A Story By Rungeen Singh

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In London, Surinder Singh stared at the letter from his father. An aching nostalgia swept over him as he visualized the green fields of his village in India with its ethnic flavor, the clear waters of the tumbling stream where he had swum many a summer day with his friends and the lazy afternoons, the evenings full of laughter, dancing and singing. Beeji, his mother! Fair and chubby and ever so loving! Such a wonderful cook! He could just taste the special taste of ‘rajma’ made by his mother. He had spent so many wonderful hours with her, learning to cook her fabulous recipes because he was a foodee and he loved to eat as well as cook and he relished each moment with her.

He had actually started learning to cook just to be with her as he was very close to his mother and there was a complete understanding between the two. His Beeji anticipated all his needs before he even expressed them and he could intuitively sense what his Beeji wanted. It had been the most hurtful wrench to leave his mother behind in their village in India and he remembered and missed her all the time.

Darji, his father! Starting to grey with the burden of a huge family but ever upright and honest, always rooted in his principles of honesty and fairplay but taking full delight and pride in his ‘Suri puttar’ as he called Surinder always. He remembered his charming elder sister with her shy eyes and his chubby younger sister with her naughty twinkling eyes. He could just see them in his mental vision, his younger sister pulling the elder sister’s plait and both having a fight.

Their Jeetu Chachu’s family consisted of his wife and three daughters. Darji and Jeetu Chachu looked after their farms but could barely eke out a frugal existence. He, Suri, was the only son in the whole family and everyone’s hopes were pinned solely on him. How fond they all were of him even to the extent that they did not mind when he teased all of them. He had been naughty since childhood. Being the only son he had been pampered by all and he knew that he could get away with the naughtiest pranks because they were indulgent towards him. He was the proverbial apple of everyone’s eyes in the family and their ambitions, hopes and faith focused on him and him alone.

How they had rejoiced when he got his passport and Visa and now they must be expecting him to be their ticket to a better life. What would they think when the news of the reality reached them? They would be shattered! Suri cringed at the very thought.

Tears sprang to his eyes as his heart ached. Had it been worth it? Leaving his own house in the village, his family, his roots and everything familiar, to earn for a luxurious existence in London . What dreams he had seen! How he had boasted about the money he would earn and send to make the lives of his family more comfortable.

Had he made a mistake by coming abroad? No. Coming abroad was not a mistake. Everyone was entitled to search for better prospects and there was a dearth of money at home. The farmlands were not giving enough and Darji and Jeetu Chachu were too old to venture into anything new. Money was slowly becoming a scarce commodity and there was so much expense! All the girls had to be educated because this was one thing that Suri had insisted on. Lack of money would not stop the education of the girls.

What was the mistake then? The main mistake was the fact that he had come without a reliable job in hand and without anyone known to him who could have guided him in a foreign country. He had been too ambitious and his ambition had not been backed by sensible evaluation, analysis and planning before taking such a big step.

The fault was that he had trusted the agent who had taken a lot of money but had vanished leaving him insecure and alone in a strange country. Actually he had been duped by the agent who had promised him a job in London. Unfortunately, he, Surinder Singh, had been too gullible. He should have found out more about the credentials of the agent. And had he suffered for that! Well! Nothing could be done about the past, so it was better to learn from the mistakes and think of the present and plan for the future. What was done was done and now he had to make the best of it. There was no going back. He had to work on without sparing himself, all for the sake of his family.

He stretched out his hand to pick up the letter and winced with pain. The pain was from moving heavy stuff in the workshop. The pain was from the weight on his heart shouldering the heavy fragments of all the broken dreams that lay on top of him.

But the pain was his. He would not let his family know that the son they had sent, after collecting money with such difficulty, was not the success that they had envisaged. They had scrounged and built up a huge debt so that Suri could come to London. But now unfortunately, he was not earning the amount that let him live in style and neither was it enough to help his family back in his village to live with comfort.

He made up his mind. He would not tell them of his agony he had suffered in London. That in the beginning he did not get any job and he had to live and sleep in the open through all the winter months. He shivered as he remembered how he would find a place near a central heating outlet and try to make do from that warmth, which was hardly enough to blanket him from the freezing cold of London winters with its rain and snow. This torment coupled with the realization of his ensuing penury had been torturous.

The only reprieve was when some welfare people came and made him learn a lesson that there were many lovely people in this world and so one should not lose faith in humanity. He remembered with gratitude and respect the kind women Susie, Farzana and Mahima who with many others like him, took him to an All Night Shelter where he could sleep, live and have the luxury of a bath with hot water for three days and nights without any charges. How he had blessed his saviors for those three days and nights.

And he had learnt to give. Since his childhood he had always ‘taken’ as his right instead of ‘giving’, since he had always been a pampered child. But now he got the feel of being selfless. He had tirelessly helped the three women with the making and serving of sandwiches and eatables and the looking after of the other sufferers. He had personally thanked the three women for the wonderful work they were doing. Mahima was intrigued by his excellent behavior and good manners and asked him about his story.

