Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Book Review: Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh


Amitav Ghosh's latest offering has made it to the Booker Prize short list. It’s a big book, slightly bigger than his recent books, the Hungry Tide and the Glass Palace, and is the first of a trilogy of books revolving around the Opium Wars.
The Opium Wars took place between Great Britain and China in the mid 19th century when Britain insisted on the right to export opium to China. Like the Glass Palace, it is a roving tale and its scope ranges from the opium fields of the upper Ganges to an opium factory to the South China Sea to an ex-slave ship, the Ibis, which sails from Calcutta with its hold-full of indentured labourers for the sugar plantations of Mareech (Mauritius).

Taking a cue from the likes of Vikram Chandra, Ghosh has littered his book with words from Bhojjpuri, Anglo-Indian slang and seamen's jargon without bothering to add a glossary. One gets to hear words such as Shaitan, Hurremzad, Kismet, Jadoo, BeeBee, Dufter, Afeemkhor, Cubber (Khabbar) quite often. A native of the sub-continent would understand these without much difficulty, but I am not sure how easily a non-native would. I read a review in the Guardian where the reviewer says he doesn't know where the ship is headed to, though Ghosh tells us on many occasions, right from the beginning, that the Ibis is headed to Mareech (Mauritius).

Once in a while, the vernacular is accompanied with the translation in English. When a Bhojpuri speaker says 'malik, paroséka gaōse áwat bani,' it is accompanied by 'From a nearby village.' I guess Ghosh doesn't expect many of his readers to know Bhojpuri. In any event, the net effect wasn't too bad, at least for me. One does get a feel of places and people better with all this vernacular and slang.

Ghosh's story involves many a 'white' character and whenever one writes about people other than one’s own, there’s a good possibility that someone will cry ‘Stereotype’. There's Zachary Reid, a mullato (who looks almost Kosher White) from Baltimore, Benjamin Barham, an unscrupulous British merchant and many others. I thought Ghosh has done a decent job in portraying these characters, but I read a few reviews which suggested otherwise.

There are a few things about this book that I did not like. At the beginning of the book, Deeti, a poor opium farmer's wife has a vision of the Ibis that would later take her to Mareech. I find that too farfetched for a book of this nature. Towards the end, one of the indentured men is being flogged on the Ibis and this victim (a low caste ex-wrestler of colossal strength) manages to snatch the whip and hit his assailant with a blow that rips off his head. Who does Ghosh think he is? Forget Hollywood, even a Bollywood stunt director would blush with embarrassment if asked to manufacture such a scene.

For me, the drawback in this book was that it had too much crammed into it. At many places in this book I got the feeling of being rushed along much faster than I wanted to be. If Ghosh had to do justice to all that he had covered in this book, he would have required twice as much space, but he might have produced something similar to A Suitable Boy which I think is the best ever book written by an Indian. But no, Ghosh doesn't have the time. He has collected a fair amount of research material which can’t be wasted and has to be crammed into the Sea of Poppies. Despite all this, Sea of Poppies is a good book. A very good book. But it falls short of being superb or brilliant.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Book Review: To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account by Saul Bellow


I have been desisting from reading Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow’s account of his odyssey to Jerusalem for many years until I completed my own, since I didn’t want my vision to be coloured by anyone else’s, even those of a writer I admire so much. A week after I got back from Israel, I managed to get hold of this book and started reading it immediately.

Bellow goes to Israel in 1975, two years after the Yom Kippur war. The BA flight is full of Hasidic Jews. Bellow himself comes from a Russian Hasidic family which migrated to Canada and understands them very well, unlike the BA stewards who are exasperated with the Hasids. Most of them don’t seem to speak English. The young Hasid sitting next to Bellow starts talking to him in Yiddish. He is shocked when Bellow eats a non-Kosher chicken and offers to send him $15 a week if only Bellow would promise to never again eat non-Kosher food. Bellow refuses. The offer is hiked to $25 a week. ‘Not worth the amount of effort involved in hunting for non-Kosher food,’ Bellow explains apologetically. I don’t want to reproduce the entire conversation here and spoil your fun, but suffice to say that the Hasid didn’t know who mathematicians were (Bellow’s non-Jewish Rumanian wife is one) and had never heard of Einstein.

Bellow’s account mainly consists of the various people he met and the opinions he heard while in Israel. His point of view, expressed rarely, is more towards the end, though it does filter through indirectly once in a while.

Bellow’s contacts and acquaintances are wide ranging. He meets with a friend John Auerbach who escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto, his cousin Noto who had fought in the Soviet army during the Second World War, a bishop from the Armenian Orthodox Church, authors, poets and politicians. He talks to Jews, Christians and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians. There are extensive quotes from Satre and Bellow’s comments on Satre’s opinions. Towards the end of the book, there is a meeting with Henry Kissinger after Bellow returns to the US from Israel. Since many of the people Bellow meets are ones who move in the higher echelons of society, Bellow gets to hear many an ‘inside story’, some of which are reproduced in the book. I’ll leave it to you to read them for yourselves.

Some of the (true) stories Bellow tells us are heart rending. His friend John Auerbach, a Kibbutznik seaman, has recently lost a son. John’s son served in an electronic warfare unit and was returning from action when he was killed in a helicopter crash. John himself has a tragic story. At sixteen John had escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto leaving behind parents and a sister who were killed soon after. Somehow John managed to obtain a Polish seaman's papers and worked for German freighters for the duration of the war. Bellow tells us how once, when John was working on a German freighter, he had to wait in a line of nude men, to be examined by a female doctor for venereal disease. John was the only circumcised man. The female doctor looked into his face and… let him live. After the war, John went to Israel and joined Kibbutz Sdot Yam.

Bellow tells us that guns are a common sight in Jerusalem at any time. At the time when Bellow was in Jerusalem, bombings were very common (as they still are). Residents used to carry out patrols. When Israeli Arabs were asked to participate in the civilian patrols, they refused. Bellow explains that in refusing, the Arabs were only trying to avoid a charge of collaboration. Bellow is told that the PLO would like to provoke riots in the Old City since it would cause the UN General Assembly (which Arab nations control) to pass resolutions against Israel.

Bellow meets with Amos Oz, the Novelist. Oz tells Bellow that Israel contains more different versions of heaven than an outsider can imagine. Everyone who came to Israel has brought his own version of heaven with him. I found this very interesting. Everyone has a vision of heaven. A heaven filled with champagne, a heaven consisting of a long stretch of beach where you sunbathe or surf or swim, a heaven with 72 virgins, or maybe 72 tall, bronzed and handsome men, a heaven filled with dogs or cats or other pets, a heaven where you just sit around and play a harp with angels hovering around and so on. However, none of the visionaries expect to find their heaven on this earth. In Israel, you have 6 million odd people trying to find their heaven within a small parcel of parched land on this earth!

Mahmud Abu Zuluf, editor of Al Kuds, the largest Arab newspaper in Jerusalem, is a moderate. He is hated by the leftists and his life is threatened. Once his automobile was blown up, but he escaped. Zuluf tells Bellow that he believes Jews must give ground in East Jerusalem (which is where the Old City is). They must divide authority with the Arabs. He feels that Jews are too reluctant and too slow to accept reality. According to Zuluf, and Bellow seems to agree, Arabs are continually gaining strength while Israel becomes weaker. Israel is more and more dependent on the US while the Arab nations become more powerful and modern.

David Shahar, a Jew, tells Bellow that Arabs cannot tolerate a Jewish state, even a miniscule one which was why they did not accept the UN partition plan. If they just wanted a state, they would have had it many years ago.

Bellow tells us that the CIA has estimated that the next war (after the 1973 one) could cost Israel 9,000 dead and 36,000 wounded. Such a victory would be a defeat if one took into account the Israeli population. In the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Israeli losses exceeded British losses during World War I, if one took into account British and Israeli populations.

Bellow tells us that in less than thirty years after its creation, Israel has produced a modern country. It produces door knobs and hinges, plumbing fixtures, electrical supplies, chamber music, airplanes and teacups. It is both a garrison state and a cultivated society, both Spartan and Athenian. It tries to do everything, to understand everything, to make provision for everything. It is stretched to the limit.

At a dinner table, Chaim Gouri, an Israeli poet and journalist tells Bellow the story of Israeli soldiers who stole a Peugeot from a wealthy Arab family during the six-day war (in 1967). Chaim Gouri managed to get them return the car. Soon after, some of the soldiers went back to that Israeli family and took from them some family jewels. A Dutch woman who hears the tale starts grinning. She explains how when the 1967 war broke out, Dutch Jews stored food for the expected Jewish refugees since Israel was expected to lose the war. Instead of Israel losing, they now had to deal with a complaint about looted bangles!

Bellow never runs short of stories of how irritating Hasidic Jews can be. Justice Haim Cohn who represented Israel in the UN Human Rights Commission, wanted to marry a divorced woman. He applied to the rabbinical authorities for permission which was denied because he was a Cohen, a hereditary High Priest. Therefore Cohn decided to de-High Priest himself. A High Priest must be unblemished and Cohn proposed to get himself surgically mutilated by removing the joint of his little finger. He was told that it would not work. So, he got married in a civil ceremony in New York. He was then told that it was disrespectful to the rabbis. So, he got married again by a conservative rabbi. The rabbi who married him was rebuked by colleagues and had a hard time.

Professor Tzvi Lamm of the Hebrew University charges that Israel has lost touch with reality. Zionism, in its initial stages, may have appeared to be an unrealistic dream, but the first leaders were intensely practical. They knew what they could achieve. But the victory of 1967 led to an 'autism' or a break with reality. Israelis started to speak of Jordan’s West Bank as 'liberated' territory. This autism keeps Israelis from understanding that taking possession of Arab territories would unite the Arab world, threaten Israeli existence as a state and aggravate Israel’s insecure situation. Zionism's initial goal was only to rescue Jews and save them from annihilation. After 1967 victory, Israelis started to talk of demography and getting the Arabs to migrate. Settlers go to 'liberated territories' like the West Bank and the Golan Heights and take land from the 'natives' with army support. Israel’s policy of expansion and territorial conquest is not much different from Nazi Germany's attempt to expand, which led to World War II. Lamm says that Israel was only meant to mean life to Hitler's survivors. It was not meant to be a political power. He condemns the 'overbearing self righteousness' of Jews' historical rights to the land. He has few illusions. He says that the enemies of Israel are terrible and want to destroy Israel. The moderate enemies will destroy Israel politically and the fundamentalists will do so physically. Even the most realistic policies cannot guarantee survival. One can almost feel Bellow nod in agreement with Lamm.

Harold Fisch, an orthodox professor from England, takes the opposite view. He claims that the liberated territories must be reclaimed by the Jews. The West Bank and even the East Bank are promised lands. Even if Jews may be annihilated by the Arabs as they seek to reclaim their land, they have no choice but to go ahead. Jews must be prepared to accept their fate, he tells Bellows.

Bellows has devoted a decent chunk of his book to Satre whom he quotes extensively, Satre is left wing, but is sympathetic to Israel. He wants a socialist revolution in the Arab world. Satre feels that a socialist Arab world will find it easier to accept Israel. Bellow doesn’t agree. He tells us that Marxist-Leninist leaders of the Arab world have opposed Israel more than the feudal princes of the oil kingdoms. In 1949, Satre had refused to sign a petition condemning the death of millions of prisoners in Soviet prisoner of war camps on the ground that it would strengthen American imperialism. Satre says that anti-Semitism in the Soviet bloc is a result of the dual affiliation Jews have. Thanks to the Law of Return in Israel, Jews may choose to migrate to Israel. This right to move is not available to other citizens and encourages anti-Semitism.

Nadezhda Mandelstam a Russian writer (and wife of Osip Mandelstam, a very famous Russian poet who perished in Stalin’s Gulag) tells Bellow that anti-Semitism in Russia is propagated from above. Bellow also quotes Andrei Sinyavsky, a (non-Jewish) Russian writer and dissident, who takes a different view. He says that in Russian popular consciousness, the Jew is an evil spirit who has got into the body of Russia and made everything go wrong.

Bellow wonders why Satre and other Western intellectuals don't make as many demands of the Arabs as they make of the Jews. Why don't they demand that the Arabs, especially the Marxists among them, make peace with the Jews who have suffered monstrously in Christian Europe and under Islam? Bellow tells us that the land occupied by Israel is only one sixth of one percent of the land occupied by the Arabs. 800,000 Jews were driven out from Arab lands to Israel after it was formed. They were robbed of their properties. They are also refugees, but why don’t they get any sympathy, Bellow wonders.

Bellow takes a leaf from Professor Tzvi Lamm’s book. He repeatedly says that Zionist pioneers only wanted a sanctuary and they did not plan or try to recover the Promised Land. Bellow looks around for Arab intellectuals who he says can be found only in Israel.

Bellow wonders what would happen if Israel were to give up the West Bank. Would Jordan want it? Bellow turns to Professor Kerr's account of the 1970 fight between Jordanian forces and Palestinian militias after the Palestinian militias threatened King Hussein’s authority beyond a point. The Jordanians killed 37,000 Palestinians, more than were killed by Moshe Dayan’s soldiers in 1967 during the Six Days War. As the Jordanians vanquished the Palestinians, an Iraqi force of 20,000 stood by and watched. A Syrian armoured brigade tried to interfere, but was forced to retreat. What prospects would the Palestinians have under Jordanian sovereignty, Bellow wonders? If this was how Arabs treated each other, how would they treat Israelis if they won? Bellow would like Israel to withdraw from the West Bank, but Israel is stuck with it. When it was with Jordan, the Palestinians gave nothing but trouble to Jordan. Jordan does not particularly want the West Bank back. It would rather let Israel keep the West Bank and give trouble to Israel for holding on to it.

