Sunday, November 30, 2008
You Are My Light When Darkness Falls
Hear The Joy Of An Angel's Glee
That morning Manjula was nervous. She was going to the hospital for a test by Dr.Y. Manjula knew all about that test. It is a routine test on the bladder. She had children later in her life. And her body paid the price for going against Mother Nature. She has so-called hyperactive bladder, somewhat similar to hyperactive children. As soon as Manjula drinks a few sips of fluid, her bladder wiggles and then screams, demanding to go to the washroom. Yes, the washroom is Manjula’s second home.When she tells her tale to her Bengali friends they all say in unison ‘it is just the same with every woman’ but Manjula believes her condition is worse than that of others. So she saw Dr.Y. She is very aware that once she sees a doctor the ball starts rolling down the slope, no way one can stop it. This test, that test, this result, that result, this treatment, that treatment, this medication, that surgery and on and on it goes. Even after knowing all these, Manjula had agreed to the test. Age is catching up, she thought, follow a doctor's orders and get the tests done, that is the prudent decision. In that way an illness can be detected at an early-stage. This morning Dr. Y would take a good look inside her bladder and that would rule out any tumor or inflammation lurking there. Manjula got dressed in a hurry, in very simple clothes. The long black skirt without any frills, that she wears all the time, and simple short cashmere top, this is what Manjula always does. When nervous or worried, she keeps her clothes to the simplest so that no thought is diverted towards her clothes. She didn't put on any makeup. Only a tinge of lipstick on her lips. She was ready in no time. Her husband Pallab told her to go to the car ‘I'd be right there’ he added. Manjula went to the garage and slid herself ever so fluidly in the front passenger seat.
Following retirement three years ago, Manjula has had lost 30 pounds. At the beginning she thought staying at home might make her fat. That was when she started eating boiled vegetables for lunch and supper. The initial few pounds dropped off as easily as the autumn leaves. From there the process started rolling and now 30 pounds lighter the stiffness of her joints have disappeared and her movements have turned fluid. The sacrifice is worth the payoff Manjula thinks to herself.
On reaching the hospital, as soon as she places her right foot on the threshold of the hospital’s main entrance, across the rows of chairs in the reception area in front of her, the elevator doors slid apart. Shipra and her husband Jotin came out of the elevator. Manjula stopped in her tracks, she knew Shipra and her husband very well. About four weeks back Manjula had called Shipra to know how she was doing. Shipra had informed that she was having some problems with the sensations of her legs. Otherwise she was fine. There the discussion had ended.
Manjula always believed Shipra had a bright smile and a bright face. Instead today her matte brown skin etched with fine creases blandly stared back at Manjula. Manjula squinted her eyes in search of the brightness in Shipra’s eyes and in her smile. Shipra’s wide apart lips and rows of bright teeth were there, but not her bright smile. Her eyes were not as bright as before either. Manjula took two more steps forward and looked intensely. She found that the fine skin folds around Shipra’s eyes had bunched together and formed dark hoods hiding her sparkling eyes. Shipra took more steps towards Manjula, as they came in hearing distance, Manjula asked, ‘you have come here also for a test, right’? Shipra’s husband who was already badly stooped, now stooped even further, almost doubled over leaning on a cane in front of him. Shipra flashed a smile at Manjula and told her, ‘now just like you I am also using a cane. Yes, just like you’. She put emphasis on the last uttered words.
Four years back Manjula had suffered a major stroke following that for six months or so she had used a cane. But now for a long time she had not needed that extra help. Manjula didn’t utter a word about that because she knew how happy Shipra was to mention the commonality ‘Remember? Just like you?’.
Manjula walked over to the hospital gift shop. A well run well managed store, loaded with nifty, fancy things at a reasonable price. Moreover the proceeds went to the hospital donation fund. Manjula wandered around in lazy steps, taking in the pleasant atmosphere. Somehow she felt guilty for enjoying herself. About four weeks back she had chatted with Shipra on the phone and Shipra had informed Manjula, she was walking and working out just fine, but the sensation in her legs were not quite the same. In this short period of four weeks that normally walking person has been reduced to a person, who had to lean on a cane to walk.
What will happen in another four weeks? Manjula wondered. Leaning on a walker? How far thereafter lies the possibility of using a wheel-chair? A stream of ice-cold water ran down Manjula’s spine. Manjula, her husband Pallab, Shipra and her husband Jotin, were all more or less of the same age group, well past middle-age, but had not yet stepped into old age. All of them were waging wars against the final destination, God’s inevitable end, death. They all were physically active. Shipra and Manjula worked out regularly , Jotin and Pallab played tennis. Jotin had undergone both hip replacements recently, Later on Shipra informed Manjula.
They all crowded at the pharmacy to pick up their medications against high blood-pressure, medications against high-cholesterol. On the top of that they also crowded at the Health-Food Store. Every morning each of them had a multivitamin tablet, followed by a Vitamin E tablet, followed by a Vitamin B12 tablet, and to be on the safe side they took multivitamins fortified with iron. Then there were two Omega 3 fatty acid capsules, three tablets of gingko Biloba for better memory, finally for the two women Calcium tablets fortified with Vitamin D. They were all engaged in waging a real war, spending a whole lot of dough at the pharmacy as well as at the health food store. They truly put their money where their mouths were. Dead serious. They were fighting for their most precious possessions, their lives. Death couldn’t be avoided, but the fight was to defer death. For how long? They did not know exactly. For days? For weeks? For months? Might even be for years. Who knows?
The war had to be waged with all their might and all their money. They all kept up with their multiple doctors’ visits, the dozens of tests, the dozens of referrals, the multitude of treatments, medications, surgeries, whatever weapons the arsenal offered. Each of them was ready to take on any challenge to defer death. No, these were no trouble, these were the so called calculated risks. If death has to be deferred, then these are the rules of the game. As Manjula was about to leave the gift shop right at the exit there was a large mirror with a wide wrought iron frame. Manjula chose her steps carefully, so that she didn’t have to look in the mirror and find out about her own matte, brown skin, etched with fine lines, or the fine skin folds around her eyes bunched together to hood her eyes. She could pretend, they weren’t there if she didn’t look in the mirror. Only detection makes them present. No detection, they were absent.
By now Shipra and Jotin were out the door, going down the sidewalk in small measured steps. Now Shipra stooped. Once again Manjula felt the beaded necklace she had just bought in the plastic bag. Once again she felt guilty. She had no right to buy the necklace when Shipra could barely walk. Manjula needed a bright thought. We all are brave soldiers, or as the Americans call brave troops, sometimes the Americans even call their soldiers heroes. The last word brightened Manual’s thoughts. Yes, that is what we all are, she told herself with a nod, and indeed we all are heroes.
We all are marching towards our final destination, our demise, only then would the war be over. The tug of war between a man and his fate would cease. Our destination remains the same, the way the North Star stays put at the same spot in the sky. That is how the traveler knows he would never lose his way and go astray. Neither shall we, the destination lets us know what kind of war to wage. We all have been thrown in the ocean, none of us know how to tread the water forever, none of us know how to swim ashore either, so we thrash, flail, scream, shout, wave and gulp knowing all the while drowning is the final destination, Reaching our North star.
Drowning is so to say, our final abode In life, however, the final destination doesn’t matter much, it is known to us from the moment of birth, it is not shrouded with enigma, and it is indelibly mapped in God’s final plan. In life it is the journey that matters. The mountains we climb, the rivers we swim across, the walks we walk, the falls we fall, the cuts, scratches, bruises and fractures we endure. The mistakes we make, eventually correct. The pains and sufferings our souls bow to. These are the factors life is measured by, not by the destination, where there might be nothing but profound silence and boundless repose. There no war to wage, no problem to solve, no challenge to face, no walk to walk, no fall to fall. In the final abode we just rest. Limitless, boundless rest.
Angela took pains today to look good. After all, it was her first day at the office. She had an opportunity to be an assistant to one of the famous architects of New York. She was apprehensive about her new job, as she had already lost many others.Angela had always been a lonely and timid girl, lacking self-confidence and strong will power. It was to be expected, in view of the upbringing she had got. It’s not so easy to grow up in a house where you have been abandoned by your mother, and then neglected by your father. Her habit of stammering had over-shadowed her soft, beautiful voice, with its slight French accent. Her face was a mix of French and American features, her mother being French. However, her blonde hair made her look like her father. She believed that her resemblance to her mother was one of the reasons, which made her father neglect her, or rather avoid her. He was embittered when she had left him suddenly, after Angela was born. This had created a feeling of insecurity in Angela from her childhood days. Actually, Angela’s mother never wanted to have a child, She was a free soul, never wanted responsibilities to bind and hook her to life. Though theirs was a love marriage, Angela’s father realized that his wife was slipping away from him. He could not bear it. He thought that a child would change her. He needed a baby for his own security. He had tried to persuade her. She did not yield. They had lots of fights and arguments…nothing worked! There was no other option left for him but to force her to give in. She had never felt so humiliated! He had to pay the price of his behavior. She stayed with him, carried the baby and her revenge inside her for nine months, and left him with the child to take care of. This would serve him of his brutality!
As Angela was adding a finishing touch to her make-up, she remembered her first day at the college. She had been so nervous that by the end of her ragging session (which had been nothing more than a lengthy verbal chat), she had almost fainted! Her father had commented that she would never be able to achieve anything in her life. This remark had hurt her pride. She wished she could speak without stammering and walk without stumbling. “Clumsy!” his father would yell at her.
