The first time I travelled to London for Arpana’s exhibition, Master Gyanchand had said referring to his wife – ‘My son’s mother says that you must take a package of pinnies for our son. Poor Ashok! Who knows what sort of food he gets to eat! Bread and meat! What else do they get there?’
‘Master ji, sometime ago you were boasting that your son is off to England… that you are sending him to Vilayat! And now you worry about what he gets to eat!’
‘We are parents, bibiji,’ Master Gyanchand sighed. ‘This is our destiny… parents must serve their children and worry about them all their lives!’
‘What is the destiny of children Masterji? That they should lord it over their parents all the time, and the parents not even show their unhappiness! Isn’t that so?’
‘Bibiji, it is all kismat. What we were fated to have, we got; and what is in their destiny, they will get.’
Master Gyanchand was talking to me but the sewing machine did not stop.
He would keep up the talking but the machine’s whirring was steady, and the cloth raced out from under the needle at top speed.
Master Gyanchand may be sad, and full of woes, and talk nineteen to the dozen, but the tempo of his hands never slackened. The machine hummed all the time, neither faltering nor slowing down.
Master Gyanchand worked at a tailor’s shop in Patel Nagar. On Sunday, when the shop was closed, he would come over to our house to stitch clothes for a day’s remuneration.
He would settle down at the same spot in our house, and begin tuning the machine. The way a musician tunes his instrument!
He would bend his knee slightly and drink his tea, or lassi, sitting right there. And then, he would stretch out his leg and adjust it to the machine. Neither wasting a minute, nor resting a minute.
Whenever I sat with him, he would tell me about his village, his father and grandfather’s tailoring skills, of his own family and children.
Forty rupees for a day, and five frocks for forty rupees! Had I got them stitched at a shop, I would have had to pay fifteen rupees for each frock.
And if while talking, a frock would be stitched tight, he would say, ‘Don’t worry ji, there is plenty of cloth. I will let out the seam and make it right.’ If the frock was loose, he would tighten it. Whatever time he had lost in this adjustment and alteration, he would make up by taking home the frocks that were incomplete, and deliver them the next day.
The first time he had come home, I had brought over the old machine from Biji’s house. It had not been used for a long time. Gyanchand had kept tuning and cleaning it for quite some time. He disassembled every single part, wiped it, dipped it into oil, and then refitted it.
I wondered to myself if all this cleaning was really necessary? He could have stitched a frock in this time…
I was always short of money. Each rupee had to be watched. Would he be able to stitch five frocks in the time that was left to him?
But, Master Gyanchand was operating on that machine with the intentness of a surgeon. Or like a musician, tightening strings, or loosening them, listening to the sound of each string as he tightened or loosened it.
He told me, ‘Bibiji, if the machine is not tuned properly and aligned precisely, how would it be able to stitch clothes properly? Man should always be in tune with the tools he works with, then alone can his work be really good.’
I gave him a glass of lassi. After that, his concentration grew. He said, ‘Whatever time it had to take, it has taken. But, it will make things easier for the future.’
Was he thinking that I would ask him to stitch clothes every Sunday? How can this poor man know the difficulty with which I had been able to buy the material for these five frocks!
I gave him lunch, which he ate quickly. He perhaps did not need any tuning for that! Gyanchand’s tuning had to do with the machine and the cloth that was being stitched.
By the evening, the five dresses were cut and stitched. But the hemming of two frocks was not done and buttons had not been sewn on two others.
At five, he got up. He set the machine in a corner, covered it with a table cloth, and tucked down the ends of the cover under the machine. The way a child is tucked in bed, so that he may not throw off his quilt and catch a cold.
Then, he made Arpana try on one of the new dresses. Looked at her pirouetting in it and smiled. With great satisfaction he rolled up the other four frocks and told me, ‘I will finish the hemming and the buttons at home. You can take them from the shop tomorrow.’
‘But wouldn’t the owner of the shop be there? And he would be annoyed with you for working for an old customer of his at home!’
‘Bibiji, I am doing a job, and I do it to the best of my capacity and ability the whole day long. But, I am not his slave. Whether I loll around the whole day, or do some work on my free day does not concern him in any way!’
I gave him forty rupees and asked, ‘What do I give you for the work that you will do at home?’
‘What about that? It is half an hour’s work. Don’t you worry. Just give me the forty rupees for the day!’
After that day, Gyanchand became the tailor for our family, and gradually, became almost a member of the family.
Of exile, of floods of tears, troubles, hunger and poverty. Endless years of a never ending struggle.
But no one else stitched our clothes except Master Gyanchand.
No one but Master Gyanchand had ever sat beside me, and shared all his troubles – big and small.
When did I have the time to sit with him? Only when I gave him his food, or when he began the day, or was about to wind up, that I would enquire about his welfare, and he would unravel like the threads of an old quilt.
His elder son, Ashok, the one he had pinned all his hopes on– that he would take up a government job after completing his studies — was a disappointment.
Whenever he failed, Master Gyanchand would be summoned by the school and told that it was not enough to banish children to the school for a few hours, it was also necessary that they should study at home. This would greatly upset him.
‘Had I got out of a car dressed in a suit, the headmaster would have said, “Sir, take care of your son, get him a private tutor. What will you have – a cold drink or coffee?”’
‘A man looks odd in a shabby crumpled kurta pajama. Like a black crow! To be shooed off – so that he should fly away! Or he looks like a wretched dog! The poor man! Pick up a stone and see him run. He will scamper off whimpering.
‘When Ashok fails his exams and his teachers send for me and scold me, their message to me is really this: if I am on the road, cleaning sewers, I should put my son to the same job. Education is not a saucer of cream that one can place before a pup to lap up. There has to be a ‘background’ for it. Children can only learn when there is a congenial atmosphere for it at home… You are a tailor, why don’t you teach him tailoring? Will he become a governor by acquiring an education?’
Whenever this happened, Master Gyanchand would be upset for days.
‘All this the teachers at Ashok’s school told you? Why didn’t you go to the headmaster, and talk to him?’
I was surprised. Can a tailor’s son become only a tailor? And this is what a teacher says? Is there a caste system even in acquiring education? Is there a demarcating line, and anyone from the other side wanting to cross it gets his ankles broken?
‘No, they didn’t say that; but everything is not put into words. You may say many things by your tone and harshness of the language.’
And he would fall silent, and descend into the valley of his dilemma.
Not only Ashok, but even his younger son and daughter considered education a waste. It was unnecessary, and Master Gyanchand’s tailoring was garbage.
This can be done only by a child of man – to sneer at the work that his parents do, work that feeds him, gives him a roof over his head, clothes to wear, and to look down on his parents for doing that work.
The teachers and headmasters of three different schools would send for Master Gyanchand and scold him. He was fed up, caught in a trap, he found it difficult to break out of it. But, I don’t think he ever thought of breaking free.
That was his life, and he had to live it.
I would say, ‘Masterji, why do you force them to study? You spend so much of money and also bear the humiliation the school authorities heap on you. Why don’t you teach them all that you know, and they will help you and also earn their own living?’
‘O ji! I didn’t want them to do what I do. I wanted them to escape this by getting an education. And then, this is the last resort – this machine.’
It was the first time I heard the sobs muted by the whirring of the machine.
The sound of this weeping must have been heard by generations of those working on these machines. That was why Master Gyanchand was desperate to change the course of the lives of his children – and show them the path to a better world through education.
And all along I had been thinking that Master Gyanchand was proud of his skills and talent! It was merely wishful thinking on my part!
Who can say what lies hidden in the recesses of a man’s heart, something that he has hidden from all eyes! Who knows if it is good or bad!
Did Master Gyanchand ever know it?
After years of loitering and giving up every job that he took up, Ashok declared his mind, ‘If I work, it would be in England. If you want me to work, send me to England.’
Master Gyanchand had taught him tailoring, but he was not interested. Whatever job Master Gyanchand arranged for him, he would give up in a short while, and sit at home.
He would go out, and loiter about the whole day long, and come home only to eat and sleep.
‘This is all due to our karma in our previous births, bibiji! I must have been in debt to him in my last birth, and now he has come to recover his due. All three of them are here to settle their claims. Had they finished their education, even then it would have been something! Now…?’
‘Masterji, what use is this education! Should one not learn a skill?’
‘Education could get him a good government job in any office, either a clerical one or even a peon’s job: at least he would be going to the office dressed properly! A government job is something different, otherwise people take you to be low and mean!’
Gyanchand was revealing an age old sorrow buried in his heart.
It is very painful to expose ancient wounds.
One of Ashok’s ne’er do-well friends, had reached England after paying a hefty sum to an agent. That friend wrote to Ashok. ‘Tell your father even if he has to mortgage his house, or borrow money, he should send you here. It is great fun here! Foreign liquor, foreign girls! What do you have there? Work the whole day long, and even then you don’t get a decent wage at the end of the day! Here you are paid in pounds! Pounds! A pound is worth twenty rupees! After working for an hour you are paid three pounds! Now you can yourself calculate how much is the wage for one day!’
That was it! Ashok declared that he would not do anything here — that is, in Delhi. No one appreciates you here! It is only the white people who can really appreciate work! By paying twenty pounds for one day’s work! You can yourself calculate – one pound is worth twenty rupees! If you really want me to work and earn a living, then send me abroad, otherwise do not reproach me. Whether I gallivant the whole day long or gamble, I will do whatever I want.
Master Gyanchand arranged for the money and sent him abroad.
Now, Master Gyanchand was saying, ‘You are going abroad. Take pinnies for my son. You must do so.’
‘Where does Ashok live?’
His face lit up with a proud smile, ‘He is in Munich!’
‘But that is in Germany! We are going to London.’
