The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, May 25, 2003
Lead Article

Agony of being in exile
Rooma Mehra

Homesick exile: A painting by the writer
Homesick exile: A painting by the writer

EVERYBODY dreams impossible dreams, seen through rose-tinted glasses, sometime or the other in a lifetime. In one’s teens, however—perhaps because the rose-tint is untainted by the grays of skepticism—one also manages to make the impossible possible sometimes, I suppose, through the sheer optimism and stubbornness typical of the young.

I was a bit of a "wandering Jew" as a teenager and once bitten by the bug of wanderlust, even wild horses could not keep me at home—much to the immense chagrin of my ever-worried parents, because my journeys were long and final—for the length of their duration, that is !

I found myself working at the cash register of a posh Indian restaurant in a European city. The Catering and cleaning staff included a few other Indians and Pakistanis, who would never fail to give me a wondering glance whenever they could spare a moment to lift their noses from their respective grindstones to look up.

None of them were there by choice. They were a bit wary of me in the beginning since they believed I was a spy of the management —the owner of the restaurant was a distant relative of mine and, as a matter of fact, their fears were not altogether unfounded because I had been given instructions to keep a subtle eye on the staff as "they are not altogether reliable."


I happily bounced into the task of "supervision" incognita - till I realised that the "unreliable staff" worked from 10 am. till 12 pm. (or later, depending on the whims of the last guest) for seven days a week at negligible salaries that brought back uncomfortable memories of bonded labourers in some villages back home. There were strict restrictions on their food-intake and the tip to the waiter, duly entered on top of the bill, was to also go into the cash register, as a matter of rule. A few of them had not savoured a single holiday for years, and I witnessed the pathetic spectacle of one Indian waiter shakily go through his daily routine (extended to the wee hours of the morning because the last guest refused to budge) with a fever high enough to cause panic in a weaker person.

My loyalties did a volte face in the second month of my employment. Once my eyes were open to the clear exploitation staring me in the face, it was my turn to wonder why they did not go home. A few of them seemed to be well-educated, enlightened individuals. One of the Pakistanis working as water/dishconvinced of my non-spy status - a conclusion drawn perhaps, after I was involved in an exceedingly unpleasant confrontation with owner’s mink-clad wife, who, after having been duly informed of my changed loyalties, continued insisting upon an account of who had eaten a chapatti over the allotted quota of two chapattis per head per day over the month; who had pocketed the single schilling from the "tips account" found short at the end of the month from the cash. My offer for the deduction of the missing schilling (and its happy availing) from my salary put to rest everyone’s remaining doubts.

Once I was accepted, they opened up to me one by one—talking about their homes that they longed to go back to, the families they longed to be reunited with; the reasons they were living out a sub-human existence in an alien land.

Najam was one of the pro-Bhutto fugitives from Pakistan who had to flee from his country when gen. Zia came to power. He was a hard person, except when he was talking about the treatment he knew was being meted out to his leader in jail - his voice shook.

In the four months that I endured in the country, I imbibed enough experience to pack into a full-fledged nove—but the day that stands out in my memory is the day Bhutto was executed, when, walking into the restaurant kitchen, straight from my class, I saw a hardened full-grown adult crouching under a kitchen sink loaded with dirty utensils, sobbing like a baby. I came out unobserved, leaving him alone with a grief that I did not understand at the time.

The day the political scenario in Pakistan came a full circle—with Benazir the PM in the neighbouring Pakistan... there was a tiny hope inside me that defied objectivity, that najam and his friends had gone back home - at last.

Perhaps, so many years and much more wandering later, I have finally realised the value of home - and understood the wondering glances of those who dream, not of travelling to distant lands, but of going back home.