Hungry Jacarandas: 4. Hindi Hai Hum!

————– 1 ——————

The Devil’s Gorge – Victoria Falls from the Zimbabwe side

There is nothing sadder than seeing a friend – or even an acquaintance – in distress in a foreign land. The degree of sadness goes up exponentially if the sticky point is something that cannot be altered by mere wish or even by effort. Someone’s name, for example

“But boss, that is what my name is! How can they say it is not?”, wailed Sridhar, leaning towards me so purposefully that the movement took his chair backwards away from my desk. He was in a cocktail of emotions, primary ingredients of which were rage and frustration, garnished with roughly chopped desperation. Sridhar was a short fellow, curly hair, a rather prickly looking moustache and a paunch that held out a lot of promise to grow into something really meaningful with passage of time. He was a management consultant by profession

Management consultants should always work for management consultancies – that was a firm belief I held in my simplistic way of defining career choices. The transgressions started happening when these IT companies got super impressed with ideas that management consultants sold them about “moving up the value curve”. Loaded with lots of cash and goaded with suitable regulatory nudge after the Enorn scandal, these IT Services firms did what in Investment Banking is called a pac-man maneuver – they bought up those very management consultancies that were consulting them. Thus IBM became a consulting company that also sold computing gear. Smaller IT companies – like the one that offered me employment – started to build in house teams of management consultants. After all, size should never be a constraint for ambition, they were always told (perhaps by management consultants). Sadly, these cadre of management consultants never remained faithful to their trade and ended up as pseudo-salesmen in shiny suits. They would take up seemingly innocuous projects with pompous names like “Strategic Re-engineering of Retail Lending Practice and Operations” at a bank and instead of telling the loan guys to not lend to bankrupt drunkards, they would slyly recommend that they purchased a shiny new banking system automation product that had the following list of features and functionality. That list would be taken, invariably, from the sales collateral of a product developed by the same IT company. Most often Banks figured this out after a while and never trusted these guys in suits and ties. And that day Sridhar was not even wearing a jacket

“Name toh nahi hum badalta sakta hai na?”. I did not have the inclination to either correct his wrong south indian hindi or the fact that names can indeed be changed with some legal intervention. I wanted to fully understand the situation before I made that suggestion to him, sitting at the Mount Pleasant offices of the African Banking Corporation, at Harare, Zimbabwe. After a round of conversation I understood from Sridhar, who had calmed down a bit by then that the Nigerian Embassy in Harare had refused to grant him a Visa because they were not happy with his name. While embassies may have preferences with names, that should not extend to denial of visas but in Sridhar’s case it was weird. He did not have a name – they argued. Apparently Sridhar’s passport, issued in some place in Kerala in the pre-computerized days just had “Sridhar” as his name. So he had that as both his name and surname as per the only internationally accepted official identity he carried around. “But is that really the case?”, I asked cautiously. “Nai boss, my full name is R Sridhar. But somehow in the passport it showed only Sridhar. I never thought I would get into a problem with that. I explained to the embassy that in India it is possible that people just have one name but they want that to be certified by the local Indian Embassy”, said Sridhar almost in one breath. Then he narrated how he went to the Indian Embassy and they asked him to come the subsequent week. “Why?”, I asked. “Because they are busy with 15th August celebrations, boss”, Sridhar clapped his hand, which I had realized by then was a South Indian way of emphasizing a point and not a gesture of glee. “You know the High Commissioner, no – please kuch kado na dada. I have to leave for Lagos this weekend”, wailed Sridhar.

It was true I knew the High Commissioner – for the simple reason that he was also a Bengali. II was introduced to him via the ethnically vibrant, pre-Facebook bengali community of Harare. Amal Kanti Basu, a short dark complexioned, balding, jovial Bengali (actually a “bangal” for those who wish to make such subtle distinctions) was in his pre-retirement assignment at Harare – we called him High Commissioner Kaku. I promised Sridhar I will try my best to help him and later in the day called Mr. Basu. “Ei gulan ze kothhika asey, ar ki ze koy buzi na”, was High Commissioner Kaku’s response when I narrated the story. I wasn’t sure if he was referring to Sridhar or the folks at the Nigerian embassy. Or me, for that matter. “Theek ase, tumi Murthy re bolo, o kore dibekhon”, concluded the High Commissioner. Soumitro Ghosh, a friend of mine at Harare, once told me that it is fairly easy to identify Mr. Murthy in the embassy – “Mone rekho owr puro naam Shyam Murthy”, Soumitro-da had said with a punchline that will lose all its punch in translation

