It was that time of the year! The time when everything seems rosy, when the air is crisp, clear and fragrant; the sky is a healthy shade of blue, without even a speck or wisp of a cloud; and the sun is bright but gentle.
It was the time to go home and everyone had a spring in the step. Camaraderie and universal benevolence was overflowing in the hardened hearts of co-workers, secure in the knowledge that atleast for three weeks they wouldn’t have to look at each other’s damned faces. Brotherhood is strongest when the brothers are not present in front of the eyes to confound oneself.
Even the usually reticent and obnoxious supervisor had a rare smile on his face and he actually patted the backs of few lucky bastards! No doubt he was also relishing the prospect of cooling his heels in the backwaters of his hometown in kerala during his vacation.
Harjiram came out of the factory after finishing his night shift around 8 am. It was already hot and the air was stifling. The sand dunes stretched behind the factory to the horizon, dotted by bushes – angry and thorny, ready to sting anyone who dared to go near them. He inhaled a deep breath and coughed immediately due to the the dust that had invaded his system. Even this could not shake his bonhomie. He was feeling that good!
Harjiram squinted in the distance. The scorching stretch of Arabian desert reminded him of Rajasthan, the state in india from where he hailed, specially of Boodha pushkar, a short swathe of picture perfect desert near his home town – Pushkar.
It seemed to him that sunshine had a different character that day, it had a deeper tint, which used to be the case when he was a kid and had played in the dusty lanes around his home. He had the insight that perhaps he was getting carried away with the current of nostalgia, but he didn’t care; he was going home after four years and it was all that mattered.
And this homecoming was going to be special. He had become the first person who had broken the shackles and had gone to Dubai to earn loads of money. Everyone back at home considered him rich.
‘If only they knew,‘ he thought acidly.
He had come to U.A.E. after giving a lot of money to an agent. He had tried for three years before he could land in the ‘realm of dreams’, but got a rude reality check early on, when he was told that he would be working at a ceramic factory at Ras-al-Khaimah, 80 kms. from Dubai. Infact, he had gone to visit Dubai only once and was dazzled by the skyscrapers there. They were so near yet so distant- it was so costly to enter any of them.
He shared the room with six other men, all were like him-disillusioned and defeated by life.
‘Hugh! life–Can one call this monstrosity a life?’, he thought – ‘this never-ending cycle of same mundane, tasteless and listless actions- repeated over and over. Room to factory, back-breaking work in inhuman conditions, then back to room, too tired and spent to do anything else.’
That there was not enough money anyways to spend, was another issue altogether. He had even cut down on tobacco, his only indulgence, to save money.
It was a misconception that he was making good money here, albeit, a misconception that he was keen to preserve. Because otherwise what else did he have? He was thirty-six, wiry and thin, with prematurely greying hair. He had tried many things earlier from business to odd jobs, but nothing had worked. Frustrated he had pinned all his hopes on gulf and when that also turned out to be a disappointment, he was broken.
Still, he had a lasting job here, and if one didn’t inconvenience the company with matters like sickness or god forbid- an accident; they were happy to let one work there endlessly- year after year; burning with the hope that one day, one would save enough to go back home triumphantly but knowing in the heart that such a day would never arrive.
Yet, like everyone here he had tried to save money, punishing himself more and more. He hadn’t even availed the annual leave in the past three years to save more, and had decided to go once he could afford expensive and never before seen gifts for everyone, so he could blaze a trail of opulence, prosperity and grandiosity there….He deserved this much.
And, now the time had come to get wings and fly to his abode- resplendent and lively.
“Have you kept my smartphone in your luggage? And the power bank for Nitesh?”
“Yes Shyam, I have kept everything, don’t worry. I have got gifts for everyone.”
“Ok bhai, we are waiting eagerly for you here. Sarpanchji has specially invited you to his daughter’s marriage. Everyone here is excited to meet you after all these years.” spoke Shyam, who was his younger brother, on the phone.
For a moment Harji was too choked to speak and his eyes were moist, ” You can’t imagine how impatient I am to be there, where you are standing right now.”
It was a hectic day and he had to do a lot of things. He still needed to buy some more gifts and now he would have to buy a nice dress to attend the wedding.
Harji was at the end of his wits, on one hand he was acutely worried about his shopping spree..’There goes all my savings..’, he thought with a heavy heart; and on the other hand he had heard from someone that there was a limit to the luggage which one could carry, after that one had to pay a hefty fees to carry it. Harji wasn’t sure about the weight limit, he had travelled only once in a flight, when he had come to this country with a tiny single bag.
