Diamonds in the Rough
“I’m just saying it’s not safe for him to travel alone,” Maria retaliated to Peter's constant jeering. “We’re not in Memphis anymore, you know.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said, “don’t worry I’ll be fine.”
“You see,” Peter mocked again, “like I said Maria, give it up kid, you and Sami ain’t gonna happen.”
“Shut up Peter,” Maria retorted, “I’m concerned for his safety. It’s crazy out there. People are killing for food for Christ’s sake!”
“And that’s exactly what our News Bug needs,” I said with finality. “A first hand account of a third world country shaken by war. I’ll meet you guys in Chandapur.”
“Oh sure, if the trains ever run on time,”Maria said sarcastically. “Sami, why can’t you just fly with us?”
“Hey,” I was growing impatient with Maria’s constant complains about how bad Nagar was, “this is my ancestral home, ok? I’ll be fine.”
“Of course,” Peter said, getting up from his lounger, “word of advice though - you look American so don’t get mugged.”
This was ten days ago, in my hotel room, the only luxury suite available in Marriott, the only safe five star hotel in all of Gulistan, a coastal town of Nagar. Last month, in January, an anonymous hit man shot the Nagarian President during a national winter festival, leading to political riots and, consequently, to civil war of monstrous proportions. I, the editor-in-chief of our dying magazine, saw this as a godsend to make our comeback in the news market as Nagar had become the latest jewel in the business ring of my world, owing to its virgin beaches and a rare group of herbs, which the fashionable West had declared as the revolutionary essentials of beauty care.
Nagar, a small island at the tapering end of the Indian subcontinent, cradled a population of 5 million. My parents, originally from Gulistan, had migrated to USA before my birth and all I had ever known of Nagar was that it was a dirty island with gaudy motels for foreigners. The government was corrupt. The populace was poor. But the island’s natural beauty was divine.
And so I had come to see and benefit from it.
The old train I had boarded this morning screeched to a halt at another ugly granite station of the Nagarian countryside. The dying din of the engines gave way to the crying whistle as a sea of sweaty unwashed bodies rushed out of the rusted compartment. The night was unusually warm and moist for winter, and the mosquitoes were extremely eager to taste me. I swatted a few with yesterday’s newspaper, scattering the swarm, which hurried back with more force. I yawned and lazily fanned it away.
Occasional fragments of the noise outside were breaking the silence of my empty compartment. I checked my watch. It would be a good five hours before the train touched its last station at Chandapur, the Nagarian capital– and another two hours more before I met my team at the hotel. The three of us had a meeting with an editor of a local newspaper in Chandapur, who had promised to guide us for the rest of the tour, three weeks.
It was not wise to travel alone in a war-stricken country but I always believed that experiences of solitude bore sweeter fruits. Besides, I wanted to get to know my ancestral land…the soil that gave birth to our seed. But ten days of fatigue had left a sour taste in my mouth. Every man deserves a nice serving of at least two meals a day, and a hot bath. But in wartime Nagar, you got one meal a day if you were lucky, and no bath. Unless, of course, unlike me, you accepted the government protocol given exclusively to foreign media.
“Peter, I’m sorry,” I had mused over the phone, day before yesterday, after learning of a possible delay of two more days in reaching Chandapur due to another railroad blast.
“Maria was right. I should’ve flown.” My team was already there.
The train jerked into motion, gradually gaining speed and losing platform. Sounds of civilization gave way to the steady drone of the locomotive, meandering through arid hills and thirsty planes as dull sands turned to glistening silts under the most beautiful moonrise I had ever seen. Winter was not beautiful in Nagar but Nagar was always beautiful by night.
Maria would have gone crazy with her camera right now, I thought, maybe I should’ve brought her along. And Peter might have written an ode to Nagar. Like the one he wrote for his awesome grilled salmon with honey sauce and cheese with a little…man I’m hungry! I unzipped my bag and searched for the food parcel an opportunist station guard had sold to me, a “stupid foreign boy”, for thrice its value. It contained two hefty portions of local trout, salad and – and I couldn’t find it!
The parcel was gone!
I rummaged through my belongings and poured out the contents of my bag on the floor. The parcel wasn’t there. My stomach growled in angry apprehension of going hungry for a long time. My last meal had been some ten hours ago followed by only four cups of watery tea. Oh…I must’ve dropped it while boarding.
I ran my fingers through my hair and across my face. The day I had arrived my skin was soft and my cheeks were full. Now, my hair was fried, my skin burnt, and I could make out the bones in my face. I felt older and more irritable than I had ever known myself to be. I felt cold and lonely. Home and all its goodness were far away. And here I was stranded between starvation, war and profession. The heartless demons of my rising appetite were nibbling at my patience and I wondered if I could survive them.
Crunch!I was startled.
Two rugged feet wearing old sandals stood quietly on the floor. I looked up. He was an old man, hands on hips, a weather beaten shawl wrapped around shoulders, and tired features twisted in a confused smile.
“Problem brother?” he spoke in accented English as his eyes scanned the floor, and then me.
“No.” I sneered, quickly catching hold of my face.
“Need help?” he asked again as I started to collect my things. I didn’t reply. But my silence didn’t impress him as he continued to stand and stare. “What you look for so madly? A love letter?” he said laughingly.
“Food,” I hissed, scooping my things to make room for him to pass, “and it’s not funny.”
“Here let me help,” he said and before I knew it, he was squatting on the floor, clearing the mess and casually chatting away. “Yes, food is problem in Nagar. Me farmer. I grow my food. But last week…how you say…?” he held his forehead to recall the proper
“It’s okay,” I said, “I understand Nagarian.”
“Good,” the old man smiled warmly and continued in Nagarian. “My farm burnt and we were left without food. The little money my wife had saved was already spent on guns and fences…for self defense. We went hungry for three days. Then, my son, my only
son, decided to go to my brother in Chandapur to ask for money or food but...but…”
“But…?” I asked, swallowing hard.
He sighed heavily, “He never came back. Now, I’m going to look for him.”
I was stunned. “What about your family? Do they have…food?”
“I killed Meemos,” he replied briefly, “my horse.”
The mess on the floor was cleared…but my mind wasn’t. Speechless, I settled quietly in my corner with my head buried in my chest. It had grown darker in the land of misery.
“Here,” his voice startled me out of my reverie. He was holding out a small plastic bag with something wrapped inside it in foil. I looked at him questioningly. “Take it!” He shoved the packet in my face.
A familiar scent filled my nostrils as I took the bag from him and opened it. Sandwiches! I gawked.
“Eat,” he gestured with his hand and smiled, “it is plain onion and butter…no horse meat but is good for few hours.”
“What about you?” I was still stuck in a moment of disbelief. He laughed, and dismissed the query with a wave of his hand.
“I’m okay. And in my country,” he took another sandwich and sliced it in two, handing out the bigger half to me,“guests eat first.”
I ate the sandwich, rather shared it with the poor but somehow happy Nagarian farmer. This was a cruel irony I had never known to exist. That night I learnt a new meaning of survival. The food may not have been enough for the two of us but the old man’s compassion sure was. I looked outside and saw the first rays of dawn pierce through the night.
A diamond was shining in the rough.