The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, February 27, 2000

Lost in America
By G.K. Sharma

A LOT of unusual things happen, while posted in an Embassy, that are neither described in the rules nor covered by any precedent — the routine that the government normally follows for disposal. One such thing happened in May 1968.

Omi Daweshar had just a couple of months left for returning to India, after a three-year stay in Washington DC, on completion of assignment in the Indian Embassy.

At nine o’clock in the evening, Omi got a telephone call from the security guard, that the local police had come to the Embassy with some problem, and he had given Omi’s residential number probably for the reason that Omi enjoyed the reputation of having a penchant for tackling the crises-ridden situations, besides being senior in rank. A few minutes later, the DC police rang up to brief them about the problem on their hands. There was an old woman on the Greyhound bus stop, stranded and looking lost. She could neither speak English nor any Indian language generally spoken. The lady was refusing to leave the bus stop, which was about to be closed for the night, she continued to repeat the words! ‘pondotjee’.

  The D C Police wanted Omi to help him out. The natural and normal reaction was she could be a Pakistani or British national or to a dozen other countries where people of Indian origin are settled. "Why should they think of Indian Embassy only?"Omi initially ducked in and gave the residential telephone number of the Head of the Consular Division and suggested that DC should talk to him. True enough, the boss rang Omi back asking why the call was directed to him, particularly when he had joined only a week earlier. Omi’s explanation was simple that he was the appropriate authority to decide.

The problem was back to square one. After procedural clearance, Omi launched himself in full, and accompanied the police party to the bus stop. On arrival, Omi met the lady, a very old, frail person dressed in a salwar-kameez cozily clutching her dupatta, closeted in a corner. His instincts told Omi that she could be Punjabi. Therefore, he addressed her "Masiji" (as aunts are affectionately called in Punjab). Before Omi could utter any other word a beautiful smile lit her face. Her silence was broken. The entire party learnt that she was a citizen of India and hailed from Hoshiarpur. She asked Omi in theth (colloquial) Punjabi putr tun kithon da hain? ( Where do you come from, son?) and what caste do you belong?’ Her joy knew no bounds when she came to know that Omi was a Brahmin from the same town — Hoshiarpur. Omi naturally would have hated to disclose but to say ‘no’ or dodge the old lady would have sounded rude. At her age, these things were important. She was feeling at ease, rather at home, by now.

It emerged that she and her husband were settled in the State of California, about 50 miles away from San Francisco. She produced an old Indian Passport which still carried the name of "Governor General of India...etc".

She further revealed that she and her husband had come to meet the American Raja (President) in Washington, to seek a redressal of their complaint or grievance about problems from their grandchildren. She told them that her husband had gone out after the bus left them at this stop, to find out about the Raja’s residence. As her husband had not returned even after a long wait, she had then nonchalantly walked from the depot to the adjoining road and started shouting in her trembling voice Panditji, Panditji. Being a devout Hindu she could not utter the name of her husband. She searched ffor him in every nook and corner nearby, but to no avail. She could not express the shock and sympathy for her husband who was 84 years of age. It was a heart-rending scene. The Greyhound people, though sympathetic, were quite helpless in asking her to vacate along with the luggage, so that they could close the depot.

Omi’s first reaction was to pick up her baggage and go to the Embassy from where ‘the case could be processed further’. But first and foremost: to find accommodation for her to spend the night. And second, to locate her missing husband — the police promised all help.

Virendar Nath, a gentleman of the ‘old guard’ and God-fearing person, volunteered to welcome Masiji to his house, where his wife and daughters would look after her. Being a bachelor, Omi was constrained and readily thanked Nath for his generous offer. The problem of that night was over.

Back to normal hour the next day in the Embassy, the Police still had no clue about the missing Panditji. Police effort continued in full. Meantime, making ‘Masiji’ comfortable in the house, V Nath found out more details of her travails. She had come to the USA to join her husband more than a decade and a half earlier. Her husband had left her, alongwith three children in India some time in the mid 40s and come to the USA. The details of his landing in the USA were hazy. Probably, he had come on a cargo ship. He started as a labourer in California. being hard working and frugal, he saved money and in the process of two decades bought a few hundred acres of fertile land out of his savings. He turned the acreage to a productive unit. Saved more money and put it in a bank. By now, he realized he owed a duty to the people he left behind in India...his children and (by then) grandchildren in India. He fetched them, fed them, and made them partners in his property. He particularly grew very fond of one of his grandsons — a filial weakness. He transferred his bank account to his grandson’s name, and his land and other property to his other children and grandchildren.

As a good, grand patriarch, he had earned his rest. The first shock came when their favourite grandson told them, "Grannies, you should live with all the children turn by turn. Not just with me." In short, the grandpa and his wife became a football with their children. — kicked from one to another. A stage came that they could not even get food. The grandpa then decided that enough was enough. He would go to the Nation’s capital and ask for the Raja and tell him his story and the injustice done to him.

V Nath also found out that it had taken the couple nearly three days from the State of California to DC via Chicago. And that they had not wasted any money on local food, as good brahmins would not eat any local food. They had carried rotis cooked with milk and sugar, because it doesn’t spoil for a long period.

Late in the evening next day, to everybody’s great relief, the Police gave the welcome news that the missing Panditji had been found. At the age, after leaving the Greyhound bus stop, being slightly senile, he had forgotten totally about where he was or any other details. Nobody could help him to the ‘Raja’ and ‘Panditji’ had lost his moorings. He sat down on a bench in a public park to recover his lost memory. In the middle of the night, a suspicious looking individual approached him and questioned him. Not finding a satisfactory answer, they picked him up and brought him to Saint Elizabeth Home — a sort of mental asylum. The alert sounded by the police had resulted in his being located. And ‘Panditji’ had an affectionate reunion with his wife at last.

The next day, details of his home in California emerged. One good thing about the USA even at that time, was that on the telephone you could contact anybody easily, and proceed further. One call went to the Sheriff of the small county, who on being apprised of the situation promised to locate the grandson and other relatives and "to teach them a lesson". Sheriff was moved by the story of the ignored grand parents who were responsible for their coming to USA. We requested the Sheriff that the same relatives are present at the greyhound stop, to meetthe couple coming from Washington D C.

The Government rules do not permit financial assistance to any expatriate outside, for their travel in a foreign country. The old lady was therefore, requested to pay the Greyhound fare for two return tickets.’Masiji’ at that age, having been facing financial problems, became mildly weary. She claimed she had no money. On being informed: then the only choice available was to be handed over to the police. Very reluctantly, she took out from her dubbe (folds of her salwar) to reveal that she had more than adequate money to cover the fare expense and go back.

The next morning, Omi accompanied Masi and Panditji to the Greyhound stop and put them on to the bus.

All we know that this couple may not be alive today but Omi learnt his lesson not to part with his money to the children till death.