In ‘The Overcoat’ by Nikolai Gogol the protagonist Akakiy Akakievitch had to suffer at the hands of the heartless people. He was robbed but it was not the robbery which left a deep wound in his heart. It was the apathy which he had to suffer afterwards. And when many harsh words were added to it, it lead to his demise. Akakiy Akakievitch got his revenge in his after life.
And here in Two Browns nobody wants revenge.
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My Blog: lifelongstolive.blogspot.com
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any actual person, living or dead, events or locales is purely coincidental.
Copyright Atul Sharma. All rights reserved.
A Wild pig with three piglets following her crossed my path. May be four-thirty in the morning is not a good time to take a morning walk. Anyway for me it is. The wild pig family disappeared into the woods. I thanked God they did not see me. A wild pig mother with her children can attack anytime. I took a long breath. The fresh air filled my lungs. It was so fresh I held it for a few moments until it became enough. I released it slowly; again filled my lungs with this pure and pious air. And as I looked heavenwards I got stunned. The monsoon rains had made the trees to grow into such an immense size that they bowed on each other forming a canopy. I felt amazed. I felt happy.
And with these happy incidents I walked on to complete my one hour walk in this small village Ambapur.
Every Morning I walk up to the nearest town of Kasauli. It takes me half an hour to reach the town. It is a surprise that most of the small shops are open when I reach there at five. And sometimes when in a jubilant mood I whistle Robert Frost’s lovable poem: ‘The woods are dark and deep…. .’ Sometimes I reach at ten to five and at that hour I can see my grocery shop owner Mohan pulling out stands from his shop. I like Mohan’s attentive and no-nonsense attitude. He talks less. He is not interested in long talks as most shopkeepers are at these early free hours. He suits me. I always buy my requirements from him. A packet of milk, two eggs, small bread on daily basis and a small packet of butter once a week. He never fleeces me as all these things are neatly packed if I reach at five. He hands me over my requirements, registers them in his daily customer’s copy. I settle my accounts on the third of every month when I come to his shop at eleven in the morning by car to procure monthly groceries. Even at that time he’s swift to attend all customers and his respect for all of his customers never wavers.
When I start my return journey to my two room house the sun had by then started to caress my cheeks in a hide and seek manner through the thick trees. At exact five-thirty I am back at my house.
The front gate of my house opens to a narrow metal road. Across the road there is a small hill full of many types of trees. When you will unlatch the cute little black Iron Gate you will arrive at the cemented veranda which leads to a large room which acts as a living room and then you can easily see a smaller room which serves as a bedroom. And from the cute little window of my bedroom you will get an astonishing view. A big mountain full of lush greenery welcomes you. And just before that big mountain a small mountain carries spiral roads. And every morning after looking for a few minutes at that small mountain I take a long breath, close my eyes and then releasing the breath slowly feast my eyes on this big mountain which I call Lucy from Wordsworth’s poem out of my mad love for this big mountain.
In living room four plastic chairs and a wooden table have been placed and in the bedroom a single bed allows me to refresh my soul.
After feasting my eyes upon Lucy; whenever I get back to my senses which is sometimes a matter of minutes and to my amazement often I have passed an hour enjoying as I have plenty of time till nine when I get to work. I place my requirements in the tiny kitchen and head to my small garden where I do my love for gardening thing. I have always wanted a garden for myself where I could grow some vegetables and plant a few fruit trees. And this dream of mine never got fulfilled either in Chandigarh or in New York. Only Ambapur listened to my prayers.
Though not a big one still I feel blessed thanks to my garden A small patch adjacent to the cemented path has always fascinated me because of its magical power of giving birth to many vegetables and herbs. As today when after my daily meeting with Lucy I entered my garden. I pulled out a carrot. It was white; pure white as milk. It smelled divine. I bathed it in a bucket filled of mountain’s pious water. Then I took a bite and it was pretty fresh and sweet. I recalled eating raw vegetables during my city life. They never tasted so good. These fresh vegetables seemed alive to me. While the city vegetables were as good as dead. And in a matter of few minutes I finished the carrot and feasted my eyes upon the greenery. I too felt alive.
Hari patted softly on my shoulder to bring me out of my reverie. Hari is fourteen years old. He is my neighbour. He often visits me to take a few fresh herbs. I never deny him as his innocent face makes my heart melt away. He dreams of going to the city and make it big over there. May God fulfil all his wishes.