‘How does that matter! How far would London be from Germany? That is Vilayat, and this also is Vilayat! The distance between the two would not be more than the distance between Delhi and Ludhiana. That way you can meet the boy also, and ask after his welfare. He must be enjoying himself, as it is. He has sent us money twice. He must be earning a lot! Must be. After all, the wages there are high. But you know a mother’s heart! She yearns for him to eat pinnies made by her!’ Gyanchand smiled.
‘And you? Are you happy?’
‘How does that matter, ji! I sold the house in the village for his sake, thinking that my son will become an officer after getting educated. It would mean a better life for us also. But he used to say, what use is education! So and so’s son is driving a three-wheeler, and that also on daily wages! That one’s son is a B.A. and he is a peon! What use is this education? If one has to tramp about on roads, then why study? What can I say, bibiji! You know all about it.’
I knew. I knew all about it. How many days he didn’t go to school! He would get ready, take his lunch box, and school bag and go off, and then come back when it was the time for him to come home.
It was after many days that they discovered that he was not going to school at all. His mother thrashed him and wailed, ‘Then why do you take your lunch?’
‘Why? Does one get hungry only at school? Even if you loiter in the lane, or are sitting in a park or on a chabutara, you do get hungry.’
‘Why were you born? To be the death of me?’
‘Why? Did I send you a letter asking you to give me birth?’
And Gyanchand was worried about the other two kids, ‘If they also go astray?’
Well, finally, Ashok was sent abroad.
When his son sent him money for the first time, Master Gyanchand brought a box of sweets for us.
‘The distance from London would not be more than the distance between Delhi and Ludhiana. It is said that the trains there are faster than aeroplanes. You will be in Munich within four hours! Stay with him. Why spend money on hotels? It is your son’s home. He will take you round and show you the town also.’
But we could not meet Ashok on this trip.
We did go to Europe on a travel plan, but did not enjoy it. It seemed that we had travelled but had not seen anything. We did visit the Louvre in Paris. We saw Berne and Basle in Switzerland. We wandered on the bank of Lake Geneve. But all this is not visiting Europe!
For instance, they wasted a half day in taking us around the diamond cutting factory and the cheese factory in Amsterdam. We did not see the Van Gogh Museum or any art gallery!
They did not take us to Munich. We saw something of Frankfurt and Bonn and that was all of Germany that we saw!
Gyanchand was sorely disappointed when we came back. He said, ‘I knew it! You were not even going to attempt seeing him. That was why you did not take the pinnies.’
I tried to convince him, ‘Believe me, we would have definitely gone. I told you about the pinnies. We did not forget them, but did not take them because the travel agent had told us that the custom officers would have thrown them out at the airport, they do that with all eatable stuff. They think that the eatables are full of germs, and through them, different diseases will come into their country. It was our first trip abroad, and we got scared. Next time we shall surely take them. Arpana has an exhibition next year too!’
He told Arpana, ‘Look here girl, I stitched your dresses when you were born. Now, that you are grown up, even now you wear clothes that I stitch. See that next time you don’t avoid me.’
‘Surely not. Now we have learnt to face custom officers, and also learnt the way one can avoid them. Next time, I will hide the pinnies in my bag, and spray plenty of perfume on top, so that they will not be able to smell the pinnies.’
Next year, Arpana and I went again to London and took Gyanchand’s pinnies with us.
When Arpana’s exhibition was over, we decided to tour Europe with Bal. He had a car and we all travelled in that.
Bal was studying medicine and he had vacations at that time. We had met him at a party where his singing had impressed us profoundly, and since then he had become a dear friend.
This time we toured Europe in a leisurely way.
If we liked a city or a village we struck camp, and visited art galleries and museums.
When we reached Munich, it was evening.
We were very tired. Though the European highways were smooth and the car was very comfortable, it was still very tiring to read road signs, and pore over maps, and by the evening all three of us were exhausted.
‘I suggest that we spend the night in a hotel,’ Bal said. ‘Where will we go looking for Gyanchand’s son at this time? We will look for him in the morning and then move into his place. Then, we shall tour Munich. If he can come along, well and good, for then we will not have to ask for directions all the time.’
We spent that night in a hotel.
In the morning, we checked out, and set out to look for Ashok at the address Gyanchand had given us. Gyanchand had written the road, lane number – everything. He had told us that Ashok was working in some garment factory.
When he had told me, I had laughed, ‘Masterji, you had done your best to take him away from the sewing machine! It is the same machine which is now helping him earn his living abroad!’
Gyanchand also laughed, ‘You were right! It is more important to acquire skills. Wherever one may go one can earn one’s living! What is there in education!’
We located the road. After some going about, we also found the lane. How could there be a factory in this clean, but extremely narrow lane? We were looking for the factory with the name ‘Du Pont’ with some perturbation…
We found it and when we went in we discovered that it was not a garment factory but an Italian restaurant.
The man at the counter – owner or manager – looked at us suspiciously, because we did not sit down at a table but stood in the centre of the restaurant with astonishment written all over our faces.
‘Is there an Indian working here?’ We asked. ‘His name is Ashok, and he comes from Delhi. He has been here for a year and a half.’
‘A year and half ? Ashok? India? No, no, we don’t employ any Indians. There is no Indian here.’
There was irritation in his voice, bitterness in his tone. He probably wanted to scare us with the sharpness of his pronouncements. Wanted us to disappear!
We showed him the address Gyanchand had given us – ‘Sir, the name of the establishment is the same. The road and the lane are also the same.’
‘Is ‘Du Pont’ mine or yours? Do I or do you know if an Indian is working here or not? Our policy is not to employ Indians.
An Italian waiter was watching us from a corner. Silently. Sympathetically. Perhaps, he was unhappy at this insult being heaped on three good people. There was something lurking in his eyes which touched us. We trooped out.
I said, ‘That Italian waiter will come out. Let’s wait for him’.
And we stood close to Bal’s car, waiting for the waiter.
Ten minutes or so later, he came out. Drawing close to us, he said, in an undertone, ‘You go to the lane behind this. Right behind this restaurant.’
And he went back into the restaurant quickly.
In the narrow lane behind the restaurant, stood Ashok at its back door. Dirty clothes. Ashen face. Sad, harassed and morose.
Quickly, he led us up the stairs. The iron spiral stairway, clinging to the wall, like a serpent. Reaching the top, he opened a door. We also followed him. He kept looking nervously over his shoulder as if he was being followed.
The room we entered was hardly eight feet wide, with a low ceiling. More an attic than a room. A dirty bed lay on the floor close to a wall, and it was on this bed we were made to sit.
There was another bed next to the opposite wall – crumpled, dirty and unmade in the same way as the one we were sitting on.
There was very little open space between the two beds. In the corners of the room were a few large cartons, with colourful labels.
These cartons were the only thing that shone in that dismal room. Everything else had a forlorn look. Beds, clothes, Ashok, everything. Surely this attic was the store room of the restaurant, and these two boys were employees of the restaurant, and these two beds belonged to them.
Ashok stood there – a little downcast.
‘Come and sit, yaar,’ Bal pulled him by the hand and made him sit.
I was examining the walls. Dusty, with a row of pegs above both beds. Cobwebs in the corners and the roof. I was surprised! The spiders here spin these fine fragile cobswebs, the way spiders of our country do! Spiders, fish, mice, cats, the various birds and animals, all live in the same way all over the world; it is man alone, who is different everywhere, who changes his lifestyle and also his psyche.
Few of Ashok’s clothes hung on a couple of pegs above his bed. But what was this? My eyes encountered a dress, bra and panty hanging on a peg. The frock under the bra and panty. In a way, anyone looking into the room cursorily, was bound to see these clothes.
Arpana had also seen these clothes, the way I did. Bal pretended not to have seen them.
Ashok was quiet, but then, perhaps feeling that he had to say something in his defense, to these ambassadors sent by his father, he said, ‘This is the only way for anyone coming into this country illegally. You pay a German woman something, get a marriage certificate, you keep few of her clothes hanging in your room, and when the police suddenly swoops down on you, this is proof that the certificate you show is not false, and your wife is living with you.’
Bal smiled. He had relaxed slightly.
‘Arre yaar! Do not worry, whatever you may have to do to hoodwink these white people is legitimate,’ Bal reassured him. ‘We are working here, and are not living on their charity. We are earning our bread. Look at me, I was six when my uncle brought me to England. I used to run about the lanes of my village with two plaits like girls. I went to school if I wanted to, and if I did not feel like it, I played about the whole day long.
‘One day my uncle who had come visiting us from Birmingham, said to my father ‘Bhai Sahib, I have to repay what you have done for me. You mortgaged your land to send me to England. Now, I am well settled there, have a house, and also a car. I have my children. This time I am taking kaka with me. He will stay with us.’
My father answered, ‘Take him, he is like your son; his life will also improve…’
‘My uncle looked for some family documents. God knows, if there were some documents or he got them made, I don’t know. I was hardly six years old. He substituted his name in place of my father’s. Evidence was produced, witnesses attested the papers and government verification was also procured – and he brought me here.’
Bal had narrated this story to encourage Ashok , but he buried his face in his knees and began crying. Only his neck and his arched back could be seen.
Bal took him in his arms and said, ‘No, yaar, one has to face up to battles of life like a man. You are behaving like a kid…’
‘Bhaji, your uncle was with you. Here you can’t even see a bird from your country. And then, the fear of the police! Go out from this wretched room and get into the restaurant’s kitchen from the back door. Washing up the whole day long. I start work at seven in the morning and keep on working till midnight or even beyond. In the morning wipe and clean everything in the kitchen. Clean up the gas oven. Prepare the fish, knead the pizza flour. Hundreds of chores to be done. And then the customers start coming in and you go on washing dishes. God knows what sort of soap I am given to wash the crockery that I have a burning sensation in my hands the whole day as if some one has rubbed salt on bitter gourd.’
