I ran into the old trader one cold foggy morning at Palam airport, on my way to Calcutta to attend one of those conferences which have of late become the bane of my life. He was standing ahead of me at the check-in queue, dressed in a faded navy blue sweater that had obviously seen better days. Like me, he too was travelling light with just a tattered old brown bag slung across his shoulders. He was small-built man with a noticeable stoop, his head was almost entirely bald and he must have been at least seventy years old. By the way he carried the brown bag, I could see that it wasn’t particularly heavy.
When my turn at the counter came, there was some delay in issuing me with a boarding pass and I did not see any more of the old man till I boarded the aircraft. He had the window seat adjacent to my aisle seat. As I tucked my hand luggage and jacket into an overhead locker and settled down, he stowed his tattered bag under his seat before sitting down next to me. I wondered why he did not do what everyone else did and keep his bag in one of the bins above us. He must have guessed what I was thinking for he said, ‘I hate to let that bag out of my sight.’ With that and an enigmatic smile, he turned sideways to stare out of his window, only to turn back to me and say, ‘it’s made of crocodile skin, you know.’
That made me curious. ‘I thought hunting crocodiles was illegal,’ I said, hoping to draw him into a conversation. Normally I like to spend my flight time reading something useful and did my best to avoid chatting with anyone, but the old man and his bag had got me intrigued. He didn’t look particularly wealthy, but he could obviously afford to travel by air, which not many people in India can do, despite the recent boom.
‘It wasn’t illegal in Cambodia. Not when I used to do live there. No!’
‘Never been to Cambodia,’ I told him.
‘Not many of our people have,’ he responded with a smile.
‘I have travelled a lot more than the average Indian. I still do.’
‘Been to Vietnam?’
‘No, but I’ve been to Thailand. Once. To speak at a …’ I was going to say ‘at a conference,’ but the old man’s snort of derision stopped me short.
‘Cambodia is quite different from Thailand. Where else have you been?’ he asked me with a sly smile.
I was tempted to take offence, but there was something about that old man, an air of mystery which only goaded me into continuing my conversation with him.
‘A few times to the US, once to London, once to Bern, and to a few cities in the south-east and the far east.’
It was the old man’s turn to tell me of his travel exploits. ‘I’m a trader. Used to be one. Now, I’m retired, but my family still carries on with what I used to do. I have done a lot of business in the south-east. Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Macao, Vietnam. And of course in Cambodia.
‘What about Laos?’ I asked him flippantly. Didn’t you ever go to Laos or Brunei?’
But the old man took my question seriously. ‘I’ve been to Brunei once. But no, I’ve never been to Laos,’ he said.
They soon started to serve us breakfast and our conversation petered out for a while.
‘Was it a good place to do business?’ I asked. ‘Cambodia, I mean,’ I added.
‘There is nothing like a good place or bad place for business. Either you are a good business man or you are not. Do you know the story of two shoe salesmen who went to a village where everyone had bare feet? One said, oh dear! No one wear shoes here. The other said, Wow! No one wears shoes in this village. What a great opportunity to sell shoes!’
‘Did you spend much time in Cambodia?’
‘Oh yes I did. I retired two years ago and handed over the reins to my sons. Till then I spent all my time in the south-east and Cambodia used to be my base. Never stayed there for more than a month at a time though. I was always on the move. On my own all the time. My family was in Calcutta, the sort of lifestyle I had, there was no way my wife and children could have lived with me. I travelled up and down all those countries. But Cambodia was the place I called home during those years. The best place of them all! The most beautiful place on earth! Nice friendly people. Cheap labour. Not too much competition. What more can a man ask for?’
I did not have a ready reply to that question. I guess a businessman who lived in the most beautiful place on earth and had access to cheap labour without having to face much competition was bound to be happy. What would make me happy? A magic formula to prepare power point presentations for conferences and gullible audiences who swallowed everything I told them?
‘I have this cousin who immigrated to America at the time I went to the South-East. I always tell him that he made a mistake. I made much more money in the South-East than he ever did in America.’ I resolved right then and there that if I ever migrated, I would go to the South-East, rather than America.
‘Are there a lot of crocodiles in Cambodia?’ I asked him, wanting to know more about the bag and why he was so attached to it.
‘Oh this bag! I got it from my servant. His father was a crocodile hunter who also skinned the crocs and made bags out of them.’
I don’t think I would ever want to carry around a crocodile skin bag. But I could understand why the old made would want to carry it around. It obviously reminded him of a country of which he had very happy memories.
‘There was a civil war in Cambodia, wasn’t there?’
‘Oh yes, there was. More than one war actually. The Americans bombed Cambodia for many years in the hope of destroying Vietcong and North Vietnamese bases. Still things weren’t too bad. Then they overthrew ..’
‘Sihanouk,’ I said, determined to show that I knew something of Cambodia’s history. But the old man had a faraway look in his eyes and wasn’t in a position to appreciate my knowledge.
‘Yes, the army staged a coup and took over power when Sihanouk was away. There was so much fighting and bloodshed and then ….’ here the old man’s voice faltered. ‘Then the Khmer Rouge took over power.’
We were silent for a while. ‘My servant, the man who gave me this bag, he was killed by the Khmer Rouge. Ultimately I had to leave Cambodia for good. I moved base to Malaysia,’ the old trader said.
‘Pol Pot is no more, right?’ I asked the old man who did not reply. I decided to keep quiet till he was ready to talk again. The old man stared at his breakfast tray and said ‘it was a good place to do business, till I was forced to leave.’ He had finished his breakfast by then and was sipping his coffee
‘I guess you had to leave because of the Khmer Rouge.’
‘Yes.’ He sighed as he finished his coffee. ‘I wished I could have continued to stay there.’
‘You shifted to Malaysia as soon as the Khmer Rouge came to power?’
The trader started at me incomprehensively for few seconds before he said, ‘No, no, as soon as the Khmer Rouge lost power.’