(Swans - May 23, 2011) I arrived at the airport, in the land of confusion, where people say yes when they mean no, no when they mean yes, and keep silent when they mean both. She expressed all of them: first a yes with enthusiasm, and then a no with regret, and finally, she was silent on the phone when I mentioned that I was coming to India to meet up with her. Was she going to meet me?
My plane landed almost two hours ago but I was stuck behind a very long queue of passengers going through immigration where a male officer not only checked that the European women's faces matched their passport photos but also, like a good and thorough shopper, frisked the entire body from top to bottom, before consenting to stamping their passports. Immigration here is comparable to a market, only allowing desirable goods to pass and when you are not sure about some goods you hold them up -- you check them carefully by analyzing their eyes, facial expressions, looking at their hands and their body expression before letting them pass through. In my case, I was perceived as a doubtful good because I am from Afghanistan. The immigration officer has the right to look at the beautiful European women with desire, and at me with concern. Since my hands do not show any evidence of having handled explosives, he reluctantly stamps my passport after a long list of questions. What can he do? His embassy in Afghanistan has, after all, issued me a visa.
While I was responding politely to the questions of the immigration officer my mind was wandering beyond the immigration area, where another long queue of dirty old taxis was waiting to earn a killing from visiting tourists who frequent India for the first time. But before reaching this queue of taxis, there is another barrier of people to pass through who offer deluxe and super deluxe hotel rooms, tempting money exchange rates -- excellent rates of course, excellent tours, head massage to relax, as they have been tortured by immigration officers, and then, between all these waves of services, the layer of family members and friends who have come to greet the new arrivals and pick them up. Once I pass through immigration, I look everywhere while molested by these waves of people who offer me different services. I cannot find her among the crowds. Finally, no one bothers me anymore and the people who offer services get busy with other new arrivals.
I make my way to a corner, carefully keeping one eye on my belongings and the other exploring all different directions to try and spot her. It is now three hours since my plane landed but waiting and the fruitless passing of time does not mean much here in India. It is not unusual to wait for trains for up to 8 hours to take you on a journey from Bombay to Pune. It is not unusual that you will not have your confirmed seat on the plane because a VIP needed it. So before you come here you must learn how to be patient and relax if the time passes without you reaching your goal. After all, days and nights are similar so why do you want to rush?
While taking refuge in a corner, I watch the European tourists being pursued in aggressive mannerisms by the local people desperate to sell their services. Like me, they are trying to find a quiet corner to escape to but they can't find one. In fact, there is no quiet corner in India. Even the corner of your own hotel room is not left alone. I remember when I was staying at the hotel; one of the best 4-star hotels, some years back. There was a constant knock on my door as soon as I had checked in, and someone would knock and enter my room without even waiting for an affirmative response.
"Sir, any laundry?"
"Not yet," I reply.
Ten minutes later, there is another knock, "Sir, room service?"
"No thank you, I am trying to rest."
Fifteen minutes later. Knock, knock, "Sir, do you need anything?"
"I need some sleep!"
"Oh sorry, sorry, sorry, Sir, most sorry, Sir."
Finally I get up to put the "Don't Disturb" sign on the door, knowing that it is not enough. I also call the reception desk and tell the receptionist that I don't want to be disturbed by people offering me services. I am so deep in this recollection when I suddenly hear a voice.
"Oh sorry, sorry, so sorry that I am late," Padma says with a big smile on her face. I forget all the tortures that I have gone through and nearly open my arms to give her a hug but I realise that I am in India and must refrain.
I am about to pick up my luggage when a man rushes towards me and grabs it. "Oh no, no, no, let Manoj carry the luggage," Padma says. I guess that Manoj is her driver. I am right and wrong. I am right because Manoj is a driver but I am wrong assuming that he is her driver. Manoj, who was named after Manoj Kumar, the most famous film actor, is indeed a driver, but a driver of Padma's friend. Padma has borrowed the driver and the car to pick me up. How wonderful and thoughtful.
Padma has the same large imploring eyes, and there is no trace of any ageing anywhere. As if Goddess Durga emerged in front of my face in all her grandeur and form. Her skin is like honey melon, her lips like rose petals. Her smile could light a thousand diyas. The colour of her pink shalwar kameez highlights her shades of brown and accentuates the curves of her body even more. Her eyes are the same as when I had first met her, deep and black, they are accentuated with the kohl. I am intoxicated by her.
Sitting next to her in the back seat where all affluent Indians would sit, I am feeling happy and comfortable when suddenly my beautiful Padma shouts "aray tum kidhar ja rahai ho? It is near India gate." The driver starts apologizing one thousand times but Padma is not going to let it go at that. "Tum loogh bilcul baywaqoof ho. Sahib has come a long way and is very tired, you know." So it is the poor driver Manoj who gets all the blame for my queuing at the immigration hall and for Madam Padma's delay. Drivers are normally blamed and they are trained to accept it. Therefore, it was not my fault that I was from Afghanistan nor the immigration officer's fault for checking the blond ladies thoroughly and certainly not Padma's fault. We finally reached India gate, our destination -- the Indian Railway Guest House.
The guesthouse is B&B -- not bed and breakfast as you would have guessed. No, it is Big and Beautiful, filled with abundant staff; one to open the main door for you, one to take your luggage and bring it to the reception desk, two to take your details to register, one to push the elevator's button, and finally one to switch on the TV in your room. But before the TV is switched on we had to answer serious questions. Facing the receptionist, Padma said:
"I have booked a double room for Mr. and Mrs. Mukerjee."
