Saturday, November 29, 2014

'She's a Black' : a short story

For a change from Prem Chand here is a short story written by me.


I got down from the bus and took the road to Dr. Pal’s residence. It was past five-thirty and dusk had already fallen. The December chill seeped in through my woolens and sent shivers all over my body. It was well that Pal had invited me for a drink. He had returned from a trip abroad only last week and wanted me to partake of a bottle of scotch he had brought home.  

The way to Dr. Pal’s home lay through the crowded market of East Patel Nagar, which was lively in spite of the chill. There I met Mr. Kumar, an acquaintance of mine, who taught in the same college as Pal.
‘Hello, where to?’ he asked me.

‘To Dr. Pal’s,’ I said.

Mr. Kumar’s mouth opened with a grin showing his long yellow ungainly teeth.

‘He’s just back from Europe. A clever guy, always angling for foreign trips! Knows how to milk the right cow… Achha bhai, come sometime to this poor man’s lodge too.’ He took my hand, shook it and went his way.

I walked on. Soon I found myself at Dr. Pal’s door and rang. Dr. Pal himself opened. We both went in.

‘I hope I’m not late.’

‘Oh, no. There’s no party. I had asked only Dr. Sharma, but he’s not coming, had to go somewhere suddenly.’

‘I met Kumar in the market.’

‘Oh!’ Dr. Pal’s face lit up with a benign smile. ‘What did he say?’

‘Nothing. Doesn’t seem to like you very much.’

‘It takes all kinds of people to make the world.’

Dr. Pal talked as he brought the glasses, soda and snacks. And then, finally, he took out the bottle and placed it on the table.

‘Here it is.’ He said with great relish.

‘I bought this on the flight back home.’

‘The bottle’s so elegant,’ I said.

‘What’s inside is much more so.’ Dr. Pal opened the bottle fondly and poured into glasses, making two drinks.

We began to drink and talk.

To begin with, the conversation was desultory, meandering over university affairs, hazards of living in Delhi, children’s education, but finally it stabilized around Dr. Pal’s recent visit.

‘It was a good trip. A two-week stay in America, arranged by an organisation called Mission for International Religion as an experiment in international living. We were thirty couples belonging to different continents – Asia, Africa, Europe, America – different religions, races – black, white, yellow, brown, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians. The purpose was to emphasize the unity of all religions and the universal nature of human aspirations. There were talks, seminars, discussions, with a view to understand different religions, cultures, racial attitudes and behaviour, and each one of us was finally asked to write a report on his or her experience during the two week period. That’s what I’m doing these days, writing my report.’

I began to envy Dr. Pal.

‘What do they do with the reports?’ I asked.

‘It’s a continuing process. Reports provide for better functioning in the future. Such experiments in international living are planned every year. Each year in a different country. The aim is to finally set up centres of the Mission in all parts of the world.’ Dr. Pal was willing to explain things.

‘What’s the ultimate aim of the Mission?’

‘That’s not very clear to me. But perhaps to organize the international community on a non-political, non-ideological basis. The assumption being that religions of the world offer a universally acceptable common denominator for a world order free from all the ills of the systems, past and present.’

Visions of a new Messiah, a new Jesus, a new Buddha storming the planet with a new kind of spiritual nuclear power arose in my mind.

‘Who runs the organization?’

‘A multi-millionaire American, non-white, of Asian origin,’ said Dr. Pal, picking up his glass and emptying it.

‘Finish yours, quick,’ he said to me.

I lifted up my glass, and drained it off. Dr. Pal poured another drink. Mrs. Pal came with some snacks. I greeted her and asked her about her trip abroad.

‘It was very fine. It was wonderful to meet people from all parts of the world. The arrangements were excellent. Better than in five star hotels here. We enjoyed our stay thoroughly.’ She said.

‘Did you go to other countries, too?’

‘No. But we stayed for a day each in London and Paris on our way home. A good free trip, bought a few things. What else?’ she chirped, and went away.

‘This was her first trip abroad,’ Dr. Pal said.

‘What about your children?’

‘They didn’t go. It was for married couples only. But my son went with the Mission’s Round the World Tour for the Youth in October. Six countries in America, Asia, Africa, Europe, Arabia. There was an offer for my daughter too. But we didn’t send her. Lower middle class apprehensions, I suppose,’ he said with a wry smile. ‘But she can still go. I think it is easier to give up one’s religious and racial prejudices than one’s class ideas on sex or morality.’

‘I don’t know.’ I said uncertainly.

‘May be, it is difficult for us, not for young people. I’ve often talked over to my son. He’s free from all such prejudices. He found it easy to mix with all.’

