Conkers (Five)

Salim2

Conkers (Five)

“Now, let us discuss this matter of the theft of the Sanskrit words… you spoke with the school headmistress, Miss Sunderland, about the matter?”

“Yes,” I said, “and she said to me, ‘I am sorry about the sandal business.’”

“Good.”

“But Bapuji,” I started, puzzled, “just one question. I mean to say, if people take words, it is a theft but you can’t stop them isn’t it?’

“Nothing can be stopped,” Bapuji smiled. “Everything spills over and moves and changes. Like this chaiwalla that met your other grandfather on the train, he spilled over into your dream, and now the chaiwalla is coming to me to advise me on my journey…”

“He has been advising you already?” I asked him.

“Oh yes, while your dad and your grandmother and all our relations were saying the funeral prayers, Wanjiro even was there, the chaiwalla came and he offered me tea and advising me what train to take.”

“But, I mean to say, this chaiwalla, he was on the train with my other grandfather, and now he is advising you as well. I mean to say, how many trains does he serve tea on?” I wondered.

“He serves tea on all the trains on all the journeys. Because Hindus and Muslims and Christians and Parsees and Goans and Swahilis and Kikuyus and Turkana and Samburu and Maasai, I mean to say, we all need to take a train and go on a journey isn’t it? Now how do we know what train to take if there is no chaiwalla to ask?” Bapuji remarked.

“You can ask the ticket master when you pay for the ticket,” I ventured. “The ticket master always knows which trains are going where.”

“Yes, but the ticket master is just collecting your money, isn’t it,” Bapuji replied. “The Brahmin priests, and the swamis and the rabbis, all the ticket masters, they are just reading from a printed chart and then charging you money. But the chaiwalla, now he knows how to serve the tea. He knows who is thirsty, when the tea it is cold, and when it is warm, and he knows what people are happy on their journey and what people need to find a new journey. He knows, because he is always close to the people. Ticket master is just sitting in a ticket booth, stamping tickets, isn’t it?”

“Do you know where you will go?” I asked him.

“Himalayas. Chaiwalla says I need to travel to Himalayas and visit the yogis who wrote the Upanishads.”

“You will need a warm coat.”

“I don’t need a warm coat, I am already dead.”

“Oh sorry Bapuji, I forgot. Excuse me.”

“You are excused. Now you better wake up papu, it will be time to go to school soon.”

“Just one question before I get up…”

“Just one question – how many times you are going to ask me ‘Just One Question‘? – you mark my words papu, when you grow up one day you will be still asking people ‘Just One Question‘”

“Just one question Bapuji – if you have time…”

“How can I not have the time? I am dead! I am in your dream! It is you that does not have time – you need to wake up and go to school, isn’t it?”

“Yes, sorry Bapuji, so no just one last question then – the chaiwalla… does he know if there is a farm with sheep and cows because, I mean, in Miss Peters class we saw pictures of Jesus with sheep and then at Mr Patel’s shop we saw Krishna with all these cows, and then we sang this hymn about the ‘green pasture’ so just I was wondering you know…?”

“You are asking too many Just One Questions! Why don’t you get up and have some chai and get ready for school?” Bapuji suggested.

Today’s lunch was rhubarb and custard and Sebastian was telling me this joke about a barber. It was his favorite joke, every time we had this dessert.

“Do you know where the barber shops are in Paris?” he asked. “On the Rue Barb! Geddit?”

“My barber in Nairobi, Hajambhai, he used to use these big clippers and cut my hair short and my ears were sticking out and people would call me gazelle!” I told him.

“Badgers, do you want to play conkers with us?” Sebastian called out.

“Yes, please.”

Conkers are chesnuts that we used to find under the trees in the park on the way from school and we used to fight with them. Before I went back home, I used to search through all these fallen leaves under these trees for a tough conker.

“But if they are chestnuts, why do people call them ‘conker?’” I asked Miss Miller in class one time and she said that conkers came from William the Conquerer and the Battle of Hastings in 1066. King William came from France and he fought with King Harold of the Anglo-Saxons, and King William became the conquerer.