Terrorist! Aha! What a big word it was? And to use it for Rafiq seemed ridiculous. Rafiq was my colleague in New York. Always interested in work and gathering accolades for his commitment. I must be honest here. I was also jealous of Rafiq as others were but they would go so far in their jealousy I could have never imagined in the wildest of my dreams.
Office politics could become so deadly I was not able to foresee. All of the other guys in the firm were white. We were only two browns. Rafiq from Bangladesh and I from India. Both selected during campus placements. Both happy to work in the world of Banking; Investment Banking which was sometimes hostile and sometimes friendly.
Rafiq was above six feet with wavy black hair, neatly trimmed beard and a lean body as he loved to cycle for at least ten kilometres in the morning was a sight to behold. At first when he told me I thought he was bluffing. And one day as he invited me for cycling I accepted it at once. I wanted to blow off his bluff. And to my embarrassment after two kilometres I went Kaput. I was panting and Rafiq humbly smiled at me saying, ‘My friend Rafiq never bluffs.’
And from that day on we became good friends, lunching together with our Asian foods while all others ate at the canteen. He was two years elder to me at that time. He at twenty-four and I at twenty-two. And at that exciting age I loved my presence in New York.
Rafiq opened his car with the remote key. Suddenly a big guy walked from behind and with use of brute force he pulled Rafiq down from his shirt’s collar. Rafiq fell down. I was horrified. Three more guys appeared. All of them started to kick Rafiq. Rafiq hid his face between his arms and squirmed with pain. I wanted to shout but I was too scared. I knew if they saw me all of them would pounce upon me bringing me the same fate.
‘You Paki. You Terrorist. Go back to your shit hole,’ the big collar pulling guy shouted.
My whole body froze with fear. I think I was shivering like a leaf. The ordeal which seemed to me as of ages ended with a big fist blow by the collar pulling guy. Rafiq gave out a loud petrifying cry sending shivers to my spine. A black suv driven by another guy emerged and all of them entered it. The black suv did not budge. The guys were not talking. There was silence, dreadful silence. Then the lights of the suv were put off. My heart missed a beat. May be they were going to crush Rafiq under it. I wanted to cry for help but to whom? There was no one on the roof of the multi-level parking building. Thank God there was no such thing in India. Parking is done in the streets or open ground parking lots. No such thing as roof parking or parking buildings where you could be haunted for hours with no one noticing. I looked around. There were just a few cars parked with no soul stirring there. Rafiq and I always preferred to park on the roof as we loved to glide our suvs through the spiral ramps for a few more minutes. And today I was regretting our choice. Had we parked on any of the floors which were always full of people may be I could have cried for help. But not here on our favourite roof. Anyway the suv was still there, calm and composed. Now I could hear their whispers. May be they were having an argument to overrun Rafiq or not. I closed my eyes; took a long breath in; tried to calm my body but to no avail. Anyhow I gathered some courage and fished out my mobile phone from my pocket. My hands were trembling. I touched the centre button of my iphone. It illuminated the whole suv in that darkness of the night attracting the attention of the scheming guys. One of them shouting, ‘We got another Paki.’
My mouth shouted back in full force, ‘Oh! Shit. I am dead for sure.’
Suddenly the suv became alive, its lights switched on and with full speed it ran towards unconscious Rafiq. I came out of my suv, my hands pulling my hair and I shouted on the top of my voice, ‘No!’
As the suv was about to overrun Rafiq it changed its mind and steered to the left sparing him and descending into the ramp. I was horrified. I ran towards Rafiq. His face was full of blood making it unrecognisable, his body cold and his favourite white shirt now full of red colour. I dialled Nine-One-One.
The Next Day
‘A broken nose, two broken ribs and a broken faith in humanity were what Rafiq got after this incident. I was also kept at the hospital for suspicion of p.t.s.d. I did not know and did not ask what it was. I decided to Google it afterwards. I was given sleeping pills. Still what I received was a bruised sleep. In the morning around eleven when I got up with a severe headache my body was still shivering. May be over sensitive people like me get these or may be my inability to be of any help to my only friend in a foreign land had broken me from inside. I was perfect physically but I knew the incident had scarred me mentally. I got up from the bed. I was still in my suit even the tie and coat were not taken off. My feet shivered for a few seconds in my black leather oxford shoes. The nurse advised me to change into hospital clothes—a gown. I decided to try it later on. And in my investment banker attire I pushed open the door. Luckily I was on the ground floor and the reception desk was in front of me. I slowly walked up to the desk and asked in a shaken voice, ‘ Mr. Rafiq’s room number please. He and I were brought together last night.’