Then, Bal also started talking about his childhood and his very own bitter gourds !
‘Listen to this story of my uncle. He had brought me to England as his own son, but on reaching England I discovered that he was driving a bus and that my aunt was working in a factory. They had two small children, a girl of two and a half, and a year old son. I was pampered for a couple of days by my uncle. New clothes were bought for me. I was taken to the barber and my two plaits were chopped off. When I looked at myself in a mirror. I saw my own face looking like a scraped potato. I cried and my uncle laughed! ‘You look like a Sahib, son! Sahib bahadur!’
‘Both would get ready in a rush in the morning. What getting ready! It was more like splashing water on their faces and changing. I was told how the two kids had to be fed. There was bread, butter and milk for them.’
‘You also eat,’ I was told. ‘Everything is in the fridge. Milk, bread, butter, cheese and whatever you want. Your aunt will be home in the evening and cook. We will all eat together,’ uncle told me.
‘My aunt warned me: ‘Don’t open the door even if anyone knocks. Don’t go out.’
‘Days passed. I would cry to myself all the time.
‘Then I told my uncle, ‘I want to go to school and study.’ My aunt frowned and gave my uncle a meaningful look, ‘If he goes to school then the problem of the kids remains’, she pointed out.
‘At first, my uncle also kept quiet. Then they discussed it, and he said, ‘We will drop the children at the crèche on our way to work, as we did earlier.’ Aunt said, ‘If we had to spend all this money on the crèche, then what was the use of spending all that money to get him here?’
But, this time my uncle did not listen to her. He told me – ‘Look kaka, if you want to go to school, then I don’t have money for the school. Here children of your age deliver papers, or milk, and earn money. You are very young, you may even break milk bottles, but you can deliver the papers. Can you ride a bicycle?’
‘I had tried my hand at cycling a couple of times in the village, and had fallen off a few times. But I said, ‘Yes, I know how to ride a cycle’. Then they got me a bicycle I could ride. It would still be dark when I would get up, collect the papers from the depot and deliver them house to house, and then go to school.’
It seemed as if the fun-loving Bal, who laughed and sang all the time, had disappeared. It was a new Bal, serious, sad, trying to hide his tears, that we saw for the first time.
Isn’t it strange? A person whom you have known so closely for two years, heard him sing late into the night, who has talked to you about all possible things under the sun, has travelled with you all over Europe – towns and villages, and has sometimes shared rooms (where we both would sleep on the bed, and he would take the sofa), yet, you don’t seem to know anything about him, his childhood, the searing pain in his heart.
It often happens that you may have known a person for years, and you remain unaware of the problems he has faced, and the troubles tucked away in the nooks and crannies of his heart, and in the cobwebs of his mind.
When you discover that, you want to know where he was hiding all the searing pain all this time!
Bal had begun his story as a show of support to Ashok, but once he had started he couldn’t seem to stop.
It seemed as if he was telling Arpana and me about his life, feeling that he had to tell us about himself, for that is what friendship means, and friends have a right to look into a friend’s heart.
He had started talking to Ashok, but then we all joined in – Ashok, Arpana and I, the two of us more than Ashok, and now he was telling us the story of his life.
He looked at the floor, patted the empty space between the beds with his hand, as if all this was hidden in those spaces. His past, and he was unraveling it all, bit by bit.
It is very painful to lay bare your past, layer by layer, with your own hands – and that also as others look on, in the full harsh light of day. To tell strangers the pain and anguish which had wracked you.
‘Then I would go to school. Come back and do the shopping for my aunt. Take the kids out to the park to play. Keep pushing the pram all over the park.
The day would pass.
Now, when I myself think about it, I cannot believe it. It surprises me. A six-year-old child to get up before daybreak, ride a bicycle in deep snow, delivering papers!’
‘That is fine, brother,’ Ashok was now recovering some of his confidence, ‘but if the police were to catch me and throw me out, or send me back to Delhi, what will I tell my people at home? Why did I come back?’
‘Even if you do have to go back, you would be going back to your parents. Parents have very large hearts. They can forgive even murder if it involves their children!’
‘No, Bhaiji, these days they may forgive murder, but they cannot bear to see their hard earned money go waste. Then, Papaji had also borrowed money to pay the agent.
‘These agents also draw such a rosy picture, that, despite having sight, one tends to become blind! He told us that we would be taken to a certain spot and taken in across the border. Our people would be there, and once we are in Germany, we would be safe. Walk with confidence, and if someone talks to you, look them in the eye. He also gave us the address of a lawyer, and told us to go directly to him and he would make all the necessary arrangements.
‘We met the lawyer. There were four other boys from Delhi with me. We had come to know each other fairly well while travelling. We told him that he should make arrangements for all of us at one place and tell us what he will charge us.’
‘That was very sensible of you,’ Bal commented.
‘If you have been a vagabond all your life, this much sense you do acquire!’
We were now a little more relaxed.
‘Bus, ji, he made a few calls and asked some girls to come over. He told us marriage licenses would have to be procured as also divorce papers, which would remain with those girls. They will not meet us, nor should we try to contact them. The day we do, they will present the divorce papers before the court and I will support them. You must, therefore understand this well, that they are not your wives, these pieces of paper are your wives. You would get a few of their clothes which you should hang up so that they can be clearly seen. If the police ask you, then you can say they are at work. If they raid you at night, then you can say that they are out with friends. And if they get adamant, then call me. I’ll send the girl over for an hour or so, and also talk to the police.’
‘He also told us, that after the marriage, we would have to file the application for immigration, citing marriage to a German girl, and asking for permission to live here and take up a job and look after our family. It can take six months or it could take six years. You may win or lose. There is no guarantee. Get to work and earns some money. That’s it.
‘We were told that these girls would take five hundred deutschmarks each and we were also told that we were being charged less, because we were very poor, and his fee would be two thousand deutschmarks. It would be his responsibility to fight the case as long as it took. We would have to be present at every hearing, and we would have to ensure the prsence of the girls. As they would have to take the day off from their employers, they would each charge fifty deutschmark for every appearance.
‘But we don’t have any money! We hardly have money to eat, we do not know where we will stay for the night,’ We were very upset.
‘This means arrangements for jobs must be made fast,’ he answered. ‘But wherever you work, you will have to remain in hiding. Don’t go chasing the city lights at night. Don’t even try to meet each other ! Arranging jobs for each one of you would cost you five hundred deutschmarks each!’
‘How will we pay?’
‘You will earn and pay, you fools, what else! You do not have hidden treasure!’
‘He placed the papers before us, ‘Here, if you agree to this proposal then sign here, and start your payments from your first salary. You would have paid off everything within one year. Then, you can earn and live comfortably.’
‘That lawyer got me a job in that restaurant, and the other boys got jobs elsewhere.’
‘And you people started working?’
‘What start did we have, brother! It was like a blind-folded ox in the oil mill, going round in the same circle. We kept running! Out of breath, but we ran!’
‘And that lawyer must be twisting your tails every now and then, because he had to recover his money?’
‘He doesn’t let us forget that we owe him money! That we are criminals and illegal immigrants! He is like a cat playing with us mice.’
‘It is this thing which breaks a man when he is innocent, yet the whole world takes him to be a criminal! Then, the anxiety that if you do not send money home the family will be in trouble, always gnaws at you. A year has passed and the loan has not yet been paid. Then, at every appearance in the court he takes a hundred marks. In our country cases are heard at long intervals, but here….
‘After a year, I was able to send some money home. But I have been able to send it only twice. Perhaps, the debt would never be repaid. It seems that this month, the instalment may be a little less, but the case is still going on! Even if there is no hearing the lawyer takes his hundred deutschmarks on some pretext or the other. Sometimes it is to pay the police! Another time it is to get the documents typed up for the court.’
‘Yaar Ashok, lawyers are the same all over the world. They are always ready to help themselves to the money in your pocket.’
‘You are right, bhaji. He now tells me that my girl wants to get married, and he would have to present the divorce papers in the court. He will also have to inform the immigration people. Girls have increased their rates for such paper marriages, and it will cost me a thousand marks now. Another marriage must be arranged, or the case would have to be withdrawn from the immigration because there has been a divorce. There is then no case, and I should be ready for deportation.
‘Now I am working overtime to save enough money for the second marriage. I have not been able to send money home for four or five months and have also not written home, and that is why they must have sent you to find out about me.’
That’s not true, Ashok. They have sent pinnies for you with great love, and they are eager for word of your welfare.
‘That is the thing! Welfare is just a cover…. They want to know what the real situation is! What mischief I am up to here! How much am I wasting on liquor and the like! Wasting money on girls, for he certainly is not sending money home!’
He sat there for some moments, a bleak look on his face. Then suddenly, he got up and said, ‘I have not even offered you water. Bhraji, I’ll get some beer for you. And what should I get for you, juice, coke or something else?’, he asked Arpana and me.
We were not about to drink beer, having never drunk it. But his hesitation and asking us for a coke or juice appealed to us, for it indicated that he had still not broken away from his traditions.
‘I’ll get some fried fish or pizza for you.’
‘No, kaka! We have to visit so many other places yet.’ We got up. ‘We have to visit galleries, and museums. We will have to look for directions and it is almost afternoon now, and we have to go back by night.’
We also knew and so did he that we did not want him to spend his money on us. We were aware and so was he that the Italian downstairs must be looking for him.
‘I will call a boy to go along with you to show the way. He will be here within five minutes.’
‘But he also must be having a job. Why do you want him to take a day off ? We have the city map. That will help us find our way. We have been able to locate you in this lane, would we not find the museums?’ We were laughing, so that he may feel a little relaxed in all this dejection.
‘Aunty ji? I am your bua, you ass… call me buaji.’