By evening he was exasperated, he had to go to Sharjhah to catch the flight and his shopping was not coming to an end. He had been receiving phones regularly throughout the day from his extended family members and neighbours to request something or other from the duty-free heaven of this land. They all had seen swanky things in the hands of tourists which flocked Pushkar throughout the year but hadn’t had a chance to lay their hands on such shiny, alien-looking and mesmerizing miracles of technology. Until now, but as the news spread that Harji was coming and was bringing gifts, nobody wanted to be left behind.
Then there was some jewellery too for his wife, who always angry with him for leaving her behind, and toys for his son, now 5 years old. He had not seen him since four years, ‘how I long to take him into my arms and swirl him in the air,’ thought Harji longingly.
Also, he had stupidly promised to produce bottles of fine Angrezi wine there to commomerate the occasion of his homecoming. He could distinctly visualise all the males of his town smacking their lips in anticipation of the promised liqour
He didn’t have enough bags and suitcases to carry everything, in desperation he looked around and found a large and beautiful, but an old cloth, embroidered in the traditional style of Rajasthan, which he had somehow brought with him earlier. He hastily packed many articles in it and wrapped a tight rope around it.
Finally, the hour arrived when he started for Sharjhah. He was taking along his friend Madan till Sharjhah airport to help him, he could carry back some of the articles in case he needed to offload something. He instructed Madan to wait outside till he got his luggage weighed and finished the formalities at the Air-Arabia counter.
“You are carrying about 15 kgs. extra, you will have to pay 300 dirhams to be able to carry all this in the flight sir. ”
Harji almost had a heart attack when heard the smart lady behind the counter explain to him sweetly. There was darkness in front of his eyes for few moments. With some difficulty he spoke, ” Three hundred dirhams! That is too much. But I don’t understand I am traveling to my home, a person will carry some luggage with him.. Won’t he?”
“Sorry sir, but the flight which you have booked allows only 15 kgs. baggage and you have around 30 kgs. We charge 20 dirhams per extra kilogram, that is the rule. Either you have to pay or you can’t carry extra luggage.”
He pleaded desperately to her but she didn’t budge.
He looked at the pieces of his luggage, lying strewn on the floor, sadly for few minutes, contemplating the next course of action, though at a deeper level he already knew.
There was no way he could have paid this astronomical amount. It would have been insane to do so.
Then he shuffled slowly outside to Madan and handed him a big chunk of his luggage to carry back to the room.
“But…What will you say to your family and friends? It will be awkward.” Said Madan.
Harji took a deep breath, ” One has to change and act according to the circumstances; besides, they will understand.”
As he sat in the overnight flight to Jaipur he was quite thoughtful. His bubbling enthusiasm had quietened down to a steady trickle of an uncertain happiness.
He saw them through the enveloping fog of the early cold morning of December through the illumination of bright shiny lights at the Jaipur airport as soon as he came out of the arrival area. It seemed to him that they had acquired a halo in the intervening period when he had been slaving in the Arabian desert.
‘How saintly they all look,’ he thought bemused as he approached them. Of course, it was because of the interplay of the fog and the lights.
“Chacha, did you bring smartphone and power bank for me? ” asked his nephew Nitesh as he touched his feet.
” Nitesh! ” admonished his father Ramsingh, Harji’s elder brother,” your uncle has everything, first let him take a breath.”
“Actually,” Harji spoke hesitantly as he hugged his brother,” I couldn’t get your gifts. I…I ..had to leave a lot of my luggage back there as it was crossing the weight limit of the airlines and they were demanding a lot of money to let me bring it….I mean a lot of money!” stuttered Harji uncomfortably.
It was at this moment that he saw it– the sudden hardening of their faces, the closing of their hearts, the involuntary and momentary clenching of their jaws, the rolling of the eyeballs, the swift exchange of furtive glances, the terrible disappointment written boldly over the faces of youngsters and the sudden appearance of weariness and a well concealed mild irritation in elders.
Perhaps he had imagined it all….It was gone in an eye’s blink…No!…It had happened and he felt a deep gulf opening in his heart, ready to drown him.
