Flirting with Danger
Grant emerged from the minibus with a mixture of happiness and fear. He was followed by an assortment of tourists complaining about cramped conditions on the way from Mumbai. They’d been irritated by the heat on arrival and the cramped quarters of the minibus with luggage piled around them as they’d negotiated traffic out of a city which never seemed to end.
Slick brochures had looked exotic but when matched with reality they’d been disappointed. Originally, they’d anticipated riding the Deccan Queen on the way up the Ghats to Pune where they were to meet a guide to take them on a quick tour of historical sites of the city before flying out to New Delhi as a staging point for Agra and a final quick trip to Mussoorie.
The group had been captivated as they’d approached the Ghats for the ascent to Deccan Plateau with its waterfalls and lush green countryside. It was monsoon time and the country presented at its best. Grant knew that before the monsoon arrived it would have been a dry grassless plain. No waterfalls then, and no flame trees blossoming in abundance.
But as Grant thought of his rapid exit from India twenty years previous he’d decided the Deccan Queen would possibly expose him to danger. There could be some who recognized him after all these years for he’d attended school with Indian friends rather than going abroad to study as most foreign kids did in those days. While the tourists he’d gathered to finance this nostalgia trip had paid him handsomely for all arrangements there was a lingering feeling he’d made a mistake in planning to rediscover his roots.
Funny he should look on Bharat Mata, Mother India, as his country. He was English by ancestry, but his ancestors had dwelt in this country since the earliest days of the Raj. The extended family had occupied a range of professions in India in those days, some managing tea estates, some employed by the civil service, some army but his father had been in railroads, Lonavala at the top of the ascent being his final appointment before retirement. Grant smiled as he remembered those days. The little bungalow was always abuzz with visitors and his father was more comfortable speaking Marathi with Indian friends than his mother tongue English.
Then came independence and his father had decided to spend retirement in the country he loved while one by one the rest of the extended family moved to England, Australia and America. Grant had found it difficult to gain employment after finishing school, so his father had used meagre savings to set him up in business. Grant knew how things worked in India and he was helped with contacts by Indian school friends as they grew up and entered respective family businesses.
As Grant spanned two cultures he learned to leverage that in business focusing on tourists. Learning there was a huge trade abroad for Indian quartz crystals he paid an assortment of urchins to collect and bring samples to him. The best of the crop he garnered and processed to sell to tourists. Trade flourished, and he was making a comfortable living from the business employing a small army to find, process and entice the tourist trade.
In one of those contacts he was approached by a foreign tourist who was a collector and distributor in America. The foreigner drove a hard bargain but promised that if a steady supply to export was guaranteed the volume at low profit would make Grant a rich man. Possibilities seemed enormous and Grant began to plan how to maximize his fortune.
Grant’s thoughts were interrupted by a tap on the shoulder and he froze in fear. Turning nervously, he relaxed. It was only Will. Oh yes, he’d promised to take them to his favourite restaurant on this quick transit stop for a first introduction to genuine Indian food. This was his town, quite a lot of development since he’d left hurriedly as a young adult, but he was confident he’d still find it intact and the food would be just as mouth watering as he’d imagined it to be preparing for the trip.
So, they walked briskly in that direction and Grant stopped in bewilderment. The whole block had been replaced with a more upmarket set of shops. He stood momentarily wondering what to do then rather than lose face led them into one of the new restaurants. A waiter came running and ushered them into private booths where Grant picked up a menu and studied it. Then the language flowed out of him as he questioned the waiter and chose an assortment of dishes for the group. Their minibus driver looked in hopefully and Grant beckoned him in pointing to another table where he told him to order what he wanted.
He quizzed the waiter about families he’d known in Lonavala before his departure, but the waiter shook his head. He was from another state and knew little about the history of the town or families mentioned. Grant was both disappointed and relieved in equal measure.
It was toward the end of their meal when they were about to head back to the minibus for a final run to Pune when his worst fears were realized.
Grant spun around and stared at the Indian dressed smartly in pant and kamis trying to focus and remember. Who was it?
In rapid fire Urdu he introduced himself. It was one of the guys he’d hung around with during Indian business years, Hussain Poonawalla.
Hussain pointed to the tour group and continued in Urdu. “New business?” He roared with laughter.
