Reflections: A bittersweet cross-cultural connection

Reflections: A bittersweet cross-cultural connection

Remnants of an era

The busy suburban train station in Zurich, Switzerland has super-fast inter-city services. The train to the village Uitikon, however, marked a distinct change. It gobbled up miles with disdain, barely acknowledging little towns, but made it punctually from one station to another. The pace shifted me to a bygone era. And I remembered Bengaluru of the 50s. The cultures of alien countries were making a sizable impact on the city as a sequel to collaborations each one of the massive industries had entered into. Thus, the British in Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), the Germans in the motor industries, the Swiss in Hindustan Machine Tools (HMT). Of these, the influence of the Swiss on the HMT community was perhaps the strongest.

It is understandable, because the kind of precision that the manufacturer called for was alien to Indians and the Swiss had packaged it neatly in their ethos: sharp and crisp sentences. A disdain for ineptness.

I will never forget the evenings when men applied the excellence of their engineering skills to the running of their homes — to the somewhat sheepish admiration of their women. Nevertheless, HMT men, 50 years later, carry a stamp that distinguishes them from those who inhabited the colony across the road in BEL.

That Ganesh Beedies are available in Switzerland today and not in other countries is an indication that the culture transfer had its two-way effect.

The blue-eyed boy of the Swiss contingent headed the planning division. He picked his friends with an almost predictable penchant. He was a tenant of the king in the Bangalore Palace enclosure, which his ever-smiling, rotund wife strove hard to enliven. They had a little boy and a baby girl when they left India, just about the time I joined HMT.

Thereafter, the mother company deputed him to various parts of the world to set up factories. In the early 60s, Italy was his home. An assignment took him to South America where he spent a considerable length of time moving from country to country to set up plants. He had made a success out of every one of them.

I didn’t hear from him till I learned that he had visited India again. Apparently, he had asked to go back. But, as a recluse. The old friends did not seem to count. He stayed in a single room in a club and picked up interest in solitary hobbies like fishing. I made several attempts at picking up things where we had left off a decade ago. But somehow, he always seemed preoccupied. After a while, I took his presence for granted and missed his departure.

In 1975, shopping in Jelmoli, I had stood at the descending leg of the escalator, where also stood his wife. She had not changed a bit. I was reprimanded for not telling her of my visit. She then dragged me for a meal and made me promise that I’d visit Uitikon again.

And I remembered the last time I was there. It was a warm summer around Zurich Lake when we had driven out of town. She told me that her husband had not been well at all and the company had decided to put him up in an asylum.

The personnel manager was there to take us to his room. He was not talking at all but for a few grumpy monosyllables. We took him out with us. He drove the car, but all the talk came from the rest of us.

That was a beautiful day on the lakeside. We stayed in the company’s holiday home ­ — talking, drinking, eating, and swimming. He was there with us — the silent physical being doing things as if by rota. Late night, we dropped him back and like the shroud of night, melancholy descended on us as we left him behind those high iron gates. That was the last I saw of him.

Sometime later, we got a message in India that he had died and would we please take charge of the things he had left behind in the club? There was precious little but for the elaborate fishing tackle. These images raced through my mind as the suburban train passed station after station.

Finally, it was Uitikon. I did not need to read the nameplate. The lady, still unchanged, round with more shy smiles, was standing under the lamp. The two kids were man and woman. The evening with them and the mother was full of fun. Friends homesick for India dropped in with bottles of wine. No one had mentioned him even once in the long hours of the evening.

The morning came. It was the kind of morning that one yearns for. The sun shining as cold winds blew to drive away any kind of hangover. She asked me whether I would like to go to town with the kids or shop for lunch with her. I walked down the main street with her and spent a good hour idling around the food stalls and wondering at the varieties of cheese. Then she left me to look at the New Town Hall, which was the pride of the village, and came back with a bunch of flowers.

We walked behind the hall, down on the slope, which ended at a beautiful cemetery. She stopped by his grave and placed the flowers. I wondered if it was the anniversary of his death. As if she heard my silent question, she said, “No special occasion. No one knows when he died.”

I looked at her in surprise.

He had not died in the asylum, she said, as we slowly walked back towards the house. He had wished out of the confinement and had lived at home for some time. He would go at odd times and sometimes, returned after a couple of days. One day in autumn, when the leaves on the hills were just beginning to turn golden, he had left and never returned.

A week, a month, a whole year had passed. She had gone through the worst year of her life. She had wanted, almost desired, to know the bitter truth. But instead, it had been a blank, a kind of permanent mist. She had knocked on all doors. The efficient Swiss police had also given up.

One day she got a call. Could she please come to the station? A bearded old man was in the station. He had gone out rabbit-hunting in the forest and had accidentally dislodged a heap of last year’s leaves along with a pair of boots and parts of a trouser. His eyes had popped out on seeing a dark object lying underneath. A revolver. She had burst into tears… almost out of relief. The boots were unmistakably his.

After a lapse of what seemed half-a-day, I asked her if the children knew. She said with a smile, “Yes. But I waited for them to grow up so they could digest the truth. When I told them, they accepted it so readily that I knew they suspected it all along.”

I left Uitikon a couple of days later. The little station sits atop a rolling hill. The sun was playing hide-and-seek with the clouds, and the clouds had taken charge as the train pulled out. No matter. Her cherubic smile made up for a thousand missed suns. 

This is the last story M Bhaktavatsala, our esteemed contributor of many decades,
wrote for Deccan Herald before his demise on August 5, 2018.


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