Tuesday, 14 May 2013

A Loan Repaid

    I first met Zaheer at Motiram's garage where he often whiled away his time. He was unemployed like many other youths then. He helped me to get a chicken that I was desperately looking for, as we were expecting guests for lunch.
           Nazira, a sleepy nook in the late seventies, was grappling with the requirements of the oil personnel who were posted here from diverse Indian regions. Earlier it was a content little town evolving from the many tea gardens that surrounded it. With the discovery of  oil-fields around it, it was only natural for the ONGC to set up a colony here. 
          The means of meeting the household needs were the  co-operative store just outside the colony gates and other small kiosks. In the evenings, a “haat” sprung up selling local produce of vegetables, fruits, fish, poultry and eggs. The vendors’ cries mingled with the smell of kerosene flames as the people peered at the wares and poked the fish to check for freshness. This was the only time and place to stock up. That should explain my desperation when I met Zaheer. For it is sacrilegious to offer a meal to guests without the fish and the meat in any self respecting Assamese household.
            Assam  was in a turmoil with discontent brewing like a bubbling cauldron. The Student’s Agitation was gaining momentum. The youth across the state were swept away in its currents like the Brahmaputra ruthlessly eroded chunks of land when in spate.  To them the out-siders were exploiters looting away the resources of the place while the locals were left penniless.
     I met him outside  our colony gate one evening.
“Hello Zaheer! How’s everything? ”
He came up to me with an embarrassed look and gazed straight at me, “Can you help me to get a job, dada?” I was taken aback.
“Why a job? Why don’t you do something on your own?”
“Dada, I don’t have the money to start on my own and I cannot ask abba."
        I discussed Zaheer with my wife Moni. He seemed a nice lad to me. There was something latent in him, restless with caged energy.
“Why don’t we help him?” said Moni quietly, “ I've some savings, you know.”  I called him the next day.
“My wife and I thought about it, Zaheer. If you are serious about it, we will give you a loan of fifteen hundred rupees which is my wife’s savings actually. You can repay us once you make headway.”
    He was speechless. “You could start with a bakery since there isn't one here. Things like bread, cakes, biscuits…There would be a demand for them in the colony” said I.
Zaheer’s face lighted up as he saw the idea taking shape.
 I've a friend who has a bakery in Sibsagar. You could begin by sourcing  the products from there” I said.
“Yes, I can tie up to get the stuff by the early morning State Transport bus,” said Zaheer his eyes shining.

    And so began Zaheer’s shop T-fin. Every morning his wares would arrive in a black tin box by the first bus from Sibsagar. Initially these barely managed to cover the shelves that his carpenter friend made. Breads, biscuits, puffs were suddenly available in Nazira. People started trickling in, first out of curiosity and then out of habit.
  After a long tenure at Nazira  I was posted to Madras, now renamed Chennai.   
   The next time I met him was during our home town visit when he came to take us to Nazira. 
    "Zaheer, you have done well for yourself" I said.
"Allah has been kind, dada!" said he.
 I saw a T-fin, all spruced up and swanky being handled by Bulbul, his brother.  Next to it was an electronics showroom flaunting gadgets from small transistors to televisions. 

"But I have had my moments of doubts as well" said he with a smile. 
"I took up a job with the Accounts department in ONGC for a couple of years leaving the bakery with a manager, thinking of a secured future."
This was news to me. 
"And now you are back to business again. Why?"
" You know I had five sisters to be educated and married off. I needed money fast and the salary was not enough for this. When I finally decided to leave the job everyone thought I was mad. They dissuaded me, counselled me...But I knew what I wanted and how to get it. No, the salary was not going to tide me over. " Zaheer laughed. We were sitting in his office room catching up after a long time.  
     After leaving the job he plunged into business building up from what he had. Zaheer, I learnt, had forayed into construction business soon after.  He built a reputation for himself for his quality of work and soon it was flourishing. 
Assam in 1990s had a parallel murky goings-on with the surrendered militants of ULFA demanding a fees for applying for tenders. And once you got the tender they were expected to be given a commission. This was eating into the business man's profit. 

"In such a situation, the quality of work would have to be compromised for I couldn't work on a loss. I spent many sleepless nights. My reputation was at stake. That was when I decided to give it up. I gave up my flourishing business of construction. It was tough but there was no other way" said Zaheer with a grimace. Just then the phone rang. Zaheer excused himself to attend it.

    Right from the beginning it has been a constant struggle. But Zaheer was a fighter.
I looked out of his office at the showroom. He had a couple of more branches. It was bristling with customers and salesmen.
"Your showrooms are also doing well" I said when he looked around from his call.
" Dada, I've realised that it is better to change route once you hit a dead end. So when I see a particular venture not doing well or not giving the expected returns, I start something different" said Zaheer, "something that I believe I can give my best to. Come dada, lets go for lunch. Manju is waiting for us."

