Thursday, August 28, 2008

The haunted house

We were having a tea break after a grueling session of daily gossip, fondly called “Absolute Thinking” after office hours. It was early 1969 and all five of us had joined a unit of Larsen & Toubro in Orissa, about six months earlier.

Though we had lots in common, all were from IIT, Kharagpur, mechanical engineers, bachelors, extremely argumentative and lazy, we were also quite different in many other ways.

Ajit Mandal was from ’63 batch and was the senior most. He had the single ambition of going to USA!

Amlan Sen was from ’66 batch and was the best of the lot with regards to all human qualities. He was a connoisseur of everything good in life be it literature, music or playing bridge.

Santosh Singh did his M. Tech from IIT in ’68. He was a very intelligent, clean shaven sarder who always used to come up with some “Blue Sky” ideas and used to feel sorry for the world in general and us in particular if we were not supporting his ideas!

Sumit Satsangi was from ‘68 batch and was a sportsman to the core. He used to sport a mustache to look like army personnel in deference to his boyhood dream which could not be fulfilled due to a mysterious attack of bronchitis during army selection!

I was from the ’68 batch as well and as far as I was concerned there was nothing to write home about me except that I was quite popular with the kids in our colony since I could flip them on my shoulder. And most of the ladies in the colony had the misconception about my ability to fix up anything except broken hearts (a few attempts met with disastrous consequences)! So I had free access to all the families in our colony for cookies.

It was during the early stage of industrialization in India and our company acquired a vast track of hilly forest land in a God forsaken place called Kansbahal in the tribal heartland of Sundergarh district in Orissa. Kansbahal was about twenty five kilometers towards Bombay from the steel city called Rourkela.

Our unit was sandwiched between the Calcutta-Bombay main railway lines on one side and the Calcutta-Bombay national highway on the other. Workers’ colony, called South colony was relatively big and was near the railway lines. The factory was situated just after the south colony. The officers’ colony was called North colony and was on the other side of the factory, near the highway and was having hardly fifty bungalows.

Most of the carnivores, except jackals and a few friendly neighborhoods wolves left the area when the factory was being set up, due to the destruction of the habitat. However, snakes and scorpions were not wiling to give up and were putting up a spirited fight! The whole set up was very picturesque but danger lurked after every sunset. Till late night during the full moon period, we used to hear the faint melody of tribal folk songs accompanied by the haunting beats of madal (tribal drums). There were occasional reports of human sacrifice during the sowing season which, however, could never be confirmed.

If we are now unsatisfied with our poor infrastructure, it was simply non-existent in Kansbahal during the later part of the sixties.

After spending six months in south colony during our probation, five of us had just moved into two adjacent bungalows in the north colony. As you entered the north colony from the national highway you would be quite impressed by a wide concrete road with perpendicular arterial roads on both the sides flanked by bungalows. On the furthest end of the first perpendicular road to the right was our club, the sole entertainment facility in our colony. Our bungalows were just behind the club.

That particular day we were a little sad since Ajit had submitted his resignation and we all went to the club to douse our sorrow. Ajit, Amlan and Santosh were only occasional drinkers and were soon in a different world after a few glasses of beer. Sumit and I were sitting on the two extreme ends of the bar table and were still in our senses being teetotalers and had just finished our eighth bottle of Coca-Cola!

Suddenly I was startled with a gruff voice from behind “Good Evening, Mr. Sengupta”. I slowly turned and was surprised to see the smiling face of Mr. Muralidas, our estate manager!
“Good Evening, Mr. Muralidas” I replied, still in a state of sock.

We were not in best of terms. Some how or other, Muralidas would always give us a raw deal whenever he could. We would also fight it out with the active support of our bosses. We were a constant source of headache for each other.

“May I just have a couple of minutes with you, Mr. Sengupta?” said Mr. Muralidas almost apologetically.
“Sure” I said while moving out to a nearby sofa, still wondering about his intention.
“It is sad that we are loosing Mr. Mandal” said Mr. Muralidas while seating on a sofa opposite mine.
I didn’t utter anything, knowing full well that condolence could not be his main agenda.
“Mr. Sengupta, I have a proposal” said Mr. Muralidas after a swig at his glass.
I was alarmed! “It couldn’t be Deepika! She is too young. Anyway Muralidas would never select me as his son-in-law, unless he believes in those funny scientific theory of opposite poles attracts and would like to postulate that for human relationships as well!” I almost thought aloud.
“As you know, we are having a serious shortage of bungalows. We had to accommodate you in bigger bungalows since bungalows for you, I mean for junior engineers, are not yet ready. We are now having a lot of requests for these bungalows for family accommodation” said Muralidas taking another swig from his glass.
I was tense but still did not utter a word. My less than average brain was doing overtime to read his thoughts.
“At the same time there is a large bungalow lying vacant for quite sometime. I wonder whether you and Santosh would be interested in moving in there” said Muralidas.
“Which one?” I asked tentatively.
“On the first row, second from the right as you enter the club road” said Muralidas in an even tone.
“You mean the haunted house?” I exclaimed!

