Year 1720, England
Robert looked at the sealed official letter in his hand. He had an inkling about it’s contents. The hushed rumours were heard in the corridor. It was just a matter of time. He fidgeted with the red seal for some time, then reluctantly opened it. This was what he had been dreading for the past three months. He read the letter repeatedly. There was no choice for him. He was being sent to India as a junior clerk. The East India Company needed more clerks to oversee the company matters as well as the administrative work. Trade was expanding and more men were needed. They needed young, enthusiastic, sincere and responsible clerks. . Robert had more than five years experience. He fitted the bill perfectly. There was no way out. He was not as much worried about himself than Martha, his wife of two years. How would she take the news? Would she accompany him? He became nervous and morose. He decided to talk to Tom, his best friend. He sauntered towards Tom’s cabin. Tom was his senior, in age as well as experience.Tom was his mentor: kind, intelligent, a problem solver. Robert looked upto Tom for his astute and valuable advice.
Robert entered Tom’s cabin but even before he entered he could sense an air of somberness. Tom was sitting with his head down on his desk, the letter between his fingers. He looked up at Robert with deep anguish in his eyes. Robert sat opposite Tom quietly not knowing who needed more consolation. After a long silence Tom said, “ Robert let us do it together. We can tackle this challenge. ” Robert felt relieved on hearing this. Suddenly he was infused with an extra dose of energy . First priority was how to break the news to their families. Tom had been married for five years to Hilda and they had one son, Keith all of three years. Tom suggested ,” Let’s be honest and straightforward with them. If they understand good but if they don’t then too bad. We have to leave for India, there’s no other way.” Robert totally agreed with his friend.
Year 1720, India
Somnath looked at the barren land. This year the winter was harsh. And then the locusts had arrived in swarms. They swooped down on the field and in minutes had devoured the entire crop. This year too they will go hungry. Suddenly he cried out in pain. The whip had lashed out and caught him on his bare back.
“ Move you dirty scoundrel. You are not getting paid for daydreaming.” Somnath dared not look up at his master. People like him are supposed to keep their eyes downcast. Somnath detested his life. He hated his father, grandparents, ancestors for being born as a low caste, a shudra. How can you even call this a life? wondered Somnath. He was caught in a vicious cycle, doomed to live this miserable life. This was the tenth whiplash of the day. He hated the people born in high castes. How they enjoyed all the privileges of society. But it was different for people like him. They were denied even basic needs . They barely managed two meals a day, most of the time they went to bed hungry. There were no separate wells for them, no clean drinking water. They were not even allowed to be in the vicinity of the well of the upper castes. They were not allowed to cover their upper bodies, no footwear. They were not allowed to enter any place of worship and no education for them. Somnath questioned the inequality among human beings but what could he do? He had no one. He had seen his grandparents, parents, siblings all die one after another due to poverty. He was made of sterner stuff, probably born to live this hellish life. He prayed a saviour would come down on earth and relieve him from this miserable existence.
Robert went home with anxiety writ all over his face. One look and Martha could gauge the reason behind it. She flatly refused to accompany him. She was not going to uproot herself from her home. This was her motherland, the place where she was born, nurtured, educated, where her parents and siblings lived. She was not going to throw away the comforts of her country and go live in an impoverished, dirty colonial country. Robert was devastated but knew nothing could make Martha change her mind. She was stubborn and temperamental. She would not budge.
Tom had an even more difficult time with his wife Hilda. She raged and screamed expletives at him, accusing him of having a weak spine, a useless person who has no concern for his family. Tom stood there meekly taking in every insult and humiliation thrown at him. Tom could never win an argument with his wife. He felt most hurt about leaving his son Keith who was so young and the apple of his eyes.
Robert and Tom felt emotionally drained, no one to support them.
Robert and Tom entered the ship, HMS Eagle. They were both nervous and excited. A voyage to a strange land. Their deeply hidden desire of travelling the world was coming true but it should not have been under these circumstances. It would take minimum five to six months to reach India. The route would take them to St. Helena in the Western Atlantic, The Cape Of Good Hope, a place near the far south end of Africa and to Aden , a natural port. There they would change ship and finally make their way to the Port of Bombay. They carried with them only the bare necessities. They looked around them, the same expression on everyone’s faces, anxiety. Will they even reach India? It was a known fact that very few ships completed a successful journey. They had heard stories about ships being attacked by pirates, or inclement weather, sickness and diseases on the way. Robert entered his cabin and lay down. He opened his bag and took out his diary, a habit formed since childhood. He thought of his kind and loving parents who died quite early leaving behind young twelve year old Robert under the caring guardianship of his aunt Margaret. His eyes became moist thinking about his days spent under the secure and protective love of his aunt. They were never wealthy but were abundant in good moral values. He had lost his aunt too a few years ago. Except for Martha he didn’t have anyone else in the world. This diary would be his confidante and best friend during the journey.
