The table clock jangled with the same monotonous regularity as it did every day at six in the morning. Philip extended his arm lazily and groped for the clock to contain the freedom with which it reverberated. In his body he felt a heavy lassitude, and he stretched his limbs, like a young animal freshly awakened; took a deep inhalation followed by a yawn and disentangled himself from the bed sheet about his legs.
He looked out of the window. It was another beautiful morning. The sun’s broad disk was skirting the horizon, staining the sky orange and yellow. The sky was dappled with little white clouds, and the rays of the sun shot like lances as they struck their edge.
The sound of pots and pans issuing from the kitchen punctuated the morning stillness and suggested that his wife, Rose, was up and awake, busy with the ritual of her morning chores. She was an artist in the kitchen, and the competence with which she went about her duties accorded a moral significance to whatever she did. She had furnished the house with good taste, and everything that was capable of polish sparkled brilliantly in her territory. The delights of her ordered elegance always gave Philip a little warm feeling in the heart, and he held her mastery in quiet adulation.
Philip sauntered into the garden where nature lay in a trance. The morning tranquillity was interrupted by the twitter of the birds and the chirping of grasshoppers; hidden among the leaves in the branches of the tall trees, a bird rejoiced in its full-throated melody, and far away, like an echo, a fellow-bird called back. The crotons that lined the garden were a profusion of brilliant colours, and the trees were heavy with dense green foliage. The morning breeze, laden with pleasant odours of the earth due to a light rain the previous night, whispered across, and the leaves quivered in delight as it caressed them. The ground was a carpet of green velvet on which tiny drops of water glistened radiantly when touched by the rays of the sun. Nature was in her most benignant mood, and it swept away his low spirits, making him light-hearted and happy.
A savoury smell filled his nostrils as Philip strode back into the house.
‘When are you leaving for Bhubaneswar?’ Rose’s busy voice echoed as he heard her tread.
A quaint feeling stirred in his heart, the kind of feeling that’s a curious mix of dread, defeat, and desolation. He wished he was not reminded of this journey.
‘When’s the meeting?’
‘Couldn’t you have taken the Tuesday early morning flight then?’ she queried.
‘I’m travelling by road.’
‘Train tickets are sold out, and flights are all full.’
‘What about the return?’
‘I will be taking the evening flight.’
‘It seems as if it rained last night,’ Rose said as she walked out of the kitchen.
‘Yes, it’s quite pleasant outside. Monsoons seem to have arrived.’
‘A perfect morning for a walk. Why don’t you get yourself one?’
‘Hmmmmm.’ Philip was non-committal. He was unenthusiastic about any physical activity needed to keep him fit.
‘I have a long day at school today. Got a meeting with the principal to work out on the details of the students’ upcoming study tour,’ she said, more like she was speaking to herself, as her hands worked busily and her mind occupied with the work at hand.
‘Will you be going to the office today?’ Rose asked, raising her eyes and looking at Philip, while arranging the dining table, laying down the plates and glasses and cutlery in order; she prepared breakfast for Philip each morning before leaving for school. She was passionate about cooking, and Philip had wished that breakfast be prepared by her to which she had most willingly and lovingly agreed.
‘Will you pick me up from the school on the return?’
‘I will likely be late. I will send the driver nevertheless.’
‘Is something the matter? Didn’t you sleep well?’ She looked at him searchingly. Though Philip’s eyes were vacant, his creased brow betrayed the acute anxieties that troubled him.
‘Everything’s fine. I had a good sleep,’ Philip lied and headed for the washroom. Any attempt to get into the depth of his feelings made him uncomfortable.
For quite some time now, his flat and spent appearance had become remarkably noticeable, but any enquiry in this regard was received with a denial or a roundabout answer that was evasive and unconvincing.
Philip Young was in his late thirties when he came to Kolkata two years back, in 2010. It was during the time when a volcano beneath an ice cap in Iceland erupted and gravely disrupted air travel throughout Northern and Western Europe when it sent a cloud of volcanic ash into the atmosphere. He was forced to halt for a week in London, before resuming his travel to India. The halt came as a boon in disguise; it gave him a rare opportunity to visit his ancestral home for the first time ever in his life.
Philip’s great-grandfather, a British citizen by birth, had served the East India Company in Calcutta (now Kolkata), India. Philip grew up hearing stories of freedom struggle, during British occupation of India, from his grandfather who had immigrated to North America in the early twentieth century and made New York his home.
After completing his postgraduate studies in business management, Philip got himself a plum job in a consulting firm headquartered in New York. His academic brilliance and his unwavering, single-minded devotion to work prompted Managing Director Denzel Marshall to appoint him as his executive assistant.
