Monday, May 21, 2007


It happened over a quarter century ago. Not many events remain in tact within the folders of my fading memory but this continues to be cuddled in my cranium.

It happened in Monrovia, in the West African state, Liberia. Liberia is the only state in all of Africa that was not colonized by a foreign power. Monrovia, the capital was named after James Monroe the fifth president of the United States. The capital Monrovia at this time had a population of approximately one hundred thousand inhabitants.

It is believed that the carrion complexion and kinky hair of the negroid strain is recessive. So too I have found from all my peripatetic peregrinations from coast to coast and across continents that they are a people who exult in the act of sharing what little they possess with as many as they can find without a tincture of regret or remorse.

I was employed as controller of a construction company in Monrovia, engaged in World Bank projects. The staff comprised of Italians, Malaysians, Ghanians, Nigerians, Sierra Leoneans and of every tribe in Liberia. The president of the company, a master plumber was trained in the United States. A man of about five foot four was built like a fire hydrant. He was one who believed that he should first treat himself to the very best. Caviar, champagne and the Concord. Nothing less. Although he had a proclivity for pampering himself with the first take, he was of generous and forgiving temperament.

At a certain point of time during my sojourn with the company strange things began to happen. Every Monday morning when we reported for work, items of small value were found to be missing. Not much attention was paid at first. The value of items began getting bigger and bigger as the Mondays rolled by. From pocket calculators to heavy adding machines. It now reached a point when it became a guessing game as to what would be missing. Men and women would discuss the robbery in whispers in corners. There were no signs ever of a break-in. There was no need for a Sherlock Holmes. " Elementary Doctor Watson." It was an inside job. These facts set in motion a torrent of indictments by innuendo turning the atmosphere at work noxious and inter staff relationship divisive and debilitating. I felt I was left out of the lasso of suspects only because I , a foreigner, would not wager, put in jeopardy a lucrative contract of employment.

It was a Saturday. It was around eleven thirty in the morning. The closing time was twelve noon. I observed men and women running down the stairs making a loud noise. I followed the sound and found myself in the yard adjoining the main office. A circle had been formed. In the center, squatted, was a man, unkempt,gaunt with a face resembling a battle axe, dressed in African garb on which time had left her grisly marks projecting that supercilious, imperious comportment of a Liberian cop. He had a rusty basin with yellow liquid, a machete and some leaves. On inquiry I was informed he was a Juju man and had been sent for by the president. His job was to catch the thief. The president too was present.

The Juju man proceeded to call those present to come one by one and take the test. He would request the participant to hold on one end while he held the other end of the machete. He placed the leaves on it and sprinkled the yellow liquid from the basin. The tested was then asked to loosen the grip on the machete and withdraw his hand. A guilty person would not be able to let go of the machete we were told. Every one present passed the test. I was not called. I teetered towards volunteering for the experience but backed off. I had no faith in this addled arcane art of detection and feared of being unfairly implicated. What bewildered me more was in the circle of participants were members of the staff who were sophisticated, skilled professionals, educated and trained in the United States, very western in their ways in conduct and bearing who were readily submitting themselves to the dictates of a Juju man and unquestioningly awaiting the outcome.

At this point some one in the circle asked "Where is Alfred?." He is in the office working on the pay roll came the reply. "Send for him" the president ordered. Alfred Koroma, a Sierra Leonean was always the first to arrive and last to leave the office. Reticent, intractable, always with a tortured expression he kept mostly to himself. He was for the most part deferential and distant in his dealings with his confreres. Alfred arrived. He had that perplexed "What is this all about?" look. He was asked to submit to the now familiar routine.

Alfred held the machete at one end and the JuJu man held the other. Leaves were placed and the yellow liquid sprinkled as before. The Juju man now asked Alfred Koroma to loosen his grip on the machete and remove his hand. He could not. Tried as hard as he did. A gasp escaped from the crowd and then there was total silence. The JuJu man lapsed into an incantation lasting about a minute or two at the end of which Alfred was able to let go of the machete. Alfred got testy. He remonstrated that the whole exercise was a farce and should not be relied upon. The JuJu man with unflappable demeanor asked Alfred "Are you challenging me?" Alfred hesitated, and then with a hang-dog expression replied between clenched teeth " NO " and made a dash for his cubicle faster than a discharged bullet. It is believed that had Alfred challenged the veracity of this test the JuJu man could cast a spell and some harm would certainly come to him before sun set.

