She almost fell, someone extended his arms and opened the door for her… she turned in surprise, now… who was it… a pair of deep brown eyes smiled at her.
He was no one from office and he was not a person from India… His tall frame, and open warm smile illuminated the morning.
“I am Chris.” He extended his hand, she took it, his handshake was firm and warm as his smile.
“I am Tandra.”
He was the person planning to start a new project in Kolkata, to help young girls to become self sufficient. . They were to work together on a project, he posted an advertisement in paper, she responded, they will together finance and work on it, side by side. He will come and go, she will stay here.
She could barely resist a smile when he pulled the chair for her to sit… if only Indian men learned some manners from them… in place of copying all the things they should not do with women….
She noticed his white hair, peeping from brown closely cropped hair, she too never dyed her hair. She liked her white hair…
“Where are you staying?” she asked.
“In a hotel in Dalhousie.” he answered.
“For how long are you planning to stay?” she asked.
“Atleast six months this time… ” he answered.
“Then you can go for a single room flat, or if you are comfortable you can share a flat with one of your staffs… you can have absolutely separate arrangement, including exit, I believe that will be more comfortable than a hotel room, when you are not in India you can simply lock your room…and share a token amount of the rent…” She remarked.
“I will think about it…” Chris answered.
“It will be safer too…” Tandra said, “The person I will put up you with, well, to make you further happy he was born and brought up in UK, left UK and settled down in Kolkata to do something for helpless…So there wont be any culture clash in stock for you…”
First few days passed by understanding the project. Chris decided to rent a single room flat for himself, in the same building in which Pranesh lived, that apartment building was built targetting single men and women living away from their homes, to work in Kolkata, very safe, dignified, absolutely perfect for Chris.
She and Pranesh accompanied him for his furniture shopping, to save him from being robbed mainly. They both knew the strange complex of shop-keepers when they noticed a foreigner, they instantly assumed that the person had a dollar tree at home, always overladen with dollars. It was quite humilliating but…. it was a part of harsh reality, they were too naive to understand reality. Both parties, the foreighners and shopkeepers.
Tandra was sloppy at bargains but Pranesh was expert.
They settled down in Chris’s flat for a dinner, it was quite a joy for Tandra to see how they both helped her in cooking and cleaning up afterwards.
Tandra lived a few blocks away so they settled down for a little chat after dinner.
There were certain things that Chris had to know.
“The most of the girls you will meet here are rescued from various exploiters. Some of them are from abusive parents, some from employers and others worse places.” Tandra said. “Have a very compassionate heart from that but dont mistake them with fallen angels or something. These girls can be easily blackmailed, arm-twisted into doing something dangerous. So, it will very intelligent for you to keep either Pranesh or me with you when you are interacting with them, dont make any individual contacts… if you want to talk with them, always do it in open, preferably in a group. Dont forget that you dont know the language in which they are talking and mostly vice versa.”
“The pleasure seekers from your countries have quite blackwashed the images of phillanthropists so practice safety.”
He nodded. “I will love to learn Bengali… ”
“Well, we will arrange a tutor for that, and you can always practice with us…. we will be here to rectify you to the utmost perfection.” Pranesh said.
Tandra left at nine. Pranesh stayed back for a while. The flat was perfectly arranged.
“See you tomorrow …” Chris and Pranesh waited till she started her car then went back inside.
She reached office at eight, Chris was already sitting in his chair.
“Did you slept?” she asked with a smile.
“Woke up early….” he smiled back, went out for a little walk beside Ganges, its beautiful at dawn…
“Yes…” she said, “I too go out quite often…”
“Can I see the factory?” he asked after reading through the project papers vaguely, “… and can I borrow these papers to home?”
“You can keep them, they are xeroxes specially made for you, the originals stay in the vault, we all keep the xeroxes, dont worry, i too take mine home often.” Tandra handed him his copy of the vault key.
“Let’s go…” she stood up.
They went to the factory where the girls were working.
They had a set of projects working side by side, the girls were trained as per their aptitude and talents to join the project best for them and the office.
Every since her youth Tandra has felt sad for these girls, so burdened by their famillies. Some were married off as small children, to bear kids while they were kids themselves, later on, diseases showed up, and poverty… So, she tried to save them from the mother of all problems, early marriage, every time a girl banged her door to save herself from marriage she talked with her parents and offered her free accomodation, training, fooding and later a job. A huge number of girls stayed back, they paid hostel fees after getting the job and tried to help their famillies.
The second group mostly had nowhere to go, the girls rescued from brothels or abusive employers. They needed physical and psychiatric helps too, but fortunately a lot of doctors offered free service to her shelter and that part was handled by them. Tandra tried with everything to keep this group emotionally and financially stable. They were the ones who needed so much love and protection.
She was really happy to have Pranesh and now Chris by her side, Pranesh has been working with her for a while, she knew that his desire to help was straight from soul, Chris too was giving a strong vibe that he meant what he wrote. He wanted to help these girls.
“By the way…” she said. “Pranesh orders from their canteen- lunch and dinner… you can order for every day, or once in a while if you want to eat Indian food, they cook really good and have lot of choices, they cater to a lot of offices nearby…dont worry about hygiene … that is well taken care of.” Tandra said. “I too sometimes order when I dont want to eat my own cooking…”
“I will ….but not today.” Chris smiled.
