JoAnne searched diligently in the Bazaar. She’d learned through the servant grapevine Gopalraj could be found begging there on some days, and other days seemed to disappear off the face of the earth. Where could he be that foolish man? Attempts to pry further information out of servants attending other memsahibs on campus had proved to be ineffective. They’d shifted uneasily on their feet glanced at each other and averted eyes shaking their heads. Look in the bazaar was the only sensible communication JoAnne could get out of the lot of them.
She and her husband had returned from England where they’d completed postgraduate studies. Both were professors working in a university and it had been necessary for them to upgrade their academic qualifications to meet increasingly stringent requirements for government recognition of their university. Both JoAnne who’d been born in India to missionary parents from England, and her American husband similarly born in the country to missionary parents had returned to India after their education abroad in respective home bases. They’d kept in contact after graduating from an expatriate school in Mussoorie, India as high schoolers, having returned to their home countries where they completed a Master’s level education and begun teaching. Their constant letters translated into a yearning for each other and the life they’d had as children growing up which they now wanted to share again. This had eventuated in their marriage at Oxford, England and return as a couple to their beloved country of birth.
Oh, there’d been the usual teething problems establishing a new home. Years away had dampened some to the realities of living as expatriates. Things they now faced they’d watched with disinterest as their parents had dealt with those situations. They’d lived in a different isolated world. Life had been fun with Indian friends their age, servants had sided with them behind backs of their parents so they essentially had whatever they wanted, and their parents had faced situations which they’d been blissfully unaware of and protected from. Their parents were now living in their respective countries, US and England with the same zeal, but now wasted bodies in retirement.
JoAnne was now Dr Mrs James Johansson. While they’d been married for a while now she still enjoyed the novelty of rolling this off her tongue with an attempt at a Scandinavian accent as this for some reason irritated her husband. His roots may have been Scandinavian, but his accent was certainly American and he couldn’t understand her playful attempt to remind him he was originally from Europe. Her own name before marriage, JoAnne Cooper, seemed much simpler and she’d also playfully remind him how much easier if would be for everyone in India if he changed his name to James Cooper. She did this so an exasperated James would give her a playful smack followed by a hug and kiss. JoAnne liked James kisses and he hadn’t figured out why she did this up to this time. She hoped he didn’t as she wanted those kisses to continue!
Just before they’d departed for England for PhD studies JoAnne had entrusted her favoured protector in childhood Gopalraj to one of the expatriate families remaining at the University serving their time waiting for an upgrade themselves when James and JoAnne returned. Her parents had settled with Gopalraj before they left India in retirement giving him enough to construct a village hut and sufficient money to start his own business buying and selling in the bazaar. However, when he heard his child ward now grown and married had returned to India he hastened to welcome her. When his business failed she hastily took him back as master of the house servants and constructed a room for him on the veranda of the bungalow. She’d entrusted him to her friend Joan at the University to help in her own home. When she returned, there’d been no Gopalraj to greet her and assume his position of honour.
JoAnne’s friend Joan had been very sorry but firm. There’d been the loss of a considerable sum of money from her home. Everything had logically pointed to her old servant Mary and she’d just given Mary her walking orders when Gopalraj who’d been watching the whole drama unfold confessed to the crime. Joan had given him a tongue lashing for letting things get to the point where an innocent would lose their job, then given him a settlement and sent him away.
But something in the back of JoAnne’s mind could not accept that story. Not her Gopi as she’d called him in childhood. He was strictly honest and loyal. There would have to be some other explanation for the loss, and even if he’d been indiscreet enough to do such a thing she’d find him, forgive him and care for him. But it had been several days now and still no Gopalraj in sight.
Little did she know that in a far darkened corner of the bazaar Gopalraj had been watching. It wrung his heart to know that by now chota memsahib would have heard stories about him. It would be a great loss of face to meet her after that. But she kept returning and asking for him. He’d strictly warned everyone in the bazaar to keep his presence a secret. They thinking he had something to hide and being protective of their own against the foreigner kept his secret. But one day caught off guard a coolie glanced in Gopalraj’s direction involuntarily before denying any knowledge of Gopalraj’s whereabouts. JoAnne had been in India from childhood so understood the truth of body language against the falsehood of words. She headed immediately to the shadowy depths of the bazaar not to be put off this time. And there she found him.
Gopalraj stared at her without emotion then busied himself with negotiations he was in with one of the stall owner farm suppliers.
JoAnne moved between them and faced him. “Gopi?”