The receptionist was a young Indian girl. And she gave me a huge Indian smile.
‘I am sorry for both of you. All the papers are full of your tragedy. Even some…,’ she paused, looked into my eyes and continued, ‘Your friend was shifted to the big hospital. His condition was critical.’
‘Where?’ I questioned.
‘I can’t tell you. And you can’t leave until you are questioned by police. I have strict orders. Let me call them.’
And she became busy with the landline. I could not figure out why? After half an hour which seemed to me like an eternity a tall white man with a neatly ironed grey suit entered my room. Actually he barged in, no knocking, no coughing he just barged in. I was stunned for a moment and stood up from my bed.
‘Hello! I am detective Frazer,’ he introduced himself without giving me a hand to shake.
‘Hello,’ I replied meekly.
Then I looked at the door. There was no sign of any other officer. He was alone. I had seen in the Hollywood movies always two officers come. And he was alone. I wondered.
‘Expecting someone,’ asked the officer raising one of his brows.
‘Anyway. Please sit down.’
I sat down immediately.
He pulled out a notepad and a pen from his coat’s breast pocket, opened the pad and asked,
‘Your name?’ in an unfriendly tone.
‘You know Rafiq since.’
‘Since two years.’
‘Are you best friends?’
I took a moment to answer. Can I call myself a best friend when I couldn’t be of any help. Still I said a loud yes.
The officer glanced at me from his notepad on hearing such a big yes.
‘Okay. Now please tell me what happened last night in detail.’
I narrated the whole incident.
The officer noted down the facts, occasionally looking up at me while noting down with a steady gaze. I felt uncomfortable.
‘You didn’t step out of your car the whole time,’ he questioned me in an angry tone.
‘I got scared.’
‘You got what?’
‘I got scared,’ I repeated.
‘You got scared,’ he said with a huff.
He closed his dairy, deposited it into his pocket, turned around and started to walk towards the door.
‘Is he okay sir,’ I asked politely.
The officer did not stop and ignored my question.
‘Is he okay sir,’ I repeated violently.
The officer stopped at the door, clutched its handle and without looking back said,
‘Yes he is. Rafiq’s best friend.’ I noted a rebuke in his answer. And he swiftly pulled open the door and got out with his words echoing in my ears.
It can be quite lonely in another city let alone another country. Still one has to survive. I still remember when I was sent to South Africa for training. There I shared room with two best friends from Sri Lanka. Every night the slim friend tied the hands of the other to the bed before sleeping. On my inquiring he replied, ‘It is his demand. Every night his homesickness becomes so severe that he wants to return to Sri Lanka.’
‘He knows, he can’t return, his family has heavy debts to pay off,’ he added.
And I could feel the dagger of homesickness going round and round in my heart. You can really become so lonely that you just want to leave all of your hard won things and return to your land, your parents, and your friends. You just want to return and spend precious moments of your life with them. But in reality you know you can’t. Though all of them won’t say anything to you on your face but internally they will be more disappointed in you than you would be.
So, take a deep breath and bash your loneliness by drowning yourself in work. That’s the mantra. Sometimes I think that’s the real reason behind the success of immigrants in New York.
Anyway talking of New York. It is really a damn good place to be. The city is metropolis in character. You can easily melt into its character. People are friendly but like to keep to themselves most of the time. You just can’t barge into them and make them your friends like in India.
While walking through the puzzling corridors of Rafiq’s big hospital (I gave the Indian receptionist a slip) ; I kept on thinking about Kavin Carter. I kept on thinking was I becoming like him?
Kavin Carter was a renowned photo journalist of his time who even won the Pulitzer. But the scenes he witnessed while capturing horrible crimes like blacks being burnt with tyres rounds their necks, famine of Sudan and his iconic photo where a vulture tried to eat an alive kid who was lying prostrate taking it as dead before Kavin shooed it away took a great toll on his soul. He was rebuked by public for being a mute spectator to all the atrocities. He felt depressed and committed suicide at thirty-three.
Was I becoming like him?
I felt ashamed on seeing Rafiq. And my soul abused me badly when he smiled at me. I was expecting him to yell at me, saying many not to say words but his smile made me feel worse. Though it should not have but it made me feel worse.
‘I was in my car. My body refused to move. I was frightened,’ I confessed to him, weeping, holding his hand with my forehead on it thinking he might still not know that I was present at the crime scene. There was an eerie silence for a few minutes in the room. In those moments the nurse who was checking the pulse of Rafiq got out, shutting the door behind her softly. Rafiq muted the television, got up and rested his back against the pillow. He took a deep breath and after a long pause sighed and said,
Stunned I left his hand which fell on the bed with a thud. I moved back and saw straight into his eyes. He smiled sweetly and repeated, ‘I know.’