Sunset. From atop a hill in Bvumba, near the Mozambique-Zimbabwe border

True of most “on-site” assignments for consulting work, the clients didn’t care much if one is around in the office (sometimes they wish one wasn’t). I took off early that day and drove up to the Indian Embassy. The arterial parkway (as the Americans would call it) in Harare as one drives uptown has the diplomatic offices of different countries down the quaint roads that crossed it (The South African one was easily identifiable. It had a permanent mile long queue of Zimbabweans wanting to flee the country). The Indian Embassy was tucked away on Natal Road in the Belgravia suburb in a quiet, leafy area. I could see several cars parked near the gate that led to a short driveway to the two storied embassy building. By the time I reached halfway between the gate and the embassy portico, I could hear a group singing Sare Jahan Se Achha to the music of a tabla and harmonium. I understood why Sridhar was asked to come after five days – patriotic urges had trumped the need to serve the citizen. Inside the embassy in a large room I could see a host of people – almost all from the Bengali gang in Harare, including my colleague Abhijit Ghosh’s wife Shoma and the aforementioned Soumitro-da – deeply engrossed in a rehearsal. Intending to not get dragged into their activities and also stay focused on solving Sridhar’s problem, I went to look out for Shyam Murthy. After some twenty minutes the friendly, tall and unusually dark gentleman assured me that he will help out Sridhar. I was planning to sneak out unnoticed when right on the ground floor I met Mr. Basu. “Kaz hoilo?”, he enquired. “Porshu sharey noytar shomoye ashba kintu. Flag hoist hoibo, ami speech porum”, high commissioner kaku said – rather, instructed. Switching over to English he gave a final directive – “get all your colleagues – Indian colleagues. They must attend”

—————— 2 —————–

Shoaib Akhtar to Grant Flower with brother Andy at the non-striker end. Batting at the pavilion end, at deep fine leg is a fantastic pub – Keg & Maiden (partially visible)

It did not require any amount of coercion to get my Indian colleagues to get over on the 15th of August. Their patriotism mixed with a fair proportion of curiosity dragged them all to what was a rather cheerful looking Indian Embassy on that chilly morning of August (southern hemisphere, remember?). Mr. Basu had started  delivering – rather reading a speech. I learnt that the President’s speech, delivered on 14th August in India is faxed to all Embassies around the world and respective High Commissioners read that out on 15th August as part of their celebrations. High Commissioner Kaku was reading the speech with a fair dose of dramatics. Dr. Abdul Kalam possibly would have found it curious that someone was reciting his speech with a slightly bangal accent in the southern part of the dark continent. The speech ended with Mr. Basu’s deliberately purposeful “now everyone repeat after me – Zoy Hind”. The cultural soiree happened right afterwards where Sujoy-da’s (Yet another bengali in Harare, selling medicines for IPCA Laboratories in the SADC region) son recited a poem and the singing group took over thereafter. It all ended with the customary song that Sridhar would have immediately resonated with if he understood bangla – “jodi tor daak shuney keu na ashey tobe ekla cholo re”. Ended did I say? Sorry, it did not because Soumitro-da came over and asked me to come over to Mr. Basu’s residence – India House in Borrowdale – the following day. “Customary lunch for all other High Commissioners baba. It is quite an event. Come over”, he said

“ETHIOPIA! ETHIOPIA!! Please remove your car from the gate. PAKISTAN driver please bring car. PAKISTAN gaadi lao jaldi”. I had never heard anything like this ever. Despite being a regular visitor to Mr. Basu’s home, I had never parked my car so away from the gate as I had to do on the 16th. There were rows of diplomat cars all along the lane that led to India House and there was a specially installed consierge who was barking instructions to cars and chauffeurs so that the diplomats did not have to walk the few yards and get to their cars. The scene inside India House was that of mild chaos. The sprawling lawns of the bungalow were laid with long tables loaded with food. The guests milling around were a stunning milieu of cultures – dark Africans, tall white caucasians, short Asians – and they seemed quite friendly with each other. Just as I was wondering why these same nations choose to go to war against each other, Mrs. Bose – mashima – emerged. She was busy entertaining the guests along with the womenfolk from other Indians at Harare. She instructed me to not leave without eating – “I’ve made the sweets”, she added with a playful smile. The food spread was wonderful and totally Indian. Mr. Basu introduced me to a couple of diplomats who were rather intrigued that we were working to help an African bank, staying here suffering the Harare hardships. Little they knew how this was an experience of a lifetime for us. I had the devilish idea – that I quickly abandoned – of locating some Nigerian diplomat and ask about their visa rules, especially how they deal with Indian names (That was before there was a sudden boom of Nigerian widows with $10M to give away, else I would have certainly discussed this deep demographic-philanthropic phenomena with someone from the Nigerian embassy)

A Kudu. Hwange National Park

I walked down the lane, shining Volvos and Mercedes’ on either kerbs, and reached my modest Mazda. Driving back to the bank, I realized I will never forget these two days of August in my life – celebrating independence of my country in a foreign land. I had barely parked the car and climbed up a flight of stairs to the second floor of the Bank that I met Sridhar briskly walking away. “Ho gaya, dada – certificate mil gaya. Gave it to the embassy. Abhi now I need to get some Nigerian Nairas. Do you know where I can get?”. I nodded a negative – there’s only that much help that can be done in two days

