A few years ago I first visited the land of the Star Spangled banner. I had re-connected with a close school friend, Buddy, after a gap of a mere half century. She was class topper in every subject and extra curricular activity. After graduation, she went to the US for further qualifications, and settled there. My holiday plans were excitedly discussed, and we both looked forward to spending quality time together.
Rather an irritating fly, in our present ointment, which sadly couldn’t be swatted away, was Sammy, Buddy’s husband. They had met while both were students in the U.S, and married soon after. Sammy was the original grass-roots scholar, from the wilds of obscure erstwhile Uttar Pradesh. Buddy’s father had been a ‘Boxwallah’ of yore, working for a Multinational company. The couple was as alike as dhal and rogan josh.
Sammy, if you blinked while crossing him on the street, you might not register his passing. This little person, eyes, small and beady, glinting behind rimless glasses. He was the self-proclaimed Fount of all Wisdom, firmly ending every discussion with, “I know because, ‘They Say’!” This, “They Say,” I eventually learnt, alluded to Uncle Sam. He seemed as ashamed of his bucolic Indian roots, as much as he struggled with assimilating mainstream Yankeehood, down to his painstakingly nurtured, execrable Yankee twang. This slipped ever so often, to straw-sucking, original bucolic Hinglish!
Sammy had two favourite pastimes. Increasing his wealth and guarding his health. His parsimonious nature may have been from a frugal childhood. But caring about his health was his special passion. I oft wondered how Buddy married him, he was such a self-opiniated bore. Within a few months of getting back from my U.S holiday…tragedy struck. Buddy passed away, losing an overnight battle, with a hitherto undetected malignant tumour. I had kept in sporadic touch with Sammy. So, when he came to India a few months later, he wanted to visit Bangalore. Remembering Buddy’s affectionate hospitality, I instantly agreed. That is the rest of my story.
My frail, elderly mother had been dragged willy-nilly into Sammy’s proposed entertainment. I threw her way, various proposed topics of discussion with him—Indian politics, classical Indian music, and his remaining connections to India. Sammy had decided that our city was not his scene.It was polluted, the sky shrouded in a grey haze, garbage heaped all over the roads, traffic a killer, and more of the same. His opinions about Bangalore were amazingly out of line. Considering his Indian home base Gurgaon, was an arid, unsafe, moonscape, lurking with hirsute, testosterone-overloaded examples of Indian male-hood, strutting on potholed roads leading to glass-encased office blocks. I decided that I might do better to take him out to nearby coffee growing country. Then on to Mysore, a classic heritage city. Concluding with a climb up to the Blue Hills of Ootacamund, where he might still be able to snatch some glimpses of the erstwhile British Raj.
Hotel bookings needed Sammy’s Passport information. He was aghast that I had asked for such high security details online. How was I to know that the world, their wife, and their pet parrot, were waiting for a chance to hack this information from the Web? “Now you even know my actual age!” he joked. I wasn’t able to read his humour, “You don’t look a day older than eighty” I wrote back! Sammy arrived. Getting down from the cab, smiling widely at me, he said, “Cummon, give me a hggg!” Duh? Stood I, deciphering his Americanese a few seconds later, to mean “Hug.”
The day after Sammy’s arrival, I ticked off the first item on his tourism agenda, taking him to our local club, having also invited some friends to make up the Sammy entertainment committee. Dress code was jacket and trousers, shoes and socks too, I had warned him. Sammy emerged from his room, looking dulcet, in a deep rose-pink, hand-knitted , woollen waistcoat. I surreptitiously looked down to his shoes, hoping that I wouldn’t be in for a further shock, in finding his feet in socks to match his pullover. They weren’t! He looked expectantly at me, I tried ignoring that pullover! ‘Rose pink,’ when on the shady side of sixty? He also had, slung snugly across his chest, a bag of ‘briefcase’ proportions, that most tourists to Third World countries consider a necessary accessory. As he rather lacked in inches, this accessory flapped knee length, rather than trendily hip high. “Why phor that?” I asked. My Hinglish was immediately understood. “Oh! My bag? I always carry my passport on me when I travel, plus a few medicines, a hand towel and a change of clothes. It isn’t safe to leave an Amrikan passport in my room in India. Since his present room was in my house, chemists were a dime a dozen all over Bangalore, we were going in my car, and no rain, nor a flood forecast for the next few hours, the bag was wholly unnecessary to complete his charming ensemble! I let his implied insult wash over me. I pithily informed him that there was nobody at home who was desperate to nick his passport. Adding in my inimitable, best diplomatic style, that with that bag slung over his shoulder which announced, ‘tourist’ ripe for rich pickings, he might as well have slapped a label on his forehead written ‘U.S.A Citizen,’ ! He pretended not to hear me! We ordered our drinks. What needs must Sammy do? On a cold January evening, he asks for it on the rocks. This addition to his drink had an unfortunate effect on Sammy’s delicate constitution. The next morning he awoke with a tickle in his throat, and no amount of ginger infused beverages or, rinsing his throat with saline gargles, helped. A day after, he woke up saying that he might need to consult a doctor before his tickling pharynx turned worse, or the bug decided to emigrate to his lungs!