‘Certainly, there’s a lot of difference. Our children are growing up in a liberal atmosphere. But something very strange is also happening in our country. Along with liberalization we also see the hardening of attitudes, caste wars, regionalism, linguistic, chauvinism, religious fundamentalism. We seem to be becoming an intolerant and a violent society,’ I said.

‘These are all in their passing phase, the last spurt before final extinction. The world is moving towards internationalism very fast. Twenty years ago, why even ten years, I couldn’t dream of going abroad. And today my whole family has been abroad. In fact, my children already think of settling abroad. I tell you, national boundaries are becoming irrelevant. People are traveling so much.’ Dr. Pal was very emphatic in his assertions.

‘That’s true. But it’s the affluent or the more fortunate ones. The vast majority still can’t dream of all that, and nationalism will yet take a long time to die. The gap between the rich and the poor nations is, if anything, widening. So long as that gap remains, true internationalism cannot emerge.’ I said, and drank my glass up.

Dr. Pal immediately emptied his own  and poured yet another drink.

‘It is precisely here that agencies like the Mission for International Religion become relevant. If politics and economics keep people divided, perhaps religion can unite them.’ Pal said, as he opened another soda and poured it into our glasses.

‘Do you really believe it’s so simple to unite peoples of the world? The UN has been there for more than forty years now – the biggest experiment in internationalism. People from all corners of the world – small, big, super, white, black, brown, yellow, hot, cold, equatorial, tropical – meet there, talk, debate, eat, drink, exchange gifts, make love, and what do they achieve –  a better world?’

‘That’s exactly what I’m saying. Where politics divides, religion can unite. I mean true religion, not organized in the way religions have been in the past.’

So far as I know Dr. Pal had as little faith in religion as a uniting force as I. So I was surprised at what he said.

‘You’ve changed your views about religion.’

‘Yes and no. I never had and still don’t have faith in organized religion with all its paraphernalia of rites and rituals, but I’ve always deep in my heart, believed in, what I call, for want of better words, the religious truth of the highest order. Only a deeply religious attitude can give us a glimpse into the unknown, the ultimate where all differences submerge and everything unites.’ He said this with great conviction.

‘One need not be a religious man to believe in the reality of a super-consciousness. Even a sceptic can do so. Some modern physicists also believe in it.’ I said, taking a long sip.

‘But that’s the exceptional man. What you need is something for the ordinary man. You need some kind of organization that transcends the national, racial barriers, to which all mankind can belong, and which can give one a sense of identity that is in tune with the universal aspirations of man. I don’t know, I may be wrong, I may be rationalizing, I may not be able to convince you, yet I must say that this organization has given me such a hope, and that’s why I’ve pushed my family whole heartedly into this. The wounds inflicted by the partition would take another generation to heal, but I cannot forget, even though I was a child then, what that Muslim family did to save us. Almost everyone was intent on killing, yet this family of orthodox Muslims gave us shelter. Now I realize, there must have been something in their religion which made them risk their lives to save us.’

‘But why must you find that something only in a man of religion. A sceptic can be equally humane and courageous. One doesn’t have to believe in God or even a super-consciousness.’ I said.

‘You may be right, but that doesn’t prove me wrong either. The two extremes, perhaps, meet somewhere, and from a practical point it seems to work. I won’t talk of my own experience. I’ll tell you something about the youth group of which my son was a member – the change in my son. You very well know the prejudices of our own class, our own pettiness, narrow outlook, communal, regional, casteist– all these ills thrive the most in our class. Just a three week trip round the world in the company of young men and women from all over the world has brought a tremendous change in my son. A three-year course in internationalism wouldn’t do what has been done in three weeks.’ Dr. Pal said this with an air of finality.

‘I don’t doubt that. My question is: Why do you think religion, even in the sense you understand, is necessary to bring out the universal in man? These young people you talk about could have been transformed without any talk of religion. Youth is a great cementing force, and when young people are together they think alike.’

‘You don’t get my point.’ Dr. Pal had got hold of his idea and was putting it across very earnestly. ‘These young people came from different countries, different walks of life, belonged to different races, religions and had their own prejudices, hates and loves. They certainly needed a common rallying point, a kind of mission to work around, and I feel only religion can provide such a pivot. Political ideologies have miserably failed, and so has science. It is precisely because science, which has been presented as a saviour of mankind, both material and intellectual, has failed to evolve a positive value system, that we see a return to religion.’ Dr. Pal had made his point and joined the prophets who were predicting the failure of science and the ruin of mankind.

‘I don’t agree with you,’ I said. ‘First, let me make it clear, I’m not quite sure that science is failing mankind. But if science seems to be failing it is for the same reasons for which religion and political ideologies failed. The root cause of the trouble is the very nature of man. We have to face the bleak fact that human nature would not change easily, that there is sufficient evil and intolerance in the world, that we can destroy the planet with prejudices produced by race and religion, and power given by science. But, of course, one cannot give up the efforts to avert such a disaster. To do that we cannot go back and fall upon religion, but have to go ahead and look for something else. I don’t know about your motives, but I find the motives of these self-styled saviours of mankind very suspect. They are partly responsible for the revival of religious fundamentalism. Any religious revival is bound to be reactionary and backward looking.’