My ashamed gaze fell on the floor.
‘Still you didn’t scream for help.’
‘Would it have helped?’
I felt weak in my legs. Rafiq knew his friend was weak; just a chicken hearted friend who could not be of any help in hours of critical need so he didn’t even try. And I wondered why I didn’t know Rafiq as well as he knew me. And all my life I have thought myself as brave. I think in a herd you are always brave but when alone in a moment of crisis only then you can put your bravery to test. As I was lost in my thoughts the sudden opening of the door startled me.
‘Hello! Rafiq how are you,’ asked the detective. He looked at me but did not bother to say anything. I knew he didn’t like me. He didn’t like my cowardliness. He pulled a chair, dragged it close to the bed and in his customary manner pulled out his pen and flip open diary from his coat’s breast pocket.
‘Do you think that your friend standing here could be an accomplice?’ the detective asked bluntly.
A few drops of water dropped on Rafiq’s shirt as the glass of water got parted from his lips in a jerk. And to tell my state it was like America had dropped a nuclear bomb on me. I was shattered. My whole world paused for a few minutes; my eyes fixed on Rafiq and his eyes fixed on mine. Then with a swift motion of eyes he looked at the detective and said in a loud and clear fashion, ‘No.’ I felt relieved. I moved to the other side of the bed facing the detective. He was staring at Rafiq. His face was blank. It made me feel scared.
‘Your colleagues at office have shown suspicion of his involvement.’
Now I was dead sure that it was work of office politics. I felt frightened.
‘Those people wanted to loot me,’ said Rafiq.
‘They didn’t take anything from you,’ reasoned the detective.
‘Anyway your Indian friend can’t leave city till his name is cleared. He is a suspect,’ said the detective as he rose to get out of the room leaving me and Rafiq alone.
‘The detective is really funny,’ remarked Rafiq as he laughed out loudly.
I just watched Rafiq laugh with the words of the detective echoing in my head:
‘He’s a Suspect.’
Dread had set in my heart that I would be arrested soon. And this dread didn’t allow me to catch a wink of sleep at night. Every footstep, every whisper added to my dread. I kept on tossing in my bed the whole night. Was my arrest imminent?
This question popped up in my head as I left my bed to head towards kitchen to make a cup of coffee. In India drinking tea was the norm but here I got addicted to drinking coffee. Everywhere coffee was the first thing they offered you unlike India where tea was offered. Soon I switched to coffee leaving tea to be enjoyed when coffee ran out. I think I started enjoying company of coffee more as it was more invigorating than tea. Moreover it was easy to make without any mess like tea. Just some water, sugar, milk and powder; stir and it was ready to be enjoyed. As I took a sip of coffee my mobile rang adding to my dread.
The call was from the firm. The manager had asked the receptionist to know when I was joining back.
‘I don’t know,’ I just blurted out.
I think the receptionist Holly was taken aback. She didn’t reply for a few seconds. There was dreadful silence. I knew I was ruining my career but at that time I was not in a proper state of mind.
‘I am sorry Holly.’
‘Okay,’ replied Holly as she hung up the phone.
I took another sip of coffee. It had become warm from hot so I gulped half of its content in one go. It was really refreshing. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I didn’t want to go to the firm of killers. I just wanted to stay alone, purely alone. I gathered myself as I finished my coffee, took a quick shower, no breakfast and a cab brought me to the hospital, Rafiq’s hospital. I glanced at the large swathe of cars, big cars parked there in the open parking lot. I have started to love open parking lots. My eyes searching for the car of the detective, who thought of me as a suspect. It was not there. I felt relieved.
As I entered the room, I was stunned to see Rafiq packing his things. He looked up at me and gave me his trademark smile—the calm and assuring one. Again I felt ashamed. I didn’t want him to smile at me. My soul wanted him to despise me. But he didn’t. I closed the door behind me.
‘Going somewhere,’ I asked.
‘To the office.’
‘Why? ’ I screamed.
‘They are killers,’ I added.
Rafiq moved the bag to a side and came nearer to me. He looked straight into my eyes. I felt afraid. Though his countenance was tranquil but his eyes were evil. You could see hell in his eyes. He placed his hands swiftly on my shoulders and said,
‘I know they are killers. So what? I have debts to pay off my dear.’