On Sunday, Salim uncle came by to pick me up and take me to Kwality Sweetmart for tea and bhajias. My mother didn’t mind because I was sad that my dad was away for Bapuji’s funeral and so when Salim uncle called I became all smiley and she said: “Salim, pick the boy up and take him for bhajia.”

“So, tell me, what they are teaching you these days at that fancy pants school of yours?” He was happily dunking his bhajias in his tea just as was I.

“Well, last time in history we learned about Battle of Hastings. King William of Normandy conquered King Harold of Saxony.”

“Did many people die in this battle? Lot of blood, isn’t it?”

“No, no Salim uncle, people do not die from playing conkers,” I assured him. “Conkers are just chestnuts. Just you find a tough conker and then you take a needle for knitting and you make a hole and then you use some string, actually Sebastian, he uses a shoelace, and then just you fight with your conkers until one of the conkers breaks first. King Harold’s conker must have broken first, isn’t it? I think King William brought a very tough chestnut with him that day.”

“Wawa-wawa … kamal kamal! Those British and those French…coming all the way from France just to fight with chesnuts. Kamal, kamal…!”

“One time, Mr Patel told me about the battle of Mahabharata when the Kauravas were fighting with the Pandavas and Arjuna, the greatest warrior on Earth, didn’t want to fight and he put down his great bow Gandiva, but Krishna told him he must fight, and so I asked Mr Patel how did Krishna talk with Arjuna, because Krishna was not there, he was with his gopis and his cows, isn’t it? And Mr Patel said to me ‘haven’t you heard of telephones?’”

“Ahh” Salim uncle nodded approvingly. “Mahabharata! Now that is a real battle, none of these conker-bonkers. They used actual weapons not bloomin’ chestnuts!”

“One time, I asked Miss Miller in class if she knew the Mahabhrata and you know what she said Salim uncle? ‘Is that that new Indian restaurant on Chiswick High Street ?”

“Haha..kamal, kamal!” Salim uncle laughed.

“Why they need to bring everything to Chiswick?” I asked him. “I mean to say, whenever I tell these Britishers about Nagara Road, or Limuru, they always are saying, ‘well we have a little nice shop in the high street in Chiswick that sells clarified butter.’ I mean to say, why they can’t try to learn about us? Even they don’t come and eat bhajias – they think so we eat badgers isn’t it?”

“Have you heard from your dad?” he asked me.

“No. He has not phoned. My mother says it is very expensive to phone from Nairobi. But when I spoke to Bapuji, he said everything was fine, he is going to speak to chaiwalla and find out how to make his journey to the Himalayas.”

“What rubbish you are talking, baba?” Salim uncle admonished me. “Your Bapuji is dead.”

“No, he’s not dead,” I insisted. “Just he is at a train stop, and now he is going to take another train, that is what he said to me. Don’t worry, he is fine.”

“Kamal, kamal… you know what baba… this fancy London school is not going to make any difference to you,” Salim uncle shook his head. “You are a Hindu and a Indian and there is nothing those Millers-Billers and Conker-Bonkers can do to change you. You don’t even speak like a Britisher, you speak like a pukka Muhindi, isn’t it?”

“I think we need to mix,” I ventured.

“Mix?”

“Yes, because, I mean to say, when I walk on Nagara road, there are all these children begging, and asking ma, ‘mama, natafuta parking? mama, na taka kazi?’ Like that… and they have no money and no work and they have to beg, and here, on Chiswick high street I mean to say, there are no children like that, isn’t it?”

“And no purse-snatchers also.”

“Yes.”

“Why are you quiet Papu? Shall we get more bhajias?’

“Once, I was taking the bus with Bapuji,” I revealed. “It was very crowded, and we were going to Khoja mosque downtown Nairobi, but first for bhajias at Mithobhai’s Ismailia, and it was very squashed with many, too many people, mostly African black, but some Indian brown too, and then we came to a stop, and Bapuji was holding on to the metal pole support on the bus with his fist so he doesn’t fall down, and next to his fist was his silver watch on his wrist.”