The bungalow he mentioned was one of the best bungalows in our colony. Long before we joined, the then chief accountant Mr. Gurubox Sahani used to stay there along with his family. He retired from the service and the day he was supposed to leave for his home town, he died suddenly of a heart attack. It was the first death in our colony and he was cremated on the bank of Brahmani river nearby. Death was quite normal but the timing was very unusual. Company then converted that bungalow into an extension of the guesthouse. The first guest was one Mr. Antia from our head office at Bombay. Nothing happened till the evening. But the next day Mr. Antia was found in a state of shock and was shifted to guesthouse proper. It was rumored that Mr. Antia heard some unusual sound on the rooftop and was under the opinion that it was Mr. Gurubox Sahani’s spirit! Since then nobody stayed in that bungalow and slowly it got the dubious status of a haunted house. Anybody taking the club road after the sunset used to pass that stretch very quickly without looking at that bungalow.

“You are young engineers from IIT. I don’t think you believe in all that nonsense. Do you?” he asked sheepishly, working on my male ego.
“Why don’t you move in?” I challenged him.
“I would love to” he said with pseudo boldness “but you know your Bhabi (sister-in-law) is, unfortunately, very superstitious. More over Deepika is so young” he added, pricking my sentiment.

I could understand that Muralidas wanted to outsource the dirty work of throwing us out to a ghost. If we were killed it would be all the more better. At the same time I was quite tempted about that bungalow. I was sure that there was no chance of our staying in such bungalows in coming ten years. I had to only convince Santosh which I was sure I could.

“See, it is a very difficult decision. Let me talk to Santosh when he is in a good mood. Give me a few days time” I replied with an impassive face.

“Oh, sure. Take your time” said Muralidas. He knew that he wouldn’t be able to convince Santosh even if he tried turning cartwheels or belly dancing. [To be continued]

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Effect of Musharraf's exit

Though the normal Pakistanis are rejoicing on the street with the news of resignation of Musharraf, its effect could be far reaching for the entire world and even for Pakistan.

Whatever could be his method of assuming the power, which is quite common in Pakistan, in the initial period, by all available account, Musharraf did his best to uplift Pakistan in all fronts like Economy, Education, Law & Order and International Standing.

Things started getting sour for him after 9/11 when due to pressure from USA, he got actively involved in anti-terrorist activities. His action against Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and also in Pakistan made him unpopular and also invited attempts on his life. It only shows that Pakistanis in general are in for the “Radical Islamization” and its militant factions like Taliban and Al Qaeda.

It should also be noted that army recruits are mostly drawn from the rural population who would always remain politically and religiously polarized in line with general population. So even with better discipline (we should not forget that all the established terrorist groups be it Taliban, Al Qaeda or LTTE are also highly disciplined) they will always remain sympathetic to their original ideas. So it is no wonder that ISI which is a part of army is reported to be penetrated by Taliban and AL Qaeda! Most probably general Kiyani, with his ISI background, did a wise thing in not supporting Musharraf, knowing the mood of the public in general and that of the army in particular.

Not that I am really gaga about the moral aptitude of most of our politicians and the functioning of democracy under coalition rule, but our system has at least survived for more than sixty years. Whereas in Pakistan, with its mostly feudal societies, it is yet to get the foot hold.

The present Pakistani government which is yet to form a proper coalition is headed by leaders with dubious characters ( Zardari was against to reinstate the supreme court judges due to pending cases against him) and at least one is without any experience in politics ( Zardari just came to lime light due to the assassination of Benazir).

They just took the advantage of the popular mood and gave assurance to various radical Islamic groups to win the election. Hence it is no wonder that there are reports that they have made deals with Taliban and Al Qaeda to reduce their activities in Pakistan and rather concentrate in Afghanistan and India.
The Embassy bombing in Kabul and misinformation about the economic blockade in Jammu to ferment agitation in Srinagar are the direct fallout, I suspect, of these inside deals. As per the army intelligence report the infiltration which became all time low before the establishment of civilian rule in Pakistan has gone up considerably ever since.

It looks like UPA government did not want to be charged with the human rights violation just before the crucial NSG meeting ( some of the NSG countries who have raised objection for the nuclear deal on the ground of nuclear proliferation are also extremely sensitive to human rights violation) and took a soft stand against the agitation in Srinagar.

So what we are having in Pakistan as a neighbor?

A country with very tight economic condition, a very weak fledgling democratic government without any charismatic leader who could take difficult and some time unpopular decisions, general population and the army penetrated by radical Islamic organizations like Taliban and Al Qaeda! If you do not call it a failed state, then what it is?