She would be perturbed all the time. Would her boss think the same way about her? Could she handle her job well? Would she make a fool of herself? Would she be able to interact well with her colleagues? All these questions haunted her. But somehow she was determined to prove her worth now- or so she thought. She had chosen a beautiful navy blue Chanel suit with a silk beige shirt. She looked pretty smart.
As she left for the ‘big’ day of her life, her maid was the only person to wish her good luck. Feeling unsure, she stepped into the huge office building, which gave a look of sophistication and professionalism. Angela silently uttered her prayer to build up her confidence, not wanting to ruin her day. She had even read a book on how to speak confidently in public, and promote good relations around you. Then only had she managed to remain very calm in her interview. Maybe the easy and composed atmosphere had also played the trick. Somehow she had succeeded in answering all the queries in a relaxed and sedate manner.
All the staff gave her friendly smiles; but she thought they were queer. She was not used to receiving hearty smiles from strangers. In fact, she had accepted that she was not a likeable person and had developed the habit of ignoring nasty remarks about her ‘snobbish’ nature. But things were turning different here. Her boss had been really sweet with her, treating her like his daughter. He had the kindest pair of eyes she had ever come across. He had given her various instructions and advises to remember. Then, he introduced her to the whole staff and they welcomed her heartily. Strange! Was this all true or had she been dreaming?
Angela had always feared meeting people, but here the people were so friendly and nice. Her earlier experiences had made her believe that people were insensitive and cruel. She was now being proved wrong. One of the ladies came up to her and offered to show her around. Her name was Sarah, and she was very talkative. She told her that the office was very good and soon Angela would be fond of it. Angela actually liked her in spite of her excessive talking. Soon she found herself talking quite freely to Sarah, as if she had known her long before.
By the end of the day, Angela realized that she had underestimated people as well as her own self. Life was not as bad as she thought and believed. It had to offer good things as well. Yes! She’d love to come back to her office the next day…
Vayeke Matuani sat in front of his hut in Ladybrand Township smoking his pipe with a dissatisfied air, and watched his wife cooking his supper on the fire.It was getting dark and the township was at its liveliest. Fires were burning and the women were on their knees cooking porridge in big three legged pots, or roasting pieces of meat over the embers. Children played noisily, the men were returning from their work, exchanging greetings, shouting news and calling to one another.Vayeke liked this time of day the best, but somehow today he was not in a good mood. He had stayed at home all day and he did not feel apart of township life. He did not feel at one with the men who walked back from work, who were thinking of the food and beer that waited for them; or of the girls that they would flirt with, or the piccanins (small boys) who waited to be taught soccer by them, and of many other things. For the first time in his life, Vayeke felt dissatisfied with himself and unhappy with his life. He had worked hard up till now, he mused. He had been “Baas (boss) boy” in the mines. He had been a policeman and had to his credit the conviction of a murderer. He had been a butcher’s assistant, a truck driver and had worked for the veterinary surgeon for three whole years. Finally on the advice of a witchdoctor; who had thrown bones for him and who had prophesized a great misfortune which would cause him a big loss, if he continued to work with animals, he had left and had worked in a café as a waiter.
Yes, he had been in many jobs, more than any of his friends. He was clever and knew many things. Not, for instance like the Basotho boy who was now walking towards him along the street. He was bare-footed, wore a blanket over his shoulders and a pointed hat.
Vayeke watched him with a superior look. “He must come from the interior of Basutoland (Lesotho), and he looked lost. He was probably looking for a job, but in this town he will never get one. He was too raw.”
The young man saw Vayeke watching him and came towards him.
“Dumela N’tate (Greetings Father) he said politely and squatted next to Vayeke.
“Dumela” answered Vayeke.
The young man looked around. “It must be nice to sit like this in front of your hut and have your belly full,” he said after a while.
Vayeke nodded, “You may have some food if you like,” he said kindly.
The young man looked at the pot greedily “Tanki,” he said meaning thank-you.
Vayeke shouted at his wife Notosi to bring some food. The woman took her baby from her breast and knelt before the fire. She ladled out some porridge onto a tin plate and handed it to the stranger, who beamed with pleasure and began to eat hungrily.
“You may sleep here too,” said Vayeke.
The young man nodded.
“And where are you from?” Vayeke asked when the stranger had finished his food.
“Butha Buthe,” he replied “But I go now to Kuruman to buy some donkeys. There is a good sale for them now in Basutoland. The only trouble is that the police keep a close watch at the border. But I know the way over the Caledon River where I am sure I can smuggle them through.”
Vayeke was interested, “Donkey you said?” Then he turned to his wife, ”Notozi,” and shouted, “go to the old Emilia and bring us sixpenny worth of beer.” He threw the money at her. She put her baby on her back and walked off.
Vayeke looked at the young man, “And how is the life in Basutoland?” he asked.
“The stranger smiled, “Good, very good. Foreigners brought plenty business to us. They search for diamonds and pay plenty if you bring them one. Many diamonds have been found, some big, like hen’s eggs.”
Vayeke looked at him with surprise, “You said they found diamonds, Hau (really!), plenty money in diamonds.”
The stranger nodded, “Plenty of them in the rivers, but I like the donkeys better, it’s easier to get them and sell them.”
Notozi came with beer. Vayeke handed the tin to his guest, “Drink man.”
The young man drank with big gulps, and Vayeke became worried. At last he stretched his hand for the tin, and drank what was left. Afterwards he felt more cheerful.
“You’re right that you’re in a business of your own,” he said to the stranger, “because work will never make you rich, only your own business will, this goes for all people. Now, I left my last job in the café and I’m thinking of some business of my own. Tell me; don’t they pinch diamonds from the mines owned by foreigners?”
“They do,” replied the young man, “but the police are very sharp now, and all the men are searched, especially at the border. They watch day and night, and you know there is no pleasure of getting yourself into jail!”
Vayeke smiled, “I know, I was a policeman, myself.” He looked at the stranger with importance and fell deep into thought.
The young man nodded and half asleep muttered, “Donkeys, Morena (Sir) Good business.”
Vayeke could not sleep that night, and the next morning he got up early, took his two heifers from where they were grazing, leaving the milking cow to Notozi, packed his few things, saddled his mare and took his leave. Notozi, as usual, did not know where he had gone. In the meantime Vayeke went to Basutoland and rode from one place to another, through the mountains and the valleys.
On the outskirts of Maseru close to the Caledon river, was a small plot with a shack that belonged to Vuyo Keisa, the general handy man. Vuyo was a hard working man. He sold potatoes and other vegetables at the market, which he had grown from his plot, by ploughing his small fields in an old-fashioned way with donkeys. He was not able to afford a tractor or even oxen. His wife kept poultry, sold eggs and occasionally dressed chicken for the hotel, but in spite of all this they remained very poor. They had six children; the eldest one was 13 years old and was already out of school; but was now helping his father on the small holding. The youngest one, Nomvuyo (which means Joy), was only five years old and was their main worry. She was born with cleft palate and could not even speak properly. No matter how hard her parents tried, there was not enough money to send her for an operation to repair her deformity.
But Nomvuyo was a happy child. She had her family of cats, stray dogs and her own pullets. She spent many hours talking to her animals in her own language, feeding them, explaining to the donkeys why they had to help her daddy, and to the hens why she must take their eggs away. Hardest of all was explaining why the small kittens must be taken from their mummies, and why the stray dogs that they had cannot find more shelter in the house. She could not understand it very well herself, but she repeated what her parents had told her and often promised her animals that one day her cats would have as many kittens as they liked, the dogs all their puppies, and the donkeys would only have to graze on the veldt.
Nomvuyo was in a thoughtful mood that morning. Her little heart was aching, her two little puppies from the stray dog Foxie, had disappeared last night and Nomvuyo cried a little, dreading what could have happened to them. She walked away from the house and she searched for them in the field, calling quietly for them, so that her Mommy did not hear. Her Ma was busy washing that morning. She saw her kneeling in the kitchen, washing clothing in a big bath.
She stopped at the gate and looked at the dusty road. The hot wind blew the sand into her eyes and she rubbed them hard.
There was an old donkey walking slowly along the road. She was old and thin and brayed sadly. Nomvuyo watched her and pity filled her soft heart. “Poor thing, she must be hungry-she is so thin and tired, I wish she was mine.”
The old donkey stopped next to the gate and brayed.
Nomvuyo whispered, “Come old one, come here, don’t be afraid.”
The donkey brayed once more and groaned. Nomvuyo was worried “You’re ill, poor one, you want some water.” The child went to her slowly and caressed her. The donkey stood quiet, and Nomvuyo talked to her again, “Come old one, I will feed you.” She tried to push her inside the gate but the donkey would not move only shivered and groaned again. Nomvuyo looked desperately around, she would never be able to pull her even with the rope she had round her neck. “Wait,” she cried, “I will bring you water and hay if you wait for me,” and she ran towards the house.
Nomvuyo was soon back, dragging hay and water in her little bucket. The donkey drank some of the water but would not eat as she was in pain. Nomvuyo sat next to her, patting her and whispering little words in her special language. The donkey was very ill and Nomvuyo cried because of this. Her mother called her angrily and made her go home to help her with her chores, but she was back again as soon as she could. She saw the donkey lying, very tired, and did not know what to do.
She heard the voice of her father in the distance .He was coming back with his sledge like cart pulled by donkeys. Her big brother was with him, whipping the donkeys occasionally with a sjambok (whip) Nomvuyo jumped around them and shouted “Donkey Tata (Dad) I found a donkey.”