Bellow makes one argument in the book which I did not find to be particularly tenable. Bellow says that though no one enjoys losing property, Arab losses as a result of displacement are not significant. When Aswan dam was built in Egypt, a greater number of people where displaced. Why can’t the Arabs be generous and accept the loss of the Israeli chunk of Palestine? Why can’t they get on with their lives? Bellow wonders.

Israelis seem to admire Henry Kissinger, a Jew, for what he has achieved for himself, though they don’t really like or trust him. After Bellow returns to the US, he has a meeting with Kissinger. Kissinger speaks piously about his Jewish feelings. Apparently he had family members who died in concentration camps. Kissinger claims to be emotionally involved and to have defended Israel, though Israel might not realise it. He has stood between Israel and its enemies in the US government, he tells Bellow.

An interesting explanation is advanced in this book for the Arab inability to accept the State of Israel. The Arabs had ruled over the Jews for over 1,000 years. Even before that, the Arabs had controlled Jerusalem and the rest of Palestine for long stretches of time. How then could the Arabs accept the idea that the Jews, who were subject to Islamic rule for so long, should have a state of their own? I found this very interesting. If applied to the Indian context, this could explain why many Muslims in British India wanted partition. Before the British and other Europeans arrived, India was ruled by the Mughals, Arabs and Turks. For around six hundred odd years, Hindus, and other Indians had been subservient to the Muslims. How then could Indian Muslims, after independence, live on equal terms with Hindus in an undivided India where the Hindus would outnumber them 2:1?

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Book review: Sathnam Sanghera's If You Don't Know Me by Now


Much before Santham Sanghera's misery memoir, If You Don't Know Me by Now, got published, I knew him very well. Or I thought I did. For those who don't know, Sanghera is a British journalist of Indian origin who used to write for the Financial Times and is now with the Times
Reading Sanghera's very British and very interesting pieces in the FT and the Times such as this and this, I used to think, here's yet another British Indian who's done well. Sanghera's family, I thought, must be one of those traditional Indian families where education is prized above everything and the educated non-working mother sits the kids down after dinner and helps them with their homework. However, Sanghera's autobiography which unflinchingly lays bare the life stories of himself, his parents and various other members of his family, tells us a different story all together. And a shocking one at that.

Sanghera's father and elder sister suffer from Schizophrenia. Sanghera's mother, the sole breadwinner of the family is illiterate and had to rely on her sewing to put chappatis on the table. Sanghera's father migrated to the UK in his youth, to join a number of family members already there. Even before he was married, his family knew that he was ill, but they thought that marriage would cure him. Sanghera's mother came to the UK when she was sixteen or so, to be married to a violent mentally ill man. Things only got worse for Sanghera's mother before they could become better. Until Sanghera's father was arrested (for violent assault), imprisoned, diagnosed as mentally ill and treated (with medicines and electroconvulsive therapy), Sanghera's mother bore the brunt of the violence. She was slapped in the face on her wedding day and later punched in her stomach on her wedding night. Later, his paternal grandmother began to suspect Sanghera’s mother of being a witch, someone who brought bad luck to Sanghera’s father and the rest of his family.

Sanghera, the youngest child, was his mother’s pet and his mother lavished her love on him. He was handfed traditional Punjabi food (which Sanghera now considers unhealthy and yucky), dressed in colourful clothes which are very un-British (memories of which seem to still upset Sanghera) and made to grow his hair long (unlike his brother and father who have short hair). Even though no one in Sanghera’s family had been to college and his parents don’t speak English at all, Sanghera manages to get into a good grammar school and read literature at Cambridge.

Sanghera has an elder brother and two sisters. They all go to ordinary state schools and get run-of-the mill jobs, including his eldest sister who suffers from Schizophrenia. His eldest sister’s first arranged marriage breaks down, but she is married off again to a man imported from India who needs British citizenship. Sanghera’s first breakthrough is when at the age of 14, he goes to a barber on his own and cut off his long hair. He expects his mother to be deeply upset, but she takes it very calmly. After his hair is cut off, Sanghera becomes ‘normal’. He makes friends at school, girls are interested in him and he is no longer bullied.

Sanghera is in his mid-twenties when he accidentally finds out that his father has always suffered from Schizophrenia. It is a shock to him, but it explains a great many things. At that time, Sanghera has had a series of broken relationships and he is under pressure from his mother to enter into an arranged marriage. All of this makes Sanghera want to understand his family’s history and he delves into his parents’ past, the medication his father took, the doctors who treated him, the courts which sentenced him, the violence suffered by his mother at the hands of his father etc.

Sanghera hates everything about his Indian-Punjabi community. He hates the food, the attitudes and values (towards women, family honour), lavishness (especially for weddings) and everything else. For example, as Sanghera explains how much he hated community get-togethers such as weddings, he says “……….And then, just when I dared to hope I was running out of cousins to get married, cousins I didn't realize I even had started appearing from India as well, bearing gifts of sugar cane, asking to be shown the whereabouts of the nearest porn shop and announcing that they wanted to be married too…………. As soon as they made it through Customs and Immigration, or as soon as they were liberated by their human trafficker of choice into an alleyway in Dudley, and before they had got used to Western customs such as not spitting on the living room floor, arranged marriage aunties were scouring the land for potential spouses, their criteria being that the person be a British Sikh of the appropriate sex and caste and be willing to get married very quickly.”

Sanghera’s anger extends to everything Indian. You’ll find phrases such as “Indians always need to blame someone” very often in the book. The India-born GP who treated his father during the initial stages of his illness did not make legible notes of his father’s case or the treatment given. The GP practice, which is still run by India-born GPs, does not promptly produce records pertaining to the treatment when Sanghera makes a request while doing his research. Sanghera places the blame squarely on the GP’s Indianness, though I doubt if many GP in the UK in the 1960s maintained legible and elaborate records of their patients and the treatment given. Sanghera also has similar problems with the Wolverhampton Crown Court in getting hold of details pertaining to his father’s imprisonment. But here, there are no Indians involved and so India makes a narrow escape.

I have many British Asian friends and a few of whom are not particularly fond of their connection to India or Pakistan. The majority are however, very proud of their lineage and all trappings that go with it (mainly religion and language). The other day I was having a drink with a few friends, one of whom is ethnic Punjabi, whose parents (like Sanghera’s) came to the UK in the 1950s as illiterate labourers. There was only pride in my friend’s voice as she explained how her parents managed to put her through school and college and made her a solicitor. It is also very common to see British Asians change their attitude to India after the economic boom in India. For example, Randeep Ramesh, a British Indian journalist, explains in this article how the earlier contempt for India changed into pride and admiration.

Sanghera does not state that his total hatred for Punjabi and Indian culture is connected to the childhood he had. However it is reasonable to make this connection since Sanghera also hates Wolverhampton, the British Midlands town (close to Birmingham) where he grew up. There are very funny passages in the book about the first Starbucks Café in Wolverhampton and how the not-so-sophisticated citizens of Wolverhampton get used to café culture. I am not really sure if Sanghera’s anger towards Indian/Punjabi culture was ingrained from childhood or it was something he developed after he found out about his father’s illness and the violence his mother suffered at his father’s hands. Even though Sanghera makes his childhood sound extra-horrible, it is possible that it is the result of hindsight (clothes in horrible colours and rich, fatty Punjabi food etc.). Sanghera says that he never saw his father hit his mother and he himself was never the victim of violence (though once when he was in primary school, a couple of semi-crushed cockroaches were found in his shoes as he changed for PT).

Sanghera is (very rightly in my opinion) very grateful to the UK which allowed the son of immigrants such as his parents to go to Cambridge and become a very respectable journalist. He (again very rightly) rails against ‘multiculturalists’ who argue against forcing immigrants to learn English, which would allow immigrants (such as his mother) to be aware of their rights (against domestic abuse) and fight for them. However, I wonder if Sanghera is aware that had his parents stayed on in India, they would have been relatively rich (as most Jat Punjabis who own land are, thanks to the green revolution), Sanghera would have had a decent education and a very good chance to make something of himself.

Even though Sanghera’s pain and anguish show at every turn, the book is not a very heavy read. From the beginning of the book, Sanghera tells us that he is working towards writing a letter to his mother where (at the risk of breaking her heart) he will tell her that he does not want an arranged marriage and that he plans to get married to a girl of his choice. The letter is to be written in English and translated into Punjabi before it is sent to his mother. Does Sanghera manage to write this letter? What are the consequences? Does his mother become very upset or does she take it as calmly as she had when he cut off his hair? Do read this good and very interesting book to find out.

I remember the story of a Keralite who went to the USA in the early 1960s and came back for his first visit after 30 years. 'Let’s go to visit XYZ,' one of his brothers told him a few days after he got there. 'Sure,' this gentleman said and walked out of the house shirtless and bare-chested, clad only in his mundu. His brother ran after him and expostulated, ‘surely you are not going out like this?’ Pat came the reply. ‘But I’ve always walked around like this,’ It took the brother sometime to convince his American brother that people in Kerala no longer walk around town clad only in a mundu. Similarly, I wonder if Sanghera realises that marriages in India are no longer always arranged by parents and that most Indians have stopped spitting on the floors of their living rooms.

I feel that this book should be prescribed like medicine to all parents in India who wish to have their daughters married off to unknown men of Indian origin living in the UK and the USA. How many such parents are aware of the time-warped lives Britons of south-Asian origin live in? Granted not every British-South-Asian family would be similar to Sanghera’s, but the general descriptions of how traditional and orthodox Indian communities in the UK can be are a must read for Indians in India.

Towards the end of his book, Sanghera has a few good words for Wolverhampton, which he says has changed for the better. There are no similar sentiments towards India. I wish Sanghera would spend a few months in Delhi or Mumbai and see for himself how much India (especially urban India) has changed.

Friday, 19 September 2008

ISRAEL DIARY

A long time in planning

Israel is a place I’ve always wanted to visit. My reasons were many. From admiration for a country holding on its own in a very hostile neighbourhood to stories of the Israelis having made the desert bloom to a desire to see so many historical places crammed into a single country, there was no shortage of reasons to visit Israel.

Support for Israel

I have always believed that the UN resolution 181 which created Israel was absolutely fair. 33 countries had voted in favour, including the USA and the USSR. 10 countries including India opposed it. 10 including the UK and China abstained. The Jews have a claim on Palestine. Not an exclusive claim, but a claim nevertheless. If the Arabs and Jews could not live together, then splitting Palestine into two was the only option available.

I have always believed that the continuing Arab-Israeli conflict is more the result of Arab intransigence than anything else. The Arabs were unwilling to live alongside the state of Israel, as created by the UN. After the 1948 war, Jordan took over East Jerusalem and the West Bank whilst Egypt took over the Gaza strip, areas which ought to have been an independent Arab Palestinian state. This annexation was not opposed by other Arab states. In other words, the existing Arab nation states did not give the Palestinian state a fighting chance to survive.

Israel has in the past relinquished captured territory. In 1979, it gave up the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt which had been captured in 1967. The Israel-Egypt peace treaty of 1979 has survived Anwar Sadat’s assassination and other tests of time. It remains to be seen if it will survive Hosni Mubarak who is almost 80 years old now.

I do believe that Israel ought to relinquish the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights (which it captured from Syria in 1967), but I do understand Israel’s need to use these territories to obtain a guarantee that its existence will not be threatened.

Visa on a separate sheet of paper

I had heard so many stories of how an Israeli visa on my passport could prevent me from travelling to various Arab countries. Since I need to travel to Dubai for my work once in a while, I decided to play it safe and requested the Israeli embassy in London for our visas on separate pieces of paper. The very attractive woman who accepted my application threw up her hands in the air and asked, ‘if you don’t want an Israeli stamp, why travel to Israel at all?’ I could understand her irritation. It must be galling to receive so many requests for a visa on a separate piece of paper rather than on the passport, as if Israel was a pariah one was ashamed to visit. In any event, my request was granted. I got our visas on separate pieces of paper. Later I found out that the UAE does not have a problem with an Israeli stamp endorsement. But countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait etc. still do.

BA and not El Al

We (my wife, 15 month old daughter and I) flew British Airways and not El Al, mainly because BA’s timing is very convenient. We left London Heathrow on a Saturday night at 22:30 hrs and landed at Ben-Gurion Airport at 05:30 hrs the next day morning. Also, El Al does not fly during the Shabbath while BA doesn’t have such problems. I’m told that service on El Al used to be very shoddy, but apparently El Al has now cleaned up its act.

Security checks

When flying from Heathrow, we did not face any additional security checks or any extra hassles. We checked in three hours before the flight departure and everything was exactly the same as for a flight to any other destination. On landing in Israel, we were psyched up for a long wait and a detailed interrogation. I’d heard horror stories of how people were kept waiting for five or even ten hours and questioned in relay by teams of security men. I was disappointed. Clearing immigration at Tel Aviv didn’t take any longer than what it usually takes me at London or Mumbai.

We had a similar experience when flying back at the end of our eight day trip, the only difference being that the Israeli security people who asked us if someone else had packed our luggage or if we were carrying stuff for others took a personal interest in our answers. Also, we had to first take our check-in luggage to a scanner and then proceed to BA’s check-in counter.

Ben Gurion International Airport

Ben Gurion is situated in between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. It’s 20 kilometres from Tel Aviv and 50 kilometres from Jerusalem (just as in India, distances are expressed only in kilometres in Israel). A state-of-the-art airport, it is not only very clean, but also smacks of all around efficiency.

