Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Short story: Unexpected Guests

Thanamal Naidu is bemused when the car stops with a screech thirty yards away from his gate, turns around and drives right in through the knots of wedding guests standing in his courtyard. Not only Thanamal Naidu, but his guests are surprised as well. Their surprise grows even more when four well-fed tourists, clad in shorts with cameras around their necks, disembark from the car along with a driver and walk towards the wedding feast, wide grins plastered on their faces. The villagers are used to seeing cars, lorries and other vehicles trundle past them on the National Highway all day long, the NH5 that runs in front of their homes being a permanent feature of the landscape and their lives, but never have tourists stopped by to enter anyone’s home.

The tourists, two men and two women and their driver saunter in and make themselves comfortable inside the pavilion where the feast is taking place. They do not wait to talk to anyone, as people normally do when they are visiting. But Thanamal and the villagers put that behavior down to cultural differences. Atidhi Devobhava, Regard a Guest as God, the villagers believe and Thanamal Naidu, the richest man in the village, is no different. He puts up a brave and happy smile and welcomes the unexpected guests as if he had begged them to turn up at his son’s wedding. They could have done without the additional guests; it is the wedding of his seventh son and there are still two sons and three daughters to be married off.

Around two hundred people are eating the wedding lunch inside the pavillion. Food is being served by twenty men, bonded labourers from Thanamal’s fields. There are still around hundred and fifty odd people standing outside who are waiting for their turn at the tables, after which a couple of hundred people, the lesser souls such as the sweepers, the cleaners, the herdsmen, the washerfolk, the field-hands and the like, will partake of the wedding feast. Thanamal goes across to the guests and asks them, ‘Is everything okay. Is the food to your liking?’ The tourists do not understand a word of what he says. They talk among themselves in a language he assumes is English. The driver too cannot speak Telugu, having been hired from Delhi. Neither Thanamal nor the villagers can understand a word of Hindi. The driver has a perplexed look on his face, as if he cannot comprehend what’s going on. This is ridiculous, Thanamal thinks. If anyone has the right to look perplexed, he does.

‘Where’s Venkatesh?’ Thanamal demands. Venkatesh, the second son from his second wife, is a maverick. Instead of being content to live off his father’s land like his siblings, he had insisted on finishing the village school and continuing his education in Hyderabad. If anyone can understand what the visitors have to say, it is Venkatesh, who can read, write and speak in English, Hindi and Telugu.

Venkatesh is located in a corner of the pavilion, sulking away to glory. A few days ago, Venkatesh, his mother and elder brother had demanded that a portion of their land be sold to pay for Venkatesh’s further studies in Delhi. He would repay the money within a few years of finishing his studies, Venkatesh had promised. Thanamal was tempted to agree, but his first wife and he children, much more numerous than his progeny from his second wife, had vociferously objected. The bridegroom, Venkatesh’s half-brother had almost hit Venkatesh. Thanamal was forced to take their side. He had tried to explain matters to his second wife, but he had not been very successful.

Venkatesh comes up and speaks to the guests. Thanamal cannot not help but feel proud when Venkatesh confidently speaks to the tourists in English. Ha! Ha! It is the tourists who have difficulty in responding to Venkatesh. After a few minutes, Venkatesh turns around and tells his father, ‘they are French.’ Thanamal does not understand.

‘Fine, but what are they saying?’

‘I don’t have a clue.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘They speak French, not English.’ Thanamal understands. He turns around and explains to the villagers, just to make sure everyone knows it is not Venkatesh’s fault.

‘Ask the driver,’ someone suggests.

Venkatesh turns to the driver and speaks to him in Hindi. This time there is no hesitation on either side. The driver has many a question and Venkatesh seems to be able to answer them to his satisfaction.

‘What does he want to know?’ Thanamal asks Venkatesh.

‘He says the tourists were dying to see an Indian wedding and so he brought them here. He hopes that you are not offended by their unexpected arrival.’

Thanamal does not bother to reply to that question. Instead, he pats the driver on his back and moves on. There are other guests and he has to see to them.

The tourists are soon through with the feast. Thanamal expects them to walk across to where the bridegroom and the bride sit and wish them well. Instead, they get up as if they are at a restaurant and prepare to leave. The two men among the tourists take out their wallets and come towards Thanamal. Trying not to look too offended. Thanamal waves the money away with a smile and points in the direction of the newly weds. The tourists nod at him and troop off, followed by their women, towards the head of the pavilion where the bride and groom sit. The first round is almost over. The guests are abandoning the plantain leaves on which food was served to them and are leaving. To Thanamal’s shock, the tourists once again take out their wallets and insist on giving a few hundred rupee notes to his son and daughter-in-law. Maybe that’s they way they give gifts in their countries, Thanamal thinks. Even the lowest labourer from his field will have the sense to either wrap a gift, or if it is money, to place it in an envelope before gifting it. They may be white skinned and prosperous, but their culture is so much inferior to ours, Thanamal thinks and shrugs his shoulders. Foreigners are indeed funny. Look at the way they dress. Having given away some money, the tourists walk out without as much as a by your leave.

All the guests are shocked by such atrocious behaviour. They are even more shocked when they see another car filled with tourists enter Thanamal’s compound. This time, the tourists are Japanese. They have just started to serve the second round of guests. Thanamal once again hurries out to meet the new guests.

‘Where the heck is Venkatesh?’ he asks one of the men standing near him, though he doubts if Venkatesh can speak much Japanese. Venkatesh has finished his repast and is standing near his gate, admiring his only contribution to the wedding preparation, the wedding banner which his father asked him to hang in front of the gate. Write a nice wedding greeting in English, Thanamal had ordered him. Venkatesh had obliged his father and put up a banner with a lot of English alphabets in it. ‘MOCK INDIAN WEDDING FOR FOREIGN TOURISTS,’ the banner reads in large bold letters. ‘Pay Only As Much As You Please,’ it adds below.

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