Vuyo came close to the lying donkey, “What is this?” he kicked the donkey and Nomvuyo burst into tears.
“I found her, she is ill and I love her already,” she tried to tell her father.
Vuyo looked at her little daughter and something soft and warm appeared in his eyes. “Alright,” he said, “I suppose she is also a stray one, and I could do with another donkey on my farm.”
He told his son to chase the donkey to the shed, but the donkey would not budge.
It took them a lot of strength and persuasion to drag her to the shed with the other animals. Nomvuyo was happy that her old donkey was safe.
The next morning, when she went with her father to feed the animals in the shed, the donkey was dead. Vuyo was very angry, “You see what you did,” he shouted to Nomvuyo, “and now she is dead; she might have had some bad sickness that all my animals will get and also die. I was fool to listen to a child.” He called his son and dragged the old donkey out of the shed and looked for a place to bury her.
“Bring me a knife,” Vuyo called suddenly to his son, “we had better see inside her, I know some animal sicknesses which might have killed her.”
Nomvuyo stood behind the tree shivering with grief and fright, and saw how her father cut the donkey’s belly, and began to remove the intestines, liver, heart. Then he opened the stomach.
“Tata!” Vuyo’s son exclaimed suddenly, “Look!”
The boy held two stones in his hands. The stones were dirty and smeared with blood and stomach secretions. Vuyo went to the tap and washed them clean. He held them against the sun and the stones shone and glittered in the light. Vuyo looked at them with disbelief. “My God, are these diamonds real?”
Nomvuyo approached him shyly. “Pretty stones, Tata, may I play with them?”
Vuyo tightly cuddled the surprised child. “ God has been good to you, thanks to these pretty stones, you will soon be like any of the other pretty girls, and I promise you, you will always have all the animals you ever wanted.”
Many miles from Vuyo’s shack, rode Vayeke on his mare. He was half drunk and he cantered swaying on the saddle. He had lost his donkey and had got drunk to get over his grief.
“Hau!” he thought, “it must have been the Tokolosi (a little devil) who stole the donkey from me.” He could not believe it had happened. His plan had worked so well. He sold his two heifers in Basutoland and with his money he went to Butha Buthe. There after long conversations and after drinking many pints of beer with different men, he managed to buy two big, uncut diamonds from them. The problem was how to smuggle them to South Africa where he could sell them and make an enormous profit. The problem had been solved after some deep thinking. Before his departure for Basutoland, he bought a veterinary instrument called a balling gun used for dosing the horses with pills, something he had learned during his work with the veterinary surgeon. He bought an old she donkey cheaply, and exactly in the same way as his employer the vet did, he pushed the stones into her throat. The donkey swallowed them and Vayeke was safe. He pulled her behind his horse by a rope, all the way to the capital Maseru, never losing her from sight, and examining carefully her droppings. But in Maseru he met some old friends and got slightly drunk. Next morning the donkey disappeared. He searched all over, the people had shown him this and that direction-he rode here and there. “Where is my donkey?” he cried. He kicked his horse savagely and muttered: “You damn animals; you are all alike. Never trust any animal, especially a donkey, to bring you a fortune. The witchdoctor was right.”
Suvarna was still a bit shell-shocked from the frenetic wave and mouthed greeting from a stranger walking off the plane. Second looks had revealed it to be her younger sister.... "Thank God for tedious customs procedures," she thought wryly, "They allow one to absorb such shocks". Sudha's face and person had been barely recognizable, layered as it was in rolls of fat. The once-svelte figure, all of 5'3", seemed to have decreased in height in direct proportion to the widening of its girth. A once finely etched profile with a shapely nose was now lost to a multiple chin in a face still distinctly humorous, as of old. The clothes were elegant enough ..distinctly U S NRI, but those shoes ... ugh ... those awful shoes sent an involuntary shiver down Suvarna's spine. "How could Sudha spend money only such ugly things", she was just thinking and then caught herself in amazement as her sister extracted an exquisitely molded foot from "that awful shoe", arched the soles flipped her painted toes and proceeded to massage the sculpted heel. Sudha cast her a knowing look.
"Now you know why the guys go crazy ? Seeing these feet emerge from those boots...they see those beautiful doe-like Indian eyes, these famous pouting lips, these enormous melon breasts and then these sexy feet. They go crazy trying to figure out what's between the legs and how to get it......" she trilled, a shrill sound that jarred all the more, emanating as it did from that enormous bulk.
A delicately pained look crossed Suvarna's face. She glanced away; Sudha followed her glance to the reddening back of the chauffeur’s neck and giggled.
"Is this what marriage into a respectable business family has turned you into? I seem to remember you something quite different. Perhaps I should be glad that for me, Pa answered that famous Ad for a Green Card Professional. See the freedom it gave me ......"
Recognizing the onset of a flood of reminiscences, perhaps embarrassing, with that mutual understanding of old, they stopped to chat in private before reaching the house.
"What actually happened to you ? You never wrote about the divorce; thereafter all those men, I did not want to broach the subject in their presence when I was there."
"That's the famous old Suvarna tact coming to the fore. perhaps it was for the best,....for Pa and Amma anyway, it was best that they died so soon after getting me married. They never knew who they were really marrying me to"
Suvarna shot up an eyebrow. "The green card professional, handsome, 5-figure salary, own house, etc.etc etc..."
"Yes, Dear, you must remember the "Jhat mangni, pat bya wedding". They were so thrilled, so was I and so were my in-laws. Remember how the old man kept on and on 'Hamare wahan aisa hota hai, taisa hota hai' and all the rest of it...if only I had told them unke wahan ka beta kaisa hota hai".
The younger sister dived into her tale almost eagerly, getting it off her chest to some-one back home finally ......
Sudha's Tale: A Green Card Alimony
"We were in India for barely a week after the wedding and I almost went crazy trying to seduce my handsome husband, but no go. He didn't touch me on the first night...obviously it was too late and both of us dead beat. The next night he was sozzled, the third he spent with his Dad till I fell asleep and the fourth with his buddies for a delayed stag party. Then the next night the whole family stayed up catching up 'cause we were to leave the next day, so, .....pause for effect.... I reached the great U S of A a virgin... a bloody good damned married 8 days virgin! And you’ll never guess the next....
Dramatic Pause ---
At the airport, I was received by my husband's Husband --- he was a blood Homo. That handsome hulk, the professional Green card holder etc. etc. was a Homo, and his parents had never guessed !
Suvarna gasped aloud.
Actually he wasn't such a bad sort. He let me off quite gently, explaining that he owed it to his parents and that to make sure I got something out of it, he promised not to divorce me until I got my Green Card, which should take long enough to establish my credentials back home for having " tried to save the marriage ".
"Well," I thought to myself, "Here's pretty mess, what with me dying to try out sex. But the question was with whom? And believe me, seeing those two guys billing and cooing to make up for the three week absence drove me up the wall. In time, it was the thought of my boom-boom haw-haw father -in-law and his 'Hamare wahan’, which drove me off on a wild goose chase. It's a wonder I didn't turn into a nymphomaniac, the way I ran through boyfriends. It took me six months, six awful months of dreadful sex to surface and take stock of my life and its mess.
I couldn't write home, it would have been too much for Pa-Amma and terrible for Rajiv; he was actually quite a decent sort, even moved heaven and earth for my Green Card. Actually that was a real laugh. People offer green cards in dowry. I got mine as part of Alimony !! Along with reimbursement of every penny that Pa had spent on our wedding, my clothes, jewelry, the lot. He actually got me married, his husband gave me away...it was almost amusing.
"But", she reflected sadly," by that time, something was gone from inside me. I just couldn't take anything from anybody or hang on to anyone, I let the guys slip through my fingers, running through boyfriends, husbands, lovers, whatever.
Thank God for only 2 things, my work and no kids. The one kept my spirits alive and the other allowed me no regrets with each break."
The outpouring not only wrung her out emotionally, it seemed to have purged her, as if by confessing to the seaminess of her foreign jaunts, she had dipped in the proverbial Ganga. She took some huge gasps of air and downed the now-cold coffee in a gulp. "Now you know about my past in one go, let's go and let me unravel your present".
Suvarna's present : a Showcase for a Living Doll
It was a short drive home now. "A new road is being laid, so we’ll have to walk a bit" announced Suvarna apologetically. The gate was imposing enough, elaborately ornate wrought iron black, with a tall pole holding aloft a brass bell of the type found in smaller temples and a colorful plaited bell pull. Before Sudha finished thinking wryly whether the sound would actually carry into the house, she was inside the gate and letting out a gasp of pleasure.
It was a sight for sour eyes and vintage Suvarna -- obviously age had not withered he talent for creating small niches of beauty around herself, nor had money coarsened her taste.
Suvarna had not only collected her antiques but also used them well. The lawn was a bit more than handkerchief-sized; so adornment was restricted to the borders, with artfully placed artifacts interspersed with a variety of obviously expensive and well-tended plants, a carved elephant here, a robust horse there, a svelte apsara with her mates opposite.
A tiny pond boasted of a single lotus fronting the last step of a miniature temple atop a mini hill backed by large umbrella palms, which obliterated the outlook for any Peeing Toms next door.
The house was in a locality, Sudha recognized, monopolized by Old Money, where land was priced the Earth-Per-Square-Inch. Selling out would have been sacrilege and commuting from the new villa and farmhouse colonies totally chi-chi. So what could poor rich people do, but add-on value to their over-priced properties?