Debts to pay off. I heard the words again. Even I had debts to pay off but they were not as huge as Rafiq’s were. And I had my parents to pay them off. But for Rafiq it was a do or die situation.
As I was thinking over it Rafiq went back and started to pack his things. I stared at him. He was neatly folding his clothes and putting them one on the other in his bag. His face was expressionless. He was packing as if he were alone paying no heed to my presence. He went to the bathroom and came back with all his things in his hands – toothpaste, razor, cream etc. It felt strange to me.
Rafiq knows no one, he stays with me then how come he got all his toiletries here in the hospital. May be he is stealing. I decided to ask.
‘Rafiq who brought your toiletries?’
‘Then why are you packing these in your bag.’
Rafiq gave me his calm smile.
‘Nobody is going to re-use them,’ said Rafiq shrugging his shoulders.
Yes! He was right about toothbrush and razor but he could have left toothpaste and shaving cream.
I decided not to ask any further as it became clear he was stealing and left the hospital for my room. Rafiq was going to be discharged tomorrow.
The Grand Central Park of New York is really amazing. It is so huge amidst the concrete jungle like an oasis in the desert. I always felt adrenaline rushing through my veins whenever I got time to visit it. Always full of people who acted as a cherry on cake. But today I felt depressed in its lap. Even star bucks had failed to stir me. I sat forlorn here. I had always felt so secure in it like a baby felt in the womb of its mother. But today I was scared. Every white eye which met mine sent a chill through my spine. I spotted an abcd and recalled an observation of Rafiq on abcd’s:
On that day at office Rafiq took a deep breath, held it for a few moments and then looking around he released it. He stared at a corner where four abcd’s were huddled. Sipping hot coffee and their talking in American way seemed odd to Rafiq. Abcd’s had always fascinated Rafiq. Their brown faces and talk in white manner always intrigued him. They seemed fake to him. In reality they were not fake they were just confused as their abbreviation rightly suggested. Always under constant pressure by their parents to adhere to their home country’s customs they were constantly confused. When they stepped out of their homes they were pressurised again by their immigrant country to adhere to its open society rules. So they were always living confused whether to be an open society person or a restraint society person. Someone had rightly called them as ABCD’s (American Born Confused Desis). And they were from all countries and always confused.
Rafiq’s eyes fell on a white man reminding him of his father’s words, ‘Never trust them.’
When Rafiq had broken the news of his being selected in a company at New York his father was sad instead of being glad. This disappointed Rafiq.
‘They are paying well Abba—father.’
‘They always pay well in the beginning,’ replied his father.
‘It is their official policy like mine. I always feed my pigs well but in the end my only purpose is to butcher them so that I can get a good price. The white also do the same.’
Rafiq replied nothing. He knew his Abba had suffered in the past. Once during the partition of Pakistan from India in which he lost his Abba to riots. And during the Bangladesh’s liberation struggle from Pakistan in which his house was reduced to a pile of rubble by his own people. He held colonist whites responsible for both of his tragedies. He hated them from the core of his heart. And today his own son wanted to work for the whites. Whenever there was news in the paper about a brown being elected as an M.P in a white country he always gave the analogy of pigs to Rafiq. And today he had repeated his words ditto to Rafiq. And Rafiq had not allowed them to fill his heart with fear as he replied to his Abba.
‘A ship is safest in its harbour but that doesn’t mean it should never go to the sea.’
And his Abba had only given him a soft smile in return as he knew through the wisdom of his grey hair that arguing with Rafiq was of no use, he would leave anyway.
After a week Rafiq left for New York much to the dismay of his Abba.
And today I also felt like an abcd thinking might be his Abba was right.
After going through the cycles of chills for a quite long time I decided what I ought to do with my future.
Mine: After a week of thinking in which Rafiq tried his best to stop me I quit the job and returned to my hometown Chandigarh, India. Here as I expected everyone was disappointed with me. Though nobody said any harsh words to me. I fooled around for six months and decided to take up writing as a full time career and settled down in Ambapur much to the shock of my parents. I love my life here.
Rafiq: I have lost contact with Rafiq now. And it is clear he is still working with the killers to pay off his debts. He has left an indelible mark in my life.
Detective Frazer: He allowed me to leave New York without any fuss. May be he knew his people were at fault.
The Firm: They cleared my dues in haste as they did not want any bad publicity.
Many people see a dream of achieving big in life. Some in their own country and some in another country. But the goal remains the same: to achieve. In Two Browns it the intensity of desperation which makes the value of life less.