The company, among its other businesses, had information technology in its portfolio, serviced from India. The grand plans of expanding its operations in India were thwarted due to the resignation of their very experienced and long-standing head of the Indian business and a shrinking business pipeline. More than five hundred people served global customers from the firm’s Kolkata office, its registered office in India, and another five hundred from two other cities of India. A person with new creative ideas and a fresh outlook was required to help revive the business and someone with a global perspective would be an ideal choice, Denzel thought, and he spent days in trying to identify the most suitable person. Then one day when he was on a leisurely coffee break discussion with Philip, he learnt about his ancestors and his distant India connection. Denzel had got his man.
‘Philip, a prospect beckons you in the land of your ancestors. How about taking charge of our India office in Kolkata?’
Philip stared at Denzel in surprise at this sudden proposal.
‘I am quite comfortable here, Denzel,’ he made a feeble attempt to hint at his disinclination and racked his brains for a convincing reason to turn down the proposal but found none. He had never been to India, but somehow he was not stimulated with this offer.
‘It’s a great opportunity for you to expand your horizon, and I have confidence that you will do well for yourself. The organisation needs your experience and competence,’ Denzel said with a ring of finality in his voice. Philip had no proven record of managing a large team, but Denzel trusted his genius and his competence to take on the challenge.
Philip neither had the courage to turn down the offer nor had the courage to exhibit his disinclination, and much against his will, his mouth formed into a smile as a show of tacit acceptance. Denzel had always been very kind to him and had treated him well, but this, Philip felt, was a high price to pay for all the good treatment.
‘When do I have to go?’
A professional elevation and larger responsibility usually brought with it a certain joy of achievement and success and pride, but Philip walked away with tumult in his heart. He discussed the matter with Rose, and their preparation for the journey began.
In India, Philip was bemused by the interest his white skin and his blue eyes excited. He was set on a pedestal and lavished with exceptional attention; was heard with eloquent admiration and crowned with worshipful approval. The self-consciousness with which people approached him appeared comical and so did their imitation of his accent. He felt flattered and the importance showered on him delighted him, but he found the reasons of flattery to be very absurd. Emotions of embarrassment and annoyance troubled him initially, but presently he enjoyed a faint feeling of conceit by the greatness that was thrust upon him. He felt himself on a higher plane due to his antecedents, his breeding, his country of birth, and his superior education. A small amount of arrogance crept into his behaviour, and his ego inflated.
Philip was a person with natural reserve. Forming close intimacies with people was not his forte though he had a longing to be popular, like every other person, but his eager attempts to endear himself to his colleagues often appeared fake and laboured. He rarely ever expressed his emotions with outward signs, and the restraint he exercised to control his feelings, the effort of adjusting to the environs he had so grudgingly accepted, and the stress of work all added to his discomfiture. He found the food was too spicy and unpalatable, the weather uncomfortable, the traffic irritating, and the stray incidents of lawlessness scary; complaints were many, and he found it somewhat difficult to adapt himself to the altered circumstances. The deadly mixture of the many negative forces, more often than not, prompted irritable and angry responses that were so unbecoming of decorum and social grace.
Time took a swivel turn two years thence. The business deteriorated further, assignments and projects reduced to a trickle, customer complaints increased, and cost of retaining employees, not involved in the projects, swelled. For the first time in the history of the firm, four continuous quarters saw the Indian business balance sheet in the red. During the last annual general body meeting of the company, the board of directors questioned the wisdom of continuing with three of the six loss-making units under Philip and Denzel, painstakingly negotiating a two-quarter bargain for revival. Some trusted sources in the office informed Philip of the rumours that were circulating as the dreaded news had leaked and he was being viewed as the cause for the worsened situation. He noticed a somewhat quaint behaviour in people towards him. He often found knots of employees engaged in low-voiced, tense discussion, and they quickly dispersed when discovered or kept silent in a constrained manner on being approached and made stilted conversation when goaded. The adulation that once glowed in their eyes had ceased to exist, and he was a fallen idol, looked at with disapprobation.
It seemed a rather difficult task to resurrect the circumstances, and Philip’s heart quaked within him as he counted the fearful odds of business closure. The colossal stigma of failure was unbearable, and he was possessed by a loathsome fear of the aberration it would cause to his career. He had worked immensely hard to reach thus far in his career, and his future that was once rich in possibilities suddenly stretched out before him in emptiness.
His health was failing, and unhappiness stirred in his breast a tempest that troubled him day and night, and he suffered from disturbing dreams. A change had come over his round, placid face. The corners of his mouth had depressed, resembling an astonished droop, and the eyes were sunk dully in their orbits; the load of weariness in his heart made him appear strangely bowed and old.
