German Baba of Dhoot Kalan
Illustrated by Sayantan Halder
Balbir Chand was 23 years old. His father owned a Karyana convenience shop in Dhoot Kalan village in Punjab’s Hoshiarpur district. It was the early 70’s. The lack of economic growth and shrinking agricultural land had forced many Punjabi, Indian young men to move overseas since the 60’s. The trend to go abroad and find work had spread like wildfire in the economically backward area of Doaba. The surging waves of Punjabi immigrants eventually forced the popular destinations of U.K., U.S.A. and Canada to impose visa restrictions. A lot of Balbir’s friends had departed to find fortune and settle down in U.K. Their astonishing and magnificent exploits infected Balbir and he too got obsessed with the ‘Vilatt Chalo’ (move to U.K.) fever.
On a hot dusty summer day Balbir was visiting the nearby city of Hoshiarpur to purchase essentials for his father’s shop. On his way back he dropped by at the ‘U.K. Travel Agency’ located at Prabhat Square. Sardar Makhan Singh, the owner of the travel agency had facilitated the overseas departure of hundreds of young men.
“How can I help you?”
“Sir I want to go to Vilatt.”
Makhan Singh’s greedy eyes began sizing up the sacrificial lamb.
“What is the level of your education?”
“I have passed 5th class.”
Makhan quickly concluded that he wasn’t going to get too much out of the birdbrain sitting in front of him.
“Vilayat has closed its doors to Indian immigrants.”
“What about Kaneda and Amrika (Canada and U.S.A.)?”
“It’s the same situation there as well.”
Balbir sighed. His body slumped into the chair.
“Bhagwan has condemned me to be a small time shopkeeper in that wretched village, Dhoot Kalan!”
Makhan detected that the fish was ready to bite on the hook.
“For now German is still open.”
“What will I do there I do not speak their language?”
“Yes, but you cannot speak English either!”
Makhan tried to build his customer’s self-confidence.
“I am sending boys in groups to Germany. My elder son, Jasmeet accompanies them. He will find the place for you to live and ensure you get a job as well. For these types of jobs you don’t really have to speak the language.”
“How much will it cost?”
“Only 75,000 Rupees which of course includes your airline ticket.”
Balbir was afraid that his father would prevent him from leaving. Later that evening after his father Madan Lal had consumed enough liquor he broached the subject.
“Bhapa ji I want to go abroad.”
Madan Lal looked at him for a few seconds without any clear expression.
“Where do you want to go? Vilatt?”
“Vilatt, Amrika and Kaneda have shut their doors.”
“Then what is left?”
“I want to go to German.”
“Okay fine. Do what you feel like. Most families in Doaba have at least one of their sons in Vilatt. Why should we lag behind? “
Balbir had anticipated a fight and lot of drama but Bhapa ji had made no fuss about his decision. Perhaps Madan Lal too had been toying with the thought of sending his son overseas. It was important to be a part of the popular regional trend.
Balbir took his father to Hoshiarpur on his scooter. Madan took a loan on his property. The money was forwarded to Makhan Singh. The departure date was set. The following Tuesday Madan Lal went to Chintpurni temple. He donated clothes and money to the mendicants assembled outside the temple. It was a gesture aimed towards gaining God’s blessings for the safe passage and good luck for his son.
All close family members went to see Balbir off at Delhi’s Palam airport. Aarti puja prayer was performed and garlands were put around his neck. Everyone had tears in their eyes as if Balbir was embarking on a long unpredictable voyage.
When the plane landed in Munich, the group of young men were transported to a flat located in Senefelderstr. The young Punjabis lived in the flat like sardines in a can. Nevertheless everyone seemed a bit satisfied that their dream of coming to “Vilatt” had been fulfilled.
Through the underground connections, Jasmeet got everyone jobs within days. Most of them were employed in small businesses run by Turkish immigrants. The jobs were menial and the pay was nominal. On the day of departure Jasmeet was cornered by a few anxious young men. They began lodging their complaints and sharing their grievances. It made Jasmeet furious.