—————— Footnote ——————-

Where do we go with this?: Hungry Jacarandas will take a break. Complaining of fatigue after just four installments is just plain lazy and that’s not the reason. Some readers have suggested that I explore alternative formats as the blog structure may not be best suited for a serialized travelogue. So I shall do some navel gazing (my navel) on that. But I promise there shall be plenty of other stuff coming up your way on Howrah Breeze


The Kali Temple Mystery

This story, authored by Murarimohan Beet in Bengali, first appeared in the children’s magazine “Suktara” in the year 1977 (July issue)

Illustrations in this story are photographs from the original piece. Copyright belongs to respective owners. My attempt is to present the story as close to the original as possible

Ajay, Shyamal and Ratan – three of my friends from college had come to visit our village. It was the summer break and I had taken them to the banks of the river in an attempt to beat the heat. The river Mayurakshi  flowed about a mile and a half north of our village – the banks of the river was very pleasant during the summers. The sunset was spectacular as the sun dipped creating a magical silhouette of the railway bridge. We had planned to spend a few hours there till dusk and then return back home. Anticipating that it could be dark on the way back, I was carrying a large five-celled flashlight with us

It was about six in the evening. The summer evening still had a fair amount of sunshine. Soothed by the river breeze we were deeply engrossed discussing the wave of Naxalism sweeping the state – so much that we failed to notice the huge dark clouds creeping up the western sky. We realized when the wind picked up and the light suddenly started deteriorating sharply. We hastily got up and started walking – rather a brisk jog – back towards the village. It was a tough ask anyway and within five minutes the elephant like cloud had covered the sky, the wind had picked up to a nasty howl and rain started pelting down in large drops. Our jog had transformed into a run by now. I was well aware that there were no places for us to seek shelter in this one and a half mile stretch of road back home. Except that deserted temple

But no one went anywhere near that temple any longer – not definitely after sundown. Like every other villager, I was aware of the temple’s legend and afraid to be in its vicinity in the night. The rational person in me argued that fear was mostly rooted in an urban legend but even that could not completely alleviate the uneasy feeling. But today we had a strong flashlight with us – besides the light its bulk could also be used as a weapon. The rain was incessant and there was no way we could get back home without falling ill tomorrow. Thus with great reluctance, I led the boys down the turn from the road that led us to the precincts of the deserted temple. We rushed into the portico of the temple and took shelter below the low roof. It was not a very large temple. Devoted to Goddess Kali, it used to belong to a Tantrik who stayed at the temple with a bunch of his followers. The temple was now dilapidated – parts of the structure broken down and in ruins and large parts of the temple compound consumed by wild weeds and trees. Plants had grown from its walls and snaked down from the roof, which was threatening to collapse any day soon. It was just seven in the evening though the constant patter of rain, the wind and constant chirping of crickets made it seem like midnight. If it were not for the rain I would surely not have come to the temple at this hour

“Where have you brought us, Bipin! You sure there are no snakes or scorpions around here?”, Shyamal asked as he nervously looked around, simultaneously drying his hair with his handkerchief

“I won’t rule out the possibility but see, we had no alternative. There was no way we could have run a mile in this rain and storm”, I surveyed the area around with my flashlight

“But it does seem that this was quite a temple at one time, no?”, asked Ratan

“Yes, indeed”, I replied. “This was a Kali temple presided over by a Tantrik. He was more a ruffian than a devoted disciple of the faith. He and a handful of equally dubious followers of his would perform puja and rituals every evening. Such was the type of the puja that far from coming to see the idol, no one ever dared come to witness the rituals”

Shyamal stopped drying his hair and each one of boys stared back at me

“There is a lot of dark history of this temple. I can tell you all if you want to hear – but only that much that I know”, I said, not quite knowing if it was the right thing to do

Ajay looked out at the now ominously reddish sky and said, “It looks like we will be here for a while. So why not make the best of the time. Go on Bipin, tell us the story of this temple”

We cleared the weeds and dust from a small area as much as we could, sat down and I started my narration