The president was a witness to all this. He returned to his office, his head bowed with that anguish that takes hold of a jockey when agonizing whether or not to shoot his injured horse. He said nary a word. Alfred was his favorite. His pride. His pick of the litter.

Alfred Koroma was not fired. He was not called upon to pay for the stolen property. He was not admonished. The robberies stopped and Mondays resumed their uneventful monotony once more,

As some of us trundle forward in the twilight time of our lives we begin to live our lives backwards. Bringing to mind these timeless caressing and comforting words of Wordsworth.

"For oft when on my couch I lie in vacant or in pensive mood,
they (memories) flash upon that inward eye which is the
bliss of solitude."

K.B. Chandra Raj

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Jumping Jacket

Duke Sudhumatter and his wife Vanessa have taken the Metro North train from Fairfield to the Grand Central for over a decade. As was customary with the morning Metro commuters, they would occupy the same seat each day and see the same faces around them. Some in deep slumber, some with their faces buried in the morning news paper, some feverishly clicking on their computers and yet others could be seen talking in whispers. Duke and Vanessa get home each night exhausted from the excruciating demands of their work. They use their one hour twenty three minutes of train travel, free from the irritating intrusions of the telephone and television to discuss, disagree and defer on a wide sweep of topics, from the momentous to the miniscule. Depending on the mood of the moment the gossip and jocose jabber can in a flash turn into serious colloquy. Cabined and cribbed within the confines of the compartment they had to hear each other out. Where would they finally settle down; when should they retire; the son's giddy infatuation for his new girl friend; " you see Dookie" Vanessa would say " all this romance stuff is simply moon shine. When you are courting as you and I should know,there's a lot of foam and froth, a great deal of fussing and all that but is she up to it for the long haul?"; about the daughter's penchant for evangelical pursuits; " She's so dependable Vanes; she has become predictable", Dookie would sweeten the exchange; who should be invited for the next Christmas lunch; and so on they would fill the time switching back and forth from English to the vernacular with the fluency of a light fingered pianist running over the black and white keys.

Duke, of frugal construction and dapper in dress, believed that if you husbanded the pennies well they would beget pounds and had a track record to prove it. Vanessa was of "leave me out of household budgeting" state of mind. As soon as Duke Sudhumatter boarded the train he would remove his jacket, fold it neatly and place it on the overhead rack. " Why don't you keep the jacket on, Duke, like all the others? I really don't understand." was the daily refrain and the pat response was, " I don't want it crushed. I feel warm anyway." With this opening gambit out of the way Duke Sudhumatter would get cuddly and close, nestle by his wife's side and reflect for a few fleeting moments the menu for their day's discourse.

Duke Sudhumatter was constantly pursued by the haunting fear of being over weight. He would exercise each morning and then standing in front of the dressing table mirror check it out this way and that. At the most inconvenient time of day or night he would ask, " Vanes do you think I have put on weight?" and Vanessa would come up with the same reply every time. " Duke why don't you step on the bath room scale?" Duke would whimper: " You know how I dread even approaching the machine. That machine can pulverize your personality, crush your ego and blow it into your eyes in ten seconds. Every time I go for a bath it is mocking at me. " Step on me to see " The inventor of the personal weighing scale must be hooting and jeering from his grave as Madam Defarge did when witnessing the French aristocrats being trundled away in tumbrels to the guillotine. I know when I wear my jacket. Clothes Vanes, clothes. They are kinder and gentler than those torture machines."

" O.K. Duke, do as you wish" Vanes would say. Life was beautiful until one day: " Vanes, I have not worn the blazer my son gave me for Christmas for some time. I feel like wearing it." So saying aloud Duke Sudhumatter removed the blazer from the closet and standing foppishly in front of the mirror tried it on. " Oh my God Vanes, Oh my God come here immediately. Come soon" Sudhumatter bellowed. Vanessa who was toweling after a shower dropped everything and jumped out to see whether there had been an accident.
" The jacket is tight on me. Can you see? I have put on weight. Even the pants I think."
" I have told you Duke to go slow on those puddings. You will not listen to me."
" I shall have coffee only in the morning and soup alone for lunch" I shall wear this blazer every day, so I will know when I lose weight."