Tears came to the old man’s eyes and his body shook with emotion. She’d penetrated his steely resolve with that nickname she’d given him in childhood. Memories flooded into his mind and he reached unsteadily for something to hold him up.
Seeing his condition JoAnne began to cry while stall owners and coolies ran from every direction to watch. She reached over and touched the old man and he sank to her feet. She picked him up and held him.
Recovering quickly, she turned to the one Gopalraj was doing business with and broke into flawless Hindi wanting to know the nature of their transaction. Money was required by the farmer for produce delivered. How much? The amount was thrust into his hands and he was waved off while the bazaar people gaped. They crowded in closer to witness this amazing event.
JoAnne looked around and found some bales of corn, heading there with Gopalraj by the hand to sit and discuss the story she’d heard. There was a commotion in the crowd and a chair was quickly put in place instead. She decided to stand, and lapsed back into English.
“Gopi, you’d never take money that wasn’t yours, would you?”
“No Memsahib,” Gopi said truthfully.
“What happened Gopi?”
“I don’t want to get anyone into trouble Memsahib, so I can’t tell!”
JoAnne had a sudden inspiration. “It really was Mary wasn’t it Gopi?” she said softly stroking his arm.
One of the stall holders in the crowd who understood their conversation said, “Yes, it was Mary!”
Gopalraj stood in anger and a staccato conversation in the local dialect accompanied by waving hands and fists between the two while the crowd pressed in for this welcome entertainment.
“Why didn’t you tell the truth then Gopi? You’ve spoiled your reputation for no good reason.”
Gopi stood erect. “Mary is old and her grandchild needed an operation. She was already heavily in debt to the money lender and he wanted to sell her daughter to pay the debt what could she do, and how could I let her get dismissed?”
JoAnne nodded in understanding. “Where are you living now Gopi?”
“Here Memsahib.” He pointed to a charpoy in the corner.
JoAnne patted his arm fondly. “I’ll be back to see you tomorrow Gopi.”
The next few hours were a time of frantic activity. JoAnne cornered Mary and pressed the truth out of her. The old lady fell at her feet pleading for mercy and JoAnne told her she understood and sympathized. Life was not easy for the underclasses of India so she had to make sure two wrongs were not done in this situation to make one right.
JoAnne talked with James that evening and they came up with a novel plan to rectify the situation. The amount of the loss was one thousand rupees, a large sum of money in those days. They called for Mary late that evening when few prying eyes would wonder what their business was with her. During their conversation Mary revealed there was a trunk in the house store room that hadn’t been used since the sacking of Gopi. Mary was instructed to clean the storeroom and find the thousand rupees they gave her in a trunk turning it over to her Memsahib asking if that was the amount that had been missing when Gopi had been released.
That afternoon Joan rushed over to her friend to report on this discovery and express extreme regret over what had happened.
“Why did Gopi confess he took this money when it wasn’t the truth? He’s partly responsible for this terrible mistake!” Joan was wringing her hands trying to justify her action.
JoAnne faked a stern look. “I met Gopi at the bazaar yesterday and asked him that same question after pulling the truth out of him. He couldn’t bear to have you dismiss Mary after her working for so many years for you despite what he imagined she may have done. So, in his mind he was doing the noble thing and taking the blame not knowing what the truth was himself.” JoAnne had a temporary twinge of conscience for stretching the truth.
Joan continued to wring her hands. “What can be done for the poor man now, I feel so wretched!”
“Why don’t we both go to the bazaar and bring him home Joan? Perhaps you can explain that you forgot the money had been put in a trunk for safe keeping? After all that would be the prudent thing to do and easily forgotten.”
And so, Gopi was bought triumphantly back to campus to spend the rest of his days living in the special room previously constructed before James and JoAnne departed for their PhD studies in England. It had been a storeroom for their furnishings when the University needed space elsewhere and was unused now once the family returned.
On the way, back to the compound from the Bazaar Joan insisted on having Gopi measured for several changes of clothes to replace the well-worn garments of his bazaar years which she paid for. He could never wear those bazaar clothes around the university.
JoAnne had told him to leave all his things at the bazaar as his needs would be provided from that time on. But he insisted on going back to his old sleeping quarters one more time to retrieve something. As he emerged standing tall he held only one thing in his hand. He caught JoAnne trying to peep out of curiosity and proudly displayed it to Joan and JoAnne. It was a childhood picture of chota memsahib JoAnne.
© Copyright Ian Grice 2017 All rights reserved.