————————– 2 —————————–

My grandfather was around forty or forty two when this temple was fully functional. Like I said earlier, a Tantrik worshiper used to live here and worship the goddess Kali. A five feet tall idol of the goddess – black in color – used to be perched on this raised platform you see here. No one knew though that this idol was just a decoy and that the real worshiping happened in a small room in the basement of this temple. There is a room towards the rear of the temple from where goes a short flight of stairs down to the basement room. This was accidentally discovered by a group of young boys who were returning home after attending a wedding in the adjacent village. They had taken refuge inside the temple for the same reason as we have today – torrential rains in the month of July. The main door to the sanctum sanctorum – which today is in ruins and exists no more – was closed and locked that night when they got here. The boys however could hear sounds of bells and drums – the type that usually gets played during an offering to the goddess. The sound was indistinct, muffled and seemed to be coming from a distance. The boys were aware that even during those days there were no human habitations anywhere near this temple.  Yet the sound of the bells, the drums, however muted, were quite clear – it was apparent that a puja was being performed somewhere within this temple, perhaps in a different room. The boys – six in number – were getting increasingly curious and started going around the temple to locate the origin of the sound. To their disappointment – and increasing bafflement – all the rooms in the temple were locked. The boys came to the rear of the temple where the sound was much clearer than before. They knew the source had to be somewhere close. Then they found a room, the one right at the back of the temple, where a solitary light was burning and the door was ajar. The boys were convinced that the key to this mystery was in this room. They had however heard about the Tantrik and the dubious nature of his followers and wanted to make sure there was no one inside the room. Hiding in the darkness for about ten minutes, they emerged when they did not notice and sign of movement in and around the room. The sound of the bells and drums became much clearer as they entered the room. A small lamp was burning on the floor casting ghostly flickering shadows on the walls. The room was barren save for one cot and a large square piece of metal placed on the floor with handles on two sides. One of boys pushed the metal plate and it was immediately clear that the sound was coming from somewhere down under the room

The plate was quite heavy and it took four of the boys to push it away to reveal a staircase – dark and damp. Flashing their torchlight carefully they could not see the end of the winding stairs but it was beyond doubt that there was a basement below and the bells and drums were being played there. What was happening there? Why was it necessary to perform the ritual in the basement rather than in the main temple? The boys could now smell a whiff of something mysterious happening in the temple. They quickly discussed between themselves and decided it was important to find out what was going on here. They silently began to climb down the stairs, feeling their way through the darkness.  Just after the first turn in the staircase, they were able to see what was happening. What they witnessed sent a chill down the spines of each of those six young boys

It was a medium sized room with no ventilation – the only entrance and exit was through the staircase. The room was lit by kerosene lamps and lamps that are lit during religious offerings. Inside the room at one end was a tall black idol of goddess Kali, the red tongue hanging out and shimmering diabolically in the flickering yellow light. A man in bright red robes, long hair and beard was performing the rituals holding a lamp in his right hand, dancing to the sound of the bells and drums like he was in a trance. Around him were seven very well built strong men. Two of these men, thugs more likely, were each holding the arms of a small boy, no more than ten years old. Another man was holding a large shining sword like blade, called Kharga in religious offerings. A small armory of more blades, spears and swords sat against the wall.

It was clear that the real rituals and offerings happened in this basement and human sacrifice was also a normal practice. By then the man performing the rituals – the Tantrik – was done and he nodded his head at the two men holding the child. They dragged the child towards the idol of the goddess and the other man arranged and tightened his grip around the sword blade he was holding

The boys did not stay back to witness the remaining of this inhuman drama though at that point their desire to save the child was quite overwhelming. However difficult it was, they contained their emotions because it was evident that they were out-armed, out-muscled and obviously outnumbered by the thugs present in that basement. They fled through the staircase, careful to replace the metal plate exactly how it was and fled that area immediately. Before entering the village they started discussing their subsequent plan of action. It was clear that the thugs kidnapped sacrificial children from not nearby villages but from distant ones, lest they raised an alarm. This practice had to be stopped permanently. The boys concluded that the thugs had to be killed and reached a plan how they would carry this out. They also decided to not reveal this to anyone in the village and let everyone know only after their mission was successful

Exactly a week after this incident the boys returned to the temple at around ten in the night. This time they were carrying with them two drums of petrol. The boys hid behind bushes for a long while – there were no one except themselves, they were sure. Slowly they started moving towards the rear of the temple and towards the room that had the staircase to the basement. All of a sudden they could hear the sound of bells and drums just like the other day. Relieved that the Tantrik and his thugs were in the basement the boys now hurried towards the room. They entered the room and pushed aside the metal plate. After that they poured the contents of the two drums down the staircase. One of the boys had already lit a long strand of paper using his matchsticks and the burning lead was duly dropped into the dark abyss of the staircase, bursting the crevice into an inferno. The boys were ready and quickly pulled the metal plate shut. They then pulled the bed in that room and placed it on top of the metal plate. By then the death screams and shrieks of the Tantrik and his thugs had started in the basement, their sounds as muffled as the sounds of the bells and drums would be. It was all over in less than an hour and a deathly silence hung over the temple premises. Mission accomplished, the boys went back and narrated the story to the villagers, who from then onwards were doubly scared to come to the temple knowing everything of what had transpired. Except for situations like today when inclement weather forced the four of us to seek refuge in the ruins

————————-3 ———————–

“What a story”, said Ajay, first to break the silence as I wound up my narration. Ajay deftly lit a match, shielded the flame from the strong wind with his palms and lit a cigarette.  He was about to shake the matchstick to put it off when he froze. We all did and looked at each other, stunned. Ajay’s matchstick almost singed his fingers when he croaked, “what is that sound, Bipin?”. Slightly muffled but it was quite audible – the sound of bells and drums just like it happens during a ritual or an offering