Keeping in mind the dire possibility of cancelling our entire trip, scheduled departure for the next morning, my fingers went into over drive. I fixed an appointment with a reputed GP. Sammy heard the doctor was female, and immediately announced that she wouldn’t suit him. I asked him if his throat and lungs felt shy of being examined by a lady doctor. After a bit of humming and hawing, it was revealed that his plumbing too was playing up. Not to worry, said I matter-of-factly, to a by now very squirmy Sammy. A common complaint for men not exactly on the threshold of youth! He paled, as if I’d dealt him a blow to his solar plexus. Verdict? No biopsy, no throat swab for culture, in fact, no life threatening drama. We returned home, and a shattered Sammy retired to his room, without eating even a morsel of the khichdi that my mother had made. He said that he was quite exhausted after the morning doctors’ visits, and needed to recuperate. Considering that it was I who had done all the running around at various doctor’s clinics. I stared. He ignored. Sammy awoke from his recuperative siesta, and after drinking a cup of restorative ginger infused tea, wondered if we could think of postponing our departure by a day, as he hadn’t been able to sleep very well the previous night. I took the reins firmly in my hands then. No, we couldn’t postpone our departure, not least because I had planned for the house painting to begin when we left, that our hotel rooms were all booked and paid for, and, but left unsaid, that my mother had by now run out of topics of conversation.
Departure day dawned. The hired car arrived, the baggage loaded. The foot wells in steerage were packed to the gunwales–with bottled water, home-made sandwiches, hygienically packed and branded Indian snacks, et al. I had made a bit of the back seat my nook, leaving the best seat in the house, the front one, for an honoured guest. Sammy reached the car, had one look at the seating arrangements, and threw a fit. Now what, I thought.
“Why am I being seated in the front?” whined Sammy.
“Because, it’s the best seat in the house,” I said.
“But I want to sit in the back with you, so we can chit-chat, and I can do some reading.”
“Well, there’s no leg room in the back, neither space on the seat, as you may have noticed. You can read equally comfortably in front. Besides, I’m not really a ‘chitty-chatty’ traveller.” And saying so firmly, our travels, and my travails, commenced.
Sammy sulked, and sat in the front seat, I relaxed and lounged in the back. We had barely traversed the city when, travelling through a seedy locality, Sammy told the driver to stop at any Restroom. Ah! Sammy’s plumbing again, I guessed! Sammy returned, I didn’t ask him about the condition of the Restroom…some things are better left unasked in my country! We continued, till we stopped for a coffee break, and drove on to coffee country. He approved, and how, about the verdant and hilly district.
“I’m looking at blue skies, breathing in rich, fresh air, for the first time since reaching India!”
I shrugged, looking relieved, that Sammy approved of my motherland.
“Now my lungs will clear up, and I’m sure I should soon feel better.” So, it was all about his health, and nothing more!
In hospitable Indian style, my friends and relatives invited Sammy to visit and share meals as well. They said that they would also show him the local sights. But my hopes of handing him over to friends, for entertainment, were dashed. Sammy didn’t want to do any ‘sight seeing!’
“I like people, I like interacting with people, what’s with looking at scenery and views?”
In translation this meant, that he wanted to continue his verbal diarrhoea with my friends, relatives and countrymen, and which ailment he didn’t want treated. His was not a bubbling personality, nor was he famous. So what prolonged interaction could he expect from my friends, all them strangers to him. I had envisaged this trip to also be a culinary experience for him, along scenic drives. His opening lines at eateries would invariably be, “I hope the food wont be spicy, or have too much oil?” “Do they make it fresh for customers here, after we place our orders?” This last query, after he had ordered for a portion of lip-smacking biryani, a dish that normally takes some prolonged cooking.
I hastily informed the hovering waiter, in the local lingo, “This customer is an Indian, but believes that he has attained Nirvana as he left our country, and now is as American as his bag announces. Do please get him his order, as you normally cook it in your kitchen.”
Before Sammy could ask me, I translated my dialogue with the waiter, explaining to him that I had passed on, his specific dietary restrictions in minute detail, to the Chef! I did not expect to go to Heaven anyway.
Mysore was next. Worse was to follow, after reaching our modest, but squeaky clean hotel, late in the evening. I desperately needed to hit the sack. I was exhausted with our travels within coffee country, and preempting Sammy and his high NRI, critical expectations. The hotel where I had booked us our rooms, did not measure up. He came to meet me in the lobby for dinner, looking decidedly unhappy, a frown pinned on his face.
“I don’t like this hotel. My bathroom has naphthalene balls in the wash basin and shower areas. Can you call ‘Housekeeping,” and have them immediately remove the poisonous balls?”
