Friday, May 21, 2010

RACE AND PREJUDICE: A short story by Vinod Natesan


A short story:

The sound of breaking glass woke me from my light slumber. The sound was familiar. When students demonstrations used to go out of control, this was what would start off the spiral. The sound of granite stones aimed at public transport buses and the splintering of glass. Lathi charges used to follow and students would get beaten up for what was instigated by hoodlums, on directions from vested interests. Here too, there was an unease that I felt, a sixth sense that told me something was amiss. I had learned not to ignore this feeling in the pit of the stomach, this tightness that always foretold of lurking danger. It had stood me in good stead, in the cut and thrust of Kerala University student activism.

I got out of the bus, making sure I was carrying my bags and walked out onto the driver’s side. The driver was missing. Luckily, I soon found him perched on the roof of the bus, looking at a long line of buses that were parked in a line a little ahead. He mumbled something about some people stopping and checking buses.  I immediately recalled a newspaper boy yelling “Rajiv Gandhi out “ as he sold the evening tabloid earlier that night, when the bus had stopped for refreshments. It was almost mid-night and on the highway that connected Bangalore to Hyderabad. However no one paid him any attention.. I had marveled at the ingenuity of the kid, knowing that the election results would definitely not be out that night. However, I somehow  felt now, that what the boy had used as a sales pitch last night, had some bearing on what was happening this morning. I walked forward to a group clustered on one side of the road talking animatedly amongst themselves.My hunch turned out to be true. Rajiv Gandhi  the Congress leader, had been murdered by some LTTE terrorists, the previous night . There was therefore a bandh and buses were being stopped.

My name is Vinod Natesan and my surname is very common in Tamil Nadu. However my parents are both Malayali’s. My dad is actually a Pillai from Cochin and there was no linkage to anything Tamil that he had mentioned. My mother was a mix of a Tulu Brahmin and a Malayali Nair. On her side too, there were no Tamil connections. Well, lineage and pedigree had never bothered me till now and I always thought of myself as Vinod. My caste, religion and mother tongue had never become part of my self concept. But I was uneasy when I heard about the LTTE involvement in the unfortunate incident. Going by what happened in Delhi after the murder of Mrs Gandhi, I was pretty sure that there would be a backlash against Tamils, whether they were LTTE sympathizers or not. My anxiety was not misplaced. I soon saw a family scampering away, looking terror stricken. When stopped by the group next to me, they confirmed my worst fears. Mobs were stopping and burning vehicles with Tamil Nadu registration and Tamil names. People with Tamil names were being beaten up.

Survival instinct is something that was well honed in me.  I realized immediately that given my surname and its coincidental connotations, there was a  distinct possibility of being lynched, if I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Returning to Bangalore did not make sense, since the risks would be the same whether it was Bangalore or Hyderabad. More importantly, I also had to join the Hyderabad branch of an advertising agency that had offered me a much needed job. There was  therefore no turning back for me..

 Having decided to brave it to Hyderabad, I then started my preparations. I removed all documents which indicated my name and kept it in my socks and other places where I felt no one would suspect .
My wallet was emptied, except for a hundred rupees and I spread the money in different places of my clothing and baggage to reduce the risk of a total wipe out in case of looting . I then wrote V. Nath on a card and kept it in my baggage name tag with my Kerala address clearly visible. It helped that I had the initials  V.N, labeled on my luggage:)

I then started my trek to Hyderabad. Now, this was my first trip to that city and I had no clue as to where  where exactly  my agency had booked a room for me. All I had was the name Hotel Golconda @Lakdi ka Pul.  I told myself that I would first reach Hyderabad and then find out where this Hotel Golkonda was.

As I reached the crowd at the beginning of the line of buses, I could see a drunken group with the Congress party colors and black powder marks on their forehead shouting “Rajiv Gandhi amar rahe”. As I reached them, I too raised the slogan “Rajiv Gandhi amar rahe” looking very solemn and angry. The crowd joined in chorus. One of them came up and smeared some of the powder on my forehead as if I was a war hero returning home. He asked me something in Telugu and I said “Malayali”, Malayali” in my eagerness to establish my linguistic roots. He replied in Hindi, asking me where I was headed and in my nervousness I said “ladki ka pool”.(For those of you who do not follow Hindi. Lakdi Ka Pul means a wooden bridge.Ladki Ka Pool means a bridge of girls) He and his cohorts had a hearty laugh. They then asked  "Pehli baar Hyderabad aa raha he? ( Are you coming to Hyderabad for the first time?) . I replied that I had to report for work at my new office in Hyderabad. That seemed to somehow appease them  and one of them grinned and said to his pals "Naya he re" ( He is new). I was careful not to wipe the sweat forming on my forehead for fear of wiping away the tilak which they had smeared on it. They gave me vague directions. I thanked them and shouted another “Rajiv Gandhi amar rahe” for good measure.