The marble bit walk ended on a marble veranda, if it could be called that, the entrance dominated by a Nandi sitting square in the middle, looking into a large hall, apparently the length of the house, divided into several conversation areas. Off on one side a stately staircase led upto to a landing fronting a set of rooms which ringed one large area of the hall. The arrangement was obviously replicated from the other side of the massive room, allowing another gallery of suites to overlook the other half. All very, very elegant, very, very old and equally luxuriously expensive.
Sudha sat pondering, waiting for sleep. Suvarna apologized for the absence of her offspring.
"They are entertaining in their own wing. You'll meet them tomorrow".
Dinner had been a somber affair; her famous Jiga, a tiger of the business world, had turned out to be a surprisingly tacit man, as spare of word as he was of frame. Graying fashionably at the temples, well turned out, courteous but silent. "Was it disapproving?" Sudha wondered.
The heaviness he generated was anathema to his father, a charming urbane host, with a white mane, a tiny belly and a twinkle in his eye, as he sparred humorously with the sisters. The affection for his daughter-in-law was unmistakable. After dinner, Suvarna had taken his arm and led him into the garden for his "constitutional".
Sudha declined " let me get to know my Jiga", she had said, not quite knowing what she had let herself in for. Later she was to conclude " this marriage has only survived because of the old man", as she sat delving in her old family knowledge.
Suvarna was several years her senior and at 18, she had made a brilliant match, doing her middle class parents proud. Sudha had been still at school when Suvarna finished with her childbearing at 21, with another milestone, the family heir and the traditional "Ghar ki Lakshmi".
Now, she was a classy mother-in-law, the epitome of Aging with Grace. Over the years, her looks had matured and she had apparently learnt to cultivate a style all her own. Gossip magazines had made legends of her sari and jewel collections, invitations to her parties were much sought after and the house had been subject of several photo features. All of which was very nice, but for that shadow behind the smile in her eyes when she countered her father-in-law's rallies. When she had come to drop her off at her bedroom, the younger sister could not resist asking " God, Sue, How can you stand it !!"
"What ? "
" The Sphinx... I tried every trick in the book to talk to your husband " she threw her hands up in the air expressively shaking her head in frustration. Suvarna"s only reply was a slight movement of her head and a tiny smile, half humorous, half ironic, as she let herself quietly out of the room.
Awaiting sleep, Sudha heard the two distinct wings of the house -- one settling down to sleep as the mistress sent in glasses of saffron and pista flavored milk to the bedrooms and the other, where the young people were obviously enjoying an evening of music.
"That is our Mastani room", the old man had told her. In deference to her querying eyebrow, he explained "Mastani was the mistress of Baji Rao Peshwa, who built a special wing for her at the Shanwarwada palace in Pune. It had been remarkably resurrected at the Kelkar Museum after the palace was burnt down. Suvarna spent hours there and then recreated it with some design changes for our musical evenings."
When she had peeked in the next day, Sudha saw the music parlor, divided into two sections by a semi-circular, low, carved screen, barely a foot high, waxed almost black. It separated the generous enclosure for the performers from the baithak for the audience....for was it perhaps, for some VIP guest to hold forth in the company of family to invitees seated outside?
"She had learnt the lessons of wealth well" thought Sudha, noting the pristine white of the fluffed pillows and bolsters, a quick and efficient change from the merrymaking into the wee hours.
The visit fell into a routine. Sudha saw her older sister with new eyes. The Anglicized desi lass had make a remarkable changeover from Indian English to chase Hindi and even Urdu; philosophy, yoga, meditation, even riyas with a music teacher every other day, learned discussions and chess with her father-in-law who apparently escorted her to seminars and workshops in between preparing for the next party. But something was wrong. What ?
Sudha could not quite put her finger on it. Her relations were warm, even with son and bahu, the Sphinx supremely indifferent to all, especially Suvarna's ironic sallies.
"Show me those famous collections". Suvarna led her into her suite, another miniature haveli, executed in soothing pastels, carved jharokhas, mughal dado and priceless artefacts.
A thought distracted from the collection. "Tell me, how does the Sphinx fit in here?
"In this room, I mean. Isn’t it too feminine for him?”
"This is mine. his suite is down the corridor"
"Really Su ... separate bedrooms. Since when ?"
"I took this over when my ma-in-law died and naturally did it over completely.
"What about Pa ?"
"He has his own suite next door, between yours and mine"
"Runs in the family, eh...does bahuji also ...?"
"Not yet, but who has seen the future ?"
"But why, Su ? it can't be his silences, can it...after all you had two kids together, haven't you ?
Suvarna seemed set to brush the question away. What had made her change her mind, that fateful day ?
"We last went to bed together when I conceived Mini. The kids ended our relationship," the silence became almost pregnant." Sujoy is what I call negative religious."
She answered the question in her sister's face. "What I call positive religion is that which brings, if not happiness, at least peace, a joy, a celebration in the creations of God, a helping hand, a lightness of spirit not necessary that one be overflowing in the milk of human kindness.
My mother-in-law's brand of religion was the negative one. fasts, tapasya, penance for all worldly joys -- even for conjugal relations. Can you beat that ? It is only necessary for procreation, she taught him that and he learnt those lessons well.
as soon as I became pregnant, I was shifted to her rooms, with their dark somberness and diya-battis day and night. My only escape was going home for the confinement and she prolonged that till Muna was almost eight months.
After that the dictum was "no sex as long as you are breastfeeding". Muna was a year old when she lifted her ban and what do you know -- first time unlucky, I got pregnant and back to square one. this time, the pregnancy was difficult enough for me to get too little respite from hating him for abandoning me to the tender mercies of his mother, to even miss sex.
"That pure white organdie," she pondered dilatorily, " sure hid a spiteful heart - she loved her son to distraction and hated all the rest of us, her husband, her daughters and her bahu, for distracting from his "Glory", whatever that was ....what was he ever , beyond an efficient money-making machine. If he ever even had to select his own wardrobe, he would be on the Worst Dressed List in no time...." meow, meow....
"Then," prompted the younger sister breathlessly, eyes wide open to absorb this new side of her older sibling
"Mini was breastfed for almost three years. Then one day, I read somewhere that women, " a broad smile broke out over Suvarna"s nostalgia, "with high fever should avoid feeding their babes. Can you imagine my excitement....swiping a cut onion from the kitchen from under her beagle eyes; I wrapped it in half a dozen hankies to smother the smell, carted it around shopping until I could safely tuck it into my armpit and then walked around for what seemed hours on the sunniest footpaths to work up a temperature! God, how disgusted I was with myself that day, for being such a healthy cow. When the temperature was raging, I headed home, but she caught me at the stairs and it was no go...I had to wait for my next period, have the ritual bath after five days and then only would I be allowed to "pollute" my husband. Madame’s orders...” she threw up her hands recalling the bygone despair.
Now I too learnt to be devious. This time, I waited beyond her prescribed five days. On the seventh day, Sujoy was due back from a business trip and I was not on hand at home to receive him. Spent the day shopping for a new sari to wear home after a full day in the parlor making myself over as a modern day Cleopatra...it was the works, massage, henna, facial, treatments, make-up , everything."
"Just you wait. He was in the study with his father when I reached home and I literally sneaked into the house and straight into my room, to avoid bumping into her. He came in a good two hours later.... Two long hours of me on tenterhooks you can only imagine; and then..." she paused and the anguish of the recollection flashed across her expressive face.
"What are you doing here ?"
"I live here, it’s my room too, isn’t it ? " she had replied with a quick nervous smile as she approached him with hands outstretched. Quickly before she could lose her nerve, she wound her hands around his neck and smiled shyly up at him.
But before she could go any further, he had picked up the offending arms with two disapproving fingers each and returned them to her side.
"Look, I don’t like or believe in this nonsense. Now we’ve got two children, no more. I can’t afford to waste anymore time and energy on doing extra pooja or penance instead of running my business."
Suvarna had been completely stunned, quite unable to comprehend what exactly her husband meant.
"What do you want me to do ?"
"Everything, look after the kids, help Amma with the house, do your pooja whatever, only don’t bother me with this sex nonsense. I want none of it."
" But......but ...what.."
He cut in ruthlessly, " no buts and no whats. You are my wife and the mother of my children, bahu of my parents. That you shall be to the end of your days. Only no more dirty sex for us...it's too unclean.
We have done our duty for the family by producing heirs...now no more," he stressed the point as he stalked off the dressing room to change and then promptly and peacefully fell asleep.
Suvarna picked up her tale somberly. " You can imagine my state, first it was a stunned silence, then oceans of tears and by morning I was at his feet, begging : where I had gone wrong.
But was he cold. He called in his mother to read me a lecture on morals, wifely duty to follow hubbie's dictats and the virtues of abstention etc. etc.; I don’t even remember what else, I was so plain stupefied I was reduced to a zombie wasting away in this very house, no life, no identity, no purpose, nothing just a flitting shadow...." she was lost for sometime in traumatic memories of the Ultimate Rejection.
"Then..." came the prompt, " something, someone must have brought about this transformation. You hardly look like a frustrated, sex-starved, teenage widow. Was it A lover, or lovers plural ?"
"How long ?"
"Many, many years"
"No-one ever found out , friends, servants, kids, hubby dear, sasu dear, someone?"
"We were very very discreet, the circumstances were such, couldn’t afford to be found out and then things also worked out right. Sometimes though, I wonder whether Mini has at least, suspected. And if so, whether she has discussed it with anyone. Sometimes, I see that querying look in their eyes, but they have never broached the subject and I have held my peace. Why spoil their relationship with their father ?"
