Saturday, 28 February 2009

Short Story: Bias

‘Why did this have to happen in this blasted valley?’ Sameer said aloud, though there was no one else standing nearby. Even if Sameer had raised his voice by many notches, nobody would have heard him as he stood near his car which flatly refused to move. The tall Welsh mountains that towered all around him were covered with snow. Sameer looked at his watch. It was two-thirty in the afternoon. The sun would start going down soon and if he didn’t get help in the next hour or so, he was done for. Sameer tried calling the breakdown service’s emergency help number once again. Call Failed, his mobile repeated.

There was nothing to be done, other than to put on his thick woollen overcoat, lock the car and walk down the road. With luck he would be able to find a house which had people in it. Thankfully it had stopped snowing, even though a bitterly cold wind continued to bite into his exposed face.

Sameer was not an outdoors man. In fact, he hated any work which required him to step out of his bank’s glass-panelled offices. However, this was a job which he could not delegate to a sub-ordinate. The client, a very valuable and old one, had insisted that Sameer give the adventure park tucked away in Snowdonia a personal once-over before he put his money in it. Sameer had been unable to say No. He had grown up in Liverpool, which was actually not too far from northern Wales, where he currently was. But he had put all that behind him. His clipped Oxbridge accent did not have the slightest trace of Scouse and the days of hardship after his parents came to the UK from Uganda were a distant memory.

After he had walked for five minutes, Sameer checked his mobile yet again. No, there was no signal. He climbed onto a large stone and looked at his mobile in the hope that the elevation would make a difference. It didn’t. Sameer looked around him. He could see a large flock of sheep in distance, but there was no sign of human habitation. One would have thought the British government would have found a way of ensuring every nook and corner of this great island had mobile signal coverage! Another ten minutes later, Sameer suddenly came upon a house. It was tucked away into an alcove and was invisible until one came upon it. It was a small house with a neat garden in front and wooden railings all around it. A sign on the gate said “Piano Lessons Given By Experienced Teacher”.

Sameer stood outside the wicket gate and shouted, ‘any body inside?’

There was no response. ‘Hello there! ‘Any body inside?’ Sameer bellowed louder.

Sameer shuddered with frustration. He could already sense the sun’s rays mellowing, ready to disappear. The winter solstice was just a week away. He would now have to open the wicket gate which was held in place by a lever and pass through the garden to reach the front door of the house. I hope to God there’s no dog, Sameer muttered to himself. But whoever had heard of a Welsh household without a dog? Sameer slowly opened the gate and walked in, expecting to be pounced upon by a sheep dog any moment. Was it his imagination or could he hear the faint strains of a piano? As he approached the door, a dog barked. Thank God the dog was inside the house, rather than outside it. And yes, someone was definitely playing the piano.

‘Hello! Anyone home?’ Sameer rapped on the door a few times till he saw a bell hanging a few metres away. He was about to ring it when the piano stopped playing. Sameer rang the bell anyway. A few moments later, the door opened and a woman peeped out, a large dog beside her. Why did it have to be a woman? Sameer asked himself. If it were a man, there was much better chance of receiving some help. I hope to God this woman does not turn out to be one of those dour and unhelpful ones, he told himself. Was this the piano teacher? Sameer wondered. Must be, since the piano was no longer playing.

‘Can I help you?’ the woman asked him in a quiet voice which suggested that she was going to be anything but helpful. She was quite well dressed for a village woman and was in fact good looking. But the rather blank look in her eyes did not suggest a helpful attitude to humanity in general. Sameer had come across millions of women like this one. They would never miss a please or a thank you or fail to hold open the door for you. But when it came to doing a real favour, they would back away. Oh! Did he know such women? Most of his female colleagues were of that sort.

‘Yes, Hi! I’m Sam. Sam from London.’ He had been Sam ever since he came to the UK and started school in Liverpool at the age of ten. Sam gave the women his standard smile, the one he always gave the bank’s customers. It was an effective smile, one without the least hint of plastic or anything else artificial.

‘Hello Sam!’

‘My car broke down and, and… there doesn’t seem to be any mobile coverage out here. I was wondering if …’

The woman did not let him complete. ‘If you were to continue walking, you’ll come to a phone booth and …’

‘Can I please come inside your home and make a single phone call?’ Sameer asked her, his anger showing in his voice. Oh for Chrissake, was he going to attack her if she allowed him inside? Not with a dog next to her!

‘If you were to continue walking, you’ll find a phone booth. And that’s not more than five minutes away.’ The woman’s voice was firm and insistent.

Sameer stood where he was. This was incredulous. He was a banker, it was very cold, the sun was about to set and the woman expected him to walk in the snow for five more minutes!

‘I’d be happy to pay you for the privilege for making a call from your landline.’

‘I’m so very sorry. But I’m alone in the house and … there’s a phone booth not too far away.’ Saying that, the woman actually shut the door in his face.

Sameer slowly walked out of the compound. Would that woman have treated him thus if he were white? No, she wouldn’t have. No way. No. There was no choice but to do what that blasted woman suggested and walk for another five minutes.

The woman who had given so much grief to Sameer went back to her piano. Her guide dog followed her, something he did all the time to make sure that his mistress did not fall down or collide with something. She picked up the music sheets written in large Braille cells and started to play once again. Should she have let that man in? she wondered. No, no, it was too much of a risk. He might have a polished city accent, but that didn’t make him any safer than a man with a Scouse or a Geordie or even a home-grown Welsh accent.

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.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Short Story: The Old Man With The Crocodile Skin Bag

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.’