The girls were busy in their own small chores, chattering like a cage full of canaries.
The next department was embroidery and cutworks, in this department the girls were taught ethnic Indian styles and modern styles and then they were utilized in clothes and other articles.
“Do these girls do the selling, marketing part too?” Chris asked.
“No… we have a office for that, Pranesh handles it, boys collect the materials from there or here and deliver to their places.” Tandra answered. “That is safer and smarter… men wont feel deprived…”
It took Chris a few days to settle in, his sincerity was the first thing that touched Tandra’s heart. She could see him working with the girls, the respect and kindness with which he treated them had a deep healing effect on them.
The girls became his greatest admirers.
Soon they started to take their morning strolls together, she noticed with great joy how he never took advantage of the barriers she has laid down. It seemed he knew quite a bit about conservative mentalities of Indian women, and he knew how to respect that.
Mixing with him so closely was as easy as mixing with someone who has been always around you, a good friend you know from childhood, and who respects your mindset.
“Why did not you married?” Tandra asked him, she thought it was quite alright to ask him one or two personal questions. They have been friends for more than a couple of months now.
“I was once engaged… we lived together for a few years, I wanted to give the relationship a name, she did not… she moved on…. to me that was marriage, to her just a relationship. Never felt like having another intimate relationship, have been in and out of casual ones a few times…” he answered candidly. “I guess I took birth in wrong country. I wanted one relationship and in my country very rare people try to have that.”
Then he looked at her and grinned, “Your turn!”
“I too think I was born in the wrong country… down here, very rare people marry for love, and to me, love was the only reason enough to marry… apart from that marriage is absolutely useless in my dictionary.” she answered equally honestly.
“You never fell in love?” he asked.
“One sided yes, and the other thing too happened… but nothing clicked.” she said, “I have some criterias, and Indian men have some criterias when it comes to spouses, their criteria is too much for me, mine is too much for them.”
“Explain…” he said. They sat down on a bench, facing the river.
“Indian men mostly expect their wives to adjust to them, their whole famillies and much more, they want a good lover, mother and if required slave too… who will act like a slave but will bring dowry with her… I mean. They on the other hand will be as free as they were before marriage, masters of their own lives. There is an inherent mindset in Indian men that forces them to believe that they are superior, and they should get that treatment, and all types of adjustments are female responsibilities… you wont even imagine how much a woman adjusts after she joins her spouse’s family, and even then mostly she is criticized, rarely adored…”
“Now think, which independent woman will give up her free life and get inside that cage?”
“Guess I know what you mean!” he answered. “The men of your country are dumb, they dont treat their women right even after all these sacrifices they make… to please them.”
“Tell them…” she smiled.
“May be, someday I will…”
Six months passed like six weeks, soon it was time for Chris to return home for a few months.
“When are you returning?” Tandra asked.
“As soon as I am done there.” He answered. “A few months at the maximum. Next time I will stay back for a year and start the new projects.”
“The place feels dull without Chris.” Pranesh said morosely. “We used to have such a great time together. He is a very fine fellow!”
She looked at him and smiled, he looked really lost without him. She kept her own feelings in her heart, that she too was feeling his absense quite a lot.
It seemed as if the place has lost a substantial amount of light, happiness.
“Hey!” a familliar voice startled her, he was standing at the door, smiling.
“You are back!” she could barely suppress her happiness.
“Yes… finished it up as quickly as I could…” He smiled, “Was feeling out of place in my own country…”
“Tonight you and Pranesh are having dinner at my place.” He invited them both before leaving for his flat at afternoon. He came to the office straight from airport, Pranesh and Tandra had to almost shove him out of office after lunch, to get some rest.
“Pranesh betrayed!” he smiled. “He is out with his girlfriend. It will be only us… hope it is ok for you.”
She smiled and handed him over a bunch of Rajnigandha flowers, she has noticed too many times that he was quite fond of these fragrant flowers.
“Thanks.” he smiled.
He was an amazing cook. She has never tasted anything like that before. The absolutely new style of cooking was really delightful to the tongue.
They were sitting outside in the terrace, both were silent.
She turned and noticed that he has been looking at her, for some time it seemed. There was something in his eyes. As if he was about to say something but was not very sure.
She smiled, “If you want to say something you can say it…” she prayed inside that he wont say that he has had enough of India and wanted to go back to his own country. Suddenly she realized that she cant think about letting him go.
“I brought something for you…from home…” he said, then he fished out a small box out of his pocket.
Her heart stopped when he opened it. It was a beautiful ring. “It belongs to my mother, she wanted me to give it to my wife.”
He paused for a long time then continued, “I will be glad… truly glad… if you will marry me…”
He lifted her hand and slipped the ring in her finger.
“Don’t you think ….” she asked, “It may not work out… we belong to two quite different cultures…”
“It all depends on how much we want it to work…” Chris said. “We both are old enough. I know I love you, and I have felt that you feel the same. We both are matured enough to sort out big, small problems in life.”
“Well, I like Indian cooking, Indian lifestyle, you love my cooking, may be you wont hate our lifestyle much… so why not give it a try?”
“All these petty differences are given too much importance by hearts that do not love… when you love someone these differences no longer feel so intimidating.”
“Religion?” she asked.
“You will follow yours, I will follow mine, and we both respect the other’s religion… so…”
He lifted her hand and kissed it.