June 2002 Contents
Super Achievers & Success
at Every Alien Door'
Page 1 of 2
'KNOCK AT EVERY ALIEN DOOR' by Joseph Harris About the author: Joseph Harris has written
thirty-four short stories and over a thousand poems in literary journals
and other magazines. His work has appeared in thirteen anthologies and in
numerous biographies of poets and writers. He is a member of The Academy
of American Poets and also a member of Poets and Writers, with a book of
poetry published by Furman University Press. He retired as Headmaster of
two schools – and lives in South Carolina. "Knock at Every Alien Door" is a narrative
of his stay in India, where he went in 1944 on duty with the US Army. This
was his first visit to India. Chapter 6
GURUJI AND THE TIGER
'KNOCK AT EVERY ALIEN DOOR'
About the author: Joseph Harris has written thirty-four short stories and over a thousand poems in literary journals and other magazines. His work has appeared in thirteen anthologies and in numerous biographies of poets and writers. He is a member of The Academy of American Poets and also a member of Poets and Writers, with a book of poetry published by Furman University Press. He retired as Headmaster of two schools – and lives in South Carolina.
"Knock at Every Alien Door" is a narrative of his stay in India, where he went in 1944 on duty with the US Army. This was his first visit to India.
GURUJI AND THE TIGER
I picked up the name, a reference to Fr.O’Brien, from Charlie Gonzales. It was his way of expressing affection by using the familiar suffix, ji, and I never heard it used by anyone except Charlie. Although I never addressed the impressive Roman Catholic priest by that sobriquet, I have always thought of him in the affectionate terms the name implies. Guruji.
An Irish priest from Boston, Fr. O’Brien had been a missionary in India twenty-seven years at the time I met him, most of that time in Bengal. He was the best candidate I have ever known for the claim to be a man for all seasons. His parish was not merely the remote hill station in the jungle of Bengal, but the world of all he met.
I thought of my encounter with the good father on that dark night when we literally bumped into each other. It was his custom to pop in whenever the urge to say hello moved him, usually with some little gift to this or that person of his acquaintance. In appearance, he impressed me as a slightly less corpulent version of friar Tuck, with the same gregarious and affable qualities of that legendary character. He chatted with everybody, Catholic or not, scrupulously avoiding theological importunities with any while hearing confession of those who asked for it. He wore his evangelism well, like some rough-cut saint who knew the way to human heart lay, not in abstractions, but through example. He took literally his Christian vocation to be a servant of mankind.
Noticing that I had in my pocket two cigars of an undisputed American brand, he said to me: "Ah, you’re a man like me. I enjoy a good cigar now and then. I will bring you some special cheroots."
He politely refused my offer of the American cigars, and moved quickly on to others of his chosen flock. I thought no more of the casual incident until, a week later, he re-appeared and thrust six black cheroots into my hand. " Burmese. Very hard to come by these days."
"Thank you, Father."
"A fine smoke, especially with a sip of brandy."
"Perhaps we can share a smoke and sip sometime."
" I would like that, " he said with a smile, moving on with his usual heartiness to the care of others.
The Burmese cheroots presented me with a dilemma. Having been reared in the Southern tradition of courtly politeness, I was faced with the moral problem of thanking the good giver for an impossibly bad gift. My first and only effort to smoke one of the cheroots resulted in near nausea. The bitter black tobacco was rolled so tightly that suction was almost impossible, adding to the nausea the threat of vertigo. What to do? When the good Father next approached me and asked how I liked the cheroots, what should I say? And what should I do with the remaining five unsmoked sticks? I thought of Charlie, but remembered that he didn’t smoke and was one of Father O’Brien’s most faithful parishioners. There was Sgt. Baker, the only colleague I knew who was an inveterate cigar smoker , but I knew also his scorn for anything that wasn’t American. Trapped by indecision, I hid them in the corner of my locker. There they remained until one day, in flash of inspiration, I discovered a suitable use for the wretched cheroots. Though not the purpose for which they were designed, it proved, nevertheless, to be a practical solution.