“Hmmm! ‘Moth balls.’…So?” I distractedly responded. I failed to understand that I was treading on dangerous ground. Of Sammy’s blind faith and belief in the ‘they say’ horror, of breathing in potentially fatal naphtha fumes.
I, casually, “The moth balls are placed, just to prevent cockroaches from climbing out of the drainage. If you don’t like having these in the bathroom, just flush them down the toilet.”
Sammy, ominously, “Must I do so myself? And then how do these get disposed off after flushing?”
I, silkily, “This being a small hotel, the housekeeping staff would have long since gone. As for the route taken of the usual contents of toilet bowls, I will have to enquire from the local sewerage board about their city’s underground sewer maps.”
Saying so, and Sammy not noticing the last but one straw on this camel’s back, I marched with him to his room, yanking his room key from his nerveless fingers, my fast vanishing cool, already at boiling point. I strode into the bathroom, picked up the moth balls, and threw them down the toilet bowl.
“Now, Sammy if you wish, you can search for another hotel. I don’t want dinner. I am off to my room. I need to sleep!”
The next morning, he appeared at breakfast. Very much in residence, I disappointedly noted. The moth balls had not done their job! He didn’t move hotel. I added, that if he wished he could move, but I would not. Later, he accompanied a cousin and I, on our tour of a select few museums and monuments. He was not impressed. He did not evince more than a passing glance at the beautifully sculpted Italian marble statues, of the erstwhile Mysore Royals, that dotted the City Squares and heritage buildings. I soon gave up, and decided that we may as well move up and on, to the Blue Hills of the Nilgiris.
Sammy’s day, come rain or shine, couldn’t commence before noon. You see he had this set routine which he strictly adhered to, including a few visits to the toilet. I humoured him, even if I felt that half my own day was over by noon. The car was loaded and awaiting our arrival. There was another valiant attempt at an announcement by Sammy, to nobody in general, but to me in particular, at the commencement of our journey to Ooty.
“I don’t know why you insist that I sit up front, in the most dangerous seat in a vehicle. When Buddy and I used hired cars during our India visits, we always sat together in the safe back seat.”
I quashed this feeble try, with a “Well, I am not Buddy, and we could switch seats, I will move up front, to the dangerous seat. Lest you begin to think that I have evil plans of your speedy disposal under mysterious circumstances!” I had actually, had a few fleeting dreams of just something like that happening, to cut short a trip with this trying man. But Sammy wasn’t to know that. Our Bangalore house painting was not over, so I had to carry on.
We reached the Ooty Club…..a beautiful Englishy island in the haphazard town that now constituted Ootacamund. In the delightful garden and flower beds, werecplanted vibrantly blooming flowers, trailing climbers of white wisteria, yellow rambling rose and the pale, sweetly perfumed, mauve of lavender. The skies were blue, the evening crisply chilly. Finally, the food in the Club’s dining room, served by impeccably uniformed, and well-trained waiters, met with even Sammy’s reluctant approval. I looked to just vegetate in these surroundings, book in hand, lolling in front of a blazing log fire. But fate intervened. As we were about to retire for the night, I had a call. My mother had fallen and suffered a fracture. Surgery was scheduled by noon of the following day. It was a six-hour journey to Bangalore. So I explained the situation to Sammy about wanting to reach her bedside before she was wheeled into surgery. We had to leave before daybreak…about five in the morning. Or else, he could always stay back in the Club, and return later to Bangalore, as scheduled?
Sammy said that he would like to be in Bangalore to help me out. He could rush though his routine and be ready by ten the next morning
I told him I was leaving by five in the morning, and arranging for a Club approved cab for him to travel later, at a time suiting his convenience. Sammy blanched, he gulped, but agreed finally to my suggestion. Next morning as I was leaving, Sammy called from his room.
“Are you ready to leave already? I was thinking. How can I let you travel alone to Bangalore, under such circumstances? Also, is it safe for me to later travel alone, in a strange cab?”
That straw had finally broken this camel’s back! Hanging on tenuously to my temper, I hissed.
“The cab company is guaranteed by the Club. Whether the driver might have this fatal attraction for your charms, Sammy, he has to guard his reputation. So, all things considered, I guess you will be alright. He might just make a few passes at you!”
Sammy was ready and packed in ten minutes. We set out for Bangalore, and home together!
The trip had been thankfully, cut short. I helped Sammy pack and moved him to a hotel for the night. We parted friends, since he wasn’t aware of how close to nearly getting strangled he often was, during our travels. Sammy returned home, not necessarily to his roots, soon after that trip.
Sammy’s Utopian adopted country isn’t as rosy anymore without sheet-anchor Buddy, but he’s back there, living his lonely nuclear life.
I recently had a call from him.
“Hey! Guess what? A college friend of Buddy’s, now settled and retired in Australia, has asked me to join her and her husband over Christmas, on a road trip through Oz and New Zealand? ”
The poor, unsuspecting souls……..