Rose, on the other hand, was thrilled to be in India and took to the Indian ways and mores quite easily. She adored children, and wanting to be close to them, she had chosen teaching as her career. In Kolkata too, she continued the same vocation in a private international school. The cheerful equanimity with which she accepted the good and the bad of life held Philip in awe. Her grandfather had well known Philip’s and their houses were in close proximity in New York. The two families were friendly disposed to each other, and because Philip had no sister, his mother had a special fondness for Rose. Rose had a kind, sedate expression, and when she smiled, the dimples on her cheeks became delightfully pronounced. It was because of her unaffected simplicity and remarkable charm that Philip fell for her as she blossomed from rosebud into a flower. Philip greatly respected her judgements and considered her a practical person who understood the norms of the society much better than he did.
Lately, Rose had been quite worked up about Philip’s growing restlessness and his failing health.
Philip was wearying out his soul with ceaseless apprehensions late Friday night in office when he got Denzel’s succinct message to meet him in Bhubaneswar on Tuesday. He was possessed by a shapeless fear at this abrupt call for a meeting. In the current state of affairs, such sudden invites, with no particular subject, appeared so ominous that they set the pulse racing and filled the mind with unrestrained imagination.
Life in India had become so gruesome and difficult. It seemed horribly unjust that he should be reduced to such a pass, and he cursed his misfortune to which he was so cruelly tied. He wished with all his heart that he had not been such a fool to have come to India.
India, he had read, was a land of gurus, and he needed one right now.
It was Monday morning. Philip woke up betimes and was ready for the travel. The likelihood of a long and tedious journey gave him a feeling of boredom, and he collected a couple of books to wear out the idle hours of the drive.
The taxi was to arrive at six o’clock, and he had half an hour at hand. He switched on the TV to catch up on the Ashes cricket series between England and Australia. Philip was passionate about cricket. He held in awe the fanatical worship of the game in India and envied the exalted stature of the Indian players.
For victory, England needed thirty-five runs in forty balls and had two wickets in hand. Their captain was at the crease and had a masterful control on the match. The match was poised for a breathtaking finish but surely in favour of England.
Presently his mobile rang.
‘Good morning, sir! Feroze, your taxi driver, sir, I have arrived.’
Philip walked out with Rose in tow.
A faint wind moaned through the trees. The sky was cloudless, and the breeze was tempered with slight warmth giving a foretaste of the rest of the day.
The taxi driver greeted him cheerfully, a broad smile on his face, introduced himself again, and proceeded to stow away Philip’s carry-on bag. Philip felt a whiff of clean aroma of a modish deodorant as Feroze reached for his bag. Feroze was a dapper young fellow in his late twenties. Tall, well built, and healthy, he had a sparkle in his eyes, and his entire being exuded boundless energy. He conversed copiously, as Philip got to know soon, for which he required no pressing.
A colourful chic T-shirt peeped from inside his khaki shirt commonly worn by taxi drivers. There were no dark patches of sweat and no overpowering stench of body odour Philip had experienced with other drivers. He was well shaven and had a vast quantity of dark, long hair that fell constantly over his eyes; he most frequently tossed back his head dramatically or swiped his fingers stylishly across the forehead to get the long wisps out of the way. His mannerisms exhibited jauntiness and a daring associated with youth: the thirst for adventure, the yearning for valour, and the impatience to change the world. He idolised Shahrukh Khan, the great Bollywood actor, and wanted to sport a ponytail like him and thus was growing his hair long, Feroze told him during the journey later in the day.
Looking at him with approbation and nodding slightly to the greeting, Philip settled himself in the passenger seat. A mild fragrance of lavender hung in the cabin. The taxi was clean from inside, and its seats draped in spotless white fur towel.
Feroze was a last moment replacement for his uncle who was originally assigned the duty but had all of a sudden fallen ill.
Perched in the driver seat, Feroze took out a travel notebook, recorded the metre reading, and extended the notebook for Philip to sign. The taxi started with a thumping cadence, and the journey to Bhubaneswar began.
Philip waved at Rose with an affectionate smile, veiled his eyes with the aviator goggles, and checked his mobile for any new messages. There were none, and his eyes inadvertently slipped to the message from Denzel and he reread it meditatively. What was it that Denzel could not convey through a mail or a phone call? Anxiety and misgivings came crowding upon him, and he felt sick with apprehension. All the fortitude and self-control he had built in the last one day to lift himself came crashing down. The more he wondered about the reason, the more he felt tormented and confused. His eyebrows knotted and his forehead puckered in brooding thought. He took a few deep breaths to calm his shredded nerves and stared into vacancy with a fixed expression.
The buildings were bathed in yellow as the sun beamed down upon the city. The sunlight that reflected from the glass and the white of the buildings was dazzling to the eyes. The tall office buildings alongside the road were an organised collection of glass and mortar and appeared cheerless for want of activity. Most of the shops that lined the roadside were closed. Sweepers were busy sweeping the streets and the pavement. Morning joggers were on their morning routine while some who had completed theirs, stood in groups outside tea shops, sipping tea and animatedly sharing news and events. People of Kolkata were great conversationalists; art, literature, and theatre were their passions. They were well read and spoke with great fervour on the subject of their interest, which ranged from sports to politics to literature, and they seemed to have good knowledge about whatever they talked.