The couple boarded the train and Vanessa took her accustomed seat. Duke Sudhumatter went through the motion of placing the jacket on the overhead rack and joined his wife. The pressing topic for discussion today was when each of them should retire. " Before we decide where we are going to settle down, Dookie, we should decide when each one of us is going to retire." A spirited discussion ensued.
" Vanes, for well over thirty five years, if I may quote Churchill even if out of context, I have given my blood, sweat and tears to my job and employer. I am plain tired Vanes. I would like to retire next month and head for home."

" You know Dookie, you have said this so often it ceases to be a serious proposition." Duke noticed the man who always sat opposite them staring at him. " Vanessa this chap who is always seated opposite to us keeps staring at me." Vanessa looked up by which time the man had turned his gaze away. " May be he is gay" she teased. "You will resort to anything Duke to avoid a serious discussion." When they got off the train Duke noticed the man following him close, almost breathing on his neck. " He is following me." Duke Sudhumatter was agitated.

" You are paranoid Duke, we're getting late; Let's go." By this time Duke and Vanessa had come up the escalator with the man still behind. At the Grand Central entrance the stalker made his way towards Madison Avenue while Duke Sudhumatter and Vanessa went in the direction of First Avenue.

The following day the same man was seated opposite and he kept glaring at Duke. He followed Duke and Vanessa up the escalator until they parted outside the Grand Central. Vanessa too was now convinced that something was amiss since this went on for a whole week.

Meanwhile Duke Sudhumatter was frenetically working out every morning. He rigidly adhered to his regimen of coffee in the morning and soup alone for lunch. In the night he would run down the street breathing heavily to the accompaniment of barking dogs and the titillation of neighbors. Neighbors peeking through curtains would summon their kids to witness the spectacle of Duke Sudhumatter running round the block. Just as Captain Ahab in Moby Dick was demoniacally driven to capture the white whale that had crippled him, so too Duke Sudhumatter standing in front of the dressing table mirror wrestled each morning with the blazer. " I shall over come" he would hum with great deal of brio.

The following week it was decided that Duke should flash at this stranger that winsome smile that had caused many a damsel's heart to flutter and swoon, a smile that came easily to him. He should then strike up a conversation. No sooner did Duke take his seat, he looked at the man and turning on his charm full blast with Vanessa observing closely, said " Hello." He received an icy cold stare in response.
" It didn't work Vanes"
" He must be crazy " Vanessa cooed.
The couple got off the train followed by the staring passenger.
Walking towards the information booth, Duke Sudhumatter noticed two policemen giving him the once over.
" I have a feeling the police are watching me closely" said a worried Duke Sudhumatter and Vanessa agreed.
" Could it be you fit the profile of a terrorist?" Vanessa wondered.
"You see Vanes, you do not have these problems back home. You will not listen to me about chucking up all this and returning home."
" That is your answer to all our problems" Vanessa countered.
The stalking by the strange passenger and the staring by the policemen went on for three more days until one day:

Duke Sudhumatter and Vanessa were approaching the information booth at the Grand Central when Duke Sudhumatter felt some one tap his shoulder. Startled he turned round and found a policeman a foot above him. He had to look up just as a tourist would at the Empire State building. Sudhumatter had the expression of Hamlet on seeing his daddy's ghost.
" Now the gendarmes are after me" he whispered to his wife. Vanessa was visibly disturbed.
" Sir " the cop began, " Would you mind stepping into my office?"
" What's it for ?" Sudhumatter demanded.
" Yes we would like to know " Vanessa joined in.

" It's very simple. I'll explain it to you when you come into my office." The three of them trotted into the office. The police officer sitting on the edge of his desk feigning informality began.

" I'm inspector Dim Dumbbell and you are?"
" My name is Duke Sudhumatter and this is my wife Vanessa." The officer shook hands with both of them. " Glad to make your acquaintance"
" Could we know why we are here? " Vanessa inquired impatiently.
" Presently, Madam, presently: You see we have received a complaint Mr.Soosmatch."
" It is Sudhumatter " Duke corrected a little annoyed.