During the reign of Musharraf things were nearly the same!

But at least there was a man with whom the world could speak. At least there was a protection that the use of nuclear arsenal will be guided by MAD ( Mutual Assured Destruction) and not be used for blackmailing! Though it is reported that the Pakistani army have dismantled the nuclear arsenals in such a way that the terrorist group could not assemble them even if they get their access, is no guarantee. Chance of using dirty bomb by suicide groups remains. India has also realized that today in Pakistan there is no leader with whom to speak who could give any commitment or follow up with the commitment even if it is given!

I feel, USA should concentrate on Pakistan and may be to Saudi Arabia to check the spread of terrorism than concentrating on Iran.

Though India is the victim of terrorism, it is my firm belief that it is mostly due to external instigation. Indian Muslims are much less radical and they love India as much as any other religious groups. Their involvements are mostly aberration and could be due to social discrimination, localized economic conditions and misguidance.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Good Samaritan ? (Concluding Part)

“Hello?” my mother answered the phone with a tired and anxious voice with all the drama happening in the morning.
“Thamma (Grandma), Rini here! How are you? What has happened? Your voice is sounding so tired? Baba was supposed to come to you today. Has he arrived?” said Rini, my daughter, from USA in one breath.

Rini and I are best friends. After I lost my wife in 1998, misunderstanding cropped up between us for sometime. It, however, got resolved with the passage of time and when we could appreciate each other’s grief. Now I am having the dual responsibility of being her father and mother and she is my darling daughter. We are friend, philosopher and guide to each other. We share all our secrets which might have bearing on each other, skipping the ones which are mostly irrelevant. Finding me behaving like an unguided missile, Rini even tried to arrange a match for me and finally gave up when she found me absolutely unmarriageable.

“Rini, I am OK. Just now I got a phone call from Bapi that he has landed in Kolkata and coming home. One Kashmiri girl is also coming with him” conveyed my mother.
“Whaaat? Baba never told me anything about any Kashmiri girl? When did this happen?” Rini was more bothered about receiving the information via her grandma than the information itself.
“I hope things are really not that serious. Bapi apparently met her to-day at Delhi airport. She was going to Bangladesh via Kolkata. Bapi is bringing her home since she is all alone and her flight to Bangladesh is later in the evening” assured my mother banking on her residual confidence in me.
“Knowing my father, it sounds plausible. Let me get the information directly from the horse’s mouth. Don’t worry Thamma, I will take care” assured Rini though not very confident herself.

My mobile started ringing and seeing Rini’s name I was elated.
“Hello! Rini sona (Bengali equivalent of darling) how are you? I am already in Kolkata and driving down” I said with all the sweetness in my voice.
“Is she there with you? Say it in Bengali.” Rini’s voice was cold as steel.
“Yes! Farzana also knows Bengali” I wanted to clarify.
Hearing her name Farzana also turned towards me.
“Oh! What a coincidence! If it is at all a coincidence in the first place” Rini was mimicking. “Anyway, just answer me in Yes or NO. Is she good looking?” added Rini with expectation in her voice.
“Wonderful! I knew you will never make a wrong selection!” Rini was mocking. “Is she above fifty?” she added, trying to discard any further possibilities.
“Above forty?”
“Above thirty?”
“Above twenty?”
“Yes! You are correct”.
“Thank GOD, you have not picked up a teenager!” replied Rini sardonically. “Anyway, I hope there is nothing between two of you, otherwise you would have told me before” said Rini with some confidence, being my daughter for a long time. “Give me a ring when you are free. Bye!” added Rini some what relieved after her grueling interrogation.
“My daughter” I said with a smile while still thinking about my recent conversation with Rini.
“You told me that your daughter is in USA?” asked Farzana suspiciously.
“The call was from USA only” I replied.
“How she could know about me?” Asked Farzana, still suspicious.
“Probably she rang up her grandma in the morning which she normally does at least thrice a week and her grandma might have conveyed the news” I could only guess.
“Oh!” remarked Farzana and again resorted to gazing out of the window.
Within another few minutes we reached my mother’s place. As soon as our car reached the portico, the guard came running adjusting his belt and the opened door on Farzana’s side. As Farzana stepped out the guard was regretting why he did not have a shave in the morning!

“Please bring the luggage” I told Harvans and took the lift with Farzana. My mother’s flat is on the fourth floor. When I rang the bell, it was answered by my mother’s maid Mina, a Bengal-Bihar joint venture, beaming from ear to ear with sparkling eyes as if she was seeing the seventh wonder of the world!

