By G Venkatesh
Johannesburg or Jozi. This was the first city I visited outside my country at the age of thirty-two. Quite late for someone to embark on a foreign trip. Of course, my parents had never been abroad, but I was comparing myself with coevals here. And what a sojourn that was! Quite like a debut test for a cricketer where he gets into his own and looks forward to more stints at the crease or more overs to bowl. And there are many names which stand out in my mind’s eye – Rhoda (Anglicised version of Radha), Richard, Ruleman…Interestingly, the people I interacted most with during my short stay in the city, have names beginning with the letter ’R’!
Before I embarked on my journey, and even after I arrived there, I was told that Johannesburg was notorious for the rampancy of crime – car thefts, knifings, muggings, rapes, daylight robberies and what have you. I was told:
“Never take any valuables with you when you go out.”
“Well, man, even if you do that, they will put a knife on you and ask you to give them your short and trousers and the ordinary footwear you would be wearing…these are guys who need to sell things to get money for their drugs, you see.”
“Take care, friend, your first visit to our country should not leave behind bad impressions on your mind. We want you to take back good memories and share them with your folks and friends in India.”
The Westerners and Indians in the city were concerned. I would hear these words of advice from almost every South African and Indian I would meet during my stay there. They cared and never let me venture out alone anywhere. Many offered to drive me down wherever I wished to go. I felt protected…a kind of informal Z security, unasked for. But perhaps I felt safe, perhaps imprisoned and fettered. It is hard to say.
I arrived in the city with the intention of meeting a publisher who was keen to employ me if it would be possible to obtain a work permit for me from the Government of South Africa – a gargantuan task even now. I wanted to get away from India, experience different working cultures and live a fuller life – professionally. It was at this magazine-publishing office that I met Richard and Ruleman. Richard of Dutch and English parentage, working as the editor of a mining magazine, and Ruleman of Zimbabwean origin, was employed as the office-boy.
While every minute of my stay in Jozi was memorable, considering that this was my first sojourn outside India, the last two days left a lasting impact on my mind. The dreams of obtaining a work permit were shattered, and I started making plans to wend my way back to India. I had purchased a return ticket and would have travelled back in any case – of course to return in case the work permit was granted. On the last day but one, I was working late in the office, in order to do full justice to the project which has been assigned to me, even though I knew I had no future in the outfit or the city.
Only Ruleman was waiting, sensing that I should not be left to work alone in the office – burglars had broken into this office as well, I was told, a few months ago, and taken away some of the computers. Ruleman came into my room and assured me that he was waiting downstairs and that I could call him if I needed anything. At around 5.00 pm (work normally was wound up in Jozi at around 3.30 pm…they started work at 7.30 am) – which by Johannesburgish standards was late, I wound up, and walked down the stairs. Ruleman nodded, smiled, went around running a last-minute check of the doors and the lights and fans, and then escorted me out of the office. I used to walk back home – it was a 20 minute walk. Ruleman’s house was on the way. As we walked down, he asked me how I liked my stay here and felt sad that I would be leaving. He asked about India, and said he had always considered India as the ‘Land of Mahatma Gandhi’. I recalled that the African cabbie who had driven me down from the Jan Smuts International Airport two months ago, also told me the same thing. We reached his house. He told me that his parents would be delighted to meet me, if I could come over for tea the next day. I smiled and said that I would love to. I thought that he would bid goodbye for the evening.
He did not. ‘I shall drop you at your doorstep. You see, this is not a safe time to be walking around in this city…I do not want anything to happen to you just when you are about to leave Jozi.’ I was thankful, though I would not really have bothered about walking down alone. ‘My father talks a lot about India. He had a lot of good Indian friends when he was working in East Africa in his younger days. You should come over tomorrow. He would be very pleased, and so would I.’ Ruleman dropped me off at the gate of the house I stayed in as a tenant and bid me goodnight.
Next day, when it was time to leave, I remembered Ruleman’s invitation. However, till the day I had walked down with Ruleman back home, Richard used to drive me down to my place of residence before turning right and heading home. This being my last day, Richard wanted to drive me down at 4.00 pm, for one last time. Ruleman said that he wanted me to visit him, as decided on the previous day. I did not know what to say or do. If I had told Richard that I would visit Ruleman, perhaps, it would not have been appropriate. Turning down Ruleman’s invitation would also not have been a very nice thing to do. And clearly there was no via media.
Richard drove me down eventually. I rued my decision. I may possibly never see that ever-smiling, do-gooder Zimbabwean again. I sent Ruleman a card from India on my return and Richard wrote to me conveying Ruleman’s thanks for the same. Small consolation perhaps. Man often talks about looking for the via media – the middle path – the path or course of action which would leave none the worse for it. There are occasions where a middle path does not exist at all. A take it or leave it situation stares one in the face…just to remind man that no matter how hard he tries, there are many things beyond his control.
On a different note, when one sees goodness around, and care and concern for strangers who one would possibly not see again, one’s faith in God’s kindness being expressed through human agents gets reinforced. Jozi taught me a lot of lessons, which changed my perspectives towards life immensely. I was a totally different person on my return to India – calmer, spiritually aware, more respectful towards my parents, and in a nutshell – ‘grown-up’! I realised that deep down, we are all connected to the Super Soul….and a desire to do good and a willingness to help, resides in all human hearts.
G Venkatesh (50) is a Chennai-born, Mumbai-bred ‘global citizen’ who currently serves as Associate Professor at Karlstad University in Sweden. He has published 4 volumes of poetry and 4 e-textbooks, inter alia.
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