Lowering his eyes, he said in a forlorn voice, ‘Buaji! Don’t tell papaji that ‘Du Pont’ is not a garment factory. He would be very unhappy to find that I am not working as a tailor, but only washing dishes.’ His voice choked.
I hugged him, ‘Silly boy, No work is small in a foreign country. You are here to earn money…’
‘No, that is not true. Papaji finds a government job better than a tailor’s job. Had I taken up a government job after my studies, even if it was only a peon’s job, I would have gone out every day properly dressed. Neighbours would have been impressed, and also relatives! All would have said, ‘Master Gyanchand’s son has become a babu, and that too in a government office!’ The family would have been happy that I had helped them stand taller in their community.’
‘Even then you would not have earned as much as Master Gyanchand. You could not have sent your son abroad.’
‘Buaji, it is not always a matter about money! Position also matters. If no one respects you, you cannot show your face in the community. Then, Guddi has to be married as well.’
A vagabond was spouting wisdom and talking of honour and respect, good job, social position, and expressing his concern about his sister’s marriage!
Your struggles teach you many things. No school or university can teach you these things. It is life alone – with all the problems and obstacles you encounter – that teaches you these lessons.
Then he was back to the present. ‘Oh yes, shall I call that boy? He is not working. He had come to Munich to meet us for a day. He will show you around the whole day. Where will you headed?’
‘We don’t have to go to Berlin, we think that we should go back from here.’
‘Perfect! That would suit him too. He could be dropped off at the highway, the crossroads from where the road proceeds to Nuremberg. It wouldn’t be more than fifty or sixty miles from here.’
‘Right,’ we told him.
He quickly went down and was back in about two minutes with a slim boy, ‘This is Noni. He will guide you.’
It was obvious that no one had been summoned by a phone call.
Noni’s hands were still wet. Perhaps, he had been washing plates in place of Ashok downstairs. And probably that is how his Italian master had given him an hour off to meet us.
We visited different galleries and museums following the directions on the city map. We would find out the name of the street and then look for it. Noni did not seem to know much about the city. But since he had come with us, he tagged along with us. Whenever the name of the street was written only in German, he would read it for us.
We came to a bustling street lined with shops on either side. I said, ‘Let’s also look at the shops. We may not buy anything. We have very little money to spare. Let’s just go around.’
Noni interruped, ‘Things are very expensive here. They overprice their goods.’ ‘If you want to do some shopping, then do it in Frankfurt. There the prices are lower. There are shops outside the station, and you can get everything there.’
‘We are not buying anything,’ I replied. ‘We just want to have a look. Window shopping!’
‘Yes, we can have some coke too. I am very thirsty,’ Arpana said.
Noni appeared to be unhappy, ‘Then, when will we go back?’
Bal answered that, ‘Why should we head back right now? Who knows where we will get a place to stay! We have to spend the night somewhere, let it be in Munich.’
‘But will we get a hotel room?’
Noni was still unhappy and also flustered.
‘What of a hotel! Lets go back to the one we stayed at last night.’
‘All right, then I’ll go back and sleep with Ashok. I’ll come back to you in the morning. Give me the address of the hotel.’
Bal had the card of the hotel in his pocket. Giving it to him he said, ‘We will leave very early in the morning, about five-thirty or six.’
Arpana intervened, ‘No, we will start at seven, what is the sense in ruining our sleep? Then we are on the road the whole day long.’
Noni answered, ‘I’ll be there at five. I’ll wait for you in the lobby. You can sleep as long as you want.’
He went back. Bal said, ‘Thank God, I was worried that we may have to book an extra room for him.’
His concern was ours too. We were all worried about where Noni would stay at night. We had very limited money, and we were in a foreign country. We were not in a position to afford another room.
We had made no provision for hotel expenses in Munich. Master Gyanchand had told us that we should stay at his son’s house.
Next morning, when we came down, all packed and ready to leave, we found Noni waiting for us in the lobby.
It appeared that he could wait interminably. Many tire of waiting, and others get used to waiting. Noni seemed to belong to this category, he could wait for someone the whole day long.
Noni, as we learned, was one of those who could wait for life. For better times. For a life free from fear. To be able to somehow reach America!
But all this we learnt later. Now, we had reached the highway. Noni was no longer afraid, and was sitting next to Bal in the front seat, talking to him with great confidence.
‘I have been here for eight years now. I have had to spend my hard earned money on lawyers’ tricks. We are simple people. And they also know that a man who is an illegal immigrant can’t go anywhere! If I were to protest, then he can always inform the police, and I would have to go to prison, and then be sent back to India.
‘I have also got married. So far, I have got married six times. It is a business for these girls. They appear before the marriage registrar, dressed up like fairies. All in white. Sign the register, come out and shove the marriage certificate in your face, hand over a bag of old clothes to hang up on a peg in your room. And ask for your signature on the divorce papers which they put away in their bags. And after a year or a little more, you are told that she is getting married and is filing divorce papers in the court. You have to appear before the judge and give your consent.
‘The lawyer says, ‘If you go to court and say you also want a divorce because our way of life is different, our customs are different, we don’t agree on many things, or that she doesn’t want to go to India to meet my parents and so on, then you must understand I will not find another girl for you to marry. And it is I who am dealing with your immigration application.’
‘One is caught between the devil and the deep sea. You dance to whichever tune the lawyer plays. We curse ourselves. Had we been at home, at least someone would have been there to cry over you if you were to die. Here, you do not even want to die all alone!’ Noni’s voice was full of tears.
‘What is your situation these days?’
‘There was no money for the next marriage and the immigration application has also been dismissed. Now, I’ll have to find a new lawyer to file the appeal. Obviously, he is going to be a bigger lawyer than the previous one, and he is going to take a bigger fee. But money…
‘I have also risked crossing the border a few times. I had heard that the Austrians were not so bad; or else, one can go to Sweden or Norway. I know many people there, and the employment situation is also said to be good. But it is all a matter of luck. I have not yet been able to arrange anything.
‘When I had set out from my village, I was full of hope, ready to face whatever came. But, now the fear of the police has made me a coward. I am scared to cross the frontier. If the customs people were to shoot you, then? They will not think twice of burying you in any hole. Unclaimed corpse! And people at home will keep waiting for a letter all their lives.
‘I send them a letter every three or four months, and tell them a few stories: ‘What a great time we are having here – a good job. But forgive me for not sending you any money, as I am saving to set up my own business. Who wants to work for others all one’s life? I’ll either start a restaurant or a garments shop. You just see. I’ll send tickets for all of you. Come and stay with me. You can then see with your own eyes what heaven is! I have got married, but when I bring her to the village and get married there, that would be the real ceremony. With your blessings, in the presence of the whole community. I will not let her wear jeans etcetera. She looks very pretty in salwar-kameez.’ Bas, we write stories like this. In those letters I even have a son, who goes to school in red shoes, and asks to see his grandmother.
With a touch of black humour, he added, ‘If these so called “in-laws” of mine shoot me as I cross the border, then who will write these letters?’
Noni said, ‘Drop me at the next milestone, after the next turn. I’ll catch a bus for Nuremberg.’
‘How far is Nuremberg from here?’
‘No, no, I cannot give you any more trouble.’
He seemed to be flustered.
‘No trouble at all! We don’t have to attend an office or appear in a court! We have plenty of time. If we don’t see one town, we can see another.’
With this, Bal turned the car towards Nuremberg.
Noni seemed to lose heart. In a dead voice he said, ‘There is nothing to see in Nuremberg. It is a city like any other. Only an old prison … like barracks. The Nazis were imprisoned there when the war ended. Tried there. Hitler went scot-free because he committed suicide. Those who had amassed wealth escaped and many of them are still living in Latin America, and in other countries under different names. But the ones who were caught, they were lodged here, and hanged. That is the Nuremberg prison. It is an executioner’s town.’ His voice seemed to be coming from within a deep well.
‘But Noni! These cruel beasts had put six million Jews to death. They had to be hanged.’
‘Big beasts always escape and go free, it is only the small ones who get caught.’
‘You are right.’
‘But the jails that had been built for housing the killers of millions of Jews, are now being used for housing innocent lambs.’
‘Brown lambs. Sometimes there may be a white or even a yellow lamb also.’
‘Look there, that building you see in front, just stop the car there. I’ll just talk to the guard and get the car inside.’
Bal stopped the car outside, and Noni went in.
‘Lambs! Lambs!’ Noni’s words hung in the air around us, droning like bees in our ears.
It was a strange building. Its high wall rising straight from the ground. Tall and high. Like an old fortress.
But forts do not deceive. They proclaim what they are with a flourish. Ancient. The kings in ancient times built forts to live in, to keep their queens, to house their armies and their officers, to secure their treasures, and to save their kingdoms from attacks. These days, only ancient winds dwell in them. Bats roam freely and have their resting places, for they feel safe within these old thick walls.
But this long high wall appeared like any other ordinary wall, though there was something in its breadth, the arrogance with which it stood erect and high, which announced: ‘Don’t be taken in. I am stronger than the wall of any fort. Strong and durable.’
And its top-most edge was like a bad line drawn on the sky. Neither a door nor a window.
On the left side of the building one could see the corner of a verandah, with a table and a chair, on which a fat German in uniform could be seen sitting with his legs splayed. His face was a round football, and he had a big paunch, which seemed to be straining at the buttons of his shirt.
An open register lay on the table.
Noni was talking to him
The German appeared to be very angry. He was talking in a high pitched voice, and his face and neck were red with annoyance. He hit the table with his heavy fist again and again. Then, he put his feet on the table – one boot upon the other. The top foot shook rapidly.
His fat cheeks and red neck were visible even from a distance. Then, he straightened up and hit the table with his fist.
Noni had taken a paper from his pocket and was trying to explain something.