Sweet shops had begun to transact early business; milk booths had queues in front of them, and newspaper vendors sat on the pavement with heaps of daily. Handcarts carrying merchandise wound their way through the sparse traffic, the carriers calling out loudly to clear the way and parents walked their children to the bus stops where schoolchildren in colourful school uniforms stood waiting for the school bus; early goers to the office were standing at the bus shelters, bags slung on the shoulder or held in hand while the daily wages labour waited to be picked up by their employers. Buses plied with typical morning haste; people sprinted and jumped onto the bus as it slowed while the conductor stood on the steps of the bus calling out for passengers, extending his hands to pull them up onto the bus and gesticulating, yelling at the smaller vehicles to move out of the way. Garbage pickup trucks were on duty clearing up the city of the rubbish accumulated over the previous day. A building at one corner of the road was under noisy demolition, and somewhere close by, rants of slogans were raised by a passing procession, a distinct feature of Kolkata where people came out on the roads quite frequently in demand of their rights. Once out of the earshot of this din, another one presented itself in the form of jarring sounds that resembled the sharp staccato of machine-gun fire. A municipal worker was busy on a drilling machine, breaking up the road and loosening the earth while another struck it with a pickaxe to create a larger opening for laying underground cables. The road seemed recently layered with a coating of tar, and Philip found it supremely ridiculous that it should be disfigured thus. The traffic around was in a bit of a disorder because of the ongoing work, and interestingly, a traffic sign announcing the diversion read ‘Your tax at work’.
Buses, trucks, bicycles, cars, two-wheelers, and pedestrians increased in number with passing time. Shouts and honks became louder, and the pandemonium more inconvenient. The hum and clatter of the city had started to gather momentum, and the streets throbbed with life.
‘Music, sir?’ Feroze queried him in the rear-view mirror, breaking Philip’s deliberation. Philip nodded indifferently, and Feroze pulled out from the capacious glove box an audio CD of Enrique Iglesias.
‘I play this for all my customers,’ he raved, showing the CD cover to Philip.
‘You can play Hindi film songs if you like, but keep the volume low,’ Philip said with cold civility and turned to roll down the window to feel the morning breeze.
‘How long will it take to reach Bhubaneswar?’ Philip asked.
‘We will reach by evening. Sir, you are from which country?’
‘US,’ Philip responded unconsciously, looking out and making every mental effort to extricate himself from the tumult of sordid thoughts by distractions of the goings-on outside.
‘Great country, sir. Nice people. Very powerful also,’ Feroze’s voice was laced with admiration and desire.
‘How long in India you have been?’
Philip did not deign to make a reply.
‘How long in Kolkata you have been, sir?’ Feroze went on undeterred, looking into the rear-view mirror, trying to catch his attention. ‘How tall are the buildings in US, sir?’ ‘Are the roads in US so wide?’ ‘Do you watch Hindi films?’ ‘Where else have you travelled in India?’ The volley of questions continued at regular intervals without any response from Philip.
‘How do you drive while talking so much?’ Finally, annoyed at the constant babble, Philip was at the end of his tether.
Feroze gave a sheepish grin and jerked back his head to remove the few strands of hair that had fallen forward.
‘I like to talk to my passengers and know about them.’
‘Do you like Kolkata?’ Feroze’s importunate questioning continued, and Philip either answered in monosyllables or ignored the questions altogether.
Slums lined the roadside. They were pitiable shelters patched together with rags, plastic, and reed mats, occupied by people who came to the city for livelihood—workers at construction sites, handcart pullers, or daily wages labour. Each shelter was huddled against the other. They were thickly inhabited and contained air so foul it could make a healthy person sick by mere inhalation of it. The people who dwelt there lived from hand to mouth, and once they were old, jobs were difficult to get, but the number of mouths to feed only increased. Babies were unwelcome, but they were born in large numbers and could be seen crawling all over the place or running around if they could. The small wages the elders earned was not enough to provide them with nutritious food; health care and education was a luxury they could ill afford. Privations and brutality of life forced the smaller children out to beg and the slightly older ones in search of work.
The indescribable poverty, the pain and disease, the struggle to survive weighed down the scale so heavily that it was a life worse than the agony of hell. It was no surprise that it harboured in its dark and dingy corners a sleaze of illegal activities.
‘They are very poor people, sir. They come from outside the city to earn a living. No one takes any responsibility to improve their condition,’ Feroze said, as he saw Philip looking at the expanse of the slums.
‘Sir, do you have slums in US?’ He looked in the rear-view mirror but Philip ignored his query and continued to look outside.