The sound was muffled but very distinct, especially as the wind was blowing it from the source and there was not a single other sound – except a sudden heaviness in our breathing. I had begun to shiver. There was no human presence within a mile of this area. Then? Where was this sound coming from? Had some new Tantrik arrived and had revived the temple? That was impossible. The temple showed no signs of habitation – the dust, the thick carpet of dry leaves, vegetation, weeds everywhere and banyan shoots coming out from every crack in the walls. No, it was not possible that someone was staying here

“You said there used to be no settlements around this area then. How is it now?”, inquired Ajay. Ajay was one of the most daring young boys I have seen. A regular body-builder, he would swim in the Ganges during high tide

“It is the same now”, I said

“Huh! Then has some new Tantrik fellow come down here and has started his own small private practice?”, Ajay had regained his confidence after the initial setback. “But that does not look feasible. Look at the condition of this place. No human being surely has been around this place ever since those six boys dumped petrol and killed the murderers forty years back”

“You said it all was happening at the basement of the room in the rear of the temple. Why don’t we go and check”, Shyamal had got up and was trying to figure out the way towards the rear. It was not very clear given a large part of the temple had totally collapsed

I had no intention of going towards the rear, finding out that infamous room and whatever that lied beyond but at the same time I did not want my city friends to brand me a village coward. I joined the other three as we found our way to the rear. Most of the windows and doors of the rooms had been eaten away by termites and had either fallen off the hinges or were about to. Two inch thick dust greeted us everywhere as did sand and rubble. It was impossible for anyone to be living here. There were no footmarks except ours as we tried to discover that room at the rear of the temple. The sound progressively started getting clearer and it was quite evident that the source of the sound – the bells and drums – was very near as we stood at the door of what had to be that rear room. The door was hanging from the hinge and a thick layer of spider web adorned the dark doorway. No one could have entered this room leaving the spider’s web intact. What on earth was going on here?

We pushed the web aside and carefully entered the room. Right in the center of the room was what once upon a time had been a bed. Two of its legs had fallen away but the other two stood on a rusty and slightly mangled plate of metal with handles at the edges. The sound of the bells and drums were very clear now and without any doubt, coming from the basement. Four of us got on either side of the metal plate and a combination of push and pull revealed the cavernous square hole that was the staircase. I had never seen such solid darkness in my life. The sound of the bells and drums was almost like one could reach out and touch the source. But who were conducting the ritual? There was not even a lamp lit anywhere. Was there someone conducting the rituals in complete darkness?

Ajay, the fearless, took lead. “Come down with me”, he whispered, “don’t light the torch but keep it handy. Everyone hold onto the shirts of the person in front. And keep feeling the wall”. Ajay descended into the darkness. We reached the wide step where the staircase turned into the remaining few steps to the basement. We could see nothing, which was natural but neither could we feel anything. Not a breath, not any movement yet the sound of the bells and drums were just a few feet away. Suddenly Ajay inadvertently did something and the torchlight came to life, bathing the scene in front of us with an eerie beam of white light. And the bells and drums stopped instantaneously. We could see the basement, covered in at least two inches of dust and eight human skeletons scattered across the floor in different places. At one end of the room stood a half burnt idol – clearly the infamous idol of goddess Kali. The spears and swords at the corner of the room were more or less intact – perhaps the petrol did not reach that crevice. One large sword-blade – Kharga – lay at the feet of the idol and a skeleton right next to it. Scattered across the room were other ritual items – lamps, water caskets, large plates – each mangled in the fire such it was impossible to tell if they were made of iron, brass, silver or gold.

“Impossible”, Ajay was the first to break the silence. “Surely, the sound was not coming from this room. We must have made a mistake”, no matter how hard he tried Ajay’s voice was quivering. My state was possibly the worst of the lot – whatever my clothes had dried after the rain, they were drenched once again. This time in my own sweat. “Let’s go up. We will inspect the entire area”, said Ajay as we all turned back to climb up the stairs. I was now leading the queue with Ajay at the end, shining the torch. I had barely reached the wide step where the staircase curved when I heard a blood curdling scream from Ajay. AAAAAAAA …. H-E-L-P, Help, Help me….he was screaming with all the power of his lungs. He had dropped the torch and we were once again engulfed by the solid darkness. We reached Ajay and found he was unconscious and not able to move. We half carried half dragged him up the stairs. I won’t go into the details of how we managed to carry him back to the village that night. The local doctor came around to see Ajay the next morning. He gave him a dose of sedatives and said that it was most likely he had seen something terrible that had scared him out of his senses. Ajay regained his senses by mid morning but he was almost in a daze till noon of the next day. He narrated a strange story when he completely came around. He said that he saw a terrible looking Tantrik, with a large kharga in his hand, come and grab him by his neck. By the time he realized what was happening, the Tantrik had gripped the back of his head and brought the sword blade down on his neck with all force. It was then that he started shouting for help