It was my habit sometime in the long evenings to avoid the noise and camaraderie of the recreation hut, to sit on the long verandah of the barracks and read by the lamplight. Since mosquitoes were always a problem, I experimented by burning one of the cheroots in an ashtray beside me, and found that it burned with almost the steady consistency of an incense stick. But more to the point, it seemed to lessen the plaguing attacks of the mosquitoes. So while the cheroots served as a mosquito repellent I enjoyed the relative pleasure of my American brand.
At regular intervals Guruji appeared with his six cheroots, always six, for which I thanked him profusely, in the sure and certain knowledge that I was achieving the dual purpose of improving my reading habits while reducing the mosquito scourge.
As the months slipped by, my relationship with Guruji grew friendlier. Our conversations lengthened, especially on the subjects of India in general and his long years of mission there. He spoke with such knowledge of the land and its people, and his love of both. When I asked if he had no desire to return to America, he replied that he didn’t wish to return and would not unless the Church ordered him to do so. He had visited his homeland only twice during his twenty-seven years in India, and had asked special permission to be buried at the mission church where he had served so long among the people he loved.
One day when the Father and I were engrossed in conversation on the barracks verandah, we were approached by Corporal Thomas, a man I knew only slightly and not too favorably. I had seem him bully a man on his work detail in a wholly unwarranted manner.
Ignoring me, the corporal spoke directly to Fr. O’ Brien: " You seem to be the only authority on India in these parts, Father .How does a man get to go on a tiger hunt? After all, this is the land of the Bengal tiger."
"You’ll have to arrange that with a Maharajah, Thomas." I was anxious to dismiss his question as the ridiculous inquiry I thought that it was.
Seeing the unmistakable butt-out look Thomas gave me, the good Father was quick to reply: " You want to go on a tiger hunt?"
"Sure", Thomas said. "How do I go about arranging it?"
" I’ll take you."
I couldn’t believe I was hearing this from Fr.O’Brien, the gentle Guruji of Christianity. What did he have to do with tiger hunts, that blood sport of Maharajahs and wealthy celebrities. It was a rite of the rich, certainly not for the likes of Thomas and the rest of us.
But Thomas was in ecstasy about it, with visions of glory dancing in his head; the stuff of hoarded dreams to tell his grand children.
"Great, Father" His response was almost a shout " When can we start?"
"Give me a day. " he said. " See if you can arrange a pass for day after tomorrow" And then he added a postscript of near mystical solemnity. "But Corporal, this is our secret. Don’t spread the word around. It would spoil the whole affair. You understand."
"You can count on me, Father" Thomas treated this admonition from a man of the cloth as only an outsider could, like a fist delivered directly from heaven. " Do I need anything besides my M-1?"
Fr. O’Brien smiled. Your fatigues and boots." He pointed to what Thomas was already wearing. " A Topee, if you have one "
"Thanks, Father . I’ll be ready."
"I’ll call for you at seven o ‘clock."
Thomas waved an awkward good bye, and took off toward his barracks like a man just promoted to higher rank.
Father O’Brien turned to me . Of course, you ‘ ll come, too "
"On a tiger hunt?"
Seeing my skepticism, he grinned broadly in a way I have never seen before." You wouldn’t want to miss an opportunity of a lifetime, would you? You can bring your friend along too -- what’s his name?"
" I’m sure he’d like it."
" Just one question, Father," I said, venturing a probe into the unknown." Are you putting me on? A tiger hunt?"
That grin again, with a touch of impishness about it. "Would I do that? Remember now, seven sharp" He moved away with a hasty wave to make his usual rounds at the hospital.
When the time arrived to meet Father O’Brien, Mark and I were ready, attired in fatigues and topees, with no idea of what really was in store for us. That it wasn’t a tiger hunt we both agreed, and one way or another Corporal Thomas, the hungry hunter, was in for the surprise of his life. And for me it was the surprise that added a little spice to the whole adventure.