"No-one ever saw or noticed the difference in you ? your being, your personality, everything ?"
"Of course, the changes are evident. but I learnt, at times painfully, to withdraw from all other personal relationships. It was dangerous ground, either way, I had no words to explain my actions or my motives to anyone, did I ?"
"Start at the beginning. how did it start, where did you meet him, who is he , what is he like, was he married, his wife ...?"
A serene smile lit up Suvarna"s face. " he is The complete man, a wonderful person, so vital, so alive, so knowledgeable, easy to talk to, to laugh with, to learn from.
He has taught me everything that I am today; turned my convent education around on its head and introduced me to Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu even French, to religion, philosophy and art. Made me read and meditate, explore the world and the depths of myself to develop my own personality and to step out of the shadows to take charge of my life. He used to tease me that he had converted me into an Indian."
"How did you meet, where ?"
"He just came upon me one day, drooping in my room, as usual I was weeping and could not explain why. Somehow, he seemed to understand, no words were required, perhaps because of his own shriveled up wife. He just took me into his arms to comfort me and that spark was lit. We couldn’t help ourselves, both of us were so starved".
"Here, in this room ?"
"No, in that one, Sujoy's. I was still there then, this one came much later."
"Then he was a known person, familiar enough to enter the family apartments ?"
"Of," Suvarna checked herself. "Yes, yes, he was "
"What can I tell you. it was such a wonderful release from such a gray jail, a relief to get it out, to talk about it like a normal person to a normal person. Of course, we were very careful about synchronizing ourselves with mother-in-law’s satsang sessions and temples, but then it was not only sex. We went to other temples, museums and palaces in the cause of my re-education ."
" For how long ?"
" For months and months. I don’t know how long "
" How could you manage it ? " she started skeptically and then tuned into a new line of thought, "Even now ?"
" Of course not, not at this age. We’re too old for sex. But that affection and love and trust doesn’t just go away like that, does it ? It continues to mellow and to mature and to give perhaps even greater little pleasures".
"Yyou mean to tell me that this paragon just stopped having you and went off, out of your life just like that ? Not taking a thing to clear off ? What sort of a man was he "
" You said it, not I. Paragon, but fortunately, he is not out of my life. It has slowed down gradually, but we still look after each other, without any sex now."
" And no-one ever saw you or suspected a thing ?"
" My mother-in-law ..." the younger sister pounced " what about sasu dear ?"
" She caught us red-handed ."
Sudha let out a low wolf whistle " and in all these years, she did not breathe a word because she had stopped hubby dear from fucking you? I like that for irony."
"Not at all. it wasn’t that way. Actually, you know, for all her mean ways, she was, in her own way, a pious soul. and she really believed that sex was evil, a sin."
Suvarna was suddenly quite grave as she recalled the past.
"She must have been stunned when she walked in on us on that fateful day. And believe me, she was struck dumb and I mean really physically dumb. She had a stroke and couldn’t speak for sometime. Her eyes used to haunt me, made us guilty as Hell.
But for her, it must have been the worst possible retribution. How our sins catch up with us. After all that raving and ranting about sex, being unable to rail against me or to tell her beloved son....that was the worst possible punishment that could have been inflicted on her. "
"Ill bet. that bitch knew all the moves, didn’t she. so that is how she broke it up ?"
"Not at all. somehow, she managed to convey it to her beloved son before she died. Immediately after the ceremonies, he let fly. All the gaalis on record, good, bad, indifferent, all the adjectives in the bad dictionary, he just pounded away at me. But strangely, the more Sujoy railed, the less guilty I felt, the calmer I became.
Then it had been Suvarna"s turn to speak, to refuse to bear his load of shit or guilt. After all it was all his mother’s fault, she had thrown back at him. Had she not twisted his mind, they could have been a normal couple, and this sort of a situation would never have arisen.
And then, what was it that had been taken from him, that had actually been his?
She bore his name, lived under his roof, ate off his table, ran his home, entertained his associates, raised his kids, even slept in his bed.
He had not wanted either her love or her body --- had rejected both outright, so why crib if someone else appreciated them. " Be happy, " she had thrown the words at him, "That I have been careful enough not to have you declared a cuckold publicly ".
At that, he had almost had an apoplexy and for a moment, Suvarna had run scared. then he stabilized and she saw his eyes narrowing in calculation, thinking perhaps of how he could benefit from the situation. The realization was an ice cold shower over her heated brain.
Suvarna decided there and then that she too would benefit from this situation, everyone would, including her children. Now with her life at stake, she learnt quickly to drive a bargain.
Sujoy was firm. " No divorce. I will not be humiliated in public and the memory of my mother must not be besmirched ."
" Fine," Sunanda parried, " No divorce, but I will not live at your mercy either. No blackmail please. I want an independent income at my disposal, from outside your business, in case you run that into the ground."
That had been a fell blow to his ego. "And no more living frugally in this glorified hut. If you want me to continue to be merely your Living Doll for show, then build a suitable showcase for that Doll."
She had wrenched from him promise of funds for the renovation of the entire estate, annual holidays for herself and the children, their boarding schools (so that they would not come across the truth), wardrobes, the works. Only one ground rule : you lead your life, I lead mine, but no-one must know that I am nothing except your biggest social asset.
"He didn’t touch him ?" breathed the astounded listener
"He couldn’t. Not in a thousand years. All he did, all he was concerned about was to extricate total power to run the business as he though fit. Suited us just fine. He ran the business as he thought fit and we ran our lives as we thought fit.
I moved out of his room into this suite, erstwhile mother-in-law’s abode. It almost killed him to see me do it over, but I stood my ground.
But believe me, it was as if a heavy yoke had been lifted from our shoulders. As Sujoy got used to the situation, for the first time, I could afford to be seen with him as my official escort in lieu of a husband who was too busy making money. For the first time, I took the kids for a holiday and he was there too. Later we went abroad, lots of places where I picked up some of these beauties you see scattered around the house.
We became regulars at the seminar circuits, learning about all sorts of things, meeting people, making contacts that Sujoy often drove benefit from. But they were, " her tone became poignant, always only contacts, not friends, never friends. That was one luxury neither of us could afford.
And that twinge of guilt was always there at the bottom of our hearts. but Sujoy's distaste was always so comically apparent at home and so dispassionately disguised in company that it gave us a perverse sort of pleasure in flaunting and in tweaking his tale when he was helpless to react in public," she ended with a mischievous chortle.
" How did it end then ?"
" It didn’t. how do normal couples grow old, they just get more used to each other, know each other in and out, generally slow down and then a new pattern of life is set, with new fragrances which linger on...."
" But this was different "
" Not that different actually. Maana, we did not take those saat pheras with each other or produce Muna and Mini, but everything else was our joint venture, even raising the kids to whom he was more Father than their biological one; he even helped with the planning of those fabulous monthly does on which Sujoy places such a business success premium"
"Does Sujoy know that ?"
" What ?"
"That his sauten, or whatever it would be called, is planning his parties ?"
"There’s little he can do about it, without getting egg on his face; and if he wants to remain on that Best Party list and win and dine the Rich and the Mighty to sell his big dirty deals."
Hours later, Sudha had retired, only keep puzzling over some missing link, which seemed to be just there, out of her reach...
What sort of a guy was this ? she thought. his whole life spent with another’s wife, helping her to entertain her husband’s guest. And then, but what’s the deal, always hiding, never able to acknowledge each other out in the open ? Why ?
The riddle wouldn’t let her sleep...who, who, who...?
She recounted all that Suvarna had told her .... her husband’s rejection, the despair, coming out of it in the arms of a lover who moved in and out of her house and apartments without evoking any suspicion for months on end ! How could that be possible even given the large establishment. The mystery was curdling her brains, repelling sleep.
After sometime, she heard her brother-in-law mount the stairs, firm hard footfalls marked his progress down the landing to a door down the corridor which opened and then clicked smartly shut.
After a longish spell came the muffled murmurs as her sister came upstairs, no doubt holding her father-in-law’s arm after their constitutional walk in the open.
Another door opened and clicked shut, next door.
A little later, unrest made Sudha throw back her covers.
Who could it be, WHO?
Some pacing about her room later, she tapped softly at Suvarna"s door, determined to talk to her, scratch it out of her....no response; she let herself in softly " are you awake, Sue ?"
A single-shaded light cast its pale circle on the mirror through the open door of the dressing room.
And the images in the mirror transfixed the intruder.
Sudha turned her face about to the open connecting door between the suites and the bed beyond. Tiptoeing silently forward, the eavesdropper strained to listen in.
She couldn’t catch a word, but the tender look on her sister’s face, the gentle touch of her hand on the weathered cheek below it and the adoration in the eyes of the man were words enough.
Well said, Sue, old love did not just go away or die out, its fragrance lingered on.
The great wall, the queen’s necklace or simply Netaji Subhash Chandra Marg, whatever you may call it, Mumbai’s Marine Drive is popular amongst the young and the old alike. I recently had an opportunity to spend some time at this windswept promenade located in the heart of Mumbai, flanked by the Arabian Sea on one side and by posh art deco buildings on the other.Marine Drive is an eight-lane highway, shaped as an arc, with a wide pavement built alongside. It was built in the 1920s on reclaimed land. It stretches from Nariman Point-the concrete jungle of Mumbai, in the north, to the picturesque Malabar Hills- home to many of our Bollywood stars, in the south.Marine Drive is an ideal people-watching place at all times of the day. Early in the morning, it is swarmed with fitness freaks taking their morning walks or jogs and enjoying the view of the sea. There are others who come to walk their Poodles or Pekinese. It is also a time when beggars begin their day, lining up in the hope of that kind-hearted sardarji who always spares a penny. Grandpas form a circle and laugh out loud as part of their laughter club exercise. It never fails to bring a smile on to the face of the passer-by.