“You don’t understand…I could not have brought everything…It’s not my fault,” he spoke rapidly in an attempt to redeem himself, to explain his impossible situation to them, to show how much he loved them but there were practicalaties of life too, to shout at them that he was standing there- in flesh and blood- after all these years! And that was all that mattered, “and I will send everything somehow with other people coming over next few months…next year… whenever…”
There was an awkward silence for few seconds then Ramsingh spoke,” it’s ok Harji, we understand. And you are here, that is the most important thing. Come, let’s go…mother is waiting for you.”
The three hour ride to Pushkar in the dilapidated van was acutely uncomfortable, not because the vehicle was rickety and the seats were designed to give lumbago to its passenger, he could endure all this...hell..he lived and worked in shitty conditions daily; but it was their silence – the enveloping silence, the accusatory silence, the silence on the pretext of being awake all night and thus the pretension of the nap which reeked of – disownment and seperation, of repugnant materialism in the face of absence of those petty shiny articles which he had not got for them ; which hurt him. It was as if someone had poked a knife in his heart- slowly, deliberately and pointedly.
“Hello..Yes, he is here…Umm..No, he didn’t, I mean he couldn’t…Shalu!..Easy, don’t shout..Hmm..I will tell you everything when we reach there.”
Harji listened with closed eyes, pretending to be asleep in the front seat, as Shyam spoke on his phone in a hushed tone in the rear. He could imagine clearly in his mind what would have been happening at the other end- Shyam’ s sharp-tongued wife Shalu would have spewed venom on hearing the news that he had not brought the delicate and finely- crafted wristwatch for her, along with the beautiful decorative peices from the land of Arabia, which she desired so much.
He slid down in his seat and wanted to dive deeeper and deeper until he disappeared completely into the welcoming shadows.
It had been six days since he had arrived here and his disenchantment with the place was complete.
‘Why did I ever come to this god-forsaken place!’, he thought bitterly, ‘ this town can never change. Ignorant fools can never transform into better men and women.’
He wondered that how was it possible that he had such a grandiose and romantic idea about his homecoming earlier. Nostalgia did strange things to one’s mind- it painted a bright and colorful portrait of one’s native place with the brush of happy memories of yesteryears only; leaving behind the hard-core horrible truth and true nature of it’s inhabitants aside, in it’s longing.
Now, he wanted to see it through, to be fully punished and banished. He went to each house in his vicinity to receive his rejection, to see the sneer on the faces of his neighbours and extended family members, to see the smug satisfaction on their faces which clearly said – we were better to not to have gone to a distant land and fail there. He deliberately sat through the dull conversations about nothing in particular, all the time observing the glint of contentment in their eyes, hidden beneath their courteous superficial mutterings, which belied their happiness in his failure, in his poverty and regainment of their superiority over him- he was nothing special after all, he was insignificant….he could be passed over; forgotten.
The extravagant visions of celebrations and parties were long gone. Not many people had turned up to meet him at his home after the news spread that he hadn’t brought anything.
At his home only his mother was really delighted to see him and she herself cooked food his favorite dishes daily. His wife, though happy to see him and the necklace which he had managed to bring, had resumed her constant bickering soon after – why didn’t he take her and his son with him? Why had he left her here to slave for the family, alone, to face the taunts of her mother-in- law and constant manipulations of her sister-in-laws? Why was she here, when he claimed that he was doing so well there? Why couldn’t she go with him?
He didn’t have the willpower to tell her that he was in no position to afford a place for his family back in U.A.E. and that she was condemned to remain in this small and crowded accommodation till eternity. In his irritation he had had a big fight with her and she had gone into a shell since then- silent, burning inside and embers of smoldering anger flashing through her firy eyes.
Harji could not even befriend his son. He proved to be too shy, too young and too immersed in his playful world to heed to paternal overtures of this stranger who had suddenly descended into his life, into his world and into his room where he now shared the bed with him and his mother. Frustrated in his attempt to enamour his son towards himself, he had scolded him severely one day and that was the final straw, after that his son maintained a resentful distance from him.
His brothers and sister-in-laws had abandoned him the first day itself, and went on with their lives as if he was not there.