My mother as usual was seated on her sofa in her living room and was reading a news paper. She greeted Farzana with a smile and gestured her to sit near her. I was surprised to see that instead of normal “Adab” Farzana greeted my mother with folded hand and said “Namaste”! From my mother’s smiling face I was convinced that Farzana had already been taken into her fold and I have done the right thing in bringing her home. They started conversing in Bengali.

My sister, Ilu was, however, not so gullible and was still little suspicious. She started asking Farzana lot of questions as if to verify her credentials!

It was already 10 AM and I did not have much time left for my meeting. After having a cup of tea brought by Mina who was very eager to join the gossip, I got up and told my mother “Ma, I have a meeting at 11 AM. I must change immediately and head for the office. I will also not be coming for lunch. Farzana will take lunch with you and then take some rest. Harvans will drop her to airport at 6 PM”. By then Farzana was quite at home with the ladies.

I was ready within half an hour. Before I took leave, I just wanted to check Farzana’s schedule and ask “Farzana could you please check your flight time once again and confirm?”
“I am sure it is at 8:20 PM” muttered Farzana but started digging her hand bag for the air ticket, may be just to satisfy me. She handed over the ticket to me without seeing. I took a brief look at the ticket and exclaimed in surprise “Farzana, here it is written 2:20 PM and not 8:20PM!” Farzana literally snatched the ticket from me, had a look and almost came to tears just thinking that if I hadn’t checked she would have missed the flight!

Immediately we both started dialing different numbers in our mobiles……. Farzana to her mother in Kashmir to enquire about the mix-up …….. and me to our branch manager at Kolkata office to arrange for a separate car to take her to airport.

After a brief tempest in Urdu with her mother, Farzana said with tears on her eyes “Mother said she tried for this earlier flight but settled for the evening flight when travelled agent told her that the earlier flight is full. She did not know that the travelled agent did arrange for the earlier flight as originally requested”
“Don’t worry! Thank God that you didn’t miss your flight. A separate car will come for you by 11:30 AM and you must leave for the airport latest by 12 O’clock. An authorized porter will take your luggage up to the check in counter. The car rental company and the driver have been instructed accordingly” I assured Farzana.
“Thank you very much, Mr. Sengupta for all the trouble you have taken”.
“That’s alright. It is already 10:30 AM and I must leave now. I don’t think I will be able to meet you before your departure. Take care and Khuda-hafez!” I told Farzana.
“Khuda-hafez!” said Farzana startled, with a rare smile on her face.
I then took leave from my mother and left for office.

Through out the day I was extremely busy. But before I got bogged down I advised our office secretary to check about the car and to ensure no further mix-up.
When I returned home at 6 PM, I was told by mother that Farzana left at 11:30 AM after a quick meal. Mina was, however, bubbling with excitement to tell me in details. “Kaku (Uncle), your friend removed her churni (Mina didn’t have any idea about Hijab!) after you left. She had such a nice brown hair! Since we did not have much time, I just made egg curry for her and she relished it. Is she coming back once again?” Mina was excited.
“Mina, it is very nice that Farzana liked your cooking, but there is no chance that she might come back again” I replied without elaborating to Mina that I just happened to meet Farzana only today at the Delhi airport!

After the tiring day, I took a bath and was having a cup of tea when my mobile started ringing. I picked it up and found the call is from an unknown number.
“Hello?” I asked, little unsure.
“Am I speaking to Mr. Sengupta?” the unknown caller asked.
“Good Evening! Mr. Sengupta, I am Rahim Khan from Kashmir; Farzana’s father. Do you remember me?”
“Of course Mr. Rahim Khan. I do remember you. Good Evening to you. How is Farzana? Has she reached Bangladesh safely?”
“Yes, she has reached safely. She just rang up from Dhaka. She specifically requested us to inform you immediately. She told us in details what all happened! She is all praise for your family and particularly your mother & you!”
“Oh, Mr. Khan! That’s all right. What I did, I feel you would have also done the same for my daughter under the similar circumstances”.
“That’s for sure, but good gestures are becoming very rare these days. Mr. Sengupta, if you happen to visit Kashmir, please be my guest. You have won a friend” Mr. Khan said quite emotionally.
“Thank you very much Mr. Khan. Now you are also having a friend in Kolkata! Do visit us if you come to Kolkata”
“Khuda-hafez, Mr. Sengupta”
“Khuda-hafez, Mr. Rahim Khan”

After the phone call I was just pondering over the whole incident from the morning. I was sure that most of you may not support my action, but probably like the proverbial squirrel helping mythological Rama to make the bridge across the ocean, I might have helped, in my small way, in building a bridge for a different purpose.