Soon I find them all rushing back to their homes to begin a new day, all afresh (except for the beggars of course who are already at work!). Noon sees the sea getting rough. The waves lash out angrily and end up breaking out on the rocks below the pavement. In times of high tide, the waves drown the pavement itself and spill right across the road, up unto the buildings on the other side. This is perhaps the only time of the day when the pavement lies empty. A number of school children can be seen enjoying the spray of the sea while getting drenched in it. The sight is beautiful but it causes a slight traffic problem for one gets the experience of a heavy rainfall in the absence of rain itself. Cars line up one after the other as the traffic signals break down. It is said that a Mumbai traffic jam is one of the worst situations to be in as it can take hours to clear up.
As evening descends, one sees the lights being turned on and the term – ‘queen’s necklace’ coming to life. The British called it so because from an aerial view it looks like a necklace strung with imperial jewels. The place almost magically gets filled with space-starved couples, some laughing and others crying but all experiencing a sense of serenity around them. The hawkers take the round, selling peanuts, coffee, tea, the famous Mumbai bhelpuri etc. On a Saturday evening, it’s virtually impossible to find a place to sit on the pavement. It is crowded with a diverse population of college students, uncles, aunts, grandmas, grandpas, little children with nannies et al. The most intriguing thing perhaps is that Marine Drive is visited by people belonging to different social strata, right from the aristocratic elite to the homeless poor.
Midnight witnesses insomnia-struck walkers who often come out with brilliant poetry or song lyrics while strolling here in the presence of the sounds of the sea and the otherwise silent night. The pavement is also a home to the downtrodden that sleep peacefully without so much as a roof over their heads. With the sunrise begins yet another day and it’s time to hit Marine Drive again for that early morning walk.
I associate Marine Drive with happiness, with sorrow, with peace and tranquility but most of all; I recognize it as a place where I can undertake the journey of searching my soul and finding myself. This is Marine Drive to me.
It is time for the serial dresser to hang his boots as well as his crisply-tailored suits. The news of his resignation is yet to sink in one really did not expect the sworn 10, Janpath, loyalist to be shown the door after having miraculously survived in office despite serial blasts shattering national peace time and again during his tenure, more so over the last 4-5 months. Each time, he got away with customary "never again" and "perpetrators will be punished" assurances. So much so, the Prime Minister himself repeatedly defended Mr Patil for doing his job well as a home minister. So when the minister did quit on Sunday taking "moral responsibility" for the security goof-up that led 10 terrorists to lay siege to prime locations in Mumbai and butcher 183 innocent people, one wondered whether Mr Patil's decision to own up was too little and too late. But the truth is that Mr Patil's time was clearly running out. With the minister under constant attack from the Opposition over his shoddy handling of the key home portfolio, senior leaders within the Congress had already started complaining, albeit in a hushed tone, about the impact of his continuation in North Block on the party's electoral prospects in the coming round of assembly polls as well as the 2009 Lok Sabha election. With the party's stand against a tougher terror-law, whether at the Centre or in the states, exposing it to the Opposition's "soft-on-terror" charge, the Congress could ill-afford a home minister who is known more for his natty dressing than his performance on the internal security front. In fact, it was this point that was stressed at Saturday night's CWC meeting, leading to unaninimity that the buck for the UPA's poor track record on tackling terror must stop at none other than Mr Shivraj Patil.
The absence of Mr Patil from the high-level security review meeting chaired by Prime Minister on Saturday afternoon and attended by three services chiefs, intelligence heads and key MHA officials, was the first indication that Mr Manmohan Singh had had enough of the home minister's excuses and alibis.
At the CWC meeting later in the day, Mr Patil is said to have come in the line of fire and was left with no option but to accept a decent exit from the home minister by taking recourse to moral responsibility. Ms Sonia Gandhi, for this time, decided to play the shrewd politician and chose the party over playing favourites.
But now the moot question. With just three months to go for the Lok Sabha poll announcement, it is anybody's guess how far the change in the home ministry will go in achieving the attempted image makeover by the UPA and the Congress. After all, the terror laws will remain unchanged and three months is too little a time to effect any major structural changes in the security apparatus. In fact, the Prime Minister's 100-day taskforce on terrorism will barely manage to take a cursory look at the inadequacies of the security and intelligence systems and offer suggestions to remove them. Given the poor track record of the Centre in evolving a consensus among states on the much-needed federal investigation agency for crimes with inter-state and foreign ramifications, the implementation of the new action plan on terror would at best be left to the next government.
Some security experts are also wondering if Mr Patil's exit will rid the UPA government of its security woes. After all, NSA M K Narayanan, who has himself been speaking about the threat from marine jihadis for over two years now, too failed miserably to get the Navy, Coast Guard, BSF and police of coastal states on a common platform and devise a coordinated action plan to counter terror through sea route.
Intelligence agencies have failed time and again to come up with specific and actionable intelligence on terror plots, exposing key cities like Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Delhi, Hyderabad and Guwahati to deadly terror blasts with daring frequency.
At the end of the day, it would take the UPA more than a portfolio reshuffle to get its act together on the internal security front. A relook at the laws, which must treat terrorists differently from a petty criminal, an overhaul of the internal security apparatus by, possibly, creating a dedicated anti-terror agency like the US department of homeland security and carrying out the death sentence awarded to Parliament House convict Mohammad Afzal without any further delay are some of the measures that may infuse voter confidence in the Congress' ability to tackle terror
Patil was out of sync with the requirement of the job
Finally the Manmohan Singh government has conceded that it does not have a favourable national security image. Mr Shivraj Patil who was dramatically out of sync with the requirement of the job, has vacated his corner room in the North Block for P Chidambaram.
The minister as well as the security establishment that operates out of the Prime Minister's Office have been proving daily that they were woefully unprepared for the international security assignment. While the minister had been robotically repeating puerile "root cause" theories of the seminar halls after every terror outrage, the security brass has not been able to guide or lead the challenges from jehadi terror.
But is a change of face enough for combating the overwhelming public perception that the government does not have a plan to deal with the terror menace. It is a tough task as appeasers in the ruling side, either blind to the threat or having donned blinkers, have been inhibiting the country's fight against terror. While a section within the UPA has been routinely clamoring for according our enemy combatants the benefits of the due process of law, the security leadership has preferred to treat terror as a mere law and order problem.
It is this myopic approach that has led to the huge terror death tolls in the last four and half years. The prime minister's assertions that his government will fight terror sound spurious when his own party leaders deny police forces the right to gun down jehadi menaces without "foolproof evidence". For them, the men who wreaked mayhem in Delhi two months ago were "regular guys" from a reputed university in Delhi and the cop who encountered them was on a suicide mission. As if that weren't enough, some of his ministers want illegal fence-jumpers on our eastern border to be given baraathi status. And worst of all, the government refuses to provide teeth to the laws needed for tacking terrorism.
People sit near to the waterfront near the Taj Mahal hotel after the siege had ended.
Commandos do not normally address press conferences. Like spies, special operations units are supposed to work in the shadows: after the daring, successful, rescue of Israeli hostages in Entebbe in the ’70s, the leader of the rescue mission was persuaded to speak, but was never pleased about having to. So the sight of the black-clad, black-masked men of the navy’s MARCOS — who, according to military legend, do not even tell their families that they have been re-assigned to the Marine Commando Force — taking questions from hordes of reporters was disconcerting. And what was even more jarring: they had been wheeled out in front of the cameras before the operation of which they were technically a part had even been completed; and definitely before it could be declared a “success”, whatever that word would mean in this tragic context.
But this combination of tone-deafness and over-compensation seems to have characterised the response of the navy, and to an extent the other security services, to this tragedy. That the navy’s commandos stepped in quickly when the police were stunned by the magnitude of the assault is something we should be thankful for; but there are less palatable aspects of the last few days that we cannot overlook for ever. The sight of senior navy officers declaring that of course the Mumbai harbour would be insecure — because of the Navy’s own disputes with the Coast Guard; of credit-grabbing press conferences, and attempts by all the services to get in a word with the media while the National Security Guard was still mopping up resistance; of the chief of Southern Naval Command, saying that “we very strongly suspect such a thing can happen” when asked about links between the terrorist strikes and Somalian pirates, of all things. This reflects a genuine confusion, strategic and tactical. Tactically, there was no single command structure for the operations being conducted since Wednesday night; this led to delays, crossed connections and redundancies, the cost of each of which could be measured in lives. The army, the navy and the police were running chains of command parallel to the NSG. Strategically, the security of the harbour, India’s territorial waters and the coastline is divided up between the Customs, woefully under-weaponed; the Coast Guard, always smarting under what it sees as stepmotherly treatment and with designs on being a brown-water force; and the navy. Through the gaps in this structure the terrorists may have sailed to Colaba, making landfall dangerously close to the navy’s sheathed sword, the submarines of Western Command. In 1993, there was an outcry when 800 kg of RDX landed on the Indian coast and destabilised Mumbai. What’s changed since then? And who’s accountable if it hasn’t?
