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

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