APRIL 2002 Contents
Business & Economy
at Every Alien Door'
Page 2 of 2
'KNOCK AT EVERY ALIEN DOOR'
One of my fondest memories of Rafiq Mian was his ardent, though not so fruitful, effort to teach me Bengali. Lacking a pedagogueís background and materials in no way dampened his enthusiasm for teaching me in the only way he knew, which was by verbal repetition in his pleasant British-tinged speech. He would sound out words in laborious phonetics and then become amused when my Alabama speech didnít simulate his exactly. Adding to the problem, I soon learned, was the fact that the same word could have a different meaning depending on an inflection or the circumstance in which it was used, and could in some instances be used differently in a neighbouring village . It was all quite confusing and frustrating and afforded Rafiq Mian no end of amusement in my trying to come to terms with the puzzle. In the end I settled for a few reliable words that referred to common things or places, and although Rafiq Mian was persistent I gave up the ordeal. But not before he had taught me to write a few Indian characters, including an approximation of my name.
But I have digressed, back to Rafiq Mianís wedding. The most lasting memory I have of the whole event is the occasion when I was asked to place my gift before the family of the bridegroom, a ceremony I was later to learn, if not exactly holy, was surely a highlight of the whole affair. I tried to learn from Rafiq Mian some hint of a proper gift for the occasion, but he was obstinately obscure about the whole matter, leaving me to believe that to pursue the inquiry further would somehow violate some tenet of Indian mores. In my dilemma, I settled on money, that commodity universally accepted even when considered crass.
When the afternoon of the bestowal of gifts came, I was invited to join the line of friends who were filing by the bridegroomís tent, in front of which sat Rafiq Mianís family; presumably his parents, brothers, and sisters. Rafiq Mian himself was nowhere in sight, and I was never introduced to them.
I remember that day, full of the usual Indian heat, yet somehow pleasant enough in the shade of a mango grove. I took my place in the line of gift-bearers, each with some item to place before the family as a token of affection for Rafiq Mian. Although unaware at the time, I have since never reminisced about the event without thinking that I was participating in some form of that ancient rite known as potlatch.
When my turn came, I placed a handful of Rupees - the equivalent of twenty or twenty-five dollars-- among the other gifts. Immediately I heard a murmur among the family members, and straightway was convinced that I had committed some grave faux pas. I felt like a stranger in a strange land.
A week later, when I mentioned this to Rafiq Mian, he assured me that I had broken no rule of etiquette but had to the contrary greatly impressed them as Rafiq Mianí rich American friend. But the impressiveness of that exalted esteem was short-lived when I realized that to the Indians who worked at the base all Americans were considered wealthy.
One afternoon when I came off duty I found Rafiq Mian waiting in the barracks. He approached me with a smile, and presented me with a narghile, more often called a hookah, in India.
" You said you wanted this, Sahib," Rafiq Mian proudly handed the water pipe to me " I found it for you . It is yours."
I took the pipe, almost having forgotten that I had once asked him to find one for me when he had a chance.
" Thank you, Rafiq Mian." I reached in my pocket for rupees.
"No Sahib." He quickly protested. " No rupees. It is my gift to you. "
" But I asked you to get it and I want to-- "
"Please, Sahib, it is my honour to give it to you. Perhaps you will remember Rafiq Mian."
Deeply moved by this unexpected gesture, I accepted it and to this day it sits in my library ornamentally unused. Rafiq Mian continued to buy other items for which I gladly paid him, but the hookah, only once unsuccessfully tried, had always been for me a special possession.
Rafiq Mian continued to serve me faithfully during my stay in India, and I always looked on him more as a friend than a servant . In fact we never attained that master/servant relationship at which the British seemed so adept, nor did I really wish to. In a somewhat haphazard manner we even shared ideas and books. I recall lending him my copies of Wolfe and Faulkner with considerably more success than I had my comrades-in-arms, and he in turn introduced me to some Tagore I had not seen.
The relationship with Rafiq Mian lasted until I left India almost two years later, and it was truly a sweet sorrow when we said good-bye on my last day with promises to write one another . It was one of those tenuous promises often made in time of war. The irony is that I kept my promise and wrote once on my return to the States. I had rather hoped that I would get a reply in Bengali, but I never heard from him again.
In the meantime, Rafiq Mian continued to take great pride in his job as my bearer, and now that he had the added responsibility of a wife to care for he agreed to serve Mark as well. We made sure that he remained happy in his work, with gifts now and then to show our appreciation.
He also became our spy to alert us to the sporadic inspections of the commanding officer, Colonel Ferroni, who would appear on such occasions full of crusading fervour against some evil he felt lurked on the horizon to destroy military morale. For the most part his prime candidates were Tokyo Rose and the anopheles mosquito, but we were never certain what he would come up with next. Rafiq Mianís uncanny ability to predict the colonelís inspections was a mystery we never solved, though we suspected his source was one of the Indian workers who performed menial tasks in the office headquarters. But since his track record was excellent, we never questioned him when he told us the formidable Colonel Ferroni was about to pounce again.
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