"That's right." continued the officer. "It has been brought to our notice Sir that you are wearing a jacket that does not belong to you. You seem to be both very respectable people. We can settle this amicably without going through a lot of paper work. If you know what I mean. The gentleman standing outside my office has complained that the blazer you are wearing belongs to him." So saying Inspector Dumbbell stepped out and summoned the man in. It was the staring commuter who customarily sat opposite Sudhumatter.
"So you maintain this blazer belongs to you?" The officer addressed the question to the newcomer. " Have you any proof?"

The strange passenger who was about the height of Duke with slightly narrower shoulders began speaking. He had a nasal voice. Duke and Vanessa heard him speak for the first time.

" My name is Smelly Wrongshoe. I live in Bridgeport and my office is in Madison Avenue. Officer, I am not accusing this gentleman of stealing. I am certain it's a genuine mistake. Inadvertently he may have taken my jacket. Now if you will observe officer the blazer is ill fitting on him. ( Duke thought: "I always felt uncomfortable in this"). I have my business card tucked away in the inner breast pocket. It may be still there."

At the officer's request Duke Sudhumatter removed the blazer and handed it over to him. The officer ran his fingers through the pockets and pulled out a business card. It read: Smelley Wrongshoe, Environmentalist. it had a Madison Avenue office address and Washington Avenue, Bridgeport home address.

" Let me see you wear this." The officer then passed the jacket over to Smelley. Smelley slipped it on and it slid over his frame effortlessly as would his foot into an old shoe.

" You see Mr.Shoematter" the officer began and Duke corrected " Sudhumatter"
" That's right" (now with a broad smile) if the jacket does not fit I cannot acquit. What do you wish to do Mr. Shoemaker?" " Mr. Sudhumatter if you don't mind."

" That's right. What do you wish to do Sir?"
Duke Sudhumatter now looked at Vanessa and replied with visible relief: " If it does not fit I quit. He can keep it. Well, all I can say is it very closely resembles the one I had." Then turning around to Smelley he asked: " Why could you not have approached me and verified without this circus?"
" I have been trying to do so for a long time. I tried to catch you alone so as not to embarrass your wife but the two of you are inseparable. Are you newly married? You both are like Romeo and Cleopatra."

Vanessa had by now reached the bitter extremity of her patience. With effort she suppressed the volcanic fury that was rising within her. She straightened herself to her full height. She looked into the eyes of Wrongshoe. She transfixed him with her laser like glare. Vanessa's tone now turned combative. She shot back with the self assurance of a savant with particular emphasis on the name: " SMELLIE". She enunciated:

" You mean Romeo and Juliet and Anthony and Cleopatra?"

For an ominous thirty seconds no one spoke. The reader would be eager to know how each one would have appeared to a passer-by.

Inspector Dim Dumbbell had the air of one who had cracked open like a coconut a baffling case. Smelley Wrongshoe turned his gaze away from the rest in embarrassment holding tightly to the jacket like a little lad who had got back his toy. Vanessa was getting late for an important meeting she was presiding over that morning. The contours of her face contorted, she was like an Olympic one hundred meter sprinter restless at the starting block, ready to go at the crack of the pistol.

What was happening to the protagonist, Duke Sudhumatter? A beatific smile descended upon him and in slow motion the smile leisurely crawled across his face as would a toddler across the floor. A feeling of unfettered joy filled his heart, his soul and every bone in his body. He was glowing like an incandescent tube light in a dark room. He was jubilant. Calmness settled over Duke Sudhumatter. And he was now breathing easily. Dookie turned round to his Cleopatra, to his Juliet, to his Vanes and trilled like a bird in spring time: " Darling, this means I have not put on weight."

Inspector Dim Dumbbell broke the conversational log jam.
" Well gentlemen he pompously announced: " Shall we wrap this up with a hand shake?"
Duke and Smelley shook hands, exchanged business cards and departed. While leaving Duke heard Smelley whisper to officer Dumbbell, "See you at Aunty Matilda's tonight."

The day was nippy and Duke Sudhumatter was sans his blazer. During the lunch hour he walked up to Macy's and bought a smart jacket which was on sale.