Having said all this, I felt I had gone too far. If you are specially invited to drink someone’s whisky, specially brought for you, then it is bad manners to talk like I was talking; so I stopped and repented.
I don’t know how Dr. Pal took my words. But finding my glass empty, he filled it up and resumed the argument.

‘I find nothing reactionary in all this,’ he began. ‘I found everyone willing to, and going out of his or her way to accept others, to give up their narrow way of looking at things. But as I told you I’m not sure what the big man is up to. I haven’t seen him and if I find anything questionable I would give up.’

‘That is not easy. Such organizations don’t spend money on you for nothing.’ I warned him.

‘I’ve taken care of that. And if the worst comes, I won’t be a loser. After all I’ve seen half the world free. My son has gone round the world, seen so much. It has given him a tremendous confidence and a broader view of life. He may not become a missionary in a great cause, but he would certainly become a better human being. I would even take a cynical view of this. After the trip I’ve no worries about my son for he can look after himself. That’s a positive achievement.’ Saying this he took a quick sip from his glass and got up. I’ll show you the photographs he took on his trip.’

He went to the other room and came back with a very attractive looking album. He sat beside me on the sofa.

I began to look through the album. He guided me. The United States, Europe, Asia, Arabia, China. Groups of young men and women, white, black, brown, yellow – poised against the background of great cities and great spiritual monuments of mankind, churches, mosques, pagodas, temples – happy, carefree, lively, hand in hand, embracing, hugging, all on top of the world, raising a vision of an earthly paradise. There was really something amazing, something wonderful about them, and Dr. Pal’s dry arguments put on flesh and blood in these photographs. My tedious and academic objections began to look ridiculous. Dr. Pal’s son seemed to have enjoyed every moment in this trip. Dr. Pal particularly pointed out photographs in which his son stood hand in hand with a black girl. The girl was tall and slim, with delicate features; her dark copper complexion and shapely frame made her something of a beauty.

‘They were declared the best couple.’ Dr. Pal said. ‘The girl is Nigerian.’

I saw some more photographs featuring the two. I tried to scrutinize their faces to find evidence of something more than mere companionship, but I got no clue. The members of the troupe seemed so happy and irrevocably wedded to one another. I envied the young people; my own youth had been so dull. I envied Dr. Pal, the father, who had been able to do so much for his son. I also wanted to do something similar for my son, and I was sure that Dr. Pal would be able to help me.

I saw through the album and handed it back to him almost reverentially. It had quite affected me. Dr. Pal also saw that it had, and sat triumphant, vindicated.

‘What about your photographs?’ I asked.

‘I’ve given them for printing. Should get them in a day or two.’

We resumed drinking.

‘Minu has an offer to study comparative religion in America.’ He said quietly.

‘Is he going?’

‘Most probably. He’ll go after his M.A. next year.’

‘Is he interested in religion?’

‘I’m not sure. Before this trip he wasn’t. But the trip has given him an orientation, if not a cause. And then it is such an opportunity.’

‘No doubt.’ I agreed.

We emptied our glasses and Dr. Pal moved to make another drink. I declined firmly.

‘No,’ I said. ‘This is my limit, and thank you very much. Keep the rest for a better day.’ I got up and we moved out.

‘All days are good.’ He winked.

‘When are you going next?’ I asked him hoping that he would make some kind of offer to me.
‘Not yet, after a few months, perhaps.’

‘At least you’ve found something worthwhile to do. It’s a big thing to retain faith in something, in this century, the graveyard of all certainties.’ I said honestly.

As we were moving out of the gate, Pal’s son, Minu came in. He greeted me. I shook hands with him, looked intently at his face. The trip had changed his appearance, so I thought. I was meeting him after a year. He looked taller, smarter, more handsome, and modern like the young men in TV and magazine ads.

‘So you had a very fine trip.’ I said smiling.

‘Yes, uncle.’

‘When are you going again?’

‘I’m not sure. May be, next year. I haven’t made up my mind. They have given me comparative religion. I’m trying for a change. But it’s a very good chance.’ He moved towards the entrance.

‘And you have already found the star of your destiny?’ I spoke to his back.

He stopped, turned and said, ‘I don’t understand.’

‘That Nigerian girl?’ I said with a smile.

‘Oh, no, uncle. She’s a black.’ He said this spontaneously, waited for a moment for me to say something, then went inside.

 Mine and Dr. Pal’s eyes met for a fraction of a second. I bade him good-bye.