Tom was feeling queasy from morning. He suffered from seasickness but didn’t want to worry Robert. He prayed fervently that everything would be fine and they would reach safely. He was missing Keith already. He was a religious person, the Bible was his comforter. He took it out from his bag and kneeled down to pray. Tom was a family person. He had lost his parents at a young age. He had two older siblings. He was going to miss all of them terribly.
Robert and Tom stood at the deck. Almost a month had passed by. They made new friends. Each one’s destiny was intertwined with the other. Till now everything was going on fine. Tom had even overcome his seasickness. This journey was turning out to be more exciting than they had imagined.They were glad to undertake this voyage. The ship was a confluence of merchants, thinkers, ordinary and extraordinary people of all professions. Each day brought a wealth of excitement and knowledge. The weather was beautiful, bright and sunny but it was also unpredictable.
One day the ship was caught in a raging storm. It was thunderous and tempestuous. Robert and Tom clung to each other. Was it their end? Their cabin was filling up dangerously. The ship was tossed around, they were tossed about. But miraculously the storm abated and they were grateful to be alive. Their first lucky escape.
As they were nearing the Gulf of Aden,the troubled waters, the ship was attacked by pirates. It was a sudden attack. The pirates were just like the ones described in story books with their bandanas and eye patches. Robert and Tom again sought each other’s support. In fact Tom was more frightened than Robert who was supposedly the meek and timid one. The passengers were pushed into a secret cabin on the upper deck. They heard gunshots and screamings. They were enveloped with smoke. A few of them lost their lives. As sudden the attack on the ship was, so was it’s ending. The pirates were of no match to the mighty soldiers in the ship. They were soon overpowered and killed. Once again a miraculous escape for Robert and Tom. It was their destiny to reach India.
It was a beautiful morning. The ship reached the port of Bombay, India. There were no other untoward incidents. The rest of the voyage was peaceful, enriching. It was the heat that hit them first as they disembarked the ship. It was sultry and humid. Robert and Tom were almost the last to leave the ship. The rich were the first to step ashore in their fancy hats, clothes and boots. They had an entourage of assistants carrying their never ending luggage. Robert and Tom bid a teary farewell to their newly found friends. They were soon enveloped by a sea of people, varying in colour and sizes. A company car was waiting for them to take them to their place of residence, Mahim. The office was just a walking distance from their new home. Robert and Tom were struck by the natural beauty of this place. The long coastline dotted with swaying palm and coconut trees on both sides of the clean, broad roads were a treat to their eyes. It was love at first sight for Robert. There was something very calm and soothing in this strange land, their new home. Tom on the other hand was nervous and agitated. He was sweating profusely. Just half an hour drive and they reached their destination, a red brick building, four storeys high. The area was surrounded by similar buildings, a colony for the British residents.
Robert was now like a little school boy in a toy store. He was excited and eager to explore Bombay, an archipelago of seven islands. Tom on the other hand was weary, he just wanted a good bed to collapse.
Robert, within a few weeks of his arrival, knew Bombay like the palm of his hand. It had so many layers and you discovered seemingly endless layers beneath, separate, fascinating and sometimes overlapping, worlds within a world. So many different kinds of people from so many different places, races and communities have been drawn here over the centuries, and now all of them call this place, home. His favourite place was the dockyard to watch the sunrise. He loved the energy, texture, smell, tradition and the magic of this place. Within a short time Robert had acquainted himself with every nook and corner of this strange land which was his home now. He could even speak a smattering of the local language.He did feel guilty at times for not thinking about Martha or his home back in England. It took months for letters of correspondence to reach back and forth and so after the initial letter about his safe arrival in India, he stopped writing letters to Martha. He loved mixing with the native people, the Kolis who belonged to the fishing community. Though initially they were wary and suspicious of him, his easy and friendly camaraderie won them over.