The trek continued for a couple of hours until I reached a small market place. I soon chanced upon a shop with its shutters half –open. I went in and pleaded with the reluctant shop owner who let me make a call to my parents in Kerala in rerun of a hefty sum of a 100 rupees (in those days). I gave the contact number of the shop, so that relatives in the city could be informed to send help. My parents were relieved to hear my voice as was my cousin in Bangalore, who gave me the contact details of a relative in Hyderabad. I quickly managed to call this relative before the irritated shop keeper kicked me out. I luckily managed to get through. His advice was however to stay put where I was, since even Hyderabad was not safe and he was himself not stirring out for fear of life!!

At this point , the shop keeper  heard a truck drive up and hurriedly downed the shutters. I slipped out of the back door and on peeping onto the front of the market, saw looting of shops in broad daylight. Soft drinks were consumed, food items taken and there was no hint of anything being paid for. Some of those on board had sticks and some had sickle like knives. After this party left, shouting slogans with a drunken fervor, I crept out into the open and continued my journey.

After a  few miles, my stomach registered its protest with some loud rumbles, but there was not a single restaurant or hotel to be seen on the highway. I  had no other option but to stop at the wayside water taps and quench my thirst, hoping that the hunger pangs would subside. Some more reception committees and trucks were encountered on the road, but I had my password for survival in place.“Rajiv Gandhi amar rahe”. I probably was a good actor, and the black mark on my forehead probably helped, because it seemed to convince most of the goons.

As the day wore on, my bags became heavier, time seemed to move at a crawl and the road  seemed to stretch endlessly into the horizon.  I was also a little worried of some lumpen elements waylaying me for commercial reasons, not related to the bereavement over the tragedy in the Gandhi family. It was then that as I started  praying, promising  limitless offerings to all the Gods in the Hindu pantheon to whom I had made such entreaties often. The only difference was that until now, my entreaties were for better marks,success in examinations and  favorable responses from the girls that I used to be infatuated by at various points in my life. ( Yes, they were in large numbers :)  Right now however, on a hot dusty road to Hyderbad with my bags on my head, it was for my life. And yes,to be allowed to join this agency in Hyderabad. Not that it was a great agency, but it was the only one that had made me an offer in a while.

About an hour into praying and walking, thought I heard the sound of a car. My mother had once told me that as a baby, I was dedicated to Lord Guruvayoorappan.and that he would always take care of me. I thumbed a lift and as the car stopped, I wondered if  my Mother's faith was possibly not misplaced.

It was a family of four and the man who was in his forties asked me where I was headed. I gave him the hotel address and he invited me to ride with him. His wife obligingly went to the back seat and I got in next to him after depositing my bags in the boot of the car.

The lady provided me with lemonade in a glass and offered a sandwich, which I gleefully ate. They let me rest for a while before the man asked me what brought me to the city. He listened, smiled and said “Welcome to Hyderabad”. The discussion veered around to the Charminar, the Hussain Sagar and the famed Biriyani ( a rice based dish). When he dropped me off at the hotel, I remembered to give him my name and asked him his. He offered me his card. It said Haroon Siddiqui ( name changed). He was an agent for the Life Insurance Corporation.of India.

I joined the Agency and was in Hyderabad for 6 to 8 months. In that period, he never called up to sell his policies. That gesture  of helping a stranger on the road was purely from the heart. I marveled at his generosity and compassion. The irony of the situation also did not escape me. Where people were being targeted, because they happened to speak the same tongue as a bunch of murderers, or had names that were similar to them, here was a man who risked his family’s life to help someone he did not even know.

I learned a lot that day. And the most important one was a person is defined by his actions and not by his name, race, religion or linguistic origins. The worst that you could do to someone is to stereotype him and kill his individuality and rob him of a fair chance in life. I could NEVER become someone’s sworn enemy, because of something trivial as his name, or even because he or she spoke a language or was born in a particular place!


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