————————— 4 —————————–

Hearing Ajay’s story, a large group – about twenty – of local youths wanted to go and check the mystery of the ruined Kali temple. Most of them were aware of the legend that went with the temple but this recent happening had stirred their interests to no end. I asked them to carry flashlights – it was quite possible that the basement will be dark even during the day. Finally I counted the team carrying at least ten flashlights. We reached the temple and quickly found our way to the room at the rear of the temple. The metal plate was ajar – we had not bothered to place it back that night – and the staircase was visible. We went down with all the ten flashlights guiding us the way. I found at the base of the stairs my flashlight that Ajay has dropped that night. But wait – what was this? My knees felt weak and my head spun as I took the scene in. I was sweating profusely looking at the room, which was now bathed in white light from so many flashlights. Why were there two skeletons at the bottom of the stairs? There were none there the other day, I was sure – they were scattered around the room but all away from the stairs. And how come there were nine skeletons and not eight? How did this kharga come here at the base of the stairs? The room was covered in dust and even now one could clearly make out the distinct outline of the sword blade where it had been lying at the foot of the idol. The same went with the skeleton that was almost next to the blade – it was not there but its imprint was on the dust was.

That same skeleton was now lying at the base of stairs along with a new skeleton, the neck of which was clearly broken and the sword blade lying right next to it

Hungry Jacarandas: 3. The Country Taketh Away

Double Rainbow at the Victoria Falls

“Subrata, kichu mone korbe na – ekta request korbo?” (I hope you would not mind, Subrata, if I made a request). It was mid afternoon in Bangalore when my phone screen flashed an incoming call from an unknown number. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be Toton-da – Anjan Ghosh – my friend from Harare. I had returned to India after the first leg of my stint and was scheduled to return to Zimbabwe after a few months of hiatus

Mrs. Bose – Mashima – and her family gave me a second home at Harare – there was absolutely no reason for me to turn down any request that Toton-da had for me. But I have to concede the details of his request was a touch strange. He gave me a list of things he would like me to carry back for him. Ninety percent of that list was baby food, milk powder and health drinks for his three year old daughter, Pinky (it wasn’t difficult to understand why she was named such. She must have been the most adorable bundle of pink when she was born). The phone line with Toton-da was poor, and I did not get a chance to seek details but evidently things had taken a turn for the worse back in Zimbabwe

I carried those items in my suitcase when I returned to Harare. My colleagues who were still in Zimbabwe warned me that customs at the airport had now started to confiscate items not because it was illegal to carry them into the country but because items that held their fancy were no longer available – or affordable – in Zimbabwe. I was quite worried that Toton-da’s items might get taken away so I took Bapi-da – Toton-da’s elder brother’s advice on this matter. “Just go to Gariahat and buy some sosta (cheap) but new T-shirts. But remember – don’t take out the tags or the packaging. Pack these T-shirts right at the top of the suitcase and the food stuff right at the base”, Bapi-da advised me over a phone line almost inaudible thanks to constant static. “How will this work? Simple, the guy at the gate will ask you to open the suitcase. Once you do that he will take away the new T-shirts and let you go”. I tried to detect if Bapi-da was pulling my leg but I was convinced he was not. I did exactly as he had asked me to. On my arrival, the scene at the Harare International Airport played out exactly as he had predicted it would. I knew this was a very different Zimbabwe than what I had left six months back

It was a Sunday – the day I arrived, so no Thomas (Thomas and his wife Ranganayee would go to Church on Sunday. Ranganayee usually returned with a whole chicken and Thomas with a whole bottle of cheap liquor). There was no car either (I had to get a new one sanctioned by the Bank as I had returned the earlier Mazda 406 that the Bank had allowed me to use). So I walked up Teviotdale Road, turned onto The Chase and went in to the nearest Spar. This was the same shop where I had brought my first consignment of groceries when I first landed in Harare, almost an year ago. Well stacked shelves had greeted me then – much to my surprise. I was expecting none of it then – my view of Africa was of malnourished children, murderous tribes and aggressive soccer players. This time around my expectations were tempered – I was somewhat aware of the accelerated economic descent. But the stark nakedness of the food shelves hit me like a bad blow. Aisle after Aisle of empty shelves (and all stores in Harare get replenished to the full on Sundays) with just a very few basic foodgrains and items of grocery were on sale – the overhead signs a complete mockery. A few rotting potatoes adorned the shelf beneath the sign pointing to Speciality Personal Care. The aisle that usually had milk curiously had no overhead sign. And no milk either – quite obviously