An expensive country, especially Taxis

Israel is an expensive place to live in, almost as expensive as the United Kingdom. We learned this as soon as we landed there. We took a taxi from the airport to our hotel in Jerusalem and it cost us 250 Shekels (1 Shekel = 13 Indian Rupees; GBP 1 = 6.2 Shekels, and USD 1 = 3.55 Shekels). I don’t think we were cheated since I had checked with an Israeli friend and had been told what to expect.

All taxis have metres and we were told to make sure that we always paid by the metre. In most cases, our request to turn on the metre was acted upon. However, there were at least three instances where we told by the taxi driver that the metre was “not working”. Even when it was, taxi drivers liked to negotiate a fixed rate. Since the negotiations usually started after the taxi started moving, we ended up agreeing on a fixed rate, rather than go to the trouble of getting out of the taxi and finding another.

One evening, we had to travel from Jerusalem’s central bus station to our hotel and we couldn’t get a taxi to take us at the metre rate. Finally we agreed on a fixed rate of 40 Shekels. The next day morning we took a taxi to the central bus station from our hotel. The driver readily switched on the metre when we asked him to. We ended up paying the driver 53 Shekels.

The taxi driver who drove us to Bethlehem from Jerusalem told us that all taxis must pay the government a licence fee of 3,000 Shekels every two months. Petrol costs 6 Shekels a litre and diesel 7 Shekels, we were told.

It’s not only the taxis that are expensive. Food is expensive as well. On our first day in Israel, a Sunday, our simple lunch of pita bread, hommus, falafel and kebabs from a small way side eatery came close to 100 Shekels.

Jerusalem

We were based in Jerusalem for the greater part of our trip. Jerusalem is a reasonably clean city drenched in sunshine. It is located on the Judean mountains and is therefore quite hilly, especially the eastern bit where the Old City is located. The buildings, both old and new, are made out of sandstone. It was interesting to see modern flats built using materials that gave them an antique look, despite the presence of dish antennae on their tops. In any event, the timeless look has been preserved very well in Jerusalem.

Yad VaShem

The first place we visited in Jerusalem was the holocaust museum, a memorial to the six million odd Jews who perished under the Nazi regime. The main museum consists of photographs, newsreels and personal memorabilia of the victims. There is a separate memorial for the 1.5 million children who also fell to the Nazis. The Children’s memorial is located in a dark cave lit up with candles. A sombre voice reads out the name, age and country of origin of each of the victims.

Old City

The Old City in the east of Jerusalem has almost all the religious sites. It is split into four quarters, the Jewish, Christian, Moslem and Armenian. Mark Twain in his Innocents Abroad (an account of his 6 month trip in a luxury liner to Europe and Palestine) describes Jerusalem as a small walled city around whose walls a man can walk in an hour’s time. Until the 1860s when Mark Twain visited Jerusalem, the Old City formed the whole of Jerusalem.

The Muslim quarter is the largest and I think the Armenian quarter is the smallest. The Via Dolorosa, the path believed to have been walked by Jesus Christ on his way to his crucifixion, starts in the Muslim quarter. The Muslim quarter has very narrow streets with cobbled stones flanked by shops run by Arabs selling curios, souvenirs, carpets etc. This could be place anywhere in the East, say old Delhi or Damascus. However, the narrow roads are reasonably clean, much, much cleaner than Old Delhi.

The Christian Quarter houses the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of Christianity’s holiest sites, where Jesus is believed to have been crucified and buried (before his resurrection).

I didn’t meet many beggars in the Old City, except for an old Arab woman in an all-enveloping burka (whom I ignored).

Temple Mount/ Dome of the Rock/ Al Aqsa Mosque/ Western Wall

The most important site in Jerusalem, for Jews, Christians and Muslims is undoubtedly the Temple Mount, referred to as al-Haram ash-Sharif by the Muslims. Jews believe this to be the place where God created Adam out of dust. Two Jewish temples have existed on this site, the first one destroyed by the Babylonians and the second by the Romans. For Christians and Jews, it is the place where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. For Muslims, this is the place to which Prophet Mohammad was transported by Angel Gabriel and from where he ascended to heaven, had a conversation with Allah, Moses and other prophets and returned to Mecca. It is the third holiest site for Muslims after Mecca and Medina.

Naturally, each community would like to have access to this site. However, thanks to the fact that in the last 1000 years, Jerusalem has been mainly under the control of the Muslims, the two main buildings on the Temple Mount are Islamic, namely the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The Western Wall (also called the Wailing Wall) is the only remaining portion of the second Jewish temple destroyed by the Romans and the Jews congregate there to pray and even wail. Prayers are written on small pieces of paper and stuck into crevices on the Wall. There are separate sections for men and women.

We could not go inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque or the Dome of the Rock since it was the period of Ramadan and entry was restricted to two hours in the morning. However, we did go to the Western Wall. Men are expected to cover their heads and woman must be modestly dressed. It is also possible to tour the tunnels built under the Wall, but one needs to book in advance.

A large plastic urn held a number of cardboard caps for men (like me) who did not have the foresight to bring along a head covering. In the case of women, a couple of female guards stand around with long scarves. Any woman who gets close to the wall in a sleeveless blouse or shorts or an uncovered head is given a scarf or scarves to make herself ‘modest’ before getting close to the Wall. It was not only Western tourists who turned up without the right attire. I saw an Israeli Jewish woman in shorts and a sleeveless blouse being asked to cover herself up.

A large number of Israeli soldiers were present at the Wall. Many of them appeared to be freshly inducted draftees performing their military service. More about the Israeli army later.

As I approached the men’s section to have a chat with God, I was approached by a young Haredi (an orthodox Jew), wearing their traditional black suit, black hat and sporting ringlets. Have I a committed a faux pas already, I wondered as I clutched my paper cap to my head. I need not have worried. The Haredi was only begging and he indicated the small wad of notes in his hand and asked me to contribute my mite. Considering the enormous amount of experience I’ve had in India in ignoring beggars, I easily gave him a firm shake of my head and walked on to the Wall.

Conversation at the Western Wall

After spending some time at the Wall, we sat on a small parapet some distance from the Wall under a shady tree. Soon we were joined by a man who appeared to be in his eighties. ‘Where are you from,’ he asked us?

‘India.’

‘Oh, India. I love India.’ This was a conversation we would have many times during our stay.

The old man wanted to know which part of India we were from, what we did for a living, how old our daughter was etc. After a while, I turned the tables on him and asked, ‘Have you lived in Israel all your life?’ It was obvious from his American accent that he hadn’t. I was right. He told us that he had been a builder in New York and had come to live in Israel after his retirement 22 years ago.

‘Israel is such a lovely place,’ he told us. ‘It’s warm. I have my family here, my children, my grand-children…. Each day I wake up and see the sunshine and thank God for giving me a new day to live.’

‘So you never go back to the US?’ I asked.

‘Yes, I do. Every year. During winter. I go to Florida. Israel is far too cold during winter.’

‘Do you come here often?’ I asked him.

‘Yes. Once every week. Our holiest site.’

‘I know.’

‘Our holiest site and the Muslims had to build their mosque here.’

I wanted to reply, but the old man was looking into the distance rather than at me. So, I kept quiet.

‘Our holiest site and we captured this during the six day war and we gave it all up to the Muslims. Madness I say.’

Maybe that was not such a bad thing to have done, I wanted to tell him. Maybe it resulted in peace. But I didn’t say all that. Instead, I asked, ‘Isn’t this place holy for the Muslims as well?’

‘It is. But this is not their holiest place. They have Mecca. They have Medina. Why can’t they give this to us?’

I was silent.

‘Are you Hindus?’ he suddenly asked us, as if worried that we might be Muslims.

‘No,’ I told him. ‘We are not Hindus.’ The old man’s brow furrowed.

‘We are Christians,’ I said. He appeared to be relieved.

‘There are 22 Arab countries in the world. And only one Jewish state! Why can’t they leave us alone?’

I was tempted to say something rude. Something like - The Arab Palestinians are as much entitled to a state of their own as the Jews are. But I kept quiet.

‘We have the strongest army in the middle-east. We could level all the houses in Ramallah if we wanted. But we don’t. We ought to. That’s the only language the Arabs will understand.’

I was bored. The old man could be a fundamentalist anywhere in the world. We said our goodbyes and left.

‘I might as well keep the cap on. It might be needed at the next place we visit,’ I told my wife.

‘I’m not too sure,’ she told me. ‘In a church, you don’t put on a cap to show respect. You take it off.’


Evangelical Christians in Israel

The next day our hotel’s reception desk sported a large banner which read, ‘Welcome to Benny Hinn’s Ministry on its Israel Tour.’ For those who haven’t heard of Benny Hinn, Mr. Hinn is an evangelical preacher with a very large following in the US and various other parts of the world. There were many from Benny Hinn’s group at the buffet breakfast tables that morning. They were cheerful people with a do-gooder expression on their faces. We had our breakfast quietly and left. In the court yard of our hotel were parked four or five large coaches meant to transport Benny Hinn’s group on their Israel tour.

Later when we were in Nazareth, we saw a Seventh Day Adventist Health Centre.

The Evangelical Christians have a love-hate relationship with Israel. They believe that God gave the Palestinian land to the Jews and they are entitled to all of it. Until the Jews get the whole of Palestine and rebuild their temple, Jesus will not make his second coming. When Jesus arrives for the second time, he will convert all Jews to Christianity. The ones who don’t convert will be killed.

During the 2006 war between Israel and the Hizbollah, thousands of evangelicals Christians had converged in Washington to lobby on behalf of Israel and prevent the US government from forcing Israel to a ceasefire. They wanted Israel to fight and destroy the Hizbollah. Unfortunately for the evangelicals, Hizbollah fought the Israeli army to a standstill and the Israelis withdrew from Lebanon without being forced by the US government.

I feel sorry for the Israelis who are forced to rely on support from evangelical Christians who ultimately hope to convert or kill them.

Caveat: I do know that Benny Hinn is an evangelical Christian. However, I am not aware on his exact stand on Jesus’s second coming and the conversion of the Jews. The evangelical beliefs outlined above are commonly held by most evangelical Christians.

Maccabee beer

I tried out the Maccabee beer which I was told is Israel’s most popular beer. It’s a blond beer /pale lager, not unlike lagers such as Becks or Amstel. I liked it, though there is nothing exceptional about it.

The West Bank Barrier

We saw the barrier as we drove from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, which is in the West Bank. It is at least 15 feet high, with a slanting top. Our Arab taxi driver muttered a series of curses as we drove past. Built entirely on land acquired from residents in the West Bank, the barrier has separated many farmers from their land. The highway runs alongside the barrier. Apparently, the barrier has increased the distance from Jerusalem to Bethlehem by 10 kilometers. We were told that it has also made travel much more difficult for the Arabs since one can only cross from Jerusalem to the West Bank through a check point.

We did not have any trouble at the check points. In fact the guards did not even look at our passports which we had at the ready.

‘Where are you from?’ we were asked.

‘India.’

‘Drive on,’ we were told.

A days later at the Dead Sea, we met a couple of tourists from the EU who told us they saw an Arab family being harassed by Israeli guards.

Conversation with Arab driver

The Arab driver who drove us to Bethlehem was a friendly sort. Initially we thought that we would have to take a taxi or a Sherut (a shared taxi which can take around 10 people) to the checkpoint and switch to an Arab taxi to enter Bethlehem. But no, this driver offered to take us to Bethlehem, show us around and bring us back.

‘How much?’ we asked him.

‘One hundred and fifty Shekels. It is a very good price for you,’ he said in reasonably good English.

We agreed with alacrity and did not ask him to turn on the metre.

After we had gone some distance, he turned around and said, ‘so you want to return today?’

‘Yes, of course. We are coming back today. We just want two hours in Bethlehem.’

‘I can bring you back,’ he agreed.

‘Yes, you said you would.’

‘So that’s three hundred Shekels.’

With a baby in our lap and the car speeding at hundred kilometres an hour along a deserted highway, we did not argue any further.

‘How come you are able to drive into the West Bank?’ we asked him. ‘We though Israeli drivers are not allowed to.’

‘I can because I am not an Israeli. I am from east Jersalem and I am not a citizen of any state. I have an Israeli ID card and that’s it. So I can drive to any town in the West Bank.’

‘Because you are an Arab?’

‘No, because I am not Israeli. Arabs who are Israeli citizens cannot drive to the West Bank.’

‘Has your family always lived in East Jerusalem?’

‘Yes, they have.’

‘How was it when East Jerusalem was under the Jordanians?’ I asked.

‘How does it matter? We are ordinary people. How does it matter?’

‘Do you speak Hebrew?’

‘A little bit. A little bit Hebrew.’

‘Do you have a large family?’

‘Six children,’ he told me. I was shocked. He was not much older than me.

‘So, your family lived through the six day war?’

‘What six day war? How can a war get over in six days? Those six days were only the beginning of the war,’ he told us. ‘It’s not over yet,’ he added darkly.

I decided to change the topic. ‘Your children go to school?’ I asked.

‘Yes, they do.’

‘A good school?’

‘Okay school.’

‘Do they learn Hebrew at school?’

‘No, they don’t.’

‘They don’t?’ I asked incredulously. ‘They go to a school in Jerusalem and don’t learn Hebrew?’

‘School run by the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Authority allowed to run schools for Arabs in East Jerusalem. My children go to that school.’

I wondered if they would get good jobs on graduation if they could only manage a smattering of Hebrew. I don’t think the Palestinian Authority is worried about that.

Bethlehem

Bethlehem is not more than a thirty minute drive from Jerusalem, provided you don’t have any trouble at the check points. It is not much different from Jerusalem. The buildings are of the same sandstone. The main difference is that this town of 45,000 people doesn’t show much signs of activity. Whilst Jerusalem and the rest of Israel pulsates with energy, Bethlehem is dead. We saw a few workshops making souvenirs (crosses etc.) for pilgrims out of olive wood. And that was it.

