APRIL 2002 Contents
Business & Economy
at Every Alien Door'
'KNOCK AT EVERY ALIEN DOOR'
He was my bearer, a fact that in my more exalted moments made me feel like an American Rajah. His surname I have forgotten, but as was the custom among the Indians I knew it was almost never used anyway.
I donít recall exactly how he came to be my bearer out of the several brought to me, but perhaps it was because of his graceful use of the English language. I was very impressed by that, and soon learned that he was the product of British schooling, having gone as far as one of his caste could be expected to go. Like many who had worked for the British army, he had come to the Americans for higher pay. This put a strain on international relations for a while until an agreement for standardized labour payment was reached between respective commanders.
Rafiq Mian was an intelligent man and , like most Indians, slight of frame. He had about him a faintly aristocratic look. At thirty-two he was already well advanced in age according to Indian actuarial charts. He was healthy except for infrequent bouts of malaria, from which seemingly the whole population suffered. When we offered him Atabrine, he refused it and told us that the Indians who did take it were selling it in Dacca for exorbitant prices as some magic pill. This practice was confirmed and later curtailed, which meant any further dispensation of Atabrine had to be by immediate ingestion in the presence of an observing agent. The demand soon dwindled.
I was not accustomed to the kind of service given by Rafiq Mian. He anticipated my every need, kept my uniforms in excellent condition by rotating them for cleaning which, in Indian terms, meant turning them over to the women who could be seen perennially beating clothes on the banks of a stream. I sometimes wondered how fabric could survive such pounding, but I must say I always felt godly next to the cleanliness they provided. Then there was the problem of mildew, particularly bad during the monsoon season. The trick was to avoid instant mildew by storing things several inches above floor level, so Rafiq Mian built a little platform on which to place my footgear and solved the problem promptly. At the same time he kept the footgear in a constant state of polish.
His affability and general good nature made his presence a pleasure. He had somehow mastered that fine art of being a servant without being subservient. I attributed much of this to his British training and education. He was never obsequious at the cost of his Indian pride, never the snivelling sycophant, and yet a master of accommodation. When faced with the arcana of Indian custom, I would always turn to Rafiq Mian for an explanation. I discovered this was especially helpful when dealing with Indian merchants, who seemed to have for any item an Indian and an American price.
A case in point was my wristwatch, which periodically broke down in the torrid Indian climate, especially during the monsoon. I paid a merchant in Dacca what I considered a high price to clean it. When I told Rafiq Mian the price, he was appalled and insisted on doing my shopping henceforth. Months later when the watch need cleaning again, he took it to the same merchant for approximately one third the price I had paid. Needless to say he received a good tip for any purchase he made for me thereafter.
Among other dimensions of Rafiq Mianís character, I was struck by his sense of pride and industry, especially when one observed so much sloth and devious behaviour in others. He said that he had always worked, but more specifically he had a goal. That goal, he was quick to add, was marriage to the girl to whom he been betrothed for more than ten years. Much younger than he, she had been a mere child at the time betrothal and all these years he had worked in the hope of accumulating enough materiality to satisfy her familyís demands for a dowry. Her family in turn was expected to present an acceptable dowry before the groom could accept her in marriage.
The time was close at hand, he advised me with a proud smile, while at the same time letting me know that I was to be an honoured wedding guest .
" You will please come to my wedding, Sahib, " Rafiq Mian said, genuine entreaty in his voice, " It will mean so much to me."
Now Rafiq Mianís wedding , which took place two weeks later, was like none I have ever experienced before or since. Including the pre-nuptial ceremonies-- involved and mystifying rituals to western eyes-- the wedding lasted four days. And although I attended only part of the wedding-- that vital event one might call the bestowal of gifts-- I was aware of the whole ceremony because of the accompanying music, which continued the four days. I remember a sitar and flute, but above all I remember the drums whose incessant beat was heard night and day like some primeval epithalamion to Hymen.
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