Mashima made the best mishti – Bengali sweets – I have ever had outside Calcutta. She always had modestly bestowed credit to the excellent quality of milk available in the city. Yet it is ironical that for the next six months that I spent in the city, every morning of mine would start with a lookout for milk. Just outside our home, across Teviotdale Road, was a small kiosk from which milk distribution happened every morning. Rather – was supposed to happen every morning. The practice had disappeared just as milk had from the city. From the balcony of the house where we stayed, first thing I did after waking up in the morning was look out to see if a queue had formed at the kiosk. That was an indication that milk might – and it was just a mere possibility – be distributed that day. I would ask Thomas to stand in the queue and if the rumor was accurate, purchase the allotted quota of milk. The milk – usually two liters of it – I would drop at Toton-da’s place on my way to work so Pinky could get her diet of calcium. The rumors would mostly be false, and the queue – which started forming at around five in the morning – realized and broke up if supplies did not arrive by seven

Blissfully asleep. Lion cub at the Hwange National Park

Supplies being curtailed to the extent that they were, speculation of the time and venue of distribution became key to even a chance procurement. Petrol was no different – in fact it was even worse as it had to be imported. Robert Mugabe could not find any international seller of fuel to his country, thanks to his empty foreign exchange coffers and also an unofficial international embargo on Zimbabwe. Thus the old man turned to another dubious African leader, who had oil but could not sell through the OPEC. Mumar Gaddhafi was happy to sell Mugabe the oil but he struck a strange deal in return. The Libyan leader had an immediate need to launder money and what better than stakes in financial institutions. Using this unusual barter, Mumar Gaddhafi took stake in some Banks in Zimbabwe (how privately run Banks were coerced into this agreement was unknown to me but I guess it wasn’t very difficult in what was virtually an autocracy). Curiously, Mumar Gaddhafi also picked up stake in fast food restaurants in the city. My friend Jerry Gezana pointed out astutely that it wasn’t without reason these restaurants started displaying a conspicuous yet hitherto unseen sign – “Halal Meat Only”

He had summed up the Zimbabwe situation quite nicely. I don’t think I knew or asked his full name. Mashima would call him Barin and Toton-da Barin-kaka. He was a mining engineer, working at a town called Mutare and would drive down occasionally for lunch or dinner at Mashima’s place. He looked exactly like how Mandar Bose of Sonar Kella would look like if he was allowed to age gracefully – those dominating sideburns indicating the toughness that lied beneath what age had obviously conquered. “You say you like Zimbabwe, heh?”, he said looking straight through me. He was possibly looking at the horizon, trying to discover the Zimbabwe me missed. “Have you ever seen a buffalo after it is felled by lions and the pride had had its fill? That is what Zimbabwe is today. Shudhu konkal ta porey achey (just the skeleton remains)”. I asked him why he is still staying on. “I don’t know, Subrata”, he now looked down at his drink, the voice a touch forlorn. “Perhaps because this country has given me so much. I am in debt, Subrata, serious debt with this country”. The country evidently was enthusiastically recovering its dues with usance

Hungry Jacarandas: 2. The Value of Money

The most worthless piece of metal on this planet!

It was a Sunday and Mrs. Anita Bose (who I had briefly introduced to my readers in the – well – Introduction) had called me home for dinner. Mashima, as i called her, would do this at the faintest opportunity. Motherly as she was, she realized that the cooking prowess of Thomas, our designated cook, was rather shallow at best. That evening Toton-da – Mashima’s youngest son – had called over a few of his friends and their family for dinner. For those who had access to foreign currency – US Dollars or South African Rand – alcohol was dirt cheap in Harare and the vodka was flowing well that evening. “You heard this joke about Mugabe having this dream?”, asked Arif, a Chartered Accountant as he shifted his drink from one hand to the other. He wasn’t expecting an answer and continued his narration. “Well, Mugabe  dreamt he was going to the local Spar to buy stuff with a wheelbarrow full of money. Two thugs come out of nowhere and mugged him. And they fled with just the wheelbarrow”. Strangely, Arif did not laugh at the joke and neither did anyone else. We all shifted nervously, reaching for our drinks or the chips. The complete uselessness of the local currency was not a matter that evoked any hint of mirth – however nervous.

I had read stories of hyperinflation in Germany in the nineteen twenties. The Deutsche Mark notes were so useless, housewives in Berlin burned them instead of firewood to keep the house warm. The Zimbabwe Dollar came very close. The economy was quite fine to start with at independence and the Dollar (it would have been politically incorrect to name the new currency a Pound, I presume) was pegged at the exchange level of the Great Britain Pound. It was in 1992 that the first exchange rate crisis happened and things went pear shaped. I am not a student of economic history and hence ignorant what caused the problem then, but the hyperinflation of the 2000s was squarely created by trade imbalances. Mugabe’s policy of grabbing farmland from the world’s most productive farmers – the whites in Zimbabwe – and handing them over to the indigenous population resulted in severe shortage of food, especially foodgrains. There wasn’t enough to eat at home, forget exports. But forgetting exports has its consequences – namely a shortage of foreign currency and hence a depreciating domestic exchange. The double whammy came from a supply side driven food inflation. The indigenous population did not know how to farm. “You know what the old man’s propaganda machinery has blamed it all on, Sub?”, Ezekiel Bopoto, or Bops, asked rhetorically. “The two consecutive years of solar eclipse visible from Zimbabwe! God’s doing this apparently, not the old man”. Bops would rock as he laughed. He was six four and weighed at least two hundred pounds, every bit of it muscle. You would not have seen a more gentle giant – trust me. But I wasn’t sure if it was proper for me to join Bops in the laughter