I was given to understand by our taxi driver that things are much worse in the rest of the West Bank. Apparently Nablus, Ramallah and Hebron have a few areas that are particularly bad.

The cost of living in Bethlehem is naturally a lot lower than in Jerusalem. A flat which costs 4000 Shekels to rent in Jerusalem can be had in the West Bank for 500 Shekels.

We were told by our Arab Christian guide in Bethlehem that 75% of Bethlehem is Arab Christian. And the rest are Muslims. After he showed us around the Church believed to be built over the manger where Jesus was born, he took us to a few souvenir shops where we bought some stuff for family and friends back home. We saw lots of shops which were closed. Or guide blamed the West Bank Barrier. Thanks to the barrier, he said that tourists were down sharply. Things were much better before the barrier was built, he said ruefully. These deserted roads were apparently as busy as the alleys in Jerusalem’s Old City.

‘We feel betrayed by the Western countries,’ he told us. They don’t really care about Arab Christians.’

‘Tell me, what would you prefer? Being under Israeli rule or under Palestinian rule? How was it when the Jordanians controlled the West Bank?’

He hesitated for a moment and said, ‘things are better under the Israelis.’


The Dead Sea

It’s true. You can float on the Dead Sea. I actually saw a couple of chaps smeared from head to toe with Dead Sea mud sitting on plastic chairs which they had plonked down on the sea.

There are no big waves, thanks to the heavy concentration of salt water. If a tiny bit of water enters your mouth, you don’t have a choice, but to run back to the shore and gargle. A bit of sea water in your eyes can cause them to itch terribly, the only remedy being to run out and rinse your face with fresh water.

Overhead: Tourist Wife telling her Husband as they both sat on beach chairs after a dip in the Dead Sea

‘It itches a lot.’

‘Where?’

‘Below.’

‘Must be your piles. The salt water must have got there.’

‘Must be.’

Kalia (Qualya) Beach which we went to is a private beach and we had to pay an admission fee of 35 Shekels per adult. It is also the closest beach to Jerusalem. The Kebabs I ate at the small restaurant on the beach were very, very, good.

Ethiopians in Israel

Apparently there are over 70,000 Ethiopians in Israel. One sees them everywhere doing menial jobs, sweeping the streets and shopping malls and the like. However, I did see a few Ethiopians doing white collar jobs. One of the receptionists at one of the hotels we stayed was Ethiopian. Once in Jerusalem, I had trouble setting the password in the hotel safe and a very smart female Ethiopian employee came over to help. I’m sure that the confidence she exuded could have come only from her time in the Israeli army.


Politically incorrect

I am worried I am giving the impression that I went around Israel asking people their religion and race. No, I did not. What usually happened was that we would be asked where we were from.

‘India,’ we would say. Sometimes, if we were not too tired, we would say, ‘We are Indians but we have lived in the UK for over 6 years now.’

After this we would usually be asked our religion.

Once we divulged the details of our personal beliefs, we would usually ask the interrogator if he/she had lived in Israel all his/her life. This usually resulted in a detailed explanation as to whether they were Arab Christian or Arab Muslim or Jewish.

Also in Nazareth, every taxi displayed the name and licence number of the taxi driver in English.

Sudanese community in Israel

One of the taxi drivers who took us around in Jerusalem turned out to be a Sudanese Muslim. I had wrongly assumed he was an Ethiopian. But no, he was a Sudanese. His father had migrated to Israel around 40 years ago.

‘Is there a big Sudanese community in Israel?’ I asked him.

He replied in the affirmative. I do know that of late many refugees from Sudan have entered Israel. However, I had no idea that there was a Sudanese community before that.

‘How many languages do you speak?’ I asked him.

‘Arabic, Hebrew and English.’

Arabic and Hebrew

Hebrew sounds remarkably similar to Arabic when it is spoken. I quizzed the Sudanese driver on how similar they are.

‘They are very similar,’ he told me. For example, you say Ras in Arabic for Head. In Hebrew you say Rosh.

Caught in between

After having heard from the Arab Christian guide in Bethlehem that he would prefer to be with Israel, I kept wondering if Arab Christians from Jerusalem felt the same. I posed this question to a taxi driver in Jerusalem after he confessed to being an Arab Christian. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ he told us. ‘We are caught in between. We are too small, too insignificant. The Muslims don’t like us and neither do the Jews.’

‘But what’s better? Israeli control or living under a Palestinian state?’

I got a shrug for an answer.

Public Transport


We were told that public transport in Israel is pretty good, but it took us a couple of days to find the courage to switch from taxis to buses. The main drawback in using public transport is that all signs on buses are in Hebrew and Arabic. There is nothing written in English, except for an occasional English sign at bus stations. We did not find many people who could speak fluent English on public buses, though there were lots of people willing to help.

We took a bus to Kalia beach on the Dead Sea and back to Jerusalem. A return ticket cost only 41 Shekels. The next day, a Thursday, we checked out of our hotel and took a bus to Afula, which was a short distance from Nazareth, our ultimate destination. There were no direct buses to Nazareth from Jerusalem. The buses are very similar to the ones in the UK with a large hold underneath where we could keep our luggage. We had been warned that Israeli bus drivers could be rude, but on the whole we found them to be polite and helpful (though their English was very rudimentary).

We reached Afula and enquired at the information counter for a bus to Nazareth.

‘Stand no 2’ we were told.

At stand no. 2, I asked a helpful looking teenage soldier, ‘do buses go to Nazareth from here?’

‘What?’

Nazareth,’ I said very slowly.

‘I don’t know.’ It sounded as if I was making up the name of a place.

‘Nazareth,’ I repeated.

Oh! Nazruth? Nazruth? Go there. Last stand.’ He pointed to a stand at the other end of the bus station.

We hesitated. The soldier gave us a look which said, ‘why did you ask me then?’

We looked at a middle-aged man standing nearby for help. He was only too willing.

‘Where are you from?’

‘India.’

‘Oh India. I love India.’

‘Have you been to India?’

‘No, but I want to visit.’

‘Can we get a bus to Nazareth from here?’

‘Not too sure. Let me see.’ He went to the information counter and came back and said, ‘yes, there is a bus to Nazareth from here at 13:15.’

‘That’s what we were told,’ I agreed happily.

‘He is also right.’ The man pointed to the soldier. ‘There’s another bus to Nazareth from that stand which goes to …’

‘We’ll stay here.’

When it was 13:20 and there was no sign of the bus, the middle-aged man suggested, ‘you could take a Sherut (a shared taxi which can take around 10 people) to Nazareth.’

We hesitated.

‘There’s a Sherut stand just outside. Only five minutes walking from here.’

We decided to give the Sherut a try.

As we walked out the station with our luggage and the baby in a pram, we asked for directions to the Sherut stand. A smart young man who spoke very good English told us, ‘it’s too far for you. With a baby and that suitcase, you should not…. Why don’t you take a bus?’

‘We waited so long for the Nazareth bus?’

‘But there’s another one. At 13:30 hours. You must go back. It’ll start from the last stand.’

We hesitated, but went back to the bus station. The middle-aged man was standing where we had left him. I rehearsed an explanation for having returned, but I need not have worried.

‘There’s a bus now. From the last stand. Go, go, go.’

We caught the bus just in time.

‘Where do you want to get off? Nazareth or Nazareth Illit?’ the bus driver asked us.

We told the driver the name of our hotel. He shrugged his shoulders.

‘What’s the difference between Nazareth and Nazareth Illit?’

Another shrug of the sholders.

We reached Nazareth in around 15 minutes., but did not get off. We finally got off at Illit and hailed a cab.

‘Twenty Five Shekels to ______ Hotel.’

We agreed. It turned out that our Hotel was in Nazareth itself. If only we had taken a taxi from Afula to Nazareth, we could have saved so much time and not spent much more than what we had spent on the bus and taxi fare.

Soldiers everywhere

The Israeli weekend is on Friday and Saturday on account of the Jewish Sabbath. When we travelled by bus from Jerusalem to Afula on a Thursday, the bus station was full of soldiers going home for the weekend. I suspect most of the solders were draftees performing their compulsory military service. They all appeared to be wonderfully young, the women looking radiant with all the right makeup and even designer glasses. The Uzi rifles did nothing to spoil their looks, though I saw a few uniforms crumbled on account of the appendage. Many of the men had kippas (thin, slightly-rounded skullcap traditionally worn by Orthodox Jewish men, stuck to the hair with a pin or slide), but I doubt if many of them are fanatic Jews since the usually extreme right wing Haredim don’t have to serve in the army.

A soldier sat in front of me on the bus, his rifle on his lap. After a while when I stretched my legs, my shoe hit something hard. I bent down to take a look at the obstruction. It was the soldier’s rifle which he had put under the seat.

I thought of requesting the soldier to move his rifle, but then decided against it. How often do I get the chance to rest my feet against the muzzle of an Uzi rifle?

I’m told that all men must serve 3 years in the Israeli Defence Forces after school and the women serve two years.

At the Afula bus station, a young and well dressed Haredi walked around asking for money – a posh way of begging I guess. I soldiers gave him short shift and ignored him completely.

One thing that stuck me about the soldiers was their easy camaraderie. This extended even to the officers. Earlier, outside the Western Wall in Jerusalem, I saw an officer speaking to a group of young soldiers in a manner not unlike that of a summer camp guide. I’m pretty sure that the Israeli army does not follow the horrid practice of making soldiers work for officers as batmen.

Nazareth and Nazareth Illit

Nazareth’s Arab and Jewish Quarters are divided by a road. The Jewish quarter is called Nazareth Illit. Nazareth Illit is a lot more prosperous and obviously a lot more public money has been spent on it.

Nazareth is an Arab town with a mixed population of Christians and Muslims. In 1948 when Israeli forces repulsed the joint offensive by various Arab states, they did their best to chase away or scare off Arabs living in Israel. However, the Arabs in the predominantly Arab Christian town of Nazareth were not hassled too much, mainly out of fear of Western criticism.

Nazareth is a beautiful town, as hilly as Jerusalem. It also has a historical and timeless look, especially because all the buildings are sandstone coloured. The main attraction is the Basilica of Annunciation built over the place where Virgin Mary is believed to have lived and where Angel Gabriel is said to have appeared to convey the news of Jesus’s birth. There is another church built on the place where Joseph is believed to have lived and worked as a carpenter. We also visited the Synagogue Church built over the Synagogue believed to have been visited by Jesus as a child and where Jesus is believed to have given his first sermon.

The Greek Orthodox Church believes that Angel Gabriel did not appear to Mary at her home. Instead, it was when Mary was beside a well that the news of Jesus’s birth was conveyed to her by Angel Gabriel. A Greek Orthodox Church stands at the spot where the well is believed to have existed.

We didn’t see a single beggar in Nazareth.

Different garbs of Virgin Mary

The Basilica of Annunciation has on its perimeter walls paintings and mosaics of Virgin Mary as portrayed in various countries. There wasn’t one from India, but the ones from Korea, Vietnam, Thailand etc. were very interesting since they showed Mary and Infant Jesus with Chinese/Mongoloid features and oriental attire.

Street Safety

One feels safe in Israel. I’m told that street crime is practically zero. There is no barrier between a taxi driver and his passengers. Bus drivers handle cash openly. At bus stations, luggage has to be put through an airport type scanner. One finds security guards and security checks everywhere. Before entering a shopping mall, handbags and backpacks are opened and scrutinised. One of the larger malls we visited in Jerusalem had a scanner. What I really liked was that every security guard was very well trained and seemed to know his or her job.

Chicken isn’t meat

After checking into our hotel in Nazareth, I went out to buy some food since my wife declared that she was too exhausted to move. I found a small restaurant not far from my hotel. I believe it was run by an Arab Christian since a portrait of the Virgin Mary figured prominently on the wall. I asked for a box of hommus, three pita breads, some falafels and pointing to some pieces of meat being fried on a pan, I asked for a few kebabs.

‘That’s not kebab,’ the cook told me.

‘Is it Shawarma? In any event, I’ll have that meat.’

‘That’s not meat,’ I was told.

‘What’s that then?’ That a die-hard carnivore like me could mistake meat for something else!

‘That’s chicken. Not meat.’

I didn’t understand. ‘I’ll have the chicken then,’ I said.

The whole stuff cost me 40 Shekels, half of what it would have cost in Jerusalem. The fried chicken was excellent. Later, an Israeli friend I met in Tel Aviv clarified that in Israel only lamb or beef is counted as meat. Chicken is just chicken.

Touring the Galilee

The next day we had to spend a couple of hours at the Hapoalim Bank since for some reason we were unable to withdraw money from cash machines using our debit or credit cards. A very smart Arab Muslim (I assume from his name tag) made a few phone calls and sorted our problem for us).

Since we had lost two hours, we gave up our plans to travel by bus and looked for a taxi. We found a driver who offered to take us around the Galilee for 500 Shekels – Kafr Kana, Tiberias, Mount Tabor, Tagba, Capernaum – there were so many places we had to see in a single day.

Kafr Kana or Cana is the place where Jesus is supposed to have converted water into wine – at a wedding when they ran out of wine. Capernaum is a small settlement on the shores of the Sea of Galilee where many of Jesus’s disciples lived. There are churches at all these places, each of which is an architectural beauty. At all these churches, just as in Jerusalem, there were masses of tourists, mainly from the USA, France, Italy and Spain


The driver took us to a restaurant overlooking the Sea of Galilee where my wife and I had a large St. Peter’s fish each. Though the fish was not as tasty as the Karimeen (Pearl Spot) one gets in Kerala, we had a spectacular sea view.