There was some music being played in our adjacent flat. Subconsciously I started humming the tune. Then I realized it was “Knowing me, knowing you….” I like ABBA.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Good Samaritan? (Part III)

“OK” said Farzana with a half smile and with a tone conveying resignation to her fate and started pushing her trolley forward.
“Why don’t we switch; you take my strolley and let me push your trolley?” I said out of courtesy.
“No! It is OK” said Farzana with finality in her voice.
As soon we came out of the arrival lounge, my driver Harvans came running.
“Good Morning, Sir. May I help you?” said Harvans and tried to take the strolley from me.
Harvans is a burly sardar and was assigned to me by the rental car company for the last seven years. His nature was diametrically opposite to his physic. He was a thorough gentleman, extremely polite and courteous. He was my friend, philosopher and guide and used to take me under his fold whenever I came to Kolkata to visit my mother. He knew all my clients, my friends of all sexes, all my relatives and whoever I needed to meet or visit!
“Good Morning, Harvans! How are you? I replied and then added “Harvans, please take the trolley from Memsab (Lady)”.
Harvans was aghast! He had never seen me coming out of Kolkata airport with any lady not known to him. Not only Farzana was unknown but I could read that her beauty made Harvans completely nervous and confused!
“Good Morning, Memsab!” he said nervously and took the trolley from Farzana. Farzana did not object. When we came to car drop zone, Harvans told us to wait and brought the car from the parking area in a run. Once our luggage was properly loaded and we were comfortable inside the car I told Harvans” Harvans let’s go home first and then we will go to office probably after an hour”
“Shall we not go first to Hotel, Sir?” asked Harvans, looking at me through the rear view mirror with nervousness still written on his face.
“Which Hotel, Harvans?” I enquired.
“Sir, shall we not drop Memsab first?” asked Harvans politely.
“Memsab is going with us to our house” I replied.
Harvan’s shocked reaction was quite dramatic and he just managed to avoid the lamppost! “OK, Sir.” He said nervously. He was sure that something had gone wrong somewhere.

The house where my mother stays is by the side of Eastern Metropolitan by pass, a high way, on the south-eastern fringe of Kolkata. E.M by pass is connected to Kolkata airport via VIP road and a by pass high way skirting the Salt Lake City. The road connection was excellent but it used to take about an hour to reach my mother’s house from the airport. After driving a kilometer from the airport, Harvans took left turn to enter the by pass high way.

Since leaving the airport, Farzana had been looking through the window without uttering a word.
“Have you been to Kolkata before?” I asked just to start the conversation and make her feel at home.
“Only to Kolkata airport. I was always taking an earlier flight and never came out of the airport” replied Farzana without turning her head.
“Are you sure that you are not booked in that flight this time as well?” I wanted to be sure.
“My mother told me that she did try for the same flight, but could not get the reservation” replied Farzana.
“Then it is OK. By the way my name is Biplab Sengupta. You might have seen it in my business card”.
“O yes, I did. I am Farzana” Farzana said, turning her head and rewarding me with a very rare smile.
“Yes, I saw it on your boarding card”.
“Are you visiting Bangladesh to meet any relatives?” I enquired.
“No, no. I am studying there. I am a third year medical student in Dhaka University”.
“But why in Bangladesh and not in India?” I enquired without hiding my surprise.
“It is much cheaper there. Moreover they have a medical college exclusively for girls with hostels inside the compound. It is very secure” explained Farzana. “Also it is much easier to get admission there” added Farzana.
“Since you are already in Dhaka for last three years, have you picked up any Bengali?” I enquired.
“I can understand it quite well. I can also speak, but only a little” replied Farzana.
“Are you carrying some instrument? Your luggage was very heavy.” I enquired.
“No, no. I am just carrying medical books. They are cheaper here. Also they are in short supply in our college library” replied Farzana with a shy smile.

I was quite impressed with her economic considerations. Must be business people, I thought! I suddenly remembered that it was already 9:15 AM and I had not yet called my mother!

My mother is always a little different from others of her generation. At the age of 85 and even with her frail health she was still spending at least five hours for Puja (holy rituals), but remained absolutely liberal and pragmatic in all her ideas. She always had equal respect for all religions and never bothered about the cast system. In our childhood we had everything except any supply of money. My mother, however, in joint venture with my father, who was great in his own right, gave me and my six sisters the opportunity to grow up with dignity in a most congenial and liberal atmosphere. It was heartening to see how she could control all of us without raising her voice and not resorting to any tantrums.

Unless I am sitting next to her, she would expect a phone call from me everyday latest by 7:30 AM. One hour grace when I used to be in Europe. For lesser mortals it would be better not to call her on her wireless number till 8:30 AM, otherwise you might hear “I am expecting Bapi’s (my pet name) call any moment. Please ring up later” like a recorded message.