“… silver watch? Oh yes, I remember his silver watch…”

“Then suddenly I mean this African man, just before he gets off for the stop he grabs Bapuji’s silver watch and he snaps it from his wrist and he runs into the crowd on Nagara Road and he disappears. And everyone is shouting, ‘Simama mwezi!! Mwezi simama!!’ But he was gone and the whole bus was angry, everybody was angry that Bapuji’s watch was stolen. Me too, I was very angry, and then I looked at him and his face was sad.”

“Of course his face was sad,” Salim uncle took a slurp of his tea. “The mwezi stole his watch, isn’t it?”

“When everyone is shouting, quietly, he says to me, ‘Papu, this is a battle…’”

“A battle?”

“This is a battle,” Bapuji says. “’This is the Mahabharata, and this is when I go to the Upanishads. This is the time to look from the mountains of the Himalayas, not from ground of Nagara Road.’”

And everyone was still shouting so much, I had to listen to him very hard, because they were all saying still Mwezi! Mwezi!

“What he meant, Upanishad?”

“Bapuji says, ‘that man who took my watch, he needed my watch, maybe he needs it to feed his family. Let him have my watch, I hope his family can be fed, I am not attached to my silver watch.’”

“But that watch… it was given to you by your workers when you retired from the shop in Mwanza in 1954,” I reminded him

“What is the first line of the Upanishads, papu?” Bapuji asked me. “Tell me if you remember? Where do we find joy, tell me.”

“And the people were still shouting ‘mwezi, simama mwezi,’ but I remembered and I told him and he smiled when I told him. He was happy I remembered it is Sanskrit:

‘Behold the universe in its glory… and all that lives and moves on earth… leaving the transient find joy in the eternal, set not your heart upon another’s possessions.’”

“Look at that man’s bhajias, Papu!” Salim uncle pointed enviously. “They are too-too fresh. They must have made a fresh batch. Let’s order some more bhajias!”

“And some chai, also…” I suggested.

“Chai lao, bhai – sahib!”

“Chai lao, bhai!” Bapuji gave chaiwalla the order for tea and chaiwalla went to get some more tea for us.

“Bapu, just one question… you remember when that mwezi thief stole your silver watch?”

“Oh yes!” he said. “You see how it is all transient… I mean to say, I can’t wear that watch now because I am dead. But he probably sold the watch to feed his family. Better he had the watch, isn’t it? Now Papu, this train is going to Himalaya, and you are supposed to get ready again for school so you better just wake up now, eh?”

“But just one more question before I wake, I mean to say, if you don’t care about the mwezi stealing your silver watch, why then you care about the Britishers theft, you know, the Sanskrit words theft… jungle, shawl, sandal… I mean to say, that is also a possession isn’t it?”

“Ah!” Bapuji smiled broadly, “but you see, that is a different theft. That is a theft of the spirit. You see, when the Britishers take the word ‘sandal,’ they don’t take the spirit of Gandhiji’s story of the sandal, only the word itself. They don’t take the spirit of the word, the soul of the word, just they take the body. That is why I wanted you to speak to Miss Sunderland about this matter.”

“Fresh chai, piping hot chai! Be careful young fellow!” the chaiwalla exclaimed.

“Ah chaiwalla,” Bapuji blew on his hot tea, “you tell this young fellow about the spirit and the body and the theft. He has many too many questions…”

“I am in big-big hurry, bhaiya, so many people want this fresh pot of new tea,” the chaiwalla flung his dish cloth over his shoulder. “But this I can tell you young fellow. When I was little boy growing up in Darjeeling, everyday I would wake up and see the beauty of the tea plantations. Wawa! The mist on the tea gardens, the spirit of the tea workers, the mountains and the slopes of green hills and the fresh air and many coloured birds, wawa! I knew then that I wanted to be a chaiwalla and bring this beautiful spirit to people. But the Britishers, when they drank the tea just they drank the tea, not the spirit. How do you bring the spirit, not just the words, that is the question?”

With that, the chaiwalla went to the next compartment to serve the fresh pot of chai, leaving his question hanging heavily in the air.

“Bapuji, I remember Wanjiro telling me that when she went with the upcountry women to the tea plantations in Limuru, she also was feeling the beauty of the spirit in the tea when she was drinking it,” I remarked.