It is easy to forget what a small country Israel is. We covered the entire Galilee region in a day by the taxi we had hired and reached our hotel by 6 p.m.

Overheard from an American tourist sipping a small timble of exquisite Arabic coffee after her St. Peter’s fish: The first thing I’m gonna do when I get home is to make myself a large pot of kawffee.

Diana

One of the best meals we had in Israel was at this old Arab restaurant in Nazareth called Diana. Thought a bit expensive, the lamb kebabs cooked with pine nuts were out of the world. The simple entrees we had - cauliflower cooked in sesame seeds and a salad of finely chopped vegetables – were also very good.

Mount Tabor

Mount Tabor is the place where Jesus is supposed to have radiated light and had a conversation with two long-begone Prophets, Elijah and Moses, an event described as the Transfiguration of Christ. As was to be expected, a church stands at the spot on top of the hill where this event is supposed to have happened.

As the three of us entered the church, I thought I had be transported to some church in South India. Usually churches are empty except when a mass or service is being held. But in this church were thirty odd Indians, with the women mostly dressed in sarees and churidhars. Two of the men wore a double mundu. I sat next to one of them and asked where they were from. Kerala. Apparently they were part of a group being taken to the Holy Land by a tour company in Kochi. Each of them had shelled out INR 59,000 for the trip.

Everyone likes India

We did not meet a single Israeli, neither Arab nor Jew, who did not like India. We got many namastes, especially from youngsters who had holidayed in India after their military service.

Tourist left holding the bell

We were at a beautiful Greek Orthodox Church in Kafr Kana. Outside the beautiful church was an even more beautiful bell. As we stood near the bell, a couple of tourists walked up to it and rang it. We followed suit. I rang the bell once, my wife once again and then we handed the rope to my daughter who had been observing the proceedings very keenly. She tugged the rope once, looked delighted at the peal it produced, tugged it yet again and again. By the time she let go of the rope, the bell had been rung half a dozen times.

A middle-aged man, most probably yet another tourist, standing behind us decided to follow our example. With the air of a child being given a treat, he gripped the robe and was about to ring the bell when out came a priest. This priest yelled a string of obscenities (in what sounded like Arabic) at the middle-aged man who looked wonderstruck. He then managed to say, ‘I don’t understand what you are saying.’

‘You ring the bell so many times. Why? Why? Why?’

We did not wait to hear the explanation being offered. We left.

Potable water

We had been told that tap water in Israel is potable, but for the first two days in Jerusalem, we drank only bottled water. However, paying 5 Shekels for half a litre of water is not much fun and soon we started filling the empty bottles with tap water from the hotel and carrying them around. We did continue to give our baby daughter bottled water – there’s no point in pushing your luck too much. I’m happy to say that my wife and I did not suffer any ill effects as a result of this.

Mistrust and lack of communication

At Nazareth, my wife wanted to get a few of her dresses laundered and pressed. I called up the reception and asked them how much it would cost.

‘Bring the clothes to the reception,’ I was told in inimitable Israeli style. I surrendered and did what I was told.

‘When will I get them back?’

‘Tomorrow evening.’

‘Will they be dropped off in our room?’

‘You collect them from the reception.’

‘How much will this cost?’

‘You will know tomorrow when you collect.’

Since we didn’t have a choice, we left the clothes at the reception. The next day when we collected the clothes, we were told that the bill came to 22 Shekels, a measly amount by any standards.

Later in our room, my wife sighed and said, ‘they are not bad people. Just very badly organised.


Israeli waiters

Maybe it is the result of the mandatory military service performed by all Israelis, the Israeli waiter is the most unique creature in the hospitality industry worldwide. We stayed in three hotels in Israel during our stay and each of them provided us with a free buffet breakfast in the morning. The Head Waiters in the hotels at Jerusalem and Nazareth had a very standoffish air, not unlike that of a parent who is waiting for his kid to breach dinning etiquette so that he can reprimand him. I guess it is too much to expect men and women who have worn a uniform (and may be even had combat experience) to adopt a servile air when serving customers. But one gets used to certain things and it took a while to accustom ourselves to waiters who serve you as if they are doing you a big favour.

The only time we were asked for ‘Baksheesh’ was by an Arab waiter in an Arab run restaurant on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

Tel Aviv, however, was different. The waiters there were like waiters anywhere else in the world.

Haifa

We only spent half a day in Haifa on our way to Tel Aviv from Nazareth. Haifa is a port city which reminded me of Bombay. There are modern buildings and shopping malls. There are also many crumbling buildings. The Baha’i gardens on Mount Carmel – eighteen immaculately landscaped terraces – form the biggest landmark in Haifa. You need to book in advance to be allowed in and you are taken around in groups.

Haifa is a mixed city of Arabs and Jews. It is also apparently very tolerant. Recently there has been a spurt of hi-tech industries in Haifa and those office buildings reminded me of the Bandra Kurla Complex.

Shabbath

Egged, the main bus Company in Israel does not run its buses during the Shabbath. El Al does the same. Also there are no trains from 6 p.m. on Friday till 6 p.m. on Saturday.

We were in Nazareth on Friday evening and since it is predominantly Arab, all the shops were open. That evening, the prayers and sermons marking the month of Ramzan could be heard through loud speakers. Fire crackers were burst. On Saturday we travelled to Haifa on a bus run by an Arab bus company. A couple of Arab Christians got on the same bus, beer cans in hand. No one seemed to care.

From Haifa, we took a Sherut to Tel Aviv. In order to reach the Sherut Station at a place called Hadar, we had to find a cab. It took us 30 minutes to find a taxi. The taxi driver who took us to Hadar told us that though he was Jewish, he did not observe the Shabbath.

My advice to anyone (other than an observant Jew) travelling to Israel is to avoid being in Jerusalem during Shabbath. The best place to spend Shabbath is an Arab town like Nazareth. If possible avoid travel (other than by a pre-booked taxi).

Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv is as different from Jerusalem as chalk is from cheese. Whereas Jerusalem exudes sobriety and religion, Tel Aviv exudes fun and happiness. Unlike Jerusalem where most Jewish people seemed to be Haredim, we did not see more than a few Haredim in Tel Aviv. Even Kippas were not too much in evidence. The beach front at Tel Aviv could have been anywhere in the Mediterranean. It is filled with umbrellas and sun bathers and bronzed young men playing beach volleyball. The blocks of flats and offices on the beach front are as modern and posh as anywhere in the developed world.

But once you get past the beach front, Tel Aviv is as dirty as any other city in the world. There are buildings with crumbling facades which reminded me of buildings in and around Charni Road and Grant Road in Mumbai. We saw homeless drug addicts and alcoholics begging and living on the footpaths. There is also a vibrant air of industry and commerce and adventure, not unlike in Mumbai.

There is a profusion of all sorts of restaurants. Unlike in Jerusalem and Nazareth where most restaurants served traditional Hommus, Falafel, Shwarama and Kebabs, Tel Aviv has Italian, French, Chinese and Japanese and everything else one could think of.

I wouldn’t say that Tel Aviv is cosmopolitan in the way London or New York is. It has masses of tourists, but I don’t there are many non-Jewish people from other countries living and working in Tel Aviv.

On our last night in Israel, we met up at a beach side restaurant with a couple of Israeli friends who had studied with me at London University.

Meeting with a Gujarati Jew

We were travelling within Tel Aviv in a Sherut when we saw a man who looked definitely Indian.

‘Are you from India?’ he asked us first.

‘Yes we are. And you?’

It turned out that he was a Gujarati Jew who had migrated to Israel sixteen years ago when he was twenty one. Having served in the army, he was now married to an Israeli born woman whose father had once been the rabbi at the Synagogue in Kochi. We were told that that the Jewish Indian community was over 30,000 strong.

He spoke to us in halting English that was definitely Indian accented. However, when there was a small argument with the driver who was collecting 5.50 Shekels from each passenger, our friend broke into rapid fire Hebrew that sounded 100% kosher.

Shopping in Tel Aviv

Sheinkin street which runs off Allenby Street is the most posh street in Tel Aviv. It is a good place to shop if you are willing to pay top dollar or top Shekel for boutique designer brands. Also, just like the M.G Road in Bangalore, one gets to see smartly and fashionably dressed people. However, if you want cheap bargains, this is not the place to be. Every thing we saw on Shenkin street was expensive. There were boutique shops where the average price of a dress was 1000 Shekels.

On the other hand, Carmel market is a long and narrow alleyway where vendors sell fruits, vegetables, breads, leather goods, scarves, and the like. There was even a handicapped man begging for alms, the one and only case of justifiable begging I saw in Israel during my entire 8 day visit. I found that leather goods such as belts and wallets were of good quality and relatively cheap.

In all shapes, sizes and colours

Jews come in all shapes, sizes and colours. You have black Jews from Ethiopia, blond ones from Russia and sabras (named after a prickly pear native to Palestine) or native born Jews who are not much different from the Arabs. This flies in the face of the belief that Jews are a single race dispersed across various continents over time.

Uri Avnery, a famous left-wing Israeli journalist, has an explanation for this. In one of his articles titled the Lion and the Gazelle, Uri puts forth a simple thesis. Jews used to be a proselytising race and they converted people where ever they went. Which is why you have Ethiopian Jews who look very much black African and Russian Jews who look very much Russian. You can read this very interesting article here.

If Uri Avnery’s theory is accepted, it will be political dynamite since Israel has always allowed, encouraged and even assisted the migration of Jews to Israel. Arabs, even those who fled Israel after it was created, cannot do the same. If Jews scattered all over the world are only descendants of converts with little or no Semitic inheritance or genes, this ‘right of return’ will be hard to justify.

Should the desert be made to bloom?

Israel is a desert, but the landscape is dotted with olive trees and date palms. On the road from Haifa to Tel Aviv, I even saw large chunks of land with banana trees growing on them, covered in some form of netting. I believe the cost of all this is that there is now an acute shortage of water in Israel. According to this article in the Economist, agriculture consumes some 60% of the country's total of 2 billion cubic metres of water a year, but contributes less than 2% of GDP. Indeed, in this globalised economy, it sounds incredibly daft to grow bananas in Israel or even dates or figs when Israel is not a natural oasis. Wouldn’t it be better to focus on Israel’s core competence and import that fruits and vegetables it needs?

And what is Israel’s core competence? Hi-tech industries. One of my Israeli friends I met up with was telling about Better Place, an Israeli company founded by Shai Agassi that is in the process of setting up the infrastructure for a complete car system which will allow customers to drive electric cars within a national grid. This New York Times article by Thomas Friedman has all the details.

However, it must be admitted that the olive trees and date palms do give Israel a pleasant green look.


Hot, but not so hot

When we were in Israel, the temperature was in the mid-thirties. There is a total lack of humidity and one gets dehydrated very fast. We were told that one had to drink at least eight litres of water a day. Having said that, if one is used to the heat in Delhi or central India during summer, the heat in Israel is not too much to bear. In fact, a young shop assistant in Tel Aviv told me that when she was in Delhi on holiday (after her military service), she found it difficult to breathe on account of the heat.

Daylight Saving

Israel has daylight saving and as a result it is almost always only two hours ahead of the UK. I did wonder why a country on a latitude not so much different from northern India needed daylight saving. But then Jordan, Syria and Iran have daylight saving as well. I guess it is a regional thing.

A Final Conversation

The best conversation we had with an Israeli was the one with the taxi driver who drove us from Sheinkin Street to our Tel Aviv Hotel where we picked up our luggage and went on to the Airport. We negotiated a rate of 150 Shekels for the whole thing. Once the acrimonious negotiation was done, the driver became friendly. What’s more, he started singing a Hindi song once he had ascertained that we were Indians.

‘Dil dekhe dekho, dil dekhe dekho, dil dekhe dekhojee …..’

After a few minutes spent complimenting the driver on his Hindi, I asked him, ‘do you like Hindi films a lot.’

‘Of course. They show it in our theatres. We also have channel for Hindi movies. It’s called Bombay.’ Later a google search told me that there are two channels in Israel for Indian movies, namely ‘Hot Bombay’ and ‘Yes India’

‘Which actor do you like the most?’

‘That tall one. His name is …..’

The driver was delighted when we supplied the name.

‘Do you like him as well?’

‘Of course we do. All Indians like Amitabh Bhachchan’.

The conversation then turned to him. He had been a taxi driver for 32 years now. Before that he had served in the army. He had two daughters and four grandchildren.

‘Were you in the army during the Yom Kippur war?’ I asked him.

‘Yes, I was. I drove a truck which supplied ammunition to tanks.’

‘It was a tough war wasn’t it? It didn’t go very well for Israel in the beginning, did it?’ I asked. Egypt and Syria has launched a surprise attack on Israel in 1973 during the Yom Kippur holiday and Israel had been taken unawares. It was with a great deal of difficulty that Israel managed to regain the territory lost in the initial Arab onslaught.

The driver misunderstood my question. ‘All wars are bad. Even if we win, it is still bad. All fights are bad. If I fight you and I win, is it a good thing?’

‘So you think Israel should make a settlement with the Palestinians?’ I asked him.

‘Of course, we should.’

‘Even give up land in exchange for peace?’

‘Why not?’

We found ourselves warming up to this man. I hoped that there were a lot of Israelis like him.

‘Do you drive to the West Bank?’ I asked him. I wanted him to say that as an Israeli he could not do so, but that he would like to. But his reply caught me unawares.

‘No, I never take on Arabs. It is very dangerous.’

‘You never take Arabs in your cab?’

