Monday, July 24, 2006

The 50 dollar Mercedes

The recent madness in Lebanon, and the evacuation of Indians stranded there reminded me of a story of one of my friends, now long past. Time has taken its toll on my memory, so the details are scratchy. But then, what is a good story if all the details are true to the T. After all, isn’t filling in the details the best part? But, for the most, this story is absolutely true.

This was in 1990, and erstwhile buddy of the US, Saddam Hussein, had just invaded Kuwait, and had instantly become enemy number one. The invasion itself was brief and bloodless (since the Iraqi army faced the terrifying prospect of going against the Kuwaiti army, which was about as big and well equipped as my college NCC unit), but it resulted in instant chaos in that little country. And, as we all know, Kuwait has about the same percentage population of Indians (particularly our intrepid Malayalee brothers heading out to the “gelph”) as does the average city in Assam have of Bangladeshis. They, like all other immigrants in that country, knew the US and its allies weren’t going to sit and watch the invasion in peace, and that war was imminent.

So, like every one around them, they were desperate to get the hell out of there, to wherever safe refuge could be found.

While this was happening, and I was watching and hearing about it from my parents, uncles, aunts, neighbors and Appan Menon from the World This Week, my school continued as usual.

Almost as usual. One fine day, a new student turned up. It was more than unusual, since it was the middle of the year, and students usually joined only at the beginning of the academic year. But P, with his perennial smile and cheerful outlook, just showed up one day. We became friends pretty quickly, and I learnt of his story.

He was from Kuwait, and was actually in India for a short holiday with his mom and sister. And then, while he was here, the war started. There was no question of them going back, of course, and luckily they had a house in Bangalore, and some relatives too. But his father was still very much in Kuwait, and stuck there.

And his father’s escape from Kuwait is the story movies are made out of (at least, it did make it to the Times of India).

When war seemed imminent, every person there grabbed any possession he/she could carry and tried to head out. There was no effort by the Indian government to try to evacuate its citizens then. The border with Saudi Arabia had been sealed, since the US and allied forces were based there. The only way out was up north, towards Jordan and Syria. P’s dad was a rather affluent white collar employee (I can’t remember exactly what he did), so he gathered every bit of cash or jewellery he could find, as well as any thing valuable (the TV, VCR, music system and the kitchen sink), loaded it in to their Mercedes, and started driving straight up towards Jordan.

But the going was never going to be easy. To drive, you needed fuel, and all he had was his one full tank. In addition, there were many, many checkpoints to be crossed, and each was guarded by Iraqi troops. The Iraqis did not have any thing against the immigrants, and so did not harm or arrest them.

But you couldn’t get through for free either. And the bribes were not cheap.

First the dollars diminished from P’s dad’s wallet. Then the jewellery went. Then it was the TV, and the VCR, and the music system. But somehow, with one bribe or the other, he progressed towards the border. But he had run out of cash and material goods before the final check point. It was a case of extreme despair, as he sighted the final checkpoint, and Jordan and safety beyond. Would he make it across to safety and his family?

The Iraqi guard pulled him over and looked at him meaningfully. P’s dad shrugged and gestured his helplessness. In the back seat of his car though, there lay P’s beloved Casio electronic keyboard, and something else that was his sister’s favorite toy or electronic item. They were expensive. The guard said he’d take those. But P’s dad couldn’t bear to give those away. Those were his children’s most valuable possessions, and reminded him of them constantly.

He tearfully refused, and offered his car instead.

His brand new, very expensive Mercedes.

The guard smiled in ecstatic delight. He pulled out a fifty-dollar bill, and gave it to P’s dad, and in return gleefully grabbed the car. But P’s dad had made it across to safety.

Back in India, and safe, he was soon reunited with his family. There, his kids got their keyboard and toys. And in a little corner of their home, there was (and perhaps still remains) a fifty-dollar bill, forever in remembrance.

(I’ve lost touch with P over the years, but hope he, his dad and his family are well, and look back nostalgically at their ordeal).


Anonymous said...

the human cost of war - when we see tanks rolling down, and armies marching - this is what ends up getting forgotten.
It all ends up sounding like statistics of a very one sided rugby game - terrorists 18, civilians 81 !

Sunil said...

Harini.....yup....its often so easy to reduce things to a statistic, and you indeed do forget the high human cost there. But with so much going on, it's hard not to condense information into a statistic. It's up to us to retain our empathy. write about them.

Proudindian, yes, any war can only result in extreme trauma and difficulty. But you can't blame the people going to the gulf to earn money. Many of them are semi-skilled, and had they worked in India, they wouldn't have earned in a life time what they do in 5 years of toil in the gulf states.

Swapna said...

Good one.

My parents were living in Saudi at the time of the war. My sister and I were living with my grandparents in India - I still remember waiting every sunday for their phone call.

Sunil said...

swapna......i can only imaging sitting and waiting for their call. I can't even imagine how my friend P & his family were coping, since his dad was in Kuwait, in the war zone!