Telling her about his travails had acted as a catharsis and he had felt better but after three days and nights he was taken back and left where he had been found, while another lot of unemployed youth were taken to be given three days and nights of free comfort. And again he felt traumatized as he had to suffer cold, hunger, utter poverty and the humiliation of being refused work wherever he tried.

And the temptations when a sleazy person had the temerity to offer him easy money by doing illegal stuff and worse that his hunger and aching body had created a desperation that he had nearly succumbed to the temptation. All the values inculcated from his childhood and the memory of his family had finally helped him to refuse.

And finally Mahima had come to take another batch of unemployed youth to look after. She saw him there still so she gave him her visiting card. Then he had gone to Mahima for help. Mahima had got him a job at the workshop so that at least he could earn enough to keep himself fed and also sleep with a roof in a room. It did not matter that in that small room in Southall, eight people slept during the day while eight others worked at their jobs, and that in the night those eight slept while the other eight worked at a nightshift. No, nothing mattered. He told himself that he had to face life as it came before him. He had to do the best with the hand that the cards of Fate dealt to him.

He realized that life was synonymous with problems and that was why life was a challenge that tested the mettle of every individual. Everybody was meant to suffer and these obstacles had to be taken with sheer courage. Victory was to survive with a smile. He would show his inner mettle. He would find the tensile inner strength to take life head on, without feeling that he was a martyr because there were many others who suffered a worse fate. And he would keep his problems to himself and not glorify or advertise them.

No! He would not tell his family any of his travails, of his loneliness and near starvation. He would spare them the pain of empathizing with his wounds. “Let them be happy in their haven of hope and faith in me,” thought Suri. For them their son, “Suri puttar was abroad in ‘vilayat’ and was doing very well, with your blessings. Thank you!”

His hands trembled as Suri picked up the letter and he put it to his forehead as if it was sacred to him. Then he opened the letter. His heart raced as he read that the wedding of his sister had been fixed and he danced a quick jig and he realized how alien happiness had become to him since he had come abroad, while he had always been laughing and joking back at home. But then gloom descended on his heart as he read the closing lines.

His father was expecting him to send at least six hundred thousand rupees so that the wedding could be done and some construction, repairs and painting could be done to make their house look respectable. He trembled with sheer reaction. Now he knew what sheer depression, dejection and hopelessness meant!

Suri thought, “This stint abroad has actually made me delve into feelings and mostly negative emotions that I had never harbored before. It sure is adding to my experience. Well, this is one more splinter to face! Now what should I do?”

It was clear. His family must be waiting for him to call them. They had a telephone in their house in the village but they wouldn’t have even thought of calling him because they could ill afford the heavy payment of an international phone call. But how would he manage the money for the call? He finally went to a colleague’s house and promised that he would foot the bill later, and he made his telephone call!

His heart hurt as he could visualize his sister jumping and laughing as he heard her shout, “Darji. Come quickly. Suri Veerji is on the line from London.”

Suddenly Suri heard a medley of voices bickering to get to the phone first and finally his father took hold of the receiver and Suri heard his dear voice ask as usual, “My Suri puttar, how are you?”

Suri nearly choked. He could not utter a word and he heard his father say, “I think the call is disconnected.”

Then Suri spoke, “Darji. How are you? I am fine here.”

Then followed a turn by turn repetition of this dialogue with each member of his joint family till Suri got further worried about the tab he would have to pick up for the call and then Darji came to the point, “My Suri puttar! When will you send the money?”

“I can’t,” replied Suri.

“What!” shouted Darji and Suri heard the total silence in the background.

“ I don’t have the money Darji,” said Suri with difficulty.

“You don’t have money? Then how will the wedding be held? What will we do? We have just finished repaying the debt we had incurred in sending you to London. We have no money. The crop is not good this time and we could not make money. Puttar, say that you are joking and that you will send the money,” came his pleading voice.

Hoarsely Suri repeated, “I don’t have the money Darji.”

And then came the tirade as his Jeetu Chachu took the telephone receiver and shouted, “What are you saying? Do you want to give your father a heart attack? Why don’t you tell us the truth that you don’t want to send the money and that your intentions have changed? Have you got involved with a ‘firangi’ girl? Come on tell us the truth.”

“No, I just don’t earn enough to save money,” pleaded Suri.

Jeetu Chachu yelled back, “What rubbish! You are just lying! Everyone abroad earns so much. You have been abroad for ten months and you can’t send this much? O.K. Then send three hundred thousand. We will not repair or paint the house but this much is a must for the wedding of your sister or it will be cancelled.”

“I don’t have this much even,” cried Suri.

There was silence punctuated by Jeetu Chachu explaining to the others what Suri had said. Suddenly his mother’s voice came on the line, “Puttar, I know you are playing a prank on us as usual. Don’t take it too far. Our hearts will break. We have to marry off your sister. Her wedding should not be postponed. Oh! My puttarji! Say that you are only teasing us and all that you have said is not true otherwise I will die. I cannot bear it.”