“You see, the spirit is everything, if they want to take the spirit and the words, that is not theft; but when they take the words and not the spirit, that is theft, words without spirit is theft,” Bapuji explained.

“But when that man stole your watch and went into the crowd on Nagara Road, you said that I must remember Upanishads about not setting your heart on another’s possessions, isn’t it?” I reminded him.

“Yes, set your heart on the spirit, not the possessions.”

“So, I mean, like Miss Sunderland, she takes only the word sandal, but she does not set her heart on the spirit of the word?”

“Correct.”

“So then,” I started, my mind whirring. “I mean to say, what do we do? What then must we do? I mean, can we do anything about this?”

“Of course, Papu,” Bapuji assured me. “It is not too late to do something. Now today, when you wake up and go to school, you go and tell that Headmistress Miss Sunderland in no uncertain terms, that if she wishes to use the words she stole from us Indians, those beautiful Sanskrit words, then she must first learn the spirit behind the words, isn’t it? I mean to say, it is a corruption to use words like sandal, if you don’t know the spirit of what Gandhiji did with his sandal when he lost it on the train. And you tell that headmistress, poste haste, that she is in the school to learn. Why else she is there in the school? So everyday, you go and teach her a new Indian word and the spirit behind the word. Then, she can be educated. As of now, she is not fully educated, isn’t it? She has a lot to learn from us.

“Now wake up, Papu! It is time to go to school and teach these Britishers something. They have come to school to learn from you, remember that.”

“Learn from me?” I looked at my Bapuji fading in the dream, my eyes widening as big as saucers.

“Of course! They need to learn from you, because you are their teacher and they are your students. So teach them,” he urged me, his voice fading. “But one thing …always be respectful.”

That day during arithmetic class, Miss Miller passed around a new coin. It was the new 50p coin. Miss Miller began to say that there will be no more pounds, shillings and pence, and no more farthings and no more ha’pennies and whatnot.

What is a whatnot I am wondering? So I lean over and quietly ask Sebastian.

“A whatnot?” he says in a loud whisper. “What is a whatnot? You nitwit, a whatnot is not anything!”

“What is a nitwit?” I ask him innocently.

“A nitwit is a twit!”

“But, I mean to say, what is a twit?

“A twit!” he exclaims loudly. “A twit is… a twit is um… a very kind person, a person you respect. Like Miss Miller,” he adds lowering his voice to a whisper.

“So, Miss Miller is a twit?” I ask him.

“Um… yes, isn’t that right, Julian?”

Julian agreed.

After class, we had our playtime recess break for thirty minutes. But I did not go to the playground. Instead I went over to Miss Sunderland’s office and told her secretary, Miss Smithers, that my grandfather had asked me to speak with Miss Sunderland poste haste.

Now, this was recess, so all the teachers and Miss Sunderland and even Miss Smithers were all on their tea break. The door was slightly ajar so I could see that Miss Sunderland was busy in her office, talking on the phone and next to her was her cup of tea. She was having her elevensies, isn’t it? At 11 o’clock in the morning, Britishers have their elevensies cup of tea.

Miss Smithers popped her head in the door to talk to Miss Sunderland.

“…well he says he apparently has a message from his grandfather for you, Headmistress.”

“…but didn’t his grandfather just pass away?”

“… perhaps I misunderstood him,” Miss Smithers said. “His accent’s a little… um…. difficult to understand sometimes.”

“He must mean his other grandfather, the one that’s still alive,” Miss Sunderland suggested, “anyway, fine, send him in…”

I held my head high as I walked in. Bapuji had said to me that I needed to be respectful but I needed to speak to her in no uncertain terms because she was the student and I was the teacher.

“Well now young man,” Miss Sunderland looked down at me over her wire-rimmed glasses. “I only have a few minutes, I hope you don’t mind if I drink my tea. I’m just having my elevenses.”

You see? I told you! Elevensies.

“Um…well, uh… this thing. I mean to say… well, I want to be respectful, and I mean, I respect you, but this thing…”

“Yes, it’s alright, tell me what’s on your mind,” she urged.

“Well, thing is uh…oh yes…you know something, you are a whatnot.”

“A what?” she sat back in her chair.