      A young lad who was once scouring for employment now fed many homes. A reputed businessman, Zaheer never forgot his own humble beginnings. At a time when his contemporaries were fumbling to find their bearings, Zaheer realised his calling.  

      Every time I went back to Nazira, I saw him grow. He had long paid me back the loan. What I witnessed now was the interest.  I couldn’t have asked for a better repayment.

I wish to get my story published in Chicken Soup for the Indian Entrepreneurs Soul in association with BlogAdda.com

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Changing Course

"I think it's time to change course."
The room went quiet with the weight of uncertainty bearing down heavily on the two people present - the husband and the wife.
 "We cannot continue with our dream if we always have to wait for others to provide us with the means", said Manoj quietly.
"That needs money...We will spend our entire life paying off the loan," reasoned Sabina.
"At least we will have something to work on. All those with whom we have liaised so far, are getting their own boats for the surveys. Very soon we will be left high and dry."

   Guwahati was warm and humid with sudden downpours of the monsoon rains. I sipped the glass of chilled drink sitting on the deck of Alfresco. The wide Brahmaputra, swollen with the waters fed from the hills, lapped against the hull of the boat. Today is the inaugural of Alfresco, Sabina and Manoj's first baby, taking the plunge into tourism. Sabina and I sat a little away from the invited guests, trying to catch a quiet moment. In the last ten years that I've known her, she’s always been chirpy and full of sunshine.  
    “Here, by the river every problem is dwarfed. I feel there is nothing that we cannot take on. These last few months that we spent over hauling the boat, I've been intrigued by it. The amount of trash that it tolerates, our efforts to tame it and yet it moves on" she said trying to tuck in her windswept hair 
    As the boat glided over the brown waters, all the guests soaked in the moment. Gradually the chatter died down and the only sounds were the drone of the engine and the whistling wind.

     Months rolled by. I got married and moved out with my husband. I was sporadically in touch with Sabina. From friends back home, I knew that Alfresco was doing well.
    The next time I went to Guwahati for a vacation, I got a call from Momy, " Lets meet at Alfresco this evening." I loved the idea but wasn't too sure, "You know Ma, Momy. We are here just for a week and she's very possessive about the time spent with her."
 ”I’ll speak to Aunty. As it is we don't get to meet you every day" Mommy insisted. Fortunately my mother agreed and I was excited at the thought of meeting my friends. Secretly I wished to flaunt the Alfresco and the enterprising duo in front of my husband.
  We reached the site where the Alfresco was anchored, well in time for the sun-set cruise. We were delighted meeting after such a long time.
   "How did you manage to get her out Momy?" laughed Sabina. You won't believe the promises I made to aunty!" said Momy rolling her eyes, "I promised to call her up every weekend, visit her once at least every two months and she promised me two bottles of her pickles".
      Our chatter seemed a series of disjointed observations, and memories while our husbands endured patiently with sheepish grins.  And all this while, Sabina left us at intervals- sometimes to check on the operations, at times to inquire after the other guests on the cruise. I watched her slip into her many roles seamlessly - the mistress of the ship, the host, the friend... The hour long cruise ended too soon for my liking. We stayed on as the other guests trickled out reluctantly.
 "Come here I want to show you something," said Sabina with a toss of her head. She led us down the stairs to the other side of the boat.
 "What do you think of our new addition!" she asked with a smile. Another boat lay bobbing. The three of us trooped into Agam, treading over the gangway that was thrown across. The interiors were warm with cane furniture adding to the rustic beauty. The canopied upper deck was done up to accommodate parties and events. As we wandered around, Pradip, an old hand with Alfresco came in to announce dinner.
    "So, how is your family Pradip?" I asked him ambling as Sabina hurried off.
   "They are both doing well, baidew”smiled Pradip and followed Sabina. Momy let me into an incident.
 “His wife was due for delivery. It was late at night when she developed a sudden pain. You know how difficult it is to get a transport in Guwahati after eight in the evening. Manoj was not around, Sabina somehow managed to get an auto and took them to the hospital just in time. She managed to find a doctor also. Their baby was saved.”
" You know, I've noticed they are good with their employees and they in turn understand this" continued Momy.