The morning sun was bright, portending a burning day, when we met Father O’Brien at the gate of the detachment. Thomas was already there, his M-16 strapped to his shoulder, eager for the kill. The good Father was still in his clericals, his scrubby combat boots protruding beneath his cassock. He beckoned a Tonga wallah who waited in the shade of a Banyan tree.
The two-wheeled carriage was barely ample for the four of us, with one wallah fore and one aft to propel the vehicle. We joggled along beyond the confines of the detachment, through a narrow lane between rice paddies and into the thickening foliage of an Indian village. We rode through a maze of mud and thatched huts with women and children standing by waving shyly to Fr. O’Brien. I was later to learn this acceptance of a non-Indian by villagers was quite an accolade to the good Father when I, on another occasion, ventured with a companion into a village on a rescue mission and found the doors abruptly closed by women scurrying with their children to avoid us. Whether it was the uniform, general distrust of Caucasians, or gora as Indians sometimes referred to us, I never knew. I only felt then like some bearer of a plague.
The Tonga took us farther from the city, across a stretch of desert like terrain, and to the edge of a dense forest. There we dismounted. Father O’ Brien paid the Tonga wallahs, and turned to us: " We walk the rest of the way, my friends".
As we started to enter the thickly-matted woods, there suddenly appeared two Indians in loin cloths and turbans. It was as if they materialized from the depths of the forest.
I was startled by their sudden appearance and at first thought they meant us harm until Father O’Brien explained. "This is Sambu and this is Rajan, " he said, pointing to each man in turn. " They are beaters.
Sambu and Rajan smiled and bowed with chorus-line precision.
"You can’t have a tiger hunt without beaters," Fr. O’Brien said, breaking again into his familiar grin."
The beaters preceded us a by a few yards with what I thought was a too playful attitude for a tiger hunt. They grinned at each other as they half-heartedly beat the underbrush with sticks. The whole affair was beginning to look like a conspiracy, with the master plot obviously orchestrated by the good Father.
The sky could barely be seen as we moved through a jungle of vines and trees, their branches intertwined in a green and brown canopy. We moved quietly in single file behind the beaters, Fr. O’Brien’s setting the pace, followed by Mark, me and Thomas at rearguard with his rifle at combat alert to stalk the stealthy enemy. Even in the sheltering foliage the burning heat of the sun was beginning to penetrate.
For at least a mile, we walked into the increasing density of the jungle until suddenly, on both sides, there was a chorus of chattering monkeys moving with us through the maze of branches and vines, their shrill jabber growing as if in protest at our presence. I was frankly frightened by their noise, and the menace grew when I heard behind me a succession of shots from Thomas’ rifle. I turned in disbelief as he continued to fire into the branches at the chattering throng. That sent them screaming and scurrying in greater frenzy and it, seemed to me, in ever increasing numbers. I feared that at any moment they would launch a maniacal counter attack and pounce on us in raging revenge, but they continued to swing and chatter through the trees.
It remains a mystery for me even today why father O’Brien did not once stop and call a halt to Thomas’ attempted slaughter, for in all that volley of fire I saw only one monkey drop to the ground. Perhaps he was merely indulging Thomas’ urge to shoot at something, knowing that it would never be a tiger. Whatever his reason, I remember being very disappointed, and in a fit of frustration and anger I myself turned to Thomas and shouted : "That’s enough Thomas, you’ll have them all over us."
Thomas gave me a flinty stare, aimed the rifle toward the trees but didn’t fire again; I was relaxed as I hurried my pace to catch the others while Thomas held defiantly to his rearguard watch. I felt the sweat soaking into my fatigues as the sun became more visible through the thinning canopy of the treas. I knew that for some distance we had been climbing ever so slightly as though we were emerging from a dense ravine. The monkeys had left us as suddenly as they appeared. The battle now was with the heat and gnats, which waited in swarms to attack us along the trail. I hoped that food and rest awaited us not too far ahead.
That hope was realized a few minutes later when we came to a large clearing on a sandy knoll. Fr.’ O’Brien stopped and turned to us." Gentlemen, we have arrived."
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