"Oh yes Madam. Are you Mr. and Mrs. Mukerjee?"
"How many nights are you going to stay?"
"Just the one night."
"Oh yes, yes, yes! Any breakfast in the morning?"
"Coffee or tea?"
I am not Mr. Mukerjee but I keep quiet. Mukerjee is Padma's husband. I was told by Padma to keep quiet, and quiet I am thinking so that the receptionist would have no doubt that I was Mr. Mukerjee because there is no need for him to check my passport. To my delight Padma is one of those senior railway officers who only needs to show her identity card to command the entire staff of the guesthouse to welcome us with the utmost respect.
As soon as the TV is switched on, whether we desired it or not, the person in charge of the TV finally leaves us alone. I reach the sweet lips of Padma and kiss her. She kisses me back intensely, but I interrupt the moment. How can I kiss the most senior Indian railway officer when I am dirty and smell of sweat?
I apologise and tell her that I must take a shower. I leave the bathroom door open and step into the shower. The hot water is delightful and soon I forget all my troubles. I feel greedy and indulge in a long shower, when there is another knock on the door. I hear Padma's response:
"Madam, clean towels?"
"Oh yes, thank you."
"Do you need anything else?"
"OK Madam. Thank you Madam."
When I get out of the shower wrapped with a towel around my waist, I walk towards Padma, take her by the hand and pull her towards the bed. But only minutes later there is yet another knock on the door:
With no time to respond to me, Padma kicks me out of bed and pushes me towards the bathroom to hide. From there I hear the waiter enter and Padma thanks him. He leaves. I come out to see the food laid out on the table and smile. Suddenly I am famished.
"How did you know that I was hungry?"
"Everybody knows that passing the immigration officer takes half a day and by the time you get through, you are hungry. I ordered the food while you were showering."
"But I am thirsty as well!"
"Oh you naughty, naughty, naughty boy! You haven't changed at all. Let me call them for a beer."
She phones for room service. I change into clean trousers and shirt, and start eating. I adore Indian food and the Indian food that I find in London where I live is completely different from the real authentic Indian food here in India. We eat and enjoy the conversation, talking about the past, and before we realize it the delicious food is devoured. We jump on the bed and start kissing but don't undress yet because we know that the room service will knock on the door any minute to deliver the beer. But there is no knock for a long time and then we assume that maybe the room service had forgotten our order and I start to take my shirt and trousers off. There is a bang on the door and someone shouts:
I jump off the bed, knock my head on the side table, knock over the lamp and rush towards the bathroom. The man enters and Padma complains:
"Array we asked for beer more than an hour ago!"
"Sorry, sorry, sorry Madam. Sorry Madam. We ran out of beer and I had to go to the nearest supermarket to buy one."
"Oh no. You shouldn't have."
"No, no, no Madam you are a very senior officer. We must look after you when you are here."
I come out of the bathroom for the third time and think, which lips I should start kissing? I opt for the lips of Cobra first, the Indian beer bottle that I have missed. I drink the beer fast and am delighted that the waiter has brought two bottles of king-size beer instead of just one, assuming madam would also join. Fortunately, Padma is a teetotaler and a vegetarian. I am almost at the end of my second bottle when the telephone rings and Padma answers. I see the concern on her face when she says, "Oh no! Where is he now?" She turns towards me and says:
"I forgot to send the driver back to my friend."
"Yes. I have to go down to sort it out."
"OK, I am waiting for you."
She goes down and I continue finishing my beer. She doesn't return for some time. I can't keep my eyes open. Still dressed, I lie down on the bed to rest for a minute, without switching the TV off.
I wake up when the telephone rings. For a minute, I don't know where I am. Finally I realize what happened last night and I answer the phone.
"Good morning sir. It is a wakeup call. Madam told me to wake you up at 10 am, before she left for her appointment."
It is 10:00 am and my outgoing flight is at 1:00 pm. I must rush to catch my flight for London. I don't take a shower and don't wait for the tea or coffee to be served in my room. I have not forgotten that I am from Afghanistan and entering and leaving India takes much more time than average.
I look at the mirror to adjust my hair and there on one side of a mirror, I see a note left by Padma. Four hours later when I am sitting next to a Punjabi sardar on the plane, who is burping every 5 minutes, I open the note that Padma left me and try to forget the sardar. She had written:
I am so, so sorry. I left without properly saying goodbye. I lay next to you the entire night but I didn't have the heart to wake you. You were really tired. I was hoping that you would wake early enough to say goodbye with a kiss or even something more but you continued to sleep like a log. Goodbye my darling and thank you for taking so much trouble to change your route through Delhi for one night in order to see me. It is very sweet -- I won't forget. Bye for now and let me know when you next come to India.
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About the Author
Bashir Sakhawarz was born in 1960 in Kabul, Afghanistan. He left Afghanistan two years after his country was invaded by the Soviet Union in 1979. He studied in the UK and after graduation worked in countries such as India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Kosovo, England, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Belize for organizations such as the EU, the UN, the Asian Development Bank, various NGOs, and the Red Cross. He is the author of seven books in Persian. His English works appeared in Language for a New Century, W. W. Norton & Company (2008), Images of Afghanistan, Oxford University Press (2010), and Proceeding of the Ninth Conference of the European Society for Central Asia, Cambridge Scholars Publishing (Nov. 2010). He currently lives in Geneva, Switzerland. (back)