   The river flowed on relentlessly in every season. In the monsoons, it gushed recklessly threatening to breach embankments, slashing away huge chunks of land and was always in  spate. During this time Sabina and Manoj  conducted local hour long cruises. When the fury died down  after a couple of months, they had  long distance cruises to Kaziranga National Park and Majuli, the river island and the Assamese spiritual hub, giving a glimpse of tea gardens and villages on the way. This was their elixir - navigating with a crew that knew the river like the back of their hands; respecting the river's ways and blending with it. During the winters when the water is low exposing sandbars, day long picnics or over- night outings are arranged under the starry sky.
   Once when I was in Delhi, Momy called up to say Manoj had to undergo a kidney transplant at Coimbatore. I spoke to Sabina, “Have you found a donor?"
   "No, it’s been three months but the doctors are hopeful" she sounded worried.
    "Don't lose heart. It'll work out just fine."
  "I can only hope for the best. I don't want to leave Manoj alone but our work is suffering back there."
  "So, what have you thought of?"
  "Manoj wants me to go back. I'll have to send someone to be with him. It’s going to be difficult but we have no choice." I agreed. Tough times called for difficult choices.
  Later I learnt that Sabina made several trips to Coimbatore till the transplant took place successfully. She trudged on, looking after her home and the ship operations with her family of staff. Manoj was finally back after many months but still weak. He couldn't stay for long hours at work. One evening he was home early taking rest, and Sabina was working from home. The ship was out on a local cruise with a party on-board in full swing.  They got a call late in the evening.
" Dada, there is an emergency! The ship with the Railways party is stuck in the sand in the middle of the river. It cannot move and there is a thick fog around it." 
 Manoj and Sabina immediately rushed to the river bank which was a little distance away. When they reached, they found the passengers already  safe on the shore and the ship being towed in by the rescue team of Inland Water Transport. Harilal, one of their  staff, had already swung into action sending SOS calls to IWT and river police.  Knowing his employer's condition, Harilal went ahead with the rescue operation keeping the passengers' safety and the organisation's reputation  in mind. 
      It was with the same sense of belonging and identity that some of Manoj and Sabina's employees refused to join the National Waterways Authority of India when it opened up lucrative opportunities. Although the couple sent many of their boys to join the organisation citing future prospects and job security, some of them refused. Harilal was one of them.
" This is my company also. How can I leave it and join someone else?" said Harilal when Sabina tried reasoning him.

     Two years back I came across some photographs uploaded on the Facebook.  Sabina was seen receiving an award in Bengaluru for a hospitality category. It set me thinking as I was myself staring at a crossroad then. When you truly set your heart and soul on your dream and follow it with a passion, it reveals a treasure at every bend.

     It was last winter, waiting to meet her; I gazed at the bend in the river. How amiably the river accommodated the turns and the twists, the little ferries and the launches on its back. Sabina and Manoj's indigenous Manasputra was homing in. This ship was the biggest and the most suave of them all. With decks on two levels, a restaurant and neatly tucked cabins, it was bustling with guests and smart uniformed crew.

     The last rays of the sun etched the silhouette of the ship. The somber river rocked it playfully. Sabina stood at the far end of the deck looking out at the river… for tomorrow was another journey ...for her and her crew.


I wish to get my story published in Chicken Soup for the Indian Entrepreneurs Soul in association with BlogAdda.com

Sunday, 5 May 2013

No Repetition!

"Excess of anything is bad for health", was my parents' favourite refrain in the growing years. So, if I was glued to the TV for long hours; reading incessantly at various angles on the bed or the sofa; gossiping over the phone as my father paced across the room with furrowed brows as a sign of his disapproval; or crammed in potato wafers everyday, they threw down this line at me to take hint and curb the excesses.

And they couldn't have been further from the truth. Everything has its charm for a certain time. In the 80s, we lapped up serials like "Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi", "Hum Log", "Kathasagar", "Buniyaad" and waited patiently for the "Chitrahaar"s. They still manage to evoke fond memories. There was a time when newsreaders were stars in their own right. The list is endless.Compare that with today and it is very likely that you will find only the inane and a never ending thirst for something new every minute with 24x7 media and the social media. The result would be a sore thumb from channel flicking. 

So if I had a chance to repeat a day over and over , I'ld rather say "No ,Thank you". In the repetitions would creep in complacency and a false ego. There wouldn't be anymore frontiers to discover. Every day brings with it new hopes and opportunities to find new horizons. If I fall on a particular day, at least I'ld have got up with a new lesson learnt. And that would be far more enriching than watching a repeat telecast of a glorious day. 
If Sergei Bubka was happy the first time around he broke the record for pole vaulting and contended himself watching it repeatedly , he would have never pushed himself to his limits and realised his true potential. 

Note This is a post for Blogadda's WOW initiative.

This post is a part of Write Over the Weekend, an initiative for Indian Bloggers by BlogAdda