The misery of the slums provided such an awful contrast to the fashionable glass buildings and apartments, exclusive restaurants, boutiques and shopping malls, and the plush facade of five star hotels guarded by liveried doormen with bristling moustache. It was amazing that both these extremes existed within a small distance of each other.
How was the huge chasm of difference tolerated Philip wondered. Was it because the privileged masses did not want to share the exalted position their providence had bestowed upon them? Thoughts of disparity within the society began to sprout in his mind and blew him away from his own disturbances for a while when all at once a stifling stink from outside wafted in through the open window. A fully loaded garbage truck had stopped close by, and Philip swiftly rolled up the window, or he would have certainly passed out by the overpowering stench. A traffic hold-up ahead prevented any further advance.
Lengthy traffic jams and delays were a daily norm and were perfectly understandable during peak hours but quite not so during such early hours of morning. There was no traffic police in sight. Every passing moment added more traffic and more confusion, accentuated further by the rise in the chorus of impatient honking and screaming and cursing.
‘Sir, this is a daily story. No one does anything to improve the situation,’ Feroze said, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. Quite inexplicably the recurrence of this annoying feature, innumerable times a day, attracted no more than a habitual blind eye from the civic authorities and even more perplexing was the conspicuous absence of any organised protest to make lives better. Wasn’t it frustrating to suffer the same indignity again and again, or was the indifference a result of surrender to helplessness, or was it simply the let-someone-else-do-it-for-me attitude? But on second thought, in a city where daily life itself was such a struggle, a traffic jam was a small matter.
A scooter stopped by the side, and Philip saw an eight-year-old boy in school uniform sitting astride in the pillion seat, grasping his father tightly around his girth, bag slung on his shoulders and the water bottle hung on the scooter handle. Hemmed in by the vehicles around him, the father turned his head this way and that for a passage to meander through the sea of disorganised cluster of metal.
The child peered through the taxi window curiously, releasing the grasp on his father. He had a round cherubic face, big bright eyes and hair neatly plastered on his head with good amount of hair oil. Philip smiled at him, and he innocently smiled back in return as his plump cheeks swelled even more. The father waited a while, anxiously craning his neck for some way out of the mess, and cast a glance at his watch.
‘Dad, are we going to be late to school again? Yesterday my teacher scolded me for coming late,’ the child said, turning his attention to his father.
‘We will reach in time, son,’ said the father, as he disembarked, assuring him with a soft pat on his cheek, and the child wiggled his head understandingly. The father pulled the scooter on its stand, issued instructions to the child to stay right there and walked through the growling, rumbling mass of engines. Philip saw him motioning at the vehicles and talking to the drivers apparently requesting them to make room. The boy, watching his father exert himself and strive to restore order, jumped down, ran up to him, and began to assist him, following him and copying him. Encouraged by the father’s endeavours, some more people joined in directing the traffic, including Feroze, and soon the normal traffic flow got re-established. A school bus full of children waved at the father and cheered; some grateful passengers in a cab thanked him loudly, and an old man on a two-wheeler shook hands with him for taking the initiative and ridding them of the ordeal.
‘Masha Allah, very nice family, sir. The boy has good things to learn from his father,’ said Feroze, fastening his seat belt.
‘You know, sir, a person’s behaviour tells about his family,’ said Feroze, and Philip nodded in agreement as they drove out of the thick traffic.
Why only family, the character of a country, Philip believed, was reflected in the way its denizens conducted themselves on the streets. You carry an enormous amount of responsibility on the shoulders to preserve the stature and standing of the institutions that you represent.
Philip recalled an incident in a restaurant a week back when he had taken Rose out for dining. A throng of young professionals had occupied the table next to theirs. They were out to celebrate a colleague’s birthday and had come straight from office as evident from the identity cards dangling from their neck. The atmosphere reverberated with their high spirits, and their intemperate revelry was accompanied with loud bellows of laughter, coarse jests, and table thumping. Unmindful of the decorum in a public place, they seemed to have lost their heads in delight. They were indifferent to the presence of those who came in for a quiet evening with family or friends. Disapproving and impatient glances abounded around them, and the hotel staff looked on helplessly.
After a while when merriment and excitement had had their way, more pressing needs to satisfy the appetite came crowding upon them, and one of them beckoned to the waiter for placing their order. A lady in the group in an especially festive mood ordered for an exquisite cuisine that demanded elaborate preparation.
‘Get me this one,’ pointing to an elaborate Bengali cuisine on the menu, she told the waiter.
‘Madam, it will take half an hour,’ the waiter cautioned her of a possible delay because the joint was beginning to get inconveniently crowded.
As the orders arrived they voraciously dug into their servings. Almost all were at the end of their meal, but there was no sight of the exquisite delicacy the lady had ordered. She had until then occupied herself with some animated conversations, but now she was perturbed and called the waiter who appeared obediently.
‘Where’s my order?’ There was a clang in her voice that seemed to threaten trouble.