Saturday, November 29, 2008
There is a savage irony to the fact that the horror in Mumbai began with terrorists docking near the Gateway of India. The magnificent arch, built in 1911 to welcome the King-Emperor George V, has ever since stood as a symbol of the openness of the city. Crowds flock around it, made up of foreign tourists and local yokels; touts hawk their wares; boats bob in the waters, offering cruises out to the open sea.
Mother of NSG Major Sandeep Uninarayanan grieves at his funeral
The teeming throngs around it daily reflect India's diversity, with Parsi gentlemen out for their evening constitutionals, Muslim women in burqas taking the sea air, Goan Catholic waiters enjoying a break from their duties at the stately Taj Mahal Hotel, Hindus from every corner of the country chatting in a multitude of tongues. Today, ringed by police barricades, the Gateway of India — the gateway to India, and to India's soul — is barred, mute testimony to the latest assault on the country's pluralist democracy. The terrorists, who heaved their bags laden with weapons up the steps of the wharf to begin their assault on the Taj, like their cohorts at a dozen other locations around the city, knew exactly what they were doing. Theirs was an attack on India's financial nerve-centre and commercial capital, a city emblematic of the country's energetic thrust into the 21st century. They struck at symbols of the prosperity that was making the Indian model so attractive to the globalising world — luxury hotels, a swish cafe, an apartment house favoured by foreigners. The terrorists also sought to polarise Indian society by claiming to be acting to redress the grievances, real and imagined, of India's Muslims. And by singling out Britons, Americans and Israelis for special attention, they demonstrated that their brand of Islamist fanaticism is anchored less in the absolutism of pure faith than in the geopolitics of hate. Today, the platitudes flow like blood. Terrorism is unacceptable; the terrorists are cowards; the world stands united in unreserved condemnation of this latest atrocity. Commentators in America trip over themselves to pronounce this night and day of carnage India's 9/11. But India has endured many attempted 9/11s, notably a ferocious assault on its national Parliament in December 2001 that nearly led to an all-out war against the assailants' presumed sponsors, Pakistan. This year alone, terrorist bombs have taken lives in Jaipur, in Ahmedabad, in Delhi and (in an eerie dress-rehearsal for the effectiveness of synchronicity) several different places on one searing day in the state of Assam. Jaipur is the lodestar of Indian tourism to Rajasthan; Ahmedabad is the primary city of Gujarat, the state that is a poster child for India's development, with a local GDP growth rate of 14%; Delhi is the nation's political capital and India's window to the world; Assam was logistically convenient for terrorists from across a porous border. Mumbai combined all the four elements of its precursors: by attacking it, the terrorists hit India's economy, its tourism, and its internationalism, and they took advantage of the city's openness to the world. A grand slam. Indians have learned to endure the unspeakable horrors of terrorist violence ever since malign men in Pakistan concluded it was cheaper and more effective to bleed India to death than to attempt to defeat it in conventional war. Attack after attack has proven to have been financed, equipped and guided from across the border, the most recent being the suicide-bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul, an action publicly traced by American intelligence to Islamabad's dreaded military special-ops agency, the ISI. The risible attempt to claim ‘credit' for the Mumbai killings in the name of the ‘Deccan Mujahideen' merely confirms that wherever the killers are from, it is not the Deccan. The Deccan lies inland from Mumbai; one does not need to sail the waters of the Arabian Sea to the Gateway of India to get to the city from there. In its meticulous planning, sophisticated co-ordination and military precision, as well as its choice of targets, the assault on Mumbai bore no trace of what its promoters tried to suggest it was — a spontaneous eruption by angry young Indian Muslims. This horror was not homegrown. The Islamist extremism nurtured by a succession of military rulers of Pakistan has now come to haunt its well-intentioned but lamentably weak elected civilian government. The bombing of Islamabad's Marriott Hotel proved that Frankenstein's monster is now well and truly out of that government's control. The militancy once sponsored by its predecessors now threatens to abort Pakistan's sputtering democracy and seeks to engulf India in its flames. There has never been a stronger case for firm and united action by the governments of both India and Pakistan to cauterise the cancer in their midst. Inevitably, the questions have begun to be asked: ‘‘Is it all over for India? Can the country ever recover from this?'' Of course the answers are no and yes, but outsiders cannot be blamed for asking existential questions about a nation that so recently had been seen as poised for take-off. India can recover from the physical assaults against it. It is a land of great resilience that has learned, over arduous millennia, to cope with tragedy. Within 24 hours of an earlier Islamist assault on Mumbai, the stock exchange bombing in 1993, Bombay's traders were back on the floor, their burned-out computers forgotten, doing what they used to before technology had changed their trading styles. Bombs and bullets alone cannot destroy India, because Indians will pick their way through the rubble and carry on as they have done throughout history. But what can destroy India is a change in the spirit of its people, away from the pluralism and co-existence that has been our greatest strength. The prime minister's call for calm and restraint in the face of this murderous rampage is vital. If these tragic events lead to the demonisation of the Muslims of India, the terrorists will have won. For India to be India, its gateway — to the multiple Indias within, and the heaving seas without — must always remain open.
The terror attacks that rocked India's financial capital may depress stocks, slow new investment, but are unlikely to inflict long-term damage on the nation's economy.The Confederation of Indian Industry believes that the attacks in Mumbai will not have a long-term impact on Indian business and the Indian economy but as CII President K.V. Kamath, points out, the attack highlights the threat to the institutions of business that are an integral part of India's growth and its relationship with the world.Though the terrorist attacks are targeted at the commercial capital of the country with an objective of disrupting the economy as law and order is an important determinant in any investor's decision. The attacks are likely to register a small and extremely short term blip on the economic radar of the country. According to L.K. Malhotra, President, PHD Chamber, such isolated incidents do not adversely affect the sentiment except in the very short-term. The attacks will affect adversely the capital market sentiment, tourist inflows, etc. in the extremely short term and all these will bounce back within a few days and it will be business as usual.The Indian economy has been doing well in recent years and is one of the top performing economies in the world. No doubt, on account of the global financial crisis, the Indian economy is currently feeling a strain which may get accentuated in the coming months and needs to be dealt with urgently in the economic arena by the economic policy makers of the nation.
Capital market analysts feel that short-term postponement of people's investment plans and a rethink by people on relocating to Mumbai is a possibility. As foreign tourists were held captive in top hotels, there might be a downgrade on the big and reputed names in the hotel industry.The real fear dawning now is that the attacks would impact India's stature as an investment destination. As it is the corporates are finding it tough to raise money through external commercial borrowings. However, experts while admitting that people would be scared, rule out companies considering a hasty exit.A Merrill Lynch analyst points out that foreigners understand Indian economy and India is a good place to invest in during crisis.
However, there are other economic implications of the attack spinning out from bilateral trade ties between India and Pakistan. With Pakistan militants reportedly behind the attacks, a proposed movement on the removal of the ban on FDI from Pakistan to India and vice versa looks likely to be put on the backburner. At stake is also the lack of telecom connectivity between the two countries which is to be addressed by the optical fibre link becoming fully functional by 2009.Moreover, both India and Pakistan had allowed two banks from their countries to set up branches in either country. While the basic decisions in this regard have been taken, the implementation can only kick off once the banks send an application to their respective central bank for the go-ahead that may suffer.Onkar S Kanwar, Co-President, India-Pakistan Chamber of Commerce and Industry and Past President, FICCI, had underscored the need for liberalising the visa regime between the two countries by issuing of non-police reporting and long term multiple entry business visas. Few see that happening now.
Mumbai did not have one man in charge sitting in a command centre, directing operations. Instead, reflecting the diffused nature of the graded and gradual response, it had a multitude of security agencies who took over storming operations soon after the situation began slipping out of the Mumbai Police's hands around midnight of November 26.Here's who they were:Lt General Nobel ThamburajGeneral Officer Commanding in Chief Southern Command, based in Pune. The Maharashtra and Gujarat (M&G) area commanded by Major General Hooda reports to him. Thamburaj is the army's next vice chief designate. When the troops of the M&G area and Marine Commandos could not break the siege, the southern command deployed army commandos flown in from outside MumbaiJ.K. Dutt, Director General, NSGHeads the 7,000-strong National Security Guard which is the union home ministry's special response unit. Has two arms – the Special Action Group (SAG) staffed entirely by army personnel on deputation and the Special Ranger Group (SRG) staffed by police and paramilitary forces on deputation. The NSG deployed two units of the SAG – 51 and 52 – tasked with counter-assault and anti-hijack to break the siege at the Oberoi and Taj hotels and Nariman House.. Vice Admiral Jagjit Singh BediFlag Officer Commanding Western Naval Command based in Mumbai. Received a call from the Maharashtra chief secretary around Wednesday midnight requesting for Marine Commandos. Eighteen marine commandos were rushed into Taj Hotel and they began an encounter with the terrorists holed up inside around midnight. The force was increased to around 30 later in the day and assisted the NSG in operations for the next 48 hours.