‘No never. Sometimes they take out a knife and attack the taxi driver. Sometimes they take you to a place where one of their friends will attack you and take your taxi.’

‘How do you know if a man is an Arab or a Jew?’

‘Of course I know.’ He laughed.

‘So you have never driven to the West Bank?’ I still liked the driver and wanted him to say that once there was peace, he would be able to do so.

‘I have. But only with Jews.’ It then dawned on me that Israeli drivers would be able to drive to Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Despite the way this conversation ended, I still liked this driver.

Ancient Rivalry

The rivalry between Arabs and Jews dates back to the times of the first Jewish King Saul who battled the Philistines (Palestinians) repeatedly and finally committed suicide on the battlefield rather than be captured. His son-in-law David had slain the Philistines’ champion fighter Goliath. When David became the second King of the Kingdom of Israel, he had a better track record that Saul and Israel expanded. David’s son Solomon, King Solomon the Wise, made Israel or Zion even bigger and stronger. Solomon, referred to as Suleiman in Arabic, built the first Jewish temple on Temple Mount in the 10th Century BC. Solomon’s heirs could not fill his shoes and the Kingdom of Israel fell on bad times. The final blow came from Nebuchadnezzar, the great Babylonian king who destroyed the first temple and enslaved the Jews.

This ancient rivalry continues even now. There is so must distrust and hatred between the two communities that it doesn’t make any sense to expect them to start loving each other anytime in the near future. It was this pragmatic view point which made the UN vote for the creation of Israel. However, things can’t go on as they are. Many Jews who migrated to Israel are leaving for greener pastures. Arabs currently form around 20% of Israel’s population. Soon they will outnumber the Jews in Israel, despite heroic efforts by the Haredim in matching them in child production.

The British were able to make a civilised exit from India due to the presence of the Indian National Congress. The Palestinians too had relatively secular outfits, the PLO and its political wing, the Fatah Movement, even though these were not particularly peaceful. Having undermined these organisations, the Israelis now have to deal with the likes of Hamas (Sunni) and the Hizbollah (Shi’ite). I don’t think it is possible to set the clock back and strengthen the Fatah which is unbelievably corrupt. Various Arab countries have done their best to ensure that there is no peaceful resolution to this conflict. For example, Jordan has made sure that the Palestinian refugees in Jordan remain in refugee camps rather than integrate them into Jordanian society. It would be too much to expect the Arab states to pitch in for peace.

Maybe the Israelis could focus on increasing economic activity among ordinary Israeli Arabs and making the West Bank and the Gaza Strip prosperous. An increase in wealth and economic activity will discourage the creation of martyrs. In the long run, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip could turn out to be prosperous autonomous zones under Israel’s security umbrella

Shalom (Peace be with you), Toh-dah (thanks), Le׳hitra׳ot (Good-bye) and B'hatzlacha Good Luck)

Brilliante Weblog Award


There are times when one does not get what one deserves and there are times when one gets what one does not deserve. It’s always a pleasant surprise when the latter event occurs. My friend and fellow blogger who goes by the e-name MumbaiGirl has decided to honour me with the Brilliante Weblog award. Unfortunately when it was announced, I was away on holiday and it has therefore taken me a while to acknowledge this. Thank you MumbaiGirl. I hope I live up to the faith you have shown in me.

One of the conditions of this award is that I must honour a few others with this award. So, here goes:

Chandrahas Choudhury, a brilliant critic and an excellent writer, who is waiting for his first novel to be published by a leading publisher

Bhaskar DasGupta, whose blog throws up excellent articles on political and economic issues

Shantanu Dutta, a doctor by training who has opted to work in the charity sector

Richard Marcus, blogger par excellence, one whose quality is never affected by quantity

Sujatha Bagal, mother of two, ex-corporate lawyer, who will hopefully start blogging again

Viju Hegde, she of the sharp incisors and biting comments, with an uncanny ability to get to the point

Jo, my very musically inclined friend

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Short Story: A SUITABLE FATHER

It was a quiet Sunday morning in Mumbai and the silence inside the flat was broken only by the chortling noises which the baby made. Jaimon and Lincy were supposed to be celebrating their third wedding anniversary. But they had quarrelled violently the previous night when Jaimon got home from work and there was little likelihood of them making up in the next few days. It was not really his fault, Jaimon told himself. He had done his best to avoid working on the day of their anniversary. However, one of the biggest clients of the agency whose account he handled, was planning a blitzkrieg of TV and newspaper advertisements to herald the launch of a new car. All the three Account Executives who were assigned to that client were working overtime. Some of the best creative people at the agency were assigned to work on the launch. In a few hours time, Jaimon had to go to the Marine Drive where a sixty second commercial was being shot by one of the most brilliant (though painful and irritating) directors Jaimon ever had the pleasure of working with. Why on earth did Lincy have to be so much high-maintenance? Jaimon asked himself. Especially since he had told her so very clearly before their wedding that he had long and disorganised working hours.

‘Do you want some toast?’ Jaimon asked Lincy. Lincy did not reply and continued to sulk. Jaimon went to the kitchen and popped a couple of slices of bread into the toaster. He then opened the fridge and took out the jam and cheese spread. It was actually quite unfair to go to work on a Sunday which also happened to be his wedding anniversary. After finishing his toast, Jaimon dumped the plate in the sink and got dressed. He decided to give Lincy another chance. After all, it was their wedding anniversary. He went up to her as she sat with the baby on her lap. ‘Lincy, as soon as this launch gets over, we’ll go out and have a ball.’

‘After your precious launch gets over, you can go have a ball yourself,’ Lincy retorted. At least she broke her silence, Jaimon thought as he tried to find his watch. Why couldn’t Lincy understand that he was an Accounts Executive and he worked for one of the biggest advertising agencies in India?

‘Have you seen my watch?’ he asked Lincy.

‘Why can’t you keep your watch in the same place every night? What makes you think your wife is your servant?’

‘Come on, are you telling me that I treat you like a servant?’

‘MCPishness runs in your blood,’ Lincy declared.

‘Come on, come on. I am not an MCP,’ Jaimon said with a laugh. ‘In fact none of the men in my family are MCPs. Daddy was not an MCP.’

‘In that case, why can’t you get your mother to marry again? Why should she be a widow all her life?’

It took a few seconds for Lincy’s question to sink in. ‘Mind your business,’ Jaimon told her as he controlled the anger in his voice. ‘What makes you think Mummy wants to get married again?’ Nobody had ever suggested that his mother ought to remarry.

‘How do you know she doesn’t? Just because she is silent …’

‘Mind your business, just mind your business,’ Jaimon screamed without raising his voice too much. He slammed the door behind him and walked off to the station. Since it was a Sunday, he had the first class compartment all to himself. Once the train started moving, Jaimon called Julie from his mobile. Julie answered the phone promptly. Jaimon could hear his nephew and niece arguing about something in the background.

‘I just thought of something,’ Jaimon told Julie after the initial exchange of pleasantries.

‘Does a man who has to work on a Sunday have time to think?’

‘Listen, do you think Mummy would ever want to remarry? I mean, we’ve never asked her. Do you think we should ask her?’

There was stunned silence for a few seconds and then Julie said, ‘of course not. Never. Mummy would never want to remarry.’

Jaimon was relieved to note that Julie found the idea as unappealing as he did. There was no question of finding a replacement for Daddy. Which was not very surprising since Julie was his twin sister and they thought alike in so many respects.

‘Why did you think of something as ridiculous as this?’ Julie demanded heatedly after the initial shock and surprise.

Jaimon considered explaining that it was Lincy who had raised the point, but changed his mind. A man was not supposed to find fault with his wife in public, even if she was actually at fault.

‘It just occurred to me,’ Jaimon said lamely.

‘You’re lying. Did Lincy ask you this question?’ Julie had never vibed with Lincy who came from a totally different background. Lincy’s father was a colonel in the army and she had spent her entire childhood and youth in various parts of India. In the initial year of her marriage to Jaimon, she found it difficult to form a relationship with any of Jaimon’s relatives, especially with Julie who had lived in Kerala all her life. Lincy had issues even with Jaimon, despite the fact that he had done his undergraduate studies in Bangalore and his masters from MICA.

‘How does it matter? I’m glad you agree with me.’ Jaimon was quite relieved that he had found common cause with Julie.

‘Shall I ask mother?’ Julie wanted to know. Jaimon mulled it over for a few seconds and said, ‘it might upset her.’

‘May be it won’t.’

‘No, don’t ask her,’ he told Julie.

‘I won’t,’ Julie agreed and Jaimon knew that she was planning to ask their mother. He wondered how long Julie would take to go to Simhapara and ask their mother if she wanted to remarry. She wouldn’t do it over the phone. She would want to see the expression on their mother’s face when she asked something like this. Most probably Julie would catch a bus to Simhapara tomorrow after sending the kids off to school and her husband to his office.

Jaimon's instincts turned out to be right. Julie called him up Monday evening while he was in a cab, on his way back to office after attending a meeting.

‘Do you know what I did?’ Julie asked him.

‘Did you visit Mummy?’

‘I did. I just got back home.’

‘And you asked her?’

‘I did.’

‘And what did she say?’

‘She didn’t say No!’

Jaimon was shocked. He had been sure that their mother would be revolted by the very idea of marrying someone else. Their father might be dead, but their mother was still his father’s wife.

‘What did she say?’ he asked Julie.

‘She said she didn’t particularly want to get married once again, but she was worried she would have to live on her own and maybe become a burden to me and to you and..’

‘And what?’

‘She said maybe it was not such a bad idea.’

‘So, she didn’t say No.’

‘On the contrary, I got the feeling she was waiting to be asked.’

‘Don’t do anything, okay? Let’s think about it. Okay? Don’t panic.’

‘You’re the one panicking.’

‘I’m not.’ The cab passed under a bridge and the call was cut off. Jaimon plunked the mobile into his pocket and sank back into his seat.

Jaimon’s father had died five years ago after a sudden heart attack. Both he and Julie were devastated, though not to the extent their mother was. Two years before his father died, Julie had been married off to a journalist who worked for a newspaper in Kottayam. Jaimon had passed out of MICA a year earlier and started working in Mumbai. As a junior executive, Jaimon was expected to put in the hours and it was almost impossible for him to take any time off to visit his mother who was now on her own. It was left to Julie to visit their mother as often as possible and give her some company. Their extended family did their best to make things easy for their mother. Their mother’s elder sister, a nun, whom Jaimon and Julie called Sister Aunty, visited their mother as often as she could. Other than Sister Aunty and a brother who lived in the US, their mother did not have any other close relatives. His father’s younger brother and wife lived close by and they invited their mother to move into their house. Their mother had declined the offer. The house they lived in had too many memories for her. It took their mother a couple of years to pull herself together and get on with life. They owned almost twenty acres of land in and around Simhapara. The largest piece, which adjoined their house, was six acres. The rest of it was scattered in various places in Kottayam and Iddukki districts. Their mother soon got used to a lonely life. Taking care of the property took up all her time. Widow remarriage was not very common among Syrian Catholics and Jaimon and Julie and the rest of their relatives took it for granted that Achamma did not want to remarry. Not even their mother’s family mentioned it as a possibility.

Jaimon and Julie did not speak to each other till the next weekend came up.

‘Listen, if Mummy wants to get married, then we need to find someone for her to marry,’ Julie told Jaimon. It seemed as if Julie found the idea of a step father more palatable than Jaimon did.

‘Give me some time okay? I am busy with a launch and …’

‘You’ll always be busy with something. Once a decision has been taken, it’s just a question of implementing it.’

‘We haven’t decided anything,’ Jaimon objected.

‘Who are we to decide? Mummy has told us what she feels. It’s her life. Her decision.’

That night Jaimon told Lincy what had happened. ‘I knew it all along,’ she told him.

‘How did you know?’ Jaimon wanted to know.

‘I just knew.’ She wouldn’t say anything more. Most probably Lincy found it easy to look at their mother more objectively than they did, Jaimon thought.

Monday afternoon, Jaimon received an email from Julie. Does this sound right? The email asked him and there was an html link below that. Jaimon clicked on the link which took him to a matrimonial site where Julie had created an advert on behalf of their mother. Widow aged fifty three, looks younger, two adult children, looks for a suitable partner. The partner specifications were quite brief. Any one who was a Syrian Catholic and spoke Malayalam could apply. He could be of any height. Could be a vegetarian or a non-vegetarian. A drinker or a teetotaller. Of any age. Their mother’s potential partner could be a widower or a divorcee or might have never married.

Has this been activated? Jaimon emailed back.

Yes, but I can always modify it, Julie replied.

I think we don’t want a divorcee or someone shorter than Mummy.

Why not? Julie emailed back.

Listen, I have a lot of work to do. I will call you on my way home, Jaimon replied.

Jaimon changed his mind and decided not to call Julie while going home on the train. What they had to talk about was not something he wanted anyone else to overhear. Granted that they always talked in Malayalam, it was still possible that a fellow Malayalee sitting close by would have some fun at his expense. Or rather at his mother’s expense. It was almost ten by the time Jaimon got home. His dinner was on the table. Lincy had gone to bed with the baby. Jaimon dialled Julie’s home number and his brother-in-law picked up the phone.

‘How are things with you?’ Jaimon asked politely.

‘I’ll call Julie,’ his brother-in-law said before adding, ‘yeah, I’m fine. We’re all fine.’ Which meant Julie had discussed the issue with her husband.

As soon as Julie was on the phone, Jaimon asked her, ‘did you consult Mummy before posting that this online?’

‘No, but I am going to visit her tomorrow. I’ll explain to her what I’m doing.’

‘Do you know what sort of person we should be looking for?’

‘Someone who will take care of Mummy?’

