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

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2 Comments

  1. I had drafted an appreciative comment yesterday, reasonably long and richly embellished with congratulatory points, but my phone ran out of power (or, perhaps, your weblog runneth over) and the whole thing was lost:D. You have the gift. Why don’t you look for publishers?

    Reply
    • Thank you Sir – much appreciated!
      There is some more work to be done before I start exploring publishing options. But the ambition remains, Sir.

      Reply

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