‘Madam, five minutes more,’ replied the waiter.
‘You said the same thing last time I asked you. What the hell is going on here?’
‘Sorry, madam, actually—,’ the waiter tried to explain but was cut short.
‘What do you mean by sorry? Is this the way you treat your customers?’ Her voice was now at a furious pitch, and all activities around her stood still. She rolled her eyes around as if to ensure she had everyone’s attention.
‘Madam, I had told you it will take time.’
‘How much time did you say it will take and how dare you argue with me?’ she shouted, wanting to make sure everyone heard of how poorly she was being treated as a customer. The waiter’s defiance had enraged her all the more.
An uneasy silence hung on the entire place, and the waiter stood like an apologetic schoolchild being berated by his teacher.
‘What kind of a restaurant is this? You have no respect for a lady,’ one of her colleagues joined in the diatribe.
‘Where’s the manager? Call him,’ another chipped in.
‘Why manager? Let’s talk to the owner,’ said the third.
‘We will not pay,’ the lady passed the verdict in a quiet, firm tone, leaning back in her chair with a certain feeling of satisfaction of support from her colleagues.
The meek surrender of the hapless waiter gave them an upper hand and they had found a new sport in bullying him. Two of their other colleagues watched in silent embarrassment and stole questioning glances at each other. The pandemonium had drawn everyone’s attention in the restaurant, and the discomfort of their curious gaze made those two professionals, who had not partaken in the uproar, squirm in their chair. Philip saw them slowly and surreptitiously remove their organisation’s identity card from their being and thrust it in their pockets. The gaiety of a relaxed evening had been unceremoniously aborted.
The restaurant manager walked up to the table. ‘I am extremely sorry. Please give me five minutes,’ he said, after learning about the situation from the waiter.
‘Your waiter does not know how to behave with the customers. He is arguing with us. Do you know who we are?’
‘I am very sorry, sir. I apologise on his behalf. Please give me five minutes and till then please enjoy our signature drink on the house.’ He turned to the waiter and issued a few orders.
‘We want a discount of 50 per cent on our bill.’ The group saw a good opportunity in wringing some advantage out of the manager’s capitulation.
‘Sir, that may not be possible, but I can give you a 10 per cent off,’ he said, forcing a smile and trying to be cautiously courteous to assuage their temper.
‘How abominable! That’s no way to behave,’ Rose protested looking at Philip, who had now focused his attention back on his plate.
‘Yes,’ Philip agreed.
‘Blame their parents for not instilling good values in them and not having taught them enough to respect others.’ Rose was a teacher and related much of the conduct of grown-ups to their upbringing and the influence of the society they belonged to. She believed in the significance of a healthy environment, during the growing up years of a child, for development of a good character.
‘I wonder which company they are from,’ someone from the next table said. Their behaviour raised questions about their organisation, their family, and their culture because in no way their manners conformed to their level of education or their social stature as a professional. Were they really educated as they appeared?
‘People do not understand that inferences are drawn and opinions are formed about their family, their institution, and their community depending on how they conduct themselves,’ Rose said. ‘The other day, a child spoke in an abusive language about a teacher, and on enquiry, I got to know that at home he had heard his parents talk about the teacher in unbecoming terms. Imagine when this child behaves or talks in an unseemly manner elsewhere, what a disagreeable opinion people will form about the parents and the school.’
‘Many of our Indian friends in New York are so modest and noble it actually made me believe all Indians are like them,’ Rose said and they discussed other matters over the meal as order got restored in the restaurant.
The incessant sound of honking from the rear brought Philip’s attention back onto the street and he leaned forward to get a view of their location.
Streets were getting increasingly crowded with humanity, and the vehicular movement became slower. Feroze turned the taxi into a narrow lane for faster travel. After going a small distance, he met the traffic standing still, and there was no way he could overtake the big station wagon in front. The slogan shouting procession had advanced this way. Members of a workers’ union were condemning the rise in cost of living and price increase, chanting anti-government slogans, and carrying placards and banners, raising chants and fists in unison. Every such protest or procession resulted in traffic jams, long delays, loss of working hours, chaos, frayed nerves, and waste of costly fuel. Those whose lives were disturbed and disrupted by such movements rarely ever sympathised with the protesters. The cost of such demonstrations wouldn’t be so high if only the demonstrators found more effective and friendly ways of protest, Feroze said.
‘In Kolkata, traffic is very bad, sir. How is the traffic in US?’ Feroze looked in the rear-view mirror at Philip. Philip said nothing. Two years in the city was a good enough time for him to realise this.
Philip spoke selectively and only while responding to a query. He was irked by the obtrusive friendliness of Feroze and avoided initiating any discussion willingly unless absolutely necessary. He preferred keeping to himself, but his thoughts were so scary and came tumbling over with such regularity that he searched for solace in just anything that would divert him. Feroze talked at will and needed no persuasion. His legendry volubility was further aided by the happenings around, and topics came to him effortlessly.