‘Agreed. But what sort of person? Someone who has children from a previous marriage?’

‘Why not?’ Julie said slowly. The idea that they could end up with step-brothers or step-sisters was quite a novel one.

‘I still think we should rule out divorcees,’ Jaimon said. ‘Can you change that ad’s settings so that divorcees are ruled out?’

‘What if it is good divorcee? I mean, someone who got divorced for a valid reason?’

‘Even if it is good divorcee, I don’t think Mummy would want to live with someone who has a living ex-wife. Imagine, Mummy and our step-father run into our step-father’s ex-wife at the movie theatre!’

‘You have a point. But what’s the harm in receiving a response from a divorcee? We can always ignore any response we get from divorcees.

‘Have you got any response so far?’

‘None!’

‘Listen, speak to Mummy tomorrow and find out what exactly she has in mind. The little thief! Just to think that she wants to remarry!’

Jaimon ate his dinner quickly and slipped into bed beside Lincy. Lincy woke up and told him, ‘Were you on the phone? Did you speak to Julie?’

‘I’ll tell you tomorrow. Go to sleep now,’ he told her. His reply angered Lincy who turned over to the other side. Jaimon could not bring himself to forgive Lincy for having suspected that his mother might want to remarry.

The next day evening, Jaimon called up Julie on his way home. He was sandwiched between two corpulent men, neither of whom was a Malayalee. ‘Did you speak to mother?’

‘Yes, I did.’

‘And what did she say?’

‘She doesn’t mind the internet ad.’

‘I mean, what sort of guy does she want?’ It felt ridiculous to ask such a question. Jaimon could remember his father asking Julie something similar when they were trying to find her a groom.

‘She says she doesn’t have any particular preferences. She doesn’t want a divorcee though.’

‘See, I told you.’

‘She says we ought to consult with all the elders in the family before doing anything more.’

The normally quiet first class compartment was filled with a loud noise as the train stopped at a station. Jaimon disconnected and then called Julie once more after the train left the noisy station behind.

‘She says we ought to consult with all the elders in the family before we do anything’ Julie repeated. It was a valid point and Jaimon had thought of it.

‘I’ll have to come there and talk to everyone.’

‘Yes, you should. Time you took a break from work as well.’ The launch was scheduled to take place in a week’s time. Once that was done, he was due some leave.
‘I can come there by the end of this month.’

‘Can you come for a fortnight?’

‘I doubt it. In any event, I won’t need a week to talk to everyone. And if there is a wedding or something, I will have to take more leave.’ The word ‘wedding’ did not slip of his tongue easily.

‘And you may have to be around to meet potential grooms.’

‘Yeah, we’ll have to vet them, won’t we? We know what’s best for Mummy!’ Julie giggled at Jaimon’s joke.

The man sitting opposite Jaimon showed some signs of amusement. Was he listening to what Jaimon was saying? The man wore a safari suit and looked like a government employee from Mantralaya. He was unlikely to be a Malayalee, but one never knew. ‘I’ll call you later. Okay.’ Jaimon hung up. The man opposite him continued to look amused, even after Jaimon put his phone away.

When he got home, he told Lincy, ‘We are going home by the end of this month. For a week.’ Lincy did not reply immediately, but he could sense that she was not so angry with him. Later that night, he made up with Lincy. ‘I’m so sorry. I’ve been so grumpy of late,’ he told her.

‘I understand. You are under so much pressure.’

‘I’ll book the tickets sometime tomorrow.’

‘It will be raining when we get there.’ Which was true. The rains always set in, in the first week of June.

‘I don’t mind the rains, you know.’

‘I just hope the trains run properly.’ The rains were always welcome, but it was common for tracks to get flooded during the monsoon.

‘What does Mummy have to say?’ Lincy asked Jaimon. Jaimon recounted all that had happened so far. ‘I just find it difficult to believe that Mummy wanted to remarry and none of us guessed it.’

‘It is very difficult to explain. I think she has reached a stage where she feels she needs someone to look after her.’

‘Maybe if we lived with her, she wouldn’t have felt so.’

‘Yeah, you could join a leading advertising agency in Simhapara and take care of Mummy as well.’ Jaimon laughed at Lincy’s joke. Maybe he ought to have brought his mother to live with them at Mumbai. It was too late for that now.

‘If I were to die, would you remarry?’ Jaimon asked Lincy.

‘I don’t think so. I wouldn’t trust another man to look after my daughter.’

‘Come on, how can you say that?’

‘But it’s true.’

‘So by the same logic, if you were to die, I shouldn’t remarry either.’

‘No, you should. You will have to find some one you like, who is also willing to take care of our baby.’

‘So you won’t find someone who will take care of the baby, but I will?’

‘I won’t take the risk. Generally men are bad at taking care of somebody else’s children.’

‘So you would never remarry?’

‘I might, after our girl grows up.’

As Jaimon went to sleep, he thought that he would never understand women.

Two days later, he got an email from Julie saying, ‘not a single response so far.’

Jaimon was bemused. He called up Julie immediately. ‘Any idea why?’ he asked her.

‘I’ve looked at other profiles on that website. They’ve all put up photographs, written long descriptions and ..’

‘Do you think we should put up Mummy’s photo on the internet?’

‘Of course not.’ The idea was abhorrent to them both.

‘Some of the profiles on that site, the younger ones especially, have put up an album of photographs, in various poses and dresses.’ Jaimon was silent. He remembered being shown Lincy’s photographs by the broker who had arranged his marriage. There was one in which Lincy wore a saree, another in which she wore a pair of jeans and a third one in a churidhar. Had they done the same for Julie? No, but Julie’s wedding had been many years before his wedding and the practice of having a set of photographs had not yet evolved. However, they had spent a lot of effort in getting a very good photograph taken.

‘Shall I remove Mummy’s profile from that site? Julie asked him.

‘Yes. That’s the best thing to do for the moment. After I come there, we can make some other plans.’

As planned, Jaimon, Lincy and the baby went to Simhapara in the beginning of June. The rains had set in a few days earlier. The red earth of Simhapara took on a darker hue. The millions of rivulets that formed all over Simhapara poured into the river which was now a raging torrent. People carried their umbrellas everywhere. Men usually had black umbrellas while woman and children had umbrellas of various colours. Despite the fact that Jaimon could smell the wet red earth, he was not comfortable. Home wasn’t really a haven anymore. Soon, someone else would take his father’s place. Would he still want to visit Simhapara once that happened?

Jaimon thought his mother looked shy when she received them. He pretended to be happy with her decision. ‘You’re looking like a young bride,’ he told her. His mother must have felt that Jaimon wasn’t too happy with her decision. She accepted his compliment with a smile that did not reach her eyes. Julie was there to receive them when they arrived, though she left for Kottayam that very evening. The house was split into two camps. Jaimon and Julie formed a team, while their mother was on the other side. Lincy found a bond with her mother-in-law that hadn’t existed before. Very few words were exchanged between them, but they both knew that they were a team. Amidst all the chitchat and small talk, Jaimon found himself critically assessing his mother. She was still good looking. She was quite plump, having put on a fair amount of weight in the last few years. Half her hair was grey. Maybe she could dye it black, as she used to when their father was alive, Jaimon thought. Oh shut up! he told himself.

His father’s younger brother came straight to the point as soon as Jaimon told him everything. ‘Just make sure that you and Julie don’t lose the land.’

‘The land?’

‘Your twenty acres. You and Julie ought to inherit it. If your mother marries someone, there is a good chance that you may not get your land.’

‘Why do you say that Uncle?’

‘Imagine, if your mother were to marry a widower with a couple of sons and they all live in Kerala, then …’

‘Then what, Uncle?’

‘Then you and Julie can kiss your land goodbye. Listen, I am not saying that Achamma chechy should not remarry. There’s nothing wrong in that. But we need to make sure that her husband does not steal your land.’

‘How do we do that?’

‘We need to make sure that the man she marries is not someone who covets your land.’ Which still did not answer his question, but Jaimon didn’t pursue it any further.

None of their relatives had any serious objection to the idea being floated. Achamma’s relatives were quite happy that she was to remarry. By the time it was time for Jaimon and Lincy to leave, it was agreed that all the elders would look out for a groom, through word of mouth.

‘And if that doesn’t work, we’ll place an ad in the Deepika,’ Achamma’s elder sister told Jaimon. Rashtra Deepika is a Malayalam daily run by the Catholic Church in Kerala and most Catholic households in Kerala subscribe to it.

The day before their departure, Jaimon, Lincy and the baby went to Julie’s house at Kottayam and spent the night there. Julie’s husband was a silent and reserved man who made it a point to pretend to be busier than he actually was. After dinner he claimed that he had an hour’s work to do and disappeared into his study. But he was otherwise quite pleasant to Jaimon.

The next day morning after breakfast, Jaimon and his brother-in-law were in the drawing room by themselves for a brief while. ‘It’s a wise decision you are making. It’s best to get your mother married off while she is young. I mean, after she is older, when she needs someone to take care of her, if you try to find a groom for her at that stage …’ Jaimon wanted to punch his brother-in-law in his face. His brother-in-law realised that he was on the wrong track and coughed to cover his embarrassment. Jaimon maintained his smile while his brother-in-law searched for and found a cigarette, which he lit up.

‘I don’t know when I will be able to come back. But if there is an emergency, I will some how return,’ Jaimon told Julie when they were leaving.

A month later the first serious proposal came through. The proposed groom was a man who worked in Dubai. He was a single man who had never married. It was a marriage broker who brought forward the proposal. The groom-to-be was scheduled to visit Kerala in a month’s time. He was fifty seven years old. He was an accountant and worked for an auction house in Dubai. He had lived in Dubai for over thirty years and he was planning to come back to Kerala for good, get married and settle down with his wife.

‘I’ll somehow have to get leave,’ Jaimon told Lincy. But he ran into trouble at his office. He had just taken a week off just a month ago and his boss was unwilling to let him take another week off. ‘Unless you really think you need to take leave,’ his boss added. Since the next round of promotions and pay hikes was only a month away, Jaimon did not press his case and decided to catch a flight for a weekend trip. If only he could explain why he wanted to go home, things would be easier. But Jaimon had decided that none of his friends should know of his mother’s wedding plans.

‘Please make sure he turns up on a Saturday evening,’ Jaimon begged Julie.

On the appointed day, Jaimon left for Santacruz to catch an early morning flight to Kochi. The flight was delayed by a couple of hours and the taxi ride from Nedumbassery airport to Simhapara took much longer than the usual three hours due to a few bad traffic jams on the way. Jaimon finally reached Simhapara at four thirty in the evening. The groom-to-be was scheduled to arrive at five. His mother was dressed in a simple aqua blue chiffon saree and looked very elegant. There was very little trace of a grieving widow, Jaimon thought. Or maybe he was being too harsh on his mother. She was definitely looking unsettled and apprehensive, without any of the happy anticipation of a young bride. Julie and Sister Aunty had made a tactical decision to not to dye her hair.

Jaimon hugged his mother without saying a word. Was it just his imagination or did his mother hug him for an extra second? Julie’s husband was also there with their children and Julie looked quite apprehensive. In fact, she looked a lot more nervous than their mother. Sister Aunty was also around. His father’s brother was notable by his absence.

‘Do you want to shower and change?’ Julie asked Jaimon.

‘No, I don’t have the time. It’s four thirty already.’

All of them except Julie’s husband were nervous as if they were waiting for the results of a school exam. Even Julie’s children sat in their seats quietly without making their usual racket.

‘How are things in Bombay?’ Julie’s husband asked Jaimon. It was a question meant to kill time and Jaimon merely grunted. Julie got up and switched on the TV. Her husband picked up the remote control and started to flip through the channels. He did it at a steady rate, a new channel every five seconds or so.

‘Have you decided on things?’ Sister Aunty asked Jaimon.

‘What things?’

‘Property.’ Despite being a nun, she was quite wise to the ways of the world. ‘Does you mother get any property?’

‘She is entitled to a third of what Daddy left behind,’ Jaimon told his aunt.

‘We should make it clear that the land will only be in her name. It is not a dowry to be transferred to the groom.’ Julie’s husband added. It slowly sunk into Jaimon that there could be men wanting to marry his mother solely for her dowry. How did he behave when he got married? No, they had not negotiated hard for a dowry. In fact, they had accepted what Lincy’s family offered them. He had got ten lakhs, which was more or less the market rate for a Syrian Catholic groom in his position. In addition, Lincy had been given gold ornaments worth three lakhs. Julie too had been married off without much acrimony over dowry. She had been paid – how much was it – six lakhs or so and gold ornaments worth another two lakhs? That was seven years ago. Would his mother’s wedding be the first instance of a dowry dispute in his family?

‘If ever we get the impression that they are greedy for money, we will call it off,’ Jaimon declared.

‘Relax Aliya,’ his brother-in-law patted him on the back. ‘It’ll all work out.’ Jaimon grunted once more.

‘I’ve been praying everyday ever since we all decided that Achamma should remarry. It’ll all work out fine,’ Sister Aunty said soothingly.

The groom-to-be arrived promptly at five accompanied by the marriage broker. Jaimon was quite relieved to note that though he was not very tall and was balding, he looked quite respectable. The sort of man whom he could introduce to his friends as his step-father. Jaimon found himself liking the chap.

‘I’m called Sonny at home. But my real name is Jacob George.’ They introduced themselves to Sonny. Jaimon wasn’t sure how to address Sonny. His brother-in-law seemed to read his thoughts. ‘We’ll call you Uncle. It’s a bit too early to call you Daddy,’ Jaimon’s brother-in-law told Sonny on behalf of them all.