“Ma, Bapi here, how are you?” I asked her through my mobile.
“You are late today in calling?” my mother asked for the explanation.
“Ma, I took 6:30 AM flight today from Delhi. In that wee hour you must have been in deep slumber and dreaming about me only. I did not want to disturb you in your dream!” I explained.
“You must have landed at least fifteen minutes back. Was the flight delayed? Is everything all right?” enquired my mother anxiously.
“Ma, everything is alright. I just wanted to give you some news. I met a Kashmiri girl in Delhi airport. She is taking the evening flight to Bangladesh. So instead of her waiting in the airport all alone, I am bringing her home so that she can spend some time with you. Her name is Farzana and she knows Bengali. Probably she could use Rini’s room. I will, however, be leaving for my office by 10:30 AM. Is it OK with you?” I replied with an asking note.
“Yes, it’s OK” replied my mother in a tone that sounded a little unsure.
“OK then. We will be reaching home within another half an hour” I replied and hung up.

I discovered later that since she was staying alone, my mother was a little unsure of receiving and entertaining a stranger all by herself and rang up one of my sister, “Ilu” who stayed nearby to join her immediately.
“Ilu, Bapi just now told me that he is coming home with a Kashmiri girl…..” started my mother.
“WHAAT? What do you mean? How long has this been going on? You never told us anything before?” rattled Ilu in a state of shock without letting my mother finish her sentence.
“I don’t thing it is that serious as yet. Bapi told me that he met her in Delhi airport” replied my mother.
“Are you sure it is not an alibi? Probably dada (elder brother) just wants you to see the girl. How old is she?” Ilu was very agitated.
“I really do not know her age. Anyway, if possible, please come immediately” replied my mother.
“Don’t worry. I will reach within fifteen minutes” replied Ilu and hung up.
My mother replaced the receiver slowly on the cradle with anxiety taking a grip on her, when the phone started ringing. [To be continued……]

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Good Samaritan? (Part II)

“Yes!” I replied looking at him but still proceeding towards the check-in counter.
“Is this your only baggage?” ask the man, looking at my strolley.
That was an outright intrusion! “Yes! But why?” I replied, somehow hiding my annoyance.
“If you could kindly spare me a minute? I have a problem.” answered the man anxiously.
By that time I had stopped by his side since I was a little eager to know about his problem. Whether I could be of any help, I thought, could be decided later.
“See, my daughter is going to Kolkata alone and she is having a little excess luggage (An understatement, I thought looking at her luggage!). Since you are not having any checked in luggage, probably she could check in with you, if you would allow. Could you please help?” Pleaded the man.
Though the request was reasonable, it was really not advisable due to security consideration. At first I was inclined to refuse. But considering that those two pieces of luggage were after all properly screened as “checked in luggage” and my inborn weakness for damsels in distress persuaded me to change my stand. My boyhood involvement with the Boys Scout movement and their practice of “a good turn a day” also played a trick. I could hear myself saying “Yes” and shrugged my shoulder. I took the airline ticket from the gentleman and instructed the porter from Jet Airways, who was already eager to take my strolley, to take the trolley from the young lady instead.
“Good morning, Sir” said the girl sitting at the Jet Premier counter with a general issue smile, while collecting the tickets.
“Good Morning, Janet” I replied with a smile, looking at her name tag.
“Could you please help my companion to get a window seat towards the front?” I added, knowing full well that Janet must have already seen my bio-data in the computer monitor and I need not say anything about my personal preference.
“Let me search” said Janet, briefly looking at me, smiling.
“I can manage a window seat, but a little further down the aisle, 19F will it be OK, Mr. Sengupta?” asked Janet expectantly.
“That’s OK. Please go-ahead” I replied, much relieved.
“May I book the luggage in your name only, Mr. Sengupta?” asked Janet looking at the weighing machine.
“OK” I replied after being hesitant for a moment.
“Here you are. Your boarding card 3C with two luggage tags. Boarding card 19F for Farzana. Happy Journey, Mr. Sengupta” said Janet smilingly while handing me over all the boarding cards, counterfoils for tickets and cabin baggage tags. Janet also instructed the porter to put “Priority Tags” to our checked in luggage.
“Thank you Janet for all the help” I replied with a smile while leaving the check-in counter.
I walked to the gentleman and his daughter who were standing a little away and handed over the boarding card, counterfoil of airline ticket, cabin baggage tags and my business card saying ”Luggage tags are in my name because of excess weight. Since we will be seating separately, we could meet only at Kolkata airport. Please tell your daughter to contact me at my cell number, in case of any difficulty”. I did not ask for her cell number, out of courtesy.
The gentleman looked at my business card briefly, extended his arm and said with a smiling face, with all the worries gone “ Thank you very much Mr. Sengupta. It was very kind of you. By the way, my name is Rahim Khan. We are from Kashmir”.

I shook his hand with a worried face with lots conflicting thoughts passing through my mind. Mere mention of Kashmir made me little uneasy.