And Suri burst out laughing. A hysterical laughter which welled up from his despairing heart and he sobbed, “Yes I was teasing Beeji. I will send the money.”

“My lovely puttar! Darji, Suri will send the money. He was only teasing!” Suri heard his mother say and the reaction was one of jubilation. “And puttar, you must come for the wedding! You know you are precious to us. You must come,” added his mother.

After a moment Darji came on line and commented, “My Suri puttar! You were always a tease! You are still the same! Thank God you have not changed at all not even in ‘vilayat’, you nearly took my life! But puttarji, you must come for the wedding.”

“I shall try Darji, but I will definitely send the money, bye,” said Suri as he disconnected. Tears poured down his cheeks and he burst out crying and he sobbed till his heart became free of the turmoil he had just gone through and then he straightened up resolutely and thought, “I cannot indulge in weakness of any sort. I have to act. I have to do something for my family. I have to stay calm and think.” He paced up and down.

All Suri could think of now was, “Where can I get the money?”

Then he thought of Mahima who had come with the welfare group to take him to the All Night Shelter. He still had her card. Till now he had not wanted to take her obligation again but now the situation was different. Now his ego or pride or whatever it was that stopped him from taking obligations, did not count.

He needed the money for his family and he would not let his self esteem stand in the way. He would meet her again and get her reference and see if he could get a better paying job. She may get someone to give him a loan when she knew his plight. Yes, there were many possibilities still which he could explore.

Suri thought, “I promise, Beeji and Darji, your son will not let you down. I will do my best and then leave everything to God. I will never give up in my efforts but for the outcome I will pray to the Almighty to help me. I will try and try again till I succeed.”

And then he called Mahima and told her of his predicament. She was helpful as always and told him that he could come to meet her group in which there were many Asians also. They would find a way to get him money to send to his family.

After that he spoke of his problem before the welfare group and they were most sympathetic, but then he added, “I would like to make one thing clear. This money would not be a donation for charity. It would just be a loan and I will repay every bit of it.”

Suddenly he heard someone sobbing uncontrollably and he turned to see a gentleman crying. Mahima asked, “Zafar why are you crying?”

Zafar sobbed, “ This is a near repeat of my own story, Mahima. I faced nearly the same problems. Suri, your story has touched my heart . I will help you. I respect the fact that you are not ready to sponge on anyone’s generosity. Tell me, what is your skill set?”

Suri answered, “Nothing. I regret this so much, but I never bothered to get a good degree or attain a skill set. I am sorry to say that except cooking I did not learn anything in life and that also I didn’t do as a course. I just learnt from my mother.”

Zafar asked, “What can you cook? What is your specialty?”

Suri replied apologetically, “Just home made food.”

“This is my card. Come to my house on Saturday and cook a few dishes for us. It will be a test for you. If you fare well, I will talk to a very close friend of mine who has a Mughlai restaurant. I will request him to give an advance to you so that you can send the money to your family. Now it depends entirely on your skill,” said Zafar.

All the days till Saturday were a pleasure for the roommates of Suri because he insisted on cooking for all of them but then they changed their stance as they got irritated when he made the same three dishes every meal, lunch and dinner till they were fed up. Even after such practice, Suri was nervous when he reached Zafar’s house but once he thought of his family, he just forgot his feelings and he concentrated on his cooking. It was as if his mother’s voice was directing him, now put coriander, now cinnamon and so on…….The dishes were a success as that day Zafar had called his restaurant friend Ali and after eating the food, Ali said, “People often ask for home made food. There is a market for it and you are good. You are on Suri.”

Suri could hardly believe his good luck and tears came to his eyes as he heard Ali continue, “My dearest friend Zafar was telling me about your plight. His reference is good enough and I cannot refuse him. I will give you the money you need for your family and remember never think that you are alone. We are here for each other always.”

“Thank you so much Sir, I am obliged to you. My heartfelt gratitude Sir but I want to make this clear that, please, you must deduct the installments for the repayment from my salary every month,” requested Suri.

“Suri, I want to make this clear that I am not doing an obligation on you. I need a chef like you with something new to offer the customers because I need to increase the sales. Let us hope that your home made recipes will do the trick for me,” answered Ali.

They really did the trick! The sales did increase because there was sincerity and integrity plus a delicious taste in the cooking of his dear mother’s home made recipes by Suri and he did pay back the loan subsequently as well as provide comfort for his family in the village. Moreover he did go back to his village to his sister’s wedding, as a success.

He did not cringe an iota when his father Darji proudly introduced him as, “Meet my son, my Suri puttar. He has come from ‘vilayat’ and is doing very well there with your blessings! Thank you!” Suri loved the pride on the faces of his parents and Suri thanked God and all the kind people who had helped him, to make this a reality!

Rungeen Singh has been a writer since 1992 and an English teacher since 1972. She has written English story books and poems for children, short stories, poems and articles for various Magazines & Newspapers. Rungeen is a Life member of Association for Writers and Illustrators for Children. She lives in India. You may write to her at rungeen.singh@gmail.com

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