Policeman walks outside the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus station
policeman walks outside the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus station
What I hear from the gasps of Mumbai, and what I read from the multiplying notations of blood: a) The willful victim state of terror that is India learns nothing, and gives its cheapest commodities—we, the citizens—to the marauders of radical Islam.
b) Lives are dispensable in an India where political expediency triumphs over national interest.
c) The politician has abdicated the nation. He looks into the microphone—or the television camera—when he should ideally be looking with guilt and remorse into the savaged soul of the nation.
d) We know who the enemy of the nation is; we know the religion of terror; but we have problem with nomenclature; we are not politically prepared to name the Evil.
e) We think winning an election would be problematic if we dared to utter 'Islamic' or 'Muslim' as an adjective to the terror that strikes at the foundation of the nation.
f) What is at work is not political correctness but political cowardice, for even the terrorist would feel hurt if we denied him his religious honour. Jihad is the war of radical Islamism. Isn't it?
g) The most dangerous place in the world is our neighbour, but we refuse to identify Pakistan, whose fastest growing industry is jihad, as the source and sponsor of terror that challenges India's existence.
h) Learn from Israel, the nation that never sleeps, how to be alive when you're surrounded by people who deny you your nationhood.
i) For the sake of the greater national good, let's be prepared to compromise a bit on our civil liberties. Harder times require harsh laws.
j) Let's live, and let's not let the soldiers of an angry god take away our freedom—our freedom to walk on the street, check into a hotel, shop in the mall…let our lives be not subordinated to the nihilistic fantasy of a few.
Just as 9/11 entered the dictionary of terror, so too will 26/11, the day which will go down as Mumbai’s darkest hour, when terrorists laid siege to the city’s roads, airports, railway station, hospitals and two of its best known luxury hotels, leaving a trail of death and destruction and taking hostages. The scenes were devastating: explosions, raging fires, dead bodies, heavily armed terrorists with rucksacks containing grenades and explosives and firing indiscriminately at people on the streets, and a metropolis on its knees. The most heart-rending sight was Mumbai’s most iconic and beautiful building, the 106-year-old heritage wing of the Taj Mahal Hotel, reduced to a blackened ruin. By daybreak, almost 11 hours after the attack started, the official death toll was 102, with another 300 injured.That this was the best planned, organised, financed and most successful terror attack in India was evident from the fact that 20 hours after the first shots rang out, the terrorists, were still holed up in the Taj Hotel, the Oberoi Trident and a residential building in Nariman Point housing Jewish tenants. The two dozen terrorists held hostages and kept security forces at bay. Mumbai is no stranger to terror but this was the most devastating in terms of scale, preparation, targets and global impact. Everything pointed to the involvement of a major international terror group (the claims by Deccan Mujahideen were dismissed by police), probably the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba but orchestrated by Al-Qaeda.Hostages who managed to escape said that the terrorists asked hotel guests whether they were American or British before taking them hostage. The Taj and Trident are two of Mumbai’s most recognisable landmarks, akin to New York’s Twin Towers, and attract the majority of high-profile guests from India and abroad. European diplomats, American and British tourists, top industrialists and executives were among those in residence. Their eyewitness accounts after they emerged from the Taj showed what a meticulously planned and cold-blooded operation this was, bearing the hallmarks of an international outfit with access to boats, inside intelligence, sophisticated weapons and explosives. The terror drama started shortly after 9 p.m., a time when restaurants and hotels are at their most crowded. The suicide squads who had arrived in the city via rubber boats from the sea opened fire and lobbed grenades at 10 different locations. After the 1993 serial blasts, this is the most audacious strike. From diners and residents at luxury hotels to commuters at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station, and people on the streets, everyone had become a target. Within minutes, the station resembled a graveyard.
The terrorists entered from the Gateway of India and Nariman Point in boats and launched a triangular attack. One team entered Trident Hotel and opened fire in the restaurant’s lobby; another team fired indiscriminately at Leopold’s Café in Colaba and then entered the Taj Hotel.
As confusion reigned, the terrorists hijacked police jeeps to create more mayhem. An Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) team led by its head Hemant Karkare chased them to Cama Hospital, where he, encounter specialist Vijay Salaskar and another colleague were killed.terrorists were killed in a chase near Girgaum as they were trying to escape in a silver Skoda. One was reportedly arrested the next morning. Guests, including six foreigners, and hotel and kitchen staff are among the dead. Panic-stricken guests tried to escape from windows— one used a bedsheet to climb down from his third-floor room at the Taj, but slipped and fell. At 1.30 p.m. on Thursday, Mumbai Police chief A.N. Roy announced that the Taj Hotel had been sanitised and all guests were evacuated but an hour later explosions were still being heard. The damage, however, was equally psychological. All through the night, vehicular traffic was paralysed and the city seemed to have imposed a curfew on itself. By midnight, the biggest anti-terror operation in Indian history was underway. “Hardcore, highly trained, and motivated,” is how Vice-Admiral J.S. Bedi, flag officer commanding-in-chief, Western Naval Command, describes the terrorists. At the time of going to press, the hostage crisis had not ended, showing just how serious this latest attack is and its larger implications. As one police official said, “They (the terrorists) have succeeded, we have failed.” India Today is in possession of an intelligence report from the Mumbai Police which warned of attacks from the sea based on interrogations of terrorists arrested earlier (see box). How the boats ferrying the terrorists managed to evade the coastguard, navy and customs officials who patrol the harbour is a gross security failure and raises some serious questions.
WHO IS BEHIND THE ATTACK?
The strikes have shaken the country’s intelligence and security agencies like nothing before. They were unprepared for such an unprecedented commandolike operation.
“The meticulous manner in which the operation has been planned and the guerrilla tactics that have been used has footprints of Al-Qaeda, making it perhaps their first operation in India,’’ said a senior intelligence official, pointing to the fact that places frequented by foreigners were targeted. Sources said that the Research and Analysis Wing had received inputs six months ago that a group of terrorists—part of the Al-Qaeda’s Islamic Jihad Union—was being trained along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border to carry out attacks in India. “The issue was discussed at a Joint Intelligence Committee meeting but was treated as unactionable,’’ says a high-placed official. The terrorists landed in small dinghies each carrying four to five persons. “Terrorism in India has reached a new level with these attacks. This is terror in the real sense where common people in public places can be sprayed with bullets or have a grenade lobbed at them any time,” says a Home Ministry official.
THE PAKISTAN FACTOR
The attack on Mumbai will impose fresh strains on Indo-Pakistan relations. It came just after a meeting between the two foreign ministers where India talked tough on terror. While intelligence sources see an imprint of the Lashkar-e-Toiba in the attack, interrogation of an arrested terrorist confirmed that they were Pakistani nationals. It comes after the attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul where a Pakistani link has been proved. This strike was intended to damage the ongoing peace process. The Lashkar continues to run its operations in Pakistan, and recently, much to India’s anger, Pakistan had cleared the purchase of a bulletproof Land Cruiser for Jamaat-ud-Daawa supremo Haafiz Mohammed Syed, who is the ideologue for Lashkar and has been holding rallies asking followers to hit Western targets.
TERROR'S NEW STRATEGY
The strategy is clear: cripple India’s economic nerve centre, create fear among tourists and foreign investors and undermine India’s global image. The suicide squad has chosen high-profile five-star hotels to capture international attention since they are frequented by Western delegations and tourists. Apart from sending a message to the Government of India, it was a signal to the international community about the strength of terror groups in the region and was also intended to target opinion makers and movers and shakers who frequent these hotels. “It was a daredevil act and certainly had collusion of a terror group like the Al-Qaeda, along with some Pakistan-based terror groups aimed at creating high visibility with panic,” remarked a senior official. Given the size and scale of the hostage crisis, this will go a long way in setting India back economically in the short-term. Says former director-general of police, Dr. P.S. Pasricha, “This was an aggression meant to hurt the psyche of an entire nation. They wanted to ignite trouble in the country and hurt our economy.” That was partly achieved on November 27, as the Bombay Stock Exchange shut down. The prime minister made it clear that Pakistan was behind the attack. In his address to the nation, he said that groups behind the attacks were based “outside the country” and used unusually strong words to add that there will be a cost if “suitable measures” are not taken by the neighbours.
HOW SHOULD INDIA RESPOND?
It requires an extraordinary response from the Government to deal with this situation. The attack came as a shock for the UPA Government still battling the worst ever year for terror attacks. There is a growing feeling of insecurity and vulnerability in the country.
At the cabinet meeting called by the prime minister on November 27, the overwhelming view was that the UPA will have to take a tougher line on tackling terrorism with a combination of stringent anti-terror laws and better ground level intelligence, even if it means curbing human rights and democratic freedom. “The police, the security agencies, the investigators and even the intelligence will have to reorient themselves to cope with the new phase in terrorism. Security agencies will have to go beyond treating terrorists as criminals. They are using the highest level of military tactics and we have to respond accordingly with effective measures,’’ says a Home Ministry official. The prime minister has proposed the creation of a federal investigation agency to deal with terrorism and that existing laws be tightened to ensure that there are no loopholes for terrorists to escape the law. India also has to ensure better coordination among security and intelligence agencies and tighten up controls on the borders and the coastline and close coordination between state and Central intelligence agencies. India now needs to seek the help of international security agencies. Immediately after the attack, the messages of support for India from the international community, including the new leadership in America, suggest that the time for focused international cooperation has never been more opportune. US President-elect Barack Obama conveyed to Indian ambassador to the US Ronen Sen his strong resolve to fight terrorism. India also has to demand tough action through the UN and bilaterally for punitive actions against countries that support, finance and shelter terrorist groups and, in case of noncompliance even explore sanctions on them. Till that happens, Mumbai remains a city under siege, its citizens traumatised, its political leadership lacking resolve and credibility and two of its iconic structures gutted. Mumbai is to India what New York is to America. The attack on the Twin Towers was an attack on the entire free world and was a pivotal moment in the global war against terror. Mumbai’s 27/11 needs to elicit the same response. Anything less would be inviting a bigger disaster