By now, we were angry with ourselves for agreeing to what Noni had proposed. We should have put him down at the gate, bade him good bye and told him, ‘Do meet us when you are in Delhi.’ Bal could have told him, ‘See me if you come to London yaar,’ and driven away.
‘The poor man is desperately pleading with that fat German to get permission to park inside!’
Bal said, ‘No, it doesn’t seem to be about the car.’
Arpana was scared. ‘Should we leave?’
‘No, the poor fellow is pleading our case with the German for us… therefore…’ I was in a fix.
We could not understand what Noni felt about the German, but we could see a shadow play being enacted before our eyes. Shadows of two men, one emaciated short young man who looked guilty, and the other – an arrogant man full of his own importance, and bent on squeezing the other dry like a lemon.
Bal said, ‘There is some trouble, that is why he is pleading with the fat one. This is not about parking the car inside. It could have also been parked here, outside. I have seen many such scenes earlier. At Heathrow and other places. Let’s go. We can’t trust the European police, they can catch you anytime.’
Noni took out something from his inner pocket. It must have been money, the way he put his hand inside made this very clear. His body language was screaming – ‘This is all that I have. I don’t have money even to eat, but I have no other option except to give you this.’ He was clutching the notes in his fist, as if they were not currency notes but his very heart. Then, he opened his fist into the fat German’s hand.
Arpana was now really frightened, ‘It is a very lonely place. Inauspicious!’
I was surprised, ‘If this boy lives here in this building, then why is someone extorting money from him?’
We saw Noni smile. The argument was over. He gave military salute to the guard, and slowly expelled the breath which seemed to have got stuck somewhere in his throat. He turned and came towards us.
He opened the gate and Bal drove in and parked the car.
We were still perplexed by this building. In Germany, every family owns a car. But there was not a single car in the parking lot of this huge building. Bal’s car seemed out of place standing alone in that large vacant lot.
‘What was that fight about?’ Bal asked.
‘No, why would we fight, brother?’ Noni was looking the other way, rather than at Bal. ‘He wanted to know where was I for these five days. Why had you come?’ My ‘brother-in-law’ doesn’t like it when I am not with him!’ Noni tried to laugh at his joke, at his fictive relationship to the powers that be.
He tried to laugh, but there were tears in his heart. There was a look of helplessness that a whipped dog has in his eyes.
A long verandah, clinging to the side of a long building, with one bulky man in uniform sitting in one corner, ran right to the end of the building. The building itself was very long, and where it ended there was an empty space, hedged in by barbed wire on the other side.
Barbed wire lay everywhere, except in the empty space. It was on the wall, and outside the wall, and lay in tight rolls on the inside the wall. It was obvious, so much of it lay around, that it was there to stop residents from running away and that whosoever resided here was not doing so of his own free will. He was being compelled to live here.
A strange world!
It was neither a prison, nor a hostel. Nor a residential building. No crowding as is found in apartments. Neither an aviary nor a museum!
‘What is this place, yaar? Is this a building or a prison straight out of the strange world of Kafka’s novels?’ I was wondering, because there was no sense in asking Noni for any answers. Right now, he was happily strutting about, showing us the way, walking along the verandah.
Whatever had to happen now, was bound to happen.
We had hardly walked a few steps, when the almost dead building suddenly seemed to come alive. A shop appeared which was like no other shop. Curds was being churned at one place, and the aroma of frying paranthas filled the whole place.
I was surprised that when we had turned right from where the German was sitting, we should have been able to smell this but had not!
Perhaps, the terrifying look of the outer wall, the querulous encounter between the guard and Noni, the money changing hands, the ugliness of the atmosphere, the stacks of barbed wire, the fear that had struck us as we passed the German, his piercing eyes on our backs as we went past – all this had acted as a wall between this aroma and us.
We had spent many days travelling all over Europe. But it was the first time we realized how tired we were of eating bread, eggs, fish, fried potatoes and hamburgers, hot dogs, cheese and pizza.
The aroma that rose from the griddle had aroused this feeling for the first time. It seemed strange that earlier we had given no importance to food. Neither Arpana nor I. Bal was always a Westerner. He ate whatever was available.
He was always saying that India could not progress when half its population was in the kitchen cooking from sunrise to sunset! Heating milk to set curds, and churning that in the morning to make butter! Then, use that butter for cooking, making sweets. Making all the spices at home – cleaning, drying and grinding! What is all this! Look at the people here! Food is cooked in five minutes. Also meat and chicken! Just five minutes. You can get a large variety of bread. Eat it! What is the need to knead dough, roll it out to make chappatis, and then bake them on the griddle? Our women unnecessarily create problems for themselves.
The smell of paranthas gripped all three of us. Bal stepped forward to speak to the one making the paranthas, but Noni intervened to say, ‘They are our guests, brother! Give them the most tasty paranthas and lassi that they should feel that they are not in Germany, but in Punjab. After making five, send them upstairs. Then send piping hot ones one after the other.’
‘Noni, are you mad? How can we eat five or six paranthas? And you are asking for more! Who will eat them?’
‘That we will know only when we go upstairs, as to how many people there are to eat.’
It was strange the way Noni’s manner had changed. There was a twinkle in his eyes. He looked relaxed and his face was now radiant.
We followed up the stairs, which were in bad shape, broken, chipped, and at places, crumbling. Some were low and others high, and twice Noni turned round to caution us, ‘Take care.’
The plaster was peeling at many places. The building had looked dusty and dirty from outside, and inside, the stairs were the colour of a dirty mop.
At the top of the stairs, he turned left. His was the third room. The door was open. With a laugh, and his own brand of humour, he said – ‘Do come in! There is no one to give you a traditional welcome – she is back home in the village! Come in without that!’
It was a small room. It may not have been all that small, but there were seven or eight cots, placed close to each other, which made the room look extremely small.
The cots were set close to each other, with crumpled dirty bedding on them. Someone was sleeping under quilts and blankets on one. A boy was trying to repair a stove in a corner. Another was reading a magazine, still in bed. It looked like a shabby room in a rundown country inn.
Noni told us to make ourselves comfortable. And busied himself straightening out the bed clothes.
He told the other three boys, ‘Get up, we have guests.’ He shook the one who was still sleeping. We sat down.
Both the boys sat up in their beds, and the one who had been tinkering with the stove, wiped his hands on a dirty towel and looked up at us and smiled, ‘Hello.’
‘Hello,’ the three of us answered happily. Smiles brightened the room.
The golden sunlight came through the windows. The window frames were of metal, and not a single glass pane was without a crack. A square piece of cardboard substituted for glass in one window frame had been stuck into a broken glass.
The boy with the magazine sat up, and shut his magazine, clasped his arms around his knees and smiled. The magazine still hung from his fingers. He had thin long fingers and a network of veins could be seen on the back of his hand clutching the magazine. It was incongruous – the hand of an old man, and an extremely youthful face.
The third, who had just got up, was still very sleepy.
Noni said, ‘They are also from Punjab. This is Gurdip.’ This was the one who had just got up. ‘He has been here, in this room, since the last ten years. His application is also with the immigration people.’
Looking at us Gurdip said, – ‘Hello ji’.
‘Hello Gurdip,’ Bal answered with a laugh.
Arpana and I also said hello. ‘This is Kewal,’ Noni pointed to the boy who still stood near the stove wiping his hands. ‘He has come here only some ten or fifteen days ago, that is why he is so restless.’
Kewal looking a little tentative, smiled at us.
‘Say, Kewal, could you repair the stove? One must keep busy doing something or the other! It keeps the mind occupied!’
Noni was in full flight. He was perhaps trying to convey to us that everything was normal and fine. Perhaps, he was happy that we had come, or if not, he was making an effort to look happy.
‘The one sitting there is Pammi.’
The one with the magazine said ‘Hello!’
Another boy entered the room just then. ‘And this is Kesar.’
Kesar looked upset at finding us there. For a moment, he froze at the door, and was undecided whether to come in or go back. Then, he recovered, and putting his hands together, mumbled something. We could not hear what he said – ‘Sat Sri Akal’ or ‘Namaste’, or something else, but we also folded our hands. He came in.
‘There are eight cots in each room housing eight men. When there are more than eight, we somehow adjust by sleeping across the bed,’ Noni informed us with a smile.
‘Sometimes when they catch a girl and put her here, then that creates a problem. If there are about seven girls, they get one room, but when there is only one girl, that means trouble. She is put in a room with men, and we are all a bit awkward. We make do with a tehmad and a windcheater on top. When it is hot, we take even that off. Though it is not hot here, it does become a little humid when it is sunny’
‘With a girl in the room, we have to observe decorum.’
For some time no one spoke.
Silence hung heavily in the room, like a boulder.
‘They have all come here the same way and with the same purpose. In search of employment. After giving large amounts to the agents. Mortgaging or selling their lands. And after their arrival here…?’ He could not go on. He was choked by the salty waves of his own tears which rose as high as the tidal waves of the ocean.
Upset, I looked around. There were pictures of Marx, Lenin and Mao stuck on the walls.
A poster of the Lal Salaam, the leftist ‘red salute’ graced the space. Two red hands shaking each other, next to it. It was a fairly effective way of covering up the peeling walls, or proclaiming an ideological belief!
Who knows these boys seeking political asylum here may be Naxalites!
In the slaughter house!
I whispered to Noni, ‘Where is the toilet here?’
‘Come with me.’ He got up and led both of us to the toilets. ‘Everything is common here. Nothing individual, nothing private. You live together, eat, drink, starve, get into the bathroom together, brush your teeth, shave, and when you think of home, and are full of self pity, then you sit together… and weep.’ This was what he said, But only I heard it and Arpana, and the breeze which wandered in the corridor.
It was a large room. Rows of toilets on both sides. About four or five toilets and one big trough in the middle. Actually two troughs. About eight boys stood around.
