The Matov (pendall ) was clearly visible from my hiding place. It was the ‘Roce’ (prenuptial celebration ) of my only daughter Zita. The light of the petromax was casting eerie shadows all around. The dogs barked excitedly, often looking in my direction. But I knew they would not be able to catch my scent. The air was thick with the smells of Pan Pod ( betel nut ), Polluv (Pumpkin Dish), foreign scent and cashew fenny. Even in that sad occasion it amused me to think of that strange combination of smells that must be driving the dogs crazy. The Garnal (fire cracker) thundered occasionally further adding to the misery of the dogs. The Gurkar (Village elder) occasionally cleared his throat with a loud noise making his presence felt and hurried in and out of the Matov without any particular reason. My wife was busy offering the guests ‘Pan Pod and Udak ‘ (Betel leaf and water) as a sign of welcome and acceptance the traditional way. I could see clearly the expression on her face, a regret at not being able to wear a red saree. A widow never wore a colored saree. I stretched my aching legs in the bush that was hiding me. Nearby the noise of bustling leaves indicated one more creature, perhaps a poisonous snake??. But it hardly bothered me. I was miserable?. desperate to the extent no words could explain my agony. The crowd gathered around Zita and started anointing her with the coconut juice? in preparation of her last maiden bath.
“Kani Galen Tel..Kopalin Kadlo Kurice?.” the women folk started ‘vovio and vaerse’ the traditional singsong recitation. Roce was an occasion in which the women of the ward made sure every event and person in the life of the bride was remembered. In their song they advised, admonished, encouraged, and somehow made sure she cried. It looked as though her tears inspired the composers and singers more than anything else. They composed on the spot and sang melodiously as the bride shed tears remembering gratefully the love that was given to her by parents, brothers, sisters and relatives.
…Wiping my tears I got up and made my way towards the railway station. Matsya Gandha was calling again….
“Aaz Tuzo Pappa Asullo Zalyar Putha?” (if your dad was here today.) Now they were remembering me. Zita wept bitterly. As I saw the tears flowing from the fair cheeks of my loving daughter Zita, my whole body shuddered with pain and emotion. I was tempted to run and hold her in my embrace?.. how I had longed for this day?after years of toil and agony she was getting married at last?!!
But no, I just could not ruin it now. They should never know that I am alive. I tried my best to control my tears and emotions. As the singing went on for hours the hungry children cried and went to sleep, the men folk sat outside and lighted beedies (hand rolled Tobacco) or munched betel leaf and spat around creating colorful designs. Slowly my thoughts went to the events that had lead to this unbelievable predicament.
Zita was my only daughter. We were thoroughly unprepared to meet with the huge expense of her wedding and dowry. We had nothing that came by ancestral property. Poverty and misery seemed to be a part of life. After ten years of working in Kuwait I had just managed to make enough money to start a small business. Ten years of savings were pooled and my dream of owning a soft drinks company finally came true. I had even named it ‘Zita Soft drinks Industries.’ The hard work had paid and as I was beginning to feel comfortable the disasters struck.
First it was the competitors who systematically stole the bottles from the supply chain. By the time it was discovered I had lost a fortune. I begged, borrowed and re-ordered the bottles. The workers had already formed a union and were stealing a lions share of production. The competitors had bribed the sales tax authorities and continuous raids and harassment followed. The food inspectors served notice to close the factory as it did not comply with the building regulation. I refused to bribe. Then came the final blow. My temporary connection of electricity was disconnected without any warning leaving me with tons of melted sugar and melted dreams. I sold the whole damn business to the first offer and decided to go to Gulf again.
“If I die in Gulf please arrange to bury me there itself. Don’t even dream of burying my dead body in this bloody country!!” I had told my wife. It was a tearful good bye . As the train ‘Matsyagandha’ slowly crawled out of Mangalore station towards Bombay the only memory I carried with me was of my dear daughter Zita crying in the railway station.” Do not worry my child,” I had promised.” I will see that you are married and settled?till then good bye.”
The monotonous tone of the train along with its melancholic hoot only increased my misery. I tried to divert my attention by thinking of my surroundings. There was a south Indian sitting opposite me. Ramu, my co traveler with my own height and complexion looked strangely similar to me. I learnt he was unemployed, going to Bombay to try his luck. We chatted like old friends. He was luckier than me, because he had no dependents, no one to cry for him. This train was a boon to jobless South Indians. It was the cheapest mode of travel. ‘Matsya Gandha’?means “Fish Smell”. I tried to entertain myself by translating the name of the train…or could it be “smell fishy”?…..I do not know when I had fallen asleep.
The screams and sounds woke me up. It took quite some time to recollect where I was. My bogey had fallen into a ravine after the train had hit a boulder. In the dark the only sound that was audible was screams and screams?The bodies were lying all over the place. I looked around for Ramu, my co-traveler. A huge box had fallen on his face and crushed him beyond recognition. I just stood thinking. Why was all this not moving me? Was I numb to human misery?
In what looked like an eternity my troubled mind had decided to make use of this tragedy of Matsya Gandha. In quick moves I tore off the shirt off Ramu. His trousers were similar to mine. I emptied his pockets and put my ticket and passport in his pocket. “Forgive me Ramu?” I whispered. No one will miss you. But what I do will give new life to my daughter Zita.”??I was amazed to see how my otherwise sensitive conscience had now become numb as I deleted the identity of one human being. Sufferings of many years had indeed made me numb to the ethical aspects of my actions. Before rescue squads arrived I had vanished leaving behind a body which they had promptly recorded as mine. I was sure of one thing. By the time the corrupt officials handed it over to my family it would be beyond recognition. I also knew that they would be too lazy to cross check any other details. Within a month the railway ministry had handed over the compensation cheque to my wife. The wedding that had stalled for lack of funds was now possible and my loving daughter was getting married. At last!!!
The thundering fire cracker woke me up from my thoughts. They were calling elders for blessing the bride. This was another of the beautiful tradition whereby the blessing of all adults was considered valuable. As the crowd grew silent someone cried out again, remembering me. Zita once again cried bitterly longing for my blessings. I could take it no longer. Wiping my tears I got up and made my way towards the railway station. Matsya Gandha was calling again…It was still raining….boulders could still be falling on tracks….was it going to end my misery too?? I just didn’t care. I wanted to put as much distance between me and my happily married Zita. A fugitive life of sacrifice and tears.
Author: Richard D Souza- Qatar