“We didn’t come to your doorstep begging you to come here. It was your choice. You illiterates had no prospects in Punjab. Were you expecting to become the police chief of Munich as soon as you stepped off the plane? Over here everyone has to work hard. Germany was levelled to the ground after the Second World War. The hard working Goras built it up again! Work hard, save money and send it back to your parents. Stop wasting your time with this absurd whining”. The culture shock and language barrier had left the young men feeling helpless. Returning back would have been considered as defeat.
Balbir had started as a help in a Pizzeria. A few weeks had passed when the Pizza chef abruptly left. Balbir was immediately promoted to Pizza maker by the panicked owner. One of the new arrivals from India stepped into Balbir’s old job. The head Pizza maker’s only day off was Sunday and the owner supervised the shop himself. Balbir would sit in the tram and discover Munich all day long. He was lonely and isolated. The language barrier prevented him from striking a conversation. He ached for human warmth.
Balbir saw a couple of Indian men outside the central station. Lonely and desperate he approached the familiar faces hurriedly to strike a conversation. Both men were Punjabi’s and from Ludhiana district. Balbir was elated to see people of his ilk in that strange lonely cold part of the world. He found out that both had office jobs and worked for an insurance company. They had been in Germany for years and spoke fluent German. They knew what Balbir’s state of mind was. Both had gone through the same situation years ago. One of them wrote down their phone number and address on a piece of paper and handed it over to Balbir. They introduced themselves as Kishan and Naveen.
The following Sunday Balbir called them from the public phone as soon as he woke up. Kishan invited Balbir over and gave him the directions. After lunch the new friends offered to show Balbir places he had not seen yet. After spending the afternoon in Neuer Südfriedhof Park they took him to a bar in Ostbahnhof. After his first beer Balbir began surveying his surroundings in earnest.
“Bhaji how come there aren’t any girls here?”
The only reaction he got was Naveen and Kishan grinning at each other.
Close Punjabi male friends frequently hold hands, hug and put their arms around their buddy’s shoulder. Quite a bit of that was taking place around him. Balbir became comfortable with his surroundings.
“These Germans are like us Punjabis. They hold hands with their close friends. The only strange thing here is very few of them belong to the same age group. Most of them are young men with their older Baba friends.”
Balbir’s astute observation was greeted with laughter by his hosts.
The duo took Balbir to their flat. More liquor was consumed and together they cooked Indian food for dinner. After dinner the friendly duo insisted that Balbir stay over for the night.
“I don’t want to discomfort you.”
“You can sleep in the living room. We sleep together in the bedroom.”
With the lights out Balbir lay on the sofa bed.
“How come Kishan and Naveen sleep in the same bed? Why don’t they talk about having German girlfriends? After all they are fluent in German, well dressed and have good jobs!”
Next Sunday the trio went to the same bar in Ostbahnof. When Balbir was standing at the row of urinals making space for more beer an old German Baba came and stood right next to him. Balbir turned his head and was greeted with a smile. Balbir smiled back. He was pleased that the old man looked friendly. Men of his age in my village are bent over and can’t even move to get a glass of water. Balbir wanted to acknowledge the state of mind of the seemingly happy old man. Two words came out of his mouth. One in Punjabi and the other one from the few German words he knew.
“Baba Gudd! (good old man)”
The German could only understand ‘gudd’ which sounded close to German ‘Gut” and meant the same. The old German was waiting outside the entrance of the toilet. Balbir smiled and walked by him. The dejected “Baba” looked very disappointed.
Balbir rejoined his two pals and told them about what just happened. Once again both broke into laughter much to Balbir’s chagrin. His friends weren’t helping him out with the mysterious on goings.
“There is something odd going on here and I am going to find out what it is all about!”
Balbir found the old German sitting alone at one of the tables at the other end of the huge bar.
“So what if I don’t speak German. Human beings can interact by gestures, actions and emotions.”
The old man was elated to see Balbir. He beckoned him to sit down. He called the waiter and ordered beer for Balbir. He started speaking slowly in German.
“No German. Indian Punjabi.” Balbir exclaimed.
“Ah Ja, you Indian!”
Balbir had learned a few precious sentences and words from his friends.
The German’s conversation was beyond Balbir’s comprehension. The ‘Baba’ soon looked extremely frustrated. Balbir pointed towards his two friends on the other side of the pub. He uttered in broken German.
“Meine freunde Naveen, Kishan sprechen Deutch.”