Five hundred Dollars. That was the largest denomination that currency notes came in Zimbabwe – at least till September 2002 (the notes were called Ferrari. They were red and went fast!). A loaf of bread would cost about five thousand dollars. One fine afternoon in Harare, larger denomination notes suddenly started going around in premium. Please do not misunderstand this as a figure of speech – that was not my intent. Five hundreds were impossible to get and people were willing to pay more than the intrinsic value to get those notes. Stanley Mpofu, boys from our consulting team called him StanMan, one day narrated to me over lunch how people had started bargaining with the bank for a higher interest rate for deposits made in all five hundreds. And their negotiation of interest rate was not something how we traditionally understood usance. “I will give you a hundred thousand in all five hundreds. I want the deposit to show a hundred and twenty thousand credit” – that was the deal. Stan, the ever simple man that he was, actually went up to Sethuraman, my colleague and asked Sethu if he knew how the additional twenty thousand should be accounted for in the core banking software! With all the five hundreds gone to Banks, and the banks hoarding them because the value of those notes were going up by the passing minute, all that remained on the streets were fives, tens, fifties and a few sporadic hundreds

Immanuel, another gentle giant, would ferry us between the two campuses of the Bank in a Mitshubishi Pajero. Zimbabweans had this thing about imported cars. Soumitro Ghosh, an economist working for the World Bank had once told me how imported cars are used as the only hedge against inflation in Zimbabwe. But we digress from an incident that has been seared in my mind. One day my colleague Ranjit Nair and I were in the car when Immanuel wanted to go the BP Bunk to get a fill up. Fuel was scarce, not to mention prohibitively expensive, but this gas station had a special arrangement with the Bank. A black board hung near the window of the small room next to the pump tills – that’s where people paid after their purchase. Scrawled on that board in white chalk were the curious words – “Only one denomination please”. Just below the window, on the other side, was a young boy manning a weighing scale. Immanuel pulled out a outsized brownpaper bag from the boot, went up the window, bent down low to level his head with the window and said “All tens”. He then placed the bag on the weighing scale. I peeped into the window – whatever Immanuel’s big size would allow – and saw two small boys at the back of that room sorting out notes into piles. They were more than ankle deep in currency notes. It is a pity smartphones with cameras were not around then but even today when I chat with Ranjit – now settled in Chicago – this invariably comes up

Mt. Nyangani – the highest peak in Zimbabwe. On a clear day all cities of the country can be seen from this spot

Thomas, the gardener cum cook, was paid by the Bank. One day Thomas walked up and said that he needed to be paid more frequently than at the end of every month. He never studied economics – I don’t think he studied anything at all for that matter – but was astute to understand that inflation erodes purchasing power. Hyperinflation obliterates it. The Bank agreed to pay him weekly wages, which was only fair since prices fluctuated – rather, only went up – with mind numbing frequency. I was out one weekend with Abhijit Ghosh – my colleague – and his wife Shoma and we went in to Nando’s to grab a chicken lunch. Nando’s had replaced all their price lists with black boards on which they would write the prices with color chalks. That day we were chatting amongst us, making up our minds on what to eat when the queue stalled with two men ahead of us at the counter. The girl had stopped taking orders because one of her colleagues had just climbed up a ladder, wet cloth in hand. She wiped out all the prices and was painstakingly writing the new ones. Clearly, the price of Nando’s Special Peri-Peri Chicken Wings at Mount Pleasant, Harare had started imbibing behaviour of a volatile stock trading on the New York Stock Exchange

“Have you seen the latest, Sub?”, Bops was standing at the door to our office in the Bank. Not quite an individual office – it was a large room where three of us had our desks. He was holding up a pale green bank-check like instrument between his thumb and forefinger. “A bearer bond issued by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe. Fifty thousand dollars denomination. And you know what this one instrument by itself can purchase?”, Bops had this naughty smile and tilt of the head that he did just before saying something funny. “A copy of the evening news paper”

The photograph at the beginning of this post is that of a fifty Zim cent coin from my collection. Before the original Zim Dollar was replaced with a new rebased currency, you would had to place 300 trillion of these coins one atop the other to get one US Dollar at the prevailing exchange rate. The coins are about 2mm thick. You know where I am going with this, right? That stack of coins would measure 745,645,431 miles. Think of this number

  • this is 1561 round trips from the earth to the moon
  • 29,943 times around the circumference of the earth
  • a beam of light traveling from the base of this stack will take one hour and six minutes to illuminate the top-most fifty cent coin

All this for one US Dollar