” He asked Shristi one evening. Shristi looked at Arvind and replied, “He had tuberculosis but he is nearly cured of it.”
Arvind was shocked and shaken.
“What? Your father has TB? No one told us… that priest is a bastard… and you must have known it earlier. Oh God! What a fate, married in a family afflicted by TB?”
“Arvind, please cool down. It is true, my father was suffering from TB but he is nearly cured. I am personally looking after him. I assure you, no harm will come to you.”
“Shut up you liar. I now realise why you rejected my father’s offer. I cannot stay here even for a day; I am leaving by the morning bus.”
The altercation between the couple upset Ram Prasad terribly.
“Son, I will leave for village tomorrow. In any case I don’t have many years left and I can’t see your life ruined for my sake.”
“You are a bigger liar, a crook and a bloody cheat. I am sure even your daughter has TB and soon I too will have it.”
Ram Prasad squatted on the ground before his son in law. “Son, there is nothing wrong with Shristi. After all she is a doctor. Please don’t go away. I will leave early in the morning.”
“You are going nowhere,” It was Shristi who was quite agitated by now. Then turning towards Arvind she said, “I am damned if I abandon my old and ailing father, the one who gave his sweat and blood to bring me to this position.”
Ram Prasad was still on the floor. “Child, my happiness rests on yours. I know you love me but …please let me go… and… if you still try to stop me, I will jump in front of a train.”
Shristi was stunned but resolute. “You will not go simply because someone cannot bear your presence. It is my decision, jumping in front of a train will be yours.”
Arvind was enraged. He rushed out of the house and went to a telephone booth to call his father.
Kula Nand Dimri heard his son and paused. “Arvind, I don’t think you should leave your wife in a hurry. May be Ram Prasad leaves the place……, I think he will do it for he loves his daughter immensely.”
Kula Nand’s words offended Arvind.
“She was your choice, I would have been happier with an ordinary woman. I cannot risk my life and in any case we are incompatible altogether. She has no place for me in her life… it is insulting …...” Arvind broke down.
“Your ego is higher than the Himalayas, not good for a woman,” Arvind said to Shristi before leaving.
Shristi was hurt. “How could you be so inhuman? Would you have done the same thing if it were your father?” She asked Arvind who stammered some expletives and left the place.

That was the beginning of the parting. “May be, I was too strict with him,” she often thought and yet she was not convinced that she should have thrown out her father. She wanted to write to Arvind and apologise but she could not, something always held her back.
Her miseries increased when Ram Prasad who was quite saddened over the events in his daughter’s life passed away in his sleep. And Shristi then found that she was carrying. She wrote to Arvind and pleaded to start afresh.
“Now that my father is no more, we can start afresh. I am willing to leave the job if that makes you happier,” she wrote.
The reply was very brief, merely a few words of condolences. Shristi wrote again and this time she told him that she was going to be the mother of his child. There was no reply from Arvind.

Shristi wrote to Arvind after a son was born to her. Several letters that she wrote thereafter to Arvind remained unanswered and then one day she received a legal notice of divorce. The charge was adultery. Arvind had disowned the child.
Shristi was shocked. She didn’t contest even though she knew she could prove in the court of law that it was Arvind’s child. The court granted ex-parte divorce.

Shristi named her son, Ram Prakash in memory of her father. When Ram Prakash was five, she put him in a hostel and opted for field duties. “I need some extra money for my son’s education,” she told her senior.
“Is this the solution to the problem?”
“What else?”
“You could make new beginning; you have a long life ahead of you.”
“Perhaps there are too many evil stars barring happiness enter my life.”
“That is nonsense, you should make an attempt.”
“Thank you doctor but the passage of time has not been able to heal my wounds. They are still raw and soar.”

Shristi missed her father and her son. One reminded her of her past and the other raised the hope for future. In the evening after the hard trekking in the treacherous sun when she returned to her place, she felt a vacuum in her life. There was none with whom she could share her sorrows. She knew many of her colleagues were waiting for her to fall prey to their lust. Every one believed that a divorcee was easily accessible.

Depression was mounting in her life. She took to drinking. She would bring the liquor quietly and drink to get over her loneliness. It was only a matter of time that everyone in the department came to know of it.
Shristi knew that Arvind had remarried. It was a coincidence that she had received the invite from an old college friend who was marrying Arvind. She sent her a message congratulating her.
“I would have loved to attend your marriage. I am sure you understand my predicament.”
“It was a mis-match,” she had often heard her colleagues say till they forgot her and her story.

That was twenty-three years ago. Ram Prakash grew in hostel and Shristi spent most of her life in the field.

Ram Prakash is a matured young man, and an engineer now with a decent job. He knows the tormented life his mother has lived and her addiction to alcohol.
“No more field work hereafter,” he said to his mother after getting the job. “We will stay together and that will help you get over the problem,” he added.
Shristi was happy that the ill-luck dogging her life had stayed away from her son. She often remembered her past and felt gloomy.
“Was it my fault or Arvind’s or was it destiny? Perhaps we should have tried to understand each other more rationally, tried to accommodate each other. Perhaps…” She could never conclude.

“Ma, do you have my horoscope?” Ram Prakash asked her one evening.
Shristi gave her son a searching look.
“Nirmala’s folks are insisting that our stars must match before they gave their consent.”
Shristi knew Nirmala was Ram Prakash’s girl friend for couple of years.

She looked up and touching him over his shoulder she said, “Son, I don’t have your horoscope but marry Nirmala if you love her. My father too insisted that our stars matched and matched perfectly …… and you know my life.”

Ram Prakash felt sad for his mother.

Shristi resumed after taking a deep breadth, “Son, it is important that you understand each other. Take my word; it takes more than matching of stars for a marriage to succeed.”