A week went by. One Saturday morning Sudhumatter was walking towards the garage. He was going to take Vanessa to the Kennedy air port when he saw the mail man bring a parcel. He opened it and to his consternation saw an old blazer, one like his. He tried it on. It went round him snug like Caesar's toga. Then it struck him. " Let me try the pockets." Inside the inner breast pocket there was a business card. It read: Smelley Wrongshoe, Environmentalist. "

" Jumping Jacket Vanessa, come and see this" he yelled. out.

A short story by K.B. Chandra Raj

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Dreading Wednesdays - the sad plight of being senior, single and scared.

Josephine Lokubadah was 85 years old. Her husband to whom she was married for sixty years had died. She had lived in this house in New Jersey all her married life. She had two daughters, Ganjah and Beedi. Both were married. Ganjah older of the two lived with her family in San Francisco. Beedi lived with hers in San Diego.

The New Jersey house though commodious and well appointed stirred memories that further compounded the sadness of her loss. She did not wish to live in this house any longer. Josephine Lokubadah owned a small house, free of encumbrances in the quiet village Shanksville in Pennsylvania. The house was situated very close to the homes of Amish families. Only the sound of the horse and trap separated her house from the Amish families. Josephine Lokubadah was convinced the tranquility of the Amish surroundings was ideal for her present troubled and undulating emotional state. Although feeble of body she was firm of resolve. The house in Shanksville had not been lived in for many years. She had it repaired and refurbished. It had a large bed room with attached bath and a spare room in the upper floor. The kitchen was on the ground floor. The finished basement had a half bath. The movers came in and transported items that she would need in her new dwelling. The bed and books into the large room. The exercise bicycle, television VCR and the small refrigerator in which she always had coke and cheese in the basement and so on. She moved into her new dwelling on a Sunday morning with groceries to last a week. She left everything just the way the movers had deposited them. Josephine Lokubadah had neither the desire nor the inclination to make new friends. She was going to live the life of a recluse. So long as she could find a good doctor she felt she needed no one else.

Her life fell in to a placid pattern. She remained confined indoors. Once a week she would set out in her elegant Saturn car to the super market for her groceries. Had an early meal, telephoned daughters Ganjah and Beedi to inform them she was doing fine and retired to her bedroom with a Grisham thriller. She had all her requirements in her bedroom. She bolted the bedroom door. Once in her bedroom she would not leave until after day break when she felt safe to do so.

The peace and quiet she longed for and enjoyed was not to last. One night she felt she heard sounds coming from the basement. She pulled the covers over her head and went to sleep. The next morning she found everything in its place. It must be my imagination she thought and went about her work. The following week she heard the sounds again. Demonic laughter, screams and gun shots in muffled tones were heard through the chinks in the door. She did not inform her children. She was afraid though. She chanted several mantras in the basement and burnt incense sticks to drive the evil spirits away. The weird sounds continued. She left food offerings, chocolate and chewing gum as well to assuage the stubborn spirits. The evil intruders could not be appeased.
"Haunted" " This house is haunted" she moaned. Thoughts of incubus, goblins and gnomes crashed through her frail mind. It occurred to her now that the sounds were heard on Wednesday nights. She was too frightened to check the time. She began to dread Wednesdays. The passing of each day meant a day closer to Wednesday. She lost her appetite. She became a bundle of twisted nerves. She could not bear this fear singly any longer. She called Ganjah and Beedi and cried. " I'm 85. I am a widow and I'm afraid" she wailed. Ganjah in San Francisco mentioned this to her husband Luke who replied " Your mother is going bonkers". At the same time in San Diego Harry was telling his wife Beedi " Your mother is going bonkers" The sisters conferred. The four of them talked it over on a conference call. It was decided that the mother should admit herself into a Senior Home where she would have company and would be cared for. " Leave me out of this" Luke and Harry protested in unison.