‘Every second day, there is some procession or the other,’ Feroze complained loudly to himself than to anyone in particular, as he drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. He realised Philip was not a willing conversationalist, but keeping silent was not in Feroze’s nature. He was so brimful of energy, he had to do something active all the time.
Presently, Philip’s eyes beheld a spectacular sight that was the beginning of his admiration for Feroze.
A banana peel flew out of the station wagon and dropped on the road. Feroze saw the offending object, got out of the taxi immediately, and picked it up. He knocked on the driver-side window of the station wagon and dangled the skin at the driver.
‘Dada [big brother], don’t you need this?’
‘No,’ came the reply.
‘We don’t need this too.’ Feroze threw the discarded banana skin inside the big car and came back in hurried steps, grinning proudly, delighted with his achievement. Philip was amazed at the boldness of the young man.
‘That was a good lesson you gave him,’ Philip said appreciatively. A rare time he spoke voluntarily without being coaxed by Feroze’s relentless questioning.
‘People don’t care about keeping their city clean.’ Feroze said and ran his fingers across his forehead to clean it of any unruly strands of hair. He was encouraged by the semblance of inclination in Philip to speak with him.
‘Sir, same people behave nicely in other countries and follow all the rules.’
‘How do you know that?’ Philip asked.
‘I have heard my passengers talk about it. They say that in other countries people are fined for dirtying the roads. Is it true?’
‘We should also have the same rule in our country.’ Feroze honked a couple of times at the car ahead of him. They drove in silence for a while, the music playing at a low volume.
‘Is this a sign of good education, sir? These people only have degree to get a job and earn money, but they do not behave like they are educated.’ Feroze looked over his shoulder briefly and voluntarily went on to explain what he thought was the difference between education and qualification. According to him, there did not exist any correlation between them.
‘Sir, degree is meant only for earning money and for getting good position in society. If it could make people wise and sensitive, then why would they dirty the road? Ammi, my mother, says good education means caring for fellow human beings and respecting them, caring for the environment, and keeping the surroundings clean.’
‘If people are educated, why are they not responsible?’ Feroze questioned. ‘Sir, you know, people are like animals. They need punishment and fear of law to behave properly.’
Feroze’s reasoning was powerful, and his misgivings well placed. Rebuke and punishment kept immoderate behaviour under check, but why should people need to be disciplined at all if they were educated and were in the know of their responsibility well? Qualification and degree, according to Feroze, was no more than a means for getting a job, making oodles of money, and for earning a respectable social status. But education had a far wider scope, was more than just imbibing knowledge and skill to earn a living. Having knowledge and not having it was much the same if it was not used for betterment of the society, Feroze asserted.
Philip did not agree entirely but chose not to respond. He did not want to debate with a taxi driver after all. What did an uneducated taxi driver know about the difference between education and qualification? Where was the difference? Weren’t qualification and education synonymous? Of course they were for one was deemed qualified only when one went through a formal education. He was himself so qualified and that obviously meant he was well educated too. He knew all about being sensible and sensitive and being wise. In Philip’s scheme of things, one singular act of virtue was not enough to exalt Feroze to the level of intellectual superiority that Philip commanded by virtue of his academics. He was, however, delighted in the manner of Feroze’s protest; the courage with which he thwarted the attempt to litter the street was a great example of a person concerned about the environment and who had tremendous respect for fellow human beings. Doubtlessly, more of such attitude was needed in a world where people had no qualms in behaving disgracefully.
The final traffic junction was in sight, and from thence began the highway. A posse of policemen at the signal were randomly stopping cars and doing a routine check of vehicular documentation. An imperious forefinger gestured at Feroze to pull the taxi over by the side of the road. The policeman walked up to the driver side and thrust his head in, examined Philip with an inquiring eye, and asked Feroze to step out. Philip rolled down the window to get a good view of the proceedings. The sky was arrogant blue, the sun was shining yellow, and a gust of warm breeze smothered Philip’s face. Every bit of the sun’s ascent raised the temperature proportionately.
Some questions later, the policeman asked Feroze for the taxi papers. Feroze fumbled for the documents in the glove box and handed them over. The pollution certificate had expired.
Philip’s open window attracted a beggar who sought her chance and moved in to intimidating distance of Philip. He instinctively pulled himself back. Her face was patched with grime, and her windblown hair along with the bedraggled looks gave her a ghastly appearance. Her outstretched hand, with cupped palm, moved up and down in ninety degrees, swinging like a pendulum well synchronised with her cries for alms. She put on a much rehearsed martyred expression and pitiful appeal in her eyes. To make her misery look more effective, she skilfully squeezed out a drop of tear from her eyes which rolled down picking up grains of dust in its path till it dried. The musty effluvium from her pie bald clothes was staggering, and holding her saree was her vulnerable little son joining her in a duet once in a while and, with practised innocence, matched her pitiable cries to perfection. He wore oversized clothes that hung upon him like rags on a scarecrow, and the hollows of penury showed clearly on his thin face while his overflowing crusty nose and the dirt caked fingers exaggerated his suffering.