Herr Gunter Gärtner introduced himself.
“Ich möchte dein Freund mit nach Hause nehmen.”
Naveen explained that the old German wanted to take Balbir home.
“Bhaji I have never been to a gora’s house. What will his wife say?”
The friends did not laugh this time.
He accepted the invitation and Herr Gärtner drove him to his flat. Balbir was offered triple malt on the rocks which he downed very quickly. The ‘Baba’ gave a tour of the flat and Balbir was soon flying high as a kite.
The old German turned on the T.V. in his living room. He quickly put his arm around Balbir’s shoulder. Balbir was high and as a true Indian friend he reciprocated and put his arm around Herr Gärtner’s shoulder. Then the old German took Balbir’s hand and kissed it. Then Herr Gärtner kissed Balbir on the cheek.
“These German guys surely take this friendship thing too far!” Balbir was stunned.
The old man grabbed Balbir’s hand and took him to his bedroom. Balbir wanted to use the toilet so he walked right in. Old man Gärtner was taking his shoes off. When Balbir came out he noticed that his host was lying under the sheets and only his bedside lamp was on. Balbir was confused.
“Am I supposed to sleep next to this old gora? It is late and I could get lost tonight.”
Balbir took his shoes and socks off and lay down next to the old man. Gunter turned and switched the lamp off.
He came out of the sheets and grabbed Balbir’s hand. Balbir had never been with a woman but knew about everything that transpired in a bedroom. He felt the warm naked body of Gunter next to his own. Balbir had not planned for what followed but he could not stop himself.
He got up in the morning with a hangover. He realized what had transpired a few hours earlier. Guilt, remorse, disgust and shame were the first thoughts which hit him hard. The host was already awake. Balbir got dressed and washed his face. Gunter was sitting in the living room. Balbir folded his hands and made his way to the door. The old German got up and reached into his pocket. He tried to hand over 100 Marks. Balbir was reluctant. Gunter smiled and said, “Baba gut.”
Balbir took the money and walked out of the door and into the hallway.
Herr Gärtner did not show up at the pub next Sunday. Nevertheless he had shown Balbir a new exciting path. It opened the world of excitement, satisfaction and fortune he had traveled for. This time another old German came and stood next to him in the toilet of the pub. Balbir turned to look at the man and smiled. The old man smiled back. Balbir used the same key to open his newly found Pandora’s box.
The old man bought him a couple of beers and then took him home. Language and culture barriers are meaningless in certain situations. Desires and actions lead to universality of human behaviour and interaction. The pub became a place of worship for Balbir and he showed up every Sunday. His life had suddenly become adventurous and exciting. The underpaid Pizza maker had discovered a better way of making money.
Balbir lived in Germany for 12 years. The money he made during the workweek was sent to his father’s account. The wealth earned on Sunday’s was deposited into his own personal account. When he returned to India he had accumulated over 60,000 Deutsche Marks in his account. It was a lot of money. Much more when converted to Indian Rupees. Balbir bought a piece of land near Hoshiarpur and began farming. He also bought the most expensive Indian car for his newly built farmhouse garage. He consistently refused all marriage proposals brought to him by family and friends. It was pointless spending the rest of his life with an unhappy woman.
“Why would I destroy a woman’s life? I won’t be able to satisfy or impregnate her.”
It has been a long time since Balbir came back to India. He is bald and his face is wrinkled. The athletic body has morphed into the typical mid 50’s Indian body with a big belly. He is identified as the “German Baba” by the village folks. The car he had bought with his Sunday earnings is still parked in the garage. It is covered with tarpaulin to prevent damage from the forces of nature. Balbir has preserved it like an Egyptian mummy. He still gets drunk on Sunday evenings. After his dinner he goes for a drive to Hoshiarpur town in his new SUV. Just before going to sleep he follows a certain ritual to connect with the happiest days of his life.
He walks into the garage and takes the tarpaulin off. Then opens the door and sits in the car for an hour with his eyes closed. During the entire sequence he has a big smile of satisfaction gained during the fascinating days gone by. After he gets out of the car Balbir kisses the warm hard metal of the cars hood. When he replaces the tarpaulin, two words come out of his mouth. They had provided him with immense joy and wealth. Words that had changed his life.