There was a time when Kashmir was synonymous to anything beautiful. The natural beauty of Kashmir, with snow capped mountain peaks, valleys with Chinar trees, flowing springs, river Jhelum, floating house boats and Shikaras laden with roses and tulips on Dal lake, even excelled the much adored Switzerland! It was epitomized in a famous Bollyood motion picture “Kashmir – ki – kali” (Flower (girl) from Kashmir). Anybody having the experience can not forget “Wazwan” fest with fine gourmet cuisine like rogan-josh, rista-gushtava, kahwah (saffron tea), and shawls made of cashmere wool, silk carpets and wood carvings. Kashmir is immortalized in the Urdu couplets of Ghulam Ahmed Ashai “Agar firdous bar rul-e-zameen ast, hamin ast – o – hamin ast – o- hamin ast “(If there is a paradise in the world, it is here, it is here, it is here!).

Everything is still very much the same, except it is now overshadowed by the advent of a dreaded disease called “Terrorism”. I really do not know who was at fault but the end result was the death of thousands of innocent people. A couple of years back it was still localized but it had now engulfed the entire Indian sub-continent. The actions which were perfectly normal and humane only a couple of years back would now be viewed with suspicion. I also could not help but thinking “Was it a ploy? Was I too gullible and have put myself and my fellow passengers at risk?” I started doubting ….. Whether the security screening for the checked in luggage was proper? did I check the security tags properly?.... did the girl in the check in counter check the security tags properly?...... whether the security tags were genuine? Literally I was totally confused and did not know what to do.

The airport was very crowded and while I was in the state of confusion, I saw Farzana and her father melting away in the crowd. Then I realized that the luggage was booked in my name and they would not be unloaded even if Farzana did not board the plane! I felt like kicking myself and did not feel like going to business lounge for a cup of tea even though there was plenty of time till the boarding announcement.

As soon as the boarding was announced, I went for boarding but could not locate Farzana. Even in the aircraft though I was in the front section, I somehow missed her. Meanwhile the aircraft doors were closed and our fates were sealed!

While flying also I could not get away from the uneasiness. I was really not very much bothered about myself but about my fellow passengers who were all relaxing without knowing their fate. I was too reluctant to go down the aisle to locate Farzana since that may not solve the problem. Suicide bombings were quite rampant!

Breakfast was served but due to my uneasiness I could not enjoy my “last supper”. I was much relived when I heard the announcement from the flight deck that we were about to land at Kolkata.

Jet Airways really take care of their business class guests and their priority luggage. By the time I reached the arrival lounge with Jet Airways’ special bus, I could locate Farzana’s two pieces of luggage on the conveyor belt. It was a relief then to locate Farzana slowly coming towards me, pushing an empty trolley in front. I had difficulty loading those two pieces of luggage on the trolley since they were quite heavy. Anyway, my duty done I casually asked Farzana “Will there be anybody to receive you? Or shall I drop you somewhere?”
“No! I will be waiting in the airport only. I have to take a flight to Bangladesh” said Farzana with a half smile.
“What time is the flight to Bangladesh?” I enquired without sounding too inquisitive.
“At 8:20 PM” said Farzana, matter of fact.
“8:20 PM?” I was puzzled looking at my watch which was showing only 9 AM. “How could you wait in the airport for almost 11 hours that too with so much of luggage?” I asked in bewilderment knowing the scanty facilities available in Kolkata airport.
“I have to manage. I really do not have much of an alternative. My friends will join me at the airport only, just before the departure” said Farzana.
“May I drop you to any of your relatives or friends” I said out of courtesy.
“I do not have any relative in Kolkata. My friends also stay outside Kolkata and I really do not have their proper addresses” said Farzana looking little nervous.
“Look, I will be visiting my Mother who stays in Kolkata in a big flat with her maids. My daughter is in USA. You may use her room; freshen up; have some food and relax; then my car will drop you to airport at a suitable time. I am too reluctant to leave you at airport all by yourself. Please rely on me” I insisted. [To be continued……]

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Good Samaritan ?