The taps were old fashioned. The troughs were dirty and stinking.
Even the ramshackle toilet at any Indian railway station was cleaner and modern compared to this.
We came back to the room.
By this time the paranthas had also appeared.
This created a diversion, a pretence of gaiety. An attempt to change the topic.
Paranthas! The lassi served in pewter beer mugs, the closest thing to the large steel tumblers back home.
Tasty, flaky stuffed paranthas. Potato mashed with green chillies, and green coriander. Thin, yet big. Fried with care. And mango pickle.
I was saddened by what Noni had said, but I was also hungry. The body has its own laws and that was why rishis down the ages have tried to first break these laws, by retiring to the snow covered mountains and trying to break and control the body.
But we were no rishis. And it was afternoon, and we were famished.
‘What do you say bhaaji? Aunty ji? Are the paranthas not good? Sister, I hope it is not too spicy?’ Noni asked.
He had noticed that Arpana was picking out the pieces of green chillies from the paranthas before she put a morsel into her mouth.
‘No no, this is just a habit of mine, I don’t eat green chillies.’
‘Shall I get paranthas without chillies for you?’
‘No, Noni, that wouldn’t be tasty. They are more tasty this way.’
We ate quietly. Steaming hot paranthas, spreading an aroma all their own. More paranthas were brought in.
I was worried that Noni would have to pay for all this. Bal had eaten only two paranthas. Arpana and I had taken one each. And I wanted to ask them to pack three paranthas for us, which we could eat in the evening with our tea, wherever we stopped on the highway.
Bal was looking at the road map. We would have to retrace our steps to the point from where we had taken the Nuremberg road. Is there any other route, he wanted to know. He always asked if there was any spot nearby worth a visit so that our drive this far would be fruitful.
The others were still eating and asking for more.
Gurdip, the tall and well-built one, had eaten his fill. He ate in a peculiar style. Eyes lowered and fixed on his plate. He broke the parantha into large pieces, holding the parantha down on the plate with one hand, as if he was afraid of someone pouncing on him and taking it away.
We were still eating when a girl came and stood in the doorway. Her legs under her black dress were very fair. Her delicate neck rising from the dress, seemed to be made of porcelain. It is difficult to recall whether it was a plain black dress or patterned. But I do remember it was not tight, the way girls wear these days. It was a loose garment with a full skirt, the type I used to wear in my childhood. The sleeves came down to her elbows. Auburn haired – which had not seen any dye. Socks and shoes on her feet. One doesn’t need to do much to one’s face at that age. And, I also did not have the skill to assess the age of a white woman at that time.
The boys seemed happy at her arrival.
Only Gurdip went on eating with lowered eyes. He did not even raise his face to look at her.
To find a beautiful girl in such an unfortunate place! With a hesitant smile in her eyes. Not even a smile, just a shadow of a smile, flitting like a butterfly, her delicate wings fluttering, ready to fly away at the slightest touch.
There was great humility and vulnerability and gentleness in her eyes as is often found in the eyes of the sad and the homeless.
Noni called her in. Taking half of his parantha he offered it to her and said, ‘Take, eat this.’
She ate the parantha.
Suddenly she opened her mouth and gulped in mouthful of air. Took a few long breaths, like a fish out of water.
With a laugh, Noni said, ‘Spicy? Is it very spicy? Here, take a few sips of lassi, my girl.’ And he gave her a glass of lassi.
She smiled, drinking a few sips. She ate a few morsels of parantha, and then again drank some lassi.
She gave Noni an apologetic smile, trying to ask him if she had done anything wrong.
‘Go on eating my little doll!’ Noni sounded like someone cajoling a child.
Then he told us, ‘She has been here only for a few days! She didn’t come on her own! They have brought her and shut her up ‘here’.
‘There are two other girls with her. One is from Viet Nam and the other from Turkey. She is from Poland. She was in a workers’ union. Underground. When they learnt that the police was about to arrest them, she fled. She is young but has plenty of courage. She has come to seek political asylum. Now that she is here, who is going to arrest her here? She had come over the frontier all on her own. She is white, and is sure to get a job and make a living.
‘Yes, there is one thing though. No one understands her language, and she doesn’t know any German. Perhaps, the immigration people may not have even understood that her life was in danger. She fled from the Polish police, and was trapped here by the German police!’
The moment Gurdip heard this, he glared at her, threw the parantha onto his plate, and got up.
Noni pleaded with him, ‘Arre Gurdip bhai ji, no! I was just telling these guests about this girl. Who she is does not matter to me. Her name is also a tongue twister, and I therefore call her Dhanno! And she answers to the name, ‘Dhanno’, and tries to understand what I am saying.’
Gurdip visibly relaxed.
‘Why don’t you eat your paranthas? What will these guests think of us? We will be here for many life times. What do I care for this newly arrived girl? Please eat.”
It was strange to find so much of humility, warmth and feeling of oneness in this place!
Gurdip looked at Noni as if he wanted to see if the assurance was sincere or not. Then, he picked up the remaining parantha and ate it.
‘Gurdip is great! He is the prime minister here for the last ten years. Speaks little. But who dare defy him and disobey his orders?’ Noni got up with a laugh to come and sit with us.
When the next parantha was brought in, he asked the Polish girl, ‘Say bibi Dhanno, are you still hungry?’
The girl knew instinctively that he was talking about the paranthas. Taking it, she rolled it and began to eat.
‘Now look! She doesn’t even have the decency to share it with me! She is so hungry! As if she hasn’t eaten since ages! O hungry Dhanno!’
The girl laughed.
It was the first time we were witnessing such a miracle. Two people, utter strangers, coming from two different parts of the world, and meeting each other under unfortunate conditions, hardly knowing anything about each other, communicating without understanding a word! The girl, a refugee from Poland, and the boy from Punjab! They did not even understand each other’s language. There was nothing that they shared, except the fact that they were both illegal immigrants. Leaving their own native lands, they had crossed over into this country by illegal means. In the eyes of the law, they were both criminals. It was this that they shared. They talked to each other, each in his own mother tongue, and yet they had understood each other.
Noni began to tell us about himself in response to our genuine concern.
He seemed utterly bereft. His sadness seemed to engulf everything like a thick suffocating mist.
Noni was not his real name. He had taken on many names and discarded them since his arrival in this country. Had tried to get rid of his passport also. But that was very dangerous. As his lawyer had pointed out to him that there would be no other option for him, and he would be deported because the Indian embassy would not touch such cases with a barge pole! They would just refuse to help.
‘The Indian embassy people are big sahibs! They are secure in their high posts and offices, well educated. But now that they are here, they are busy collecting things like colour T.V.s, music systems, laptops, cameras, and the like for themselves and their families. Who would waste precious time on illegal immigrants?’
‘Each man in the embassy is busy saving money. The senior officers go on leave once a year with their families, and the ones lower down go once in two years. Their luggage is passed through the custom-free channel under diplomatic immunity. Every trip they make home, they buy either land or an apartment.
‘After all they have to plan their retirement ! Any job, however high, will only go up to fifty-eight or sixty years of age!
‘They all want their children to settle here. If they are studying, then that is great. They will study here even if the parents are called back home, for both governments allow these children to stay back till their studies are finished.’
‘And once that stage of education is completed, then some technical education, or a higher course in science, or Ph.D. or some other research is always there! After that, a job is waiting for you!
‘Unless the child is very unlucky, who can stop him from settling here? They will always have a home in Europe even after retirement, and can always spend the hot months of summer here!
‘In this continuous process of making arrangements, who has the time to listen to our troubles?’
This was also what his lawyer had told him: ‘The court will tell you to find your passport the way you have lost it. And I have taken your fee to fight your case in a German court. I am not going to negotiate with the Indian embassy, and they are not going to listen to anyone. Do you think they will give you a new passport, and accept your version that this is your real name? Even if you change your father’s name, who will you say is your father?
‘First, they will not even talk to you, and second, even if some high minded officer, wanting to prove his integrity, does listen to you, what address in India will you give them? Your antecedents will be verified by the police. How will you explain the difference in your father’s name in the new application and your old passport? The whole problem will become so complicated that even God will not be able to help you!’
Noni had been so frightened, that he dug out his passport from its hiding place in a record time of fifteen days, the deep hole having taken a month and a half to dig up in a remote corner of the building.
‘How did it take you a month to dig a hole? Was it a hole or a grave?’
‘Arre bhaijan, why are you making fun of the dead? I had no shovel to dig with. Besides, even at night a guard is always here, and he is armed. I had dug the hole with a file and my hands! The way ants build their ant holes! Do you hear any sound when they are doing that?’
I am convinced that had we lifted even one of the mattresses, it would have been heavy with tears.
Who knows that every night there may be puddles under the beds, when the ones sleeping on them weep their dreams and anguish away.
Dreams are often like salt. If you wash them, then they melt away.
Gurdip had even gone to the German embassy at New Delhi, He was an educated young man, and knew how to converse with officials, and to persuade them that his life was in danger, and he should be given political asylum.
In the sixties, a wave of Naxalism had swept the country.
The spread of this ideology was rapid and wide. All over the country, a few good, honest people, concerned about the dismal situation in the country, joined the movement, which spread, in the way a thin stream in the hills meandering down in a small trickle for most of the year, turns into a wide river flowing noisily and stormily down during the rainy season.
All ideals had been abandoned in politics, and all politicians functioned with one aim in mind – of grabbing a chair, a position of power, and sticking to it by hook or by crook.
When those who are responsible for the welfare of the country, themselves connive to acquire and extend power through all means, how can the common man be honest? Most people accepted that sycophancy, injustice, hatred and exploitation were valid means of personal aggrandizement. People did not hesitate to trample upon others in their scramble upwards. To ask for and give a bribe, even to extort money by force, had become the normal practice.