Who would make the suggestion to the mother? Neither Ganjah nor Beedi volunteered. You do not volunteer to twirl the whiskers of a tiger. Since there were no volunteers it was agreed that which ever daughter gets the first call on Thursday should patiently hear the mother out, count up to ten and then suggest that she should call the police as soon as she hears those noises.
Ganjah and Beedi through out the week reminded themselves continuously " Be patient" "Be patient" " Count upto ten". On Wednesday night Josephine Lokubadah heard those noises again. She felt she was coming apart. She could converse fluently in four different languages. She prayed in all four. The harrowing sounds, endless in time though she reckoned, usually lasted two hours. She prayed as never before that it should soon be over. She thought some one move up and down the stairs. And then as always there was silence. Ganjah's telephone rang in the morning. She knew it was her mother. The mother began " You know daughter " and before she could complete the sentence, Ganjah cut her " You should call the local police. That's what they are there for." The conversation exploded in mid sentence. Ganjah immediately regretted. This is not how she wanted it to come out. The mother fell silent. She whispered " Maybe I should call the police. Where the mantras have failed the might of the police may succeed". She signed off.

The whole week Mrs. Lokubadah devoted to memorizing the local police telephone number. If you had wished her "Good Morning" she would have replied with the police number. She thought of nothing else. As sure as Wednesday would come she heard the noises. Stretching her hand out from within the covers she lifted the telephone and punched the numbers. "I am 85 years old. I am a widow and I am afraid. Come immediately " she pleaded. They promised they would be there in less than five minutes. No one came and she passed the time in agony and prayer. The next morning she directed the call to Beedi. Beedi had been forewarned by her sister of her own disastrous performance. Beedi listened to everything the mother had to say. Counted up to twenty and replied. " You are a law abiding citizen. You pay your taxes. Complain to the officer in charge of the precinct." Mrs lokubadah agreed. The officer on duty who took the call referred to the notes and replied: " Madam a police car was sent. The officer found No:8, Windy Street quiet and as he cannot enter the premises without a search warrant or an invitation from the principal occupant he had to return."

Mrs Lokubadah informed the officer she lived in No: 18 and not in No: 8, Windy Street. " You have my permission to enter my house using whatever means." Mrs. Lokubadah told him. The officer made his notes and mildly amused informed his colleagues. She had a grand mother of the same age. The call did come on Wednesday night. It was around half past nine. There was nothing exciting going on that night. Four officers, two in mufti and two in uniform, armed and wearing bullet proof vests set out in two cars for No: 18 Windy Street. They parked their cars a distance away from the house. The two in mufti stayed by the cars, while the uniformed two treading very softly made their way to No: 18 hands on the trigger and in couched position. On the drive way they heard faint sounds filtering from the basement.

They let themselves in picking the front door lock.It was dark. An officer turned on the lights. Both officers fell to the floor and shouted "POLICE." They had their fingers on the trigger and on the ready. What they saw surprised them. They called out. "Mrs. Lokubabdah it's safe to come down now."

Mrs. Lokubadah came down to the basement. Tears welled up in her eyes. Seated in a large chair were two children no more than 8 years. There was an opened can of coke on the floor and crumbs of cheese on the children's faces. They had both fallen a sleep in a seated position. On the television screen Harry Potter tape was in progress. They were frightened at the sight of the police. They said they were children of Amish parents. They had no television in their home and were not allowed to watch movies. On Wednesday nights the parents had an Amish night of prayer and meditation from 8 O'clock to well past mid night. They borrowed tapes from friends and watched them in the basement of Mrs. Lokubadah. They were brother and sister. They pleaded with the police not to mention this to their parents. The punishment would be severe.

The police officers said " Let us make a deal. We will not inform your parents and you should not come to this house or any other house for that matter." They agreed. "Now" said one officer " Let us see how you get out." They both heaved and pulled aside the large chair in which they had fallen asleep. Behind the chair was a small trap door leading to the garden. Mrs. Lokubadah had not given thought to this door. As the chair was carelessly placed by the movers and she had not made any changes it remained that way. The children knew every corner and crevice in the house. They used to play for long hours in this house when it was unoccupied.

Two weeks later at the super market Mrs.Lokubadah saw the two children. They recognized her. They exchanged smiles and moved on. Mrs. Lokubadah was puzzled. " What are they up to this time? " she mused.

Amish children or adults for that matter do not shop at super markets. She quickly moved to the next aisle. She picked up a can of soup and turned back. A rueful expression lingered across the freckled face of this forlorn, frightened dowager.

Ruminating over her experiences of the past few weeks Mrs. lokubadah followed the children with her eyes until they were lost in the crush of shoppers.

A short story by K.B. Chandra Raj