I heard the sound while still in deep slumber. Slowly I realized the ringing tone of the telephone. Instinctively I turned on my right side in the bed and lifted the receiver from the cradle with my left arm.
“Hello?” I said, still half asleep.
“Good Morning, Mr. Sengupta. I am Nandita from reception. It is your wake-up call at 4 AM” said the lady’s voice from the other end.
“Good Morning, Nandita and thank you” I replied, already trying to remove the soft quilt with white satin cover covering me. At “ITC One” suite of Maurya Sheraton they really pamper you!
“Shall I give you a reminder call after five minutes, Mr. Sengupta?” asked Nandita, with expectation in her voice.
“No! No! Thank you Nandita, I am already fully awake” I replied
“Good day, Mr. Sengupta”
“Good day, Nandita”
I replaced the receiver and got up. The room was absolutely dark except for the foot light. I partially removed the heavy curtain from the window next to my bed, but the outside was still dark. Just then I heard the door bell. I switched on the bed side lamp to find my way and crossed the bed room and the living room to reach the suite door while tying the waist band of my dressing gown. I unlocked the door and opened it without peeping through the lookout glass (cardinal mistake!) to find our floor butler Sunil standing with a teapot on a tray. I opened the door fully and made way for him to enter.
“Good Morning, Mr. Sengupta” said Sunil with a broad smile and went past me with a wisp of soft aroma of a very good quality Darjeeling tea filling my nostril.
“Good Morning, Sunil”
“Shall I pour tea for you, Mr. Sengupta?” asked Sunil, lowering the tray on the centre table near the sofa.
“Not necessary. I will do it myself. Please tell reception to keep the bill ready. Tell them that I have not used the mini bar. Also the car should be at the porch by 4.30 AM” I said while tipping Sunil.
“Thank you, Mr. Sengupta, I will take care” said Sunil while closing the door softly.
I drank two cups of very light tea without sugar & milk very quickly and headed for the bathroom for brushing my teeth and a shave. There was no time for taking a bath or other morning chores.
Within another 20 minutes I was fully dressed up and settling the bill at the reception
“When do we see you next, Mr. Sengupta?” said Sagarika, the lobby manager, coming to greet me.
“May be tomorrow!” I said half jokingly while heading for the waiting car.
“Good Morning, Sir” greeted the doorman with a salute while opening the door of the black limousine.
“Good Morning” I said pleasantly while handing him my small luggage strolley with a tip and getting inside the car.
“Good Morning, Mr. Sengupta” greeted Akram at the driving seat, looking through the rear view mirror.
“Good Morning, Akram” I replied.
“Is the inside temperature OK, Mr. Sengupta?” asked Akram.
“Absolutely! Let us head for domestic airport, Jet Airways’ terminal”

I settled down and pondered what a life! I hate to get up in the morning, at least definitely not before 6 AM. But with my touring schedule of more than 20 days a month, all over the Globe that was simply not possible. For maximum utilization of time, there was no other way but to take at least ten early morning flights and equal number of late night flights per month. Different time zones of different continents compounded my problem further. I was nearing sixty and my secretary and all my friends thought that I was mad. They cautioned that I would meet my end any day. Doctors were very unhappy with me since I did not give them any business even under these extreme conditions!

It was early September, 2006 and I came to Delhi only a day before from my corporate headquarter at Ahmedabad. I would now be taking the 6.30 AM Jet Airways’ flight to Kolkata to attend a meeting at 11 AM. Flying to Kolkata, of course, gave me the added incentive of being with my Mother who stayed there with a full entourage of maid servants. One of my nieces and four of my sisters, who stayed nearby, would also normally be staying with her by turn. Earlier I use to live with her. But after I lost my wife to cancer in 1998, I had become a bit of a bohemian and was still unable to settle myself.

In the morning Delhi looked really regal with its clean and spacious roads. Invasion of traffic was yet to start and we reached domestic airport, Jet Airways’ terminal within about fifteen minutes. I tipped Akram and headed for the entrance with my laptop on my shoulder and dragging my strolley behind.

Airports are always the melting pots of the corporate world! Anytime of the day you have to keep a watch for any known faces least you miss any of your corporate friends or clients who are all loaded with tons of egos. An ex-boss of mine, who taught me the nitty-gritty of marketing, told me that once he found his boss hobnobbing with Deelip Kumar. But later when asked how he knew Deelip Kumar so well, he literally fell from the sky and exclaimed “Oh my God! Was he Deelip Kumar? I found his face very familiar and thought he must be some corporate honcho and might feel offended if I fail to recognize him!” This is a true story and this is the corporate world!

Even in the morning the Jet Airways’ terminal was like a fish market. I was keeping a very watchful eye while negotiating with my strolley. I almost reached Jet Airways’ premier counter without locating any known faces (unless everybody were hiding behind the piles of luggage!) when I saw the girl! She was in her early twenties and was standing near the extreme left counter with a luggage trolley laden with two pieces of oversize soft-baggage and a middle aged gentleman in a dark suit standing by her side. She was strikingly beautiful with very fair complexion and pale blue eyes. She was wearing a spring green Salwar-kamiz with a white scarf tied over her head like Hijab. She was, however, looking very distraught with all the worries of the world reflected on her face!

“To help all the damsels in distress in the world could not be my sole responsibility. At my age I could not be the knight in the shining armor” I told myself and was trying to shift my gaze when I heard “ Excuse me Sir, are you flying to Calcutta?” and saw that the middle aged gentleman who was standing beside the girl had just stepped in front and was addressing me! [To be continued….]