Tom on the other hand missed Hilda and Keith terribly. He was always brooding and hated India. He had filled his mind about the dirtiness, the sickness and all kinds of diseases one could get here if exposed to the local people. The heat was unbearable for him and he was waiting for the first opportunity to return to England. But what Robert found most strange about Tom’s attitude was his air of arrogance and haughtiness towards the locals. He snubbed the Indian clerks in the office and didn’t hesitate to criticise them over insignificant details. He mocked Robert about his over friendliness with the locals. Tom had changed drastically in India.
Somnath planned his escape. He was beaten mercilessly for two consecutive days by his master. He had dragged himself to his dilapidated thatched hut after the thrashing. He was hungry and made the mistake of asking for some food. He couldn’t tolerate it any longer. But before his escape he had to take revenge. A sinister plan formed in his mind. There was a marriage in the nearby village and his master’s entire family would be going there for a few days. Only a few sentries would be posted to guard the fields. They too would be drunk and enjoying themselves in the absence of the master. He had to work fast. For the first time he felt an excitement stirring in his heart. It was risky and dangerous. He didn’t want to die at the hands of these beasts. He waited till midnight. When he knew it was the right time he crawled on all fours and crouched close to the fields. He lit one twig and torched one side of the field. He repeated it with the other side of the field till the smoke was billowing around him. He was lucky that it was a dark night and the moon was hidden behind the clouds. He broke into a run. He looked back once and saw the fields go aflame. Delighted, he made his escape towards the forest. He was free, he was happy. By the time the villagers awoke to this havoc, he would be deep inside the forest.
Year 1721, The Strange Encounter
Robert and Tom had settled into a routine. They were now travelling the length and breadth of the country on official tours. The country was at the point of transition. There was a lot of rivalry among the various kingdoms. The French, The Dutch, The Portuguese, The Mughals, The Marathas, The Sikhs still occupied parts of the country. Local chieftains were fighting for supremacy. But the British troop was formidable, a force to reckon with. Robert was unperturbed with all the political chaos happening around him. He was in love with this country and had made up his mind to settle here. It was not at all like the country he imagined. It was truly beautiful, welcoming. The people were warm once you know them. The common people’s lives were unaffected by the political turmoil. It remained the same for them. Rulers came and went but their lives moved on the same way. Robert wanted to do something for them. All had hope and faith. He received a letter from Martha informing him about moving to Scotland with her new lover. He actually felt relieved.
Tom on the other hand was still unhappy and had made his displeasure clear to his seniors. He had taken to drinking and was twice hospitalised for a stomach bug. He was desperate to go back to England and continue with his old life with Hilda and Keith.
Once Robert and Tom were travelling by road with the whole team to a village on the outskirts. They had to pass through a forested land. They heard some noise and the carriage stopped. Robert came out to see what the commotion was about. A dishevelled , emaciated man was lying completely naked on the ground. He was covered with blood and had bruises all over his body. It looked like he had not eaten for days. He was just bones, not an ounce of flesh on him. He was unconscious but still breathing. No one was ready to go near him. He heard whispers about him being someone from the lower caste. Robert was furious. Where is humanity, he wondered. He barked a few orders. Immediately a few came forward and covered the man’s body with a blanket and put him in the carriage. Tom got down and went and sat in another carriage. He couldn’t bear the stink of this man. He wanted to puke, he was already feeling sick. They had to take a small detour. The man needed attention and had to be admitted to the nearest hospital.
Year 1721, Home
Somnath opened his eyes. He looked around the strange surroundings. Such a clean and beautiful place. Had he died? Was this heaven? He saw a vision in white walking towards him. She smiled at him and took his hand. She gave him some water and went out. She returned with two white men. He looked at them frightened. But they had kind eyes. One of them came closer to him and said,” Don’t worry. You are in safe hands. I am Robert and this is my friend Tom. We found you almost dead in the forest. You have been unconscious for almost a month. We thought we had lost you but you are a survivor, you fought back. Welcome home.”
Somnath started crying. Home! Why were they being so kind to him? Do such angels exist on earth? He folded his hands and bowed his head. He was not doing it by force but with love. Is this his new home? Somnath pondered.
Robert was a relieved person. The man he rescued had survived. Small acts of kindness always have a positive impact. Every moment was a fresh beginning. He was sad to learn that Tom would be returning soon to England . But he was now ready to face the challenges alone. He was not going anywhere. He had found a new friend. A friend in a home away from home.
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