Some intellectuals had been disgusted with this rat race. They were aware that a large majority of Indians lived in villages, and most of them were landless. Poverty, hunger, illiteracy and unemployment were their lot in life.
In the tea houses and coffee houses of Kolkata, discussions did not remain mere discussions. In this wave, most of the players came from well-to-do progressive families.
They had one dream and that was to improve the lot of the hungry masses of the country.
When this wave reached Punjab, Gurdip also joined the movement. Many right thinking and right minded idealists were in the movement. But there were no weapons with which to create a revolution, and they also did not have the numbers to sustain the revolution.
There were also some girls in the movement.
The movement was soon crushed, at least in Punjab. Gurdip and his friends thought that it was futile to die at the hands of the police, and stupid to waste their lives behind bars.
Those who wanted to fight, let them fight. And they are still fighting in some parts of the country.
Gurdip and many of his friends had applied to different embassies for political asylum.
They had great hopes that the German embassy would entertain their appeals, but Germany was still divided into two, and each one of them was hell bent on proving their own policies to be the right ones. They were both wary of interfering with the sovereignty of another country.
The agent had first taken them to Yugoslavia, and then, God alone knows how, travelling for many days, through forsaken and deserted areas, had helped them cross into Germany.
Gurdip had told his friends, ‘At least, we are better than those who were told to swim through oceans. We are alive and are here, and the future will take care of itself.’
Gurdip had been only a spectator to all that had happened in the last ten years.
His three companions had disappeared long ago. They may have managed to cross the Atlantic to Canada or U.S., for they must have been told by those who had taken them across that it would be easier for them to go individually but impossible in a group.
Who knows, they may have also been deported!
Or may be behind bars in some prison here!
Or else, they may have died!
Or else, they may be doing some small job clandestinely like Ashok.
It was also possible that some German girls may have really fallen in love with them and married them legally, and they may now be living comfortably, earning, begetting children. And may have also gone back to their villages with their German wives and children.
Who can say?
But Gurdip had been here since the last ten years…
‘What is this place?’
Gurdip answered, ‘This is the dreaded Nuremberg jail, where the Nazi war prisoners were kept after the war, and tried and executed.
‘Only those who had no supporters were hanged. Those who had money are still living comfortably in America and other countries. This jail was lying empty and forsaken, that is why we have been brought here.’
‘And that fat German outside?’ I wanted to know.
‘Lets say he is the inspector of the jail here.’
‘No one can leave the jail at will, but Noni was holidaying in Munich?’
‘That was no holiday. He had to see his lawyer. We are not allowed to move out of a radius of six miles of this place, and get only a day’s special leave to meet the lawyer, but once was away for five days: my lawyer had gone to Switzerland on a holiday with his girl friend! I waited for him and every moment I was in fear of being arrested by the police. Noni was lucky that he met you all and came back in your car. Otherwise the police would have been on high alert on bus depots and stations.’
‘That was the reason Fatty was harassing you?’
‘Only their skin is white, else they are as black as our police! Unless you give them money they will not even talk to you!’
‘We can look for work only within this radius of six miles, and he who employs us also knows this that we are prisoners and can only work here. Obviously, we do not get full wages.’
‘When they have put you here why don’t they give you food, clothes and so on.?’
‘They don’t want us to stay here. They tell us that we should go back to our country. If we stay here and fight immigration authorities, then they are not going to treat us like their sons-in-law, give us free food and look after us. We have to earn our own bread and butter and also bribe these policemen!’
‘If you don’t get a job?’
‘Then… doesn’t matter, we somehow fend for ourselves,’ Gurdip answered with a slight smile.
It was the first time I had seen him smile. The smile touched his lips tentatively. It looked out of place on his face, which looked carved out of stone, washed by rain and illuminated by the sun.
He himself felt a little awkward. Getting up from the cot, he walked up to the window and called out, ‘Arre brother, we have finished our meal. Send up some hot tea!’
I noticed that his body was like a bull’s, and he also walked like a bull. I had not yet been able to understand why these people suffer all this humiliation in an alien land, and continue to struggle against such adverse conditions.
The Polish girl sat there quietly. She put her head on her knees, and then again, lifting it, kept looking at Noni sadly as he talked.
Noni looked back at her and said, ‘Say, Dhanno, why did you come here to die? Did you have some buried treasure here that you came looking for it?’
That Noni was talking to her, this she understood. She swept her hair back from her face and tucking it behind her ears, looked at Noni so as to ask him, ‘Is my hair tousled? I broke my comb yesterday. What could I do? I have swept my hair behind my ears, as it falls over my face. Is this better now?’
Noni was saying, ‘From Poland…’ She looked up like a frightened fawn as she heard these words.
Poland? Yes, Poland! I was born there, grew up, got my education there. Also worked there. But working does not mean that one is a slave and should be treated like one…?
Something like this must be passing through her mind, after hearing the name of her country. The country she had fled.
She brightened up for a moment and then again looked crest-fallen.
‘At least you had a home! Your mother cooked for you and the whole family ate together at night. What was the need for you to invite trouble? Such a delicate girl, and such big trouble! Then you crossed the border and came this side. Some agent must have taken a bagful of money the other side. You must have told your parents ‘Give me all that you have saved for your old age. I’ll go away. There I’ll be able to earn a lot of money. Then I shall send for you.’
We could clearly hear the thoughts that were passing through her head, because Noni was giving voice to them.
‘Man must breathe in free air. Do something that he likes doing. Eat to his fill. Then why worry about old age? I’ll not let you rot here. There is plenty of money on the other side; and we three can live comfortably. Not the way we do here – in one dingy room, where Ma and I sleep in the bed and Pa sleeps in the kitchen during winters, and on a sofa in the balcony during summers.
‘You people have been separated because of me. Don’t I understand this? I am not a child! Is this the age for you both to sleep apart? Papa is hardly forty-eight and mama only forty-five. This is the real age of romance, after all the child bearing and nurturing!
‘But I promise you, that next year when I take you to Germany, then you will have a bedroom all to yourself. With a bath all your own. Also a small kitchen for you to make coffee at midnight if you so want..’
Noni was still talking. His eyes were moist and his voice choked. It was his own agony that he was talking about, as he related the pain of the Polish girl.
‘This Polish girl did not talk to anyone here. Neither could anyone understand her, nor could she understand what they said. When she was arrested, the police had interrogated her. She had been frightened out of her wits, and had looked from one face to another, in great tension. She had collapsed on the road. They had threatened her and she had burst into tears, and had cried uncontrollably. The police had then taken her to the immigration people.
‘She had not eaten anything for three days, and had collapsed on the bench.
‘The policemen had poked her in the ribs and scolded her’ “we have not brought you here to sleep! Do you think this is a hotel, that you sprawl here on the bench?”
‘An interpreter was sent for. When she heard her own language, her confusion was gone. If a dead man were to hear his own language, he would also rise from his grave…
‘She recovered from her fainting spell. Her name is Ivanka, and she was working in a factory. In Poznan. She lived there, with her parents. Both of them were also working. All three of them, and even then they could barely survive.
‘An international trade fair was held regularly in Poznan. People from different countries came there to display their wares. Germany also had its pavilion. She would visit the German pavilion every evening, after work, as long as the fair was on.
‘The German stall was more like a shopping plaza, with about twenty-five different stalls for various products — machine parts, computers and so on. There was a German boy at that stall, who had a smattering of Polish. That was why he had got that job, so that he could provide full information about the various products at the stall.
‘She had discussed her problems with that boy. She was a member of an underground trade union of the factory where she worked. The official trade union alone manages the factory. Though they also work there, they are actually government agents. And the trade union she belonged to was fighting for the valid rights of the workers. Higher wages, workers’ cooperatives to sell all necessities to the workers and located in the factories, all things should be easily available, and the workers should not have to struggle for the bare necessities of life.
‘Just imagine! A day has only twenty four hours. Work eight hours, and then spend hours buying things from different stores, queuing up everywhere, and spend more than an hour on the bus to reach home. Cooking, washing, cleaning – what is left for a person to call his own? Not even ten minutes!
‘The German boy gave her his address and also invited her to come to Germany; he had also assured her that she would have no problems there.
‘When she gave that address to the immigration people and they looked for him, they found that the address was non existent. There was no lane or street of that name, and no man of that name either.
‘Is this possible that after spending fifteen evenings together, to be close to each other, physically and emotionally, a man who was so loving and open, all concern and care, had given her a false address? And a fake name!
‘It is not possible. It cannot be! This is a ploy of the immigration people. They must have thought that as she had come over illegally, she should not be allowed to stay here! She should go back to her own country. Our country is not a dustbin, that whosoever wants should creep in? We also have our own people and must provide them employment. Why should we bother about the riff raff of the rest of the world!’
As Noni said all this, the Polish girl, Ivanka, looked at his face. Her own face was a picture of despair. New despair overtaking the signs of old pain.
‘But Noni, you don’t know her language and she does not know yours. Then how do you know her story?’
‘Don’t we all have similar stories? Even Gurdip bhai sahib! If you look carefully they also resemble each other. There may be some slight difference. But it was that fat German who told me her story. The one I was arguing with when we came in. The one I have just hammered with the shoe that twenty five deutschmarks is! The immigration people must have told him. They often do that. About everyone. He has everything written in a register. He has our names and addresses, and in the event that we die here, they will first inform our families to take our bodies, though they very well know that no one will come all this distance to claim a dead body. Then, they will put the body in a coffin and bury it somewhere hereabout.’
Gurdip had been sitting there, staring into space, but now he spoke, ‘Garcia has written that when a group of people, a tribe, a family or a group of workers like us, migrate to a new place, then that land does not accept them, until a sacrifice has been made. When someone is sacrificed, and the five elements which comprise that body, mix with the earth of that country, only then does that land accept those that survive. Then the land lends its dignity and warmth to them.’