Grant excused himself from the tour group as they looked on with interest. They’d some knowledge of his growing up years in India but knew very little other than that apart from the fact he was a university lecturer, so this had their attention and Grant preferred to leave any other details out.
He took Hussain’s outstretched hand and they headed for the entrance. Hussain pointed to the inside of the restaurant. “Are they crystal buyers? Are you still smuggling?” He roared with laughter as Grant squirmed in his shoes.
Grant decided bravado would be the best course of action under these circumstances so slapped his friend of long ago and reverted to Hindi as his Urdu had become rusty after years away. “I learned my lesson Hussain, what are you doing now?”
Hussain sobered. “I work with customs in Mumbai now yar!”
Then when he saw the alarm in Grant’s eyes he roared with laughter switching to Marathi. “No, I’ve taken over my father’s business in Pune and Mumbai. Are you coming to Pune? I’m on my way there from Mumbai.”
Grant nodded weakly.
“Good you will be my guest tonight at our restaurant. Bring your group and we will show them what real Indian food is like. Where will you be staying?”
Grant’s brain processed this rapidly then decided to trust Hussain. They’d been very close friends at school. “We’ll be staying at the Blue Diamond Hotel.”
“You should be settled in the Blue Diamond if you leave now and be available by 7 pm. We have a restaurant on East Street, I see you have transportation. See you at 7 pm then yar!” He turned and walked toward his car and barked to the driver to get underway. The driver salaamed and rushed around to open the back door for Hussain to get in. He turned and waved, and Grant returned to his group heart still racing from the encounter. At least he felt he could trust Hussain should there be any incident that needed fixing Hussain knew how to do that.
That evening the group were transported to the Poonawalla East Street restaurant. Grant was amazed at the difference in this part of Pune which in his day had been referred to as the Cantonment area. The whole area had been upgraded but still retained some of the character he remembered from years gone by. Hussain’s family personally waited on their guests and course after course flowed from the kitchen as guests sampled and consumed large quantities of water to put out chili fires. But the curries were so delicious they could not resist more and more until there was no further room and they had to reluctantly wave dishes away.
Grant and Hussain sat at a separate table Grant on his guard as they recalled their schooldays and caught up on the lives of old mutual friends who were now scattered around India and the world as successful businessmen and professionals. But eventually the subject had to come up.
“Why did you run Grant yar, you should have trusted us to solve the problem?”
“You know why Hussain, they were on to us for smuggling those crystals out! It’s OK for you because you have family connections to get you out, but with my white skin I’d never have survived in an Indian prison. So, I took my British passport and did a runner. It was hard on my parents. I eventually convinced them to join me in the US after I’d become established. They were very unhappy being removed from their friends and out of their cultural comfort zone, but I looked after them well and eventually they warmed to their new environment when they found some expatriate Indians living in the area and were able to enjoy their company. They are dead now of course.”
Hussain lapsed back into Urdu as he reflected on how Grant’s parents had helped finance him into his first car when he was temporarily at odds with his family over a marriage proposal.
A feeling of peace came over Grant as he reflected on his happy childhood and school years. His business associations with Hussain’s family had been profitable and smooth. Suddenly, he wanted those years back.
“I feel so happy now that I’m back here Hussain, but I’m worried about what might happen if I come up against some of those officials who were after me. I have no mark against me at home and in my job at the university I cannot afford to have any hint of a shady past”
Hussain shrugged. “We solved the problem immediately yar but when I came to tell you the file had been mysteriously removed from the CID office you’d already done a runner. Why didn’t you trust me? You know how things work here!”
Grant looked at him incredulously. “Do you mean to say I’ve avoided coming back all these years and there was no need to be worried about the case? There was no need for me to remove my parents from the environment they loved?”
“You covered your tracks too well yar, we had our contacts search for you in England as we naturally thought that’s where you’d go with your British passport. Couldn’t find you!”
Grant shook his head. “I did return to England and contacted my American agent who worked so I could start afresh there. I was employed by him and studied my way through to a PhD program so transferred to education.”
Hussain’s face showed a trace of irritation. “I contacted that guy and he said he had no idea what had happened to you, so he really covered your tracks didn’t he?”
To be continued.
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