“No no!” I said. “Not that, no, I mean to say you are a twit.”

“I beg your pardon?” she took off her glasses and placed them on her desk.

“A twit. You are a twit. But still, I mean to say, this tea that you are drinking, I mean, firstly it is in a bone china cup, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is bone china,” Miss Sunderland leaned forward and crossed her arms on her desk.

“I mean to say bone china is made of cremated bones, so how it can mix back in the earth isn’t it? I mean to say, you are drinking from ashes of bones, but if you drank from chaiwallas cup, then that is made of the earth, and then it mixes, back isn’t it? Mixes with the spirit of the earth, with the same earth where the tea is planted.”

“So, you don’t think I should be drinking from a bone china cup?” she asked me.

“Well, cup is not your main problem, main thing is the tea itself, isn’t it? I mean this tea you are drinking, where is it coming from? Have you asked this question to matron? What spirit it is carrying? I mean to say, you need to carry a spirit isn’t it. I mean, right now, my grandfather’s spirit is carrying me, that is why I am speaking to you. We all must all carry a spirit, no?”

“Um… yes, I think I see.”

“Good. I mean, you are very kind, but I have to tell you in no uncertain terms, poste haste that well… I mean you are a twit… but…”

“Yes, I think we’ve covered that already,” she unfolded and folded her arms.

“But, I mean to say, that tea you are drinking now, do you feel the spirit? I mean, where is the tea coming from first of all? Limuru tea plantations in Kenya, or Darjeeling tea plantations in India? Assam? I mean, where is that, the elevensies, I mean, what spirit is your elevensies carrying?”

“I really don’t know. I mean matron puts on the kettle and makes a large pot of tea for us all and then Miss Smithers brings mine in for me in my office,” Miss Sunderland told me.

“Chaiwalla also makes a fresh pot of tea, but his tea is filled with the spirit, not just tea. You see?”

“No.”

“I mean… I mean matron and Miss Smithers and even Miss Miller and Miss Peters and even that retired Mr Barker, I mean, you all drink the tea every day and you are all not knowing the spirit. Correct? I agree that you are all twits, but can’t you see that you have to know the spirit? I mean, you drink this tea and you don’t even know the lady who woke up at early morning to pick the tea leaves, and you don’t feel the mist of the morning, and the dew drops and the sun rising and making different shades of the green hills and the blue and grey mountains of the Himalaya standing there even bigger than Ganesh the elephant god, and the tea plantation ladies in Limuru singing ‘Maa-laay-kaahna-kupenda-Malaika.’ I mean to say with you people it’s all just ‘I vow to thee my coun-tree, all earthly things aa-bove.’ I mean can’t you mix?

“But…” Headmistress Sunderland was thoroughly confused.

“But what about Malaika?” I interrupted. “And I mean to say, if this elevensies you are drinking now is coming from Darjeeling then what about those people who picked the tea, and their spirit, I mean, you can’t just drink the tea and not drink the spirit. They gave you a gift, they were thinking of you when they picked the leaves so you also must be thinking of them also. If you drink this tea, you have to drink the spirit too, isn’t it? I mean, I am not saying you are not a twit…”

“I think you may want to stop saying that word…” she warned me.

“I mean, these elevensies they are like this thing… the phone wire, this one, this wire.”

“You mean it’s connected?

“Yes, connekit!” I cried excitedly. “The elevensies is connekit! It is connekit with Wanjiro and her friends who pick tea in Limuru and it is connekit with chaiwalla and his friends in Darjeeling. It is connekit with India and it is connekit with Africa. If you don’t see that it is connekit you are stealing, isn’t it? You are just like that mwezi on the bus.”

“The moo-ay-zee?

“The mwezi who stole my grandfather’s silver watch. He was a thief. And you also are a thief if you are not knowing the spirit,” I told her. “I mean that elevensies has the spirit of Africa in it, or the spirit of India in it, or the spirit of Ceylon in it, and if you do not honour the spirit then you are just a thief. And you are asking about the theft of a box of chalk? I mean, what is a box of chalk, when you are stealing the spirit of the songs in Hindi and in Swahili and Tamil? I mean this tea you are drinking carries the spirit of everything, the mountains, the mist on the leaves, isn’t it?”