It appeared that he was preparing himself for the supreme sacrifice so that his companions and friends may be able to live in that country. The air around us suddenly grew agitated.
It was clear that Gurdip may have stuck Mao and Lenin’s picture, and posters of Lal Salaam on the walls, but the insults that he had endured for the last ten years, the struggles that he had faced, the boredom, the helplessness of his own situation, the sadness and anger of these ten years, had filled his heart with bitterness. A terrible bitterness.
A heart which had been full of compassion for the poor and had dreamt of bringing about a change in his country, a heart which had rebelled against injustice and exploitation, was now full of ashes…
Layer upon layer of ashes. A layer of shattered dreams. Another of the hopes that had died an untimely death, and Gurdip had cremated them and buried their ashes in his heart… One layer of the humiliations heaped on him by immigration authorities… another layer of insults that he had borne in the last ten years… the threats and abuses heaped on them by the guards… and a layer of the sarcasm of the people of this area he had encountered in his search for work.
This was surely the reason Gurdip walked like a sleepwalker. Had he been fully awake, could he have survived the years gone by? One who is wedded to death, can live only in an half-conscious state.
Kesar was the one who had come later. His tousled beard and hair was an indication that he had been working hard the whole night, or had been looking for a job and had not found one.
He had been watching things silently all this while.
He now remarked ‘If there is a soul or rebirth, don’t these asses wonder what will happen to our souls if they bury us here?’
‘My soul will fly straight home to sit near my mother’s hearth. I’ll eat hot chappatis and dal laced with dollops of butter!’ This was Pammi.
‘And what happens if the soul is not able to fly all this distance? Who knows whether souls can fly across oceans or not…’ Gurdip spoke in his sleepwalker’s tone.
‘Dosen’t matter, then I will roam here. Then there will be no problem with the German police. No fear of the immigration people! I have not been able to see any gallery, museum or church, even though I have been in Germany all these years. I have heard that there is a gurudwara in Frankfurt. I shall also go around to visit those concentration camps where the Nazis had killed sixty lakhs Jews. Gas chambers….’ And he was almost weeping.
Kesar continued, ‘If my soul is to remain here, then it will enter a girl’s womb. I have dreamt of this so many times. That German girl will give birth to me, cuddle me to her breast, will care for me with love. I will grow up to become the chief of immigration!’
‘And if this girl has an abortion?’ Kewal smiled.
‘Behave yourselves. Aunty is here and sister also.’ Noni admonished them.
But he went on. ‘If she gets an abortion, then I will again be free. This time I shall take care to enter the womb of a woman of thirty or thereabouts, who already has a couple of children. Women of that age do not go in for abortions. They don’t like killing their children. This situation should be better. She would love me, and my father will also love me, and my older siblings will play with me as if I were a toy!’
‘Who has time to love in this country?’
‘No yaar! I have seen that these women are like our women. Home makers! Not like the other western women, who take no time at all to walk out of home, and divide the kids and all other belongings with their husbands.’
‘Arre Kesar! Don’t yap! How much of Europe have you seen? How much of Canada or America? How many women do you know, tell me?’ Gurdip asked him.
Tea came up in the same beer mugs, in which earlier, lassi had been served. Hot steaming tea, white with milk.
It was very sweet. I could only swallow a sip or two. But I kept the mug in my hand, putting it to my lips from time to time.
Noni however guessed, ‘Get another cup of tea for Aunty. City tea! This is rustic tea. Tea leaves, and milk and sugar. But city people like tea without milk and sugar!’
I protested, ‘No, the tea is very tasty but hot. I can’t drink very hot tea. Isn’t it so, Arpana? Even at home I take time over my tea.’ I tried to enlist Arpana’s support.
By then Gurdip had again got up from his cot and gone up to the window. Clutching at the bars, he called out to someone below, ‘O Jagbire! Send city tea for Aunty ji! Tea and sugar and milk separately.’
The way he had walked up to the window, his gait like a bull, ambling with long strides, in the same manner he came back to his cot.
‘You people have not gone to work today?’
‘We did go in the morning. We go daily. But some days you get some work, and other days you don’t. If there is no work, we inform Fatty downstairs, and stay in our rooms.’
‘But why don’t you go back home?’
How will we face our parents who have mortgaged or even sold their lands, taken loans to send us here, because we had insisted, and assured them that we would send them bagfuls of money! We will rid them of their poverty! Go back to them empty handed? Here we are, your sons, back after suffering humiliation and indignity in their prisons!’
‘Even parents get tired of jobless sons. They also have hopes…’
‘We also hope to get citizenship here. Perhaps some day we may be able to make it to America.’
‘Death is not the most frightening thing; the most frightening thing is hope. Something within you says that this will not happen, yet hope is stubborn! As long as one lives, one lives on hope. That there is no free will is not the biggest tragedy. The biggest tragedy is that one goes on living on hopes,’ Gurdip enunciated each word slowly. His voice was also like a bull’s, deep-throated.
‘And this building? Which has such a terrifying look?’
They all looked at each other. There was a bleakness in their eyes, which had spilled over onto their faces.
Gurdip answered, ‘This is the Nuremberg prison, where the Nazi war criminals were kept. They were tried here and executed. They had shed the blood of thousand of innocent Jews.’
‘And our hands are bloodied with our own blood. That is why we have not been hanged, but have been beaten into mincemeat! They cut us, bit by bit – these people. One day, one ultimately turns into a lifeless body – a living corpse. The Germans are now very civilized. They have now invented very civilized methods of putting people to death!’
‘Whatever they had done to six million Jews – they have not yet forgotten those things. They now present a very neutral and humane exterior to the world. That facade is significant and also necessary. To kill six million Jews through sheer hard labour, hunger and starvation! Gas chambers! To use their fat…to turn their bones into manure! To conduct experiments with dangerous drugs on their bodies, as if they were mice, frogs or rabbits. To experiment to see how long could a man survive under such inhuman conditions. The Germans have been extremely inhuman and cruel.’
‘In every country, the weak are always oppressed and trampled upon, Gurdip bhai sahib. Look at our own country, the manner in which villagers are set on fire, and innocent people are burnt to death! Thousands of children die of hunger and malnutrition each year. They do not die of their own accord! This is also a method of killing people. Hunger, poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, exploitation – all these are weapons of death. But they kill silently, and history does not record the number of deaths they cause. Who does not know of the condition of Blacks in America or England, or elsewhere? Who is not aware of starvation and deprivation in Africa?’
‘I have come here recently,’ Kewal said. ‘I do not know much about conditions here, but back home, they all used to say that German policies are just and equitable now. They have friendly relations both with Russia and America. That is why I had come…’
‘Come to Germany, to this slaughter house!’ Noni intervened with bitterness.
‘It is all politics,’ Gurdip retorted. ‘This politics is like a vark – the silver foil on rice pudding – to dazzle an international audience.’
‘Are you sure that there is kheer under the silver foil?’ I asked rhetorically.
‘Right!’ Gurdip remarked.’ ‘Then there is domestic politics which is like the hens in the backyard. You keep them under baskets. But it is in that very backyard that you slaughter them!’
‘Yes, what you say is very true, bhai sahib’, Bal commented in a strangled voice.
Pammi said, ‘Now new Nazis are coming up calling themselves Neo Nazis. They assert that Hitler only wanted the development of his country. What is wrong in that? To him, to work for a clean system and progress of his country was an act of patriotism. If he was wrong at times, why regret it? So many years have passed, and we should not suffer from this feeling of guilt and shame.
‘They say that all this had happened many years ago. We were not even born then. Had we been born, even then Hitler would have been a hero for us. A super hero! A big patriot! And that was what the Germans had thought even at that time!
‘They say that the ones who had been cruel and oppressive are now long dead. We young people should not carry the burden of their guilt and shame. Why should we not fight for our rights? Our jobs are being taken away by these immigrants who come swarming into our country. We have the first claim on our country. Throw these dogs out,’ Kesar intoned, sadly, with his hands tangled in his beard.
Gurdip said, ‘Bhai Sahib, the way you have Skinheads in England, voicing opposition to the black, yellow and brown skins, the same way there are Neo Nazi groups here. They shout at the top of their voices that these immigrants are pigs who should be thrown out. They are stealing our jobs. They are hardworking, and want to steal our wealth. If you throw one out, two Germans will get jobs. We have no jobs and these pigs are stealing our livelihood. We will not tolerate this. If they find one immigrant alone, they do not even hesitate to beat him up.’ Gurdip spoke in a flat tone. Ponderous, like a bull’s, there was neither fear nor any undertone of helplessness. Flat and clear. A strong voice. A fearless, analytical tone. A voice which had articulated a considered opinion, reflecting on its different aspects, weighing the pros and cons.
It was almost evening. Bal said, ‘Achcha, boys! We must go now. If anyone wants to send any messages..?’
They were all quiet.
I had a feeling that suddenly the atmosphere had grown damp, and there was sludge on the floor. Suppressed sighs, unarticulated words, unsaid messages, unshed tears, all this has to turn into sludge and storm.
We got up.
‘Arre, Bal bhai sahib! No one visits our home, and we are unlucky that we have to bid you goodbye at this hour of the evening. This is the time when guests should be invited into homes, looked after, and we…’
‘No problem brother, don’t worry. We have spent the whole day here, in your home, have eaten paranthas, drunk tea with you, shared our happiness and woes.’
Suddenly, Pammi shouted out. His scream pierced our hearts like a sharp knife.
‘No brother, this is not a home, this is a slaughter house. You must leave. Just run!’ And he ran out of the room before we could leave.
A silent bewilderment – like a fish dying out of water, gasping to breathe in the moist dank air of the room.
The breath of death! Death coming closer with every breath.