‘What should they call me?’ Sonny demanded looking at Julie’s children.

‘They will call you veliya-uncle. And if things work out, they can switch to veliya-appachan.’

Sonny did not have the arrogance which many Gulfies did, despite the fact that he had been there for over thirty years. ‘I didn’t want to get married and wasn’t planning to. But my parents have been pestering me for too long to get married and I’ve also realised that …. that being single is not such a great idea.’

‘What are your hobbies?’ Sonny asked Achamma shyly. Achamma blushed. Jaimon felt irritated for a few seconds and then relaxed. ‘……..cooking, watching TV............’

‘So you can knit, can you? I’ve never known anybody who could do that. I thought only people in western countries knitted.’

What other hobbies did his mother list out while he was feeling irritated? So his mother would soon be cooking for this man or someone else like him. Jaimon found that he did not find the idea unbearable. Why not? He was going to be struck in Mumbai for a while. Julie was married off to a good man. Why shouldn’t their mother find some companionship?

Sonny had a thick silver moustache which sort of compensated for the lack of hair on his head. The sun glistened off his bald plate as he explained the sort of work he did at the auction house in Dubai.

‘Jaimon’s father left behind twenty acres of land. Achamma will be getting one-third of that.’ Sister Aunty informed Sonny.

‘That’s okay Sister,’ Sonny very politely told Sister Aunty. 'Property is not an issue for me. I have made enough money in Dubai.’ They all breathed a sigh of relief. It was not unheard of for filthy rich people to demand a lot of dowry.

After that things went wrong. ‘So, how do you like the idea of living in Dubai?’ Sonny asked Achamma to their consternation.

‘But Uncle, we thought you’re coming back to Kerala for good?’ Jaimon said.

‘Oh no! Did they say that? Is that what you’ve told them? Sonny turned to the broker.

‘That’s what your folks told me initially,’ the broker told Sonny. He then turned to Jaimon and said, ‘it was only today morning on our way here that I got to know of Sonny-chayan’s new plans.’

‘But these are not new plans! I’ve always said I want to work in Dubai till my retirement. At my firm, the retirement age is sixty two. That’s another five years away. I mean, my mother does want me to come back for good immediately, but that’s not something I’ve ever agreed to.’

‘What does it matter?’ the broker turned to them. ‘Dubai is not like Saudi Arabia. Women can live there with a reasonabe degree of freedom. Sonny-chayan is willing to take his wife with him. So, there’s no problem at all.’

‘We’ll have to think about it,’ Julie spoke solemnly. ‘I am not sure Mummy can live overseas. She has never travelled outside Kerala in her whole life.’

‘Think it over by all means,’ Sonny told them. ‘Dubai is a very decent place to live in.’

‘Why don’t we adjourn to the dining room for some tea,’ Jaimon’s aunt declared and changed the topic.

That night after they had had dinner, Jaimon’s uncle and aunt arrived. ‘How did it go?’ he asked them

‘The boy is okay. A decent chap. But he wants to work in Dubai for another five years before he comes back and settles down.’

‘And will he visit his wife once a year? Why should our Achamma chechy at her age marry a man whom she will see once a year?’

‘No, he wants to take her to Dubai, with him.’

‘Oh my God! Was that man serious? How can Achamma chechy go and live in Dubai?’

‘And what about property? Did you spell it all out?’

‘I did Uncle. I told them that Mummy is entitled to one third of what Daddy has left behind.’

‘And did you tell them that the property will have to revert to you and Julie after your Mummy’s demise?’

‘No, I did not tell them that.’

‘You ought to have done that. What if your step-father survives your mother? The property will pass to him. After that he can will it to whomever he wants. You ought to think of all these things. Didn’t we discuss all this?’

‘I don’t think we discussed the second bit. But it doesn’t matter. I don’t see this working out. I can’t even imagine Mummy going off to live in Dubai with a stranger.’

Both sides struck to their guns and the proposal came to nothing. Jaimon and Julie were adamant that their mother would not be packed off to Dubai, while Sonny was definite that he would not pack up from Dubai for another five years.

Jaimon’s aunt was so incensed by what she termed Sonny’s double speak that she immediately placed an advert in the Rashtra Deepika. Within a week of the advert appearing, they got three responses. One of them was clearly unsuitable for Achamma – the groom-to-be had had an accident a few years ago which killed his wife and crippled him for life. He was now looking for a wife with whom he could swap a few jokes and who would take care of him for the rest of his life. ‘We didn’t even bother to reply suggesting they hire a nurse,’ Julie told Jaimon over the phone in suppressed anger. ‘To think that Mummy would marry someone like that.’ The other two were possibilities. One came from a wealthy landlord who lived nearby at a place called Changanacherry. His wife had died many years ago and he had three children, the youngest of whom was only twelve. The other was from a man who owned a restaurant in Kochi. Both the candidates were to ‘see’ Achamma in two weeks’ time. Jaimon managed to get a week’s leave and booked his ticket to Kottayam. While Jaimon was away, Lincy and the baby were to travel to Pune where Lincy’s parents lived.

Disaster struck Jaimon a week before he was scheduled to go on leave. The car manufacturer, one of the most important clients of his agency, threatened to move to another agency. The launch of the new car had not apparently gone off too well. A damage control exercise was launched and Jaimon’s leave was cancelled.

‘But I do need to go,’ Jaimon pleaded with his boss.

‘Our necks are on the line. Both of us. Do you want to come back from your holiday and have to look for a job?’ his boss told him curtly. Since he had told everyone that his wife would be going to Pune while he visited his mother and sister, he could not even plead a family emergency.

‘You won’t believe it. I just can’t make it,’ he told Julie over the phone.

For once Julie was calm. ‘That’s okay,’ she told him. ‘Don’t worry too much. We’ll handle things at our end. You don’t have to be around every time someone comes to meet Mummy.’

Lincy decided to cancel her visit to Pune and go to Simhapara instead. Jaimon was quite grateful. ‘You’ll be my representative over there,’ he told Lincy as he pinched his daughter’s cheeks.

‘If this doesn’t work out, I think we should place an internet ad,’ Lincy told Jaimon.

‘Lincy, please try to understand. I may be an advertising executive, but I cannot market my mother. She isn’t a bloody car!’

‘What’s wrong in placing an advert with a few photographs?’

‘Lincy, you have never lived in Kerala. You just do not understand Simhapara. All it needs is for one person from Simhapara to notice those photographs on the internet. Within a few days, everyone will know about it. And once it becomes well-known, we’ll have people asking us about it.’

‘Okay. I’m just trying to understand this. Don’t people at Simhapara already know that we are looking for a husband for Mummy?’

‘Yes, everyone knows that.’

‘So, what’s the difference if people know that we have placed an advert on the internet, with a few photographs?’

‘It’s just not the same. It’s not the done thing.’

‘If Julie were getting married, would you mind placing an internet ad with photographs?’

‘No, I would not mind. But then, that’s different. Just drop it, will you?’

‘I was only trying to understand….’

‘Please drop it Lincy!’

Julie met Lincy and the baby at the Kottayam railway station and took them to Simhapara. Jaimon was on the phone to Lincy and Julie a couple of times a day during the run-up to the important week-end. One of the grooms-to-be was scheduled to arrive Saturday evening and the other one Sunday morning.

Saturday evening, the restaurant owner arrived to meet Achamma. He was almost an hour late when he arrived in a jeep, accompanied by his brother who drove the vehicle.

‘Chettan is a very nice man, the brother explained. However, after chechy died, he started drinking a bit. No, no, please don’t misunderstand. Chettan never used to drink before that. It’s only now that he has got into this habit. We know that once he is married to someone nice, he will not want to drink.’ After that explanation neither Lincy nor Julie felt the need to probe for more information about the groom. After around fifteen minutes of small talk, Sister Aunty politely terminated the meeting. ‘We’ll get back to you in a short while, she told them and sent them away.

‘What an excuse to start drinking!’ Sister Aunty said after the two men had left.

Jaimon’s brother-in-law put things in the right perspective by saying ‘we ought to be grateful to them for being frank and telling us that the man has a drinking problem. Some people might have kept quiet about it.’

Lincy called up Jaimon who was in a meeting. ‘Can’t talk. You talk,’ he muttered into the phone.

‘They arrived and left. The man has a drinking problem. His brother says it started only after his wife died. Sister Aunty sent them off saying we’ll get back to them.’

‘Will call later,’ Jaimon muttered and hung up.

That night Jaimon called up and had a long chat with both Julie and Lincy. There was not much to do, other than hope the next candidate would turn out to be better. Achamma took the incident quite calmly. After Julie and Lincy spoke to Jaimon, they handed over the phone to Achamma.

‘How are you Mummy?’ Jaimon asked her.

‘I’m fine. Julie and Lincy have told you everything. There’s nothing more for me to add.’

‘Don’t get upset. Okay?’

‘Why on earth should I be upset?’ Achamma responded. ‘Did you have dinner?’

‘Not yet Mummy. I just got home. I’m going to eat something now.’

‘Is there any food in the fridge?’

‘Yes, there is. There is some Sambhar left in the fridge. And I am making some rice.’

‘Why on earth did you have to work so hard? Will you be working tomorrow as well?’

‘Yes Mummy. A few meetings. Can you please give Julie the phone?’

‘Hello!’

‘Hello! All set for tomorrow morning?’

‘They are expected to reach here at 11:30.’

‘Will you be going to Church in the morning?’

‘No, we will be going in the evening. It’s too much to go in the morning, get back by ten thirty and then prepare to receive them. Wait!’ Sister Aunty was tugging at her arm. ‘Sister Aunty says she will be going to Church in the morning for the six thirty mass. And she is going to take Mummy with her.’

The new candidate arrived a few minutes early, unaccompanied by anyone. He parked his Maruti Esteem carefully and walked into the house without a hint of hesitation or shyness. He was quite tall, pleasant faced and carried his weight quite well. If it had not been for the fact that his hair was entirely grey, he could have passed for a forty year old. They all felt tongue-tied in front of him, even Sister Aunty. Since the groom-to-be was the oldest person around, he got down to the task at hand.

‘Why don’t you tell me a bit about yourself?’ he asked Achamma. Achamma was flustered by the question and did not respond quickly enough. Sister Aunty stepped in to answer the question.

‘Achamma’s husband died five years ago. She has two children, both of whom are well settled. That’s Julie, Achamma’s daughter. Her husband. And children. Jaimon is in Bombay. He couldn’t get leave. He works for … where does he work Lincy?’

Lincy supplied the necessary information and responded to the follow-up questions regarding Jaimon’s advertising agency. The meeting was not much different from the one with Sonny. The groom-to-be stayed for an hour and left. As soon as he drove off in his car, Jaimon’s uncle arrived.

‘Did you tell them about the property?’

‘Yes, we did. This time we even told them what you said last time. That after Achamma’s time, the property should revert to her children.’

‘We need to be careful with this man. He has got three children.’

‘They have a lot more land than we do. Why on earth would they want our land?’ Lincy was tempted to say that if Achamma was entitled to one-third of her husband’s property, then she ought to have the right to dispose of it whatever way she wanted. Please let my mother-in-law make her own choices, she wanted to tell everyone. But what was the point? Even if she stood up for Achamma, she would not win. Most probably even Achamma did not think she had the right to will her property to anyone she wanted.

Two days later, they got a phone call from the brother of the groom-to-be. Lincy and Achamma were alone in the house. Sister Aunty had gone back to her convent and Julie was at Kottayam. ‘I would like to speak to the Karnavar of your family,’ he told Lincy who answered the phone.

‘There is no Karnavar here.’ How stupid could the man be? Lincy thought. The Karnavar of this house is dead. Which is why we are looking for a groom, she wanted to tell the caller. ‘Can you please let me what you’ve decided?’

‘No, no. This is something I need to discuss with someone who understands these things.’ Lincy was forced to give Jaimon’s uncle’s phone number. Half an hour later, Jaimon’s uncle stormed into the house.

‘I thought you had explained everything to them,’ he told Lincy accusingly.

‘What’s the matter now?’

‘They want Achamma’s share of the property to be given as a dowry. They even suggested that the land be transferred to the groom at the time of the marriage.’

‘So what did you tell them?’

‘I spent some time trying to explain things, but finally I had to ask the man to get lost.’

‘But uncle are you being fair? If Mummy is entitled to six acres of land, shouldn’t that be given to her?’

‘We are giving it to her. But it must come back into the family after her lifetime.’

Why should we insist that the land should revert to us? Isn’t it our practice to give the woman’s share in the family property as a dowry at the time of her wedding? Can’t we tell them that the land will be in Mummy’s name and she can will it to whoever she wants?’

‘What if she likes her new husband’s children and wills some land to them?’

‘Isn’t that up to her?’

‘You don’t understand. You’ve never lived in Kerala.’

‘When I got married, my father gave my share in his property as a dowry to my husband. And didn’t Daddy do the same for Julie? Why can’t we do that for Mummy?’

‘We can’t give a dowry for Achamma chechy. If her family wants to give her a dowry, they can do so.’

‘Anyway, I’ve told them it’s off. We’ll have to look for another groom.

Jaimon’s uncle left in a huff saying, ‘if you don’t understand these things, please ask your elders for advice.’

Achamma had listened to the entire exchange in silence. After her brother-in-law had left, she burst into tears and told Lincy, ‘I was willing to go and live in Dubai!’

Six months later when Sonny came on leave, he and Achamma got married in a simple ceremony at Simhapara. Achamma wore a plain silk saree and Sonny looked resplendent in his three piece black suit, even though he was sweating profusely. As they followed the bride and the groom out of the church, Jaimon told Lincy, ‘Maybe I should also grow a moustache like my Daddy.’