Relaxing by the poolside at the Taj in Bombay, Andrew took up the morning papers. There were many foreigners at the hotel. Andrew wondered whether they were all tourists. He would have to strike up a conversation with some of them and enquire about the best places to see in the city. He had to admit that he was nervous of meeting Ameesha.
“Why do I feel this way? And why would she want to snub me? I’ve always been her well wisher, in spite of the trouble I got her into.”
Perhaps he should tour the country first before he visited her. The travel brochure had listed a number of historical sights which were on the “must see” list.
Last evening, he had visited the beach at Chowpatty. “People, people everywhere,” he thought, “Not a square foot of unoccupied space where I could stand alone and watch the rolling breakers. It’s a free for all – vendors selling gram, fruit or tender coconuts; beggars clamouring for alms; acrobats somersaulting on the wet sand. The number of people on this single beach could exceed the population of my hometown.”
He was still holding the news paper in his hands, and his eyes fell on a news item on the first page.“Tongue branded for purification” the caption screamed, “A young Brahmin boy of eight, who ate food prepared by a low caste cook, had his tongue branded with neem sticks and washed with cows’ urine.“God damn,” cursed Andrew, “Will they never change?”
Suddenly, all enthusiasm for sight seeing left him. His desire to see Ameesha took on urgency, as it brought to mind the incident that had changed her life forever.
“Such bigotry even in the 21st century! I can’t wait to find out if she’s still battling a cruel system.”
Flinging the paper aside, he dived into the pool, hoping to shake off his irritability. As he climbed out of the pool, his athletic body shining in the morning sun, his hair dripping water, and a towel draped over his loins, he realised he was being watched, and made as if to sprint across to his room..
“Hi there!” A voice greeted him from the corridor to the left,
“Does the water feel nice and cool?”
“Refreshing!” he muttered, not wanting to stand there half naked and prolong the conversation.
He emerged from his room some time later, clad in a cool T- shirt and shorts. Though it was November, the weather was still too hot for comfort.
The reception clerk was eager to please.
“Do you know the easiest and shortest way to get to this place?” Andrew asked, showing him an address.
“That would be by plane Sir.” He made a few phone calls and said, “The flights are booked for the next few days. There is only one flight a day to Mangalore. From there, you’ll have to take a taxi or go by bus for another sixty miles.”
“No other way?”
“You could go by train. But the journey is very long and uncomfortable. If I may make a suggestion Sir, why don’t you enjoy the sights and sounds of Bombay for a few days? I’ll try to get you the first available seat on that plane.”
“Yes. That would be a good idea. Why don’t you join me on a sight seeing spree?”
It was the same woman again, and turning back to look at her, he saw a middle aged lady with a rough jute bag dangling from her shoulder.
“I’m Thelma Bloom a writer,” she said, “I guess we are country cousins. I’m gathering information for my book, and have to visit many areas that are not woman-friendly. This is a man’s world out here, and I’d be grateful for your chaperonage. Do come along. I promise I don’t bite.”
She was an interesting woman. There was very little she didn’t know about the country theoretically. Now she had come to experience first hand all that she had read about.“I read a very moving book “Staying Alive,” which describes the survival strategies of women in adverse situations. I think they are a brave lot. I’d like to meet some of them, and see what keeps them going.”
The more he heard, the greater was his worry about Ameesha. Would her fine education provide insulation against such indignities? He confided his fears to Thelma.
“Well, times are changing,” she assured him, “In the cities, one cannot tell one caste from the other, and I don’t think anyone bothers. Every metropolis is a melting pot of caste, religion and culture. But in most of rural India, there is hardly any change at all. There are laws to protect the lower castes, but the implementation of these laws is non-existent.
Almost every day, we read of heinous crimes against the lower castes – rape, torture, murder, humiliation that go unpunished. We never hear of convictions as the offenders are all from higher castes, with both money and muscle power.”
So it was a very depressed Andrew who found his way to Ameesha’s hospital at Udupi. But this did not look like a backward village anymore. It was a bustling coastal town, and everyone seemed to know Dr. Ameesha and the Mission Hospital where she worked.
She was not at the hospital as it was late in the evening, and someone directed him to her bungalow. An elderly lady reclining in an easy chair greeted him from the verandah.
“I’m Andrew Cox,” he said, shaking her hand, “I was Ameesha’s Consultant in England.”
“Yes, she has often spoken about you. I’m Margaret Brent, her mother. She’ll be back any time now. You’ll be staying the night I hope.”
“Is there a decent place in town where I can stay?”
“We have a comfortable guest room here, and I know Amy will not let you stay elsewhere. She has no friends outside this hospital, and I’m sure she’ll be glad of your company.”
“Has she settled down well after her return?” Andrew asked nervously. He wasn’t sure if Margaret was aware of the circumstances under which Ameesha had left England.
“You’ll see for yourself,” Margaret said, “She’s had quite a few knocks in life, but my girl has always emerged stronger after each incident. My only regret is that she’ll be very lonely after I’m gone. That unfortunate love affair in England has made her distrust all men.”
Andrew held his breath. “Has Amy told her the whole story,” he wondered, “Or just about the love affair that had gone sour? I’ll have to play it by ear.”
“It’s such a pity,” Margaret said, “My Amy is a wonderful person. She would make any man happy…. But I don’t think she has met anyone worth loving as yet. It’s difficult especially in a place like this. The people are so orthodox. The caste divisions are so clear cut. No trespassing beyond community boundaries unless one wants to be lynched. It simmers in their souls refusing to be extinguished. But I know change will come. Of that I’m sure, though it may not happen in my time. People need freedom from ignorance, freedom from poverty, but most of all, inner freedom to nurse that spark of divinity within them, and realise with clarity that all human beings are equal in the family of God.”
“So you’ve spent most of your life in this country?” Andrew asked.
“More than I intended to. I was on the verge of leaving with the other missionaries. But Ameesha came, and it became impossible to leave. She was in need of a mother and I was in need of someone to love. With middle age staring me in my face, and uncertainty about my own future back home, I felt a great door had been opened for me. I decided to stay on in India.”
“That must have taken some courage,” Andrew said, “And I guess it wasn’t easy.”
“Far from easy. But I realised very quickly the inexhaustible source from where I could derive strength. Whenever Moses had problems with the Israelites he entered his “tent of meeting” and either enquired of God or sent up his petitions, and God would speak to him as a friend. I had this unshakable conviction that Amy was His gift to me, and He would provide the strength, the wisdom and means to bring her up.”
“Why doesn’t Amy have any friends? I’m sure there is a Doctors’ fraternity in this area. Or does your church have no women’s fellowship?”
“The hospital takes up all her time, and she has no inclination for socializing.”
They sat there in silence as the deepening twilight merged with the darkness of another night. Everything was so quiet and peaceful.
“You must be exhausted after your journey, and I haven’t even offered you a cup of tea. Or would you rather have some tender coconut water? Comes in a sterile container you know, and is very rich in electrolytes.”
“Umakka,” she called, and a thin middle aged lady appeared. She wore a light cotton sari, one end of which covered her head.“She’s been with me almost as long as Amy. It is one success story that I can really boast about – a test that taught me patience and compassion.”
Umakka didn’t raise her eyes or greet Andrew. She merely left a tender coconut with a straw sticking out from a hole at the top, on a table beside him, and vanished.
I am a regular reader of your Novel from Chapter I. Very interesting and gripping. Looking forward to read the rest.....