Few days later in the marriage of sarpanchji’s daughter as he sat alone in a corner, he overheard a conversation behind him,
“Look at this Harji, sitting in the same worn clothes that he has been wearing for days now,”
“Yes, I noticed, he has been wearing only a couple of old shirts with the same trousers since he came back . Atleast, today he should have worn something special,”
“Definitely, if he is earning well in Dubai why is he roaming here as a pauper? I have heard that he didn’t bring anything for his family too, atleast he should have brought some nice gifts for his near and dear ones, if not for the whole town,”
“You know, I doubt whether he really works at Dubai. He must have been lying, I think he is a low level servant somewhere far away in India only. He always was a ‘good for nothing’ fellow.”
Harji was frozen, he didn’t dare to look behind and see who had spoken these words, in the fear of finding out that they could be someone whom he considered close to him and that would shatter him. Not that he was not broken already, his heart was irrevocably torn to shreds.
He wanted to run away from here, back to the comforting monotony of his factory and sweaty-smelly odour of his overcrowded room.
Early next morning before the first rays of the reddish sun started baking the sand, he went to his beloved patch of desert at Boodha pushkar and sat on a dune. In his hands was a big package wrapped in the cloth done in the traditional work of this part of Rajasthan and tightly wound with ropes. He kept the package on the sand and lay down in the cold desert.
Up in the still black sky he could see the constellation of Big dipper or Saptrishi, the two front stars of the bowl of the dipper pointing towards the pole star or Dhruva Tara. On an imaginary axis passing through this star, the earth rotated, he knew, but on what axis did the lives of inhabitants of this planet rotated around – Money? Mere material things made in some puny factory in china or middle east or even India? The axis was not love he now understood, it did not hinge upon family, friends or relationships.
Suddenly he wept- Why did he test them? Why did he try to prank them? It would have been infinitely better had he continued to believe in the false notions of brotherhood, nostalgia, coziness of family, and noble intentions of neighbours and acquaintances.
When it had come to shedding off weight at the airport he had given all his personal belongings -clothes, toiletries and some other lesser important stuff to Madan, who had protested that he would look like an impoverished fool stuttering around in just a pair of two old shirts.
But he had insisted upon carrying most of the gift items to India. He had thought how delighted everyone would be after receiving them. But, he wont give them just like that – first he would joke around it, as he was ever the prankster.
He flinched as he thought about the scene which he had rehearsed in mind throughout the journey in the plane – He would come out…they would be jubiliant on seeing him…amidst all the hugging and feet-touching, someone, most likely an impatient teenager like Nitesh would ask about the gifts…then he would act hesitant and tell them that he could not bring them. There would be a moment of mild shock..then they would all laugh and tell him that it did not matter one bit. He was there – their brother, uncle, son, husband, father….And that was all that mattered in the whole wide world. Then Viola !..He would sweep out the gifts to give them the surprise of a lifetime.
But things had gone awry; stunned by their response he could not tell them the truth there or later at any time at his home. Then it was too late.
Initially he had wanted to give their respective articles and make everything all right – a happy ending. But the more he thought about the affair the stronger his desire grew to explore the depths of their indifference towards him.
Nobody asked him, not even his wife, that what was in the tightly wrapped cloth, which he had kept beneath his bed the first day. If he hadn’t brought anything and didn’t have any clothes to wear -then what was in that package? Nobody cared…
Far in the distance, at one edge of the desert where it petered out to a narrow pathway leading towards a village, he could dimly see some lights and faint outline of a camp or dera of Kalbeliyas – the nomadic tribe living their migratory life in this region.
He got up and strode towards it purposefully. Nothing was stirring as yet, he gave a last parting look at the package. A smile broke through his wet face like a rainbow after the rain . He felt some closure by the thought that atleast all the exotic stuff bound in that package would bring happiness to kids and people of that tribe. He left it near the entrance of the dera.
Then he turned and walked briskly towards his home… towards jaipur….toward sharjhah….towards Ras-al-Khaimah.
Later that morning the elders in the Kalbeliya camp heard the noises of their children fighting and squabbling amongst themselves outside the entrance.
They found a bunch of kids fighting over an old but exquisite peice of cloth which had been handcrafted in the folk design which was so familiar and thus inviting to the children.
As they untangled the bawling kids, someone caught a glint of glass reflecting the rising sun.
The celebrations lasted for two nights, despite the protests by the womenfolk, but they also knew that it was a rare and special occasion when men got their hands upon delicate Angrezi wine.
They had also seen other electronic and digital items scattered over the distance in the sand, and perhaps had an idea what they were, but they didn’t have any use for them; so they left them there – to be buried slowly under the sweeping Balu sand of the all enveloping desert for eternity……