Philip dropped a few coins in her outstretched hands, and before he could bat an eyelid an army of beggars, who were watching from a distance, started their hurried march towards him, a chorus of plaintive cries renting the air. They seemed to have been waiting for some signal and made a dash for him like an athlete who bolts off from the starter blocks at the sound of the gunshot. The old, the young, and the physically challenged hobbled, limped, and dragged themselves painfully, moving forward in strenuous haste in hope of a good charity from the foreigner. The smaller and the relatively fitter ones were quicker while one on the crutch lagged behind; a couple of them were hunched from the waist and walked slowly with the help of a stick, their heads shaking uncontrollably. Their clothes were worn and darned in places, and their faces were twisted with the pain of implacable poverty and the wretchedness of life that was thrust upon them.
Beggars were undesirable and no one wanted to see them, yet they were everywhere. They did not have sufficient clothing to cover their bodies adequately, and they made no effort to cover it either to exaggerate their beggary. Clothes and shelter were of no concern to them as much as food was, and they fed on the waste and the fetid. They rummaged through the trash bins and climbed on the garbage trucks; anything that was close to being edible was grasped gratefully with both hands and treated as ambrosia. They protected the treasure as if their life existed in it and covered it in rags to keep it out of view from the peering eyes of another hungry one of their ilk. Attempts to snatch away their prize met with yeasty growls and ferocious struggle. They slept on pavements, under the flyover or by the gutter side; neither the surface mattered to them nor did the surroundings. Being run over or falling into a drain was good riddance from a life of such undignified existence, for life had nothing to offer to them but ignominy and they accepted their fate. Feculent fluid oozed out from the unattended decomposed bruises and rank air constantly surrounded them like a halo. Treated like animals, they were kicked or pelted with stones to force them out of the way, and they would run away yelping and cursing. They were squalor personified and a walking storehouse of disease. They were viewed as a deterrent to the progress of the society and were picked up in trucks and vans and carried away out of sight if a VIP was on a visit to the area.
Feroze walked back to the taxi and hushed the beggars away. His long hair, tousled by the wind, was in an unruly state and with both hands he arranged them leisurely, looking into the rear-view mirror.
‘Is everything okay?’ Philip queried as they sped, hitting the highway.
‘Okay, sir,’ Feroze responded.
‘What took you so long?’
‘I had to pay fine. The pollution certificate had expired.’
‘You could have given him something and got away cheaply,’ Philip said in an as-a-matter-of-fact way.
‘Ghoos? Bribe?’ He looked at Philip in the rear-view mirror in near disbelief. The suggestion coming from a foreigner shocked him.
‘Bribe is not good, sir. Ammi says if you pay bribe once, it becomes a habit. How can poor people pay bribe when they do not have enough to eat?’ Feroze ran his fingers through his hair to keep them in place; there were none that were out of place but the motion was driven more by habit than by necessity. Greed for money is inexhaustible and ever increasing, Ammi had always said, Feroze told.
Bribe, Philip reflected, was an easy way of making money, the taste of which was like a fly that had got its hind legs caught in the molasses and could not pull itself out. It was an ugly practice which set an expectation in the taker, and the same expectation took the shape of an ineffable right to demand. Bribe was an integral chunk of the larger malaise called corruption and was so ubiquitous that its absence shocked and its practice never surprised.
Man is susceptible to the irresistible immoralities such as bribe because of the small gains and comforts they provide. These immoralities are effortless in carrying out, come naturally, and are easy to emulate. All was not hopeless though, for there existed people like Feroze too who were a personification of caring and concern, of ethics and righteousness, of honour and morality. Satan and the saint, malice and charity, hatred and love, decorum and immodesty, all exist side by side in the same society. The beggars and the slums and the extreme poverty that had met Philip’s eyes were the undesirable consequence of corruption. No one wanted to see them yet their gloomy squalor existed so prominently by the side of ostentatious opulence.
In the little incident that got enacted in front of him the ideals of an ordinary taxi driver had triumphed. Paying up slyly would have been a simple act to rescue himself but encouraging dishonesty was not Feroze’s mien—a rare alignment of thought and action that brightened up Philip’s spirit with hope.
But then bribing was an honest system and ensured the job was done with great efficiency. Philip smiled to himself.
He checked his watch. It was nine in the morning, and he felt the beginnings of a faint rumble of hunger. Rose had packed a few sandwiches for him, and he munched on them while looking outside and listening to a funny story, of a Hindi film Feroze had seen at least seven times and was planning to see once more on the return.