“But it’s just a cup of tea,” Miss Sunderland insisted.

“It is not just a cup of tea!” I told her. “You are not a very good student, isn’t it? I mean you did not listen to anything I have been saying. Now, what did I say? …repeat, please. ‘This tea is carrying the spirit. When that tea was picked, people were singing beautiful songs, they were singing those songs for you, and matron, and Miss Smithers, they were singing songs and those songs are part of the tea you are drinking. It is the best part. You are not tasting it because you are not knowing it.”

“Songs?”

“Songs,” I affirmed. “Women who picked the tea were singing songs and carrying their babies on their back, the sun was shining through the mist in the early morning, and all that love was being poured inside your elevensies, I mean what do you think? You think the whole world is Chiswick High Street? You think they made this tea at the shop on the high street? Why you people think so small?

“No…”

“I mean, when Mr Patel is drinking his morning tea in his shop on Nagara Road, he says, ‘ah, this chai is from Assam. This tea you can taste the beauty of Assam, wawawawa!’

And his spirit grows in his soul like when Vishnu the dwarf became bigger and bigger, and Mr Patel even looks bigger and when he drinks the tea he looks like a noble Maharajah because the spirit is making him rich in his soul. Now that Mr Patel has not education like you Miss Sunderland, I mean, it is not even his shop, it is Chandaria’s shop, he just works there and Mrs Patel is always telling him off and saying ‘you are not clever enough to own your own business, you can’t even sell a tub of ghee to Mrs De Souza.’ He is not a smart person like you, Miss Sunderland and so then how come he knows more about drinking tea than you? Tell me that. Explain, please.”

“Well, this has been very interesting but I think you really need to get back to the classroom,” Miss Sunderland said.

“This is the classroom,” I insisted. “And one more, this thing… this sandal you stole.”

“I stole a sandal?”

“You stole the sandal isn’t it? Now what you did? You said sorry for the sandal business.”

“Yes…” Miss Sunderland cleared her throat. “Well, it was meant as a witticism. I was also being endearing.”

“But there is no need to say sorry, is it? The need is what? What is the need?”

“To understand the spirit,” she said.

“Very good!” I clapped my hands with excitement, smiling broadly. “You see, you are learning! To understand the spirit is correct answer. Now Gandhiji once, he was sitting on the train, and he lost one sandal. So he throws the other sandal out. Why he does that?”

“Because one sandal is no use to him.”

“Wrong answer isn’t it? You are not thinking of the connekit. Think of the connekit,” I told her.

“I am afraid we really must be getting on.”

“Fine, I will tell you,” I replied. “The connekit is that he was thinking of the person who finds the sandal, not himself. That the person who finds it, will have two, not one. You see.”

“Yes, yes I do see.”

“Good, now you have the spirit of the Sanskrit word sandal, so now you can keep the word, it is not a theft now. You may have this gift of Sanskrit word sandal now.”

“Thank you.”

“You are welcome. Now, you find out from matron where the tea comes from. Matron will say ‘Chiswisk High Street’, but real question is where did it come from before? Darjeeling, Assam, Kandy, Limuru, you see? Find out where so that all you teachers can be thinking of the spirit of the tea. And the good people who planted the tea. And picked the tea leaves. Otherwise the tea is also a theft, isn’t it?”

“I suppose it is, yes.”

“Are you enjoying Miss Peters class,” the headmistress asked.

“Miss Peters is the best student in this school.”

“Oh, really?”

“Oh yes, topping student! She is seeing the spirit in all things. I tell you she will be coming top if chaiwalla was headmaster.”

“Who is this cha-wallah?

“He is helping my grandfather plan his journey to Himalaya, isn’t it?”

“Your grandfather is going to the Himalayas?”

There was a gentle knock on the door and Miss Smithers popped her head in. “Miss Sunderland, it’s time for your meeting with the accountant.”

“Just one moment Miss Smithers… why is your grandfather going to the Himalayas?”

“To meet the people who wrote the Upanishads,” I told her.

“Oh, so it’s a writers’ convention, then?”

by Karim