the-south-asian.com April 2003
Page 4 of 4
'KNOCK AT EVERY ALIEN DOOR'
Back at the base, Richard and I settled on the opals for one third of the price Mukerjee had quoted me. When I offered him a commission for striking such a deal, he quickly dismissed the offer with the hint that he did have a favor to ask of me. Making certain that no one else was around, he took from his trouser's pocket a second wallet, not the one in which he kept his money. He carefully opened it to my view. With an indentation neatly punched for each stone, he displayed an array of at least ten stones -- rubies, opals, jade, onyx, and others I couldn't identify -- beautifully arranged as if in a jeweler's tray. "You've got to promise me," he said, almost in a whisper as he carefully guarded the wallet for my view only, "you won't say a word about this. We've got some characters here -- you know who I mean -- that are not above stealing. Well, you get my point, I sure don't want it noised about that I got these on me. " I assured him of my silence and discretion. "And besides," he said, an agitated look on his face. "Major Clark's been giving me some grief on the number of stones I've been sending home lately. He called me in the other day, for a friendly chat, as he put it. Told me I wasn't doing anything wrong, which I already knew, but that it didn't exactly look right for me to send so many home. He suggested I send no more than four or five a month at most." He paused a moment, growing more irritated. "He treats that damn censorís job like he was God Almighty himself. It's all a lota crap, if you ask me," he added, as his ire rose even more. "If we were over in Europe or on the islands where military secrets mattered, I could understand. But over here, what the hell difference does it make."
"It's the system," I reminded him. "My letters were censored when I was in Canada. It gives the censor something to do."
"Crap, that's all it is, pure crap. And then you know what the old goat had the gall to ask me?"
"I'm all ears."
"Wanted me to sell him a couple of the rubies. For his wife, he said. If you ask me, it's for that nurse, whatís-her-name, he's giving the old thing to."
"You agreed to it, of course?"
"No." He sighed heavily. "You know good ole true- blue G.I. Richard. Brown-nose the brass when it's to his own advantage. I told him I'd buy him a pair of rubies at a good price."
"A deal as good as mine?" He laughed as he tucked the wallet back in his pocket.
"I don't think I'll try that hard for him." I knew he would, though; it was a matter of professional pride with him.
"What's the favor you had in mind for me?"
"How would you feel about sending some stones for me, in your name?"
"Wouldn't Major Clark catch on to that?"
"To my sister in New Jersey. Different name, different address. A few now and then. Just enough to satisfy the old bastard and keep him off my neck." That evening, over chow, we worked out our master plan to circumvent the Army censor. We both believed it would have worked well had it ever been put into practice. But our best laid plan never had a chance when, a few weeks later, Richard received news of his motherís death. He was given leave to attend the funeral and never returned to India. By some machinations -- familial, political, or divine -- he was assigned stateside where, in my only correspondence from him, he was about to marry the girl of his high school dreams. His father's jewelry business, he allowed, was prospering even more since he had brought home his cargo of precious stones from India. I sent a short letter of congratulations and signed it "Joe Mukerjee," knowing that my friend with the jeweled wallet would get a big kick out of that.
Later one afternoon when I came off duty, I found Rafikmia waiting for me with a fresh uniform and the watch I had given him to have repaired for Charlie. I noticed also that my boots had an extra shine on them. "Sahib, the watch --" Rafikmia said, holding it out to me.
"This time it took much longer. I think Sandar is getting very lazy."
"Thanks." I took the watch, asked the cost, and when told gave him the amount plus a tip.
"Would you mind --" Thinking better, I didn't finish the question.
"Yes, Sahib. What were you going to ask?"
"If it is something I can do for you --"
"I was going to ask if you would mind giving the watch to Charlie for me," I said, knowing well his dislike for poor Charlie, his inferior in every way.
"Iíll do it." I slipped the watch in my pocket.
Rafikmia, already committed, looked trapped. He hesitated a moment, then held out his hand. "I will do it for you. Sahib." I retrieved the watch from my pocket and gave it to him, feeling somehow that I had violated a tenet of his own personal caste system.
Rafikmia went straight to the rack beside my bunk and fingered my clothing. Finding nothing that needed to be cleaned, he turned, bade me good-bye, and walked briskly out of the barracks. As I watched him go, I couldn't shake the feeling that I had unwittingly placed him in an awkward position. A contretemps, so to speak.
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